Art Papers  

more from the
May/June 2015 issue:

Kahlil Joseph's Double Act
– Lilly Lampe

A Pilot for a Show
About Nowhere

– Martine Syms

– Travis Diehl

Revisiting Cyberfeminism
– Cornelia Sollfrank

The Sniffers
– Maija Timonen

Abra: BLQ Velvet

– by Sam Thorne

Web Exclusive:
Movement as Social Consciousness
Interview: Lauri Stallings

– Maggie Davis

May/June 2015
+ buy issue
+ subscribe


Text / Travis Diehl

The robots we make in our own image, or in the images of our living world, are provocative of a collective anxiety. The insecurities—often, the terror—we experience when confronted with the mere possibility of an artificially competent product of human technological innovation have inspired a wealth of creative output. Literary and cinematic imaginations frequently entertain disastrous scenarios brought about by such invention; two artists discussed here, however, seek instead to explore the intangible and somehow violent nausea that precedes and surrounds it.

Boston Dynamics, LS3, stills from demonstration videos

If it should turn out to be true that knowledge ... and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)1

It has been nearly six decades since Hannah Arendt wrote these lines on the occasion of Sputnik's launch, and humanity continues to gladly set in motion things that it can't understand.2 Hence, perhaps, the buzzing horror of the repurposed single-stroke go-kart engine at the core of the DARPA/Boston Dynamics BigDog (2008) and LS3 (2012)—quadruped pack robots tooled to go "wherever Marines and Soldiers go on foot."3 In videos available on the engineering and robotics company's website, the barrel-chested creatures trot purposefully ("single-mindedly") around trees, up a rockslide, over a snowdrift; their rubber hooves and hydraulic legs ("like an animal's") pump to grip whatever terrain they encounter.4 The robots are "on rails," carrying out simple instructions to seek certain coordinates, or to follow the beacons on a soldier's back. Watching them sense their way past obstacles, stand up after a fall, or throw a cinderblock, however, one might not be easily assured that these machines do not have minds, thoughts, and motivations beyond their orders.

In addition to BigDog, Boston Dynamics' other projects include Cheetah, which can run nearly 30 miles per hour, and SandFlea, which can leap over buildings and walls. The zoological rhetoric used to qualify the robots' specializations, which mimic those of certain animals, have the additional effect of making them more familiar to their handlers. A "fur" covering on the LS3's legs designed to protect the robot's pistons may also be for our benefit: the animal figures the machine, as if to bring a known frame of reference to a world of new complex beings. Ancient companions such as dogs provide the template for our future sidekicks.

Bertrand Dezoteux, Txerri, 2011, stills from live action and animation video

This supposed continuity finds skeptical expression in the work of French artist Bertrand Dezoteux. His Zaldiaren Orena [The hour of the horse] (2010), set in German-occupied 1940s France, is filmed from the perspective of a homemade rover, a metallic "animal" that seemingly inhabits both past and future worlds. A mechanically advanced German military has left the machine to guard a provincial southern town—an anachronous emissary, part tank and part spy, of their superior technology. As villagers go about their traditional daily activities, hanging laundry with big wooden clothespins, shearing sheep, or hand-plowing a garden, the robot interrogates them coarsely: "Wo ist das Pferd? Où est le cheval?" Where is the horse? No one seems to know. The robot soon begins to roam, over hill and dale, seemingly contemplatively. A sad electric whine backs clattering footage from the Sony Handycam used to shoot the material, mounted to an extendable rod at the center of its wheeled base. We accompany the beast as it counts wildflowers in a meadow, its gaze whipping between views of soft grass and other flora. It makes kissing sounds at two lovers bathing in a reedy pond, prompting them to embrace. It ponders a forest.

