Robot Partner—Are Friends Electric?
This text examines Doepner’s individually realized works as well as his works within different art collectives from the early 1990s up until today, work that spans the broad field of technology-based art: Van Gogh TV/Piazza Virtuale; Ikit; Playground Robotics: When Robots Play; When Robots Draw: At The Borderline Between Human and Machine; Robot Partner; Living Rooms—Happy End of the 21st Century; Automated Table Modification; DrillBot; NoiseBot, and others. The text focuses on Doepner’s artistic explorations of today’s prevalent reception, use and impact of technology as a materialization of certain systems and techniques that critically influence our daily lives.
This text examines my individually realized work as well as my work in different art collectives from the early 90s until today, work that spans the broad field of technology-based art, including robotics. The text focuses on my artistic explorations of today’s prevalent reception, use and impact of technology.
To discuss my art practice, which stretches over various media and disciplines (art, music, technology, science, urbanism, etc.) within a certain frame—art and robotics—demands a detour before starting to write about concrete projects and the concepts behind them.
The idea of organizing the field of art and its discourse according to a specific medium (sculpture, video, robotics, Internet, etc.) is basically an art historical endeavour, which is still impregnated with the modernist tradition. This tradition is grounded around the idea of medium specificity, which is based on the distinct “materiality” of artistic media and the ability of an artist to manipulate those features that are “unique to the nature” of a particular medium . I studied painting and experimental film, I’ve worked with video, performance, experimental TV, sound, graphics, machines, robots, programs, (kinetic) sculpture, (interactive) installations, urban interventions, etc. I could claim that I couldn’t care less about interpretations of my work, which are medium specificity-based. But, is this really true?
Art historians and theoreticians would probably interpret my reservation to the medium-based approach to art in relation to the so-called post-media/post-medium condition, which undermines the modernist “medium specificity” tradition . But within my daily professional reality (calls and invitations for festivals, exhibitions, catalogues, applications, grants, etc.). I am most often interpellated  as so-called new media-, computer-, robotic- or inter-media artist—basically, just with some more prefixes than was usual some 50 years ago .
If I had to label (the majority of) my art, I would prefer the broader term technology-based art. First, I am convinced that the technology employed—be it a hammer and chisel or an electronic circuit—shapes artistic expression in an important way. And second, more important, as an artist exploring today’s prevalent reception, use and impact of technology in our daily routine I need to understand the technical aspect of technology as well as different conditions behind it. To be able to explore and better understand complex systems—technical, ideological, economic, social, etc.—which are inscribed within technology and also reproduced by technology, I work with technology not just on the level of content and iconography, but also on the level of its “materiality” and in my working methods. This, for me, is politically crucial, and in this sense I have always been keenly interested in de-constructing and re-building technology. In order to interrupt the automated, mechanical, non-reflexive, consumerist relation to technology, I reinvent technology covering the entire creative process—from developing (often in close collaboration with other artists) electronic hardware, circuits, devices, machines, autonomous systems, and even tools/production means to creating artistic interpretations of technological visions. So, yes, even with some of the reservations I mentioned previously, in the end, the medium does matter in my artistic practice. But more than any single medium by itself, the driving force in my art is the exploration of systems, with a particular interest in technology as a materialization of certain systems and techniques that critically influence our daily lives.
It was already in my youth, my formative years being active in the punk and industrial scene, that ruling systems—economy, politics, religion, media, education, etc.—had their first stronger impact on me and I understood them as something that binds us, that is imposed on us, and as something that needs to be challenged. Today, as an artist, I am interested, on the one hand, in penetrating into already existing systems in order to explore and question their aims, procedures and limits, and on the other hand, in creating my own systems—be they electro-mechanical structures, robots or artist-run co-working spaces.
Kicked by this experience, I co-founded the Media Access Bureau in Bremen in 1993 (with Ronald Gonko, Tobias Küch, Tobias Lange, Ole Wulfers, Malcom Dow and others), where we could establish our own conditions. The place grew instantly into a public media atelier equipped with a fax, Internet, picture phone, Amiga and Mac workstations, and a restaurant/bar. It functioned as a social and a co-working place, but not that long, because our idealism soon led us into financial problems and we had to close about half a year later.
