Sep 152010

Can a jointed-arm robot, which is usually found on some assembly line, be art? The artist group Robotlab thinks ‘yes’ and sends industrial robots to museums around the world where they sing and dance, write and paint.

The two elderly ladies stare flabbergasted at the strange thing in front of them. It is completely out of their world. But so is the orange jointed-arm robot when you consider the fact that it’s standing in an art museum and performing a seemingly random ballet while humming ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Happy Birthday’ with its motors. The ladies’ reactions couldn’t be more different: A joyous “Listen, it’s music!” is greeted by a grumpy “What a dreadful noise, when does it stop?” If anyone questions the business of a robot as an exhibit in an art museum, these ladies are the answer. Putting things out of context, playing with cultural routines and forcing the viewer to reflect and react – all this can only be described as, well, art.

A jointed-arm robot writes the New Testament.

The people behind all this are Matthias Gommel, Martina Haitz and Jan Zappe, or Robotlab for short. The three work as associated artists at the ZKM, the Center for Art and Media, in Karlsruhe. Their installation ‘instrument’ is currently on display at the Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe as an eye-, or better, earcatcher for an exhibition about music culture in Baden-Württemberg. A KUKA KR 16 six-axis robot is mounted on a strong wooden baseplate for better resonance. Its movements are programmed so that the device-related sounds of the motors, gears and joints are perceived as music. The ‘Badnerlied’, the national anthem of Baden, is causing quite a stir among the museum’s visitors.

A stir which has marked Robotlab’s work right from the beginning ten years ago. In 2000, the group fenced off a section in the foyer of the ZKM and set up a public workshop with nothing more than a borrowed industrial robot, a few computers and tons of wild ideas. Under permanent scrutiny of the museum’s visitors and in interaction with them, the three went about programming motion sequences and soldering circuit boards – essentially playing with the artistic possibilities of their ‘medium’. “We were fascinated by the physical aspects of a robot, its unique ability to transform mere information into real space,” recalls Zappe. “Another motivation was to confront the general public with a robot and see what happens.” For engineers it might be an everyday item, but for the man on the street – and the lady in the museum – a real industrial robot is quite a novel experience. They might have seen pictures of these mechanical arms on industrial assembly lines, but to witness first-hand the surprisingly high speed and utmost precision of these massive machines has quite an effect on people. It is this effect the three artists are interested in.

Robots out of Context

“Those six weeks of ‘aesthetics and power’ was a very intense time,” remembers Zappe. “The ZKM is one of the major focal points for media art in the world and we got a lot a feedback from visitors, technicians and visiting artists.” What started as a one-time project sparked other performances and slowly evolved into the now world-renowned artist group Robotlab.

A manifest-writing robot.

Today, Robotlab operates four ‘artworking’ robots, all of them KUKA six-axis robots. The choice of robot manufacturer for their first project was more coincidental. Being artists, the three just went for a nice, bright signal colour and a pleasing design and were lucky that the robotics specialist from Augsburg was willing to provide a robot for free. Only later was an additional historical connection discovered. The ZKM is housed in an old industrial building which was once owned by the IWKA, the Industriewerke Karlsruhe Augsburg, a holding for several automation companies. One of these companies happened to be KUKA which, after reorganisation, later became the new holding. “But that’s more of an anecdotal connection,” Zappe is eager to add, “except for their generous supply of robots we are not associated with the company. We are just another customer.”

Maybe not just any customer. The service hotline in Augsburg rarely gets a call from someone who wants to squeeze millions of commands into a single motion sequence or plans to use a six-axis robot as a record player.

The ‘juke bots’ are one of the early works of Robotlab. Two jointed-arm robots are surrounded by a set of vinyl records. Alternately, the robots grip records, place them under the pick-up arm of a record player and start scratching like a DJ. Quite a spectacle and a sure hit at every party or rave where they perform. “Naturally, the juke bots aren’t as fast as a human scratcher, but the dynamics and acceleration of their movements is much more precise and controllable,” Zappe points out. “But then again, we don’t want our robots to merely imitate humans. They might be doing things we humans do, too, like dancing, humming or scratching, but they do it in their own robot way. Thus, the robot becomes more than just a machine, it can also be perceived as a character, some sort of being. That’s something we want to explore with our work.”

