The Automaton & Surrealism

Tippoo's Tiger

Tippoo's Tiger, automaton with mechanical organ, India, about 1793. Victoria & Albert Museum

The automaton is a life-like doll or mannequin that moves by means of hidden gears. A precursor to the robot, the auto-maton is a one-of-a-kind marvel used to amuse large audiences with simple tricks. In contrast, the robot is a product–and symbol–of mass production and the culture that depends on assembly lines and standardized parts. The best-known promoters of automatons were clockmakers, inventors, illusionists, magicians–Maillardet, Maelzel, Robert-Houdin–men of the 18th and 19th century who wowed prince and public alike with their ingenious mechanical toys. It comes as no surprise to learn that silent cinema pioneer Georges Méliès was a collector of automatons, using deceptive moving props to augment his repertoire of cinema tricks. More surprising is to learn that Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes, social reformer and novelist Charles Dickens and inventor Thomas Edison also experimented with mechanical figures. (Gaby Wood, Living Dolls, 2002) Mary Shelley wrote the story Frankenstein, 1818, two years after seeing Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s writing automaton in the watch-making district of Neuchatel, Switzerland. Shelley’s father, William Godwin capitalized on his daughter’s success by writing Lives of the Necromancers, 1834, a legendary history of artificial life.

"TheDraughtsman-Writer" automaton

Henri Maillardet. "TheDraughtsman-Writer" automaton, c. 1820, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

A charming example of a working automaton is “The Draughtsman-Writer,” created by the Swiss-born, London-based clockmaker and inventor, Henri Maillardet (1745-?). Badly damaged when it was donated to the Franklin Institute of Science in Philadelphia in 1828, the automaton was mistakenly attributed to Johann Maelzel, a man infamous for his fraudulent chess-playing machine, (Edgar Allan Poe published an exposé on this subject, giving some sense of the fascination and popular appeal of these automata in 1836). A staff mechanic at the Franklin Institute was able to get the the Draughtsman-Writer
working. Wound up, the automaton produced 4 drawings and 3 poems, one of which boasted how he was beloved by women all over the world and even by their husbands, then concluded: “Écrit par l’automate de Maillardet,” revealing the true identity of the inventor.

automaton poem

An automaton's poem reveals the identity of its creator.

Automaton Sketch

Cupid Sketch produced by Maillardet's automaton

The automaton’s poems and drawings are designed to answer questions from the audience, such as “What does the future hold for me?” or “What am I thinking?” One drawing shows a cupid with bow and arrow, another shows a sailing ship. As portents of the future, love and a journey, are agreeable messages. The automaton is not just a mechanical wonder, it is also a fortune teller and a mind-reader. In his essay, The Uncanny, 1919,  Sigmund Freud writes at length about automata as examples of things that produce an uncanny effect. Freud’s definition of uncanny involves a fearful feeling toward something that is simultaneously perceived to be familiar, yet strange and disturbing. Freud develops this into a theory of how the unconscious returns suppressed mental impressions in an altered guise. Reactions to the automaton, Freud suggests, touch on our own ambivalent attitudes toward life ad death.

As a figure in art, the automaton represents a blurring of boundaries between animate and inanimate things. In a painting or a work of literature, a doll can be as life-like as a person. Artists can also portray people as mechanical and unfeeling. Art allows the viewer to perceive this humanizing and dehumanizing process at work.

