Report From Artbots 2005
July 15-17, 2005
Saints Michael and John Church
Dublin, Ireland

By Jonah Brucker-Cohen (jonah (at) coin-operated.com)
Link: the Report hosted on Rhizome.org

Held for the first time outside of the US, the 4th annual “Artbots: The Robot Talent Show” took place in Saints Michael and John church in Dublin, Ireland. During an unusually warm summer in Dublin, the yearly event showcased over 20 projects from 10 countries ranging from kinetic art-producing robots to solar robot and scrapyard sound workshops. Organized by Douglas Irving Repetto and curated this year with Michael John Gorman and Marie Redmond, the event featured an even more international group of artists than from previous years coming from as far as South America, Europe, US, and the Middle East. The show was held in conjunction with the larger, summer-long “Save The Robots” festival about the culture and history of robots organized by The Ark, a cultural center for children located in the heart of Dublin’s Temple Bar district.

Upon entering the venue, visitors were greeted by Venezuelan artist Elias Crespin’s “Malla Electrocinetica #1”, a mesh of 64 nodes hanging from the ceiling that subtly moved in a wave above the entrance stairwell. This piece’s delicate movements were as intricate as they were beautiful and precise. Moving further along the first level and down the hall was Will Tremblay and Rob Gonsalves’ “Wave Puppet”, a physical simulation of waves across the ocean’s surface. Following a similar aesthetic to Crespin’s work, the project was built from a combination of servomotors, acrylic walls, and a rubber surface that bent forward and backwards like a steady moving wave.

As the entrance hallway extended, there were two workshops that allowed visitors to the event to build their own robots or musical instruments. Ralf Schreiber and Tina Tonagel’s “60 minutes bot” workshop integrated simple electronic components including wires, electric motors and solar panels to create simple bots that exhibited varied movements based on their exposure to light in a small exhibit space. The second workshop, which I ran with Katherine Moriwaki, was called “MIDI Scrapyard Challenge” and allowed visitors to create musical controllers out of cast off or discarded materials found in local junk shops and in the refuse bin of local computer labs. Both workshops engaged participants from varied age groups to get involved in the creation of robots and electronic instruments with little or no previous knowledge of electronics.

Further down the hallway along the walls was “Sketch of a field of grass (dunes, Pacific Coast, 2005)” by Ryan Wolfe. The project consisted of a row of mechanically controlled blades of grass that responded to each other’s movements mimicking a breeze blowing through a field. The simplicity of this array of grass was a nice reminder of how natural movements can be emulated through simple motorized controllers. Across the walkway was Amanda Parkes and Jessica Banks’s “Curiously Strong”, an array of 250 mechanically controlled Altoid’s tins that opened and closed as a large kinetic sculpture.

Moving into the main exhibition space, robots exhibited ranged from those that created art as a byproduct of their movements to those that questioned the very definition of mechanical or autonomous art. Bruce Shapiro’s “Ribbon Dancer” was two long metal arms mounted on a banister that moved wildly around the space with ribbons attached to the ends. Their actions resulted in a lively and fluid stream of animated fabric high in the air. Further along the far wall was Sabrina Raaf’s “Translator II: Grower”, a mechanical robot that measured carbon dioxide levels in the room and drew green blades of grass of varying heights along the walls. This type of immediate analysis of the environment was a nice constant reminder of our own physical output manifested by the machine. Further across the room was local Dublin artist Peter O’Kennedy’s “Escape”, a collection of 15 small mouse-shaped robots all attempting to move towards a single passageway that was only big enough for one of them. This simple concept proved addictive to watch as the small bots scurried towards an awkward freedom.

Though not a competition, Artbots awards two prizes each year: one to the artist’s choice and one for the audience choice. This year’s audience favorite was Garnet Hertz’s “Cockroach-controlled Mobile Robot #2”. Hertz’s robot consisted of a large Madagascan Hissing Cockroach perched atop a modified trackball that controlled a three-wheeled robot. As the cockroach tried to move forward, its feet caught on the trackball, pushing the robot ahead. Thus allowing the roach to “drive” the robot around depending on its activity. This bot got a lot of stares from pedestrians as Hertz took it out to a local square to give it more space to manouver. The artist’s favorite prize was awarded to Elias Crespin’s kinetic mobile described earlier.

Also located in the main exhibition space was the masochistic “Shockbot Corejulio”, a computer-based device that affected its own behavior by placing a piece of metal over its exposed circuit board. With each touch from the metal, the bot consequently “shocked” itself causing the graphics output of the screen to change. The resulting display resembled a Mondrian painting which became more and more abstract the further the bot was shocked. Moving down into the basement of the church, “Nervous”, by Bjoern Schuelke, consisted of small, bright orange, furry objects that coated the walls of the space. As you got closer and touched them, they began to shake and emit nervous sounds. This project was a nice simulation of the “human side” to artificial life and a reminder of the “fragility” of automated creatures.

As the show came to a close, it was evident that automated or mechanized art is not dependent on the creation itself. Most of the work in the show came to life with audience involvement and through the individual perception each participant and author brought to the works. Throughout its four year existence, Artbots has presented a sample of work that re-defines what “robotic art” is or how it could be perceived (see the website for a list of all works included). Each of the works in this year’s show were unique reminders that technological art can produce the same visceral reaction usually associated with traditional art forms. The kinetic nature of the works adds a relational aspect for the viewer who can project their own experience on the piece. This remarkable quality to the work and high standard of curation from a yearly open call, has turned Artbots into one of the most unique and eclectic electronic art festivals worldwide.