ENVISIONING OUR MACHINE FUTURE:
ROBOTIC SCULPTURE BY WOMEN ARTISTS
by Laura McGough
From the mid-1970's through the early 1980's, artist Steina Vasulka
created a series of videotapes and installations she dubbed "machine
vision". Using motorized devices, Vasulka rotated video cameras in front
of varying optical tools including mirrors, video monitors and even
other video cameras. Central to Vasulka's project was the notion of the
machine as a "performing system." Motors, mirrors, monitors and video
signals functioned as an interconnected network which produced a complex
electronic environment. "Allvision" (1976) consisted of two "live"
closed-circuit cameras mounted on a large mechanical structure which
rotated them around a spherical mirror. What the machine "saw" as the
cameras circled the mirror was displayed on two video monitors within
the gallery. The gallery view that "Allvision" produced on the flat
two-dimensional screen of the monitors differed radically from what the
human eye encountered in the same space. Prying open the space between
human and machine, Vasulka's work pointed to the possibility of other
visual languages and experiences that were not wholly organic.
"Allvision" was recently exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern
Art as part of "Machine Media," a retrospective of work by both Steina
and Woody Vasulka. Revisiting Vasulka's early machine investigations
seems particularly timely as a new generation of women artists venture
into the small, but growing field of robotic sculpture. These artists
are building performing systems that move beyond Vasulka's pure machine
constructs to engage the human form. Using a host of new technologies,
including customized software, they are creating sculptural forms that
simulate human movement, biological processes, emotions and experiences.
Robotic sculpture is still a somewhat murky territory. Because mechinic
forms can achieve semi-independent movement, the area encompasses
performance as well installation. Internationally, the field is
dominated by San Francisco-based artist Mark Pauline, founder and
director of Survival Research Laboratories (SRL). Since 1978, SRL has
launched numerous large-scale, outdoor robotic performances world-wide.
Using an array of machinery – including teleoperated military weaponry,
large-remote controlled vehicles and "reanimated" animal carcasses –
SRL stages war-like spectacles in which machines engage in combat to the
death. The result is a highly chaotic, orgy of violence and destruction
as machines spew fire and even launch rockets. Human operators direct
machine action, but there is a high degree of uncertainty to the events
as machines break down, or don't perform as anticipated. Human
spectators are understandably curtained off, watching the pryo-theatrics
from a safe distance.
An SRL mission statement refers to these robotic performances as
"socio-political satire." At first blush, viewing a SRL performance does
seem a bit like experiencing a "smart" war gone awry. This is our
dystopic machine future – beyond human control, irrational, violent and
destructive. But there also appears to be a bit of an Erector Set
mentality operating here; a technophilia that fetishizes the intricacy
and power of the machinery.
Something quite different seems to be at play in the robotic art
produced by the four women artists surveyed below. Machines and humans
interact in a variety of ways that are not always threatening,
destructive or irrational. These artists respond to the complexity of
human/machine relationships by creating lively machines that fuse humor,
whimsy and a strong sense of playfulness with personal, political, and
aesthetic concerns. By installing their projects within the walls of the
gallery, the artists also allow viewers a more intimate, and often
interactive, experience than SRL's outdoor performances can provide. The
result is an exploration of the space between human and machine that is
thoughtful without being menacing.
Canadian artist Laura Kikauka has a created a body of interactive
electronic installations that are marked by both a quirky vision and
technological wizardry. In "Them Fucking Robots" (TFR) created with
Norman White, Kikauka abandons the element of interactivity in an
attempt to simulate the complex human emotions of attraction, desire and
sex in machines. TFR consists of two separate robots, one male, one
female, with individual power sources. Mechanical devices allow the
robots to sense each other, read each others emotions and ultimately
make love. Constructed from a multitude of scrap parts (wood, metal,
wires, tubing) and approximating human scale, technically the robots are
quite impressive. They simulate human movement with incredible accuracy
as legs bend, arms wave and bodies gyrate in an awkward mating dance.
When the robots finally meet and lock, fluid frantically pumps through
tubing, sparks of electricity flows from their conjoined parts, and a
tongue-like appendage in the male robot wiggles wildly in delight. Like
Pauline's robotic theater, TFR reduces viewers to role of spectator, but
the effect of this performance is decidedly different as Kikauka and
White swap an orgy of machine destruction for an orgy of machine
pleasure. TFR offers a "make love not war" alternative to Survival
Research Laboratories dystopic vision of a machine future.
"Mapping E-Motion," an installation by Australian media artist Sarah
Waterson, also uses mechanical devices to investigate human biological
process and sexual impulse. Specifically, Waterson is interested in
mapping the effects of pheromones on biological attraction. Pheromones
are olfactory chemicals released by an organism which serve as signals
to other organisms of the same species. Since machines do not possess a
sense of smell, Waterson mimics the process of pheromone attraction via
a network of magnets, circuits and radio signals. Nine casts of latex
breasts with magnets embedded in each individual nipple are mounted on
separate plexiglass plates suspended from the ceiling. As viewers enter
the gallery, a radio frequency (RF) modulator picks-up their movements
and triggers circuits that affect the magnetic field surrounding each
nipple. A separate circuit attached to a speaker mounted within each
latex form emits sound pulses also based on viewer's movements. The
nipples respond to all this activity by erecting, pulsating and purring
in pleasure. With tongue-in-cheek playfulness, "Mapping E-Motion" gives
a whole new meaning to the action of turning-on a machine.
