Robopix

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Michael Snow with the machine used for filming La Région Centrale

In 1971, Michael Snow spent five days atop a lonely mountain in North Quebec. He was making a film, or supervising a film that was being made by his robotic companion, depending on how you think about it. The film that robot made is called La Région Centrale: over the course of three hours, the machine runs through all its programmed motions, capturing every possible view of the barren mountain. Certainly, at least some of the images would have been overlooked by a human filmmaker.

Despite its lack of human warmth, Snow's film retains a mystical slant: the film is somehow purer for being supposedly unpolluted by the artist's direct physical control over the camera, and the machine bears witness to a primal landscape with nearly cosmic objectivity. The saintliness of La Région Centrale was possible not only because it played off of the machine's lack of learned perception (the machine couldn't find beauty in a landscape or respectably frame a shot), but also because the machine couldn't process the landscape as information.

Snow's sketch of the machine

Timo Arnall's short film Robot Readable World investigates the exact opposite: how robot-eyes gather information from the cityscapes, mediascapes, and people. On display in the video are the brightly colored squares, rectangles, circles, and lines that recognize cars, faces, doors and everything else that robots see. In our contemporary security-obsessed climate, robots and computer vision are tasked with growing responsibilities to survey urban and rural environments. Instead of following Matt Jones' suggestion that "instead of designing computers and robots that relate to what we can see, we meet them half-way–covering our environment with markers, codes and RFIDs, making a robot-readable world,” these machines read a world without man-made markers permitting robo-legibility....

 

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A Visit to the Survival Research Laboratories Workshop

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Over the summer, I met with Mark Pauline, director and founder of the legendary Survival Research Laboratories, who gave me a tour of his studio workshop in Petaluma, CA. Since its inception in 1978, SRL has quite literally blazed new territory in the field of performance, robotic engineering and sculpture, producing dangerous, overpowering live shows with custom robots built by Mark and his team. The performances provoke both a fear of and fascination with the power of technology, as well as the potential loss of human control over machines. Extremely affable and intelligent, with a no bullshit air about him, Mark’s technical knowledge was astounding. I’ve been following SRL’s work for years, so actually meeting Mark and seeing the robots up close was a real treat.

 

Survival Research Laboratories is currently operated out of three large garages in Petaluma, an idyllic, historic town about an hour north of San Francisco. Mark moved to the new location in 2007, lugging 180 tons of equipment with him, when the landlord of his old warehouse in San Francisco decided to hike up the rent after decades of affordability. The Petaluma spot seems perfectly suited to SRL’s activities, it even has a parking lot large enough to accommodate test runs of gigantic, menacing robots, and laidback neighbors who never complain about the noise. 

The first garage I got a peek at is the laboratory, where the robots are made. 

 

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