Transmission in Motion


[Recap] TiM Seminar 2022-23 “Robotic Imaginaries” – Acting Like a Robot Research Project


by Jingzhe Zhang

Basic Information of the Session

Title: Robotic Imaginaries

Date: 23 November, 2022

Location: De Brakke Grond, Amsterdam (Nes 45, 1012 KD)

Format of the session: the official part of the session lasts two hours and consists of four presentations. Q&A are left to accompany drinks afterwards.

Content of the Session

Irene Alcubilla Troughton’s Presentation

The theme of Troughton’s presentation is imaginaries from robotic art. She uses a variety of robotic artworks to demonstrate design ideas different from the dominant approach of robotic design: making the robot as human-like as possible. Four design ideas are explored:

  1. Embodied feedback loop. It means that the robotic design could incorporate the corporeal presence of human. For example, Alexitimia made by Paula Gaetano Adi is a yellow rubber-like blob that “sweats” when someone caresses its surface.
  2. Robots can be designed as a somewhat alien system that furnishes an unfamiliar way of communication, or only partial access and thus cannot be fully controlled. For example, in the installation Accomplice made by Petra Gemeinboeck, robots are programmed to be curious in nature and love punching holes in the wall in order to survey the surroundings. For the audience on the other side of the wall, these robots are mysterious and noisy. In order to make sense of the robots, the audience can either listen to the pattern of wall-punching or peek into openings on the wall which further triggers the robots’ curiosity.
  3. Ecological meaning making. In the dominant approach of robot design, developers try to make robots talk and behave like humans. But robotic art has shown that meaning making does not have to solely depend on an individual robotic unit, but rather can emerge from the context and social relations. For example, in Fish-Bird by Mari Velonaki two robots in the form of wheelchairs communicate with each other and the audience through movement and written text. The choice of wheelchair as the look and how the robots react to movements of each other and the audience are important dramaturgical elements that contribute to the emerging of meaning.
  4. All the aforementioned robotic artworks are designed from the materiality of the object and their particular possibilities for movement and embodied connection beyond the mimicking of human behavior.

Xu Ruowen’s Presentation

Xu’s presentation is titled “How to Unbecome a Robot.” Similar to Troughton she also explores alternative approaches of robotic design. Traditional robots are meant to be smooth, predictable servo-machines. However, robots can also be designed to be otherwise. They can be chaotic, ugly, inappropriate, abnormal, dysfunctional, vulnerable… Specifically, Xu talks about three ways of creating agency via computational indeterminacy:

  1. Generating non-normative body schema such as noise and unintelligible gestures.
  2. Generating behaviors of retreating, making mistakes, or improvisation via algorithmic design.
  3. Limiting data-scale to make involved computations more “regressive”.

A Japanese robotic artwork is brought up to illustrate this approach of robotic design. Alter 3 is made by Japanese scientists Ikegami Takeshi and Ishiguro Hiroshi. In Alter 3, a robot switches between “awake mode” where it imitates human movements and “dream mode” where it stops imitating and starts to recall and organize past memories and improvise based on them.

Marijke Hessels’ Presentation

Hessels presents the project Re-wired NAO which explores the spectrum between a fully pre-programmed robot and a physically manipulated puppet. In this project a NAO robot is taken apart, the copper wires originally inside the robot are re-attached to different parts of the body in order to function like the pulling-strings in puppetry. In their experiment, they discovered that the materiality of the robot has certain agency – it limits movement but also sometimes moves in ways that surprise the manipulators. In order for multiple manipulators to collaboratively control the robot, a material language needs to be developed. The team is inspired by a Japanese puppetry technique called Bunraku. In Bunraku, a puppet is controlled by three puppeteers collectively. Their collaboration is not enabled by rehearsal but is based on hierarchical improvisation as the main puppeteer controls the head and the right hand, and the other two puppeteers read the movements of the head and manipulate the rest of the puppet’s body accordingly.

Ugo Dehaes’ Presentation

Dehaes is a dancer-turned robotic artist. His presentation showcases his past artworks which are also displayed in a performance later that evening. Dehaes started by making simple robots that are pre-programmed to move in a certain way and experimenting with the looks of robots by putting skin and hair over the machine. He then designed more complicated robots that are capable of interacting with human spectators. For example, in Mirror and Finger, the human audience can teach movement sequences to one robot and the other robot will learn the most popular movement sequences and make its own choreography based on them. His works also explore staging in robotic design. For example, in Stalactite Mob, a robot is covered with soft fur and reacts to petting.