The Vinyl Factory Space
Technological advancement manifests itself in unusual ways. You climb the stairs of the late 1920s Brewer Street Car Park, shades of off-white and duck egg blue blurring in your peripheral vision. At the top, you enter the temporary home of Conrad Shawcross’ dancing robot, The ADA Project. The robot is situated at the far end of the Magna(-science-adventure-centre)-eqse space, so your attention is first drawn to the wall texts and prints. By politely perusing these wall pieces, you reach the information desk, collect information sheets, turn around and finally lay eyes upon the robot. Like a caged lion, it has a coy majesty as it moves seamlessly through its programmed choreography.
Retina burn is a small price to pay for viewing this piece, as the unmediated light on the robot’s tip invites and holds our gaze, whilst the music makes sense of its motions. When the music ends, it whirs through the silence, repeating its routine. It is tempting to think that the robot should stop when the music does, as we dance to music, we dance with it. But Shawcross’ robot commissioned these musical scores, its movements inspired by Ada Lovelace, the mathematician. Four renowned female musicians, Beatrice Dillon, Holly Herndon, Mira Calix and Tamara Barnett Harrin responded to these movements, creating four new and unique compositions. Dillon and Herndon created pieces that synced perfectly with the programmed dances, expressing the robot’s implied sentience.
One hundred years previously, motion studies were used by Frank and Lilian Gilbreth to increase worker efficiency rather than to create music. The Gilbreths attached a camera to a timing device and photographed workers performing various tasks. The motion paths were tracked by small lights attached to the worker’s hands or fingers. This was called a chronocyclegraph, used in the hope to reduce worker’s movements to the shortest sequence of gestures. Long exposure prints of The Ada Project and the Gilbreth’s chronocyclegraphs bear such a visual resemblance that it is curious how different their intentions are.
Frank and Lilian Gilbreth’s intention was to robotise factory workers; it wasn’t about beauty, it was about efficiency. These movements were written on photographs and in models and retrospectively they have a certain utilitarian beauty. To view the Gilbreths’ work now is to think of the beauty of motion, they were writing movements in light. Their innovative use of the moving image earned them great respect in the field of time and motion studies. But this retroactive beauty shows how scientific technologies seep into the creative spheres, as we subsequently procure its aesthetic value.
You could say that Shawcross has ‘freed’ his robot from a life as a welder in a car factory. Its movements are documented in photographs and in music. It has been repurposed, anthropomorphised perhaps, into a performer. Once the robot is anthropomorphised however, it may generate assumptions of a possibly forced performance. It moves tirelessly through its motions, it doesn’t stop when the music stops and you hear it whir sadly until someone presses the next button and it performs the next dance. It is an exhibition of grace and beauty native to the uncanny valley. Shawcross’ robot has an eerie allure that echoes through the space, whilst celebrating the beauty of musical composition and it’s relation to choreography.
The way in which Shawcross and the Gilbreths approach the subject of manufacturing is distinctive; the former liberates the machine from its traditional boundaries and commission’s music, whereas the Gilbreths examination attempted to mechanise human labour. Their interest in the mechanical enthrals the viewer with its promise of the future. However, upon this realisation the viewer can discover that the Gilbreths’ pre-empt the negation of human labour, shaping humanity into the innards of an eternal production line. Whilst one hundred years later, Shawcross’ robot dances out the last throes of its industrial life.