Watching robots that have a human grace to their movement is mesmerizing, beautiful, and disconcerting. Rhizomatiks, YASKAWA Electric, and the Japanese dance troupe ELEVENPLAY teamed up to create an advanced display of synchronization and human-robot interaction in a performance. Not only did they achieve this synchronization, but they did it through one of the the most complex, coordinated, and nuanced types of movement - dance.
Motion, produced in 2016, is a display of technology, choreography, and visual effects and projections. The piece features six custom designed stationary YASKAWA robots arranged across the stage and opens with only the machines. They slowly come to life one by one with a simple gestures made by their robotic arms as they each “stand up” (each robot has a joint that gives the appearance of a waist). The robots otherwise do not directly resemble people. They don’t have heads or faces, an interesting decision by the artists as they worked to humanize the technology. This humanization was successful in that the viewer constantly draws comparisons between the human dancers, and the robots and finds a real congruency. After the robots have introduced themselves and displayed their mechanical nature by moving and stacking large cubes (an act reminiscent almost of an assembly line), five dancers appear and begin to move in sync with one another.
Rhizomatiks is a Japanese art collective directed by artist, programmer, and designer Daito Manabe. The collective has a large and impressive body of body of collaborative design and research work. Other recent projects involve exploring wearables, synesthesia, interactive electronic and sound displays, AR, and the relationship between humans and drones.
The choreography in Motion initially features the five dancers and six robots moving together in a contemporary, and slightly, well, robotic dance style. The magic really happens when the piece moves into duets between one dancer and one robot moving in sync. When viewers start watching this piece, it initially feels like the robots are following the dancers, but when the duets begin the timing is perfect. There is truly a harmony, a push and pull. At times, the arms and bending of the dancers’ bodies appear to be following the robots. The Japanese Media Arts Festival wrote on their website about the performance of Motion taking place at the festival:
This piece is greatly enhanced by complex projection mapping on the floor, the screen behind, and the blocks stacked around the stage. In a particularly stunning moment the artwork on the back screen and the performers rotate together 90 degrees in the same direction. The effect is very well executed and adds to the performance of the dancers and robots on stage. These visual effects are also synced beautifully with the bright yet mechanical soundtrack that one immediately notices as the piece begins. It is music, but feels more like perfectly timed sound effects that accentuate the movement.
Motion and its presentation of a collaborative and joint performance between humans and robots speaks to a larger theme being investigated by many artists in the digital practice today. In his work 3-Story Robots, interactive installation artist Ken Rinaldo known for his works looking at human and machine relationships speaks very directly on this topic of symbiosis between the two. 3-Story Robots is an installation work featuring a 3ft tall robotic head that tells the viewer a story reflecting on human and robot interaction and integrations from the year 2047. Worth noting is the role of a robot as storyteller, an age old human tradition. The installation also features a video projection created by Rinaldo adding detailed visuals to the story being told. The robot’s story describes the rapidly developing relationships between humans, plants, and animals with partially-living robots and intelligent nano-particle dust that saturates all living things and provides endless data and enhanced inter-species communication.. The 10 minute story and video touch on many of the difficult questions we face as our machines become more intelligent including humans being replaced in the workplace by robots and manipulated through in depth reading of our hormones and emotions.
3-Story Robots is a fascinating addition to the dialogue that Motion initiates about humans leading or being led by robots. While Rhizomatiks’ approach to the topic is more subtle, visual, and interpretive than Ken Rinaldo’s, both works stir up the same questions for the audience and create some discomfort in their beautiful portrayals of the future for humans and machines.
The work Sculpture Factory by sculpture and installation artists Quayola adds another perspective to this dialogue on human-machine relationships. This particular piece explores the ability of a robot to mimic traditional sculpting technique and create human figures. This installation allows the viewer to both watch the robotic arm carve away at the blocks creating a sculpture of a human figure, as well as view a progression of the sculptures with different stages of completion. Quayola stops the robot from carving on some pieces very early, while on others it is allowed to create a very detailed partial figure with smooth musculature. At first glance this work may seem to be a quieter voice in this dialogue on robot and human symbiosis, but the simplicity of a robot creating human figures as art in a very traditional way is a very significant commentary in reality. Can robots create artwork about human life with more precision than we can?
Sculpture Factory, is very similar to Motion in that the piece hinges on a direct relationship and mimicry between machine and artist. Motion looks at dancers and robots dancing together and leading one another. The robot artist in Sculpture Factory needs its creator to program the artwork that it carves, but the machine also takes over the practice of sculpting and adds a new perspective of its own through the process of a sculpture’s creation. When a viewer realizes that this intricate human figure was created by a robot, it challenges them to place robots and humans on a similar level in their minds. Human creating machine, and machine creating human art.
Whether creating our artwork, dancing alongside us, or augmenting our abilities or replacing us altogether our relationships with robots and advancing technologies are changing our future. Rhizomatiks and countless other artists are asking the difficult and necessary questions about a world with an increasing presence of robots through their works.