Paul Granjon is a facetious French artist living in Wales. When he's not performing wearing a flattering inflatable sumo suit, or organizing parades on Dutch market squares, Granjon builds robots using sausages, cadavers of parrot toys, heaps of fake fur and dolls. But behind the pop and quirkiness, the artist is investigating 'the co-evolution of humans and machines', inviting us to pause and reflect for a moment on our relationship with technology.
Right now, Granjon has a solo show at the Oriel Davies gallery, in Newtown, Wales, where he is presenting Oriel Factory, 'a radical new take on production lines.' He gathered old computers, CD / DVD players, printers, toys, radios and other discarded machines and gave them as raw material to volunteers - the 'Oriel Factory workers'. Together, they broke apart the 'dead tech' and, with the help of advanced home-manufacturing technology, re-composed and re-purposed them as robots and other artefacts for the gallery.
The exhibition forces awareness of the vast quantities of electronic waste produced by our early 21st century consumer society, and highlights the need for renewable energy. The exhibition also gently pokes fun at our fascination with, and endless appetite for new technology and the need to own the latest smart phone or the newest sat nav.
Chris Keenan made video documented the preparation of the exhibition, interviewed the participants and asked Paul Granjon to present his robots:
I talked to the artist as well:
What can gallery visitors expect to see in the gallery? Will the 'production line' still be operative? And will the public see projects that are already documented on your website or are they all new works that you have developed with the help of the volunteers using discarded electronics? Can you tell us something about some of these new works you created at the Oriel Factory?
The Oriel Factory project splits the gallery in two main sections: the factory with operational production line, and the exhibition space. All the work in Oriel Factory is new. The idea was to build a set of mobile robots and to recruit volunteers to make contraptions for the robots from a large pile of electronic waste collected from the local council. Energy for the robots and their environment is provided by solar power and home-made bike generators. The robots and contraptions are visible in the exhibition space which they share with the visitors. There are 5 smaller robots, called the Thingies, whose bodies are made in metal recycled from old VCRs, combined with colourful perspex sheets cut on the factory's CNC router. The Thingies move around, emitting sound from their built-in music boxes, and engage in simple interaction with the visitors. A larger robot called the Big Bootloader moves slowly on a taped track across the gallery. At times it opens its door and attempts to lure the Thingies inside with an infra-red beam and trap them in. A trapped Thingy will have to wait for the next opening of the door.
From 10th to 17th of September, visitors to the gallery could see the production line in operation. They could talk to the factory workers, have a look at work in progress, see the 3d printer in action and a play with the almost ready small robots. The show remains open until November 16th, with the factory left in the state it was for the opening. The robots are running, and several improvised contraptions made from recycled e-waste are activated in the exhibition space. The pedal generators that complement the solar panels which feed the robots can be used by visitors. A 20 minutes documentary film provides a comprehensive insight into the project all the way from early development stages to the opening. The film will be online at zprod.org as soon as the edit is finished, in the next few days.
On the one hand, you worked with old electronic kits. On the other one, you also used a 3D printer. Why did you need the 3D printer? Which objects or parts of objects did you shape with it?
The old electronics kits were used to make things that occupy the exhibition space, mostly simple kinetic pieces which can be triggered in sequence through a control panel made with an old Amstrad computer. The choice of using a 3D printer was an exploratory one, testing the little machine to see how useful it would be in a small scale production line.It ended up being used a lot in the robot-making process, the most visible 3D printed parts being the luminous tails of the robots. Other parts include motor and sensor holders, wheel hubs and whiskers mechanism, plus a couple of bespoke items printed for volunteers' objects. I guess we got carried away a bit by the possibilities of the printer, and cut parts that would have been better made of metal: the wheel hubs are already showing signs of wear and I have to cut new ones in steel. But the tails are great!
The webpage of the exhibition explains that the work show "explores the possibilities offered by home-manufacturing equipment and the high-tech devices of tomorrow's world." Nowadays, we read about all these new, affordable tools to create our own objects,we can find any kind of DIY information and instructions for free online, should we have a question or problem we can get help in online forum, etc. Do you think that the number of people who are able to build and create their own tools, machines and objects is growing by the day or is building a small robot out of discarded material still something that only geeks do in their own backyard? Do you think that we will buy more manufactured stuff in the near future or will we make our own?
