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

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. 

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The aim of certain choreographers who have created performances with robots is to find a body language to minimise this menacing appearance. In Robot (2013-) by Blanca Li, eight dancers share the stage with strange musical machines by Maywa Denki and seven Nao (small humanoid robots created by Aldebaran Robotics). It is quite moving to see these high-tech mechanical dolls adopt contemporary dance moves. The choreographer Éric Minh Cuong Castaing also uses Nao robots, two dancers and children invited to participate in the performance space, for his piece School Of Moon (2016) created like a metaphor for post-humanity awakening. With Link Human/Robot (2012-15), Emmanuelle Grangier also engages with a small Nao, but she initiates a more intimate dialogue, establishing a link between humans and machines.

Robot, Blanca Li

Link Human/Robot - Emmanuelle Grangier 20.02.2015 

This approach is more apparent when the robot has a more obvious humanoid shape. We are not then far from the famous "uncanny valley", the stage when according to the roboticist Masahiro Mori "geminoids" resembling human beings, with the technical imperfections that exist in the current state of scientific progress, cause feelings of unease. Until this gap, this valley, is overcome this feeling is no doubt also prevalent when watching Oriza Hirata’s theatrical performances. With this stage director, the robots "play" with the actors and are part of the cast, but it is above all their "being" — the texture of their "skin", the clothes, their posture, presence and facial expressions— that disconcerts the audience. It is especially evident in the play called The Three Sisters Android version, a story in which one of the dead sisters has been replaced by an android by her father, a robotics researcher. Also in Sayonara ver.2 presenting the everyday dreariness of a young patient assisted by a humanoid robot reciting poetry to them... In his theatre adaptation of The Metamorphosis by Kafka, the character transforms into a robot of course and not into a cockroach! 

Oriza Hirata Robots
Sayonara ver.2, Oriza Hirata

La Métamorphose Robot
La Métamorphose, Oriza Hirata

In another genre, the "cyber-dolls" by France Cadet, who also produced performance installation with robot dogs, are equally disconcerting with their soft erotic charge; even if they are ensconced in a virtual world of 3D and holographic projections. The common feature of these different robotic creations is therefore the humanoid form, but other options are possible. For his installation called Sans Objet/No Object (2014), the choreographer Aurélien Bory (Cie 111) has chosen to conceal his robot under black tarpaulin. As a result, any movement causes circumstantial folds in the plastic material that become a moving sculpture.

Aurélien Bory
Aurélien Bory, Sans Objet

 For his mechanical ballets,Peter William Holden chose to structure his devices around several central components, and not a complete robot: mannequin arms and legs for Arabesque, shoes and mechanical feet for Solenoid, hands and metal armatures for Vicious Circle, hats and articulated tubing for The Invisible. Lastly, for Grace State Machine (2007-09), Bill Vorn (again!) has chosen a simple structure that oscillates, contracts and unfolds according to the actions of the dancer Emma Howes and the artist Jonathan Villeneuve.

Orchestrer La Perte / Perpetual Demotion by Projet EVA (Simon Laroche & David Szanto) is also quite a simple "mechatronic" device: a few tubes and gears arranged on a tripod placed on a simple wooden table. It is unique in that it demands public participation: the public is fed! An arm extended by a spoon offers each visitor who wants it, something edible. With Loops Of Relation (2013) by Mélanie du Preez, a knife not a spoon is at the end of a mechanical arm. 

Orchestrer la perte / Perpetual Demotion from Projet EVA 

'to stab' (2013) from Nelmarie du Preez 

A device evocative (in slow motion) of another scene from Aliens, when the android Bishop plays the knife game with a flight attendant... In reality androids are not widespread and the mythical creatures of Boston Dynamics for the moment remain intriguing prototypes. Apart from luxury toys such as Nao and Aibo, the vast majority of robots are all but little domestic appliance machines, or automated guided vehicles and articulated arms for industry.

The collective Robotlab reprogrammed one to produce a large abstract fresco called The Big Picture (2014-). Originally, also accomplished with an articulated arm, their project bios (bible) (2007-) applies the principle of endless and above all flawless writing of the Bible with calligraphy that would the envy of copyist monks... Note there is a (Torah) bios (2014- ), but no (Koran) bios (yet?)...

