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.

complex structure and surface texture

The class assignment is complicated…

I ask students to look at and draw complex (interesting) structure and (interesting) surface texture. I have an array of subject-matter including insects, lizards and sea-shells for students to choose. I hope everyone picks up at least one bug but I know not everyone will.

First semester students use only markers (and paper) while second semester students use scratchboard. Everyone is required to use a magnifying glass. They work 4 days (about 12 hours) in class. Many take the drawing home over Spring Break, to complete.

Critique covers the strengths and weaknesses of the finished work. We talk about the process and the challenges of the assignment. And we discuss the elements of design.

Here are a hand full of the completed drawings. I include a few process and detail shots.

…complicated but beautiful!

 

Diana Three Bees

 

Diana Two Bees

 

Jezebel Grasshopper and a Lizard

 

Nina’s Moth

Maw draws a shell and a cicada titled Corpse vs Death

Alisza’s cicada –  Mother

Carlos “There was Four”

 

Kaylani’s Badger

Dustin

the pelvic bowl

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It looks like a bowl, my husband says as my neighbor Tara, a Pelvic Floor Specialist, hands him a pelvis anatomy model. She’s lending it to me for the weekend.

I say to him In fact,  it is called the pelvic bowlEddie. He watches on as Tara pulls it all apart and puts it’s all back together, identifying anatomy as she reconstructs the model.

Aren’t we perfectly designed? I say as I watch them.

My recent drawing begins with an outline of the bones of a pelvis (on the front side).  I place into it uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. Only then do I decide to bring in the lower spine, the psoas muscles, and eventually the diaphragm.

This weekend I work the back of the drawing ↓ and complete the composition. Highlighting the reproductive system – I’m right back where I started.  The two-sided mixed-media drawing  basically depicts the core of the female body.

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completed back side of drawing 24 x 18″ mixed media

Do you need the model again?, Tara asks. Thanks, I’m complete, I respond.

With this study I learn more about menstruation, conception, pregnancy and menopause. With Tara’s help I learn about hormones, muscles, nerves and the value of breath work.

We are so perfectly designed. You are so perfectly designed. Embody this.

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More about Tara and her practice (btw – she offers lots of practical information) →  pelvicfloorspecialist.com.


Side note:
Contacted by Carmencita from California who’ll be using an early stage of this drawing (front side) to promote a staging of That Takes Ovaries! Bold Females and their Brazen Acts. The performance will raise funds for Myalgic Encephelomyolitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

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the wandering nerve, the vagus nerve, the pneumogastric nerve

I have come to the conclusion trust your gut means trust your vagus nerve.  And having  butterflies in the stomach may in fact be saying something about our vagus nerve too.

Otto Loewi, a German physiologist, discovered stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart-rate. He suspected a trigger or release of something he called vagusstoff (German for vagus substance). I note Loewi was led to this insights and eventual experiment via a dream, maybe 2 dreams actually (did he trust his gut? his vagus nerve?).  Scientists eventually identify acetylcholine (vagusstoff), a neurotransmitter.

Deep, slow breaths – in through the nose – calms (releases acetylcholine?) the vagus nerve.  I don’t know, I’m an artist….

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I revisit the Vagus Nerve these last few weeks.  I refer to it in an earlier work, now I focus and map it out life-size. I hope to detail and know its route through the organs. This is harder than I can know and it’s a good thing I don’t give it much thought before I outline the general area. General area is short for (all) organs of (entire) torso. I begin the work more realistic than usual, knowing I will loosen up and play with shapes as I move along.

The vagus nerve is one of two long (long, long) cranial nerves also called the wandering nerve. It wanders through many of our organs.  It’s also known as Cranial Nerve X (CNX). I learn it’s also called the pneumogastric nerve (less romantic).

It emerges at the back of the skull and moves down the down the body where it makes its way through the abdomen. On its journey it comes in contact with the ears, voice box, heart, lungs, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, the large and especially the small intestine.

The vagus nerve helps regulate heartbeat, control muscle movement, keep a person breathing, as well as transmit chemicals through the body. It also keeps the digestive tract working by contracting the muscles of the stomach and the intestines. Without this crucial nerve we would find it hard to speak, breath, eat and our heartbeat would become irregular.

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I think I read the vagus nerve is the one that makes us throw up….hmmm. And it can cause one to faint. I don’t know. I also don’t know if my drawing is complete. I have more to double-check. This nerve meanders and so does my mind.

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between earth and sky: contemporary art from the american southwest

Curator Peter Held contacts me in the Fall of 2014. He is organizing an exhibition that will travel to four Chinese colleges and universities in the Spring and Summer of 2015. The plan includes work from a dozen Southwest artists focusing on contemporary art from the region. He explains it will include works on paper only: photography, prints and drawings.

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We hope this exhibition will give the Chinese audience a sense of what the Southwest is: place, landscape, people and culture.  We would love to consider including 1-2 of your works that are smaller in scale.

I meet with Peter and based on our discussion I decide on animal studies. My main focus is human anatomy but I have an interest in anatomy in general. After a bit of thought, I come up with the idea to paint a creature to represent the states I’ve resided in. I’ve lived in the Southwest all my life. Born and raised in El Paso, Texas – I spend five years in Las Cruces, New Mexico before moving to Phoenix, AZ.  I plan to research each state and find an exotic creature, preferably one I’ve crossed paths with.