Giorgio de Chirico. Troubadour, 1940

Giorgio de Chirico. Troubadour, 1940

An artist celebrated for exploring the automaton theme was Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). de Chirico was a Greek-born painter of Italian parents who travelled widely throughout Europe. His classical training was broadened by encounters with German philosophy, Symbolist painting and Cubism. de Chirico merged these diverse sources into melancholic pictures of deserted squares, often depicted in late afternoon light with long shadows. These paintings convey a dream-like sense of dislocation, where odd juxtapositions of unexplained objects, such as classical arcades, train stations, statues and modern mannequins, drawing instruments, easels, maps and scientific diagrams anticipate the surrealist encounter. In her introduction to Metaphysical Art, 1971, Caroline Tisdale notes how many philosophers and artists share a mistrust of physical appearances as an explanation of reality. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed how people become complacent surrounded by familiar things and this complacency stunts imagination. As an counter measure, Schopenhauer encouraged original thinking through a process of estrangement. One strategy of estrangement Schopenhauer suggests  is “to place monuments on low plinths so that they appear to walk among men.” (Tisdale, p. 9) The work of de Chirico, with its mannequin cities, fosters a similar feeling of estrangement. Art historian Wieland Schmied compares de Chirico’s figure of a jointed doll without a face to a blind but wise prophet: “Don’t we associate these figures with the idea of ‘inward vision’ or prophetic ‘second sight,’ precisely on account of the blindness that prevents them from seeing the existing world?” (Giorgio de Chirico: The Endless Journey, 2002, p. 61) Schmied goes on to describe the automaton in de Chirico’s work as an alter-ego, a doll artist. While similar visionary automatons appear in comic dramas written by the poet Apollonaire, a friend and early promoter of de Chirico, and Alberto Savinio, de Chirico’s brother, Schmied’s argument misses the satirical impact of a mannequin as thinker staring blankly at a complex diagram of the universe. Our new artificial selves are no more capable of understanding reality than our old physical selves were.

The Astronomer

Giorio de Chirico. The Astronomer (The Anxiety of Life), 1915

De Chirico suggests that classical statues and public monuments, which once represented community values in the guise of an ancestral hero or mythic goddess, have become obsolete in the modern age, replaced by mass-produced mannequins in shop windows. The mannequins are rootless and exhibit a plastic adaptability to different situations: they become the new comic heroes of absurd coincidence and irrational encounters.

Paul-Émile Borduas. Seagull, 1956

Paul-Émile Borduas. Seagull, 1956

To many artists, the automaton, with its hidden inner workings, recalled the operation of the unconscious. The term Automatisme was adopted by the Surrealists in the 1920s and by abstract painters in Quebec in the 1950s. Influenced by psychoanalysis and by Sigmund Freud’s use of free association techniques, artists were intrigued by the possibility of creating work that escaped the censorship of the conscious mind. By making art that defied rational principles, the surrealists hoped to bait, antagonize and expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeois. Automatiste painting proudly asserted a connection to an authentic inner world, unhampered by artificial social barriers and conventions. This claim of authenticity would later be disputed by postmodern critics, who countered that all art, like language, is mediated by convention. This is criticism in hindsight. In the repressive Duplessis era in Québec, before the “silent revolution” of the 1960s, Automatisme served an important function, infusing creative energy via abstract art into an otherwise parochial art scene. For Paul-Émile Borduas, author of the revolutionary manifesto, Refus global, 1948, and leader of the Québec-based Automatistes, Automatisme was a move away from imitating foreign styles as Canadian artists had done in the past. Instead Borduas urged his fellow artists to be as innovative and inventive as leading artists elsewhere and to pioneer new ways of seeing of their own. For this, Borduas is celebrated as one of the most inspiring and liberating figures in Canadian art.

Robots in Therapy

Signet cover art by Robert Schulz, Isaac Asimov photo by Michael Stroud

Signet cover art by Robert Schulz, Isaac Asimov photo by Michael Stroud

American polymath Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was an author and educator who wrote nearly 500 books on topics ranging from physics and chemistry to Shakespeare and the Bible, though he is best known for his contributions to science fiction. In 1950, he combined nine previously published short stories into the groundbreaking collection I, Robot. Asimov moves away from the Frankenstein model that had characterized earlier robot stories by introducing self-aware machines governed by the Three Laws of Robotics. The three laws, hard-wired into every robot’s Positronic brain, are designed to protect humans from unexpected harm. However, there are special cases where the laws, which resemble Biblical injunctions for artificial life, cannot be followed without encountering paradoxes and ethical dilemmas. As the robots become conflicted in their motives and actions, they become more complex, more vulnerable, more human-like. The robots become so confused and troubled, at times, that they require a psychologist to understand them.

