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Monday, January 14, 2013

We were invited to Dublin to curate a robotic art show. Ireland was then the Celtic Tiger, having leaped from its position as one of the poorest nations in the EU, second only to Portugal. We found a city dotted with the cranes and pilings of massive construction projects. It was flush with biotechs, venture capitalists, software companies, and budget surplus. Flush, too, with immigrants—Eastern Europeans and Asians to wash dishes, sweep streets, and mind babies. Of course the city wanted robots—that slick creature toward which we’re tending or to which we’ll cede, depending on our folklore.

But conditions did not hold. A year or so later, capital, jobs, citizens, and immigrants began to trickle and then rush out of the country. The government declared bankruptcy. Construction projects halted and then fell back down to earth. Exposed rebar became the ruins of the twenty-first century.

Conditions did not hold—it’s a phrase we keep worrying. In retrospect, this experience of Dublin has become a loose collection, gathered under the title “Drift.” “Species drift” describes random genetic divergence en route to speciation. Forest apes becoming chimpanzees and bonobos, finches radiating. Our own purpose there was to wonder about the continuum between art and automation, between human and machine. At the time, we found category instability intriguing.

1. The building we found for the exhibit was a former cathedral, the kind that had displayed fragments of a saint’s shin in a glass box, hot under the lights. In a tour of the empty building, the caretaker showed us the vast dirt-floor basement, which, implausibly, contained papier-mâché fire pits, towering faux stone towers, and the prow of an ancient warship. Apparently, the cathedral had fallen on hard times, and when Viking remains had been discovered under the buildings and streets of the neighborhood, entrepreneurs had turned the struggling parish into Dublinia, a “Viking Adventure Center.” There had been dioramas, beards, hats with antlers, and hairy capes, the “spicy” smell of a Viking village steaming from an unseen vent. But the venture failed, as the Norse rule of Ireland had a thousand years earlier.

In the basement of the former cathedral/Dublinia, there was also a mound of black trash bags tagged with what looked like serial numbers.

“These? They’re Viking bones.”

He pointed to a ripped bag with what looked, indeed, like bones spilling out. They were props as well, yes? No. Cracked bones fifteen hundred years old. Bone, bone, bone on the dirt floor of the basement.

2. If pressed, we might say that we were then in our light years. The years that did not require a great deal of negotiation. We liked to say yes to things. We thought “yes” was a condition that would hold. 


3. One piece we chose for the show featured a young female artist who claimed to have constructed a sensitive skinlike substance capable of recording and interpreting human touch. Actually, she crawled inside a box with a computer draw pad for hours and offered the skin of her back to visitors. They used their fingers as styluses and marveled as the shapes they’d drawn appeared on the monitor above the box. A few apprehended the artist’s game, and some of those smiled, some looked disgusted—human skin, their own skin on it. At one point, a group of pubescent boys lingered around the box. It was unclear whether they had figured out the trick, but their laughter was tinted; they may have taken advantage. The artist took a break once they’d moved on, the machine temporarily out of service. We didn’t know if she had gotten what or more than she had hoped for.


4. To the southeast of the former Dublinia, in a neighborhood reminiscent of London (its stately Georgian townhouses home, historically, to the British ruling elite, which had slowly become—depending on whom you ask—more Irish than British), sat Dublin’s Natural History Museum, its collections frozen in the late Victorian age, many of the animals gathered even earlier.

The skunk in the North American section had been sun-bleached to a soft apricot and white. The stretched wings of bats and butterflies had thinned to dust. African mammals bagged out of shape. The rhinoceros, recognizable only by its eponymous nose, looked as if it had swallowed a harem’s worth of pillows, flaps of skin peeling like ill-hung wallpaper. Down one entire wall of mammals, a parenthetical echo: (presumed extinct).

We must remind ourselves: This collection does not coalesce. Because it is drifting and we are drifting. What registers at times as a fear or a pain or a prickly fascination is that we do not know what we are drifting toward.

5. We saw in a square what we thought were the most beautiful birds we’d ever seen—large and crisply marked in white, black, and gray. A serious, editorial bird, ready in a moment for a game of billiards or a noble mission. What secrets this island has been keeping, we thought. Irish friends gave a little smirk when we mentioned the birds—“You mean magpies? They’re common as pigeons!” And at once, one bird ate the other, beauty first.


6. At the same time, a well-known artist brought to Dublin a flock of duck decoys outfitted with remote controls, tiny speakers, and microphones, so that they might emit sound and record their encounters. In a city park, the public was invited to launch the ducks into a large pond so that they might communicate with the flesh-and-feather ducks that considered the city park home. This was meant as an experiment in how biological ducks respond to robotic ducks ostensibly “speaking their language.” An experiment, too, in how people, operating the robotic ducks remotely, respond to having a duck avatar. Only, for the most part, the ducks didn’t work. And when a child actually drove her duck across the pond and got it to squawk, the biological ducks didn’t pause or twitch. It was as if they’d been living with or negotiating around mechanized versions of themselves since they’d genetically drifted into the category duck.

The richest moment, though, came when the artist took one of the ducks to a radio interview and forgot it in the cab. Assistants called all over the city to try to locate it. That duck was without a homing device, out of range of its remote, riding a cab through the city. It was never found; it may be riding still, recording.

7. After a trickle of visitors the first morning of the three-day show, we went with volunteers and artists out into the streets with flyers. People were often kind, inquisitive: A robotic art show, what’s that, then? Here in Dublin, isn’t that something? And where are you from, love?

One artist took his piece to a nearby market to attract more visitors. He had made a robot rover the size of a tricycle designed to be driven by a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Perched on a trackball, the insect served as the robot’s CPU. It drove around the market and then back to the hall like a pied piper of future disaster: cockroaches and rovers, people following in undifferentiated hordes.

Outside the back door of the exhibit space, the huffers hung out. They did what they could afford, blisters around their mouths and noses, older scabs up the undersides of their arms. There was a leader, it seemed, with a girl and a baby. He twitched from one corner to the next and back again in a parody of a male bird returning to the nest.

The huffers took flyers, flicked their eyes around the page. It’s free? Later, the same at the door, craning their necks: It’s free? But inside they lasted only minutes, ricocheting like birds caught indoors—up the stairwell, an erratic loop through the hall, then down the back stairs. Here, at the bottom of the stairs, visitors encountered the only humanoid robot in the show. A metal skeleton, white plastic eye exposed, cables running like ligaments throughout, it was a collision of the futuristic with old-fashioned manual labor. People could work in concert on a system of eight levers positioned around the room to make each joint bend or limb swing. Visitors made it wave hello, made it smack its forehead, made it drag its arms like an ape, and left, exhausted with the effort. After a few moments watching, the huffers left, too, without trying the levers. Back out of the sidewalk, they resumed flitting—it was impossible to deny how hard they already worked.

We watched the leader on and off for the three days of the show—his speed, his flock, their open economy. We knew we were watching their cells reorganizing; we think they knew that, too. Speciation. But something was nipping at our dendrites, too, a knowledge we could only later try to collect: that every living thing is drifting between species or already extinct.

This is not a conclusion:

It occurs to us that we could have taken a Viking bone from the basement as the caretaker led us out. We regret, at times, that we did not. We might have smuggled it home in our suitcase: one formerly fractured clavicle wrapped in a hostel towel and tucked under our dirty clothes. An old bone in the New World. It would have been buried along with us and our things when our apartment building went under. Another mystery for future archaeologists, be they robot, insect, or primate.

And, because there is no ending, because we don’t know the ending:

On our way home, we held hands as the plane took off and again when it touched down. We always do.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013