These days, I rarely perform live without a robot by my side.
Fashioned from found objects, fragments of musical instruments and open-source tech, my robots now take equal billing with the human performers in Spacedog (and Hugo invariably steals the show).
I started building robot performers as I wanted to layer up more than one sound on stage and was seeking a more theatrical alternative to a laptop or loop pedal. So I began experimenting with robots who could take over some of the musical duties on stage.
Read more about the robots:
Edgar Allan (Crow): A cheeky, robotic corvid
An early version of the Ealing Feeder, with Uncanny Valerie
Strictly speaking, when my robots are in their performance mode, they aren’t robots at all but automata as they are obeying preprogrammed routines. The possible exception here is Clara 2.0 who moves her hand in response to the note she’s making on her theremin and to the sound of her guide track. I work like this as I need to co-ordinate the robots’ actions with live vocal and instrumental performance on the stage. I cue in every element of Spacedog songs using a Max/MSP patch. This talks to the robots via a ragbag of boards (whatever I’ve been able to extract from former exhibits): Arduinos, Phidgets and servo boards among them. I have various methods of triggering the robots during songs – the simplest is a trigger key at the top end of my (electric) piano.
Off stage, I like to give the robots some more slack now and then. For instance, I’ve hooked Hugo up to a webcam and and optical flow mechanism so he can follow people and objects around the room (a good party trick). But as feats of engineering, my robots are admittedly fairly simple. In fact, that’s the curious thing about stage robots: when the robots are seamlessly mixed with live performers, people tend to credit them with intelligence and intentions that they don’t posses. I doubt anyone would be half so impressed with such low-rent robotics if it was embodied in a virtual character on a screen. Somehow, we’ve become blasé about screen-based artificial life (thanks to the wonders of Pixar, Nintendo et al) – but we’re still wowed by a cheap vent doll like Hugo, admittedly one that’s spiced up with dash of Arduino.
I like to think my robots have a whiff of the uncanny about them – something I explored in our show The Uncanny Valley in 2006 (a collaboration between Spacedog and our dear friend Professor Elemental who made an excellent sparring partner for Hugo). I’d love to find some sponsorship to run this show again and embed a live experiment into the show – something that puts some of the claims about uncanniness to the test.
Hugo has a modesty cover for his motors but I rarely use it. In general, I’ve resisted the temptation to cover up the workings of the robots and make them as neat and tidy as the laptops they’ve replaced. This is because I’ve found the audience find the robots more magical when they can see their motors, wires and levers. Again, I think this may be partly down to the novelty of seeing some electromechnical devices on the stage. I also think some scrappiness emphasises the robots’ identities as one-off, hacked objects. I feel this increases the sense of jeopardy – the anxiety over whether the robots will make it through the show. Perhaps this is cheating – but I like to think I’m working in the tradition of those old-school plate spinners who deliberately make the plates look a little too wobbily.