More notes from my conversation with Antonio Cerveira Pinto, the curator of Bios 4. It's probably the first time that so many unstable art works are being shown for several months in a museum (as opposed to a few days in an art gallery during a festival) and, as Antonio notes, the experience has shown that there's a whole new relationship to be built between on the one hand, artists who use technology in their practice and on the other hand, museums which are usually wary of showing works that are not static and "quiet" like paintings are.
The existence of bio art, environmental art and in general new media art constitutes a challenge for museums. They have to be aware that art is evolving, and open up to new artistic forms. New expertise is needed to deal with machines and living things. Robots need to "rest", for example. Otherwise their electro-circuit dies. Museum curators and directors also have to accept that if you want to hide a computer in a sleek box just because it is "ugly", the container should be big enough to avoid any crash when the machine heats up.
Artists on the other hand, have to specify clearly how the museum has to manage and take care of the electronic, digital or living bits of their work when they are exhibited over a long period of time (as these pieces are usually shown in the context of a one-week festival). Another challenge for artists is to become experts in usability and design clear interfaces that tell visitors how to interact with their pieces.
The public too has to learn how to engage with these art pieces, adults in particular have spent decades being told "Don't touch!" "Don't go too close!", etc. Both museums and artists will have to take these challenges into account.
Yesterday i spent a few fantastic hours with Antonio Cerveira Pinto in Sevilla. He showed me around Bios4, the exhibition about bio and environmental art he curated at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo. I am going to write about it from A to Z, focussing on some of my favourite pieces and bits of my conversation with Antonio. But let's start the lazy way with just an appetizer of what i've discovered there.
Alexithymia is a term that means the incapacity to verbalize emotions. When some sufferers want to talk but are unable to utter the words, they start sweating to manifest the desire to communicate.
Alexitimia is also the name that Paula Gaetano, an artist from Buenos Aires, gave to her robot. It's a big blob that feels like rubber when you touch it. But it also sweats when you caress its surface. Paula Gaetano has a background in fine art but collaborated with scientists and techno experts to develop the robot. The only sensors are for touch and the only output is water that runs from a tank hidden in the base of the work.
It is creative intuition that permits both the artist and the viewer to leap over logic, whether scientific or artistic, and emotionally experience the problem laid out here of reconciling the "wet" domain of nature with the "dry" domain of electronics.
Yesterday i was hoping to attend Niklas Roy's presentation of his latest project at the UdK (University of the Arts in Berlin) and instead had to stay home and wait for the gas guy to come and check the boiler.
Gallerydrive is a completely automated drive-through art exhibition. The system allows curators and artists to control the way single artworks are perceived, and the way, a whole exhibition will be experienced by a gallery or museum visitor. They can determine how the visitors move in relation to their works but also from which perspective, when and how long each work will be noticed. Besides, artists can define the presentation of (meta-) information over the vehicles display and on the sound environment, in which each work is perceived.
The first element of the project is the Gallerydrive car, a modified wheelchair fitted with a series of features:
So far so good. What makes the experience sound like one of my worst nightmare is the Robotik Room, a large electro-mechanical sculpture that becomes a white cube, when a Gallerydrive vehicle enters it.
The Room is about 50% finished. "I have to push buttons to operate the mechanism and then, the room descends and the walls flap down and surround the visitor(s)," explains Niklas who is still working on the electronics to let it move automatically.
The drawing below shows what it should eventually look like. "Inside the room, there'll be four golden frames, one on each wall," adds the artist. "The wall inside each frame will be cut out, so that the visitors will look outside through those frames instead of seeing normal pictures inside them. Outside the room, there are four installations, which might look strange and abstract, if you have a first look at them. But if you are being driven with the vehicle inside the room, and if you stop at the defined positions for watching each of those "pictures" at the walls, they will appear as an image inside these golden frames."
The system itself does not determine contents for an exhibition. But guidelines for the content of exhibitions can be specified for each exhibition.
A project developed together with //////////fur////.
