What is it like to be a robot? the ramblings of a mad artist.

Narrator: Is there a special feeling that you have towards people once you’re inside that outfit – you start taking on a feeling of a robot.
Cheryl Sparks: You do kinda, yeah
The Making of Silent Running, 1979
Donna Haraway: The machine is not an it to be animated worshipped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment
Cyborg Manifesto, 1991

 

 

I am very aware of my breathing inside the head, It interferes with the muffled vibrations I receive as sounds contact the outer shell. I only have one visual sensor. This monocular vision is projected directly onto my retina via a low resolution digital camera. Unable to cope with anything but the slowest movement, the image jumps and blurs. A single plastic pincer enters my visual field and attempts to pick up a pencil. I control it, but it feels as if someone else does. Depth perception is not good and several attempts are needed before the pencil is slowly and deliberately held and rotated into position. I begin to write my name. The pencil slips.

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When Donna Haraway said “the machine is us” she wasn’t being quite as literal as I am here. However, in response to her and many other writers who have noted that we (humans) are creatures intimately bound up with technology, I have decided to spend a day in a robot costume. I have a spherical polystyrene head sporting a single lens eye (video camera) and a movement activated flashing blue light. My single arm is fashioned from a tumble dryer outlet hose, hemispherical lamp fitting and litter picking pincer. My casing is a large cardboard box, I move on casters. Like many robots before me, my experience is highly constrained.

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The word ‘robot’, first used by Karel Capek in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots meant ‘slave’. These organic machines (they weren’t made from metal) only broke from their servitude after undergoing some sort of epileptic fit. Later (I Robot, 1950) Asimov’s robots had laws imprinted in their positronic brains, telling them what they could and could not do.

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My own limitations are caused by the material of my manufacture and the poor interface between my mechanical and organic parts. Also I can’t wear my glasses inside the head casing. In fact, I suppose I am not a robot at all but a cyborg.

 

John Connor: No, you can’t. I can do anything I want. I’m a human being, not some god-damn robot.
T-850: (correcting him) Cybernetic organism.
John Connor: Whatever!
Terminator 2, 1991

 

There is obviously a bit of free-will snobbery going on here. John Connor seems to be subscribing to a sort of sliding scale: God-human-cyborg-robot-washing machine. At one end of the spectrum one can do whatever one likes. The other end washes clothes.

All robots in films are really cyborgs in that they are people pretending to be robots, dressed up as robots, operating puppets, programming cgi, or scripting robot actions. But then if “the machine is us”, machines are humans and humans are machines. Then it follows that cyborgs are robots and humans are robots and robots are humans. There is a lot of time for circular thinking in my spherical head.

Some of the people that might know better than most what it is like to be a robot are:

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Mark Persons – Drone 1 (Dewey), Cheryl Sparks and Steven Brown – Drone 2 (Huey), Larry Whisenhunt – Drone 3 (Louie)

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Anthony Daniels – C3PO, Kenny Baker/Don Bies – R2D2

When interviewed, all of these actors talk about about their robot experience in terms of the way in which their interactions with the world, and each other, are reconfigured by the physical limitations of their robot bodies. The Drones of Silent Running (1971) were forced to develop communication techniques based on physical touch (tapping and nudging). These actions were subsequently included in the film. The droids of Star Wars (1977) didn’t even bother:

C3PO: We were both in our droids; there was no interconnection at all. We couldn’t hear or see each other.

 

C3PO/Daniels talks about the Christ-like suffering of the robot in the Tunisian desert. Like the other cyborg actors he concentrates on feelings of isolation, truncated sensory information and of being transformed into a technical object.

C3PO/Daniels: You can imagine what it felt, and sounded like, for me. It was just like being inside a Rubik’s cube with people on the outside arguing over the instructions.

 

I feel similarly isolated in my machine and more than a little sweaty. Admittedly the camera in my robot head could be better quality, then the sense of separation might not seem as great. Perhaps my myopic eyes are the problem and I need to take the leap Stellarc-like and replace them directly with electronic sensors wired into my brain. But I am not sure that higher technology would solve this problem of isolation entirely. My limited experience of even virtual reality is that I do not feel part of the environment presented to me but isolated from it.

