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The Exo-biote Artistic Project: Do Robots Have an Organic Future?

Exo-biote - © Jonathan Pêpe / Julien Guillery

Inria Lille – Nord Europe has made its skills and resources available to Jonathan Pêpe, a young sculpture student at Le Fresnoy – the National Contemporary Arts Studio, as an example of original collaboration between contemporary art and new technology.

What on earth is this bionic, semi-organic semi-robotic monster that has invaded the Fresnoy exhibition centre in Tourcoing? As soon as the visitor enters, he or she is greeted by mobile sculptures that breathe and inflate with air as if they were living beings, part of a single organism. According to their creator, this “spasmodic choreography ” is designed to lead the viewer into embarking on an interior voyage of discovering, leading him or her through the twists and turns of absurd reasoning. It is a journey in which he or she will imagine that anyone can supply themselves with the prosthetic theses of mass consumerism, “as if the objects presented were mass-produced, ready-to-use, substitute body parts ”, explains Jonathan Pêpe, the student at Le Fresnoy who designed this extraordinary creature as part of a project, combining art with the new technology.

Soft robot

The project has been dubbed Exo-biote , and its aim is to invent a set of possible shapes and movements diverted from the technologies developed in “soft-robotics”. Over and above the esthetic and philosophical aspects, the work is also the product of technological cooperation between the artist and the Defrost team (a joint venture with Lille 1 University*) of Inria Lille – Nord Europe, who have been involved together in bringing the project to fruition. The young sculptor, in fact, requested the assistance of researchers into 3D printing and reshapable robotics in order to create this art installation. Pêpe wanted to use 3D printing to create flexible or rigid objects that bore the closest possible resemblance to those generated by these machines. With the help of Éric Prigent, second-year course coordinator at Le Fresnoy, he contacted Laurent Grisoni, a researcher who heads Inria’s Mint project team (a joint venture with Lille 1 University*), and who had previously worked with Le Fresnoy, especially on the Monade project. Grisoni put him in touch with the SCV (Sciences et Cultures du Visuel de l'Imaginarium) which lent him a 3D printer. This machine can create plaster moulds into which silicone can be poured. Since Jonathan Pêpe was exploring the organic future of the machine, Laurent Grisoni introduced him to the Defrost team who were working on “soft robotics” projects and it is with them that the artist mainly worked.

Escaping Utilitarianism

Creations that combine contemporary art and emerging technology are part of an innovative approach that is ultimately of as great an interest to artists as it is to scientists, combining contemporary art with emerging technologies. This innovative approach is of interest, in the long run, just as much to artists as it is to scientists. “Up to now, we have only explored the technical aspects of robotics ”, explains Mario Sanz, an R&D engineer and member of Inria’s Defrost team at Lille Nord - Europe. “With this creation, we shall be able for the first time to get a glimpse of the aesthetic aspect, the sensations and impressions that the presence of these robots arouse in humans ”. Despite having their very different culture and training, the artist and the Inria researchers have managed to understand each other and work together productively, through making the effort to word their discourse in a language that that both parties would find easily understandable.

A Fruitful Encounter

For the researchers, the artists’ requirements were unusual in that they were an escape from utilitarianism. Scientific work, by definition, serves to increase scientific knowledge or help companies to innovate. In cooperating with artists, researchers are confronted with different demands, both aesthetic and emotional, that expand the vision of their own profession. The synergies that can result are far more fertile than might be imagined. “For an emerging technology such as reshapable robotics, the possible applications are becoming an artists’ playground while possibly opening up routes for research and development, to say nothing of the industrial and commercial challenges. Furthermore, this is an association that benefits both sides in terms of visibility, added value and communication ”, asserts Mario Sanz. This is how Jonathan Pêpe has been able to offer a technical challenge to the members of Inria’s Defrost team, due to the size and quantity of the parts to be printed.

From the artist’s point of view, the encounter has revealed itself to be just as productive. “Working with scientists demonstrates to one the extent of one’s ignorance ”, Jonathan Pêpe considers. “It needs to be realised that this project is bigger than both of us and that we cannot control everything and need to be ready to listen to each other in order to achieve the best adaptation. It is a fruitful dialogue because it draws on the artistic intuition of the scientists as well as the scientific intuition of the artists ”. As for the scientists, does it matter if the result cannot be used in their professional field? “It enables us to enter into a dynamic for the production of multi-disciplinary thoughts ”, concludes Jonathan Pêpe.

Le Fresnoy, a “high-tech” Medici Villa

Le Fresnoy – the National Contemporary Arts Studio began as an initiative of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication which wanted to set up in northern France a new type of higher education institution for teaching  art. The school, which is based at Tourcoing, aims to become “a sort of IRCAM of the plastic arts” or a high tech Medici villa in which works of art are created that share a desire to incorporate professional techniques into themselves. The school focuses on both teaching and experimentation and holds an annual creative symposium entitled Panorama .

In 2015, more than 50 works will be on show, created by the students and their invited artist-teachers, covering every field of contemporary artistic creation – cinema, photography, sculpture and sound-design performance. The 2015 edition of the exhibition is subtitled “Technically sweet”, an expression borrowed from the movie-maker Michelangelo Antonioni, exhibits works that question the relationship between the body and technique, like the work of Jonathan Pêpe.

* part of UMR 9189 CNRS-Centrale Lille-Lille1 University, CRIStAL.

Keywords: Soft robots 3D printer Defrost Team Work of art Art and digitisation