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Robotic Art
umerus theo jansen Umerus © Theo Jansen

Cité des sciences et de l'industrie in Paris
8 April 2014 - 4 January 2015


Jean Michel Bruyère/LFKs — Le Chemin de Damastès
Shun Ito — Cosmic Birds: Memories of Water, Orbit One, Rendez-vous
Theo Jansen — Strandbeest: Animaris Umerus, Animaris Adulari, Animaris Ordis Longus
Lu Yang —The Project of Seeking for Cooperation with Scientific Teams
Chico MacMurtrie — Totemobile
Maywa Denki — Nonsense Machines: Marimcas, Seamoon, Otamatones
Till Nowak — The Experience of Fliehkraft, The Centrifuge Brain Project, Unusual incident: Windows crossing the street
Christian Partos — The Sorcerer's Apprentice for the 3D Water Matrix
robotlab — The Big Picture
Shiro Takatani — ST\LL for the 3D Water Matrix
Troika— Falling Light

Curator: Richard Castelli

More information


Robotic ArtROBOTIC ART exhibition offers a look at the principle of transformation at work in certain art forms – transformations made possible by the use of technologies developed for the most part since the mid-twentieth century, particularly electronics, computing, bionics, and robotics.

All works of art, even supposedly "unchanging" works like paintings or sculptures, are subject to transformation in the eye of the beholder. They change as much with the viewer's position and situation as with the different states of perception to which they give rise. A work is set in motion from the moment a viewer approaching a work catches sight of it. Whether or not the piece moves, it is integrated into the viewer's movement. And it is, in this way, transformed by this very movement. It becomes several works, one after another. Between the work of art seen initially from a distant point of view and the work examined from very close at hand, there are all the intermediate steps, from the contextual view of the whole object to the extreme close up. Then there's the movement away – the return, so to speak – knowing that after perceiving the work in detail, it will not look the same from the initial position of discovery. The work is continually "re-viewed", its perception corrected at each step of the way. It transforms and is transformed.

There is also transformation at work in the perception of colour and light upon prolonged viewing. Kandinsky, for one, discussed this phenomenon in his On the Spiritual in Art (1912).

According to Bergson, for whom there was nothing but mobility and transformation and who endeavoured to analyse duration's role in perception, the transformation of a work is in permanent motion in the time of seeing it seen and the time of having seen it (Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, 1889).

But passing time does not only change our consciousness of a work of art, it also transforms it materially; it alters it and "makes it other". When patina or patent deterioration appear over time, they become indissociable from the perception of an old artwork. Restoration will not take the piece back to its original state in the distant past. Indeed, instead of congealing it in its origin, it hurls the work into the future. The work is not so much restored as transformed. Instead of being arrested or taken back in time, its transformation is accelerated and it takes a leap forward.

However, the most important of all the transformations in an "unchanging" work proceed from changes in society itself. Independently of a work's physical deterioration or its perfect conservation, independently of the time spend looking at it and the viewing distance, a work of art is not seen, felt, or understood in the same way by generations posterior to its making. It dies as a work of art with its contemporaries and is reborn in the form of a cultural object, which is in itself not an unchanging state. It will continue to follow the movements of perception that are constantly traversing and transforming living cultures.

The works featured in the ROBOTIC ART exhibition integrate transformation as an active principle contemporaneous with the visit of museumgoers. They are what could be called "transformation-powered artworks".
A brief overview of the works presented

An approach informed by a mix of the mechanical and the optical, with a varying emphasis on one or the other, emerged in the twentieth century in the kinetic works of Moholy-Nagy, Soto, Schöffer, and Tinguely, among others. Over time, the use of new materials and technologies considerably expanded the vocabulary of this current of art.

The works featured here are either "robots" themselves (Le Chemin de Damastès, Totemobile, the Animaris, the Nonsense Machines, the Cosmic Birds, etc.) or they are created by one or more "robots" (The Big Picture, the works designed for the 3D water matrix, etc.)

The concrete transformation of commonplace objects as a support for artistic expression is the first category of artworks featured in ROBOTIC ART exhibition.