Singing and dancing – one of Robotlab’s installations was called ‘In memoriam Gene Kelly’ – are not the only acts the electric artists perform. Painting is another one of their expertises. In ‘profiler’, a camera snatches the profile of a visitor posing on an illuminated stage. The robot painter then combines several of these profiles to a collage on a whiteboard. In ‘autoportrait’, the strong metal arm becomes a portrait artist translating the camera shot into a felt pen sketch of the visitor’s face – only to erase it shortly after completion.

More than Motion Sequences

Image recognition, tracing contours, translating them into motion sequences for robots, all this is part of the basics for automation experts. “Nice gimmick, but I can do that, too. Where’s the art?” a passing engineer or programmer might think. Jan Zappe smiles; he has heard this a hundred times. “Of course, compared to industrial applications the technical side of these installations isn’t too complicated and relatively easy to replicate,” he laments, thinking of the occasional copyist, “but this is not about technology. The robots, their programs, the cameras and sensors are just a medium, like paint or clay, but art is about what you do with a medium. Some say that our art is too technical, others that our technology is too artistic. It’s this interface we are interested in. We use our robots as ready-mades, much like Duchamp’s bicycle wheel or urinal. By taking them out of their usual industrial context, we present technology as a part of our culture.”

And nothing could be more out of context than a man-sized six-axis industrial robot in a baroque monastery library. As part of the exhibition ‘Play Admont’ in the Benedictine Abbey of Admont, Austria, a robotic arm – much like a monk in the scriptorum – is drawing calligraphic lines with the utmost precision, slowly, stroke by stroke copying the New Testament over a period of five months. According to the artists, the installation ‘bios [bible]’ is focussing on the questions of faith and technical progress. Without any doubt a lot of visitors will question what business industrial equipment has in an abbey and why something so profane is performing an act which was considered a work of faith. A lot to take in for most, making the pun in the title almost superfluous, after all ‘bios [bible]’ somehow insinuates that the Bible might be the BIOS, the firmware, of our western society.

But before even venturing into such intellectual spheres, the Robotlab team generally has to answer some profane questions of their own. What happens when you bombard a robot designed for a couple of dozen commands with 60 million commands? What is the floor load of a baroque library? And where’s the next three-phase current supply? An abbey, or a museum, isn’t exactly an industrial building.

Luckily, the ZKM is. The building of the media museum in Karlsruhe, Robotlab’s home turf, is a former ammunition factory. Here, setting up a robot is never a problem and so, the team’s robots are regulars at the exhibitions. In ‘Imagining Media@ZKM’, a robotic scribe is currently writing manifests which it then, literally, throws at the visitors. The computer program behind ‘manifesto’ randomly combines terms from art, philosophy and technology into eight sentences which are then written down by the robot on a page and flipped from the first floor into the museum. ‘The melancholic and the machine are equal. But what’s the use? (Manifest No 2652, 11. February 2010)’ ‘The discourse was the basis of the magazine. (Manifest No. 2972, 28. February 2010)’ Do these statements make any sense? Certainly not for the robot, this mindless automaton! But nonetheless, we instinctively search for a message, a meaning. Once again, the robot has tricked us in a most artful way.

Matthias Meier
Die Webseite der Künstler mit einem umfangreichen Archiv aller Installationen, vielen Fotos und Videos.
Das Zentrum für Kunst- und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe. In der Ausstellung „Imagining Media@ZKM” ist die Installation „manifest“ noch bis zum 31. 12. 2011 zu sehen.
In der Ausstellung “Play Admont” schreibt der Industrieroboter der Installation „bios [bible]“ noch bis zum 7. 11. 2010 das Neue Testament ab.
Die Ausstellung „ Vom Minnesang zur Popakademie“ im Badischen Landesmuseum Karlsruhe ist leider schon vorbei, auf der Webseite findet sich nur noch ein Rückblick.


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