Art and robots: an irresolvable dichotomy between art and technology, or a symbiotic and novel way to exhibit art to the world? The Tate Britain’s showcasing of the After Dark project invited the public to decide. Created by design studio The Workers, After Dark was the winning project of the IK prize inaugurated this summer by the Tate Britain. Between Wednesday 13th and Friday 15th August those who logged onto the Tate’s website had the chance to view its galleries at night with the aid of four camera-equipped robots. This interface between art and technology begs the question of whether art is the experience of the viewer or the innovation of the creator.
The IK prize was conceptualised by the Tate with the ambition to “widen access to art through technology.” The Workers, a digital product design studio, received a prize of £10,000 and a £60,000 development budget in order to make the publics’ access to art fun, easy and educational. The robots were created in collaboration with RAL Space, and Colonel Chris Hadfield, former commander of the international space station, was the first person to test the robots out. The four robots roamed the deserted galleries and gave viewers a unique experience of nocturnal art accompanied with commentary on the pieces. Select viewers even had the chance to remotely control the robots and therefore what the rest of the world could see, and I was lucky enough to have this privilege.
I was left to wander through the museum at night, catch glimpses of dark corners, and see art against the backdrop of abyss-like uncertainty… Space was redefined and separated into the known and unknown.
At 9.58pm sharp I sat in front of my laptop praying that the online streaming was not going to be a cultural rendition of Robot Wars. It wasn’t. Instead I felt like a commander of a space station with four screens in front of me linked to four different robots in various exhibitions. I was left to wander through the museum at night, catch glimpses of dark corners, and see art against the backdrop of abyss-like uncertainty. The robots and the commentary ping-ponged back and forth through the centuries, rendering the commentary spontaneous and exciting. A connection was forged between the commentator and the viewer since we were both at the mercy of the robots and we were constantly being taken by surprise. Throughout the night there was a heady sense of suspense. Space was redefined and separated into the known and unknown. Works by Turner, Henry Moore and Damien Hirst were excavated from unusual angles and areas of light. A Francis Bacon painting of three figures seemed ghoulish in the eeriness of the dark and cavernous space whereas Gainsborough’s ‘Carthorses Taking a Rest’ was bathed in synthetic light illuminating the colours, giving it a whole new concept of technological realism. After being randomly selected, I was able to control the robots on my keypad. This proved to be a challenge for someone who has no spacial awareness. I was allocated room 4- 20th century art, which housed pieces such as Damien Hirst’s ‘shelf’. Once I learnt how to avoid hitting things, it was actually an enjoyable experience; but I lost focus on the art I was supposed to be viewing and instead became ensnared by this novel mode of transportation. For me the robots had taken over and the art was receding further and further into the dark.
One of the creators Tommaso Lanza said, “We’re not trying to give you this perfect representation of the art…It’s giving the art a different angle, and different light.”
The Tate Britain has joined the voyage into the modern, an odyssey of technology that promises to make our lives faster, easier and, in the case of art, damn right cooler, but I fear that on this journey we are travelling too fast to take in the view. Admittedly, the idea of enabling the whole world to see 500 years of British art would be impossible without this project. One of the creators Tommaso Lanza said, “We’re not trying to give you this perfect representation of the art…It’s giving the art a different angle, and different light.” He achieved this and at the same time pointed to an important dilemma; the notion that we must sacrifice personal experience for mass convenience. I couldn’t help but wonder if the robots were a fun kind of symbolism for our technologically capable society’s inability to stop and smell the roses. Often It was very difficult to see the paintings clearly since they were partially subdued in darkness and restricted by the diameter of the robot’s light beam. I could not make out the individual brush strokes, materials or composition of the pieces clearly, nor have time to reflect on the effect the art works were having on me. Unless I was controlling the robot, I was completely at mercy to the will of others, saw what they wanted to see, heard what they wanted to hear. I found it hard to locate myself and connect to the artwork in this strained compromise of artistic experience and artistic globalisation. The experience was crazily cool and solemnly sacrificial.
So between the hours of 10pm and 3am I found myself wondering how ubiquitous can art ever be if it has to be technologically transmitted within the rigid constraints of time and at the will of those few who were in control? Is this a glimpse of the future or a subtle reminder that, although the world is becoming globalised, humanity is becoming perpetually cemented in front of an LCD display?