Robots as social actors: audience perception of agency, emotion and intentionality in robotic performers

This paper looks at the different ways audiences perceive and respond to anthropomorphic and bio-mimetic qualities in robotic characters, specifically their perceptions of agency, emotion and intentionality. The author argues that it is audience perception rather than the innate qualities of the robot that determines successful robot-audience interactions.


Analyzing Robotic Performance

This paper analyzes robots as performative entities that create themselves in the moment of their performance and also looks at how audiences perceive and interpret those performances through observation and interaction. Interactions between humans and robots take place in a variety of different contexts. Some of these contexts are explicitly performative or theatrical, including Honda’s ASIMO conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Hiroshi Ishiguro’s female android Geminoid-F acting in the Japanese play Sayonara and Louis-Philippe Demers’s robotic performers in Australian Dance Theatre’s (ADT) Devolution. These performances are all tightly scripted and rehearsed. Other human-robot interactions take place in more open environments, such as art galleries and museums where audiences can interact with robots in unscripted interactive encounters. Nevertheless, I would argue that there is a theatrical performative element to all public displays of robots. All robots are in essence performers: they are designed to act and interact in the world and are programmed (scripted) to perform in particular ways.

How then can we best analyze the performances of robots across both theatrical and non-theatrical environments? Moreover, how do audiences respond to these robotic performances? While there are a growing number of studies analyzing robots as performers, particularly from the domain of performance studies, [1] [2] [3] [4] it is the work of sociologist Erving Goffman that proves to be particularly useful in analyzing robotic performances and interactions with humans across both theatrical and non-theatrical contexts, such as art galleries and museums.

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman views all human social interaction as a type of acting. We don’t have to be on a literal theatrical stage to act, we are all actors who craft and perform different versions of ourselves in our everyday lives depending on which social situations we are in and who we are interacting with. Goffman uses the metaphor of the theater to describe how we move between back stage and front stage arenas using various techniques of “impression management” such as selecting different modes of dress, speech and behavior to perform these different presentations of self to our different audiences. [5]

Using Goffman’s theatrical framework, we can analyze the physical appearance and behavior of the robot along with its staging and theatrical mise-en-scène to see how these all play a part in framing the robotic performance and how it is perceived and interpreted by audiences. The back stage preparation of the robot’s appearance and behavior includes its design, fabrication and assembly, as well as more conventional types of costuming and dressing up. How the robot is then presented to an audience, whether this is in a theater, gallery, museum or trade show, also contributes to the overall impression the robot will make.

We can break down these aspects as follows:

  • Appearance (robot morphology, for example machinic, biomorphic, zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, and costuming)
  • Behavior (the robot’s movement and actions including its interaction with its environment and with other actors)
  • Context (this includes the environment within which the performance takes place and aspects of theatrical mise-en-scène such as setting, props and lighting)

Goffman’s description of back stage and front stage arenas and the team efforts frequently involved in these everyday presentations of self marries itself very well to the production context of robotic performance, which typically includes the artist as well as literal teams of technologists, assistants and handlers who work behind the scenes in the presentation of the robotic artwork. In this team effort, the agency of the performance may be distributed in a variety of different ways between the members of the team and the robot itself. The robot may perform completely autonomously and have its own emergent agency and behaviors (albeit programmed by the artist/technical team) or it may be controlled in more direct ways through automated performance scripts or teleoperation.

Some Case Studies

Wade Marynowsky, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie Robot (2008)

There is something of a camp aesthetics evident in Wade Marynowsky’s cross-dressing robot Boris in The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie Robot. Although Boris playfully references human attributes in his voice, clothing and behavior, he is still clearly a robot, he is not trying to pass as human. The robot is dressed in an old-fashioned Victorian black dress trimmed with lace but his glass-domed head with its camera eye clearly proclaims his identity as a robot — a robot playing dress-ups. As gallery visitors enter the space Boris whirls in circles and engages them in conversation. Marynowsky’s robot is reminiscent of the robot in Lost in Space, the Daleks in Doctor Who and Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, but its historical lineage also includes the famous chess playing Turk, an automaton built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the late 18th century. Von Kempelen’s automaton astounded its audiences with its uncanny chess playing ability until it was revealed that the Turk’s prowess was in fact attributable to unseen human operators hiding in the stand that housed its mechanism. Marynowsky’s robot is controlled by similar sleight of hand — in this case it is an unseen human operator (the artist) who remotely observes the actions of gallery participants and direct Boris’ movements and speech via the Internet.

The mise-en-scène of the performance — the lace-trimmed black dress and the old-fashioned gramophone horns lining the gallery walls — combined with the robot’s uncanny whirling when visitors enter his space evokes the feeling of a Victorian séance; especially combined with the spirit possession inherent in his channeling of his master’s voice through the Internet.

Simon Penny - Petit Mal (1989-2006)

There is nothing human-like in the appearance of Simon Penny’s Petit Mal. The robot is completely machinic in appearance. It sits on two bicycle wheels joined by an axis with an upright pole supporting three ultrasonic sensors and three pyroelectric (bodyheat) sensors in the front and a fourth ultrasonic at the back. However, although not ostensibly anthropomorphic or zoomorphic in appearance, the constellation of sensors nevertheless acts as a sort of ‘head.’ A colorful vinyl print covers some of the metal tubing which acts as a counterpoint to the utilitarian machinic appearance of the robot and gives it a more playful and frivolous appearance.

The robot moves around the gallery performance space generally avoiding walls but sometimes lightly glancing off them. It rocks back and forwards on its base as it pursues and reacts to people in its performance environment. It will approach audience members who are directly in front of it up to a distance of about 60cm and try to maintain this front-facing position and distance as its audience interactor moves. If the person comes closer than around 60cm, Petit Mal will retreat. However, the robot’s behavior can become confused if there are multiple people in the performance area or if it gets cornered. The appearance and gently erratic movement and behavior of the robot contribute to its playful demeanor. The robot’s name derives from a neurological term that describes a momentary loss of control or consciousness. The naming of the robot provides its behavior with a psychological frame. Is this robot out of control? Is it psychologically disturbed?

