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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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Choreography and Gesture in Robotic Artworks

Choreography and Gesture in Robotic Artworks
  • On June 3, 2020

Over the past weeks, I have been researching how gesture can drive the development of robotic artworks. Choreography and robotics are in some ways kindred disciplines; they both deal with the coordination of limbs through space, reacting to and manipulating the surrounding environment and fulfilling tasks whether that is a manufacturing operation or a task set by a choreographer to tease out novel movement patterns from a performer.

In particular, I have found William Forsythe’s work very relevant. In Black Flags, part of his Choreographic Objects series, two large Kuka industrial robot arms situated next to each other wave large black fabric sheets in programmed trajectories.

Black Flags is a piece full of tension and negotiation. The robot paths were programmed to consider the aerodynamics of the flags to avoid tangling them together. The addition of the air in the room as an actor creates a tension and uncertainty in the piece as does the fact that the workspaces of the two robots overlap. This overlapping workspace requires each robot’s trajectory to take into account the other to avoid collision and makes the spatial relationships between the arms immediately evident. In an interview with Gagosian about the work, William Forsythe notes that although care was taken to de-anthropomorphise the robots and remove the idea of dominance, submission or purpose, it still creeps in and that “As soon as you have an armature moving similar to a human arm there will be a narration”.

Black Flags by William Forsythe

He also talks of his treatment of space in his duet Aligningung which sees two male dancers attempting to reduce the space between their bodies by grasping, contorting and threading arms and legs through areas of negative space formed by the arrangement of each other’s limbs. Forsythe notes that this type of choreography is not possible to be danced by robots but I think perhaps what fascinates me so much about having my robots so close together is that they will be able to perform a similar type of choreography to Aligningung where they loop around each other and perform an intimate robot duet. The final piece in this triptych is ‘Towards the Diagnostic Gaze’, a piece consisting of a feather duster with the instruction ‘Hold the object absolutely still’. The object reduces the space relationships between participant and object to nothing by directly translating the minute tremors inherent in the participant attempting to hold the duster to the rippling of feathers.

Aligningung Dance Film by William Forsythe

For my own project, I am currently developing a base for my robots. Below are some rough designs for possible bases. In these sketches, besides practical considerations, I am interested in the overall shape; how does it read to a viewer? Where does the structure lead the eye? What does the orientation of the arms and the form of the base suggest about the relationship between these performers? For me the design with the two arms rising from the ground at 45 degrees is the most successful at suggesting the interplay between the two mechanisms as dynamic agents negotiating each other spatially.

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