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August 2, 2016

Robotics in Action / Evan Daniel, MFA DM ’17

by evandanielartist

Having now spent some significant time in the lab and with the roboticists* here, I’ve found the relationship between robotics lab and artist’s studio utterly fascinating.  On a personal level I’m much better acquainted with the latter, which makes the experience all the more edifying.

There’s an immediate danger of generalization: it does a horrible violence to group all roboticists together, just as it would to group all artists together.  Mathematician G. H. Hardy, on the topic of Ramanujan, wrote that “all mathematicians think, at bottom, in the same kind of way.”  This tends not to be a very useful approach for learning about a new environment, particularly one as multifaceted as a robotics lab.  Roboticists themselves often come from a myriad of STEM backgrounds such as mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, and physics (I’ve met some people from each of those specialties here).  But more than that, their ways of addressing problems, and their sense of what constitutes an interesting problem, varies between individuals in the same way it does for artists.  On one level, some roboticists take a more conceptual/theory-based approach that attempts to address the nature of human/robot interactions, while others tend to focus on specific technical problems.  This is never an absolute dichotomy, though, as it shouldn’t be!  Those approaches are always on some level working concurrently.

In many ways this mirrors the way that artists work (particularly concerning technology and digital media), which I feel make the two commensurable.  But there is a difference in emphasis that makes the interaction of the two truly galvanizing.  The place of STEM in our culture tends to facilitate certain approaches to technical rigor and innovation.  Artists who add to this discourse via STEAM have very different ways of facilitating that conceptual/technical dialogue, often with great fluency and nuance.  Like roboticists, artists have a responsibility to develop the conceptual and technical aspects of their practice in tandem; it is how they do so that gives them a place in STEAM.

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