Each artist has 1-2 or 3 works, all in China now, in their second venue.

Peter sends a note saying the exhibit is well received. I was pleasantly surprised how engaged and interested the students were, he says, spending an hour or more to look at the art closely. It was a great opportunity to converse on a wide range of topics which the subject matter in the art provided.

Last week I receive the catalogue. In this post I share one work from each artist and include the front and back cover. I am so pleased to see the quality and variety of the artwork. All the artist live and work in the Southwestern United States and each one brings a unique sensibility to the exhibit.

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Alice Leora Briggs, The Listener falls to sleep, Woodcut

 

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Binh Danh, #2 Saguaro National Park, digital print of daguerreotype

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Claudio Dichocea, de Amore Prohibido y el Anarquista, el Emsee 2.0, photolithograph

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Jason Garcia, Tewa Tales of Suspense #4 Behold…Po’pay!, serigraph

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Mark Klett, Slight Track and Red Clouds, Copper Mountains, digital photograph from gelatin silver print

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Michael Lundgren, Parasitic Weight, archival pigment print

Carrie Marill, Nature-T:Monument Valley, gouache on paper

Carrie Marill, Nature-T:Monument Valley, gouache on paper

armadillo

Monica Aissa Martinez, Armadillo: Texas, mixed media on paper

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Leigh Merrill, Denizens, pigment print

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Matthew Moore, Rotations: Moore Estates-Sorghum (homes) Wheat (roads), 35 acres, digital photogra

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Rose Bean Simpson, Know Thyself, ink on paper

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Will Wilson, Edward S Curtis, The Northern American Indian, Norwood, MA, The Plimpton Press

Between Earth and Sky, Contemporary Art from the American Southwest will travel to 4 locations:

Sichuan University 四川大学
March 11, 2015 – March 31, 2015: Exhibit at Sichuan University

Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications 南京邮电大学
April 6, 2015 – April 26, 2015: Exhibit at Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications

University of Shanghai Science and Technology 上海理工大学
May 11, 2015 to May 29, 2015: Exhibit at USST

Xi’an International University 西安外事学院
June 8, 2015 – June 22 , 2015: Exhibit at Xi’an International University

between earth and sky catalogue

Cover: Mark Klett, Contemplating the View at Muley Point, Utah, digital photograph from gelatin silver print
Backcover: Michael Lundgren, New Form, archival pigment print

The exhibition is a partnership between ACCEX – American Centers for Cultural Exchange and Arizona State University Art Museum.

studying structure and texture


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The assignment: to study and identify complex structure and complex texture, create a composition and balance the positive and negative space. The subject-matter for the majority of the student’s are shells. They can make other choices with homework.

IMG_7283I consider this assignment to be a turning point. The commitment is big and the work is intense.  Students must work slow and careful using a magnifying glass to see, and see more.

Take a look at some of the finished drawings.  Note the advanced students work on scratchboard.

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detail shot of one of Anne’s shells

 

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Julio’s shells.

 

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Ali’s dry leaf

 

3UrnKcTMcvoRfmbmoUonAOtoR1_HX5NHiVMXr7MJme-Vrn2NmIEew4vc9V8N99Cnw1rpuS5HfQ_UYJ3On9Nbh2lmHBxcP5sDWwVJv1rxFGaC5ZhtTIMvHa-dcQdykJgQyvQ6UcSbbyneuOZE-MSP_C7qa2H-QxesXqmd7jXeUzr--D8ZYX9iFsk5J33TY5hBqP9CAVo6VCZUHl236f-YULWXdsjcGQub

Trenary’s shell

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Cory’s shell’s.

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Terry’s hand and seed pod.

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Heather’s starfish shell.

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Hyeokwoo’s shells


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Andrea’s shell’s

Drawing 2 students use scratchboard and work off of photos. Clearly they have more freedom but the assignment requires steady patience.

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Charles’ bird on scratch board.

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Susan’s work on scratchboard

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Cassidy’s Cat

 

negative space

Ma is a Japanese word which roughly translates to gap, space, pause or the space between two structural parts. 


IMG_7247This assignment asks the student to focus on the negative space, the space that surrounds an object (or the subject), the space in between things. I point out, in the still life, the area which they will be focusing on. It’s sort of the opposite of how we normally see, I explain. In the process, should you find yourself drawing the positive space (the foliage, in this case) simply stop, refocus and continue. We are training the brain to work a little differently.

Once they understand what they are doing, they have so much more to see and respond to. Negative space helps to define the boundaries of positive space and brings balance to a composition.  It also gives the eye a place to rest.

All of the drawings are strong graphic compositions. The contrast allows for a particularly type of delicacy and boldness to take place at the same time. In general the class enjoys the study. In some cases students are so immersed in the work, I have to remind them to take a break.

There is something great about teaching this particular assignment because as soon as the students grasp the concept, they quickly begin to use it and consequently experience things around them very differently.

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Anne’s Cactus Skeleton

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Trenary’s Weeds and Clover

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Terry’s Poinsettia

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Adam’s Flowers

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Clay’s Leaves and Berries

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Heather’s Plants

Drawing 2 students work with color and have a little bit more freedom with how they approach the study.

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Susan’s Ironed Weed

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Cassidy’s Fall Leaves