Jean Michel Bruyère / LFKs' Le Chemin de Damastès, with its 21 computer-animated hospital-type beds, forms a sculpture at once monumental, by the 50 meters that the installation requires, and sensorial, by the near breathing motion of the beds. It evokes, among other things, the bizarre practices of an ancient brigand who did not appreciate the physical disparities between human beings.

The transformation in Theo Jansen's work is expressed through the methodical reiteration of the folding of electric PVC tubes, based on a Modulor that could call to mind le Corbusier's if it had not been determined by the artist with fumbling input from a most primitive computer from the past century. Through this reiteration, the artist becomes the demiurge of generations of creatures, the Animaris, which evolve by mutation and natural selection until they become extinct and are replaced by more evolved or adapted generations.
ROBOTIC ART is the occasion to discover the Animaris Umerus, his longest and most highly "evolved" creature, regularly set in motion during the exhibition; the Animaris Ordis Longus that can be activated by the public; and the Animaris Adulari, which will, for its part, remain at rest.

Totemobile by Chico MacMurtrie / Amorphic Robot Works is a tribute to a twentieth-century icon, already celebrated by Roland Barthes in one of his essays in Mythologies: a fullscale Citroën DS. The car transforms in a few minutes to an 18-meter-high totem, nearly touching the roof of the Cité des sciences et de l'industrie in the process, and this it does without recourse to Hollywood special effects. Then, even more impressively it turns back, twice as fast, into an automobile.

The unique support for robotlab's work for many years has been a robot that is mainly used in the car industry. After the robot record player, the robot keyboard player, the robot portraitist, and the robot copyist, it was time for the robot to tackle a long-term pictorial undertaking : it will take it no less than nine months – that is, the duration of the exhibition – and one felt-tip pen per day to finish this great work of art entitled The Big Picture.

Some artists draw inspiration from space, like Shun Ito, or from nature, like Maywa Denki and Troika, to create manifold universes peopled with many creations, a number of examples of which are on view in the exhibition.

For a number of years Shun Ito has been making Cosmic Birds that seem to defy gravity and approach the very old but still contemporary dream of perpetual motion – perpetual like the meeting of small planets in Rendez-vous, the star journey in Orbit One, and the continual appearance of nebula in Memories of Water.

Maywa Denki was the name of a once prosperous electrical firm, put out of business during the oil crisis in the 1970s. It was taken over years later by the founder's offspring to "produce" objects informed as much by absurdity as by a keen aesthetic sense. Novmichi Tosa, the firm's current CEO, draws inspiration notably from mountain flowers and a variety of fish for his Nonsense Machines. He presents a trio composed of two Marimcas (xylophones in the shape of edelweiss) and one Seamoon (singer with a rubber vocal cord), along with his latest “products”: the Otamatones.

Troika recreates the concentric waves produced by raindrops on water in light form using a combination of moving magnifying glasses and LEDs.

Till Nowak and Lu Yang favour a more documentary approach to creation. The former tells the story of a research institute working on (or rather against) gravity; the latter presents illustrated plans for works that could be invented in the future with the help of scientists.

With The Centrifuge Brain Project, a documentary on the Institute for Centrifugal Research and The Experience of Fliehkraft, a collection of plans for research applications in the field of amusement park rides, Till Nowak retraces the history of an institute without parallel in the world.
In the film Unusual Incident: Windows Crossing the Street, he captures a group of windows leaving the façade of one building and crossing over to another on the other side of the street.

Lu Yang uses the exhibition as an opportunity to present five of her projects and reiterate her proposal to scientists to work with her on them. Will she succeed in persuading them to collaborate with her on the making of an acupuncture piano, a quartet of mice, a frog leg ballet, a learning accelerator, or a computer-controlled human hand?

Christian Partos and Shiro Takatani / Dumb Type are the first artists to create works for the 3D liquid matrix.
The 900 computer-controlled electrovalves on the 2.4-meter square grid can be used to make 3D liquid sculptures or animations. Both artists are already known for their past work with water in all its forms (Christian Partos with fountains and water drops; Shiro Takatani with ice and mist) and with light (Christian Partos with moving LEDs and bulbs; Shiro Takatani with Dataflash and video).

These are all metamorphoses in which robots escape their usual form of androids to become either the subjects or the actors.

Richard Castelli
Exhibition Curator
Translated from the French by Gila Walker