Upon entering the installation, viewers are unaware that their body
movements will provide the latex forms with pheromonal signals.
However, as they progress through the space it becomes clear that not
only human movement, but also certain types of movement directly affect
both the action of the nipples and the sounds they emit. If, for
example, movement is slowed down the nipples stop moving entirely.
Sound, on the other hand, is determined by the proximity of the viewer.
As one draws closer to the breasts the sound pulse becomes both faster
There seems to be a clever bit of bait and switch operating in "Mapping
E-Motion." Within nature, the organism secreting pheromones controls or
alters the behavior of the organism on the receiving end of the signal.
In "Mapping E-Motion," however, the behavior of the viewers is altered
as well. The mechanical system operating in "Mapping E-Motion" somewhat
coyly demands that viewers behave in specific ways in order to
"interact" with the breasts.
Machines have traditionally acted as prosthetic devices, extensions of
ourselves, which allow humans to make-up for a variety of physical
short-comings. Boston-based artist Jennifer Hall's work takes this
notion in a new direction by using technology to break down the barrier
between the human psyche and physical exterior. "Out of Body Theater,"
Hall's series of eloquent robotic performances, provides a space where
she is able to externalize and communicate the intangible sensations she
experiences during epileptic seizures.
"Out of Body Theater" incorporates a computer-controlled marionette
whose resemblance to a medical skeleton belies the intricate technical
process (which Hall refers to as environmental tracking) that allows it
to closely mimic human movement. Real human motion "data" which provides
the marionette with fluid movement is recorded, digitized and
transferred to MIDI commands stored within a computer. The marionette's
movement is then directed in one of two ways. The upper torso's movement
is radio-controlled, which allows for the more delicate motions of the
arms and fingers. The lower torso movement is operated from wires
connected to individual pulleys, bailers and motors which provide the
marionette with a feeling of gesture and the ability to achieve aerial
positions such as flight. This dual-process creates movement that is
both fluid and strikingly human.
In "Out of Body Theater," the marionette interacts with
computer-controlled animations, video projections, shadow puppets, and
human performers in a fully scripted performance which recounts the
story of a woman's personal journey through Grand Mal Seizure. This
combination of technologies creates a theatrical piece that is visually
poetic and haunting as the marionette takes flight through color, light
By fusing technology with individual experience, Hall is forging a
private and personal role for technology that is missing from
contemporary discussions: machines as sources for self-exploration,
reflection and identity. The marionette serves as a doppleganger for
Hall that allows her to make sense of intensely intimate experiences
while at the same time opening a dialogue with audience members about
Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. The result is not only a highly personal
artwork, but as one that also reaches beyond itself to communicate to
Viewing machines as extensions of ourselves also has political
implications that operate both outside of and within the personal realm.
Canadian media artist Nancy Patterson has a long history of producing
installations informed by both feminism and humor which investigate the
relationship between women and technology. In her work-in-progress,
"Stock Market Skirt" (SMS), Patterson sinks her teeth into the realms of
capitalism, technology and fashion by manipulating a domestic object
commonly associated with women, the dressmaker mannequin or "judy".
In SMS, a woman's dress displayed on a wire-mesh dressmaker's form is
controlled by an intricate system of hardware and software. Cables woven
into the fabric of the skirt are connected to motors which are driven by
a computer software program. The software program analyzes the rise and
fall of the stock market by calculating the current value of a commodity
(gold) and comparing that number with the previous value. A command is
then issued by the program to a simple controller which emits a series
of pulses to the motor, the sequences of which determines the direction
of the motor rotation – if the hemline of the dress will rise or fall.
SMS plays-off the common lore that the length of women's hemlines is
determined by the rise and fall of the stock market. Slave to both
fashion and the economy, SMS is caught in a never-ending cycle of
narcissism, continually adjusting its skirt length to keep-up with
current trends. The humorous action of the skirt rising and falling as
the computer crunches numbers, also foregrounds a range of vital
concerns: how technological and economic forces combine to determine the
fate of female bodies in subtle ways; the lack of control women are able
to exert over technology; the speed with which information can be
gathered, analyzed and affect humans within the global market economy.
"Stock Market Skirt" reveals not only how women have traditionally been
excluded from discussions of technology, but also how oblivious they are
to its effects. Artists like Laura Kikuaka, Sarah Waterson, Jennifer
Hall and Nancy Patterson are actively rewriting this script as they lead
the way into an emerging field, experiment with new technology and
create imaginative artwork with strong theoretical underpinnings.
Unfortunately, within the United States there are few venues which
exhibit robotic art and even fewer that offer support for the research
and development that is crucial to the field. Countries such as
Australia, New Zealand, and Germany have taken the lead in this area
funding exhibitions, conferences, and artistic R&D. Pockets of support
do exit in North America at places like the The Exploratorium in San
Francisco, Do While Studios in Boston and Banff Centre for The Arts in
Canada which offer artists residencies and access to new technologies.
Hopefully, exhibition opportunities will continue to increase as
galleries and museum recognize that robotic art offers a powerful and
imaginative resource where artists and viewers alike can envision,
manipulate and even influence our machine future.
[This article first appeared in Sculpture, a publication of the
International Sculpture Center.]