Worlds of robots and art collide at Dublin exhibition

 

The organisers aim to be as inclusive as possible and not all the pieces on show involve high-tech computer wizardry, writes Robin O'Brien Lynch

Robots are so ubiquitous in modern science that the term has lost most of its potency; from space exploration to the operating theatre, whole fields of research are conducted using automated devices.

In the popular imagination however, the word "robot" generally creates one of two images - the science-fiction world of I, Robot, in which robot slaves become intelligent and turn on human masters, or the television show Robot Wars, where home-made robots bash and destroy each other.

The popularity of Robot Wars across the globe was one of the reasons New Yorker Douglas Repetto was inspired to set up "Artbots", an exhibition that gives artists who work with robotics a chance to show their work. It comes to Ireland this weekend for its fourth annual exhibition as part of the Ark's "Save the Robots" festival in Temple Bar.

"There has been an increased interest in robots over the past few years, mainly because of Robot Wars and those sort of competitions, which is cool, but it's also putting forth the idea that working with robots has to be something macho or competitive. It can also be a quiet, delicate medium and we need to get that side of things out there," says Repetto, who teaches at Columbia University in New York.

"We knew that there were a lot of people out there doing this sort of thing and we thought it would be great to get them all into one venue."

This is the first year Artbots has been held outside New York and it will feature 19 pieces by artists from all over the world. At last year's exhibition, Repetto met Dr Michael John Gorman, robot enthusiast and curator of the Save the Robots festival.

An Irishman teaching at Stanford University in California, Gorman suggested taking Artbots to Dublin more in hope than expectation, but Repetto loved the idea of Artbots being "a movable feast".

The setting of Saints Michael and John's Church in Temple Bar may seem an unusual one for a robot exhibition, but Repetto is delighted with it, particularly with the cavernous annex - formerly a school for the church and subsequently part of the short-lived Dublin Viking Adventure Centre.

"When we first got here the place was strewn with debris but it's great because down here it's a very spooky, dark place, which is perfect for some of the more mellow pieces," says Repetto.

"It's cool because you're bringing robots, which are supposedly high-tech into this semi-decrepit space, which seems like it's falling down around you.

"We chose the church because it's very varied and there are a lot of different places, which gives us the chance to find the right spot to exhibit each piece."

As well as the dark, stone-walled annex, there is the main chamber with its stained-glass windows and high roof, dark rooms for pieces which feature light installations and a glass walkway above Essex St West connecting the two parts of the building.

Not all the exhibits rely on high-tech computer wizardry. Lara Greene is a sculptor living in Edinburgh. Her piece, You move me, looks like the traditional idea of a humanoid robot but uses no computers or motors and is made from steel and bicycle chains, with wooden and steel levers to control it.

"It's an exercise in group co-ordination and/or discord. Six members of the public are given a lever each which controls one part of body and they try to move her in harmony," says Greene.

"She's a kind of dancer and the dance represents the level of co-ordination. It's interesting to see what will happen."

Greene will be around at all times in case anything should break.

A lot of the pieces can be very fragile and the materials needed to build them to last for long periods sends cost spiralling. This is why the exhibition is held over a weekend, when all the artists can be present for troubleshooting, rather than over a period of weeks or months.

Canadian artist Erika Lincoln's Scale uses motors, amplifiers and a photoresistor, but she gets around transporting and the risk of anything breaking by using locally sourced materials; dead twigs and fishing line.

The piece, which is completely programmable, resembles a central spine with vertebrae, stuck to the wall of the old annex. The periphery twigs are constantly scratching the wall and, as the viewer get closer, the scratching gets faster.

The wood is controlled by a small motor and the ends of the twigs brush off contact microphones, flat discs stuck to the wall. The sound is amplified by PC speakers stripped of their plastic casing and placed in wooden boxes.

A photoresistor picks up a single light beam and, when this is broken, the motor switches the scratching to a higher speed. In theory this is to "make up a primitive sensing and responding system alluding to our own more complex internal systems of perception and action" but also, presumably, to frighten the innocent viewer deep in the bowels of the old church.

Although Scale isn't humanoid, it does represent a vertebrate and is a halfway house between Green's traditional style robot and Ryan Wolfe's Sketch of a field of grass. Wolfe's project consists of 44 nodes with blades of synthetic grass.

"It's a very minimalist piece. It's basically blades of grass which run the length of the hallway," he says. "Packets of data are passed through them to create a virtual wind. The grass is attached to motive nodes, with wires which hang down to the hardware on the floor, resembling roots."

Each node is also attached to a box of sand and shingle, giving the appearance of nature and taking away the skeletal appearance of the mechanism.

"The movement is half in the grass and half in the technology," says Wolfe.

"You could, if you were extremely skilled with electrics, do this with analogue by passing a current through, but using digital software allows me to have much more control and helps it move as a sculpture."

The concept of Artbots has been left wide open to encourage as many entrants as possible.

"If you think it's a robot and you think it's art, send it in," says Repetto.

"We want to be as inclusive as possible. If somebody's out there working and they come across the site or hear something by word of mouth, we don't want them to be intimidated or put off. We like to see strange stuff. It's always exciting to see something strange."

Artbots is on between noon and 6pm until Sunday in Saints Michael and John's Church on Essex St West in Temple Bar. Admission is free (www.artbots.org).

Save the Robots is on until September 30th in the Ark and around Temple Bar (www.robots.ie)