Suddenly, the shot frames two villagers, somehow hanging from a rope like wet linens. The machine questions them furiously: OÙ EST LE CHEVAL?! But there is no horse, they say; the Germans have already taken it. In the next and final shot, faced with the futility of its mission, the rover watches a donkey and a sturdy Basque horse in a field; as it approaches, they bolt in fear. Neither man nor animal, the sentient machine is ahead of its time, unable to mix with what it most (pathetically) resembles.

The Basque countryside has endured as a home to traditions that have gone extinct elsewhere, a productive backdrop for Dezoteux's commentary. The region is not only the artist's birthplace, but has also historically been the site of national separatism, contested identity, and resistance to the forced changes of globalization. In his work Txerri (2011), two gruesome CGI pigs, apparently unhindered by their oversized sex organs, are composited into HD video footage of one town's provincial routines, which they summarily sabotage. Visible ropes yanked on cue by volunteers accomplish the pigs' physicality—for instance, displacing tables at a crowded café. One animal licks an actual severed pig head tossed into the road by a butcher. They knock over flowers, groceries, and garbage cans, devastating the village quiet. In fact, these animated swine are based upon a native Basque breed. Once more, a familiar species serves as the grotesque avatar of progress—of an invasive, mechanical future.

Bertrand Dezoteux, Txerri, 2011, stills from live action and animation video

It is crucial that Dezoteux, like artist Ian Cheng, does not polish his programs to Pixar-like perfection. Mainstream digitally animated films are applauded for their slick technical realism, not for their strategic use of the strange breaks inherent to the medium. The machine-animals of art, however, achieve realism through roughness: Dezoteux's animation techniques are as rugged as the hairy swine they are used to render. As advancements in digital technology reform our conceptions of the physical world, intelligence, humanity, and "being" itself, clunky figures become mascots for our apprehension and discomfort in the face of this partly familiar, partly alien shift. Better a poorly animated pig than a perfect one to guide our exploration of sometimes comfortable, sometimes vile new biological frontiers.

Animal—from the Latin animalis—means animate, living, of the air.5 Animation is the "action or process of imparting life, vitality, or (as a sign of life) motion," as in giving anima—breath, soul, spirit, or "purpose." The etymological connection between animals and animation is obvious: both terms denote the appearance of spirit, motivation, and motion. These sympathies between "animal" and "animation" predate the words themselves: cave paintings in Lascaux depict sequences of running horses; Eadweard Muybridge's 19th-century motion studies featured horses, too. The star of early sync-sound cartoons was a mouse named Mickey. The all-too-human faces of animated characters telegraph a preternatural "spirit" through giant eyes and elastic mouths. Whereas science maintained a rubric beyond appearance with which to distinguish the "living" from the "nonliving," art and language cleaved them subtly together. Now, computer science and machine intelligence confuse the distinction, too. The results can be grotesque—in Txerri, for instance, where humans and cartoons commingle in uncanny "physical" contact worthy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or Cool World (1992).

Cheng's video bbrraattss (2012) pits an elongated, putty-colored Elmer Fudd against a disconcertingly volumetric Bugs Bunny. Reimagined in wiry, twitchy CGI, what transpires—the nonfatal explosions, the gunshots, and so on—does more than replicate the usual cartoon violence. Instead, the work animates an additionally disturbing dismemberment through the jagged collisions of digital models. The characters' unsettling slapping and interlocking follows neither human nor cartoon physics, but something altogether more strange: the physics of a programmed engine. Polygons overlap, skeletons interlock, skins blend; the camera darts around a disturbing pile of cartoon flesh. Many of these effects read as glitches, but they are the products of Cheng's refusal to conceal the unpleasantness of digital reality. This is a violence that we can manufacture but cannot entirely control. Instead, Cheng creates bastardized versions of characters once animated in masterly fashion, arrived at with misused technology, and hurls them into an unforgiving software environment.6

