Artist, Lab, Robot | Evan Daniel, Digital Media MFA 2017
My experience at the lab has come to a close. This post will provide a look back at the experience and the next will look at some documentation of my work from this summer.
Going right back to the premise of my experience, I’ve encountered several people (in the lab and outside of it) who seem unsure of why an artist would be interested in robotics. While digital media artists often work with robotic systems, this question is significant. The back and forth of digital/physical information is at its core a profound problem. Interacting with the physical world using digital media makes both sides richer. Digital systems become more complex (there are more sources of data), while robotics allows us to do things that we typically wouldn’t in the physical world, or it allows us to do them in new ways.
I found that an important component of understanding the lab was creating space for discourse between my own practice and the lab itself. This isn’t something that happened overnight. I naturally continued my artistic practice throughout my entire time there, but finding that link connecting the conceptual space of the lab and my work was significantly more involved. In part the work was comprised of teaching myself new languages (most notably, ROS and Python). But on another level it was a matter of observing and learning from the lab and the roboticists working there.
This gradual process is precisely the reason that the Maharam fellowship is so invaluable. A shorter or less rigorous experience wouldn’t have been able to provide me with the insight that this experience did. But, likewise, taking the approach of formal education wouldn’t have allowed me to freedom to connect the experience so naturally to my own practice.
I often thought of this experience as a three-part inquiry: I sought to better understand the culture of the lab, human-robot interaction, and the formal languages of robotics. The culture of the lab was surprising in its openness to and interest in the conceptual problems of robotics. Seeing ideas such as the agency of robot actors addressed from the perspective of fine art and a robotics lab is truly a rare opportunity. While I was largely teaching myself, the technical skills that I gained would have been next to impossible to glean so quickly working in a different environment. Stylistically there can be significant differences between artists and roboticists, and first hand experience is a fantastic catalyst. Lastly, my initial focus for the fellowship was what I called robot-society tension (more frequently referred to as human-robot interaction). Roboticists approach this problem with respect to the process of designing robotic systems, whereas artists may take a somewhat more all-over standpoint. Dialogues like that have given my experience this summer tremendous personal satisfaction.