Robotics II

Material matters: machine agency and performativity by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders/ I, Robot: re-thinking Jack Burnham’s systems esthetics by Margaret Seymour/ The Uncanny automaton by Wade Marynowsky
Friday, 16 September, 2011 - 17:00 - 18:00
Chair Person: 
Melissa Coleman
Petra Gemeinboeck
Rob Saunders
Margaret Seymour
Wade Marynowsky

Material matters: machine agency and performativity

by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders

We examine new forms of entanglement between human and nonhuman agents to explore the performative potential of machine-augmented environments. Our investigation seeks to establish a mutual dialogue between disciplines; it looks at performativity through the lens of machine agency and explores the potential of machine agency through the lens of performativity. In considering the performative potential of intelligent machine agents, we are interested in shifting the focus from representational issues to questions of agency and materiality.

In early Artificial Intelligence approaches, robots sensed their environment, built complete internal models using the sensed data, constructed plans based on those models, and acted to execute their plans. Contemporary approaches, in contrast, emphasize situatedness and embodiment, aiming for intelligence (and agency) that emerges from interactions with the world (Brooks 1991, Harvey 2000, Johnston 2008). This is the starting point for considering ecologies that entangle human and nonhuman agents through embodied experience of a shared environment. In Barad’s posthumanist account of performativity, agency is “a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or some thing has” (2003). Similarly, according to Beers, it is only when robotic agents are coupled with an environment, that their potential to act is realized through the agent’s behaviour in that environment (1995). Without disregarding their differences (Suchman 2003), both human and nonhuman agents learn and know not by observing from the outside, but because they intra-act as part of the world (Barad 2003).

The investigation situates the authors’ interdisciplinary robotic practice and their latest work Zwischenräume: a machine-augmented performance environment, which embeds a group of autonomous robots into the architectural fabric of a gallery. Our built environment becomes the machines’ medium of expression. Adopting methods from urban combat and anti-terrorist visual intelligence, Zwischenräume’s autonomous environment studies and provokes its human inhabitants. The embodied, self-motivated agents act and adapt through their intra-actions with their surrounds; shaping what they ‘desire’ to create or perform. Coupling autonomously performing agents with our built environment opens up a space for Barad’s ‘congealing of agency’ (2003) where the different agential forces not only co-evolve but potentially conspire and perform together.

I, Robot: re-thinking Jack Burnham’s systems esthetics

by Margaret Seymour


Writing in the 1960’s and 70’s, American art critic Jack Burnham argued strongly against the prevailing Formalist approach to art criticism. Instead he put forward the idea of a ‘systems esthetic’, a way of rethinking art as a system or network of social-technical processes. While he showed great foresight in shifting the emphasis away from artifacts and towards the idea of networks and systems, Burnham was criticised for his quasi-scientific rationalism and for transposing the myth of progress onto avant-garde art. In attempting to come up with an all-encompassing theory of art he repeats a number of very traditional ideas, including the argument that sculpture is fundamentally mimetic. According to Burnham, sculptors in the past had to content themselves with life-like but static representations of human or animal figures. In the 1960’s, as the simulation of the living organism became closely aligned with technology and cybernetics, Burnham speaks of artists and scientists sharing "an unstoppable craving to wrest the secrets of the natural order form God - with the unconscious aim of controlling human destiny, if not in fact becoming God itself.”[1] 

This paper examines Burnham’s ideas and tests them against recent ‘robotic’ works by Australian artists Mari Velonaki, Simon Yates, Wade Marynowsky and one of my own works. While not all these artists use cutting edge technology, each work questions what it means to be human in a world where machines are often autonomously acting agents. In doing so however, each artist seeks to do more than simply imitate life.

[1] Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture, New York: George Braziller, n.d., p.314


The Uncanny automaton

by Wade Marynowsky

Marynowsky’s paper will present his previous and current research into robotic art which explores concepts surrounding the uncanny automaton. He will talk through the processes of developing his robotic work through the development of prototypes to finished exhibitions as well at the theories surrounding the uncanny, for example

The Hosts: A Masquerade Of Improvising Automatons, 2009. As the title suggests, the work is a masquerade ball for robots at the same time it suggests the failure of artificial intelligence to mimic human intelligence. The work is partly inspired by E.T.A Hoffman’s The Sandman (1817). In which a young man falls in love with a feminine automaton, Olympia, who dances with him at a ball. The Sandman is a key-feature in Sigmund Freud’s essay The Uncanny (1919). Since Freud’s association between the uncanny and the automaton, the uncanny has continued to be a key term in robotics. Namely Professor Mori’s Uncanny Valley (1970). The hypothesis warned artists not to design robots too human-like, otherwise the robot would repel the human viewer and thus fall into the Uncanny Valley, a state of fear and disbelief. In this work Marynowsky seeks to test if an unnerving effect could still be reached if the robots are designed as abstracted human-like forms. Automated lighting, including moments of darkness and an eerie soundscape enhances the slightly menacing atmosphere. The robotic theatre experience creates "a space where (free of superstition and paranoia) we do not see the reanimated corpses of ourselves but rather other autonomous beings, improvising", Bec Dean.