I started "exploring the possibilities offered by home-manufacturing equipment" in spring 2011, when I bought a Thing-O-Matic and a small chinese CNC router. The learning curve was a bit steep and I had to call on my nerd fiber quite a lot in order to get results. With the 3D printer, the assembly takes more than 20 hours and involves soldering and precise tweaking. It would put some people off. That being said, once assembled the printer is straightforward to use and fairly reliable.
As for the future of such machines, I think they are already finding their way more and more into tinkerers' sheds, educational institutions and small businesses. I am not sure how they will fit in homes, where their novelty value probably would not last long enough to justify the investment, and a trip to the local or online DIY shop will remain a simpler option for a while. Yet I can imagine doing an Oriel Factory-like project in ten-fifteen years time where we would find discarded 3d printers in the collection of electronic waste, in a similar way to the 2D printers we had for this event. An interesting side-effect of using a 3D printer is a minor invasion of defect ABS plastic prints. We were happy to give ours away to visiting school kids, but otherwise they could become a recycling problem...
I had to add the image of the Inflatable Suit:
Remember i was telling you about "Anti Anti Utopia", the talk that Vicky Messi gave at the FILE festival symposium a week ago? She was highlighting media art projects from Latin America that 'look beyond anti-utopia.' The first work she presented was Arcángel Constantini's Nanodrizas, a fleet of "flying" saucers deployed in polluted waters to clean them up.
A second brilliant project she mentioned was Ciudad Nazca / Nazca City, a land art project in which a robot draws a true scale map of an imaginary city onto the surface of the Peruvian desert.
Artist Rodrigo Derteano's autonomous robot plows the desert ground to uncover its underlying, lighter color, using a technique similar to the one of the Nazca lines, the gigantic and enigmatic geoglyphs traced between 400 and 650 AD in the desert in southern Peru. Guided by its sensors, the robot quietly traced the founding lines of a new city that looks like a collage of existing cities from Latin America.
Because of the city would extend over several squared kilometers, the map can only be appreciated as a whole from certain a height by means of airplanes or satellite imaging. Just like the Nazca lines.
The project invites to reflect upon the explosive urbanization of the deserts of the Peruvian coast, taking place since the middle of the last century, and its consequences on environmental sustainability and the quality of living.
I asked Rodrigo to talk to us about Ciudad Nazca:
Hello Rodrigo! What is the motivation behind the project? During her presentation at FILE, Vicky mentioned the spectacular growth of the city of Lima and the need to find new ways of designing and envisioning cities, maybe by building them in the desert. Can you expand on this?
I live and grew up in Lima. About 60% of the city today lies within the desert, most of it grew without any serious urban planning. It's a self-made metropolis, the second largest city built in the desert after Cairo. It grew from 1 million to 8 million people in less than 60 years. There's a lot of problems derived from this development in terms of sustainability and living standards which exacerbate the huge inequality of our society. The desert plays a big role in this regard. People living in desert areas of the city are usually poor and often have to pay more for water than those living in more centric (richer) areas. They also lack proper infrastructure and have much less public places and parks. For a long time, these areas were not considered part of the city by the ruling class and the authorities until they became the majority.
By drawing a gigantic map of a city onto the desert, the project not only seeks to draw attention to this facts, but questions our very concept of city, specially in regards to its environment. Lima is a sort of negation of the desert. Our model and ideal of city is very occidental, and does not adapt very well to its context. The desert is seen a kind of non-place, not a part of our living environment. In this sense, there's a sort of irony in using a robot to draw a city onto the desert, as if it would be drawing it on the surface of Mars (exploring the outer space for the possibility of urban life).
I'm also fascinated by the Nasca people and their lines (200 BC - 600 AD). Studying theories about them, I found their notion of desert as ritual space, and therefore an expansion of their living space, to be in sharp contrast to our notion today. Some see the Nasca lines as cult to fertility and life in the desert, trying to communicate beyond. In this sense, Nasca City is kind of a cult to urban life in the desert today, not communicating beyond, but within our society...
