Our Robot Artists Are Malfunctioning
Image: Matt Baran/Flickr

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Our Robot Artists Are Malfunctioning

The time is night to artfully use robots to explore a robot-filled world. So where are they?
October 24, 2014, 2:30pm

Few forces are shaping our society and politics as powerfully as robotics—we're living in an age of self-driving cars, drone warriors, and automated assembly bots—so why haven't we seen a rise of robotic art that encapsulates and critiques these trends?

While reactionary fear of technology we don't understand is far from productive, I've recently observed art projects thoughtlessly embracing new robotic technologies as tools rather than considering them as a conceptual medium, fraught with controversy and ripe for discussion.

This is not new. The history of political art is rich but comparatively small; when consumer culture was booming, Warhol threw it back in our faces by the canfull of Campbell's soup. When Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei saw the oppressive nature of censorship in China, he responded by defiantly flipping off major political landmarks and documenting corruption.

Ever since the 60s, artists have been adopting a wider array of mediums and venues for their work, putting them increasingly in dialogue with a larger public. The tools and venues they've adopted have become directly involved in political debate in a way paint never did. Robots are a prime example right now.

As the controversy about the efficacy and morality of robots rages on, we're seeing artworks like KATSU's graffiti drone, BNJMN, Sonic Development's "Rising Colorspace," and many more relying on robotics for purely aesthetic or shock value. This is disappointing—and a missed opportunity for the arts to contribute to this conversation, which historically they have.

The word 'robot' came from the arts and was first used in 1920 in Rossum's Universal Robots, a play by Karel Čapek. It derives from the Czech word for slave. The idea quickly gained prominence with films like Metropolis in 1927 and, later, The Day The Earth Stood Still in 1951. These mechanical automatons were seen as dangerous foreigners to our world. They emerged out of the dark fears of quickly industrializing nations; as societies began for the first time ever to rely on machines more than humans for survival.

As is so often true with science fiction, the future was stranger and more mundane than expected. Machines can beat us in chess and jeopardy, make cars, write poetry, vacuum our rugs, and help fight our wars. Robots are pervasive yet few of us even think about or realize when we are using artificial intelligence these days, or even know what that really means. Thus the need for artists to confront robotics is doubly important.

For instance, a recent study from the Center for Civic Media at MIT found that 62.5 percent of users were unaware or uncertain that Facebook algorithmically alters their news feeds. As hardware is combined with software, robots are going to undergo a rapid change in the coming years. Awareness of how these algorithms and machines affect much of our world will be increasingly important as they play a larger role in society.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with artwork ignoring these questions, of course; art has always relied heavily on aesthetics. There is no rule that art must concern itself with the social issues of the day. I was personally exhilarated to watch KATSU's drone. And "Rising Colorspace" is an incredibly beautiful installation. However, unlike paint and marble, the technologies these artists are using exist almost entirely outside of the relatively innocuous art world. The machinery and programs they use, although by no means innately evil, have deep social implications that many recent work resolutely sidesteps.

It is no surprise to me that KATSU's drone was featured in the inaugural Silicon Valley Contemporary Art Fair, right near many industry giants responsible for making real drones for warfare and huge profits. While I'm not against hobbyist UAVs, as Ingrid Burrington and Joanne McNeil report, UAVs all possess very serious privacy and security implications, and are an important part of a much larger industry profiting from killing and surveillance. Ignoring these implications is most beneficial to those profiting in that industry.

There is a wealth of robotics which merits a real debate, one which artists can add to. Drones have been hotly debated in the press. Drones have been ridiculed for the sweeping surveillance, inaccurate targeting, the fear they inspire, and even their tendency to crash. However, few artists step up to the conversation.

Google recently revealed the world's first fully automated and steering wheel-less robotic car allowed to drive on public roads. Will these cars make the roads safer or more dangerous? What privacy concerns arise when our cars become live-mapping machines, photographing and analyzing everything we pass? Who is liable when there is a car accident? We need critics from all fields looking passed the car's incredibly cutesy design and asking these important questions.

Cutesy companion robots from ASIMO to Paro, sought to provides the elderly and physically handicapped a cheaper option for personal care. What are the ethics of giving the elderly robots instead of human care? What precisely is the difference? While long the topic of science fiction novels, where are the artists in this debate?

Luckily, there are artists who are beginning to interrogate our relationship with robots. Eleven Play has made incredibly beautiful performances using projection mapping, iPads, stunning visuals, and even drones. As I wrote for Hyperallergic, their performance with three drones is both beautiful and haunting; capturing our society's excitement and visceral fear around their use. This is exactly what great art can and must do for robotics.

Alexander McQueen's performance for dress No. 13, is one of the most viscerally raw and powerful performances and fashion statements I've ever witnessed in regard to the mechanization and robotization of our world. The performance consists of two industrial robotic arms which seemingly attack a model with paint. Shalom Harlow—the model in the work—tells the Met in regard to the performance by the robotic arms, "an agenda became solidified somehow. And my relationship with them shifted at that moment because I started to lose control over my own experience, and they were taking over." The unsettling feeling of losing control over the machines is palpable in McQueen's piece from 1999. I imagine the Uber protesters all over the world can deeply relate.

Addie Wagenknecht's "Optimization of Parenting, Part 2," (2012) follows Silicon Valley's obsession with disruptive technologies to a terrifyingly logical conclusion by outsourcing parenting to a cold robot. Sterling Crispin beautifully explores our complex psychological relationship to robots in, "Charon" (2013). These works contain the complexities of our relationships with robotics, the horror, and the potential beauty.

These works all ask us just how effective these robots are, what is lost in translation, and what happens when machines mediate our world? These are such important questions that we all need to be asking ourselves, precisely because there are no clear answers. Anyone telling you otherwise has an agenda. While politically these complex instruments can be deeply divisive, exploring them through art offers a level of reflection, wonder, and criticality vital to this ongoing discussion.