I Want to Believe—Empathy and Catharsis in Robotic Art
Since the early 90s, we have been creating interactive installation and performance projects using robotics, audiovisuals, and processes inspired by Artificial Life. The goal of these projects is to induce empathy from the viewers towards characters that are nothing else than simple articulated metal structures. Our objective is to conceive and realize large-scale robotic environments that aim to question, reformulate and subvert the notions of behavior, projection and empathy that generally characterize interactions between humans and machines.
Robotics as Artistic Medium
Robotic Art is an emerging discipline where scientific research, artistic creation and philosophical investigation are intimately interrelated. Of the few artists actively involved in this field, each one of them has in some way or another developed new technologies, techniques and methodologies of production that enable the creation of innovative works of art integrating robots, machines and automatons. Moreover, these works are raising fundamental philosophical and sociological questions about the relationships between human beings and machines, between the real and the artificial, and between the living and the non-living.
From Karel Capek to Nam June Paik to Survival Research Labs, artists have been exploring the concepts of robots and robotics for a few decades now, sometimes on their own, but often in collaboration with engineers and scientists. In 1997, Eduardo Kac coined the term “Robotic Art” to describe artistic projects based on or developed around robotic technologies. In Foundation and Development of Robotic Art , he stated “As artists continue to push the very limits of art, traditionally defined by discrete and inert handmade objects, they introduce robotics as a new medium at the same time as they challenge our understanding of robots”. In the last 20 years, artists like Mark Pauline, Christian Ristow, Eric Paulos, Chico MacMurtrie, Ken Rinaldo, Simon Penny, Stelarc, Guy Ben-Ary, Robotlab and Jim Whiting, just to name a few, distinguished themselves by their impressive artistic application of robotics. Well-known Canadian artists like Max Dean, Norman White, Reva Stone, Istvan Kantor, Louis-Philippe Demers, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Janet Cardiff and David Rokeby also used robotics and behavioral systems in many of their works.
Since its early stages, our artistic work has been strongly influenced by scientific advances in the fields of Artificial Life and Robotics. We are particularly interested in creating original artistic projects by appropriating various engineering and scientific concepts and techniques such as cellular automatons, genetic algorithms, adaptive behaviors and reinforcement learning processes in order to subvert them from their intended purpose.
Robotic Art is not a single homogeneous discipline; rather it is a mixture of multiple technological areas involving mechanics, electronics, programming, as well as multimedia. In the same manner, our research program does not focus on one single problem or one field of study, it encompasses a wide variety of research projects that all have one thing in common: producing a work of art as a final outcome. This is why we simultaneously conduct research and develop projects that address machine perception and motion on the one hand, and machine aesthetics in both robots’ visual aspect and behaviors on the other.
An Aesthetics of Artificial Behaviors
Our aim is to artistically investigate how a machine can eventually turn into a sentient creature. We believe that behavior is a keyword in bio-inspired automaton design and actualization. A certain level of realism may be achieved by the illusions induced by actions and reactions of the machines and animats: the success of this dynamic form of computer-mediated communication may be measured by the effectiveness of the simulacrum. An effective simulation of the living is the result of different parameters acting to trigger impressions and empathy (visual appearance, sound emission or physical movement, for example), but behavior may be seen as the most convincing one as it generates a strong impression of autonomy and self-consciousness.
As we have been able to experience throughout the years, uncertainty and variability also play an important role in the behavioral relation with the viewer. Animated metal parts in a robot or dots on a computer screen can be seen as being alive if they move and react in a non-repetitive and unforeseeable way, giving a strong impression of self-decision and autonomy. One may wonder if Artificial Life creatures have to be figurative representations (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or bio-inspired) to be convincing. From what has been observed in the various encounters with the public, as long as they manifest autonomous behaviors in the interaction process, effective agents could bear any abstract visual form.
The success of our work depends on two main interrelated factors: the make-believe imbedded in the robot artifact and the viewer’s desire to believe (evoking Eco’s intentio auctoris and intentio lectoris ). It functions through cathartic projection by triggering sensations, feelings and emotions in the viewer’s eyes. What happens next is a matter of pure subjective interpretation from the viewer’s part. Machines are a perfect reflection of our mind and we can certainly learn more about ourselves by interacting with them.
