Art of Robotics as a Cognitive Process | kulturpunkt

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Art of Robotics as a Cognitive Process

Device_art 5.015 presented a wide range of reflections on robotics, cybernetics and computer science in general in the context of art.

by: Bojan Krištofić

Louis-Philippe Demers i Bill Vorn, Inferno / PHOTO: Miran Kramar

Recently on Facebook I came across a very long-winded discussion between two of my acquaintances, both mathematicians and computer programmers. If I am not mistaken, it was triggered by the Australian government's decision to include basic code writing and an introduction to program languages in elementary schools' upper classes' curriculum, as obligatory subject matter. This, in itself, is not surprising – even laymen like me admit that we all need such knowledge more and more each day, since the entire world industry is informatically structured and connected to such a degree that grasping the principles of how computer technology works directly influences our position in the labour market. But also, mastering that knowledge can in certain contexts be a weapon of political emancipation.

However, the discussion in hand went in a somewhat different direction. My acquaintances sparred about some basic postulates of contemporary education. Although they are both scientists – engineers – one of them places great value on intuition in the research process and makes no major difference between scientific and artistic ways of thinking; he considers himself primarily an independent creator, who also engages in visual expression. He thus believes that highly educated holders of master’s degrees in art, dedicated to the creation of new and fundamental values, those that do not necessarily have market value, are not a drain on the labour market and the (social) state – they are in fact a dire necessity.

The other acquaintance, who has libertarian tendencies concerning the politics of education, holds that there are too many MA’s in art, and that they should more closely collaborate with the so-called entrepreneur sector, creating measurable (by numbers) market value in their field. Whoever we choose to side with, the fact remains that in late modernism (or postmodernism) in the context of labour division both science and art are categories of the quaternary sector, and are, as such, directed towards each other. That is, both should create fundamental values, because the search for the unknown is immanent to them, and both are pointless without it. While art, ideally, poses the essential questions, science finds the crucial answers. Of course, the clusters of principles they exist by largely overlap.

In local terms, there is no more appropriate argument for the sisterly relationship of art and science (after all, ancient Greek muses never divided them) than the persistent work of the curatorial collective [KONTEJNER] and their three continual and internationally renowned festivals, among which Device_art is the most obvious illustration of the previous statement. The triennial event Device_art (alternating with Extravagant bodies and Touch Me! Festival) is dedicated to the art of robotics, gadgets and devices, which means that the performances and exhibited artefacts appear in an artistic, museum-gallery context, but at the same time have a certain utilitarian purpose and produce sensory and cognitive sensations. The project's particular importance lies in the fact that it affirms, year after year, the natural tonality of the thinking phenomenon, which can only seemingly be divided into categories of empirical and rational, intuitive and critical, etc. 

Just as the role of art before Romanticism's l'art pour l'art was to fulfil a clearly structured social role, so are artists even today forced to discover anew art's emancipatory potential outside the abstract and slightly opaque priority of individual self-realization. Although at first glance this means that artists should adjust to the requirements of contemporary society, not to mention the market that greatly defines it, the point is exactly the opposite. Artists should anticipate progressive social change and subversive thought, which Device_art manages thanks to sophisticated technology, not in spite of it. Having in mind the ever-growing global popularity of the non-institutional and civil "makers culture" (exemplified in Croatia by the work of NGOs such as Radiona.org and FabLab.HR, which were strongly influenced by [KONTEJNER]'s programs) that actually represents a welcome guerrilla renewal of technical education that used to be more systematic, it is clear that we are witnessing a process of further democratization of technology.

In the rest of this text I will focus on the festival's central exhibition in the underground space of Klovićevi dvori Gallery and its surrounding area. [KONTEJNER]'s curatorial team Ena Hodžić, Olga Majcen Linn and Tereza Teklić cooperated this time with Canadian and Slovenian NGOs Eastern Bloc (curator Eliane Ellbogen), Video Pool (curator Melentie Pandilovski), PRAKSA (curator Sandra Sajovic) and Galerija Kapelica (Kapelica Gallery), Ljubljana's cult institution which, thanks to the agility of its art director Jurij Krpan and his team, anticipated the entire scene around [KONTEJNER] back in the 1990s. Iva Sudec was the curator of the fifth Device_art for the Klovićevi dvori Gallery.

In addition to the exhibition, a number of lectures, performances (by artists Myriam Bleau, Natalija Petkova, Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn from Canada, and the Paradise Now collective from Belgium) and workshops was held next to the Klovićevi dvori Gallery, under temporary domes at the Gradec Plateau, resurrecting this sightseeing spot and occasional open-air cinema as a public space in the best possible way. Not that large in scope, but rich in content, the exhibition offered interested visitors more than enough stimuli for the senses and intellect, and its collection was "marked by emotional robots and sweet distortions“ and "inspired by the Canadian new media scene, distinguished (...) for its sound sculptures, performances and interactive installations, as well as attractive design“. However, not all the artists' pieces were dedicated to sound manipulation. We could say that what they all had in common was, primarily, the mastering of technology as a cognitive process in which the medium, that is – the tool, really is the message.