Maxine Audley

Actress Maxine Audley played Dr. Susan Calvin in a 1962 TV version of the Asimov story "Little Lost Robot".

The robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin is the central character framing each story. Calvin describes how at each stage of robot evolution there are puzzling kinks to be overcome. The robots develop symptoms of amnesia and hysteria, as well as being cunning, fraudulent, arrogant, escapist and given to practical jokes. A theme of loneliness and emotional insecurity runs throughout the collection. As an old woman looking back over her life, Calvin addresses a young man: “Then you don’t remember a world without robots. There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him. Mankind is no longer alone. Have you ever thought of it that way?” (p. xiv) This belief that machines can fill emotional voids in people’s lives is not altogether reassuring, but Asimov’s projected history of robots does make a convincing case that human dependency on machines will increase in a great variety of ways.

1939 NY World's Fair

Workers set up the Futurama exhibit at the New York World's Fair in 1939, the same year Asimov sells his first SF short story . The hopeful future was a favourite Depression-era topic.

The first story, Robbie, concerns a girl whose nursemaid is a robot who she obsessively regards as her only friend, an obsession that alienates her from other possible playmates or sources of human connection. The situation parallels the way today’s children turn to computers and electronic games in a similarly absorbed fashion. In the story Liar, a mind-reading robot is so empathetic with people, so sensitive not to hurt fragile feelings and inflated egos, that the robot fabricates untrue but agreeable answers which lead to disastrous results. Asimov understands what people want may not be truth, but rather flattery, approval, and distraction from unpleasant problems. Robots can and will answer to these needs. But the robots in Asimov’s universe are also prone to seek approval and to find their own escapes from conflicted urges. In the story, Escape! the robot called The Brain, which is really a computer, finds a way out from an impossible situation by developing an extraordinary sense of humour. Sending two astronauts into a temporary death-like state, the Brain manipulates their thoughts with a bizarre sense of play. “Something broke loose and whirled in a blaze of flickering light and pain. It fell–
–and whirled
–and fell headlong
–into silence!
It was death!
It was a world of no motion and no sensation. A world of dim, unsensing consciousness; a consciousness of darkness and of silence and of formless struggle.
Most of all a consciousness of eternity.
He was a tiny white thread of ego–cold and afraid.
Then the words came, unctuous and sonorous, thundering over him in a foam of sound:
Does your coffin fit differently lately? Why not try Morbid M. Cadaver’s extensible caskets? They are scientifically designed to fit the natural curves of the body, and are enriched with Vitamin B. Use Cadaver’s caskets for comfort. Remember–you’re–going–to–be–dead–for–a–long–long–time!” (p. 197-198, Bantam, 2004 edition)

Electro and Sparky

Robots sell products as well as books and films. The robot Electro and his dog Sparky, developed by Westinghouse, were such crowd favourites at the New York World's Fair in 1939 that they featured in ads as well.

Asimov invents a new genre for SF– the mystery comedy. In his book A Treasury of Humour, 1971, Asimov states his belief that humour derives from a sudden shift in perspective, moving unexpectedly from the sublime to the ridiculous. The stories in I, Robot alternate between cosmic practical jokes and face-saving acts of grace. The practical jokes serve to moderate the exaggerated self-esteem of a too-proud character–a necessary come-uppance. The acts of grace serve a reverse principle, as a broadening of understanding regarding the flaws of others. Flaws in character–whether human or robotic–could be described as the inadequate response to conflict–an unheroic path that encourages empathy rather than emulation on the part of the reader. Along with understanding conflicted feelings that cause mental turmoil, Asimov comically shifts the point of view so that this turmoil resolves or so that it does not seem so pressing, so anxiously all-important. In his other SF stories and novels, Asimov moves from the pathology of robots to what he calls psycho-history. History is marked by conflicts, by inadequate responses, mistakes, abuses and regret. Yet miraculously people move on. We do so because we learn to see the world in a different way. The paradigms shift and what was all-important and a cornerstone of belief for one generation becomes a mirage-like misconception for the next generation. Asimov is a futurologist, predicting patterns of change in technology and belief.

