What part of us, willingly projects life into things that in all common sense are not alive? In objects of all shapes and sizes, even the faintest expressions of purposeful behaviour can irresistibly bring them to life in the eye of the observer. In a world increasingly inhabited by artificially intelligent systems, contextually aware gadgets, sensory spaces and robotic agency, will our sense of our built environment as inert and lifeless change to one rich in synthetic personalities, and forms of artificial life? Bringing together Psychology research of the perception of animism, with Puppetry techniques, Interaction Design and Robotics – in 2012 an interactive installation titled “Fearful Symmetry” was exhibited at The Tanks gallery at Tate Modern exploring these ideas
Taking its title from a line in William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”, the installation is inspired in part by the visceral description of an encounter with a creature in the night. So startling that the author questions the purpose and tools that could make such a life form. Intending to bring visitors to a primal state of hyper-awareness, the encounter of the work aimed to create such a visceral encounter. Commissioned by the Tate Modern for the Undercurrent Programme inaugurating its new ‘live art’ space, The Tanks. The cavernous concrete chamber of the south tank, 32m in diameter, 7m tall, had previously lain dormant for decades cloaked in darkness. The response to the site – a living luminaire revealing the dramatic space as it moved around the gallery interacting with the visiting public. Primitive in appearance, to avoid figuratively inferring life, a piercing glowing tetrahedron, glided through the air, swooping down to play with visitors and fleeing up and away if too many got close.
Encouraging the public to suspend their disbelief and play with the living luminaire, the more people engaged gesturally with the work, the more enthusiastic its responses would be. Reciprocally the agile performer responded with behaviours choreographed with the collaboration of a team of puppeteers giving the machine its uncannily human character. If visitors were stationary it would hover over them, slowly turning mechanically and abstractly, almost mocking their inanimateness. With the subtlest change from mechanical to smooth fluid motion, the work transformed from a lifeless platonic solid, to a living breathing performer.
Precise motion control of the delta robot manipulator was critical, but far more important was creating the perception that the movements were purposeful. With sophisticated analysis of the publics gestures, the autonomous robot reciprocated with a perceptible intelligence and emotion. While at first intimidating to visitors of the Tanks, many of the public became increasingly comfortable and confident in performing with their luminous companion as their exchanges developed.
Hidden up above in the darkness, like a long string marionette puppeteer, a 5m tall autonomous Delta Robot, custom built to manipulate the motion of the luminaire beneath it, moved back and forth through the space on a 21-metre motorised rail. An array of Kinect Sensors mounted on the travelling robot built a real time 3D point cloud of its local environment, detecting the public, and reading their individual movements using gesture recognition algorithms. Reciprocally the agile performer responded with behaviours choreographed with the collaboration of a team of puppeteers giving the machine its uncannily human character.
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Built with the Support of
Lighting Sponsor : Lumitec AG
Robotics – Vahid Aminzadeh (KCL) & Alex Zivanovic (Middx Uni)
Computer Vision – Paul Ferragut & George Profenza (UCL)
Mechanical Engineering – Neil (Spike) Melton (Middx Uni)
Sound Design – Emmett Glynn & Sam Conran
Light Engineering – Lianka Papakammenou (UCL)
Photography – Simon Kennedy
Puppetry Consultant – Ronnie Le Drew
Graphic Design – Amy Lewis
Filming – Ronan Glynn
Communication – Ollie Palmer (UCL) & Diony Kypraiou (UCL)
Fabrication Assistant – Djorn Fevrier
Thanks also Ryan Mehanna, Frank Glynn, Stephen Gage, and Ranulph Glanville