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The third edition of Cinemagic (1979) gives detailed instructions on how to build and behave like a robot. It includes a suggestion that malfunctioning is an excellent way to convince humans of your robotic nature and suggests spending time talking with cigarette machines, vacuum cleaners etc. This illustration shows the interior of a robot’s head.

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Note the script taped at eye level, a sort of primitive programming for the neophyte robot. There is a suggestion here that if one sticks to the script, one will be a robot but that any deviation could lead to being recognised as a rather sad individual wearing a colander on one’s head. Of course we humans have scripts too, anyone who has had conversations with ppi call centre operatives will know this.

Returning to Asimov’s I Robot (1950) the reader is never really given a clue as to what it is like to be a robot. Their positronic brains are so complex that no one knows how they work. So robot psychologists are brought in to tease out the problems that Asimov’s robots have. Nearly always their breakdowns are caused by conflicts between the laws of robotics, environmental change and interaction with humans. Basically they find that the script doesn’t hold all the answers. Sometimes the robopsychologists employ talking cures, at other times physical lab rat tests are used and mind games.

This robot costume feels like a bit of a mind game, it’s all about being inside yourself and being uncertain about the outside world. What it makes me realise is how much our identity is formed by: our physical limitations, our ability to interact with our environment and how much I rely on my glasses.

The machine is us

 

Paramorphism

Breakdown=, 2016

Paramorphism is the property of changing from one mineral species to another by a change in internal structure and physical characteristics but not in chemical composition. This idea of structural rearrangement might be useful in understanding anthropomorphism. Rather than seeing anthropomorphism as a purely ascriptive process it can be understood as part of the constant restructuring of connections between humans and machines. Breakdown= employs an open flow between human and machine actionMany of the machines use motion sensors to respond to the movement during filming. These seemingly aleatory actions of flow and change give a highly mechanised process an organic, human, emotional feel.

Ob_ject & O_bserve

Ob_ject & Ob_serve
Small View Gallery, Gostins Arcade, Liverpool

Is the first exhibition of work of a group of artists who are, at least nominally, members of the Object Liberation Front. The OLF was born out of a number of clandestine meetings in and around FACTLAB Liverpool. As Such it is an emerging organisation of artists technologists and theorists interested in the non anthropocentric life of machines. Beyond that our views and approaches are quite different. So, here, I speak only for myself.

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Machine 14, 2016, Lamp, electronics, ear wax remover, tables.
Machine 14 shamelessly deploys a number of anthropomorphic devices. The foetal shape of the earwax remover with its steady, but faint, heartbeat is ‘watched’ by the tenderly curving lamp. Humans easily understand these patterns produced by the anthropomorphic screen as they have been repeatedly deployed throughout our childhoods. There are all to obvious echoes here of Pixar animations, brave toasters and feisty cars called Herbie.

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Visitors to the opening of the exhibition undoubtably gathered round the stricken object in response to its anthropomorphic call but also, perhaps, for other reasons. In the context of the show Machine 14 lay on two sub-domestically scaled tables. To the left were works by Thiago Hersan and Radames Anja. Mobile phones with robotic prostheses were ‘intelligently’ trying to take selfies. One wiggled, danced and shivered in front of a mirror as it sought to recognise itself and post the resulting image online. In the circle surrounding Machine 14 the question came: “what does it do?”

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Machine 14 barely does anything. A broken circuit board periodically allows a tiny pulse of electricity to enter the Ear wax remover. This causes a barely audible ticking, the occasional almost imperceptible twitch and a tiny intake of air. In the crowded private view only the twitch was caught by observers. It isn’t quite a machine freed from production but its apparent breakdown drew concern and interest from the audience which was distinct from its anthropomorphic call.

In another part of the gallery, near Machine 12 was a small piece of text.

The Deus ex Machina was a theatrical apparatus first used by Aeschlus and Euripides. Although it has become a literary device it originally had an entirely mechanical form. It usually took the shape of a crane (mecane) or other mechanical device used to bring a god onto stage. Deployed to dig the story out of a plot hole, it made a conscious break in the narrative and, In order to create a god, a sort of theatrical cyborg was enacted. This cyborg both creates and breaks illusion, it lays bare the mechanics of the play. To use Barad’s theory of Agential Realism the Deus Ex Machina is an apparatus that reveals a phenomenon of human machine intra-action. It is a sort of machine-human-god becoming.

