A chair falls. It doesn’t just fall over, it falls apart. And it falls apart with startling force; its legs fly out from under it, its back topples and rolls away, its seat crashes to the floor with a clatter and thud. But this chair is no Humpty-Dumpty. Once the scattered parts have settled and the noise from the crash quits ringing in your ears, it puts itself back together again. Enabled by a unique mechanical robot embedded in the seat of the chair, and a computer aided vision system suspended from the ceiling above, the chair locates its various parts and methodically re-assembles itself.
Robotic Chair was first conceived by Max Dean over twenty years ago in an artist residency at the Canadian National Museum of Science and Technology. Already well-known at that time for his challenging performance-based works, in the intervening years Dean has developed a substantial reputation for his interactive robotic works. Irrespective of form or medium, however, there are themes and relations that he returns to consistently. Characteristically, the spectator is central to the way the works are structured, the nexus around which to explore questions of exposure, trust and responsibility. Computer technology and robotics are, to a great extent, merely tools that the artist has used to construct situations where the spectator is required to act, to exercise a choice and, by doing so, become the performer of the work, becoming complicit in its processes and outcomes.
An early, attention-grabbing performance is exemplary of what Dean is willing to risk. Blindfolded and bound, the artist is dragged feet-first by a winch rigged to suspend the body from a crossbeam. Slowly the audience learns that they can control the action of the winch through the sound they generate. It is then up to the audience to determine their course, and whether the artist will be hung by his feet or not. What is at risk in Robotic Chair? In life, we fall apart and put ourselves back together again. If the chair is a representation of life’s process – of falling down, and picking yourself up; of falling apart, and putting yourself back together, over and over again – then the risk must be that fatal fall, a fall from which the robot can no longer reassemble itself.
Dean routinely makes use of ordinary objects. Robotic Chair, for example, is modeled on a basic wooden school chair, sturdy and homely, something that an average viewer might find familiar and unremarkable. Earlier works have used or taken the guise of equally unassuming objects: a stool, a lectern, a table. But these objects are also invested with extraordinary properties. The table, for example, in the work called Table, will try to form a bond with an audience member, attaching itself to the chosen spectator as they move about the exhibition space. The work imposes a certain self-consciousness on the chosen spectator as they choose whether to reciprocate the table’s attention, to play along with the work, or try to escape from unwelcome attention. And what about the spectator that is not chosen? The machine’s behavior is all the more unsettling by virtue of its mundane form.
The chair, on the other hand, is unaware of spectators; it will perform in the absence of an audience, and in this sense it is a departure from the artist’s earlier work. It is then both “performing” in the mise-en scène of the exhibition, and “real” in the autonomy of its functionality and purposiveness. This duality collapses the difference between the spectacle of the “work” in the “exhibition” and the thing-in-itself. Hence, its potential for failure becomes its most compelling trait.
Robotic Chair could easily stand as a metaphor for hope and the virtues of persistence. Hovering just below that uplifting surface, however, is our attraction to failure. Central to either reading is this sense of performativity oscillating between the two poles of spectacle and autonomy. At one extreme is a type of machine pornography, wherein a basic human behavior has been objectified, (hypothetically) infinitely repeatable for our shock and amazement. At the other end is an act of imagination that stages the Robotic Chair as possessing both will and desire. From here it calls into question the moral and ethical repertoires that govern our investments in our technological extensions (to use McLuhan’s term), and it is in this dimension that we can look for the meaning of the work.
Robotic Chair was realized in collaboration with engineer and systems architect Raffaello D’Andrea and industrial designer Matt Donovan.
Robotic Chair has been presented at Yale University and the Yale School of Art (2008); ARCO (with Nicholas Metivier Gallery, 2007), Madrid; CMA Conference (with PacArt, 2007), Ottawa; Luminato – Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity (2007); Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto (2007); Children’s Museum (with Kitchener/Waterloo Art Gallery, 2007), Kitchener; a City, Toronto (2006); Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria (2006); and Private Viewing, New York City (2006).
Max Dean is a performance, video and installation artist originally from Leeds, England. He has widely shown his solo and collaborative projects at such notable institutions as the National Gallery of Canada (2002); ZKM Centre for Art and Media, Karlsruh, Germany (2002); and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki, Finland (2002). Previous group exhibitions also include the Plateau dell’umanita, Venice Biennial (2001); Voici, 100 years of contemporary art at Palais des Beaux-Arts (Bozar) in Brussels (2000); and dAPERTutto at the Venice Biennial (1999). Dean’s solo exhibitions include Snap, Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto (2004); Ottawa Art Gallery, Ottawa (2002); Mist, Susan Hobbs Gallery (2002); Any Moment, Susan Hobbs Gallery (2000).
Raffaello D’Andrea is a professor of engineering and an entrepreneur. His contributions range from the highly theoretical to the very applied, and incorporate mathematics, physics, computer science, technological innovations, and art. He was the faculty advisor and system architect of the Cornell Robot Soccer Team, four time world champions at the international RoboCup competition in Sweden, Australia, Italy, and Japan. He is also the system architect at Kiva Systems, a Boston area high-tech company he helped launch that has developed a revolutionary material handling system that utilizes hundreds of fully autonomous mobile robots. His work has been featured on Scientific American Frontiers and the Discovery Channel, at the Smithsonian, the Tech Museum of Innovation, and the Spoleto Festival.
Matt Donovan is a graduate from the Ontario College of Art and Design and is working as an artist, industrial designer, and conservator of kinetic artworks. Trained in art but with an innate understanding of engineering, Donovan has built a career in which design and art are inseparable. Both in his personal and professional work Donovan skirts the line between art and engineering. Highlights include a series of works with Hallie Siegel called “History Machines”; the mechanical design of Max Dean’s and Raffaello D’Andrea’s The Robotic Chair and The Table.