Petit Mal has appeared in many gallery performance environments, sometimes in an open gallery space and sometimes in specially constructed enclosures. The robot (when it was exhibited at Transmediale 2006 in Berlin) performs in a rectangular arena enclosed on all sides by hip-high white walls. This performance area is reminiscent of a zoo enclosure with the audience standing behind the wall to watch the actions of this strange creature. The robot is contained in this space with no other objects or props but audience members are able to enter the space to interact with the robot.

Audience perception of robotic performers

We can conduct a rigorous semiotic analysis of a robot’s appearance and behavior and the staging of its presentation as I have done above but this is only part of the equation. The key question remains: how do humans understand and interpret the performance of robots?

In his analysis of the everyday presentation of self, Goffman also places particular emphasis on the role of the audience in receiving and judging the performance. A successful performance is one where the audience views the actor as he or she wants to be viewed. We all test and judge each other’s performances. If robots successfully perform the behavioral signifiers of animacy, agency, emotion and intelligence, audiences will respond to those cues. However, the intention of the performer and the intended meaning of the performance is not necessarily what will be received by the audience. Both human and robotic performers are subject to performance mistakes and unintended behaviors. These gestures and behaviors (for example, the jerky movement of a robot or responses that are too fast or too slow) even if they are not an intentional part of the performance will be interpreted as meaningful by the audience and become part of the performance effect.

As Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass [6] have shown, human responses to computers and virtual characters are informed by deeply ingrained physiological and behavioral tendencies and habits. These instinctive physiological responses (such as reacting to facial expressions, body language and movement) and social responses (such as a tendency to be polite) are carried over from the physical world into our interaction with robots.

When robots display machinic, bio-mimetic or anthropomorphic characteristics, these performative signifiers (sign-systems) are measured against the audience’s own experience of other similar entities (human, animal, insect, machine, art) that they are familiar with. The robot’s movement and behavior are just as important, perhaps even more important, as its physical appearance in this regard. What the robot does, how it does it, and how it responds to its environment and other entities including audience members are key factors in how it is perceived.

Behaviors that look too controlled and automated can appear machinic and unexpressive. Unpredictable behaviors by the robot in response to its environment and to other objects/people in that environment give an appearance of agency, personality and even emotion. Hesitations, frailties and inconsistencies make the robot appear more like a living organism than a programmed machine. The active interpretive role of the audience is a key factor here. It is the audience's projection of their own meanings onto the performance that generates much of the expressiveness of the robotic performance. This, after all, is how audiences read and respond to the performances of human actors. We interpret each other's performances including perceived intentions and emotions through reference to our own experience and emotions.

In this scenario, whether the robotic performer is intelligent and has emotions or not is not the key issue, it is whether we can tell the difference or not. Human perception and emotional and cognitive responses are more important than epistemological ontologies when it comes to robotic performance. The successful performance of the robot, judged from the audience’s point of view, is determined by what the audience can directly perceive in the robot’s appearance and behavior rather than by the intrinsic qualities and abilities of the robot (for example, whether the robot is ‘truly’ aware, intelligent and socially responsive).

As Sherry Turkle comments in her book Alone Together, “Computers 'understand' as little as ever about human experience […] They do, however, perform understanding better than ever.” [7] Robots may not be truly alive, but according to Turkle, they are becoming “alive enough” for humans to have relationships with.

The intrinsic qualities of the robot including the sophistication of its manufacture, its sensing systems and Artificial Intelligence (AI) programming are only relevant to the audience to the extent that they impact on the robot’s observable behavior and performance. These factors may be highly relevant to scientific robotic research and robotic development but in terms of audience response, careful staging, programming and even trickery may be just as important factors in achieving an effective performance for the audience. Robotic performances may be completely autonomous or assisted by human operators. From the audience’s point of view, it may be difficult to tell the difference. Creative staging and showmanship along with elements of deception and trickery have a long history in machine performance, as in Von Kempelen’s chess-playing automaton. Wade Marynowsky’s Boris has automated sequences and is also teleoperated by the artist and other guest operators, making the robot appear to be much more intelligent and aware of its audience. This hi-tech puppetry and remote operation of robotic performers is also the case with Hiroshi Ishiguro’s teleoperated Geminoid robots, which are controlled by the humans operating them rather than acting as autonomous performers. In this process, agency and social intelligence is transferred and delegated from the artist/operator to the robot even though from the audience’s point of view, the intelligence and awareness appears to be coming from the robot performer itself.

Successful acting is all about simulation and making what is unreal appear real. For a robot, this is the ability to persuasively simulate or pass as human, or alive, or intelligent. Alan Turing’s famous test used to determine machine intelligence and social performance is essentially an acting test. It measures not whether a computer is intelligent or can think like a human, but whether it can perform as if it is human, or at least whether it can perform well enough to fool a human audience. Turing set out this test for machine intelligence in his influential 1950 essay Computing Machinery and Intelligence [8] where he describes the scenario for an ‘imitation game’ to test whether a computer can successfully imitate a human being. Turing based his test on an earlier game where an interrogator tries to guess the gender of two participants (one male and one female) by asking them questions and assessing their typewritten replies. In Turing’s version of the game, he replaces one of the human participants with a computer and suggests that if the interrogator cannot tell the difference between the human and the computer purely from their answers, then the computer can be said to be intelligent. In this way intelligence becomes a functional attribute achieved through persuasive simulation or ‘passing’ rather than an inherent attribute.