I was also interested in the cities you selected for the final collage. How did you chose them? Why Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro rather than Sao Paulo? Why Bogota rather than Medellin for example?
The project required an interdisciplinary group of people working together to make it happen. In regards to the design of the city we worked together with the Latin American architecture collective Supersudaca, represented by the 51-1 architecture studio in Lima. The collective proposed to do a real scale collage of pieces of the 10 largest cities in Latin America (Sao Paulo is included). They would overlap at the borders creating new urban forms and zones of conflict. The idea was to create a map of mixed references, city patterns already charged with meaning, that people would be able to recognise, compare, and understand the scale of the drawing according to their own real life experience.
Why 10? Well, they like to put up simple rules. The cities pieces were put together conserving their relative geographical position and original orientation.
The city drawn in the desert is ephemeral is that correct? Isn't it disheartening to dedicate so much energy and see the city being slowly erased by the wind and other natural elements?
Sometimes I also find it disheartening, but most of the time I think it is ok for it to be slowly erased by the wind. The lines loose the sharp contrast with the surface in a couple of weeks, but the relief will be visible for years. I don't know if I would find the drawing and whole action equally meaningful in, let's say, 20 years. The desert is quite a special place for me, and I had my thoughts about leaving permanent marks that large on its surface.
For it to stay forever, we would have had to do it in a terrain with almost identical conditions as in Nasca, which is a protected area classified as world heritage by UNESCO. We would have ended in jail for sure, if we had done it over there. Which brings me to question number 5...
How long did it take to draw the whole city and did you have to stay near the robot constantly to monitor its work?
The drawing took 5 days (4 under ideal conditions). We had to rescue the robot sometimes and had some problems, but most of the time, it would do fine by itself.
Did you need to obtain special permits to do this piece of land art or can anyone do anything they fancy in the desert?
In theory, you can't do what you want in the desert (in Peru), unless you own it. And even then, you'll have to do an official and quite expensive study certifying the absence of archeological rests. In a protected area like Nazca, it would be a serious crime (to destroy national heritage). We certainly could not buy up that amount of terrain (!!). But it is permitted to drive around in non protected areas, which also leaves marks. So there's kind of a gray zone. In practice, people exploit the landscape in all sorts of ways, but we wanted to go public with it. We had to make sure we could do it, or at least be prepared for the consequences. The local authorities were sympathetic to the project and we got an unofficial permit...
Are you planning to repeat or show the project elsewhere in the near future?
The project is not completely finished, because there are lots of follow ups. Maybe I'll take on the topic in further projects or exhibitions. Maybe someday we repeat the drawing process, but it's quite a production and I have no concrete plans. There are no exhibitions planned at the moment, but I have a lot of material and would like to show it again.
And if you speak spanish, check out this interview that Vicky did with Rodrigo:
All images courtesy of Rodrigo Derteano.
Previously: Nanodrizas, "flying" saucers for polluted waters.
Every year, the FILE festival invites artists and other people who have a hands-on approach to new media art to share their views, works and ideas with the audience during a 4 afternoon long symposium. One of the most fascinating talks for me this year was the one that Victoria Messi, author of the fantastic blog El Pez Eléctrico, gave about media art projects from Latin America that 'look beyond anti-utopia.'
Titled Anti Anti Utopia: Arte Eletrônica na América Latina / Anti Anti Utopia: Electronic Art in Latin America, the presentation introduced us to four projects by media artists who believe that art still has the power to transform society. I was planning to write a long post that contained her whole presentation but i thought it would be more fruitful to highlight the projects one by one. First of all because each of them is so clever, quirky and fascinating that it should have its own space. Secondly because i've just started The Leopard and as much as i'd like this Jo Nesbø gem to last as long as possible i can't stay away from the book more than it is strictly necessary for my mental well-being.
Shaped like small flying saucers, the Nanodrizas are floating autonomous robots forming a network of wireless sensors, which attempt to interact with biological elements. The robotic prototypes measure, in real time, the environmental conditions (temperature, pH scale, level of humidity, turbidity, etc.) of polluted water surfaces. The data collected is then transmitted via wireless communications for interpretation and analysis. Once to the level and nature of pollution has been identified, the nanodrizas directly intervene by emitting synthesized sound and releasing bacterial and enzymatic remedies in the eco-system that, ultimately, should regulate the quality of the water.
