can a robot create?

The 12-week artist residency at the Tempe Center for the Arts has come to an end. Most every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon you would have found me working alongside or talking with artist Bobby Zokaites. Today I welcome Bobby as guest writer.


My Name is Bobby Zokaites, I’m a local sculptor here in Tempe Arizona, my tag line is, “Engaging the imagination through the creation of large scale objects and spaces.” This summer I participated in the Tempe Center for the Arts exhibition and residency “Draw.” For those in the know, sculpture cannot exist without drawing, in fact most sculptors are very proficient drawers. However, I was included in the exhibition because of a project that, on the surface, seems to challenge the very notion of what it means to draw.

The premise is simple: can a robot create art?

I began this line of inquiry in 2005 during a sophomore painting class at Alfred University and in response to the ever-ubiquitous self-portrait assignment. The history of art is littered with self-important, foreboding and grandiose articulations of the portrait and myself, being 19, of course wanted to join this history. By asking a robot to make art, I had the idea I was creating a portrait, an expression, an illustration, of a generation growing up within the digital revolution.

And so, I purchased a robot—a Roomba vacuum cleaner. Equipped with propulsion, preferences and aversions, the Roomba was already well on its way to being an artist, but lacked the tools needed for painterly expression. To provide it this, I simply removed the vacuum components and added a very basic foam brush and paint reservoir, creating something akin to a homemade marker. The first painting made was such a rush, my mission after that was to get out of the way to let the Roomba do just whatever it was going to do. Large black brush strokes combined with delicate tire treads on a white background these first paintings, produced using India ink on gesso-ed panels, existed in the tradition of Abstract Expressionism; Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and the like. I felt that reexploring this canonical aesthetic with contemporary technology would be fun, and it was, I thought that updating this aesthetic with contemporary technology would be fun thing to do. Which it is, fun, the public likes it because they have a different way into the paintings. For me however, with every successive painting I lost more of my own control, agency, creativity, my own self-expression; I had given it to a robot and so, the process became very existential and surreal.

I was still a student and incredibly young so I set this project aside to focus on becoming a sculptor. I took work as the site manager at Franconia Sculpture Park, learning the pragmatic skills associated with the production of large-scale sculpture. Sculpture became my way of regaining and developing my voice, and gave me the opportunity to have visible impact on my immediate surroundings. I became an educator, teaching others how to use tools, to manipulate materials, and to develop their own agency. Currently, I’m involved in several municipal projects, in a way I see this as being involved in governance, a way to add a unique flare to the urban environment.

In 2016, I was asked by the Center for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University to readdress the Roomba paintings. I dug out the now-decade-old robots and made a very large painting, this time on canvas. We produced a 4-minute video in which we decided to bring the relationship of artist, human, and robot to the front on the conversation.

“Draw” has allowed me the time to further address this relationship. I’ve broken the process down into its components: where do I have choice, when do I need to react, and when do I hit stop? Conversations with Monica Martinez and Kyllan Maney, the two other artists-in-residence, have helped with the transition back into thinking towards two-dimensional output. Considering aspects as simple as how colors lay on top of each other, composition and line weight, to those factors as detailed as the viscosity of paint and pigments, I’ve become a painter. Although to study these things I’ve had make more paintings resulting in more failures; some winding up so far gone that I’ve painted over them right in the gallery (much to Monica’s initial dismay). Over this summer, I’ve changed how I think about these painterly concepts several times, using different aids and brainstorming techniques. Dr. Seuss has the most amazing grays, and since his books are well-known for inspiration, I made four paintings using his color palettes.

In addition to the ‘shop talk’ between artists, large school groups would stop through providing several other opportunities to re-examine and re-explain the conceptual parts of the story. Now that I’ve identified where my choices are in the process, I have more involvement and the paintings are more collaborative, less reactionary. Engaging a larger community in the process has brought new points of view, new conundrums, new humor. In keeping with some of the light-heartedness of the project, Tricky, TCA’s preparator, even named the Roomba, “Mayhem”.

Though I’m not the first person to use robots as a way to produce art— American artist, Roxy Paine uses robots to produce a variety of sculptural objects and Leonel Mora of Portugal even has robots that sign their own drawings— my own contribution is in the realization that a commercially available robot was, even 10 years ago, sophisticated enough to produce its own paintings; proving the mantra, “any significantly advanced technology is synonymous with magic.” Along those lines, many people are fond of Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and the Terminator as cautionary tales of technological advancement and morality. However, with the Roomba project I’ve always gravitated to the earlier example of John Henry, the steel-driving man. His story, is one that pits man against machine, in a race to build the transcontinental railroad. All of these stories present a dichotomy when in reality man is not in opposition with machines. Modernity, with is mechanized metaphor, encourages us to idolize efficiency and progress, and in doing so, reduce individual labor. The paradigm of this train of thought has put me in an interesting head space: on the one hand I can anthropomorphize the Roomba, reducing my own self-importance, or I can claim authorship and be seen as an “artist” and “painter”. Truthfully, my preference is still “sculptor”, though I would accept manufacturer as well; both of these terms place importance and thought on to the tools and processes associated with production. With the Roombas as a tool, I can create an infinite number of composition.

cortical homunculus

This last week artist friend Tim, who has an undergrad degree in Neurobiology, sends me an image of a figure. Cortical homunculus, thought you mike like it, he writes.  He explains…a map of the nerve receptors in the brain as related to scale on the body. I know the 2D version of this 3D form and immediately  make the connection.