At the same time, new collaborative relations that developed through the Van Gogh TV project enabled us, a group of students, to invite artists like Mike Hentz and Nicolas Anatol Baginsky to the independent inter-media program that we were organizing at the Bremen art academy. The collaboration with N.A. Baginsky, who became my mentor for the artistic use of electro-mechanical technology, was crucial for me. Nick soon invited me to participate in some of his projects and I had the pleasure to learn by doing under his mentorship. Through working with him, I acquired an understanding of working with machines, robots and electronic systems from the perspective of a sculptor—how to develop, construct and use this machinery in order to sculpt a situation or a space.
By working with Nick, I also got the opportunity to work with some acknowledged artists from the so-called machine art scene , and that prompted me to define my own position in the world of art and technology. Furthermore, it became even more clear to me that the complexity of working with/in technology would require me to either learn programming and designing electronics on a professional level (or at least a self-sufficient level) or to find partners with necessary technical skills and expertise. I guess because of my affinity for teamwork as well as due to my life course, I found that team in Hamburg, a city that played an important part in my artistic formation.
In 1995, I joined the Trojan Ship [Das Treujanische Schiff] in Hamburg, a 6-month long project initiated by Mike Hentz, who was at that time professor at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts [Hochschule für bildende Künste]. The project was conceived as a kind of a Trojan horse into the academic education system, which often lacks active connection with life outside academic ateliers and classrooms. It took place on a ship, which was docked in the city centre at the famous Fischmarkt and used as a meeting and collaboration venue for students of the Hamburg fine art academy and also for other interested parties to intertwine education, art and life. Concepts that fuelled the Trojan Ship—the idea of art as a research into/for culture, the importance of establishing artist-run spaces, of carrying a full circle of artistic production, of self-organization and taking individual responsibility while working in cooperation, and the importance of making processes public and an important part of the art work—manifested in numerous exhibitions, concerts, lectures, symposiums, performances, parties, etc., and overlapped with my own artistic credo. I was literally living all of that within the medialab@sea, a small shack on the ship filled with ISDN Internet connection, computers and a handful of enthusiasts.
The Trojan Ship brought together Gwendoline Taube, Lars Vaupel and me, and in 1996 we founded the f18institut for Art, Information and Technology as a collaborative platform for artistic exploration of contemporary technology. The core unit of the f18institut soon expanded, integrating additional artists and programmers, with the composition of the group changing over the years, depending on the needs and interests of specific projects (Ole Wulfers, Jan Cummerow, Tom Diekmann, Joachim Schütz, Stora). Teamwork was, from the beginning, our modus operandi, since it creates the most dynamic processes, increases exchange and know-how and fosters individuals towards self-positioning. Already in our first projects we learned how to work collaboratively while at the same time leaving space for individual expression.
f18’s own artistic work has explored systems and techniques characterizing contemporary society (e.g. work, leisure time, science, art, etc.) with a special interest in technology, the promises it carries and the belief it serves. The procedure we have followed was to dive into the world of technology, to explore it through hands-on experience and to achieve our own decoding within it. One of our approaches has been the development of our own tools (computer controls, programs, devices, etc.), which enabled us to enter the world of technology through the “back door” and to create our own positions and possibilities in that context. We have strived to overcome technological glorification and mystification. For this, we believe, it is necessary to work from within—to examine and grasp technology through reinventing it. We have also been interested in giving a twist on the application of technology taken for granted in our daily lives, while at the same time also showing a daily routine as a kind of machinery. In our collaborative projects and also in my own work, familiar situations are interrupted and objects are ripped out of their actual contexts and entrusted with new tasks and meanings.
In the year 2004, f18institut realized an exhibition series under the title Playground Robotics: When Robots Play, an overview of our latest robotic works. Three exhibitions in three different Swiss cities  were presenting our works, robotic works by Swiss artist Jürg Lehni (Hektor) and researcher Raja Dravid (Stumpi) as well as artistic services which f18 realized for other artists (Stelarc’s Exsoskeleton and Andres Bosshard’s rotating loudspeakers Rotobossophone, 2003).
With the Playground Robotics tour, the collaboration of the initial f18institut group ended. We continue to support older projects and work in individual teams on new developments, sometimes still under the f18 label.