Robot Ontology and Perception
Recent advancements in Artificial Life and robotic technology encourage a new kind of art form that combines artificial morphogenesis, immersive environments, interactivity and reactivity with cognitive machines (robotics, automation and animatronics) to achieve aesthetic results. We often use the expression “theatrical machines” to describe physical and autonomous robotic agents integrating some kind of multimedia objects in their ontology (sound, light, video, etc.) as mean of expression. Application examples of this new practice include emulation of realistic creatures and lifelike systems, conceptual exploration in the aesthetics of artificial perceptions, behaviors and interactions, embodiment of machine mechanisms, etc.
Our research projects are principally based on the notion of perception: the viewer’s perception of the robot and the robot’s perception of the environment, as well as itself. Perception guides the effect created on the viewer, as our work is steered by the fundamental assertion that it is possible to create an impression of life simply through human-machine reactive behaviors of abstract robotic structures.
We can integrate both notions of sentience and embodiment in the larger concept of ontology. An ontology describes how the world in which the agent lives is constructed, how the agent perceives this world and how the agent may act upon its world. Our work is based on the merging of aesthetic, philosophic and scientific questions related to machine ontology, its awareness, perception and potential sentience. Our research projects also investigate the notion of the artificial construction of the “self” as one of the leading themes of our creative work.
Early Artistic Work
Among these earlier works, La Cour des Miracles (1997) has certainly been a milestone in our trajectory. With this project, we moved away from simple duplication and produced multiple different types (or “species”) of robotic creatures, each one exhibiting specific behaviors in response to the visitors. Based on the conceptual framework of a “misery of the machines” and somehow strongly inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables , these machines were designed to express such notions as “pain” and “affliction”, as if they had their own difficulties in life. For example, the Crawling Machine was creeping laboriously on the floor. Slow and vulnerable, it tried to run desperately away from the viewers approaching. The Harassing Machine called upon the viewers passing by while moving its articulated arms towards them. At the extremity of these limbs, small tentacles agitated by compressed air tried to tease the intruders with importunate touches. The Convulsive Machine was a thin metal structure shaking with frequent but irregular spasms, especially when viewers come too close. The Heretic Machine was locked up in a cage, and when curious viewers came close by, it rushed violently towards them, grabbing the metal grid with its claws and shaking furiously its cage .
During the same period, we developed a series of Max software functions  called LifeTools and explored cellular logic by building monumental audiovisual cellular automatons. In projects like the Evil/Live (1997, 2002, 2004) series, Conway’s Game of Life  was used to generate patterns of light and sound in a large-scale aluminum matrix of halogen light bulbs. In the different versions, viewers were either consciously (by using video game-style controllers) or involuntarily (by using discrete sensors hidden in the environment) modifying the evolution of the light patterns on the grid. This series of audiovisual installations aimed to create a paradoxical context confronting the single-plane world of a cellular automaton to the 3-dimensional immersive environment surrounding the viewer. By using fast stroboscopic changes in light and quadraphonic sound effects, it produced a clear illusion of physical volume.
The Hysterical Machines robotic installation (2006) was very much inspired by similar ideas as La Cour des Miracles. It was conceived on a principle of deconstruction, suggesting dysfunctional, absurd and deviant behaviors through a functional machine. It operated on a dual-level process expressing the paradoxical nature of Artificial Life. The first prototype of the Hysterical Machine (it was then renamed Prehysterical Machine) appeared in 2002, but later on we built ten more machines inspired by this prototype that became part of a larger environment. More recently, we have also created the Mega Hysterical Machine (2010), a supersized version of the original robot (eight times the size of the Hysterical Machine in volume and weight). Until now, this huge robot has only been exhibited on wide theater stages in places such as the Théâtre National de Toulouse, the Théâtre des Salins (Martigues) and the Théâtre de l’Avant-Seine (Colombes).