I recently spotted on rhizome the work of a young artist called David Bowen. His growth rendering device provides light and food to a plant in the form of hydroponic solution. The plant reacts to the device by growing. The device in-turn reacts to the plant by producing a rasterized inkjet drawing of the plant every 24 hours. After a new drawing is produced the system scrolls the roll of paper four inches so a new drawing can be produced during the next cycle. I found it so charming i decided to ask him a couple of questions about the piece. It rapidly evolved into a full-fledged interview.
Bowen is interested in the outcomes that occur when machines interact with the natural world. Although he has only received an MFA degree from the University of Minnesota in 2004, he has already exhibited internationally and is currently Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
Where does your interest for devices, machines and other systems come from?
As a kid I was always taking things apart to see how the worked. When I got older I began to be attracted to machines as formal objects. I am fascinated by the beauty of systems and machines how their shapes, movements and compositions are determined by their intended function. I became interested in steel and kinetic sculpture as an undergrad. My interest in kinetic sculpture flourished as a grad student at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis under the guidance of my mentor Guy Baldwin and the time I spent working with the Mechanical Engineering Department.
Some of your devices look delicate, almost fragile. What governs their appearance?
Many of the forms I construct arise from the function they are intended to perform. If a device uses wind to produce a mark on paper then it should logically be delicate and light in order for the wind to articulate it. In a composition of multiple units the individual devices are given more freedom to move and interact if the are constructed from light weight materials. I used to work with steel but I discovered that manipulating steel is very hard your tools and body, and heavy objects are much more difficult to articulate. Formally plastics and aluminum create a greater contrast with natural forms, movements and systems.
I'm particularly intrigued by the Phototropic Drawing Device. How did you come up with the idea? What were the challenges you encountered while developing it?
Phototropic drawing device came after a piece entitled 50drones in which 50 individual units where intended to create organic compositions. The drones where tethered with wires in order to give them power. The phototropic device came from the desire to create a more autonomous device.
In many ways the devices are living things they are powered by and attracted to the nearest most intense light source. They will even detect and respond to the ambient light in a room. When they are not in use I must place the devices solar cell down on my desk, otherwise the will work their way to the edge and commit suicide.
Early experiments with the devices involved setting groups of them near pools of light and allowing them to work their way toward the light, observing the compositions which occurred as the devices attempted to displace one another. This could only go so far because the devices would jumble up and no longer move. The addition of the charcoal and paper allowed a single device to produce a drawing based on its search for food.
Do you feel that the drawings made by your interactive drawing devices belong to you in a certain way or do you feel that the drawings are made at 100% by the devices? Why? Do you regard each of drawings as pieces of art or is it the process of the drawing that constitutes the artistic component of the work?
I believe the drawings are sort of collaboration between myself, the device and, in the cases of interactive devices, the participants. The drawing devices I construct collect highly qualified data based on it's construction and the way it and the participant respond to the situation. In many cases the drawings on their own are beautiful formal objects, and I do sell/exhibit them on their own. But I feel there needs to be an awareness of how they where created through didactic, video or ideally seeing the device itself in action.
Your pieces are very lively. They interact with natural elements, sensors, other devices, people passing through the exhibition spaces, etc. They seem to have some kind of independent life and you're not part of it. They don't need you anymore. Is my rapid analysis too superficial? How much free will and independance from you do these devices really have?
See previous answer.... In many cases I after creating the device and system I step away and let it do its thing. For example I set up phototropic drawing device in my studio and let it draw. I can go have a sandwich and it's still drawing... I can go teach a class and it's still drawing... one of the drawings featured on my website was produced over four months of continuous drawing. One of my pieces titled sonar drawing device is drawing in the Tweed Museum of Art as I type. The do at times need fresh charcoal or crayons but the do function with relative autonomy.
Many of your pieces feature several units. 50drones, for example, "consists of 50 aluminum and pvc units connected to 10' tethers. Each unit moves independently as they displace and arrange one another in random and unpredictable patterns." What do you see as interesting in objects moving in groups?
