Domo and its Double

Text by Graham Coulter-Smith
The Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at MIT invites artists to take up residencies in which they interact with the scientific or technical community at MIT. Pia Lindman took up the 2005-2006 residency. Up to that point the most recent works she had produced were the New York Times performances in which she mimed to drawings she made of people mourning taken from the New York Times. They might be grieving for victims of terrorist attacks, for example, in New York or the Palestinian Territories or Israel. She also produced Commcorp a more lighthearted analysis of corporate office behaviour. In both cases Lindman was concerned with analysing human behaviour in an anthropological mode that assumed a position of objectivity while simultaneously realising that it was impossible for the observer not to become part of the observed. In acting other people’s expressions of facets of their identity Lindman was also ineluctably performing a certain aspect of her own identity. It became impossible to entirely separate the one from the other. Lindman also notes that the way people perform themselves is, unsurprisingly, dependent upon context for example position in a group hierarchy, whether one likes someone or not, etc. Which is to say the person Lindman is examining is performing themselves and as such Lindman’s performance is a performance of a performance. None of us is simply performing ourselves, we are also performing according to the strings of a meshwork of power that permeates our social relationships. The difference between what Lindman is doing and what the rest of us are doing should rest upon the degree of reflective insight she has acquired via her intense and long-term examinination of human social behaviour. One could describe her work in terms of performative psychology and/or sociology. Her intelligence and observation cannot be abstracted out from her miming. It is not simply mimicry it is also translation and interpretation.

When she decided to interact with the humanoid robotics research taking place at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) she had to deal with the problem that one of the subjects of her investigation would not be human. Through the help of MIT’s pioneer of humanoid robotics Rodney Brooks (famed for his key role in the now historic COG humanoid robotics project). Via Brooks Lindman was directed to Aaron Edsinger-Gonzales DOMO project an advanced humaoid robotics project focused on the problem of embodiment. What is of crucial importance to this project is the way in which robotics research is revealing to us humans how much we take for granted, and therefore do not know, about our own embodiment.

The simple fact of our looking at one’s hand and knowing that it is part of one’s body and how it relates to the other parts of the body is actually extremely complex from the point of view of cognitive science and this becomes extremely apparent when one tries to reproduce a human-like sense of the body in a robot. DOMO is not pre-programmed to know about its body, instead it must learn about its body in the same practical trial and error way we do when we are babies. In the case of DOMO the learning takes place via processes of statistical inference that seek out pattern and evaluate which pattern best fits the input from DOM’s many bodily sensors. DOM has proprioceptive sensors that tell it where the parts of its body are spatially, it has touch sensors and video eyes. After DOMO learnt enough about its own body to stop banging bits of it together the experiment entered a more complex phase in which the robot coordinated information about its own bodily configurations with its video and tactile perception of its creator Edsinger-Gonzales.

This was the point at which Lindman began observing Edsinger-Gonzales’ physical interactions with DOMO. What interested her was the fact that not only was the robot learning about its own body and its relationship with another, human body, via its interactions with Edsinger-Gonzales; but also, at the same time, Edsinger-Gonzales was learning about DOMO via gesture and touch. Edsinger-Gonzales’ methodology when Lindman began observing the experiment was to interact physically with the robot so as to gain a sense of how the statistical algorithms were performing before retiring to the computer to fine adjust the algorithms.

For Lindman what was most intriguing was the process of quasi-mirroring between Edsinger-Gonzales and DOMO because one half of the mirroring was obviously somewhat mechanical. Yet in spite of that there was a sufficient degree of gestural interrelationship that when Lindman began working on her miming of these interactions she could not simply take on the persona of the robot or the scientist but found that the two would sometime slip one into the other and, as always in her miming performances, Lindman would find aspects of herself interwoven into the actions.

The main video we are presenting here is Domo and its Double, 2006, which is part of an exhibition at MIT’s Compton Gallery. We also are reproducing some of the drawings that Lindman made as part of the process of analysing the behaviour of Edsinger-Gonzales and DOMO. Significantly these drawings show how Lindman becomes conflated with Edsinger-Gonzales and DOMO but how the three participants become to a certain extent confused in this quasi-objective analytical process.

There were problems trying to mime DOMO. It only has three fingers, also there is no spine which makes the movements mechanical. There was also still a lack of bodily awareness on DOMO’s part when Lindman began observing. When DOMO moved one arm the other did not move to counterbalance it. Lindman was especially sensitive to such anomalies given the years she has spent observing human behaviour. Confronted with such problems Lindman was forced to impose an emotional logic onto DOMO’s movements. When she did that the interactions between Edsinger-Gonzalez and DOMO began to reveal power relationships, care affection and a degree of sadism.

Now her project is over Lindman has come to agree with Rodney Brooks that human beings are, after all, a species of machine: what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari referred to as ‘desiring machines’.