At that time, we had been working with different types of parallel mechanisms (for example, the two center-stage robots mounted on Stewart platforms in Le Procès) and pneumatic muscles (like the suspended robot tentacles in Red Light) and it appeared that they were able to provide unusual types of physical motion that could produce a more organic feel to our machines. Since then, we have explored various designs and build several experimental prototypes of machines that make use of these technologies to create lifelike artificial creatures.
In this performance project, four robotic machines were built as abstract shapes and composed of stacked Stewart platforms (actuated sections similar to flight simulator platforms) and capable of producing very complex movements. These machines sometimes reacted to the performer’s body movements, sometimes moving on their own, inducing a response from the performer. With this project, we wanted to question the notions of physical perception, body expression and personal identity, and address kinesthesis not only as an internal proprioceptive mechanism but also as a potential exterior phenomenon actualized through the robotic extension of the body.
The particularity of this project resided in bypassing the normal programming paradigm of this type of robot in order to have it execute real-time commands instead of a predefined sequence of actions. Many artists have used industrial robots in the past but they have always used them as simple automatons, in a similar way they are normally used in car factories. Few have ever tried to turn them into autonomous reactive creatures. With this project, we wanted to build a sensitive and responsive machine, which was conceptually based on adaptive and evolutive behaviors.
In our latest piece, DSM-VI (2012), the installation staged creatures expressing symptoms of “abnormal” psychological behaviors and stuck with some serious “mental health” problems, such as neurosis, psychosis, personality disorders, paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, delirium, and other forms of behavior and mental disorders. The project title was inspired by the famous reference manual published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-IV .
In the surrounding space of the installation, three independent robots revolve on their base. They seem like they live in their own world, not so much connected to the environment. We call them the Autistic Machines. They are free-spinning turrets, on which a pneumatic robotic arm actuates something that looks vaguely like a human face. This facial impression is caused by the visual combination of a speaker and two pan-tilt robotic cameras. Using these cameras, the robots can look around in the environment using a face-tracking software. But instead of following the viewers like we would expect, they tend to avoid them. Also, due to the face-tracking software limitations, the robots sometimes see faces in the environment where there are not and suddenly fall in trance looking at the wall or the ceiling.
Current and Future Work
In collaboration with Louis-Philippe Demers (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), we are currently developing the Inferno project. Inferno is a robotic performance inspired by the representation of the different levels of hell as they are described in Dante’s Inferno  or Haw Par Villa’s Ten Courts of Hell (which is based on a Chinese Buddhist representation) . In this piece, the “circles of hell” concept is mainly a scenographic framework, a general working theme under which the different parts of the performance are regrouped.
The specificity of this performance project resides in the fact that the different machines involved in the show are installed on the viewers’ own body. The public then becomes an active part of the performance. Depending of the kind of mechanism that they are wearing, the viewers are free to move or in a partial or entire submission position, forced by the machines to act/react in certain ways. Like if they were inverted exoskeletons, some mechanical structures coerce the viewers in performing certain movements; others induce a physical reaction from them. With this work, our aim is to question the “cyborgification” of the modern man, as well as how technology imposes its rules upon us.
At the same time as Inferno is being completed, we are also developing the Copacabana Machine Sex performance project. It can be described as a mini Music Hall show where kitsch and machine aesthetics blend together in a single theatrical delirium. More conventional in its form, it involves a succession of different musical numbers where machines perform on stage as actors, musicians and dancers. The performance will be created in a way that it can either be configured for a traditional à l’italienne stage or with viewers standing all around a central ground-level presentation.
Loosely inspired by Chico MacMurtrie’s Robotic Opera (1992), where a small group of humanoid robots performed various percussive musical pieces , the Copacabana project wants to present music-making machines as well as acting and dancing robots. Our goal is not to replicate a real nightclub, but to conceive a metaphorical extravaganza in response to the very deep question: “What would happen if machines would be on the stage of a cabaret?”
Special thanks to Concordia University (Montréal, Canada) for its support; the Canada Council for the Arts; the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec; the Fonds de Recherche du Québec Société et Culture (FRQSC); Martin Peach, who has been a dedicated technician for many years; as well as the numerous graduate and undergraduate students who have been working as research assistants on many of these projects.
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