"50 drones" came from a desire to eliminate the literal natural form like a twig or leaf, as used in previous pieces, in favor of emulating a natural behavior. The device could be seen to represent a crowd of people a school of fish or particles in a state of disbursement.
What did you try to achieve with Growth Rendering Device? What did you learn by observing this intimate relationship between a plant and a machine?
With growth rendering device I wanted to create reciprocal relationship between a natural object and a mechanical system. The piece is still very new so I continue to observe. But I find it interesting when mechanical systems, motors and micro-controllers behave in unpredictable ways where plants have the tendency to grow in very systematic mechanical ways.
Who are the artists whose work inspires you and why?
I am influenced by many past artists you would expect like Jean Tinguely, Arther Ganson and Cy Twombly for their use of kinetics both literally and through mark making. I am of course influenced contemporary people working with technology like Edwardo Kac, Stelarc, Simon Penny and Natalie Jeremijenko because the address technological elements as materials and utilize technology to integrate mechanical systems with the natural world.
Any upcoming projects you'd like to share with us?
I have an upcoming exhibition at the Rochester Art Center in Rochester, MN opening May 19th. The exhibition will feature "growth rendering device" which will produce a 50 foot scroll drawing of a pea plant as it grows over the three month exhibition. I was awarded a full fellowship to attend the Vermont Studio Center this June and I was awarded a fellowship to attend The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in June, July and August of 2008.
Publisher's blurb: While U.S. companies have produced robot vacuum cleaners and war machines, Japan has created warm and fuzzy life-like robot therapy pets. While the U.S. makes movies like Robocop and The Terminator, Japan is responsible for the friendly Mighty Atom, Aibo and Asimo. While the U.S. sponsors robot-on-robot destruction contests, Japan's feature tasks that mimic nonviolent human activities. (...) What can account for Japan's unique relationship with robots as potential colleagues in life, rather than as potential adversaries?
I've been looking for a book that answers that question for quite some time now.
Let's divide the book in two parts and start anti-chronologically. The second part is dedicated to the country's current state of robotic technologies, and what the future holds. If you only expect to discover new robots, you will be disappointed: we've all read about the like of Murata Boy the cyclist, Actroid the booth babe and Tomotaka Takahashi's super cute Neon in blogs such as the one where Hornyak documents his latest findings about robots. But that shouldn't stop you. What you won't find in blogs are information and quotes taken from conversations that the author had with today's robot engineers and experts.
What fascinated me most in the book was the first half of it, the one that looks at Japan's historical connections with robots, in particular its "karakuri" tradition and the influence that manga characters have had on the public's imagination.
Just like our Western automata, Karakuri were made to entertain and create a sense of wonder. The author argues that unlike their more sophisticated Western counterpart the Japanese automata were regarded more as dolls than machines. The aim was not to achieve realism but to charm the audience, it was art for its own sake rather than the advancement of science. It all started during the Edo period, when Japan was completely isolated from the rest of the world. Around 1662, a businessman named Takeda Omi opened an amusement park which quickly became famous for the theatre performances that starred automats as well as puppets and human actors. The mechanisms of the dolls were carefully hidden behind their kimonos and delicate smiles. Much of their technology owe much to the Western guns and clock-making know-how introduced in the country before the sakoku, the national seclusion period that would last some 250 years.
Recreating dolls would be impossible were it not for the Karakuri Zui, a treatise on "Illustrated Machinery" written in 1796 by Yorinao Hosokawa. The engineer, artisan and inventor described in three volumes how to make four kinds of wadokei clocks and nine types of mechanical dolls, including a famous boy which courteously serves tea to guests while nodding the head.
Another Estern influence on Japanese robotics was Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the play that gave its name to robots. However, it might well be Mighty Atom/Astro Boy who left the biggest imprint in Japanese minds when it comes to robotics. Osamu Tezuka's character embodies the belief that robots can not only be friends with human beings but might also be the country's salvation. An idea that shouldn't be underestimated, especially if you think that the manga hero was born in the mind of a young medical student who was deeply affected by fire-bombed Osaka during WWII. According to Nagoya University robotics professor Tohio Fukada, the desire to create a robot like Atom exists among Japanese roboticists in varying degrees.
