On the research side of things I’ve been looking at catalogues for recent exhibitions about robots to get a sense of what other museums have been addressing and, just as importantly, not been addressing. Earlier this year I looked at Robot Love, curated by Ine Gevers, which explores what robots can teach us about love and other emotions. Most recently, I looked at Hello Robot from the Vitra Design Museum, which looks at fictional as well as actual robots through the lens of design. Expanding its definition of robots beyond humanoid forms, the volume addresses topics ranging from smart phones to smart cities to smart fashion. Underpinning the eclectic selection is the belief that design plays a seminal role in creating a more ethical and sustainable future. The question isn’t so much whether technological change will happen, but rather whether we continue along a trajectory that exacerbates systemic inequality and capitalistic exploitation, or strive for equity. While the exhibition’s focus is different from what we’re looking to do at the Barry Art Museum, there’s also a lot of crossover in terms of addressing emotions, the body, and human-robot relations.
Circling back to historical automata, we also had a great conversation with the Morris Museum in New Jersey, which has an expansive collection of automata. We’d like to borrow a few of their pieces, both to supplement the Barry’s own holdings, and establish a partnership with the Morris. The Museum’s staff had some great suggestions for potential works, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.
We also had our first meeting with our Exhibition Advisory Board, a group of faculty members across the Old Dominion University campus who have agreed to offer guidance in an effort to keep the show as interdisciplinary as possible. The Barry puts together such a board for each of its temporary exhibitions, both to foster an ongoing presence on campus and to promote collaborative exhibition practices. Hailing from art history, robotics, philosophy, and other fields, the faculty members comprising the board bring perspectives and networks beyond what any curator can do individually, and I’m extremely grateful for their presence and input.
This first meeting was mostly about orientation. I shared a PowerPoint introducing the major themes we’ve been thinking about, and offered a set of questions at the end to guide discussion. One theme that resonated with all of the faculty was the idea of centering social justice, a focus that enables us to address contemporary biases in AI, as well as historical issues like the Orientalist subject matter of many of the Museum’s automata.
They also suggested ways of potentially showcasing student work and activism within the gallery and in programming, which we all thought is a very exciting possibility. For all their problematic qualities, and trust me, they resonate right down into the institution’s foundations, museums often bestow an aura of validity or legitimacy to the objects they display. Using that aura to emphasize the significance of undergraduate and graduate research doesn’t solve all the issues with museums, but it is one way to elevate student work and promote its visibility.
Continuing the energy from this meeting, last week was all about synthesizing the suggestions from the Advisory Board, specifically their interest in social justice, with the themes of emotion and embodiment we had already been exploring in previous discussions. So after putting together a new exhibition outline and talking it over with the Barry’s staff, I shared it with the Advisory Board with the intention of asking for suggestions regarding potential artists and works. We’re excited with the direction the show is taking, and the willingness of the staff and board alike to explore robots, and particularly the museum’s historical automata, beyond the seemingly innocuous lens of whimsy or wonder. Like any historical object, automata reflect the ideologies of their time, and we need to be willing to talk about them. Indeed, that will be the subject of a future post here.
Finally, on a more practical note, I’m also happy to share some logistical updates. First, we’ve finalized the title to Motion/Emotion: Exploring Affect from Automata to Robots. Second, after comparing calendars, I’m excited to share that the exhibition will be on view from February 10-July 31, 2022, so if you’re in the area then, be sure to check it out. Last but not least, the show is also now listed on the museum’s website on their upcoming exhibitions page, which means it now has a web presence extending beyond my musings on this blog and social media. Slowly but surely, this show is starting to materialize.