‘Passing’ or successful simulation means getting it ‘just right,’ but over-performance and under-performance are more common features of machine performance. Over-performance and under-performance may be perceived in a variety of different ways and can have both entertaining and unsettling effects on audiences. Exaggerated appearance and behavior, including over-emphasized facial features, expressions, gestures and movement are common features of cartoon animation and animated films, where these techniques are successfully used for comic effect and to enhance emotion and drama. More unsettling are the uncanny responses evoked by robots and digitally animated characters that are ‘almost but not quite’ human in their appearance and behaviour; these responses have been described by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori as the ‘uncanny valley’ phenomenon. [9] [10] These unsettling effects occur when the mimetic aspiration of the work falls just short of achieving a perfect simulation. While audiences generally find lifelike or human-like characteristics in a more abstracted form appealing and empathetic, when these characteristics become more realistic (but not quite right), audiences tend to focus more on the disparities and what is not working about the simulation. The human brain perceives these imperfect simulations as defective versions of the real thing.

As we have seen, audiences judge robotic performances in the same way as they judge any other type of performance interaction whether they occur in everyday social settings or in more staged theatrical environments. The success of the robotic performance depends on two key factors, the intended performance, the robot’s appearance and its ability to enact or simulate behavior, movement and interactive responses (to its environment and other entities/actors) and the perceived performance, the audience’s perception and interpretation of the robot’s appearance, behavior and interactive responses.

References and Notes: 

  1. Philip Auslander, “Humanoid Boogie: Reflections on Robotic Performance,” in Staging Philosophy, eds. D. Krasner and D. Saltz, 87–103 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).
  2. Louis-Philippe Demers, “Machine Performers: Neither Agentic nor Automatic” (paper presented at the 5th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, Osaka, March 2-5,  2010).
  3. Steve Dixon, Digital Performance (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
  4. Yuji Sone, “Realism of the Unreal: The Japanese Robot and the Performance of Representation,” in Visual Communication 7, no. 3 (2008): 345–62.
  5. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1959).
  6. Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  7. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 26.
  8. Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” in Mind 59, no. 236 (1950): 433–60.
  9. Masahiro Mori, “Bukimi No Tani [The Uncanny Valley],” in Energy 7, no. 4 (1970): 33–35.
  10. Kathy Cleland, “Not Quite Human: Traversing the Uncanny Valley,” in What was the Human?, eds. L.E. Semler, B. Hodge and P. Kelly (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, forthcoming). Available at

I, Robot: rethinking Jack Burnham’s systems esthetics

In the 1960’s and 70’s, American art critic Jack Burnham shifted the emphasis away from artefacts – fixed, static objects - and towards the idea of networks and systems. This paper examines Burnham’s ‘systems esthetics’ and tests his ideas against recent ‘robotic’ works by four Australian artists. Not all of these artists use cutting edge technology but each artist seeks to do more than simply imitate life.


What if you could bring a sculpture to life? The story of a sculpture that comes to life is one of western culture’s oldest myths. From Ovid’s Pygmalion to the making of the Golem from clay in Jewish folklore, the creation of life from inanimate matter has been a persistent fantasy. However since 1948 and the publishing of Norbert Wiener’s book Cybernetics: or control and communication in the animal and the machine, [1] there has been strong interest in artificial life processes. One approach focuses on developing intelligent machines – machines that can regulate their own behaviour and more recently, ‘learn’ new behaviours.

Artists have taken a critical interest in interactive and intelligent machines. Early work in this area was promoted in exhibitions like Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London in 1968 and in Jack Burnham’s book Beyond modern sculpture: the effects of science and technology on the sculpture of this century. [2] Jack Burnham was an American artist, art historian and art critic. He was initially drawn to vitalistic art – for example the works of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp – but by 1968 when he published his book Beyond modern sculpture, Burnham was championing a new type of art, one that would combine “machines with the qualities of living matter.” [3] Tracing the development from what he saw as early proto-automata though to kinetic and robotic art of the 1960s, Burnham agues that the machine is the future of art and of sculpture in particular. For Burnham, cybernetics provides the key to this future. He describes Norbert Wiener’s book on cybernetics as “the scientific inception of a dream which had haunted the makers of automata all through the ages – that of creating mechanical analogues to the nervous systems of animals, and through this gradually effecting some level of intelligence in the machine.” [4]

Burnham was one of the first to acknowledge this new direction in art. He described sculptors in the 60’s moving away from making artefacts – fixed, static objects – and instead building ‘systems’. These systems were not simple repeated cycles, but were altered according to feedback loops through which the system becomes self-regulating. Moving beyond a formalist critique of machine aesthetics, Burnham helped establish the foundations for future research at the intersection of art and science. However his insistence on the mimetic nature of art is based on very traditional notions. In Beyond modern sculpture Burnham argues that sculptors in the past had to content themselves with life-like but static representations of human or animal figures. In contrast Burnham sees technology as heralding a critical transition for the whole of the human species – substituting organic life with sophisticated forms of synthetic life. He believes art has a key role to play in this transition. In doing so he places art in the service of technology, giving sculpture a new goal – that of creating a blueprint for “our destination as a post-human species.” [5] In this paper I examine the work of four contemporary Australian artists to see in what ways they either adopt or challenge Burnham’s thesis about the necessary goal of art. 

Mari Velonaki’s interactive work Fish-Bird Circle B – Movement C was made collaboratively with scientists David Rye, Steve Scheding and Steven Williams at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, University of Sydney. The work was inspired by the story of a fish and a bird that fall in love but are unable to get together because of their differences. Fish-Bird consists of two computer-controlled custom-made wheelchairs, which are programmed to respond in complex and subtle ways to each other and to viewers. The wheelchairs navigate the exhibition space and periodically produce written messages thereby simulating dialogic exchange between each other and between human and machine. The first prototype of Fish-Bird was presented at Ars Electronica in 2004 as part of the Unnatural Selection – Australian Media Art exhibition. At this stage the motion control of the wheelchairs was relatively simple. As the project progressed detailed motion tracking and more refined behaviours were added.

