Interview: In DIALOGUE // Brittany Nicole Cox
Brittany Nicole Cox (Nico) is an artist, antiquarian horologist, and horological conservator who specializes in the conservation and restoration of automata, mechanical musical objects, and complicated clocks and watches. In addition to her conservation practice, Nico creates original mechanical artworks and teaches workshops in her atelier. In our conversation, we discuss nostalgia, the power of mechanical objects as a way to foster empathy across generations, the enduring value of craftsmanship, the relationship between technology and metaphysics, and being a steward of the world.
Voices: Time Well Spent, Horologist, Brittany Nicole Cox
Rimma Boshernitsan: Let's start with your childhood. What was it like?
Nico Cox: I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, which is a fascinating city with a really complex, rich history. There’s some UNESCO World heritage Sites there that date back to the Spanish missions of the 1700s, and many beautiful remnants of churches from that era.
Being from Texas is interesting because, on one hand, Texas can be seen as polarizing and exclusionary, with lots of guns and secessionist leanings, but, on the other, you are guaranteed to encounter some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet there. Anybody is willing to stop and help you change your tire. People will give you $5 if you're short in the grocery line. People are very generous and nice there. It’s a compelling place.
I was raised by my father, who was a mechanical engineer, and my mother, who was a marketing specialist. My dad worked for a defense company, where he specialized in counter-ballistic shields, and my mom started a nonprofit and organized fundraisers to benefit homeless and needy families. I’m the youngest of three daughters, but I only really grew up with one sister—my eldest sister was from my father’s first marriage and we weren’t close, although we’ve gotten closer as adults.
I was close with both of my parents when I was young, but around third grade, my mother got very sick, and the progression of her illness really impacted the trajectory of my relationship with both of them. My dad didn’t have the best tools to handle her illness and our family within that context, and I would say that after a certain point, I was not particularly close to either of them, which was really hard for me.
RB: Do you think there's something within your childhood that contributed to your love of mechanical objects or that made you really interested in the inner workings of machines?
NC: Yes, absolutely. I think partly it was a result of not having a lot of stability growing up. When you’re young and things happen and you don’t understand why, or you notice a lot of inequalities where things should be making sense, you start looking for foundational truths. Somehow for me, the mechanics of music boxes, watches and magnets, and compasses, lenses, and mirrors—those things made sense to me. I realized that they were all very fragile, and that there were specific rules that made them operate—and if there was a violation of one of those rules, the object wouldn’t work anymore. That was really my foundational truth in the world.
Mechanical objects provided some stability and a kind of comfort I was lacking in my life as a child, and I gathered a big collection of them and kept it in a special place under my bed. I would spend hours under there looking at them and studying them and thinking about all their little intricacies. It became my respite from everything else I didn’t understand.
RB: What was your first little machine? Do you still have it?
NC: When I was a baby, I was given a music box by my maternal great-grandmother. My parents would play it for me, and when I got older, it captivated me and held my fascination—basically, that’s what started everything. No, I don’t have it anymore. it was lost, along with several other childhood treasures, in a hurricane. But while I may not have the physical manifestation of that music box, or other objects, I carry them with me still. I remember what they sound like, how they felt, and I remember the weight of them. I have found that probably the best way to look at losing things is reminding yourself that when something you love is lost to you, there’s a strong chance that it will be found by someone else, and bring them as much joy or as much good change as it did you.
RB: You’ve said that you feel like a “magician or doctor bringing inanimate objects to life.” What does it mean to inject life into the inanimate for you?
NC: It’s magical! When you finally get something working that hasn’t been operational for nearly a century—especially if it’s a simulation of a natural thing, like a singing bird—it feels like a privilege because you’re the person who spent hundreds of hours working to bring it back. Sometimes, it feels as if you’ve brought back a message that someone tried to communicate 200 years ago but you just did it now. It’s very personal, very tactile because in that moment, you’re actively connecting with the past in the present.
RB: Do you think working with mechanical objects has informed your thoughts about value?
NC: Yes, definitely. In a way you get reminded that value is something that can be intrinsic, something that can have an intrinsic weight. It’s something that’s carried within the object itself. It may not necessarily manifest with economics, or shifts in interest, but the value is always there.
RB: Do you find that your clients have a similar attitude to value? Does it vary? Are there particular client profiles you’ve noticed?
NC: It definitely varies, not just between clients but also between what those clients value. For some, it’s their time as much as the object in question. Those are usually people with an immediate request who want the immediate satisfaction of having something finished and done. For others, their attitude towards value is tied up with its relation to their overall collection—they usually have a wide variety of different objects, and the piece I work on is just one of many. And then there are the folks who for whom value is less about an object’s monetary worth and more about its emotional, inherited significance. People with an heirloom piece that’s been passed down between multiple generations generally tend to see themselves as stewards rather than owners, and are most concerned with giving the object the best possible chance of surviving into the future.
RB: Much of your work is focused on machinery and objects. What role does human connection and empathy play in your work?
NC: A rather significant one, since I believe objects can help facilitate empathy.
People have a real capability to empathize with others, so long as we have some associative connection with them. We can easily empathize with folks we know—r even people we don’t directly know but are somehow associated with someone we care about, like a second cousin, or a friend of a friend—but outside that rather closed network it can be more difficult, especially the prospect of empathizing with the future.
There’s a prevailing view that if we sacrifice something now for the betterment of someone we never meet, it means that the future person is getting something for free, that we’re giving things away for people that we will never know who will never have an effect on our lives and never play a role in anything we accomplish or do for ourselves in the present. It leads to an attitude that we don’t have a responsibility toward the future, or if we do feel some responsibility, it’s markedly tinged with resentment.
