Where Tech Meets Art: Katherine Behar’s Anonymous Autonomous Project
Can you tell me about the project that you have been working on at TinkerTech, and what your process has been?
The project I’ve been working on at Tinker Tech is an interactive robotic art installation called Anonymous Autonomous: The installation transforms rolling office chairs into driverless cars. Like autonomous vehicles, the chairs have motors, computer vision systems, LIDAR sensors, and onboard computers. They robotically navigate a floor drawing of road markings and avoid collisions. Viewers can engage the chairs’ algorithms by crossing their paths and by laying strips of paper that serve as lane markings on the floor. The paper lanes reroute the chairs, creating a participatory abstract floor drawing that evolves over the course of the exhibition.
I am in the process of creating a new version of this installation through a residency at the University of Michigan where I’m working with a wonderful team of students coming from computer science, art, and engineering. We needed some expert help on the hardware side of the project, and by chance I was connected with Michael at TinkerTech. I immediately realized that he was exactly the person we were looking for to help build our chair robots! He’s taken on a lead role in the design and implementation of the hardware aspects of the project, which involves CAD, 3D printing, physical computing, and electronics, among other things.
What’s been especially wonderful about working with Michael and TinkerTech is that we have some shared values and emphasis on education and accessibility. This was clear to me from our first meeting. Having Michael on the project has been great because he has been able to design some quite focused workshops for our group on specific concepts and skills (like a physics lesson on statics). Students have also been able to visit the shop for hands-on lessons on the 3D printer and soldering.
What do you enjoy about tinkering and the creative process of it?
I’d probably consider myself more of a maker than a tinkerer! My background is in visual art, so I make a lot of weird things, but typically my process is that I have an idea for a project and then set about to create it. I love the idea of tinkering—which I think of as a sort of open-ended exploration of materials with no specific goal in mind—but the way it works for me, I generally have a fairly well-fleshed out preconceived end in mind before I get to the making stage. That said, I do love what I learn in the process of making things. I love working hands-on with physical materials, pushing and pulling, stretching and shaping, to explore their affordances and constraints.
I also love how the process of making something can offer conceptual insights that wind up informing the meaning of my artwork. For example, in this project, I’ve been struck by how hard it is to achieve something that on the surface seems quite simple: getting a chair to move. In fact, the hardware side of this project has been more challenging than the software side. In the media, we often hear automation and artificial intelligence discussed as though the challenges are primarily computational. Based on this project (as one small example), I can’t help but think that embodied physical processes deserve much more attention. The process of making this project has given me this insight about the considerable complexities and contingencies that go into some simple things many of us do with our bodies every day as we move around the world. It seems we’re a long way away from truly autonomous systems!
What about TinkerTech as a makerspace works well for you?
Michael’s expertise has been absolutely crucial for this project. We are relying on him pretty much entirely for the mechanical engineering design of the robots. He’s also amazing at CAD and has been 3D printing the specialized parts that are literally holding everything together!
Additionally, I appreciate that makerspaces like TinkerTech are so supportive of skill-sharing and collaboration. I come from a performance art background, which is a very collaborative discipline, so I often work with collaborative teams where different people bring different skills. That part of a makerspace ethos aligns quite well with my approach.
I value the educational mission of TinkerTech as a makerspace that is explicit about supporting diversity in tech. I’m glad to see increasing awareness about the lack of diversity in maker culture, engineering, and computer science—all areas we need to involve in a robotics project like this one. Even though I am an artist, so am not working directly in those fields, I am myself a woman of color working with technology. It is a priority for me that my projects support diversity, accessibility, and expertise-building for underrepresented groups. One of the main partners for my residency at the University of Michigan is the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. I’m not sure, but I think this might be the first time they’ve had someone building robots in the basement! I’m proud to say that we have gender equity within the small team I have working with me on this project. It’s one small project, but it’s a step!
About Katherine and her Artwork:
I’m an artist and “tech-forward” is a good way of describing this project—and in fact, many of my works. As an artist, I critique technologies and the cultural relationships that emerge around them. Gender and labor in digital culture have been consistent subject matter in my art for about two decades, whatever material I happen to be working with. In other words, my work is about our relationships with technologies, but I’m not always using technological materials to talk about technology. Sometimes I do things that are quite low tech! This robotics project has been a new, exciting, and challenging direction for me. Nevertheless, Anonymous Autonomous builds on previous works (Roomba Rumba and Autoresponder.exe both come to mind) that address automation of labor and office culture. In Anonymous Autonomous, I’m comparing two different settings of work—driving and office work—where automation is changing the status of labor today. Here’s a bit about the ideas behind this project:
Autonomous vehicles are part of a wave of transformative technologies that utilize automation, deskilling, and algorithmic decision-making. These processes are at odds with classically American values like freedom and individualism, which inspired car culture and the rise of the creative class. Both cars and ergonomic office chairs suggest personal mobility, but now we must be networked together to drive or do office work, making these activities less autonomous and more anonymous than we may imagine. In Anonymous Autonomous the anxiety of anonymity within a vast network spreads from the office cubicle to another kind of autonomous “black box”—the driver's seat.
You’re invited to engage with the project!
If folks would like to find out more, we will be sharing a work-in-progress community demo of this project at the Duderstadt Center Gallery at the University of Michigan. We’ll be opening the doors on our process on Friday the 13th of December from 5:00–7:00 pm. All are welcome! Here's a link to the event for additional information: https://events.umich.edu/event/69738