I saw Fish-Bird in 2008 at the Campbelltown Arts Centre where it was exhibited as part of the Mirror States exhibition curated by Kathy Cleland and Lizzie Muller. By this stage complex behavioural patterns linked to the seven days of the week had been added along with “artificial ‘emotional’ states that describe how each robot ‘feels’ about itself, about the other robot, and about the participants in the installation space.” [6] I had traveled to Campbelltown to take part in a symposium held in conjunction with the exhibition. In a quiet moment between sessions I ventured over to the Fish-Bird installation. The space was empty apart from two wheelchairs located in the centre of the room. The floor was littered with small pieces of paper. As I entered the space the wheelchairs separated, each moving to an opposite corner of the room. I stood still. After a few minutes one of the wheelchairs moved toward me and ejected a printed message that dropped at my feet. ‘Deconstruct any notion of central consciousness’, it read.

Fish-Bird, with its ‘emotional states’ assigned to each wheelchair, takes concepts associated with human behaviour and applies them to machines. This translation of concepts from one field to another also works in reverse. Just as machines of the past provided metaphors for understanding the human body and human subjectivity (think of Leonardo Da Vinci's cross-sections and exploded diagrams of the human body and their analogous relation to mechanical inventions of his time), computers are changing the way we think about ourselves. The language of cybernetics for example has provided new ways of thinking about human action, interaction and subjectivity. Concepts like ‘feedback’ have gained ubiquity. Interaction is now seen to be everywhere. The idea of feedback has shifted attention away from individualism, which highlighted a non-circular cause and effect way of understanding things. Instead of imagining that we exist independently of others and independently of chance events occurring in the environment, we now think in terms of networks, systems and programs. While some people feel this undermines our humanity, others like Donna Haraway see great promise in rethinking our relationship with machines.

Machines today are very different from the hulking monsters of the industrial age. Our laptops computers and mobile phones are portable user-friendly devices. Donna Haraway describes them as being “made of sunshine …all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum.” [7] Because we are intimately enmeshed with our machines Haraway argues that today we are all cyborgs, "theorized and fabricated hybrids of machines and organisms." [8] If we agree with Haraway, this is not a bad thing. The cyborg, part machine/part organism opens up the question of how bodies are formed in particular historical situations. The body is not seen as 'natural' but rather as simultaneously symbolically, biologically and socially produced. Velonaki’s work, like Haraway’s cyborg, encourages us to question some of the binary oppositions –human/machine, intelligent/programmed – that have traditionally structured ideas of the self in western societies.

In contrast to the technical sophistication of Velonaki’s Fish-Bird, Simon Yates’ artworks are lo-tech, hand-made replicas of outmoded or improbable machines. He has created walking sculptural figures, which are constructed with a lightweight armature and covered with tissue paper. Suspended beneath helium balloons, these motorized figures take small steps to propel themselves around the room. In a work entitled Rhabdomancy, which was exhibited in the New09 exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, Yates created life-size versions of himself and writer Vanessa Berry. Unlike Velonaki’s custom-built wheelchairs, Yates’ work has a DIY aesthetic. His figures are carefully put together using simple materials. Again, contrasting with the complex range of responses evident in Velonaki’s Fish-Bird, Yates’ motorized figures are decidedly unresponsive. Oblivious to each other and to curious spectators they instead seem completely absorbed in the task at hand – staying upright and moving slowly forward. A more recent work by Yates, modelled on the robot Maria from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, was shown in the exhibition Awfully Wonderful: Science Fiction in Contemporary Art. Curated by Bec Dean and Lizzie Muller for Performance Space, the exhibition was presented in the foyer of Carriageworks, an art centre housed in the old Eveleigh Rail Yards in Sydney. The papery fragility of Metropolis Robot (Futura), which was buoyed up beneath gold helium balloons, lent the figure a spectral aspect. It seemed as if the ghost of the robot Maria had returned to walk the cavernous halls of the building, itself a repurposed industrial site with many of its original features still intact. 

Yates’ work might at first glance appear to be the antithesis of Fish-Bird. His low-tech robots are vastly different from Velonaki’s cutting edge computer programmed wheelchairs. The figurative form of Yates’ work also contrasts with Velonaki’s nonfigurative approach, which instead suggests the absence of the body. While the physical components of Yates’ work are very simple – helium balloons support the weight of the robot while a small motor operating a cam causes first one leg and the other to step forward – both Velonaki’s and Yates’ robots evoke a sense of wonder. In Yates’ work this is partly because of the fragility of the robots. Everything is in perfect balance. Should one element fail, the walking robot’s progress would cease. In Rhabdomancy, Yates has created body doubles or avatars of himself and Vanessa Berry that occupy real space. Unlike static sculptural portraits that fix a likeness for all time, Yates highlights his robots’ frailty. 

Wade Marynowsky has, in a different sense than Yates, also made avatars – physical avatars he can inhabit. In his work The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie Robot, exhibited at The Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown (ICAN) in 2008, Marynowsky presented a robot wearing a hoop skirt and topped with a perspex dome ‘head’. Recalling the automatons of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the science fiction robots called daleks from the well-known TV series Dr Who, Marynowsky’s ‘bourgeoisie robot’ is operated telematically over the internet. Marynowsky says of this work, the “charming robot avatar waits for visitors to enter the space and then converses with them in a polite and pleasant manner.” [9] Dressed in a black tunic with a white lace collar, the robot seemed friendly and eager to please. Without the dalek-like head and the speed with which it could spin on its axis to track an unsuspecting viewer, the robot might have appeared benign. However an uncomfortable feeling persisted. With the battle cry ‘EXTERMINATE!!!’ would it suddenly reveal more sinister motives?