However, if we can empathize with an object, we can empathize with the person who made it in the past, and that will help build empathy across time. If we think about how in the future there will be people that will feel connected to us because of an object we made in our time, and if we can keep that in mind and consider how the objects that we are engaging with now were also made by people in the past, we can empathize with people in the future and have a better chance of making responsible decisions about stewardship and our future.
RB: You studied philosophy in university. Do you see a relationship between experiencing that kind of classical education model and choosing a very hands-on, mechanically oriented profession?
NC: I went to university because that’s what you do. I studied philosophy, and within philosophy I was looking at metaphysics and epistemology. Within metaphysics and epistemology, I started looking at how they go back to four subjects that were once considered divine: geometry, the study of numbers in space; arithmetic, the study of numbers; music, the study of numbers in time; and astronomy, the study of numbers within space and time. All four were used to study epistemological and metaphysical questions, but they also inform the foundation of horology, and I became utterly enchanted. I decided that, for me, horology afforded a way to explore our relationship to the sublime from a practical, bench-based practice.
RB: Do you think of yourself as an artist, a craftsman, or a maker? How do you view yourself?
NC: I view myself as all of those things.
It’s interesting because there’s been a historic divergence in opinion between what is considered craft and what is considered art. Now, there seems to be a growing convergence between the two, where art is becoming synonymous with craft. What’s particularly interesting and complicated is how it’s coming back.
The figure of the craftsman wasn’t as well regarded as that of the artist, but the thing is when you were a craftsman, you created your masterwork. If you were a master clockmaker, you only got that title because you had created a masterpiece. Long ago, if you were a craftsman, you were considered to be on the same level as the priest or the king,. It’s the same with artwork: If you were a painter, you had your master work—your painting was this incredible result of years of study and practice at your craft. It was the same thing for a sculptor or for a horologist. If you were able to shape raw materials into things, you were considered someone capable of making miracles. It was seen as an incredibly noble vocation to be a craftsman and to devote your life to the pursuit of this applicable, tactile thing—and that was what really grabbed me. I’m still absolutely smitten. Horology is my whole life, and it’s been my life since I was very young.
RB: Can you speak about your creative process?
NC: I want to tell, or take part in telling, a bigger story. Sometimes, it’s that I want to shed new light on something or put it in the spotlight, make an homage to these bigger ideas or processes, or to explore a philosophical concept. It starts out in an intellectual place, but then leads to my asking, What would the object be that might manifest all of these ideas? And then I start drawing or reading and build a plan to create the thing. And then, I do it.
My work as an artist led to the creation of a mechanical rabbit snail automaton. This automaton is part of a series inspired by Medieval illuminated bestiary manuscripts. An automaton put simply is a self operating machine. The rabbit snail is made from sterling silver and powered by a watch based mechanism. It has three components to its movement, the head emerges from the shell, the ears tremble, and it moves in a figure 8 pattern, stopping here and there. I was trying to import a huge history into one small object. I named it Cochlea, the Latin word for snail. With that piece, I wanted to tell the story of sacred geometry, automata and the rose engine (a machine made to study mathematically generated geometric forms on a lathe), nature and the machine and the duality of human nature through the pairing of a rabbit and a snail. All of these really big ideas including God as a geometer, God as a turner, God as a clockmaker—manifest within this one mechanical object that can fit in the palm of your hand.
RB: You have given lectures on the history and background of horology. What lessons do you think horology has for the 21st century?
NC: There are two sides of horology and both are a reflection of what we as people are capable of.
Horology has been used by magicians and illusionists to create some of the most fascinating, captivating inventions in history. For example, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdon, probably the person I look up to the most within history, was a 19th century French magician and a clockmaker who created an incredible illusion called the Orange Tree, a mechanical tree that produced real oranges and bloomed real flowers. When he performed with it, Robert-Houdon would vanish some item from an audience member and then enable that item to make its way into the figure of the tree itself. At some point within the evening, the tree would begin to bloom, oranges would appear, and then the very top orange (which was not real) would open and out of this orange would fly two mechanical butterflies carrying a handkerchief. The handkerchief would have attached to it whatever article it was that had vanished from the audience member earlier in the show. Objects like that were made to bring people joy and give people something greater to believe in, or at least take them out of their senses for awhile, like a journey toward the beautiful part of the sublime.
At the same time, horology has been used in the service of destruction: The first mechanical fuse detonator was based on a watch mechanism. It was used in both World War I and II. Later, fuses that were used to detonate the first nuclear bombs were born from that lineage. So, I would say horology reminds us that we’re at a very specific and poignant place within our technological development, and now is the time for us to set guidelines and ensure that what we are doing is ethically safe and sound—not just for ourselves today but for the future of humanity. Horology reminds us that what we do has an “echo effect”:. what we do now will have an effect in the future. We need to be particularly careful about how we utilize the technologies we are discovering and creating because, as history has shown us before, they can be both glorious and devastating.
RB: What is your idea of happiness in its most perfect sense?
NC: Happiness is doing something well and doing what’s worth doing—and anything worth doing is worth doing well. It’s about making sure you’re contributing and that what you give is the best you can, and leaving something better than you found it. That’s happiness. You’re doing something noble. You’re leaving good in the world. I don’t think life is just about taking everything you can get from it and living for your own bliss. hat is not what life is about—maybe for some people that’s their idea of happiness, but it’s not mine.