The space Central Tejo, belonging to the MAAT Museum, opened itself to robotics in a very special exhibition. Among the machinery of the industrial archeology of the former coal-fired power station, we could find the most varied types of robots. In exhibition Hello Robot: Design Between Human and Machine, visitors were challenged to discover the state of the art of this technology. But also to reflect on their social and cultural impacts. This event invited visitors to discover artistic projects and machines with which we already interact in our day to day. It reminded us that the future dreamed by Science Fiction is already the new normal of the present day.
A Museum at the Intersection of Art and Technology
When it was created, MAAT assumed the express position of becoming a space for reflection at the intersection of art and technology. A different proposal for the Portuguese cultural world, where the intersections between erudite and technological cultures are usually considered an anathema, and reflecting on the impact of technology on society rarely goes beyond superficial discourses in the media. Part of the programming for this museum focuses directly on these themes, and so far, the curators have brought us very bold proposals.
With Utopia / Dystopia, MAAT brought to the Portuguese public critical reflections on contemporary themes, mediated by digital art. Themes ranged from the hypervigilance society to the aesthetics of drones, as well as the social effects of mobile technologies and urbanism. The aesthetics that lies at the intersection between visual and technological cultures was well demonstrated in the exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames. In it, the public could discover artifacts created by this couple of designers who were focused on the early days of the information society.
Perhaps the most compelling of the exhibitions brought to us by MAAT was Electronic Superhighway. Commissioned by London’s Whitechapel Gallery, touched on two key points in digital art. On the one hand, recalled artifacts from the early days of computer art, with algorithmic drawings and digital installations from the 1960s and 1970s, including from the legendary exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity. On the other hand, drew on the work of contemporary artists who question our relationship with digital technoligies and its social, cultural and economic impacts.
Clearly, MAAT intends to be more than an iconic building by the Tagus river. The building itself is a reflection on the relationship between technology and culture. Its sinuous forms and location invite the eye of photographers, and is a stage for endless succession of selfies primed for social networks. The building, highly instagrammable, seems to have been created to challenge the camera of visitors mobile phones. However, the cultural programming is very solid, not the superficiality of tourist attractions. It’s a permanent invitation to reflection and aesthetic challenge, wich dares to bridge the gap between art and technology. Two worlds that are traditionally seen as culturally separate, though the new generations of artists, who have grown up in technologically saturated media, are changing that.
Hello Robot: Design Between Human and Machine fits perfectly into these concepts. This exhibition was curated by the Vitra Design Museum and the Ghent Design Museum in collaboration with ABB. At the outset, promises to reflect on the intersection between design and robotics, focusing on the humanization of the robot. However, the diversity of artifacts and projects exposed goes beyond these assumptions. Visiting this exhibition is to delve into the fascination for robots, in their myths and reality, in their evolution, and in the contemporary ideology of overcoming human limits through technology. The aesthetic experience is in constantly confronted with basic concepts of a culture mediated by technology. An art museum is not the place where we would expect to reflect on industry 4.0, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, or economical applications of robotics.
The spaces of the exhibition were designed to lead the visitor to discover the various cultural impacts of robotics. The visit began with an area dedicated to the visions we have of this field, shaped by the popular culture of literature and science fiction films, cartoon, anime and toys. It was a space of nostalgia, interspersed by some avant-garde artistic projects that reflect on the aesthetics of the drones. Paradoxically, it was where I saw bored teens, consulting their social profiles on mobile phones, while adults waxed enthusiastic around artifacts of popular culture on display. This was the space where mechas coexisted with an R2D2, Metropolis movie posters and Japanese robot toys from the 1950s.
Present and Future of Robotics
After nostalgia,came the contact with the industry. The next step in the exhibition course showed cutting-edge applications of robotics in industry, interspersed with arts projects. Registered were the use of 3D printing robots by the MX3D studio to build a metal bridge in Amsterdam, or machines that manufacture furniture prototypes. Among the visions of factories of the future, where robotic arms print, cut and assemble the production, were two industrial equipments. An ABM YuMi robot showed its dexterity and coordination of two arms to push marbles. It’s an awesome feat of programming and precision actuators. Besides it, a Kuka mechanical arm wrote a text. An action which is meaningful to the visitors, but not to the machine. For it, the words he drew on paper are just a set of coordinates that determined his movements.
Humanizing robotics was the theme of the next exhibition zone. The theme was evident in technological artifacts and artistic projects, displayed with a deliberate intention to mix utilitarian machines with speculative visions. In this space, visitors were faced with robots like Paro, a robotic seal for geriatric psychological care, the big data and connected artificial intelligence device Alexa, an Aibo mechanical dog by Sony or the intangible bots of software able to talk on the internet. There were also clearly artistic designs, like a disassembled android, or a baby crib serviced by a robotic arm.
We, the Robots, and Ourselves
In this exhibition, reflecting on robotics deeply involved artistic projects. One of the areas of the exhibition was devoted to the work of artists who analyze and question our cultural and emotional relationship with intelligent objects. The last area led the visitors to discover the potential of overcoming human limits through technology. 3D printed fashion, mechanical prostheses, stigmergic technologies (which mimic intelligent behaviors found in nature) and exo-skeletons make up the core of objects displayed on this area.
The logic of this exhibition is clear: lead visitors to reflect on the humanization of the robot, which is no longer just an industrial machine, but an auxiliary, and companion in our ordinary lives. Even if we do not have any robotic gizmos moving around the house, it is inevitable to interact with software robots when we use digital services. Hello Robot leads us to reflect on the robot’s role in culture. Assembled like a cabinet of curiosities, with a huge diversity of representative and iconic artifacts, allows visitors to reflect and speculate. Visiting this exhibition made us feel invaded by the fascination for these mechanisms, learn about their present applications, speculate on their role in human relations, economy and society. This was a space between the nostalgia of science fiction and the accelerated futurism of transhumanism, interspersed with the reality of contemporary robotics.