Posted by on Sep 11, 2013 in Article | 0 comments


In 1964, Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe produced Robot K-456, an anthropomorphic, remote control construction made up of electronic elements and various objects. Precarious in appearance, the robot suggests a human body both in its rudimentary structure (which includes arms, legs, a head, breasts and a sandpaper penis which was subsequently removed) and in its ability to mimic human bodily functions, including the defecation of dry beans. Paik conceived this character with a sense of humour and clearly intended to demystify the figure of the robot as it appeared in novels and science fiction films. While robots were part of the collective imagination, they remained merely fictional, totally unrelated to the routine of everyday life. The artist uses this circumstance to provoke a chance encounter with a robot in the street as an artistic act. Paik, in fact, classifies K-456 as the “first non-human action artist” and in an interview with Douglas Davis says:


“I thought of it mostly as a happening tool. I thought it should meet people in the street and give one second of surprise. Like a quick shower. I wanted it to kick you and then go on. It was a street-music piece.” [1]



The robot is thus a tool to create the element of surprise in the audience and explore the way technology can contribute to further developing established artistic practices such as happenings and experimental music. Paik consciously plays with the fascination caused by a creature that imitates human beings and seems to have a life of its own, not as a technological marvel, but rather as an oddball, clumsy and inappropriate, that offers pre-recorded speeches and executes mechanical actions, attracting the attention of passers-by. Years later, as part of a Nam June Paik retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the artist took K-456 for a walk on the streets of New York, this time to be hit by a car, in a planned action symbolising the consequences of the loss of control over technology.


Control, feedback, autonomy

In 1997, the artist Eduardo Kac published an article entitled “The Origin and Development of Robotic Art”, which establishes three key directions in the development of this hybrid discipline, based on three pioneering works [2]. Paik’s robot embodies the first of these directions, since it presents itself as an artificial remote-controlled creature, in which a meeting between machine and human being is established (or forced). Paik’s work also suggests the fragility and the difficulty the robot has in adapting to the real world, something that is still true today and is partly why we do not have robot butlers in our homes. Robots have been developed over decades in the controlled environment of factories and laboratories, limited to specific tasks, but are not yet ready to move into the human world. As Hans Moravec argues, however much robots are called to become “worthy successors” to the human race [3], so far they have not succeeded in developing much beyond the fragile character devised by Paik.


Alongside K-456, Eduardo Kac highlights two other works as milestones in the relationship between art and robotics as it crystallised in the 1960s. Squat (1966), by Tom Shannon, consisted of a metal frame equipped with movable parts and motors, connected to a living plant. The plant acted as a sensor, activating the motors in the robotic part, which extended and retracted its limbs whenever a person touched the plant. Thus, the artificial creature apparently established a relationship with a living organism, reacting to touch as an animal or a person would. The relationship between organic and inorganic things posed by Squat thus established a second cardinal direction for robotic art, argues Kac. The third direction was marked by the autonomous behaviour of The Senster (1969-1970) by Edward Inhatowicz. Made to order for the company Philips, this “cybernetic sculpture”, as defined by its creator, was able to respond to its audience’s voices and movements thanks to a radar and a computer that processed data from its surroundings and controlled the robot’s behaviour. Unlike the limited reactions of Shannon’s piece, The Senster acted in a more complex way, attracted by constant movements and sounds but withdrawing when faced by brusque gestures and loud noises. Looking a little like a large mammal or a prototype for a lunar surface exploration device, the robotic creature seemed to make its own decisions as it responded incessantly to the calculations made by the machine that controlled it.



So it is that Paik, Shannon and Ihnatowicz established three directions for the development of robotic art. Two years after the publication of the article by Kac came the International VIDA Art and Artificial Life Competition, which since its early years has included a variety of robotic artwork. Two projects related to robotics took 1st and 2nd prize in the first edition, VIDA 2.0 (1999), and many others have followed in the long history of the competition. Therefore, we will now to take a brief look at current developments in these three key directions proposed by Kac through some of the works that have participated in the different editions of the VIDA Awards.