Machine 15 does parapoetics

AS we are about to discuss parapoetics in our Reading and Thinging group at FACT, I decided to make an experimental machine in order to experience its language (I probably shouldn’t use that word). It is an inelegant thing put together while its various elements were powered up. This included (apart from myself) three competing (co-operating?) motors and a series of easily tangled arms and wires. The process meant that the machine itself had an amount of influence over its final makeup.

Working with the machine, it has a proximity sensor which reacts to my presence I realised that although I detect its language through my senses (primarily sight, sound, touch and even smell) it expresses via movement.

List of the signs of mechanical function and breakdown during my interaction with Machine 15

Movement
Vibration
Judder
Seize
Jam
Cessation
play
Free spinning
Friction
Creak
Squeal
Grinding noise
High pitch whining
Clunking
Burning components
Metal – over powered motor

Machine 14

Machine 14 teeters on the brink. Under the light it twitches very slightly with each inhalation of air. The air is drawn in by a simple pulsing fan mechanism which is in turn activated by a small board of electronics attached to a phone charger. The electronic board is damaged and no longer functions as it once did. Now it can only emit a small charge of electricity at more or less regular intervals. For me the scene is medical, recalling memories of a baby in an incubator. The ‘baby’ is an earwax remover.

 

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Machine 13

This week, the graphics card on my laptop failed, it is now unusable except as a generator of anxiety inducing patterns. My car does not start, a situation which I cannot but take in the personal way. In addition to this there is a small leak in the roof of my house causing water to sluice down one of the walls. One of my hard drives has failed and, until I have a working computer I cannot tell if I have lost much work. Annabel fainted in a shop and I have a tight pain in my chest.

Machine 12

This machine is, I suppose, machinic as it is made through the interaction of smaller machines which interrupt each other’s flow. It was made while trying to learn Cat’s Cradle for a new reading and thinging group at FACTlab. As my arthritic thumbs were shouting at me, I toyed with the idea of coming up with a sort of cat’s cradle machine. But this was a far too complicated process.

Still, even this simple machine seems to show aspects of the emergent behaviour suggested by Marvin Minsky’s concept of the mind as a community of competing agents.

Artists and the Literature Review

I have to place my work in the context of contemporary practice. This seems to mean, choose some artists and show how their work covers similar ground but also how mine is significantly different. Rather than do precisely this, I want to choose specific moments where my experience of the work of other artists intersect with this research. An apparatus built up of personal experience, academic research and particular works of art. To this end I have chosen to look in detail at Tinguely’s ICA performance and presentation of the Metamatics in 1956; the moment Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy, 1990 didn’t work at Tate Modern and Roman Signer holding a rocket in Nicht Loslassen, 1983, mixed with the memory of Challenger’s first flight in 1983 and its last in 1986. In addition to these case studies there are a number of related contemporary phenomena that need mention.

Mika Rottenberg’s Dough 2006, I secretly recorded a video of this on a trip to Berlin in the same year. Rottenberg’s camera travels in a seemingly endless repetitive loop around a bizarrely constructed machine in which the bodies of women are an integral part. At first sight they seems to be workers in a factory, an idea that is backed up by their workwear and slavish attention to the dough. However, they are more than this. the spaces they inhabit appear to be built around their bodies, their sweat is collected and becomes part of the process.

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Felix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled (March 5th) #2, 1991, stumbled across in Liverpool this year while avoiding Shia LaBeouf’s appearance at FACT. LaBeouf part of the monstrous “Transformers” engine was part of a work called #Follow. Fans were queuing to see him interact online. Several large bodyguards ensured that they did nothing but look and take selfies. Like the robots that can become cars or buildings or fighter planes the LaBeouf was continuing his transformation between actor and artist. Torres’ piece is far quieter. Though untitled the piece is dated to match the death of his lover. We are invited to see the bulbs as representative of the life of a couple and accept that one will cease to shine before the other. While looking at the work I wonder if anyone has ever been lucky enough to witness the moment of breakdown.