Prototypes of the nanodrizas have been deployed in heavily polluted locations. In particular, in the river going through the city of Puebla in Mexico. Puebla hosts "La Constancia", an ex textile factory which used to be one of the most modern factories in Latin America. La Constancia relied heavily on water to function: water was used to power its turbines and water was where waste was then dispersed. As a consequence, the river is now suffering from high levels of pollution. The mission of the robots is therefore to intervene directly and revert the effect of the pollution in the water.
The Nanodrizas benefit from relatively sophisticated technologies but were made using discarded materials such as children's toys.
The work thus moves beyond other environmental tactical media interventions by making an attempt to be actively therapeutic. The work will also functions to alert and sensitise people to the situations via, in the first location, the sound emissions of the Nanodrizas and second via displays in exhibition centers and online.
The project thus exemplifies an admirably holisitic kind of art practice which is simultaneously technologically well informed and technologically inventive, while being engaged with complex social histories and activist with respect to fundamental problems of our time.
Check out this interview that El Pez Eléctrico had with Constantini about the Nanodrizas fleet. I'd recommend watching it even if you don't understand spanish because you will not only see the nanodrizas in action but you will also be able to listen to the artist's melodious Mexican accent.
Related: Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza.
FILE, the Electronic Language International Festival remains open through August 21, 2011, at the FIESP Cultural Center - Ruth Cardoso, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Entrance is free.
A couple of years ago, Nils Völker cooperated with one of wmmna's favourite designers, Christien Meindertsma, to create a robot that replicates the way we look. In one space, an eye-tracker records the movement of your eyes while you are looking at images of various objects. Further away, a robot, built mainly out of Lego parts and hanging on top of a pile of paper, makes one dot for every point you have just been looking at. The resulting large scale images demonstrate how differently the same objects have been perceived.
The robot was the one work that attracted me to Nils Völker's portfolio but it's his creative path that started with communication design and moved to the use of physical computing in contexts as different as advertising and art exhibitions that made me realize the designer and artist was the perfect material for a quick chat.
You trained as a communication designer so how did you end up working with robotics?
At some point I discovered this Lego set which turned out to be way more than just a simple toy. In the first place I wanted to build a pen plotter, just to create some illustrations. But I realised that constructing and building the whole thing was much more fun than making the illustrations afterwards. So I've started to spend more and more time on building new machines. After a while the ideas became rather complex and Lego just reached its limits. Now I'm constantly dealing with pretty weird electric or programming issues I wouldn't have been even dreaming of about a year ago. But it's somehow great to deal with these purely logical and abstract things to end up with something that isn't logic at all.
I'd like to come back to Makers and Spectators that you developed two years ago together with Christien Meindertsma for an exhibition at MU in Eindhoven. It is made mainly out of Lego parts and that's part of its charm. Why did you chose to use these children toys? Was it mostly to give the machine a playful appearance or is there any other reason for the choice?
To be honest at that time there wasn't much of a choice, whether I use Lego or not. Back then I didn't knew anything about electronics or even had my hands on a soldering iron. But you're right, I also like this playful appearance as the good thing about Lego is that probably everybody has once been playing with it. So people are less restrained to such kind of a machine and they approach in a much more direct, almost childlike, way. These machines just look like something simple that every child could built but when you look at the details they reveal some nice complexity.
Now how about the eye-tracking technology? It seems quite sophisticated compared to the Lego blocks. Was it a technology you were familiar with? Did you have to tweak it to make it fit your purpose?
To be honest, I wasn't familiar with it at all and there wasn't much time to change that as there were only about five weeks to build the robot. So when I was developing it I was just assuming that there should be very likely a way to retrieve a text-file containing x- and y-coordinates which then could be interpreted by my machine. And when we were finally building up the exhibition we were lucky to have some help from a programmer who took care of most of the eye-tracking part.
I just saw images of one of your most recent installations Captured - A Homage to Light and Air and it does look like it was a spectacular work. Could you explain us what the work was about? Did MADE give you carte blanche or did the installation respond to a precise brief they gave you? How did you come to work with inflatable bags made from space blankets? Why did you chose a material that seems to be quite unusual (to me)?