Astro Boy gained recognition in Occident as well. In particular in 2004 when he was inducted into Carnegie Mellon University's Robot Hall of Fame. The jury decided that Astro Boy deserved the title for being "the first robot with a soul."
The book keeps on with a look into the legacy of other popular characters such as Ironman No. 28/Gigantor (which might soon get its own statue in Kobe), , Mobile Suit Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, etc. And also the Mecha, walking robotic vehicles controlled by a pilot. My favourite was Grendizer or in french as Goldorak with his fulguro-poings and missiles gama. Il traverse tout l'univers aussi vite que la lumière. Qui est-il? D'où vient-il? Formidable robot des temps nouveaux. I never missed an episode of the series, had all the gadgets (or stole them from my little brother), and had a ridiculous crush on Actarus its pilot.
There's one really annoying thing about that book that pops up once in a while: the style. Most of the time it's ok, usual essay style, nothing to complain about and who am i to give lessons of writing style anyway? But here and there appear some paragraphs that seem to be taken from a cloying novel, i don't know what motivates these grandiloquent endeavours but they really weaken the otherwise compelling "plot".
Yesterday i visited The Robots are Coming! People - Machines - Communication at the Museum for Communication in Berlin.
The exhibition traces the history of communication between humans and machines. All the types of robots you can think of are there: industrial robots, robots used in hospitals or for advertising purposes in the 1950s, made by artists, starring in music videos, toys, ... New ones and ancestors: from 18th century musical automats, tea serving dolls from the Karakuri tradition, sketches by Bauhaus-related artists and designers to Tomy Omnibot, some of the robots that have grabbed the headlines over the past few years.
Three retro-future robots called Enter, Do Something and OK (my rough translation) are greeting visitors in the lobby of the museum. The first one, detects the legs of anyone approaching it and greets him or her, the second one talks like a little kid and spends its time following a big gym ball and i couldn't understand what the third one was about (not able to grasp what the museum guards were trying to explain me.) Kind of fun but their cuteness is a bit too cliché.
The biggest stars of the show, in no particular order:
- Sabor, a big robot (237 cm high, 270 kg) made in the 50s in Switzerland and inspired by Karel Capek's play R. U. R. (1920). It was able to smoke, move its arms and legs and speak with the help of an integrated phonograph to flirt with ladies.
- the robot jockey KMEL, developed by Swiss company K-Team to replace its practice of using children as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates. The mechanical jockey gets orders from the instructor via a remote control system fixed on the back of the camel. The robots wear sunglasses, hats, racing silks, and they are sprayed with traditional perfumes used with human jockeys (via).
- the Novag Robot Adversary (1982) that plays chess with its mechanical arm, the first one available for sale to the public.
- a robotic arm that seems to be dancing, holding a piece of car in its hand. The robot is currently used to assemble Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicles.
- climbing robots, crab robots, domestic humanoids, kinetic marionettes, and toys (loads of those).
Robots from the art scene:
- German artist Frank Fietzek was showing two works. The Self-running shoes he created together with Sven Ehamnn. Made for the exhibition "sneakers etc." the pair of trainers could be remote-controlled by visitors. His second piece in the show is Watschendiskurs, a pair of robots that slap each other while arguing about language theory.
I'm not sure that bathing the exhibition in blue light is such a great idea. It gives a feeling of un-reality when the robots are indeed a reality. But the show was a very nice surprise. There isn't much coverage of it in the press so i wasn't expecting to discover such a fantastic collection. All explanations are in german which was a bit frustrating.
The exhibition runs until September 2 but there's only a few days left to discover Les Robots-Music. Apparently the story starts during World War II when Edouard Diomgar, a French engineer imprisoned in a German camp, was killing time by fantasizing about an orchestra made of robots playing real instruments. After the war the 3 robots he built, Oskar, Ernest and Anatole, took the stage. They can play up to 500 tunes. The current version has been improved thanks to the latest tech developments but their clunkiness and bal musette songs are most charming.