Marynowsky’s more recent work The Hosts: A Masquerade of Improvising Automatons, exhibited at Performance Space in Sydney in 2009, comprises five robots dressed in elaborate costumes. Each robot represents a different character or personality – for example ‘the cowgirl’ and ‘the princess’. Together they roam around like guests at a masquerade ball and periodically emit strange vocalizations or spin giddily on one spot. Taking on board Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori’s theory of the uncanny valley (1970), that if robots are too life-like they cause us to recoil, Marynowsky doesn’t aim for human likeness. Like his earlier ‘bourgeoisie robot’, each ‘host’ wears a hoop skirt which provides space for, but also hides, the mechanical and electronic components. Each robot is also crowned with a dalek-like domed head from which shines a beam of light or alternatively two bright blue or red ‘eyes’.

Implied in the sub-title, the theme of the masquerade or disguise is central to this work. Marynowsky is interested in the point at which one thing flips over to become the opposite – an uncanny moment when the familiar becomes strange. The Hosts perform this crossing over on many levels. They are at the same time a figure and a machine as well as male and female – Marynowsky describes them as transgendered. The robots are also ‘hosts’ in more ways than one – as organizers of the party perhaps but also because they harbor another entity or parasite in the form of the computer program or programmer.

While Marynowsky has given each of his robots an individual ‘character’ which is expressed in their costume, he deliberately avoids using realistic human forms. Instead he humorously gives us a double serving of mimicry. Marynowsky’s robots are daleks cross-dressing as 18th century automata – machines that mimic other earlier machines made to mimic humans. This self-reflexive aspect of Marynowsky’s work playfully mocks the Faustian goal Burnham assigns to artists. Instead Marynowsky is interested in society’s fascination with robots and our ambivalent responses to them.

My own work Angelica (2008) is hardly a robot. Angelica does not have any moving mechanical parts or feedback systems. Instead it is a three-dimensional work that resembles a modified factory chair. Two LCD screen are incorporated into the metal frame of the chair. One screen replaces the seat of the chair and the other becomes the backrest. Two moving images are displayed on the screens. One shows the exterior of the body and the other is an MRI scan showing the body’s interior. The images on the screens are in a constant state of transformation. A fluid line sweeps across the surface – peeling back the exterior of the body to reveal the interior. The transition resembles a digital wipe. However instead of being created on the computer, the effect was made by casting a shadow over two projected images and filming the result. The back and forth motion of the shadow is similar to the movement of a scanner converting analogue into digital information.

I made the work after spending time in hospital where I underwent a series of tests. Hooked up to various diagnostic machines I was reminded of Donna Haraway’s comment that today “machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert. [10] The machines beeped and crackled as they probed and scanned. In contrast I had to lie still and wait for the results. When I was discharged I was given copies of the scan images. To me they appeared strangely robotic. It was as if the scanner had transformed my body into another machine – one with distinct muscle groups which when rendered in black and white took on the metallic sheen of a robot.

In Angelica I am interested in the shift from analogue to machine vision and also in cultural representations of women and technology, particularly in science fiction films. These films often reveal a deep-seated anxiety associated with robots which is played out in narratives of mastery and slavery. For example, Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis [11] presents a dystopian vision of the future where technology has enslaved the workers. Women, represented by the real and false Marias, are depicted as either angels or whores. Embodied in the figure of the false Maria, who when captured and burnt at the stake resumes her robot form, both women and technology are represented as a threat to life. The message is that, like women, technology may be seductive but it is also out-of-control. 

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner [12] presents a much more nuanced investigation of the relationship between the human and the non-human. Rather than Metropolis’ tale of good versus evil, the narrative in Blade Runner turns around the theme of doubt – how can you tell a replicant from a human when each has memories? When the replicant Rachel asks Deckard if he has ever taken the Voight-Kampff empathy test she throws the question back onto him – how does he know that he isn’t also a replicant? The ontological doubt arising from the increasingly blurred boundary between human and machine marks the distance travelled between representations of robots in Metropolis and in Blade Runner.

Instead of Burnham’s idea that artists are preparing a blueprint for a post-human species, blurring the boundaries between humans and machines might be a better way to understand the works of the artists I have discussed. This blurring is a two way street. While machines have become more intelligent there is also the possibility that humans might recognize they are not always masters of rationality. In his book Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the critique of ideology cultural critic and theorist Slavoj Zizek poses the question ‘Do computers think?’ He argues that even though it is clear that the computer in some sense only simulates thought, yet “how does the total simulation of thought differ from real thought?” [13] Zizek’s answer is to reverse the metaphor and instead of seeing the computer as a model of the human brain, to see the brain as a “computer made of flesh and blood.” [14] By extension a robot is not an artificial man, rather man is a ‘natural robot’. Writing from a Lacanian perspective, Zizek uses this reversed metaphor to underscore his ideas about the split subject, who can never fully know him or herself and for whom “something must remain unthought. [15]

I have argued that contrary to Burnham’s thesis, many artists do not aim to recreate life. Some explore our persistent fascination with machines while others perform a de-naturing of the body, showing that the boundaries between human and non-human are not clear-cut. The question is not whether our machines are alive but in what ways we, like our machines, are hybrid creatures - a blend of natural and artificial, intelligent and programmed. Seen from this perspective, robots remind us there is nothing essential about humans. Instead we are formed in particular historical and social contexts. Acknowledging this might as Haraway argues, give us the best chance of developing new forms of subjectivity, which conscious of our kinship with other animals and machines do not simply repeat patterns of domination and control.

References and Notes: 
  1. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1961).
  2. Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century (New York: G. Braziller, 1968).
  3. Ibid., 314.
  4. Ibid., 315.
  5. Ibid., 371.
  6. Centre for Social Robotics, “Fish-Bird: Background,” Centre for Social Robotics' Web Site, (accessed June 5, 2012).
  7. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 153.
  8. Ibid., 150.
  9. Wade Marynowsky, “The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie Robot,” Wade Marynowsky's Web Site, (accessed June 5, 2012).
  10. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 152.
  11. Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang (1927).
  12. Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott, based on the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Philip K. Dick, screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples (1982).
  13. Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Duke University Press, 1993), 43.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 44.


