The Gardener stands in front of his handiwork, hands on hips, to survey his achievement. Overall, the cultivation could be considered a success. Long, verdant highways flourished in the sun. Neat rows of shiny cars hurried up and down to feed the paved roads. Behind them, last year’s buildings were starting to spring up, tall and sturdy; well-fed by an unending supply of concrete and steel. Even the interconnecting tunnels had sprouted from tiny tendrils into large, firm, grey vines. Finally, far in the distance were the squat, fat rows of factories blowing inky smoke into the sky, plump and succulent with industry.
All this would not have been possible without the drones. The Gardener congratulated himself on having the foresight to painstakingly nurture his army of drones – tireless little machines whose fully-automated pipes and valves and motors and gears and fuses and pumps made them indispensable to any developmental plan. Programmed with Asimovian Robotic Laws of protection and obedience1, they worked for him uncomplainingly round the clock to churn out cheap, semi-poisonous food items and waves of poorly-made shoes, clothes, appliances, and toys that nourished, clothed and entertained. And when they were old and damaged, he threw them out and replaced them with newer models. No problem.
But lately there was a nagging problem. It was starting to dawn on him that his drones might not be quite as docile as he had thought; indeed, might even have a mind of their own. Just yesterday his trusty forklift opened her tines in midair without warning, smashing a load of precious cargo on the ground. Three days before, the silent lanky crane suddenly dropped his sheaves and swung his large gleaming metal hook around the yard alarmingly for five minutes, refusing to stop until the Gardener pulled his switch. Afterwards, he berated them, and threatened to replace them. Even though they said nothing in response, he sensed that they were not as sorry as he would have liked them to be. Increasingly, there was a surliness in the way his drones went about their chores. A new vibe was in the air, and the smell of iron now reminded him of something other than machinery.
The new media art collective island6 pulls on its cyberpunk suit and goes on a journey through the matrix to our not-too-distant hypertech future, the nightmare of Jean Baudrillard’s simulated reality, where humanity dissolves into millions of faceless, nameless supercomputers. The idea of a programmable, fully mechanized agent of action has become a popular trope in literature, film and theatre since Karel Čapek introduced the world to the concept of a “robot” through his sci-fi play R.U.R. in 1920. From saviours of mankind to harbingers of humanity’s doomsday, Shanghai’s electronic art collective jumps into the swirling debate over the dangers of technology, as the spectre of an eventual cyber-takeover looms large in collective imagination.
Sci-fi codswallop? Maybe not. Robots have entered our lives in more ways than we are actively aware of. Unmanned aerial vehicles, envisoned by Nikola Tesla as early as 1915, have silently ferried cameras, mapping sensors and missiles across the skies since the 1960s. Grim-faced bots help out on many factory floors, soldering, stamping, stitching and sawing. If the deep-pocketed National Robotics Initiative has its way, these cyborgs will soon move out of factories and into our everyday lives to administer medication to elderly, assist in rational decision-making and even do housework. You yourself probably bought your little niece a Furby last Christmas, and found your way to her party with a mapping application on the little android that lives in your pocket.
island6 has long been known for its soft, romantic take on technology where pixelated fairies flitted around papercut trees under the pastel glow of LED skies. In its second solo show with Red Gate Gallery, however, the collective turns the electronic garden on its head with a hard, honest look at the meaning and direction of our obsessions with the automated and computerized. Fast-modernizing China is the perfect playground for a welter of digital prophecies – last year, the country surged ahead of Germany and U.S. in its purchase of industrial robots2, and currently tops the world in robotics competition participation3. In fact, the Chinese capital now has its own cyber-version of the Cinderella story in the cyborg thriller Lunar Chronicles. Through grey cityscapes dotted with blinking diodes and angular steel towers wired with gleaming sparks, island6 creates a tableau of a world where cybernetic mastery has given us auto-cranes that build their own cities and driverless automobiles that travel with precision. Have we created the perfect urban utopia? In the stunning locale of the historical Dongbianmen Watchtower, island6 presents fifteen brand-new artworks that explore the ramifications of a super-technologized urbanscape; a vision for the future. Brave new world or Robocalypse? Just ask Siri.
(1) Isaac Asimov, I, Robot, “Three Laws of Robotics”, 1955.
(2) Dexter Roberts, Business Week, “The March of Robots into Chinese Factories”, 29 November 2012
(3) Mark Morris, ITN News, “Robot Dances Like Michael Jackson at Beijing Competition”, 24 Sept 2012