Talking to artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, the ghosts inside the machine.
An enormous robotic arm, brandishing a giant squeegee, is poised over a pool of dark liquid which ceaselessly oozes outwards. With quick, smooth, aggressive movements, the machine performs a calculated dance, pivoting and dragging its squeegee across the surface in a perpetual labor of wiping the liquid back to the center. Can’t Help Myself, presented in the new exhibition Tales of Our Time, is an imposing installation by artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu which holds the title as the Guggenheim’s first robotic artwork.
But robotic art is nothing new—so why did the museum wait until now to acquire a piece?
“It is always a new challenge when new mediums and new technology emerge in art practice,” answers curator Xiaoyu Weng. “It happened with video, new media; now we are facing maintenance, operation, and conservation (for example the concern over software and programming systems that will be obsolete one day)… But we are taking it on very positively and actively as exemplified in the acquisition of Can’t Help Myself at the Guggenheim.”
Can’t Help Myself, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, 2016. Exclusive footage courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.
“Can’t Help Myself is a provocative and intriguing artwork,” Weng explains to The Creators Project. “It touches upon many current issues that are urgent in a global context, not only with its robotic characteristic/materiality, but also with its conceptual, socio-political messages.”
If you’re like me, the viscous red liquid will remind you of blood—but Sun Yuan and Peng Yu emphasize that the work is not based on symbolism, and is open to interpretation. Regardless, the image confronts us with issues surrounding what the artists call the “pleasure and panic” of anticipating the future. “Only in the accidents of a computer glitch, a power failure or losing a cellphone can we realize that we are kidnapped by today’s knowledge structure,” the artists tell The Creators Project. “The stronger such sense of dependence feels, the stronger the feelings of panic and pleasure it brings. The most frightening part is that no matter how we reflect on it, it cannot be stopped… At the same time fears are exciting, for the knowledge beyond our experience is coming.”
As technology becomes increasingly present in our lives, this anxiety over the dynamics of human/machine relationships sparks an important dialogue about the future of art: how can technology and robotics take the place of the artist and extend or replicate their will? “Even if machines develop a new calculating capacity that exceeds their original settings, those calculations will still be based on the logic programmed by humans,” Sun Yuan says in the exhibition video. “An artist’s work is a reflection of his or her will. The artist doesn’t need to be present on site, physically. Instead, you rely on an agent to carry out your will.”
With Can’t Help Myself, we are witnessing artificial intelligence following a choreography set by the artists. “As long as the human’s potential is not limited, any artistic potential of robots will not be restrained,” the artists tell The Creators Project. “More and more mechanical devices have entered our lives and even become part of our bodies. It is natural that they enter the art world.”
Development sketches for Can’t Help Myself, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, 2016. Still from video.
Can’t Help Myself questions the place of the machine in humanity’s grand narrative and explores what robotic artist Bill Vorn calls the aesthetics of artificial behaviors. As machines learn and respond to more information and technology advances, human/machine relationships become increasingly complex. “Human beings have to learn from machines in order to take control of them,” the artists explain. “Yesterday’s people can hardly understand today’s narrative, and likewise, we will find it difficult to construe the narratives of the future. This is because machines, as an integral part of our knowledge, are continuously changing and correspondingly accelerating the changes of human beings. It is an endless interplay of entanglement and containment between human and machine: they both take advantage of each other and progress with each other.”
“Can’t Help Myself is a metaphor, with allegorical power to tell the story of humanity’s relationship with technology, a story of the now,” curator Weng tells the Creators Project. “[It] speaks to the eternal pursuit of humanity’s cultural imagination, with a time mark of our current time and era.”
The exhibition Tales of Our Time is on view at the Guggenheim Museum through March 10th.