It's a project I realised together with my brother Sven who's a graphic designer. We both decided to come up with something based on these immaterial things like light and air; basically things you can't capture. During almost three months of work we've created a huge installation which covered almost the whole room. Sven designed four large graphic walls reflecting the four different aspects of the intangible idea framing my installation which consists out of 252 inflatable cushions made from these space blankets. And finally both parts were interacting in a twelve minute performance synchronized to sound and light.
One thing I've definitively learned about space blankets is that they aren't made to be heat-sealed at all. It took ages to make enough bags that didn't instantly pop when inflated. But this foil is simply great because it sizzles so much louder than any other foil I know. And in the end the noise inside the room was just incredible. And finally its silver side does perfectly reflect the coloured light coming from the ceiling which was a connecting element for Sven's and my work.
MADE, the place where all this happened, is surely the most extraordinary workspace I've ever been working at. It's situated in the ninth floor right at the Alexanderplatz overlooking the city and in addition to that it's equipped with this pretty sophisticated light system consisting out of 225 lamps and you can let glow any single one in any colour you can imagine.
The ambition of the team running the space is to bring people together who are working in rather different creative fields to end up with something completely new. This time it was my Brother and me combining graphic design and physical computing. And although we have been discussing all of our ideas with the MADE team, in the end we could basically do whatever we wanted to, which is quite extraordinary.
Your "About" page says that you're working on an installation using actuators coming from cars wing mirrors. Could you already reveal us something about it?
I'm always in search for ready made components that could be recombined into something new. A while ago I could get my hands on a few of these wonderful little mirror-motors. I was still experimenting with them, when all of a sudden the "Captured" project began an I just restarted working with them lately. So I'm not yet totally sure where it will end up but very likely I'll use them combined with larger mirrors to create moving and constantly reshaping light reflections on the opposite wall.
What should a robot smell like? Kevin Grennan has augmented three existing industrial robots with 'sweat glands'. Each uses a specific property of human sub-conscious behaviour in response to a chemical stimulus: one makes humans about to undergo surgery more trustful, another one makes women working in production line more focused and the third one is a bomb disposal robot that emits the smell of fear.
The contrast between the physical anti-anthropomorphic nature of the machines and the olfactory anthropomorphism highlights the absurd nature of the trickery at play in all anthropomorphism.
The 3 robots exist only as concept and graphic design works but Grennan also worked on robot parts that are decidedly too anthropomorphic for our human taste. At the show he is showing the prototype of a robot armpit, all hair and fleshy colour.
The Smell of Control: Fear, Focus, Trust also involved demonstrating the limits of anthropomorphism. The video of the android's birthday shows a lovely android attempting to recreate the most straightforward moment of a birthday celebration: blowing the candles of the birthday cake. Alas! the poor android has no lung and no matter how hard it tries it'll never disturb the flame and the candles will completely consume.
Quick Q&A with the designer:
You told me on Thursday that making anthropomorphic robots is probably not the best approach to robotics. Can you explain me why? What is wrong with anthropomorphic machines? Would it not be easier to relate to them?
Much current research into robotics is focused on the creation of anthropomorphic robots - machines that look and appear to behave like humans. Although there are valid reasons for this research (and a good deal of egotism), I believe that this approach is fundamentally flawed. As Sherry Turkle put it in her latest book Alone Together these machine are 'pushing our Darwinian buttons ... and asking us to love them'. Their ability to target our innate desire to nurture makes us exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation. Fundamentally our relationships with these machines will be based on falsehoods and ignorance. This is especially worrying if we also believe that these machines are to become more prevalent in our lives and more sophisticated over time.
The drawings of the robots are both charming (the graphics are very elegant, there are touches of pink) and repulsive. Why did you chose to add these flaccid shapes, creepy hair and bits of skin to the otherwise very industrial-looking robots?
The designers of android robots we see being developed today have concentrated on humanising them with very broad and obvious qualities; fleshy skin, bright eyes and teeth, with clothing covering everything else. I am interested it how the more complex and private parts of the human body would be translated onto the robot. These are the parts that we ourselves sometimes find disgusting but yet are integral to our humanity. I like to beguile the viewer from a distance drawing them in to the imagery to appreciate the detail only to disgust them as they draw closer. Conceptually I mirror this approach too, whereas initially the ideas I present seem innocent and functional, as the viewer learns more an underlying darkness becomes apparent.