BIOS [Torah] Robot Arm Writing the Torah at Human Speed - Jewish Museum Berlin

The same collective invited the public to do a Self-portrait (2002) again via this convoluted mechanism. Patrick Tresset also uses this principle applying it to drawing in his series Human Study (2013-) and Human Traits (2015-). Visitors sit down one by one in front of several robotic arms on desks. A strange situation: one man in front of several mechanical objects taking part in an activity until then reserved for humans... 

Patrick Tresset
Patrick Tresset with its robots

With RobotPhot, Daniel Boschung applies this concept to portrait art. An HD camera is positioned on an articulated arm and shoots the subject on an armchair, using a normal and a macro lens. Hundreds of images are collated and touched up if required (600 shots in total, during a 30 minute session). The full frame photos give a vertiginous zoom effect, as close as possible to the texture of the skin and its slightest imperfections that are in this instance sublimated. An industrial robotic arm grips the paint with Dragan Ilic. The artist has two possibilities. On the one hand, he programmes the robot while allowing a random, generative component or not in the outline (RoboAction A1 K1, 2015). On the other, he uses his arm as a rotating support, becoming the robot’s paintbrush (RoboAction(s)A1 K1, a performance produced in the context of Ars Electronica, 2016)! 

RoboAction A1 K1, Dragan Ilic

Lastly, if robotics is synonymous with high-tech, certain artists go against this futuristic vision by adopting a low-tech approach. This is true notably of Theo Jansen, a sculptor connected to the kinetic trend, who makes strange "creatures" resembling millipedes traditionally, uniquely from some tubing and sails, without any circuit boards or optical sensors. A framework of articulated structures and pressurised air (when there is no wind) is enough to breathe new life into these Animaris. A path also taken by Michael Candy (Prix Cube 2016) for Big Dipper (2016), a kinetic sculpture made from a central structure, cogs and neon lights that slowly rise and fall, making it look like a sea creature.

Michael Candy, Big Dipper, Prix Cube 2016 ©JBLuneau

With this in mind, recycling is obviously a modus operandi. This is the firm stance taken by the collective Tout Reste À Faire for its series Anima (Ex) Musica (2013-). A utopic and robotic bestiary comprised of old musical instruments transformed into giant insects. Lastly, the collective of artists Reso-nance numérique chose simple and open-source constituents for Chimères Orchestra (2011-2017), a tribe of robot insects that look like they walked straight out of the film Runaway. These mechanical bugs cling to the architectural elements of the city creating a percussive symphony of sorts. 

Chimères Orchestra - Shadok from reso-nance 

In contrast, there are "dematerialised" robots, "bots" rampant in the depths of computer servers. These automated programmes are also the subject of an artistic challenge. Through ADM 8 (2011) then ADM X, The Algorithmic Trading Freakshow (2013) and ADMXI (2015), the collective RYBN enjoyed subverting robot financial traders by introducing iconoclastic, irrational or emotional parameters. Speculation seen as one of the fine arts...

With this subversive spirit, artists and ‘hacktivists’ from !Mediengruppe Bitnik have developed a bot programmed to make purchases blind and up to 100 Bitcoins per week, in the depths of the Darknet with all the consequences that this entails regarding the nature of the products retrieved... An overview of the acquisitions made by their Random Darnet Shopper (2014-) is visible during exhibitions and on their website.

Darknet Shopper

Darknet Shopper, !Mediengruppe Bitnik

Lastly, between parody and ultimate prophecy, launched a Predictive Art Bot (2015-2017) the purpose of which is to propose creative themes, therefore liberating artists from their lack of inspiration. A call for projects has already been launched about specific proposals: a "hactivist" sculpture to expose the intentions of digital colonialism... Suggestions are listed via a dedicated Twitter account. Already however, other questions are arising judging by those asked in conjunction with the exhibition Smart Factory (1)can machines replace artists? Can creative acts be translated into algorithms? Can machines surpass mankind and create a sensitive work of art? The answer could well be: robots are artists like any other! 

Lityin Malaw

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

(1) Smart Factory, a factory producing works of art, without artists exhibition, until 3rd September, Le Tetris, Le Havre. Info: