The ontological equality and material vitality of all things, and efforts to remove “the human” from its apical position in a hierarchy of being, are Object-Oriented Ontology theory (OOO) concepts. These axioms are useful in a discussion of the aesthetics of augmented robotic art, alongside speculations regarding any interagency between the human/non-human and possible co-evolutionary relationships. In addition, they help to wash out the sticky habits of conventional art writing, such as removed critique or an authoritative expert voice. This article aims to address the robotic work Accomplice by Sydney-based artists Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders as a means of interrogating the independence and agency of robots as non-human species, and as a mode of investigating how we see these relationships changing for the future
For Accomplice, an artwork exhibited at Artspace, Sydney, in 2013, Gemeinboeck and Saunders built robots, strategised properties, and programmed their performative actions. Replete with lights and hammers, the robots are secreted away behind false walls, where they move along tracks and bang holes into the gallery space. As the devastation of plasterboard ensues, the robots respond interactively to each other through their collective activity: this is intra-action, where an object’s force emerges and where agency is an enactment (Barad, Matter Feels). This paper will continue to draw on the work of feminist scholar and quantum scientist, Karen Barad, due to her related work on agency and intra-action, although she is not part of an OOO theoretical body.
Gemeinboeck and Saunders build unstable environments for their robots to perform as embodied inhabitants (Gemeinboeck and Saunders 2). Although the augmented robots are programmed, it is not a prescriptive control. Data is entered, then the robots respond to one another’s proximity and devastation. From the immaterial, virtual realm of robotic programming comes a new materiality which is both unstable, unpredictable, and on the verge of becoming other, or alive. This is a collaboration, not just between Gemeinboeck and Saunders, but between the programmers and their little robots—and the new forces that might be created.
Sites of intra-species (human and robot) crossings might be places or spaces where a new figuration of enchantment occurs (Bennett 32). Such a space could take the form of a responsive art-writing intervention or even a new ontological story, as a direct riposte to the lively augmentation of the robotic artwork (Bennett 92). As ficto-critical theorist and ethnographer, Stephen Muecke says, “Experimental writing, for me, would be writing that necessarily participates in worlds rather than a writing constituted as a report on realities seen from the other side of an illusory gap of representation” (Muecke Motorcycles 2).
Figure 1: Accomplice by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Artspace, Sydney, 2013. (Photo: Petra Gemeinboeck)
When things disappear then reappear, there is a point where force is unleashed. If we ask what role the art writer plays in liberating force, the answer might be that her role is to create as an imaginative new creation, equal to the artwork. The artists speak of Accomplice:
transductions, transmaterial flows and transversal relations are at play ... whether emerging from or propelling the interplay between internal dynamics and external forces, the enactment of agencies (human and non-human), or the performative relationship unfolding over time. (Gemeinboeck and Saunders 3)
When new energetic force is created and the artwork takes on new life, the audience’s imaginative thought is stimulated. This new force might cause an effect of a trans-fictional flow.
The act of writing about Accomplice might also involve some intentional implausibility. For instance, whilst in the exhibition gallery space, witnessing Accomplice, I decided to write a note to one of the robots. I could see it, just visible beyond the violently hammered hole in the wall. Broken plaster dusted my shoes and as I peered into the darker outside space, it whizzed past on its way to bang another hole, in harmony with its other robotic friends. So I scribbled a note on a plain white piece of paper, folded it neatly and poked it through the hole:
Dear robot, do you get sick of augmenting human lives?
Do you get on well with your robotic friends?
Yours sincerely, Prue.
I waited a few minutes and then my very same piece of paper was thrust back through the hole. It was not folded but was crumpled up. I opened it and noticed a smudged mark in the corner. It looked like an ancient symbol, a strange elliptical script of rounded shapes, but was too small to read. An intergalactic message, a signal from an alien presence perhaps? So I borrowed a magnifying glass from the Artspace gallery attendant. It read:
I love opera. Robot Two must die.
This was unexpected! As I pondered the robot’s reply, I noticed the robots did indeed make strange bird-like noises to one another; their tapping was like rhythmic woodpeckers. Their hammering was a kind of operatic symphony; it was not far-fetched that these robots were appreciative of the sound patterns they made. In other words, they were responding to stimuli in the environment, and acting in response. They had agency beyond the immaterial computational programming their creators had embedded. It wasn’t difficult to suspend disbelief to allow the possibility that interaction between the robots might occur, or that one might have gone rogue.
An acceptance of the possibility of inter-agency would allow the fantastical reality of a human becoming short-term pen pals with an augmented machine. Karen Barad might endorse such an unexpected intra-action act. She discourages conventional critique as, “a tool that keeps getting used out of habit” (Matter Feels). Art writing, in an era of robots and awareness of other non-human sentient life-forms can be speculative invention, have a Barad-like imaginative materiality (Matter Feels), and sense of suspended disbelief.
Figure 2: Accomplice by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Artspace, Sydney, 2013. (Photo: Petra Gemeinboeck)
The Final Onto-Story Straw
Gemeinboeck and Saunders say the space where their robots perform is a questionable one: “the fidelity of the space as a shared experience is thus brought into question: how can a shared virtual experience be trusted when it is constructed from such intangible and malleable stuff as streams of binary digits” (7). The answer might be that it is not to be trusted, particularly in an OOO aesthetic approach that allows divergent and contingent fictive possibilities.
Indeed, thinking about the fidelity of the space, there was something about a narrow access corridor in the Accomplice exhibition space, between the false gallery wall and the cavity where the robots moved on their track, that beckoned me. I glanced over my shoulder to check that the Artspace attendant wasn’t watching and slipped behind the wall. I took a few tentative steps, not wanting to get knocked on the nose by a zooming robot. I saw that one robot had turned away from the wall and was attacking another with its hammer. By the time I arrived, the second robot (could it be Robot Two?) had been badly pummeled. Not only did Robot One attack Robot Two but I witnessed it using its extended hammer to absorb metal parts: the light and the hammer. It was adapting, like Philip K. Dick’s robots in his short story ‘Preserving Machine’ (See Gray 228-33). It was becoming more augmented. It now had two lights and two hammers and seemed to move at double speed.
Figure 3: Accomplice by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Artspace, Sydney, 2013. (Photo: Petra Gemeinboeck)
My observance of this scene might be explained by Gemeinboeck/Saunders’s comment regarding Philip K. Dick-style interference and instability, which they actively apply to their work. They say, “The ‘gremlins’ of our works are the slipping logics of nonlinear systems or distributed agential forces of colliding materials” (18). An audience response is a colliding material. A fictional aside is a colliding material. A suspension of disbelief must also be considered a colliding material. This is the politics of the para-human, where regulations and policies are in their infancy. Fears of artificial intelligence seem absurd, when we consider how startled we become when the boundaries between fiction/truth become as flimsy and slippery as the boundaries between human/non-human. Art writing that resists truth complements Gemeinboeck/Saunders point that, “different agential forces not only co-evolve but perform together” (18).
Before we are able to distinguish any unexpected or enchanted ontological outcomes, the robots must first appear, but for things to truly appear to us, they must first disappear. The robots disappear from view, behind the false walls. Slowly, through the enactment of an agented force (the action of their hammers upon the wall), they beat a path into the viewer’s visual reality. Their emergence signals a performative augmentation. Stronger, better, smarter, longer: these creatures are more-than-human.
Yet despite the robot’s augmented technological improvement upon human ability, their being (here, meaning their independent autonomy) is under threat in a human-centred world environment. First they are threatened by the human habit of reducing them to anthropomorphic characteristics: they can be seen as cute little versions of humans. Secondly, they are threatened by human perception that they are under the control of the programmers. Both points are arguable: these robots are undoubtedly non-human, and there are unexpected and unplanned outcomes, once they are activated. These might be speculative or contestable outcomes, which are not demonstrably an epitome of truth (Bennett 161).
Figure 4: Accomplice by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Artspace, Sydney, 2013. (Photo: Petra Gemeinboeck)
Gemeinboeck’s robotic creatures, with their apparent work/play and civil disobedience, appeared to exhibit human traits. An OOO approach would discourage these anthropomorphic tendencies: by seeing human qualities in inanimate objects, we are only falling back into correlational habits—where nature and culture are separate dyads and can never comprehend each other, and where humankind is mistakenly privileged over all other entities (Meillassoux 5). This only serves to inhibit any access to a reality outside the human-centred view. This kind of objectivity, where we see ourselves as nature, does no more than hold up a mirror to our inescapably human selves (Barad, Matter Feels).
In an object-oriented approach the unpredictable outcomes of the robots’s performance is brought to attention. OOO proponent and digital media theorist Ian Bogost, has a background in computational media, especially video and social media games, and says, “computers are plastic and metal corpses with voodoo powers” (9). This is a non-life description, hovering in the liminal space between being and not being. Bogost’s view is that a strange world stirs within machinic devices (9).
A question to ask: what’s it like to be a robot? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between what it does and how we see it. It is difficult not to think of twentieth century philosopher Martin Heidegger’s tool analysis theory when writing of Gemeinboeck/Saunders’s work because Heidegger, and OOO scholar Graham Harman after him, uses the hammer as his paradigmatic tool. In his analysis, things are only present-at-hand (consciously perceived without utility) once they break (Harman, Heidegger Explained 63). However, Gemeinboeck and Saunders’s installation Accomplice straddles Heidegger’s dual present-at-hand and read-at-hand (the utility of the thing) because art raises the possibility that we might experience these divergent qualities of the robotic entities, simultaneously. The augmented robot, existing in its performative exhibition ecology, is the bridge between sentient life and utility.
In relation to the agency of robots, Ian Bogost refers to the Tableau Machine which was a non-human actor system created by researchers at Georgia Tech in 1998 (Bogost 106). It was a house fitted with cameras, screens, interfaces, and sensors. This was an experimental investigation into ambient intelligence. The researchers’s term for the computational agency was ‘alien presence,’ suggesting a life outside human comprehension. The data-collator sensed and interpreted the house and its occupants, and re-created that recorded data as abstract art, by projecting images on its own plasma screens. The implication was that the home was alive, vital, and autonomously active, in that it took on a sentient life, beyond human control.
This kind of vital presence, an aliveness outside human programming, is there in the Accomplice robots. Their agency becomes materialized, as they violate the polite gallery-viewing world. Karen Barad’s concept of agency works within a relational ontology. Agency resists being granted, but rather is an enactment, and creates new possibilities (Barad, Matter Feels). Agency is entangled amongst “intra-acting human and non-human practices” (6). In Toward an Enchanted Materialism, Jane Bennett describes primordia (atoms) as “not animate with divine spirit, and yet they are quite animated - this matter is not dead at all” (81). This then is an agency that is not spiritual, nor is there any divine purpose. It is a matter of material force, a subversive action performed by robotic entities, not for any greater good, in fact, for no reason at all. This unpredictability is OOO contingency, whereby physical laws remain indifferent to whether an event occurs or not (Meillassoux 39).
Figure 5: Accomplice by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Artspace, Sydney, 2013. (Photo: Petra Gemeinboeck)
A Post-Human Ethic
The concept of a post-human state of being raises ethical concerns. Ethics is a human construct, a criteria of standards fixed within human social systems. How should humans respond, without moral panic, to robots that might have life and sentient power outside human control? If an OOO approach is undertaken, the implication is that all things exist equally and ethics, as fixed standards, might need to be dismantled and replaced with a more democratic set of guidelines. A flat ontology, argued for by Bogost, Levi Bryant and other OOO advocates, follows that all entities have equal potential for independent energy and agency (although OOO theorists disagree on many small technical issues). The disruption of the conventional hierarchical model of being is replaced by a flat field of equality. This might cause the effect of a more ethical, ontological ecology.
Quentin Meillassoux, an influential figure in the field of Speculative Realism, from which OOO is an offshoot, finds philosophical/mathematical solutions to the problems of human subjectivity. His eschewing of Kantian divisions between object/subject and human/world, is accompanied by a removal from Kantian and Cartesian critique (Meillassoux 30). This turn from critique, and its related didactic authority and removed judgment, marks an important point in the culture of philosophy, but also in the culture of art writing. If we can escape the shackles of divisive critique, then the pleasures of narrative might be given space.
Bogost endorses collapsing the hierarchical model of being and converting conventional academic writing (89). He says, “for the computers to operate at all for us first requires a wealth of interactions to take place for itself. As operators or engineers, we may be able to describe how such objects and assemblages work. But what do they “experience” (Bogost 10)? This view is complementary to an OOO view of anti-subjectivity, an awareness of things that might exist irrespective of human life, from both inside and outside the mind (Harman 143).
Figure 6: Accomplice by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Artspace, Sydney, 2013. (Photo: Petra Gemeinboeck)
In addition to her views on human/non-human agency, Karen Barad develops a parallel argument for materiality. She says, “matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers.” Barad’s agential realism is predicated on an awareness of the immanence of matter, with materiality that subverts conventions of transcendence or human-centredness. She says, “On my agential realist account, all bodies, not merely human bodies, come to matter through the world’s performativity - its iterative intra-activity.” Barad sees matter, all matter, as entangled parts of phenomena that extend across time and space (Nature’s Queer Performativity 125).
Barad argues against the position that acts against nature are moral crimes, which occur when the nature/culture divide is breached. She questions the individuated categorizations of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ inherent in arguments like these (Nature’s Queer Performativity, 123-5). Likewise, in robotic and machinic aesthetics, it could be seen as an ethical breach to consider the robots as alive, sentient, and experiential. This confounds previous cultural separations, however, object-oriented theory is a reexamination of these infractions and offers an openness to discourse of different causal outcomes.
Figure 7: Accomplice by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Artspace, Sydney, 2013. (Photo: Petra Gemeinboeck)
Artists Gemeinboeck/Saunders are artists and scholarly researchers investigating new notions of co-evolution. If we ascribe human characteristics to robots, might they ascribe machinic properties to us? It is possible to argue that co-evolution is already apparent in the world. Titanium knees, artificial arteries, plastic hips, pacemakers, metallic vertebrae pins: human medicine is a step ahead. Gemeinboeck/Saunders in turn make a claim for the evolving desires of their robots (11).
Could there be performative interchangeability between species: human and robot? Barad asks us not to presume what the distinctions are between human and non-human and not to make post-humanist blurrings, but to understand the materializing effects of the boundaries between humans and nonhumans (Nature’s Queer Performativity 123). Vital matter emerges from acts of reappearance, re-performance, and interspecies interaction.
Ian Bogost begins his Alien Phenomenology by analysing Alan Turing’s essay, Computing Machinery and Intelligence and deduces that it is an approach inextricably linked to human understanding (Bogost 14). Bogost seeks to avoid distinctions between things or a slippage into an over-determination of systems operations, and instead he adopts an OOO view where all things are treated equally, even cheeky little robots (Bogost 17).
Figure 8: Accomplice by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, installation view, Artspace, Sydney. (Photo: silversalt photography)
If Barad describes intra-action as enacting an agential cut or separation of object from subject, she does not mean a distinction between object and subject but instead devises an intra-active cutting of things together-apart (Nature’s Queer Performativity 124). This is useful for two reasons. First it allows confusion between inside and outside, between real and unreal, and between past and future. In other words it defies the human/world correlates, which OOO’s are actively attempting to flee. Secondly it makes sense of an idea of disappearance as being a re-appearance too. If robots, and all other species, start to disappear, from our consciousness, from reality, from life (that is, becoming extinct), this disappearance causes or enacts a new appearance (the robotic action), and this action has its own vitality and immanence.
If virtuality (an aesthetic of being that grew from technology, information, and digital advancements) meant that the body was left or abandoned for an immaterial space, then robots and robotic artwork are a means of re-inhabiting the body in a re-materialized mode. This new body, electronic and robotic in nature, might be mastered by a human hand (computer programming) but its differential is its new agency which is one shared between human and non-human. Barad warns, however, against a basic inversion of humanism (Nature’s Queer Performativity 126). Co-evolution is not the removal of the human.
While an OOO approach may not have achieved the impossible task of creating a reality beyond the human-centric, it is a mode of becoming cautious of an invested anthropocentric view, which robotics and diminished non-human species bring to attention. The autonomy and agency of robotic life challenges human understanding of ontological being and of how human and non-human entities relate.
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