Inside the Subversive London Arcade with No Video Games
At Tim Hunkin’s Novelty Automation, silliness, cynicism and a love of mechanical engineering rules absolutely.
All photographs by Will Freeman.
Sat surrounded by a clamor of whirring gears and juddering motors, Tim Hunkin is quietly prodding his wrist with a finger of his other hand.
"Me and a friend from America realized it would be a good idea to have a machine where you put your hand in, and some little rod comes down onto your wrist, and pokes away, up and down, before leaving a sort of fake bloody mark, and telling you 'chip implanted'. Only thing is, I haven't got a clue what to do with that idea," he says quietly, before breaking into an understated grin.
Hunkin is the engineer, designer, mischief-maker and perhaps-reluctant artist behind Novelty Automation, a central London arcade where the last thing you'll find is clutches of fighter players nosily trash-talking rivals.
That's because Novelty Automation happily eschews the video game form in favor of a more traditional type of coin-operated machine: The mechanical amusements that dominated fairgrounds and bowling alleys until their pixelated cousins arrived with the Atari era. The iconic Zoltar fortune-teller machine remains the most famed example of automated amusements, largely thanks to its role in Tom Hanks' movie Big.
But Novelty Automation is no public collection of vintage contraptions. Instead, it is a place where Hunkin installs his own coin-operated creations, which in most cases offer a mix of comedy, satire, and absurdity.
Immediately inside the door of Novelty Automation is a hulking cabinet named Celeb, where a monitor sits atop a glass box, inside of which is model of a Hollywood mansion. A tiny mock drone on a robotic arm hovers around the mansion with a camera, sending what it sees to the monitor. With a joystick and lever, players must pilot the drone and explore the structure using the viewpoint provided on the screen, zooming in through windows to secure photos for the cover of a parody of celebrity magazines.
Amidst a barrage of eccentric cut-out animations, there is a point being made. Celeb is Hunkin's exploration of issues around celebrity, privacy and aspiration, and it is unashamedly silly and cynical at the same time.
For the player, meanwhile, it is a work of magic. To steer a tiny vehicle around a dolls house, and see with its eyes, and take pictures? It's something a video games arcade can't compete with.
"The idea of coin operation just appealed to me as a way of, in theory, bypassing the art world." — Tim Hunkin
Elsewhere at Novelty Automation, which is situated in a timber-framed building on a quiet Holborn backstreet where coffee shops and office blocks rub shoulders, there are myriad other contraptions.
Instant Weightloss parodies coin-op weighing scales, and is largely an excuse to demonstrate a ridiculous, captivating mechanism that—after analyzing the player's physique via a traditional "bendy mirror"—selects, heats, pops and distributes a single kernel of popcorn as a suggested diet.
A few machines along, The Housing Ladder requires users to climb on the cabinet, and pump up and down the rungs of a ladder. Inside the machine, a small figure exactly mimics your movements, scaling a tiny ladder that leads to a model of a diamond-studded home. Investors, estate agents and others will pop out and try to prevent the ascent, making clear nods to the struggle of buying a home today.
Looking around the room, there are photo booths that trick users into silly poses, chances to operate simple robotic arms to pluck fake nuclear waste from chests, and a pachinko machine rebuilt as a Small Hadron Collider which distributes its own Nobel prizes.
As for what these machines are, Hunkin can't quite accept that they are works of art. Novelty Automation, he insists, is a place to have fun and be social. It's absolutely a venue that fills with laughter and cheers when the crowds arrive, but it's equally a business for Hunkin, who has a similar operation on Southwold Pier in Suffolk. While he does specially commissioned pieces for the likes of museums, it is coins through slots that put food on Hunkin's table.
And Hunkin's motivation to toil over these contraptions? He isn't quite sure, but it is certainly in part a rejection of what he has previously described as the "elitism" of the art world.
"I just like making things, really," he explains. "I had a go at putting arty things in galleries in my 20s, but I didn't really feel I fitted in that world. I trained as an engineer, and so the art world was strange to me; there's a lot of 'emperor's new clothes' about that space, whereas I really just liked being in my workshop making things. And the idea of coin operation just appealed to me as a way of, in theory, bypassing the art world."
As well as side stepping the economy of contemporary art, Novelty Automation seems to deliberately blow a raspberry at the culture of high-end creativity. While some of the contraptions house wonderfully ornate mechanisms, plenty have knowingly lo-fi aesthetics. And while others are exquisitely crafted, there is too much of the harebrained here to trigger a chin-stroking critique. Novelty Automation is a place where feet are tickled, water is squirted, robotic rubber gloves frisk players, and being made to jump is a celebrated act.
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Hunkin cites the content of Private Eye as being a significant influencer, but there's as much of the spirit of Beano and the anarchic joy of Viz in the air at Novelty Automation, which is palpable as customers squeal and gasp. And it is just that—getting a reaction from people—that seems to bring Hunkin the most joy from his work.
"There's something else about coin-op that has huge potential. If you do tempt somebody to part with their money, they're putty in your hands, because they want to get their money's worth," he muses. "And I've found you can have a lot of fun with that. With my Chiropodist machine, for example, people do take their shoe off and put it in this black hole—the treatment bay—knowing something will happen, and it's even a little bit frightening."
To give away exactly what Chiropodist does in that black hole might be to spoil things, though, because Hunkin's arcade plays with on surprise and discovery at every turn.
"I've got a good friend called Paul Spooner, and I love the [non-interactive] automata he makes, but I saw that people would smile at Paul's work. I wanted to do more than that. And it turned out, if you squirted water at [the people], they laughed. I think I just enjoyed getting that reaction."
Hunkin is an unpretentious man, but equally, he is notably mischievous. There's a glint in his eye as he watches players tackle his machines, and a smile creeps across his face whenever he talks about startling or surprising people.
And he is clearly excited about Novelty Automation's coming arrival, i-Zombie, which is due to arrive in London in June. Shaped as a giant iPhone, it provides a portal to an interactive automata that passes comment on the rise of the "phone zombie" at the expense of human interaction. You have to separate yourself from your phone to play it, by placing your precious device inside the cabinet.
"You might get your phone back," says Hunkin with a smile. "You might. Come along, and you'll find out."