Programming a computer and a robot to undertake a pre-determined activity is likely to result in the same outcome each time. However, that depends on what is being pre-determined in the first place. Mapping the process could lead to very different results to mapping the outcome.
Patrick Tresset's exhibition, currently showing at Tenderpixel, features robots, but essentially it's about drawing. It draws – if one could pardon the pun – on Tresset's background as a draughtsman, prior to his later discovery of computers and then robots. His frustration at being a draughtsman led him to seek out new theories and practices in drawing, with his lifelong love of drawing faces flourishing through the work. Essentially, the exhibition examines drawing as a way to pass time, and the compositional nature of drawing a picture.
The robots in the exhibition draw faces by mapping a still image from a camera into very thin, small lines on a piece of paper. In close-up, they look like little hairs. The robots move in something of a random-access fashion, very much like how a human may approach the drawing were they to use the same technique. It is this angle that fascinates Tresset.
Much of his recent work has been about simulating processes, and to see how an examination of a process, rather than of the technique in itself, can produce better drawings. As the artist argues, "You get better, more authentic results like that". Computerised work which doesn't care about the process, argues Tresset, is unable to give the drawing a history. Drawing is physical and gestural, whether it's by human or robot hand. "You can use simulators, but it's not true. Robotics deals with reality. When you work with software, you can work through all of the bugs. With robots, you can't, as you have to understand what you're trying to do."
The detail of the work goes beyond an understanding and mapping of processes, to how the facial drawings are physically delivered. Rather than send them through a printer, the robot arms are connected to hands which hold pencils. They therefore imitate both the physical and the intellectual means of artistic production. By actually holding the pen, the robot is giving the drawing a further sense of history and, literally, depth: some marks are obviously deeper than others, and the face has a "layered" feel, based on its evolution over time.
In mapping the humanity of process, the system displays tendencies of imperfection and failure, rather than a consistently perfect output. An eraser is available, so the system can rub out marks that it has made "by accident". Two robotic arms becoming involved in one area results in bickering, looking rather like a pair of birds flapping around and ultimately having to resort to a mutual ignorance. These points of failure make the resulting work all the more reflective of an endeavour, a journey; that the robot tried its best.
This rather playful introduction of human (or, perhaps, non-automated) attributes into a historically mechanised means of production, is part of Tresset's ongoing research project Aikon 2, co-directed with Professor Frederic Fol Leymarie. Aikon 2 focusses on the activity of sketching through modelling and robot development. It's a new approach for both Tresset and the College: its computer department had not previously supported robotic work, and the artist had to attend summer schools and intensive courses to fully understand how his ideas could be technically developed. It has already gained exposure, with JWT working with Tresset to create JWT Sketch, where website visitors can have uploaded photos sketched by
Without mapping human attributes into the processes, complete with "try" and "fail", the robots would never be able to sketch, because sketching in itself suggests trying, testing, and experimentation. In being systematic, software and robots would simply bypass these procedures and deliver a perfect product, leaving them to humans.
Fundamentally, it is taking an artistic approach to something that has always been seen as pure science. "What I show here is a compromise between the two. I have included robotics used in my research, and used them in an artistic realm. The research look at a drawing in a scientific manner: transforming reality into a drawing. Now, this showcases the technologies in an artistic manner. The robots are undertaking drawings that I would like to do by hand. We're not thinking about doing something scientifically correct; it is an artistic interpretation."
Tresset confesses that he has never seen himself as an artist - "I thought that robotics would be apart from my main research" - but with robotics, he has found the means to express what he was looking to achieve: something of a theatrical way to demonstrate human attributes in highly processed systems. It is adding a layer of reality to something that has, innately, only a very perfect and constant view of reality: a binary substance.
"People consider robots to be clever because they move. When things move in a naturalistic way, the brain reacts to it. We consider the robot to be human; with a sense and purpose. It's a fascinating and interesting area to explore."
The use of robotics in artistic development is not new, with a high point being Edward Ihnatowicz's Senster. Their increased use within society, particularly when seen through the lens of forecasting the next 50 years and suggestions that robots will essentially take over the majority of human tasks, suggests that their artistic application is gaining a new lease of life. Robotic work is starting to become prominent at exhibitions such as ISEA and Kinetica, suggesting that they are getting onto the radars of art collectors looking for unique, experimental work in kinetic art, as well as offering something much more interactive and immersive to the viewer experience.
Tresset sees his future as one which retains a spirit of playfulness and humanity in a further development of robotic work. Domestic robotics is a burgeoning area, inviting examination from many different angles; they will be ripe for examination and experimentation by artistic disciplines. Perhaps the domestic will introduce a greater understanding of how robots can be more human in process; one can easily imagine tabloid headlines of devices completely misunderstanding a request. Physicality has a long way to go in the world of robotics, and it's the sweet promise of "I would love to get to a point where this is like Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton" that makes this thinking sound all the more... human.
New Work from Patrick Tresset is showing at Tenderpixel in London until 9 July 2011.
Further information on the work is available at the Aikon 2 website, and Patrick is @patricktresset on Twitter. The collaboration between the Aikon 2 project and JWT is showcased at the JWT Sketch website, with updates posted to @jwtsketch.