agnieszka pilat on collaborating with robot learners

agnieszka pilat trains the next generation of artists

Self-proclaimed machine evangelist Agnieszka Pilat has taken it upon herself to train the next generation of creators for the digital age. Expanding her creative fascination with robots and technology, the Polish artist steps back and passes her brushes on to her robot trainees, Spot and Digit, for her latest ROBOTa exhibition. Together, the trio’s adventure begins to define a futuristic yet joyously primitive intersection between technological evolution and artistic tradition.

After a one-year residency at boston dynamics, Pilat presents an experimental series of 11 acrylic paintings that will be on view at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery through December 21, 2022. The vibrant canvases, marked with the primitive angular gestures of robots evocative of Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Abstract and Neo Expressionism, expresses a restrained simplicity and a bold youth. Yet beyond the surface, they are laden with nuanced notions about the history, agency, and growing power of artificial intelligence — challenge the conventional understanding of creativity and the limitations of machinery.

Delving into the processes and technologies behind this collaboration between (woman) man and machine, designboom spoke with Agnieszka Pilat, discovering her insights into the paradoxical power of robotics.‘MEIt is about humanizing technology with creativity’. she shares.

Agnieszka Pilat and her robot apprentice, Spot | image of aaron richter

‘ROBOTa’: a collaboration between man and machine

Originally trained as a portrait painter, Agnieszka Pilat’s work has evolved over time to explore her fascination with robotics and technology. Now, moving from mere muses and models, the machines assume the role of her collaborators, creating her own works of art.‘Recently, I came to boston dynamics intending to paint a portrait of his robot Spot,’ Pilat tells designboom.‘Then the engineers told me that maybe I should use the robot to paint instead. When I started, the arm was still in development, and they insisted that I play with it, and then all the work on ROBOTa followed from that.’

Along with his adopted trainees, Spot, who looks like a dog, and Robotic Agility’ Human-like digit – the artist sparks an exploration of the evolution of machines as they grow and learn from their human counterparts. More widely admired for their mechanical prowess, AI-powered workhorses are more likely to work in coal mines or nuclear sites, but under Pilat’s guidance, they can now unleash their latent creative potential.

Driven by robotics companies’ spirit of collaborative curiosity, in keeping with their technological innovations, Pilat explains how ROBOTa is less about the final form of works of art and more about the underlying innovative processes and implications. Ultimately, the exhibition questions what human-machine collaboration envisions for the future of design, technology and creative expression.

interview: agnieszka pilat on her creative collaboration with robot trainees
Portrait B70 | image © Agnieszka Pilat

paving the way for the intersections between design and technology

Agnieszka Pilat begins her adventure to train robots as budding artists by imparting her creativity and integrating various technologies. Different implementations of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, object/image recognition and athletic learning, integrate into Spot and Digit her own distinctive artistic personalities.

In human years, Spot and Digit are essentially little children, as Pilat puts it. The way they interact with their environments and their artistic abilities are limited, depending on both your creative guidance and the optimization of embedded technologies. ‘Both Digit and Spot are imperfect extensions of my arms. When they transfer my aesthetic ideas to the canvas, those ideas are translated into the physical language of machines.’

His artwork as a result, naturally ‘represents a real lack of skill’, an enthusiastic visual translation of her youthful innocence. Against vibrant backgrounds washed with vibrant primary colors and broad abstract brushstrokes, the primitive markings of the robots emerge as ‘silly, simplistic, stick figures, with antennae and circles on top… Tthere’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement in that job.’

interview: agnieszka pilat on her creative collaboration with robot trainees
Spot Arm-Controlled Oil Stick | image © Agnieszka Pilat

Explaining his process, Pilat notes:‘There are five ways I worked with robots. With Digit, everything you see on the canvas, I pre-programmed. I tell the robot where to go, how to move its arm, how long to stay in one place, how fast to move, etc. With calculated movements, Digit handles the brushes with a restrained but energetic angularity.

Spot, on the other hand, who produced most of the work in the exhibition, translated Pilat’s aesthetic ideas onto canvas in various experimental and expressive ways. Spot’s lines are created by a brush and oil arm manually controlled by Pilat via an iPad or control device. Still in its early stages of development, the arm is limited to small controlled movements, including straight lines and simple round gestures with calligraphic qualities reminiscent of Cy Twombly. The simplicity of it, a limitation considerably, Pilat believes actually enhances his work with a level of innocent abstraction that he feels was somewhat lacking in his own work.

Along with engineers from Boston Dynamics, Pilat also incorporated augmented reality and programmed an Oculus into Spot. ‘While I was moving my arm, Spot’s arm was moving with me. This was the most organic and imperfect extension of my own self,she shares. “Another way of working with the robot is that I can upload an image in PDF format and the robot will figure out in the real world how to translate it. And the last one is live painting, where I paint on the console and the robot just repeats the movements that I do.’

interview: agnieszka pilat on her creative collaboration with robot trainees
ROBOTa on display at the Modernism Gallery © Agnieszka Pilat

a childlike visual expression of advanced robotics

Agnieszka Pilat points out that the most important parts of the work are the mistakes the robots make, where they seem to have a sense of agency.Sometimes the robot does unpredictable things. That’s the moment I call ‘ghost in the machine’ and that’s the exciting, spontaneous feeling that there’s another mind coming in and messing up your plan.’ The artist considers Spot and Digit’s imperfections and childish lack of skill to be an asset rather than a limitation. It is this spontaneity that makes ROBOTa’s works so unique, enhancing Pilat’s work with a dimension that she might not have been able to achieve on her own and moving away from the exhausted abstract expressionist gesticulations of human artists. “I think the robot is enhancing my creativity, because the limitations force me to think beyond things like imitating nature.” she explains.

Significantly, this unexpected creative input from the machines is what establishes them as your creative collaborators, rather than mere design tools for design; in the exhibition, Pilat copyrights his apprentices, giving Spot and Pilat credit for their respective paintings on accompanying information panels.

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