Ian Cheng, bbrraattss, 2012, stills from motion capture animation video

While bbrraattss, like Txerri, is "on rails"—scripted, rendered, then output as files—Cheng's work since 2012 has unfurled within closed, real-time systems. His 2013 Entropy Wrangler, for example, consists of an "infinite duration" of "live simulation," adding to the rough-edged chance operations of digital physics another chilling degree of autonomy. Aquarium-style arrangements of digitally modeled ducks, soldiers, plants, vehicles, people, or dolphins undergo periodic shakeups, gravitational hiccups, physical shocks. These cartoons are unmoored even from cartoon logic; they are not subject to the structures even of a zany narrative, but are instead governed exclusively by "interaction." Skin, eyes, mouths, and hands no longer cutely signal "life," but offer an unsteady interface with new quasi-living beings.

If this crudely articulated, broken-seeming software unsettles what was familiar about certain animals (whether domesticated or cartoon), the "mapping" of animal features onto new technology also provides a metaphor for a new kind of relationship to machines, and to the self-propagating logic they pursue. Arendt warns that we have lost control of our creations, and not because machines have or will ever learn to reproduce themselves: humans, so far, seem more than willing to build not to the specs of ethics, but to the limits of our ability to build. En route to the butcher shop, a sow in Txerri is penetrated by the camera; as it passes through her, she is revealed as hollow—empty inside a mess of inverted digital skin. When the male attempts to mount the female, she bucks him off. Dezoteux's characters are vessels without organs; they display oversized genitals and teats, but are, from a physiological standpoint, sterile—conceived by technologically adept humans.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the sexless reproduction of viruses and rhizomes provides a similar alternative to oedipal genetics. We might recognize comparable behavior in that native digital life form, the software "virus": a creature analogous to Deleuze and Guattari's examples of nonfilial "proliferators," such as the plague flea, the rat, and the battlefield disease, crucially understood through a pathological metaphor. This understanding might also be applied to the pack-animal styling of the DARPA dog. The soldier, already operating on a collective basis, is primed for pack-animal relations; armies grow not by sexual reproduction but by inscription and conscription. The animalistic battlefield mentality, while tempered by the strictures of tradition and the state, is paradoxically characterized by the self-perpetuating model of technological propagation. Birthed with gusto by modern homo faber, machine guns and tanks give way to drones; DARPA's LS3, the nonfilial offspring of BigDog, takes its first wobbling steps.

Leave it to art to apprehend these metaphors with humor. Dezoteux and Cheng, in their ways, both reckon with the "un-biological" alienation suggested by an increasingly digital, insubstantial subjectivity. Digital creatures provide a looking glass into a baffling futuristic intelligence; the past, defined by stone-built tradition, is explored and disrupted like a foreign territory. Eerily figured as animals, our incomprehensible machine progeny might yet prompt an appropriate philosophy of humanity's unbridled reproductive ambition. Meanwhile, the technological frontier echoes not with Sputnik's electric pings, but with farmhouse whines, squeals, and flapping flesh.

Travis Diehl lives in Los Angeles. His writing appears in P&Co., Night Papers, X-TRA, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, Even, East of Borneo, Salon, and Artforum. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, and edits Prism of Reality, an artist-run journal.

1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 3.
2. Ibid. Arendt refers to atomic energy, space flight, and all that follows, noting that the language surrounding such achievements is too specialized, too technical, for a general "cultural" understanding of what nonetheless has come increasingly to represent us as a civilization. This passage still rings true in the age of drones and mass surveillance.
5. "animation, n." OED Online (Oxford University Press).
6. "The history of cartoons is the history of neurological and cognitive sensitivity. Hyperbolic mouth, lips, and hands are an expression of a human's most intensive neurological zones. Shifts in scale and movement are expressions of changes in psycho-social status and subconscious mindset. Here we simulate an evolving dance for cartoons familiar and ancient." Ian Cheng, artist's website:

Retrospective | Special Events | Donate | Subscribe
Editorial | Contact | Advertise | About ART PAPERS

© 2015 ART PAPERS, Inc.