VISUAL ART | HELLO, ROBOT
U S, R O B OTS
The relationships humans have with robots have never been closer or more complex. David Pollock looks at V&A Dundee’s new exhibition which explores the design links between people and machine
I n 2019, the word ‘robot’ takes on a new, wide-ranging and potentially more sinister meaning than it did during those 20th century days of sci-fi machines with strangely human characteristics. You can meet one of those classic robots here in the shape of Star Wars’ R2-D2, but as those who have seen the last two major exhibitions at V&A Dundee might expect, this new show will dig thoroughly through the history and the contemporary applications of robotics, including the way artificial intelligence is colonising even the simplest of our everyday devices.
‘Hello, Robot looks at the relationship which humans have with robotics, and how design is helping to achieve that,’ says Kirsty Hassard, curator of the show for V&A Dundee (the original exhibition is a collaboration between Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, MAK Vienna and Design Museum Gent with Dundee’s slightly adapted version the only touring stop it will have in Britain). ‘Unlike other robotics exhibitions which have been seen in the past, which tend to be chronological and retrospective, this one is more thematic and probing.’ The show itself is split, explains Hassard, into four parts. ‘The first looks at how we first encounter robots, which for most people is through science fiction or popular culture, such as film, television, comics or music. These experiences help shape our opinions of robots. This part is a more familiar museum set-up, but already the show begins to ask us questions about our relationships with robots.’ Here is where the crowd-pleasers appear such as R2-D2 and an original poster from Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis. But as the exhibition progresses, the themes become more current; the second section, for example, is about automation in the workplace. ‘This idea of robots taking our jobs is a theme that’s present in the media at the moment,’ says Hassard, ‘but the exhibition takes an optimistic view, which is
to say that the relationship is a collaborative one, where robots and humans work alongside one another.’ The other sections dig even more intensely into our possible future links with robots, discussing the applications in healthcare, whether they might ever be able to replicate human emotions, and the ways in which humans and robots are converging. Exhibits will include a blend of robotic devices which have already been put to general use, and a number of speculative scientific projects.
‘We have some objects throughout the exhibition by the artist and designer Dan Chen,’ says Hassard. ‘His work focuses on these relationships between humans and robots, and one piece is called “End of Life Care Machine”, which might sound pretty grim. This machine taps a dying person on the hand and plays them a video with a reassuring message; it was designed as a research project which was intended to ask whether we might ethically or morally want such a thing to exist; but people have actually asked him to develop it.’ There will also be a special commission for this leg of the tour, a structure outside the museum designed by ‘robotic architecture practice’ Gramazio Kohler of ETH Zurich. ‘It will be inspired by Scottish vernacular architecture, made out of wooden beams and dowels, but fabricated by robots,’ says Hassard. ‘The construction of it demonstrates what the exhibition reflects, that something like this can’t be done without a collaboration between humans and robots. In the media and popular culture there’s no middling opinion on robotics: they’re either going to save us or destroy us. This exhibition is so timely, probing both why we feel that and how those feelings might change in the future.’
Hello, Robot, V&A Dundee, Sat 2 Nov–Sun 9 Feb.
P H O T O
: J O N A S V O G T
132 THE LIST 1 Nov 2019–31 Jan 2020