For instance, the young Croatian artist Predrag Pavić took part in the exhibition with his piece The Study of Movement ("Studija pokreta", previously presented at his solo exhibition in Ateliers Žitnjak and in competition for the T-HT award@MSU.hr 2015), a complex installation that materializes the author's feat of constructing a primitive slide projector. Made out of plywood, wood, an electric motor, lenses, a bike chain and other parts and materials, the installation is the result of a need to connect a series of slides and make it as long as a movie, which is seemingly absurd since the photographs show the artist rocking on a rocking horse in a children's park. However, absurdity is an extremely important part of this piece and Pavić's work in general. Almost like Camus's Sisyphus, Pavić's hard and long work on the installation is liberating because it is free of any rational purpose, which is usually and for no reason linked to the use of technology.

Pavić's goal is not only to project the film, but to master the technological principles of the medium on his own in a completely analogue way, and thus in a wholly plastic and palpable sense take the matter into his own hands. For him, making the installation is an ontological game of identifying with the machine, which truly becomes the "device“, i.e. man's extension. Very similar pieces, though perhaps a bit more aesthetically refined, were the three devices presented by the Canadian Andrew Milne, all together simply named Apparatus. Their purpose is to create the illusion of movement by series of slides as well, while their parts, which look like models of alien spaceships, have more pronounced kinetic features than Pavić's raw, but fascinating machine. The similarity lies in the fact that viewers are not so much impressed by the projected content (it also shows human figures in movement), but by the construction of Milne's apparatus, which is miles away from the sterile and overdesigned “black boxes”: the usual commercial devices with the same function. The unbridled DIY spirit of these machines awakens our long supressed excitement at encountering something completely new, like we are visiting the Technical Museum which has suddenly come to life and become a research station.

However, next to such optimistic enthusiasm for the possibilities offered by even the most primitive tools when used in a conceptually contemporary way, there was a touch of darkness to be found in the work of some artists. For instance, in the spectacular performance Inferno directed by Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers – which took place twice, on September 26 and 27 – the audience had a unique opportunity to don robotic exoskeletons designed by the artists themselves (both have engineering experience and are interested in the digital fusion of light, sound and movement (control)). Surrendering themselves to the guidance of sound-sensitive robots, the audience participated in a collective cybernetic-choreographic performance which on a metaphorical level told the archetypal story of Heaven and Hell, while literally offering quite an unusual bodily experience.

Even though the robotic control of movement aroused pleasant feelings in the audience, not disturbing ones (the artists almost shrink from this, stating in the interview published in the Device_art segment in Zarez magazine no. 417 that they wouldn't mind if the performance hurt a little bit), it is still manipulation. The question is: is such manipulation justified as long it is pleasant (to somebody)? Of course, the artists don't want to give any final answers, but they encourage us to ponder all the implications of the robotics phenomenon, which inevitably includes ethics.

It would therefore be appropriate to point out another piece, the extravagant aquarium Aurelia 1+Hz / Proto viva generator by the Slovenian artist Robertina Šebjanič, in which she placed several small jellyfish. Infinitely interesting all by themselves, the jellyfish were chosen for the piece because they are the basis of genetic material that has not changed in millions of years, which the artist used as a symbol of yearning for immortality (Richard Dawkins, who has always with iconoclastic joy pointed out the longevity of gene sequences as opposed to that of human, plant and animal bodies that temporarily house them, would probably like her concept). The point is embodied in a silicon fibre similar to the human heart, which “breathes” in the other aquarium, following the rhythm of sensations the jellyfish transmit by swimming.

Thinking of this alluring machine, I remembered the film Bicentennial Man, directed by Chris Columbus and based on a story by the great Isaac Asimov. In a futuristic society, the late Robin Williams plays an android whose goal is to become human, both biologically and socially, which for him means being able to die – being mortal. The jellyfish throw such a shadow on the observer, asking us whether we too are robots commanded by genes whose only goal is to survive, regardless of us. We should therefore be not in the least surprised that  humanity has always aspired to expand, overstepping its physical boundaries, as the Device_art exhibition shows us in a considerable number of intriguing variations.

Art that poses such questions is that truly fundamental phenomenon which we evoked at the beginning of this text, undoubtedly subversive at its core. Offering a truly wide range of reflections on robotics, cybernetics and computer science in general in an art context, [KONTEJNER] once again organised a must-see event. At the end of September, along with the unfortunately last edition of Gričevanje festival and Space festival in the Lotršćak Tower, and as part of the newly founded In Upper Town ("Na Gornjem gradu"), Device_art managed to infuse that space with completely new, definitely positive and needed vibrations. 

There is also the ongoing site-specific art project Light in Places ("Mjestimice svjetlo"). One of its participants is Tereza Teklić, part of [KONTEJNER]'s curatorial team, who is gradually changing the image of Zagreb's old city core with her collaborator Katarina Zlatec and others. If that means that the Upper town is becoming a museum of a progressive kind, alive and lively, we must wish it many more [KONTEJNER]s.

Translated from Croatian by Lana Pukanić. 

Objavio/la vatroslav [at] kulturpunkt.hr 28.10.2015