Robby, Forbidden Planet, 1956

Publicity shot for the film Forbidden Planet, 1956

Written at a time when machines such as cars, television, washing machines and countless other devices were transforming all aspects of North American life, I, Robot explores a culture that depends on technology for its most basic services and communications. The collection appears between two important exhibitions, The New York World’s Fair, 1939, whose theme was “Dawn of a New Day–Tomorrow’s World,” and the “This Is Tomorrow” art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, England, sponsored by the art collective, The Independent Group, in 1956. The former was a commercial tourist-oriented affair dreamed up in the midst of the Depression to boost morale and stimulate spending. The latter was a meeting ground of fine art and popular culture in an optimistic postwar atmosphere in which plentiful goods and increased leisure were hopeful signs of a breakdown of class barriers. Both exhibitions featured robots in key exhibits. In New York, Westinghouse unveiled the 7- foot-tall Electro and his robotic dog, Sparky, a promotion suggesting their own electric home appliances, like robots, would free households from unwanted drudgery. The London exhibit, staged 17 years later, featured Robby the robot from the Hollywood film Forbidden Planet, 1956. Robby was designed by Japanese-American engineer Robert Kinoshita and built by the MGM prop department, at a cost of $125,000. In the fine art world at this time, the robot was a symbol of trashy movies and unsophisticated tastes. This was also a prejudice that Asimov and his editor John W. Campbell would strive to overcome, as they defined a new brand of science fiction aimed at adults , featuring stories in which technology is presented not as a gimmick-like prop but as an integral and inevitable aspect of any future environment.

This is Tomorrow

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Whitechapel Gallery, 1956 marked the beginnings of British Pop Art, a movement which American artists emulated in a more cynical and ironic manner.

Asimov’s collection of robot stories ends with a robot who enters politics and wins one election after another. Machines begin running the world simply because they can make better decisions than people can. The final story, The Evitable Conflict, (that is, the end of conflict), argues the machine take-over will not be the fanciful, violent revolution of R.U.R., nor will it be malevolent and self-serving, as in The Matrix. Rather, the machine/ computer revolution will be silent, invisible, and without overt struggle. This change will come about because it is advantageous to people dependent on machines for their survival as they live in ever-denser populations in ever-more complex interactions with one another. As computers replace not only workers, but managers and strategists as well, they promote the comforting belief that people are in control of their own fate. This belief is fostered by periodic break-downs in the system and by a constant set of adjustments and counter-measures. Machines, Asimov argues, even if they could plan and operate perfectly, would chose not to do so. Instead, machines would introduce flaws to give room for human hopes, as an final act of face-saving grace to fragile human egos. Asimov leaves his psychologist Susan Calvin with the insight that it does not matter if a belief is true or not, as long as it is useful.

I end this post on Asimov with a quick reference to Asimo, the humanoid robot built by the car manufacturer Honda in the year 2000. Standing 4 feet 3 inches tall, Asimo can walk, run and navigate stairs. He is the star of several TV commercials and when I watch one, such as the commercial below, the last thing I think is that Asimo needs a therapist.

The Life & Death of Robots


RUR dick

Left: Robots revolt in RUR. Right: Signet edition of Dick's novel with cover art by Bob Pepper..

The word “robot” was introduced in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),1921, derived from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labour. The Webster dictionary also notes the Old Bulgarian word rabu, meaning servant. The robot was first conceived as a mechanical slave or appliance with some human resemblance. In the George Lucas film Star Wars, 1977, the lovable robots R2D2 and C3P0 are comic foils to the main action—they are garrulous servants from a tradition of comic theatre, characters who see all and yet have limited power or influence. In the play R.U.R., the robots become dissatisfied with their role as servants and stage a violent rebellion, during which all humans are killed except one. The one surviving human is then asked to make more robots, but he does not know how. The robots become conscious of their own inevitable demise. This consciousness of death, and the fear that accompanies it, elevates the robots to a human-like condition.