In my experience, designing and building robots is a good way to learn about technology and cognition on the basis of trial and error. I have always embraced mistakes and failing as an important part of creative and cognitive processes as well as a conceptual tool with which to address the ideals, promises and beliefs closely attached to technology. What makes it so inspiring to work with robotics for me is that it provides a chance for self-reflection, for understanding your own concepts of behavior, perception, intelligence and corresponding processes like mistakes, routine, prejudices, misinterpretations and the like. When it comes to a situation where a certain circuit, program, etc., does not work according to your aims, you have to look at your own patterns of understanding. Developing robotics involves dealing with a whole bunch of system modules like sensors, behavior, control and mechanics as well as with the factors of human-robot interaction and of the desired or expected environment. In a way, it leads to a kind of artistic bio-digital exploration, a striving to understand the relationship between human beings and digital-electronic associates throughout the whole process, from development to application.
An important project that questions ideals, promises and beliefs that are closely attached to technology as well as exploring the relationship between human beings and digital-electronic associates is Robot Partner. It is a long-term project, or better: a conceptual frame within which I have realized several works that relate to the promise of robots to facilitate our daily living, to make it more efficient and thus better. The project focuses on the concept of partnership between humans and machines and also on the contemporary ideas and images of fortschritt (progress).
Hegel once wrote that the progress of the mind is not yet the progress of happiness. At the present time, it seems obvious to me that promised progress is also only promised happiness. TheLiving Rooms—Happy End of the 21stCentury (2006, with Jan Cummerow)  addresses this ambivalence, since any kind of progress also produces new contradictions and conflicts, and any kind of promise produces new expectations and desires.
TheLiving Rooms works with absurd, travesty, humor, and also with the sense of the uncanny [das Unheimliche], which is achieved especially with the sound element of the installation. This sense of the uncanny includes a peculiar mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar. According to Freud, who elaborated on this concept, the uncanny derives from the known, the familiar, which has at one time gotten suppressed. The uncanny is nothing foreign, or strange per se. It is something that is familiar to our psychological life but has been alienated through the process of suppression. The uncanny is something that should have remained hidden but came to light.
In my aesthetics, form usually follows function, and the artworks often have a kind of a shabby appeal. While examining everyday routine and everyday application of technology, I like to use ordinary items in my works. Living Rooms, for example, does not look like a high-tech, upscale, designed apartment that would rather refer to a near future or a very expensive apartment, but looks ordinary, even cheap or démodé. Objects used in the Automated Table Modification or in the Midi Shelf are also very ordinary, the kind of items one can buy in a corner store and not in a design shop. The aesthetics of my works is also connected to my working methods—I often re-use material and work with whatever might be at hand, which is also a matter of urgency and of finances when one prototypes a lot—as well as to my rather critical position towards the superficial role aesthetics and specifically design can play in our consumerist and commodified culture. In the case of technology, design often predominantly serves the purpose of branding, beautifying and polishing the object of desire—the object that should meet our desires for a better, up-to-date, easier, happier, more efficient life. Design importantly supports constructing these desires that cover a void in a consumerist society. And if design constructs a phantasmatic “surface” to cover this void, then perhaps I am trying to reach through and work with this very void itself.
Even if the Robot Partner project has a certain dystopian view towards technology, especially when it comes to the human-machine relation in the context of consumerist society, I have always found that it is also important to work with a positive attitude towards the utopian aspect of technology—to explore the potentials of technology in its ability to seek for the “different” ways possible. A new degree of value, one that is not in the service of accelerated production, but is a tool for social action. This social function would not be implemented in the tool itself (e.g. as in Facebook, Twitter, you name it!); the tool would just cause the moment or situation wherein these social functions would actually have to be a matter of discussion.
In recent years, I have focused on creating robotic tools for acoustic interventions and performances. These artistic endeavors take the shape of robotized sound instruments and of moving sound and speaker systems (different rotating sound speakers and rotating instruments) that I use on different occasions—concerts, installations, theatrical and other performances.
