Robotic: Do androids dream about media art? (1/2)

Nam June Paik and K-456

We are not facing a "complete replacement" just yet, but robots have never been as present as they are right now: they integrated the presidential campaign 2017; there is a French union for professional robotics (Syrobo); a moratorium on killer robots is being explored by the UN; in Japan the first funeral rites for robotic toys have taken place, as is right and proper, in a temple, with a Buddhist monk, incense and prayer wheels, etc. 

After futurism’s glorification of machines and speed, robotics is making its appearance in the art world in the wake of kinetic art and video. Nam June Paik constructed the first robotic totem in 1964, Robot K-456. Subsequently, the questioning really began regarding all creativity integrating a dedicated mechanism: is it "robotic art" or "automated art"? Like any production dependant on science and technology, a work of art can, more or less autonomously, elude the creator’s intentions. This was the case for Norman White with First Tighten Up On The Drums (1968). A pioneer of generative and robotic art, he created this piece with interconnected circuit boards that light up little diodes. With time, the device seemed to "liberate itself" and Norman White ended up considering it the prototype of a "cellular automaton".

Norman White, First Tighten Up on the Drums, 1968
Norman White, First Tighten Up on the Drums, 1968

Norman White, The Helpless Robot, 1987-2002
Norman White, The Helpless Robot, 1987-2002


In 1974 he produced his first "real" robotic installation, Menage, with 4 machines that react to a light source and, above all, interact. With The Helpless Robot (1987-1996) — a small audio device with random behaviour — Norman White indirectly asks a crucial question: is it an "artist’s robot" or a "robot artist "? In contrast, Max Dean, with his disarticulated furniture that moves and reassembles (The Table Childhood, 1984- 2001), shifts this questioning to machines and relationships with human beings who witness this transformation...

Machines are increasingly desirable. We now fantasise about an augmented (enhanced) body. The robot look is behind this redistribution of the artistic imagination. Inferno (2015-), the participative performance by Bill Vorn & Louis-Philippe Demers is setting the standard for robotic art these days. In a venue bathed in pallid light that often resembles a secret hangar or the hold of a space vessel, dozens of lifeless exoskeletons can be made out, hanging on metal frames. 

Inferno Bill Vorn

Part of the audience is invited to put on this strange armour that encases the upper body and arms. Once equipped, the bodies are governed by the mechanical impulses of these exoskeletons synchronised with a techno-industrial soundtrack and immersed in dazzling and colourful lights in accordance with the tempo vibrations. Guinea pigs then start a Saint Vitus dance 2.0. Welcome to a jazzed-up version of hell.

Read: INFERNO: I was a robot at Elektra Festival

Marcel-lí Antúnez Roca also uses an exoskeleton for his "gesticulated conferences ", but not through restraint. The idea is not to oppress the body mechanically, but to increase its abilities (Requiem, 1999). After having also tested his equipment in zero gravity, therefore harnessed, this former member of La Fura dels Baus changes into a narrator, outlining a mythology populated with a strange bestiary that he animates by triggering multiple sensors in his overalls and gloves (Protomenbrana, 2006). 

REQUIEM 1999. Interactive Robot. One minute demo. 

This metal framework brings to mind the final scene of Aliens, The Return, when Sigourney Weaver "slays the dragon" thanks to her exoskeleton intended for heavy manual labour. This world of science fiction is also very significant through other interactive robotic installations created by Bill Vorn, in particular his series of "hysterical machines" (Hysterical Machines, 2006). The monumental version is equally threatening: Mega Hysterical Machine (2010). 

 Bill Vorn Montréal Mega Hysterical Machine
Mega Hysterical Machine interactive robotic art installation by Bill Vorn Montréal (Québec) Canada © 2010

Several metres tall and hanging from the ceiling, this mechanical creature has eight arms driven by pneumatic valves and cylinders. Ultrasonic sensors enable the robot to detect the presence of spectators in the immediate vicinity and to react accordingly...If Bill Vorn’s purported aim is to elicit the empathy of spectators regarding characters that are no more than articulated metal structures, Mark Pauline is opposed to this "soft attitude". Since 1979 he has continued to construct robots and machines in his Survival Research Laboratories that he exhibits in deliberately worrying and disturbing scenarios, enhanced by pyrotechnics and amplified sound (dangerous and disturbing mechanical presentations, proclaims the banner on his website). Generally speaking, the robot innards exposed by its artists are hardly glamorous... 

Dangerous and Disturbing Mechanical Presentations Since 1979

Lityin Malaw 

Photo titre: Nam June Paik and K-456, 1964

Second part coming soon! 

Robotic Art