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In Art, Boys and Their Robotic Toys

By Kames Narayanan

Charles Aweida and the Kuka Agilus 6 axis industrial robotic arm he employs in creating his body of work.
Charles Aweida
Charles Aweida and the Kuka Agilus 6 axis industrial robotic arm he employs in creating his body of work.

The cross-pollination of technology and art is no headliner. The convergence between the two dates as far back as the 1950s when artists and designers pioneered the use of computer programmes and mechanical devices. Even in the days when technology was in its infancy, it presented a sense of infinite possibilities conceivable beyond the confines of reality. 

With time, technology has progressed exponentially, stretching the boundaries of imagination even further than the mind has ever reached. In the contemporary state of affairs, the evolution of the digital realm has one-upped itself with the creation and subsequent modifications of robots. Gradually, these machines are finding their place amongst people in the flesh — the artistic set, no exception. 

Here, two artists unlock another dimension to their bodies of work through the aid of robots. 

Charles Aweida

When Charles Aweida was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University, he chanced upon the sizeable ABB six-axis robot — essentially, a robotic arm — behind a glass window. It was love at first sight. Beguiled by the machine, Aweida’s artistic instinct set him on a path of investigation. While the robotic arm was primarily a tool employed under an architectural premise at the university, Aweida was instead intrigued by its applications in fine art. 

Enrolling into the architecture course purely to gain access to the machine, Aweida spent his time in the course building an ecosystem to what would go on to become a universe within which his genre of work would reside. Aweida aptly describes himself as a half-and-half — equal parts artist and roboticist — bolstered by a diverse body of knowledge in a wide-spanning repertoire of creative mediums that include architecture, industrial design, illustration, motion graphics, user interface design, creative coding, digital fabrication, photography, film and fine art. 

The boundless natural world and its organic patterns paint Aweida’s inspirations. Rendered through his robotic ingenuity, these inspirations morph into physical sculptures that exist in a middle ground, somewhere between the digital realm and reality. It is a fascinating process to observe. In his series of robot-fabricated fine art pieces titled “Abstract Representations of the Natural World”, a robotic arm sits custom-fabricated nails, one at a time, with mathematical precision onto a canvas in programmed repetition. The result: a bed of undulating nails meant to mimic the ebbs and flows of nature. 

Charles AweidaExploring the relationship between nature and the man-made, Aweida’s works take its inspiration from patterns observable in nature and interpreted through a robotic arm.
Exploring the relationship between nature and the man-made, Aweida’s works take its inspiration from patterns observable in nature and interpreted through a robotic arm.

Here, we delve deeper into the ethos of his work in an email correspondence. 

KAMES NARAYANAN: There is a lot of technical jargon in describing the process behind your work. How would you explain it in simple terms? 

CHARLES AWEIDA: I create three-dimensional patterns inspired or directly driven by the natural world. I then fabricate and assemble the patterns into physical sculptures with robots and custom actuated machines. 

KN: Take me through your creative process. Is it any different than that of a conventional artist?

CA: My creative process is similar in some aspects, yet different in others. In terms of similarities, like many artists, my work is conceptual. There’s meaning behind the concepts and, in that, a story and/or message I am trying to convey. 

What differs with my work, is the technological aspect. I am one-part visual artist and one-part engineer. My work relies on each of these components informing each other equally. As a roboticist, I am constantly experimenting with machines and their potential to manipulate materials and create effects in new ways. As an engineer, I am continuously experimenting with various approaches to generate algorithms, systems, and patterns inspired or driven directly by the natural world. These experiments ultimately encourage and inspire the conceptual and creative thinking behind new works of art. 

KN: From its initial conception to a piece of work coming to life, how long does this entire process take?

CA: I typically spend about one month from concept to production, which includes all creative and engineering aspects. 

KN: Can you tell me more about the robotic arm that you work with and its mechanics?

CA: I work with a Kuka Agilus 6 axis industrial robotic arm. The robot is a very fast and accurate machine with repeatability up to 0.03mm. My robot’s name is UMA, which stands for the Universal Machine for Art and she is just that — universal. I create custom-end effectors and utilise various gripping systems by Schunk, which allow the robot to serve and execute a multitude of functions. There are so many possibilities with these machines — I’m on a continued path of exploration and discovery.

KN: When we think about the use of technology and art, at times, it can come across as a gimmick for easy amusement. Has this ever crossed your mind? And is it something that you take into consideration when you create your works? 

CA: I think many forms of art have the potential to come across as gimmicky including those without a technological bent, but to me, that doesn’t really matter. I try to remain true to myself, my processes, rigour, and methods. With that, I hope my audience will feel the authenticity in what I produce. With my work, robots have a very utilitarian purpose, which is to bridge my digital creations with the physical world. 

KN: What is the most challenging part about working with technology? And what is the most challenging piece of art that you have created so far?

CA: One of the most challenging aspects of robotics is that it’s an entirely separate discipline and craft to learn. Controlling these machines is an art in itself, which takes time, an immense amount of learning and dedication. Another significant challenge is acquiring access to these machines, as they are very expensive. I cashed out my retirement fund to purchase my robot. 

My most challenging project is centred around a cinematic effect produced by stop-motion animation techniques, executed by robots. The robot places objects on a surface. It then talks to a camera rig, which captures a photo of the objects and moves the objects to their next location or frame. When the images or frames are combined, it creates a visual effect as if the physical objects are moving and animating. 