Moving sound and speaker systems were also the main focus of the Noise Is Us festival, which took place in 2014 at Cirkulacija , an artists initiative based in Ljubljana that I co-founded in 2007. For the festival we developed, in the final step together with the invited artists, an 8-channel sound system composed of different sound-moving and moving sound systems—like turning, swiveling, driving or switching speakers. The user interface has been developed as a kind of technical organism that is conceptually tuned to the social protocol that we’ve been establishing over the years—an interrelated horizontal platform for a free improvisation. It’s based on a very simple bi-directional protocol, MIDI, developed at the end of the 70s as a standard for electronic musical instruments; it is a cross-platform protocol being used by a wide spectrum of applications. Via this protocol, every participating author can connect into the platform with his individual applications and thereby feed and control the motion-sound system, so it is also possible to share control in a group of artists, each of them using their own system but the same protocol. Everyone can connect to this platform, but as it is as unrestricted as possible, any activity could potentially cause problems if it is not “tuned” and integrated regarding the ongoing or planned activities of any other participant, So far, it seems to be an attempt at a wider kind of communication, a step beyond the protocol and a step towards the other, me and the machine.
- 1.The concept of medium specificity was, in the mid-20th century, most notoriously propagated by the American art critic Clement GreenbergGoogle Scholar
- 2.I am referring to three oft-cited conceptualizations of the post-media/post-medium condition. According to Lev Manovich, various cultural and technological developments rendered meaningless one of the key concepts of modern art—that of a medium; still, the old media-based typology of art persists (Manovich L (2001) Post-media Aesthetics. http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/post-media-aesthetics. Accessed 9 March 2015). Peter Weibel’s post-media condition brings about not only the equalization of individual media (as compared to the historic primacy of painting), but also new combinations and mixtures of artistic media (Weibel P (2012) The Post-media Condition. http://www.metamute.org/editorial/lab/post-media-condition. Accessed 9 March 2015). Rosalind Krauss derives from a critique of Greenberg’s media specificity, which is tied to a physical element (flatness of painting, three-dimensional sculpture, etc.), and elaborates on the “knights of the medium” whose works re-invent what art can achieve through a particular medium (Krauss R (2000) A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. Thames & Hudson, London)
- 3.Louis Althusser’s concept of ideological “interpellation” describes the moment and process by which ideology constitutes individuals as subjects. According to Althusser, the ideological social and political institutions and the discourses they propagate “hail” the individual in social interactions, giving him/her his/her identity. By recognizing him/herself in that “hail”, the concrete individual is “always already interpellated” as a subjectGoogle Scholar
- 4.Parallel to these art historical and cultural policy operations that split the art field into different (media-based) branches, I understand the splintering of the art (field) into specific niches and novelties as being determined as well by market operations, through which differences can be easier economizedGoogle Scholar
- 5.See: http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/piazza-virtuale. Accessed 20 Feb 2015
- 6.In the year 1994, Nicolas Anatol Baginsky invited me to work with him in Hamburg for a production with NVA (NVA was founded in 1992 by Angus Farquhar, a former member of the industrial music group Test Dept) at Kampnagel, and on that occasion I also built my first publicly performing machine Butter-Fliege. In 1995, I worked with Nick and Barry Schwartz on the I-Beam Music project as well as assisting at Chico MacMurtrie’s The Amorphic Evolution project, both at “cultural factory” Kampnagel in HamburgGoogle Scholar
- 7.Blue House [Blaues Haus] functioned as the f18 living, working and public space, where we were organizing exhibitions and public events presenting our work and the work of other Hamburg-based artists (Testsequel Present T1, 1997; Testsequel Present T2, 1998)Google Scholar
- 8.At Kampnagel, Hamburg, f18 realized the motorized and computer-controlled installation Drop Outs within the framework of the Junge Hunde program, 1998; and generalpark.de: A Soap-Opera Between Machines, Computer, Video and Sound, 1999Google Scholar
- 9.Playground Robotics: When Robots Play was displayed at the Kornhausforum in Bern; Kunstmuseum and Altes Spital in Solothurn; and Plug. In in Basel. The exhibition series was produced by the Migros Culture Percentage. Later that year, an excerpt of this exhibition project was presented at the Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, SloveniaGoogle Scholar
- 10.Ammann K, Mollet J (2004) Wenn Roboter zeichnen. http://www.kunstmuseum-so.ch/wenn-roboter-zeichnen. Accessed 28 Feb 2015
- 11.The Living Rooms—Happy End of the 21st Century was produced by the SMARt 2006Google Scholar
- 12.Automated Table Modification was produced by the Kapelica Gallery, LjubljanaGoogle Scholar