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Francis Alys
The Collector, 1991-2006
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The machine is made up of the magnetised object, the walker and the camera person, who also provides light at night – Its collection includes metal detritus but also the sights and sounds of the journey through the city. I saw this years ago and remembered it wrongly, thinking Alys was driving a magnetised remote control car.

VW Beetle, Wolfsburg Germany, 2003
Alys pushes a VW Beetle through the streets of Wolfsburg in a slow film which evokes Christ’s journey to Golgotha. It is raining and he has to stop periodically to adjust the steering. The car-human is perhaps the most ubiquitous cyborg in the contemporary world and there is an interesting tension between the Alys-Beetle and the more modern human-cars which patiently maneouver around him.  He is a pitiful cyborg in his halting journey.

VW

Karl Heinz Jeron, Sim Gishel,  a story told to me by Sam Skinner when I first mentioned the subject of my research.

Sim Gishel is a busking robot which performs in various venues, on the street and has entered competitions usually reserved for humans. His rendition of Mad World is both funny and moving as is his awkward dancing which is no less original than say Ian Curtis. The story told to me by Sam involves Sim’s appearance at RichMix, London, 2014. During the set it began to sway so enthusiastically that it fell to the ground and lay twitching on the floor still singing. Although already highly anthropomorphic in character this moment of machinic breakdown seemed to add to the audience’s attachment to it.

ismgishel

Marvin Minsky’s, Ultimate Machine, 1952 – Also called the Useless Machine. Many versions of this machine can be found on YouTube. It is a machine whose sole function is to turn itself off. While it does not breakdown, its function is to cease functioning an act which frustrates the machine human relationship.

Ken Goldberg – A Robot in the Garden blended with Silent Running – Telepresence.

2 jetlagged days in San Francisco with Alan Currall’s, Word Processing, 1995 – forced anthropomorphism and hallucinations

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Demers, Shawcross and Stellarc – big things possibly to be avoided.

 

Two new machines and a tale from the office.

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Some weeks ago I made a very simple machine and placed it in FACT’s kitchen. Made from a small box of Pringles (tasty), a push-to-make button, motor and battery, it merely shakes when the button is depressed. At least this is the experience on the outside. A few people did enjoy the highly tactile experience of activating the machine and after time it was taken to a safer home on the desk of the office reception. When I returned a week or so later I was told another story. Radames, one of the artists in charge of FACTlab had been called to the office and asked to repair the machine as it had ceased to function. He described to me the surgical care with which he cut the tape and fixed its wiring. What the users had not realised (although really this is true of all machines) was that with each push of the button this machine twisted its insides tighter and tighter until it tore its wiring apart in a process that blurs function and breakdown.

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This pair are made from a charity shop suitcase, a clockwork Fisher Price television, dansette legs, chopsticks and dowel. The robot dances in front of the case while it plays a melancholic tune. Mechanical melancholia is created through breakdown. This is an idea which again returns to Adorno sitting in the dark listening to his record player wind down, perhaps there is something inherently melancholic in the act of slow return and repeat and the loosening of the clockwork spring. Originally the Fisher Price Television scrolled fairy tale images from left to right while a music box played a well known nursery rhyme. I decided to take it apart and put it back together, a process common in my childhood by which many toys were modified or more likely broken. This time, perhaps in a more knowing way than in my boyhood, I reassembled the ‘television’ with its scroll inside out so that the viewer only sees slowly moving blank paper, a sort of static equivalent. Also, in the process of experimenting with the music box, I loosened and snapped some of the teeth of the metal comb that plays the tune. Now, because of the gaps and dissonance in the tune, a feeling of loss and uncertainty is created. The original nursery rhyme is completely disappeared, in its place a sort of fugue.

The dancer is made from the card cut from the suitcase, some stepped motors and chopsticks taken from my train-journey-dinner. The dancer has a sort of sad insouciance a product of slowly turning legs bowing under the weight of its fading batteries. It dances only when I watch, the phenomenon is born from the apparatus (me-machines) which find moments of connection between the halting music and its movements.