Cortical homunculus! Why didn’t I ever look closer and why didn’t I note the cool name (words always pull me)?  Homunculus is Latin for little man, add cortical and you have a cortex man (a man in the brain!). The depiction basically represent a map of the body, more specific, nerve fibers from the spinal cord, that end at various points in the parietal lobe formulating a map of the body. I see mostly male (it is a little man, after all) though I do find female representations.

Initiated by Dr. Wilder Penfield who envisioned an imaginary world in which a homunculi (a very small humanoid form) lived. He and his colleagues set up experiments to produce a topographical brain map and a corresponding homunculi.

I enjoy working out the composition and now that I understand, I plan to draw more of them. No doubt, my versions will include the female in the brain!

I label as best I can considering the space I set up before I know all that I will include. One side of the homunculus maps the sensory nerves, while the other side maps motor nerves. ↓

Sensory Cortex (sensory body map)

Motor Cortex (motor body map)

Scheduled to facilitate an adult workshop in mid July, for my artist-in-residency, I now consider the color, line and text of the Cortical homunculus.

draw, the art of curiosity and innovation

Artist-in-Residence studio spaces

One of three artist-in-residence, I will spend a couple of days, for the next 12 weeks, at the Tempe Center for the Arts (researching dementia and Alzheimer’s). They (we) set up our 3 studio spaces ↑. Mine includes a desk that resembles the one I have in my home studio. ↓

My studio area, and the beautiful braincase

Now to get used to working in a public space…

Arriving early, I decide to organize a blog post. My computer is not picking up wi-fi. Ahhh… I forgot the USB cable to connect my camera and computer. But hey, my camera works!

I enjoy looking closely at the work as I shoot details.

Ryan Carey

Beth Shook

Carolyn Lavender

Laura Tanner Graham

Christopher Jagmin

Mary Shindell

Matthew Dickson

Hyewon Yoon

Bobby Zokaites (Artist-in-Residence)

Kyllan Maney (Artist-in-Residence)

The gallery includes several art maker ↓ spaces.

Before the afternoon is over these women ↑ (who before entering the gallery were out enjoying Tempe Town Lake) walk over to my table. They want to talk about my work – the drawing of my father in particular. I gather they’re related: mother, daughter and grand-daughter. We talk about their family, aging and dementia. I also talk to a couple of other people including a friend who is an artist.

I drive home knowing we are all in this together. The connector is art.


We’re working things out. Hours subject to change until they’re not…
I’ll be in studio on Tuesday and possibly Thursday
Kyllan Maney considers Tuesday and Thursday or Saturday.
Bobby Zokaites plans for Wednesday and Saturday.

TCA has a drawing workshops scheduled almost every Saturday for the duration of the summer. More info →  draw: the art of curiosity and innovation
 

neurons and glia (and my father’s brain)

Are you in the neuron? Or is the neuron in you?


Steeped in the study of the human brain, I am in preparation for an artist residency at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Consequently I know my brain changes as I learn, while I draw, and even now as I write. I mean it is really changing.

And I guess I can say now my father’s brain is changing too. Dad’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. For awhile I understand (more or less) he has dementia – I now know (more or less) he has Alzheimer’s. And because my father has Alzheimer’s (the most common form of dementia) I decide to focus this summer’s residency on both the healthy brain and the  brain with dementia.

Where to begin….
The residency calls for me to work at the Tempe Center for the Arts (I am 1 of 3 artists that will be in residence this summer).  I can’t help but consider the public. Actually I am always aware of the public, but more in the form of viewer (of the completed work) and not necessarily as part of the process. I will engage with visitors in a thoughtful manner.

While I’ve drawn many studies of the brain in the last few years, now I feel the need for a brain basics course (101). I consider the primary building blocks of the human brain – neurons and glia (neuralgia).  I spend days looking at imagery including the drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal (The Beautiful Brain).

I draw and paint a neuron↓.

Neuron Study

I draw glia ↓.  I didn’t know there’s a variety of glial cells!

These particular cells are key in maintaining homeostasis. I think of them as a sort of maintenance crew (though they’re more than that). While I’ve found different ratios, overall it seems glia outnumber neurons 10 to 1 (I’ve also read 6 to 1, 3.75 to 1).

Oligodentrocytes

Astrocyte

 

Microglial cell

I enjoy detailing the small preliminary study ↓ (not finished yet).
Note: At this point I better understand where abnormal plaques and tangles, as seen in Alzheimer’s, form.

This week my mother sends my father’s brain scans to me. The day the disc arrives, I pop it into my computer. I recognize my dad’s head and  profile. I manage to bring in (and change) the color of the basic black and white scans. I see them light up and they’re beautiful. There are 4 images, 1 rotates while 3 are static. I figure out how to move through layers of the brain. What am I looking at?  I sober up.

I recognize general areas of the brain though I don’t know how to read the particulars of the images. I hope to find someone who can help me make sense of things.


We’ll be installing in a couple of weeks…
Tempe Center for the Arts

The Gallery at TCA presents
draw: the art of curiosity and innovation
May 25-Sept 1
This interactive exhibition celebrates a wide variety of creative media, styles and techniques that incorporate drawing. The “draw” experience includes fine art displays by local artists, exploration stations for doodling and art making, live artist demonstrations and multiple workshop opportunities for all ages.

Meet Artists-in-Residence through Aug. 3
Kyllan Maney, Monica Aissa Martinez and Bobby Zokaites
 → for more info


Last month I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Dr. Jay Braun, ASU Emeritus Professor of Psychology. We talked about the healthy brain and the Alzheimer’s brain. Exercise, he says, is the most important thing one can do to maintain a healthy brain.

I’m off for a run now…