Dancing machine

September 30, 2008 — September 30, 2008

making things

First published in Realtime magazine.

That huge foyer in the front of Carriageworks: commodious enough to play jump-rope in, and wholesome enough too. It’s a chunk of light cut from the atmosphere in a heavy industry sized serving, populated in work hours by those expert occupiers of knee-grazing surfaces, small running children.

Then, you enter the show in bay 21, and nothing could be more distant than the memory of that air and light.

When the double door thumps shut I can see only the stippled patterns on my retina in the dark. A beam of light pins me from above, radiating from a transparent dome two armspans above my head, just over … there. It stirs, glides toward me, revealed as the crowning cupola atop a towering robot. Wearing a gigantic bustled dress.

The scale of the creature makes the theatrical dimensions of the space seem domestic, even claustrophobic; I’m the one built on the wrong scale, an interloper in another’s intimate space. My illuminated host makes me welcome nonetheless, stopping an alarming few centimetres away for a curtsy. It (she?) mumbles some indecipherable pleasantry, and as the lights and the sound swell, I can see the room throngs with these enormous things, marking out the sporadic steps of a disjointed dance that I seem to be the only one not to know.

If these creatures owe something to the Victorian automata to whom their creator claims a debt, then it is the Victorian fashion. Their clothes are a pastiche of dress gowns, corsets, lace and military paraphernalia, an alien forensic anthropologist’s reconstruction of a Southern plantation ball demolished by stay cannon shot, familiar but dissonant.

Their performance, lacks the endless repetition of those parlour automata. These are unsettlingly interactive, personal, provoking, narrative. Each robot approaches in turn, offers some vocal non-sequitur (“Do you love me?”) and then pirouettes, inviting me hopelessly to some dance you would surely need prostheses to participate in. I intuit with unease that my faculties are inadequate for the social world of these creatures, and find my ears trying to demodulate the drones that fill the room as a modem decodes signals from a telephone line. Have I stumbled onto a mechanical rehearsal for some obtuse celebration? Are these machines taken aback to find a human among them half way through their private training in the finer points of the graces of the fleshed? Or is that what they want from me? This performance doesn’t feel like spectacle — rather it fills me with the suspicion that I am the spectacle. As the indecipherable noise spilling from the gramophone horns crescendos, it becomes so close in there that it feels an effort to breathe. I go.

It’s not only the lace trimming that links this show to Wade’s earlier robotics experiment, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie Robot. In both, Wade plumbs the crevices of the shifting contemporary anthropology of robotics, and it is we punters who are on display, with the grating awareness of self that uncertainty about our observers provides. What are these beings? If the society of the 1800s was taken in by Wolfgang von Kempelen’s notorious hoax Mechanical Turk, are we perhaps more vulnerable to that same hoax today? How much looser might the criteria be now for an entity to merit social pleasantries, in this age of digitally mediated conversation, public surveillance, machine learning? There is a kind of inversion of the panopticon here. I know I am watched, but I do not know truly by what. Is it another of Wade’s telepresence hoaxes, or some automated trickery, or perhaps something more unnaturally intelligent? Is the moment at hand when we reprise out ancient animism, when we catch ourselves being polite to our appliances, just in case there is an intelligent mind of any sort peering back at us through their lenses that we might offend? Are we anticipating the time that our contraptions will accuse us of being mere imitations? In my case, I am startled and sheepish at the faint Frankenstein paranoia that characterise my bit part in this gothic techno social comedy of manners.

I do have to say, though, those preschoolers from the foyer love it.

Dan MacKinlay teaches web interactives at UTS, and should know better than to succumb to this kind of superstition

The Hosts: A Masquerade Of Improvising Automatons 14 August — 12 September Media artist/artistic director; Wade Marynowsky, Electrical engineer; Aras Vaichas, Programmer; Jeremy Apthorp, Lighting; Mirabelle Wouters Costume; Sally Jackson, Camera; John Douglas, Edit; Sumugan Sivanesan.