Remote Control

While the K-456 Robot sought out a chance meeting with the public, other robots go out onto the street with a much more precise, but no less striking, purpose. Beggar Robot (2006) by Saso Sedlacek (Honourable Mention in VIDA 11.0) is a robot built from refurbished computers and cheap spare parts, whose function is to beg from passers-by. Taking the place of human beggars, whose presence is considered undesirable in many cities, the “…richer part of society shows more sympathy towards the marginalized groups if they communicate from a safe distance and via technological interface” [4]. The beggar robot thus becomes an indicator of the contradictions in our society and exemplifies the way in which we prefer to interact with a machine rather than a person. At the opposite end of this same situation, Pamphleteer (2001) is a robot developed by the collective called the Institute for Applied Autonomy (Honourable Mention in VIDA 3.0) for the distribution of cultural resistance leaflets in the street. The robot in this case replaces a human who could be assaulted or arrested for distributing pamphlets, and consumes the resources of the activist organisation. Both the beggar robot and the pamphleteer robot are thus perfect substitutes for humans in those actions which involve some form of remote control and force us to reflect on the nature of the task. In Sobra la Falta (which roughly translates as “Too Much Need”) (2008) by Tarcisio Lucas, Emiliano Causa and Matas Romero, a task which is considered low-level is once again carried out by robots. The rubbish thrown on the ground by the public is picked up by a robot which repositions the waste to generate drawings. Next, a second robot erases the drawing by collecting the rubbish and storing it in a corner. With this work, the artists illustrate consumption, waste and recycling cycles in our society and the way the capacity for consumption marks the difference between social groups. In all these works, a meeting and a relationship of control is set up between the robot and the public, which reaches an extreme level in Knife.Hand.Chop.Bot (2000) by Emanuel Andel (Honourable Mention in VIDA 11.0). The robot in this case is not a humble garbage collector, beggar or distributor, but rather a machine equipped with a knife which plays the “knife game” with the spectator’s hand. A computer controls the movement of the knife, determining the position of the hand using a camera, but as the viewer gets nervous and starts to sweat, this interferes in the calculation process and increases the possibility of the machine making a mistake. The relationship between human and machine thus becomes a game of control (and self-control) with unpredictable results.



Cybernetic entities

While Squat considered a possible symbiosis between an organic lifestyle and a robotic creature, other projects have applied the relationship between organic and inorganic elements to environmental issues and a questioning of nature itself. Nomadic Plants (2008) by Gilberto Esparza (2nd Prize at VIDA 13.0) is an autonomous robotic ecosystem capable of cleaning-up and rehabilitating contaminated environments. The machine feeds itself on heavy metals and chemicals collected in the place where it is located, and simultaneously purifies the water, thus establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural environment (provided it was already contaminated). Like all robots, it performs a task in place of a human, but it also manages to itself become a part of the ecosystem. Similarly, Greenbots (2007) by Alex Posada (Incentive for Ibero-American production at VIDA 10.0) proposes populating natural areas with small autonomous robots which collect data on environmental pollution and share them through an online database. Integrated in their surroundings, the robots allude both to the invasion of nature by means of industrial production and to the possibility of “fixing” the environment using the same technology that has contaminated it. Another form of union between a living being and a robotic device was developed by Garnet Hertz in Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot (2006), Honourable Mention at VIDA 9.0. As its title suggests, the project consists of a robot controlled by a cockroach, which determines its movements by scurrying around on a ball. The insect thus becomes a cyborg and raises the question about who ultimately exercises control, whether it is the cockroach or the complex technological system to which it is subjected. At a more complex level, organic/inorganic symbiosis can also be created by connecting living tissue to a machine. Silent Barrage (2000) by Guy Ben-Ary, Philip Gamblen, Peter Gee, Nathan Scott, Brett Murray and Steve Potter (First Prize at VIDA 12.0), employs a network of neurons from rat embryos grown in a petri dish to process information received by an assembly of robotic parts that detect the presence of the public. In this case, both the process that is carried out and the relationship between the machine, living tissue and the public is more subtle, and therefore requires a more in-depth understanding.


