Robotic installation – a collaboration with Rob Saunders | 2013–14

Accomplice is a large-scale robotic installation that embeds a group of autonomous robots into the walls of the gallery. The work nestles itself into our human environment and turns it into a playground for a colony of curious, social machines. In this mingling of wall and machine, the walls become the milieu for the machines to develop and express their desires.

Accomplice builds on our earlier work Zwischenräume; it investigates the machine habitat as an evolving social territory based on a completely new design that allows for the walls to become a shared canvas for the playful machines.

Each robot is equipped with a powerful electro-mechanical punch and a camera eye, which they use to interact with their surrounds. Moving along the walls they share, they communicate with each other, using their punch to chitchat with rhythmic knocking signals. Programmed to be curious, the robotic agents are intrinsically motivated to survey their world and to affect change for the sake of change. Collectively, they explore, learn, play and conspire by knocking against the wall, producing openings and patterns that mark their relentless, inquisitive nature. Doing so, they physically manifest and inscribe their data and networking processes into our built environment.

In architecture, walls are thought of as our ‘third skin’ and in Accomplice, our ‘third skin’ becomes the habitat of self-motivated, ‘intelligent’ machines. The machine–wall coupling makes tangible how machines shape and become part of our social fabric. The work thus aims to enact a slice of our intimate co-evolution with machines, nestled into and transforming our architectural skin.

Audiences first encounter this hidden machinery through its restless knockings but soon catch a glimpse of the robots as they pierce through the walls. They become an accomplice in the work’s on-going sculptural interventions once the robots have constructed larger holes and detect the people in the gallery space. In the robots’ world, audiences are a dynamic part of their expanded environment that triggers their curiosity. Thus, it is not only the robots that perform for the audience but also the audience that provokes and entertains the machines. This is the moment when the machine looks back at you, before it moves on again to chisel along the fringes of another hole or knock a short tune. After all, the gallery wall is their habitat. Interestingly, audiences often respond to this unexpected intervention similar to finding themselves along the fencing in a zoo: they bend and stretch to peek into the openings and get a glance of these noisy, unfamiliar creatures and try to make sense of their behaviours.