Ribbon Dancer robot  MAY 25 2005

At Gel, Bruce Shapiro, artist in residence at the Science Museum of Minnesota, talked about his notion of "motion control" as an "emerging medium for artistic expression". As his website explains, motion control is a "term used to describe a variety of techniques for orchestrating the movement of machinery and objects".

One of the machines he brought to demonstrate its artistic expression was Ribbon Dancer. The willowy one-armed robot performed a routine for us for a couple minutes to a classical piece of music. Near the end of the piece, the ribbon got hung up on the lower part of the apparatus while the arm kept going with the routine, tugging obliviously on the caught fabric. The crowd gasped. For a second there, we thought the arm was going to pull the whole thing over -- not unlike the robot-like AT-AT that got tripped up by a Rebel harpoon on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back -- but Bruce stepped in to stop the machine and free the ribbon. Despite the mistake, the crowd's emotional reaction to the dancer's potentially hazardous misstep demonstrated the potential for the acceptance of artistic expression by machines.

(And in a somewhat more disturbing demonstration of the dancer's representation of life, when Bruce stopped it at the end of the routine and began to walk off the stage, it began to twitch awkwardly from some stray electrical signals, a death rattle of sorts. Bruce leapt back on stage and pulled the plug; the twitching abruptly stopped and the arm fell slack atop the metal shaft, like he'd killed it.)

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