Autonomous behaviour

Max Dean and Raffaello d'Andrea, The Table: Childhood (1984-2001). Robotic table. Source: Fundación Telefónica

Max Dean and Raffaello d’Andrea, The Table: Childhood (1984-2001). Robotic table. Source: Fundación Telefónica

Silent Barrage actually shares certain similarities with The Senster, although the piece by Inhatowicz processes stimuli from its environment by means of a computer and establishes a more direct relationship with the public. Other projects have further developed the possibilities of autonomous behaviour, as we have seen, for example, with Knife.Hand.Chop.Bot and Nomadic Plants. These works are joined by others in which the robot takes on a personality of its own. The Table: Childhood (1984-2001), by Max Dean and Raffaello D’Andrea (Honourable Mention at VIDA 4.0), is a robotic table that selects a spectator and establishes a relationship with them, following them around the room and ignoring the other visitors. The object acquires a life of its own and exchanges roles with the spectator, who becomes bewildered by the behaviour of a supposedly inert object. Louis-Phillipe Demers achieves a similar effect in The Tiller Girls (2000), Honourable Mention at VIDA 12.0. A dozen autonomous robots made from a simple structure that allows them to move their torso and shoulders have been endowed with Artificial Intelligence programs that allow them to perform a wide variety of actions and also to synchronise with each other. Demers explores the possibility of integrating the choreography of robots in performing arts following the idea that there is no difference between a robot and a person carrying out a series of predetermined movements. While the projects above pose the sinister aspect of robots (according to Freud), this uncomfortable sensation is also felt in a somewhat unusual way when we interact with Naked on Pluto (2011) by Marloes de Valk, Aymeric Mansoux and Dave Griffiths (1st Prize at VIDA 13.2). An online game set in a fictional world that the player imagines from text descriptions is populated by fifty-seven artificial intelligence robots that interact with the visitor. The aim of the game is to escape the system, which is tightly controlled by the robots, who focus on getting information from the player and misleading them with false messages based on the information they have received and stored. The human-machine relationship is once again disturbing, in particular to the extent that the environment offers very few options to the player faced by the overwhelming power of the machine in processing data.


The three directions proposed by Eduardo Kac find in these examples a continuity that allows a better understanding of the development of robotic art, but which also reveals that the relationship between art and robotics has now reached much more complex levels. The obvious differences between works such as Naked on Pluto, Silent Barrage, and Beggar Robot, to name just three examples, illustrate the difficulty in defining what a robot is, beyond its clear role as a substitute and, in a way, a slave. Another analysis explores the differences between projects that use robots created by artists and those that make creative use of commercial products (such as Dog[lab]01 by France Cadet and Nabaz’mob by Antoine Schmitt). Finally, beyond the robot itself we could examine the “robotisation” of the human being when performing insignificant or repetitive tasks, which is the focus of works like The Sheep Market by Aaron Koblin, Descriptive Camera by Matt Richardson or 75 Watt by Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen. Ultimately, the directions of robotic art converge on the same point: the relationship between machines and living things.



[1] Excerpt from an interview with Nam June Paik by Douglas Davis.

[2] Eduardo Kac. Telepresencia y bioarte. Interconexión en red de humanos, robots y conejos. (Telepresence and bio art. Networking by humans, robots and rabbits.) Murcia: Cendeac, 2010, 227-250.

[3] Hans Moravec, “The Universal Robot”, in Timothy Druckrey (ed.) Ars Electronica. Facing the Future. Cambridge-London: MIT Press, 1999, 116.

[4] Saso Sedlacek, “Beggar 2.0”.