Davide QuayolaDavide Quayola’s sculptures are crafted using a robotic arm.
Davide Quayola’s sculptures are crafted using a robotic arm.

Davide Quayola

To Davide Quayola, defining his body of work as “digital” is an arbitrary description. “Maybe there has been a short time a while back when we used to say ‘digital photography’, or perhaps ‘digital transaction’... now it’s kind of pointless, we just don’t say the word ‘digital’ anymore, as everything is digital,” says Quayola. 

For the past 18 years, the London-based artist has been at the forefront of the technological phenomenon he considers a natural progression. Quayola’s body of work expounds on the “tensions and equilibriums between seemingly opposing forces: the real and the artificial, figurative and abstract, old and new”. Quayola’s inquisitions birth his body of work — each piece, a thesis distilled from his convictions. 

In tandem with the diverse inspirations that inform Quayola’s works, the mediums through which he frames his perspectives run the gamut from sculptures, audio-visual performances to videos and works on paper. The common thread: custom computer software, through which he renders the world. When Quayola employed a robot to recreate a Hellenic masterpiece of Laocoön and his Sons — a marble statue depicting three male figures under the attack of sea serpents — the art world took notice. 

While the revered piece of art has been on display at the Vatican for centuries, it had all but been forgotten in the pages of the history books. Quayola’s novel rendition of the masterpiece, hauled the sculpture from the past back into contemporary currency. Going by Quayola’s use of technology in art, the permutations of geometric precision are infinite — an existing vision could full well take life in many forms. Here, Quayola delves deeper into his wondrous mind and its way of working. 

KAMES NARAYANAN: Take me through the process of conceiving an artwork using the various technological mediums and how long does the process typically take? 

DAVIDE QUAYOLA: Usually I don’t think of my works as separate projects but rather as specific moments in time, in continuous and unified lines of enquiry. The medium, output and scale of these works can vary a lot as well as the technology involved; however, the underlying process and modus operandi are very similar between all productions. 

Each research starts with a subject, which most of the time has some historical connotations. This could be an old masterpiece, for example, a specific baroque painting or Hellenic sculpture, or a theme like the tradition of landscape painting or “non-finito” technique in sculpture. Then, there is the development of a specific technological apparatus that is used to study, observe and ultimately re-interpret these original subjects. Such apparatuses usually consist of a combination of custom computational systems, related
hardware, and experimental workflows to interact with all these elements. 

I don’t see the technology used just as tools to develop human-driven ideas, but rather more as a collaborator with whom to share ideas. All the software developed for my researches can be compared to musical instruments, therefore something that requires human interaction in order to produce something. The algorithms are therefore thought not as fully automated systems but as environments with which I directly interact, and with which I create many variations and iterations. 

The final works are essentially collections of findings that I select from these interactions. Most of the time the works come in series, as that is the nature of the processes used to create them — it’s not about the one finished work but rather about infinite possibilities and complexities.

Davide QuayolaQuayola’s rendering of the Hellenic masterpiece of Laucoön and  his Sons.
Quayola’s rendering of the Hellenic masterpiece of Laucoön and his Sons.

KN: When you work with a machine, rather than traditional mediums, what would you say are the differences in the creative process? 

DQ: The features (and limitations) of our own eyes shape the perception we have of the world around us. The brush (for the painter) or the chisel (for the sculptor) are tools that are in direct connection with our human body, and therefore limited by our physical capabilities. I am interested in employing machines to look at things on my behalf as a way to discover new ways of seeing, and ultimately as an opportunity to discover new visual languages and aesthetics. 

For me, interacting with systems/machines that have a very different logic from my own will result into something very different from what I would do on my own... and this for me is an exciting territory to explore, and a very meaningful one considering how technology is completely reshaping our contemporary society (for the good and the bad). 

KN: How do you think the use of technology affects an artist’s creative process?

DQ: I think it all depends on how such technology is used and what place it has in the creative process. I don’t think it’s about the pros and cons, but just what the objectives are. 

It is not a new practice to use technology in creative endeavours, however, I think there is a new breed of artists/ designers that are embracing new ways to interact with technology, and this is resulting in new languages accordingly. 

Cinema is a good example where technology is usually used just as a tool, completely subordinate to an idea, story, script and storyboard. Everything is divided into shots, which are then shared between several VFX (visual effects) studios, and the whole process has a very rigid, hierarchical workflow. In the final product, the process is completely hidden. 

Some of the technology used in Hollywood movies is also used in my works, however, the way you interact with such technology is bound to very different processes and workflows. All my works embed the history of their creation, they are essentially the documentation of a process... so the process is for me as equally important as the works themselves. 

KN: What are the specific technological tools that you employ in creating your art pieces?

DQ: There are many tools, processes areas of research that I used over the years. but the following somehow are becoming the backbone of my ongoing series: video, photography, photogrammetry, lidar scanning, computer vision, real-time graphics, robotic simulations, robotic milling and automation systems. 

KN: You have also recreated famous artworks in your body of work. What would you say then is the artistic value of what you have created, granted that it has already been something that has been seen before?

DQ: Actually this is not quite correct, as I’ve never been interested in ‘recreating’ something that has already been created before. What I am interested in is studying, observing and eventually re-interpreting historical objects, themes and traditions with a completely new technological apparatus. 

My process might start from an existing masterpiece, but then eventually always ends up far away from the original in ways unrecognisable to the human eye. I am interested in creating new objects of contemplation.