In contemporary art the most recent artwork of Gilberto Esparza deals with microorganisms, environmental issues and electronic media.  His project Plantas Nómadas navigates the everyday life urban ecosystem.  His work is based on the recycling of consumption technology, human wastes and a robotic mechanism that survives from served waters and solar energy.



From the outset of civilization, human beings have tried to express some of their ideas, fears and emotions through art. One of our deepest fears today is the continuous destruction of nature and the irreversible alteration of the ecosystem. This concern has reached the art arena together with the sciences, both of which, in cooperation, create tools for new expressions, perhaps as solutions for the apparently uncontrollable problem. The results are broadening the limits of art and science beyond unrecognized limits. The artworks we study in this context are examples of this process.

The evolution of informatics systems, hardware, and the arts have revolutionized the way we perceive the world and by consequence the aesthetics of arts itself.  Few are the cases in daily life where digital process is not playing a role in modern existence and thereby enabling us to fulfill our tasks in the world.

With the use of these new tools, many human activities have undergone changes, sometimes, not in the right direction: uncontrolled materialistic consumption may be one of the causes. The development of the web has become a tool and a weapon for globalization, a concept strongly tied to those concerns. Today, the global frontiers are blurred, time is relative, and perhaps the only limitation is the capacity of reception and transmission of data, depending on the levels of technological advancement in the region.

Antecedents of the Project Plantas Nómadas 

For instance, to observe the robotic creatures Parásitos Urbanos (Urban Parasites) of Gilberto Esparza is to pass through the lens of the future, and believe that the most disturbing images like those found in the painting The Garden of Earthly Delights of Hieronymus Bosch have become true. It makes us feel, in a way, that we are entering a sort of the Gate of Hell in Dante’s Inferno or into the space of a science fiction novel.  This is not because the goal of the artist is to intimidate the viewer, but rather the opposite: his works pretend to become a saver device of humanity after the damage already done to earth. 

The physicality and size of Parásitos Urbanos are not like the microscopic organisms that enter our body and which we are not able to see; nor are they like the new invented sicknesses that are globally widespread today; and neither are visible to the so called viruses made to affect computers. It is true that not all parasites are microorganisms; however, Esparza’s mimetic parasites are depictions of living creatures that are mechanized and autonomous to some extent. In this case, they have not evolved in nature as the rest of living species, but in the creative mind of the artist. The devices are designed to obtain their requirements of energy from existing sources like electric lines, solar energy or batteries - in order to move and call the attention of viewers - while at the same time emitting sounds, like animals that roar, sing or tweet in order to call the attention of their partners. The artist’s robot emits sound in order to call the attention of the viewer by emulating zoosemiotics.

At first glance the devices seem to be part of the ecosystem in which they inhabit but once we pay close attention to their movement, we realize that they have an independent mechanism.

Esparza is not only working with scarce technology within the arts, creating quasi-mechanized creatures living from the wastes of the city, he is as well, tackling one of the most destructive problems faced by humanity, the destruction of the environment and the problems generated by the overpopulation of humans.

The Biological Side of the Robot

Plantas Nómadas is a concept that includes micro-organic plants contained in unhealthy waters (Geobacter) and a robot living in an environment, which has been rendered hostile after transformation by means of human activity. The plants have been transplanted from the soil and adapted to the new ecosystem. Its nomadic condition allows it to adapt and find nutrients with the help of the robot.

This artwork is an example of the lack of human consciousness destroying the planet, and the persistence of care for the planet.  By observing the piece in its environment we can contemplate how the robot takes residual water, separates its elements and ignites the motor of the robot by providing energy.

The piece is a prototype of a hybrid organism developed in symbiosis by being constituted out of electro-mechanic, kinetic and biotic systems. Its electro-mechanical construction works with the help of biological cells cultivating a diverse spectrum of bacteria that transforms the glucose and the amino acids, releasing microvolts of energy. The energy is accumulated inside a harvest system, providing autonomy to the whole device. The design of the system uses cybernetics in order to protect the system itself and keep it alive.

The power cycle nourishes the bacterial culture that feeds the electronic system. The purified water that is irrigated to a plant comprises its existential cycle. Plantas Nómadas were created in earnest of a concern for the deteriorated environment caused by human activity and its irreversible consequences. These changes are directly hitting all sorts of life on the planet making it imminent that organisms have to, either, adapt faster or perish.  During the mission of Plantas Nómadas, several organisms adapt themselves to the new environment in order to survive in a symbiotic way, taking advantage from the nutrients found in polluted surroundings.  The paradoxical thing is that this symbiosis manages to start off the union of a robot whose origins are in the human imagination and which is yet manufactured in a system that is bound to the modifying surroundings of the natural Earth.  Plantas Nómadas are a species that come indeed from the alienated processes that the planet is undergoing. It is a robot of inverse understanding, whose vital processes do not need to obey or be in agreement with the structure of capital production. Their behavior, movement and times, are determined by their vital cycle of existence, it is an organism that exists in contradiction to the acceleration of the world that has been imposed by human dynamics.

The goal of Esparza´s research seems to open the possibility of reversing the alterations of ecosystems and therefore the killing of other species. The pretension is to learn the habits that other species have accumulated throughout millions of years of adaptation and reintegration to the environment and to give back to the Earth, in different form, the energy that it rendered to us.  The idea may allow the human species to survive on the surface of the planet.

It is our concern to highlight the lack of water and its pollution all around the world and the possible solutions through the use of a new hybrid organism, which are products of alienated processes. It appears - by the simple act of coexistence in those zones of ecological disaster, to represent, a serious manifestation of social and environmental impacts in the communities that depends on clean water of the rivers.