Some of your robots emit smells and sweat. Is this something robot engineers are exploring right now in their labs? Why didn't you just design a perfume for robots? What is the purpose of the sweat and the smells exactly?
I was initially inspired by an idea from the 17th century French inventor De Villayer. He developed a clock that would release a different spice each hour. So if you woke up in the middle of the night and the smell of cloves was hanging in the air you could say that it was 3am. I was inspired by this mechanical communication to investigate whether robots could use smell to communicate in more sophisticated ways.
While there has been some research into chemical communication between robots and also into developing a robotic sense of smell, there is very little inquiry into the use of smell or chemicals in human-robot interaction. Jofish Kaye, currently a researcher at Nokia investigated the area in relation to human-computer interaction as part of his PhD at Cornell.
It was important to me that the odours and chemicals came from within the robots and that they were an integrated means for them to communicate with the humans who would surround them. Each robot that I have augmented with a 'sweat gland' emits a particular chemical that has a specific effect on humans and the chemical has been chosen to further enable the robot's primary function.
In the case of the bomb disposal robot the 'sweat gland' releases the smell of human fear. It has been proven that humans can identify this specific smell and it tends to enhance cognitive performance in. I propose that this robot would enable surrounding humans to work more effectively and to differentiate dangerous situations from false alarms.
In the case of the picker robot. It releases a chemical called androstadienone, which is found in male sweat. This has be shown in research to effect mood in females under certain circumstances. I have speculated that this robot when used on a production line could enhance the performance of female employees in it's vicinity.
The third robot is a surgery robot. It releases a mist of oxytocin, a chemical found in the human brain. This chemical when inhaled nasally has been shown to cause people to become more trusting. I speculated that a patient could meet this robot before surgery and the chemical mist would cause the patient to trust in its abilities to a greater degree.
While from a functional perspective these 'sweating' robots might be able to perform their tasks and interact with humans more efficiently I hope that the dark thought of robots taking subconscious control of humans will cause viewers to reflect on how we really want to interact with these machines in the future.
I'll come back with more projects in the coming days but if you're curious or can't make it to London before July 3, check out the website of their show where all the projects are documented.
Back to the DMY International Design Festival Berlin which kicked off on Wednesday evening in Berlin and closed on Sunday. Starting with the absolute star of the festival: Tempelhof Airport. I'll never get tired of saying how much i loved this airport. The architectural masterpiece retired from its function of iconic pre-World-War-II airport three years ago and has since been hosting a number of fairs and cultural events.
Planes used to land and park here:
Now it's currywurst paradise:
Couple of inside views.
Isn't this a beauty?
Once inside, the first designers that visitors noticed were Dirk vander Kooij and his yellow robot, both busy making a model of the 'Endless' chair. The machine is a reengineered old Fanuc robot that draws and shapes furniture, layer after layer, out of one endlessly long plastic string.
Marre Moerel was showing a collection of ceramic tableware and lamps cast directly from pig intestines, sheep brains, cow hearts, bull testicles. I had the feeling i'd seen that sort of gutsy objects before but the pieces were nevertheless elegantly crafted.
There was some curious action going on in the RCA corner but by the time i arrived there, my brained was completely knocked out by the lamp galore, the vaguely quirky armchairs and the furniture made from recycled materials that should have been left in peace. My attention nevertheless got caught by:
2. A Sausage Machine that extrudes fake meat into sausage casings and functions as a tool to create a new world made out of meat.
Inspiration for Alexey Petrov and Alexandra Goloborodko's Baba Valja is the traditional Russian felt boot. Like the boots, the lamps is made by hand from natural sheep's wool.
Mark Braun collaborated with Austrian company J. & L. Lobmeyr on the installation FORTUNE, 21 glass carafes engraved in traditional techniques by Lobmeyr with the outlines of existing lakes, rivers and glaciers.
That's it for today, i'll get back to you with a story or two about DMY's MakerLab workshops which were by far the most interesting part of the festival.