Karel Čapek.self-caricature

Karel Čapek. Self-portrait.

R.U.R. could be read as a Golem-like story of an artificial being, (The Golem, a silent horror film set in Prague starring Paul Wegener, was released in 1920). The Golem is a would-be protector and saviour who turns against the community it was designed to help. R.U.R. adds to this basic scenario a vision of a terrible genocide. The play exists historically between Henry Ford’s assembly-line automation process (unlike the Golem, the robots in R.U.R. are mass produced) and Hitler’s mad notions of eugenics. Capek died of double pneumonia in 1938, a few months before the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Unaware of Capek’s death, the Nazi secret police made a futile effort to arrest him. Unfortunately, the Nazis did capture Capek’s brother Joseph, a cubist artist, who died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. The robot in literature reflects ambivalent attitudes toward technology at this time.

Actress Sean Young plays android Rachael Rosen in Blade Runner, 1982 (dir: Ridley Scott)

Actress Sean Young plays android Rachael Rosen in Blade Runner, 1982 (dir: Ridley Scott)

The film Blade Runner, 1982, inspired by the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 1968 by Philip K. Dick, advances the idea of robot mortality and self-consciousness from R.U.R. The name of one of the androids in the film is Rachael Rosen, which may be a reference to the Rossum in Rossum’s Universal Robots. Rossum, the inventor of the robot in R.U.R., derives his name from the Czech word rozum, meaning reason, intellect. In Blade Runner, the androids are so human-like, and have such vivid in-built memories, that it is almost impossible for them to believe they are not human. As a safety measure, the android’s creator Tyrel has programmed the androids to a four-year life span. In this story the androids rebel not so much at their harsh treatment by humans as at the cruel brevity of the life that they do have. However painful and difficult the android existence is, they want more of it.


Low Tech Robots


Theo Jansen. Animaris Rhinoceros

Theo Jansen. Animaris Rhinoceros

How fitting that in Holland, land of windmills, an artist has created large wind-powered robots! Dutch kinetic sculptor, Theo Jansen combines a vivid artistic imagination with a background in science to create fantastic mobile creations. Made of plastic ribs, flexible pneumatic tubes, sails and sensors, Jansen uses computer simulations to perfect his designs before taking them for trial runs on the beaches of Holland. As the artworks lumber into motion, one sees slow-gaited giants, looking like extraterrestrial visitors, moving in herd-like unison. The artist refers to them simply as Strandbeesten, beach-animals. His ultimate aim, stated at a TED conference in 2007, is to make the organisms independent so that they can survive on the beach for long periods without the artist’s assistance. “A good advantage of the animals is they don’t have to eat–they eat the wind,” Jansen says. “That’s why they might have a chance on the beaches: There’s a lot of wind, not much food.” This is robotics without motors or computer chips, living not in outer space, not in factories or labs, but in an unsupervised ocean wilderness. The world of Philip K. Dick has arrived! In 1968 (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), Dick predicted that with the mass extinction of mammals from our planet, people would turn to robotic pets and virtual animals for comfort. Thanks Kate for bringing this artist to my attention.

To contrast this wind-powered artwork with another, here’s a work by New York artist Joshua Allen Harris, Polar Bears.

I find it telling that the above two videos feature artists in the context of ads; one promotes BMW cars and the other promotes public transport. Both artworks seem to be inspired by the rapid extinction of animals from our planet; both artworks explore the relationship between an artwork and the environment it is placed in, using wind power to bring inanimate structures to life. Both use common materials. Jansen’s work suggests the limitless possibilities of ingenious engineering. Harris’s work combines humour with pathos, using the onrushing wind from an unseen subway train to suggest a momentary breath of life. His mother bear and cub make a modest and fleeting appearance, and their loss of air and slow collapse reminds the viewer of the fragility of all life forms.