Ecological Concerns

Plantas Nómadas is a utopian dream of healing the earth, where the waste of uncontrolled human consumption and growth deteriorates and destroys nature. The long known Malthusian theories on overpopulation, [1] demonized by the Catholic Church are not far from truth.

The damage to biodiversity in modern times (in the name of progress) ends up in the paying of a high price. Some solutions may be found with the ethical consumption of resources, an anti- Malthusian consciousness about human reproduction or a strict birth control and a respectful behavior towards nature.  If that happens, the earth will continue to feed the living creatures on its surface for many more generations to come.

The united system of knowledge of the sciences and the humanities to which [2] it appeals in his book Consilience have found a point of convergence in Esparza’s Plantas Nómadas.

It appears that the Enlightenment ideals have collapsed not because of a continuous progress in the name of social development but because of capitalist wastefulness.  It will be suitable that the work of art in focus will be made for mass circulation, like cars, in order to save the planet.  A utopian desire rooted in ecological initiatives.

In formal terms Plantas Nómadas is like a Kafkaesque cockroach, nevertheless instead of the human becoming an insect turned upside down, it seems that Esparza’s dream is to contribute to reverse a future natural catastrophe. It is a sort of crusade against the evident disregard of nature.

It is quite revealing in the first two lines of the introduction by Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton, of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, where Hamm exclaims: “Nature has forgotten us” and Clove replies: “there is no more nature.” [3]

In analyzing Esparza’s device, we realize that it is a conjunction of nature and machine living together, a proposal for new ecosystems and symbiosis of nature and culture, art and science, and last, the creation and destruction as one of the conditions of nature but nowadays most importantly with ecological balance.  In that sense, Guattari argues:

 “The earth is undergoing a period of intense techno-scientific transformations. If no remedy is found, the ecological disequilibrium this has generated will ultimately threaten the continuation of life on the planet’s surface. Alongside these upheavals, human mode of life, both individual and collective, are progressively deteriorating. Kinship networks tend to be reduced to a bare minimum; domestic life is being poisoned by the gangrene of mass-media consumption; family and married life are frequently ‘ossified’ by a sort of standardization reduced to their meanest expression….. It is the relationship between subjectivity and exteriority –be is social, animal, vegetable or Cosmic –that is compromised in this way, in a sort of general movement of implosion and regressive infantalization. Otherness [l’altérité] tends to lose all its asperità.” [4]

The symbiosis of robot, plants and microscopic organism may therefore appeal to opposites, the Apollonian and Dionysian concepts in the Birth of Tragedy, [5] where the author argues that “Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art; man himself now moves with the same ecstasy and sublimity with which, in dream, he once saw the gods talk” and in this case we may say that it is not man who became a work of art but a fusion of nature and machine creating new organisms.  Plantas Nómadas is a piece where ethics became an unquestionable component of the artwork itself and more than an aesthetical constituent to what art pleaded long time back. Here the artwork is closely connected with scientific thinking rather than with gestural process of painting or sculpting characteristic of traditional art. Postmodern times have favored the development of new expressive forms concerned with the earth itself distancing at the same time from the inaction of the land art in the sense that it uses its components by transforming it, but does not questioning the human effects on the earth.

The natural and the technological

Nowadays the scandals centered in some religious institutions concerning material wealth and libertine morals of the leaders, make it possible for a nihilistic society to flourish, a society closer to nature's demands and its protection. Technology became important to contemporary knowledge only through the mediation of a generalized spirit of performativity. Even today, progress in knowledge is not totally subordinated to technological investment as Lyotard, claims. In many art works produced nowadays, some artists need the newest discoveries and inventions produced in science to achieve their ideas, while scientists are more open to intuitive thinking that had characterized the arts. In Plantas Nómadas both processes go hand in hand, looking for an equilibrium that keeps both the mechanism and the organic system in symbiosis while producing an artistic experience. The goal in the artist's mind is to keep the machine working through the recycling of served water and the bacteria contained in it.  The mimesis of nature, for instance, is emphasized with the sound produced by the robot when it has excess of energy -- it becomes a kind of animal in its aspiration to reproduce itself. Plantas Nómadas the sound may have as its goal to spread the benefits of the robot on a wounded earth. A question arises, Is it possible to envisage and build an autonomous community of robots that could reproduce themselves?  Deleuze' concerns about the reproduction of machines was as follows:

“It is said that machines do not reproduce themselves, or that they only reproduce themselves through the intermediary of man, but “does any one say that the red clover has not reproductive system because the bumble bee (and the bumble bee only) must aid and abet it before it can reproduce? No one. The bumble bee is a part of the reproductive system of the clover. Each one of ourselves has sprung form minute animalcules whose entity was entirely distinct form our own…These creates are part of our reproductive system; then why not we part of that of the machines?” [6]

Deleuze’s question is fundamental on metaphysical issues.  An approximation was made some time back with hybrids between human and machine approached in creative writing such as Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or analysis like the Cyborg Manifesto of Donna Haraway.

Esparza’s work is promoting an interdisciplinary study of ecological perspective in a profound scientific engagement. The interstitial piece is on one hand mimicking amphibians, living partly in aquatic sediments and soil, while there is also another concern for land involving the process of restoring nature after being abused, by the seven thousand millions of humans inhabiting its surface.

Plantas Nómadas show us that through the exploration of the intersections of art and science many imaginable worlds can be reached, by originality, producing a state of fascination and enchantment. Paul Virilio quoted the architect Kasuo Shinohara who claimed that “the city of the future will express the beauty of confusion” to what Virilio reacted: “I am, on the other hand, quite convinced that it will in the near future illustrate the tragedy of the fusion of ‘biological’ and the ‘technological.’” [7]

Here the artist is not far from what Virilio fortell. It is also important to mention the recent work of the Brazilian-American bio-artist Eduardo Kacs with his project Natural History of the Enigma that consisted of the hybridization of his DNA and a petunia plant (The Edunia).

In Esparza’s work, the green plant is provided with a locomotive system that at the same time is ignited with clean energies, solar and micro biotic combustion cells. A previous work of his used a similar principle of solar photocell, though it was far more simple and tremendously poetic, the artwork was produced in 2008 and was named Perejil buscando al sol (Parsley looking for the sun).

The idea in Perejil buscando al sol as much as in Plantas Nómadas is that the artist in a way is altering the evolution of the plant by adapting a locomotion system in the first case, and locomotion and nutrients to a symbiotic system in the second. 

An article of Victoria Gill, that appeared in the BBC news, affirmed that “plants can think and remember, based on the founds of the scientist Karpinski Stanislaw (2010), chemical signals could be passed throughout whole plants - allowing them to respond to and survive changes and stresses in their environment, included in his study was a discovery that when light stimulated a chemical reaction in one leaf cell, this caused a "cascade" of events and that this was immediately signaled to the rest of the plant via a specific type of cell called a "bundle sheath cell.” [8]

From this perspective, the apparent symbiosis of the plant and the machine, the artificial intelligence and the chemical signals of the plant complement each other.  The machine becomes the perfect object, where the movements of the machine, like human gestures, or the locomotion of a turtle, are replicated in the piece, but the automata is just an object.  As Baudrillard wrote:

“The strictly practical object acquires a social status: this is the case with the machine. At the opposite extreme, the pure object, devoid of any function or completely abstracted from its use, takes on a strictly subjective status: it becomes part of a collection.” [9]

The piece may look like an animal-machine or a toy, but it is not. Its complexity goes further because it is an art piece and falls into a new classification called Device Art, We quote:

“What we call device art is a form of media art that integrates art and technology as well as design, entertainment, and popular culture. Device Art is a concept that pushes the boundaries of media art and inherits the legacy of the experiments artists have been conducting with media technologies. By raising questions regarding possible relationships between art and technology, the role of hardware-based devices, and the borders between art and its related fields, and creating a common ground for artists and engineers to work together as equals, we might find some answers with regard to future directions rather than the past.” [10]

In a sense, the robot reflects the spirit of his creator, it is the perfect mirror or pet, the object is the perfect domestic animal. It is the only ‘being’ with such qualities that exalts my personality instead of restrained. [11]

Baudrillard compared the robot to a mirror because the robot does not produce real images but only desired ones; it assumes the image of the perfect domestic animal because it highlights the character of its owner. Plantas Nómadas incarnates the myth of functionality, where its efficiency is in direct relation with the amount of nutrients contained in the water and the sun that hits the photocells.  The robot, as Baudrillard makes a case, [12] is a symbol of a completely functionalized and personalized world that at the same time embodies the abstract power of men in extremes and without plunging into identification.


Esparza’s robots draw attention to our relations with the environment allowing us to see the fragility of the machine, like nature, that at some point will stop running, perhaps destroyed, or become a part of the museum cemetery. 

The creation of Esparza's piece questions the human excesses in consumerism, wastefulness and the lack of control of the public administration to handle the problem of the residues produced.

References and Notes: 
  1. T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London: J. Johnson, 1798), Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project, (accessed December 18, 2010).
  2. E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage, 1999).
  3. F. Guattari, The Three Ecologies (New York: Continuum, 2005), 1.
  4. Ibid., 27.
  5. F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1999) 121.
  6. G. Deleuze, and F. Guattari, Anti-oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis, MA: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 284-285.
  7. P. Virilio, Open Sky (London: Verso, 2000), 57.
  8. V. Gill, “Plants Can ‘Think and Remember,’” BBC News, July 12, 2010, (accessed July 12, 2010).
  9. J. Baudrillard, The System of Objects (London: Verso, 2005), 82, 101-102, 138.
  10. M. Kusahara, “Device Art: A New Form of Media Art from a Japanese Perspective,” Journal Intelligent Agent 6, no. 2 (2002), (accessed January 7, 2011).
  11. J. Baudrillard, The System of Objects (London: Verso, 2005), 102.
  12. Ibid., 101-102.

Signs of life: robot incubator – an afternoon with the robots

Join us for an afternoon with the robots in the Signs of Life: Robot Incubator exhibition. This special event takes you behind the scenes with the robots, artists and curator and includes artist talks, robot demonstrations and special activities.
Monday, 19 September, 2011 - 14:00 - 17:00
Mari Velonaki, Diamandini, 2011-2013.
Mari Velonaki, Diamandini, 2011-2013.
John Tonkin, nervous robots, interactive robotic installation, 2011.
Kirsty Boyle, fragment, 2009-2011.
Kirsty Boyle, tree ceremony, 2011.
Kathy Cleland
Mari Velonaki
John Tonkin
Kirsty Boyle

Join us for an afternoon with the robots in the Signs of Life: Robot Incubator exhibition. This special event takes you behind the scenes with the robots, artists and curator and will include artist talks, robot demonstrations and special activities. Get acquainted  with Mari Velonaki’s humanoid robot Diamandini and contribute to the next stage of her development. Psycholanalyse John Tonkin’s nervous robots and the other robots in the exhibition. Watch a special performance of Kirsty Boyle's robot tree ceremony and interact with her hand crafted fragment robots.

UNCONTAINABLE: Signs of life: robot incubator

DATES: 14.09.2011 - 07.10.2011 TIMES: 10:00 - 19:00
Mari Velonaki, Diamandini, 2011-2013.
Mari Velonaki, Diamandini, 2011-2013.
John Tonkin, nervous robots, interactive robotic installation, 2011.
Kirsty Boyle, fragment, 2009-2011.
Kirsty Boyle, tree ceremony, 2011.
Kathy Cleland
Mari Velonaki
John Tonkin
Kirsty Boyle

Unlike humans, robots aren’t born biologically. They are designed, built, programmed and incubated by their human parents in a variety of different birthing environments including robotics laboratories, artists’ studios and hobbyists’ back sheds.

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