k e i t h p i p e r 'Robot Bodies'
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Looking at Robots, Androids and Cyborgs

Notes on The Mechanoid’s Bloodline

Text first published in Art Journal, Vol. 60, no 3, Fall 2001



"But in the meantime we've dumped five hundred thousand tropical Robots down on the Argentine pampas to grow corn. Would you mind telling me how much you pay for a pound of bread?"

Busman from the play R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots)

Karel Capek 1920

It is the 4th of July 1997. A six wheeled Robot, similar in size, and not dissimilar in appearance to a micro­wave oven trundles out onto the surface of the Planet Mars. This is a key moment in the Pathfinder Mis­sion, NASA's latest expedition to the 'Red Planet'.

 What resonates here however, is that this mechanised device patrolling the far frontier of contemporary technological innovation has been named after So­journer Truth; a black woman who was born a slave in Ulster County, New York in 1797, and died an ac­tivist and reformer of national repute in Battle Creek, Michigan, 1883.

 The positing of the memory of a historical African American icon across a moment so drenched in fu­turological significance is intriguing. In many ways it disrupts the historical exclusion of black presence's from the technological sphere and the systematic consignment of the African to the domain of the anti-logical, the non cerebral and the body. By the plac­ing of the name 'Sojourner' across the metallic frame of the Mars Rover, to an extent, the hidden histories of the multiple and on-going black interventions into technological and digital space, as well as to the in­tellectual formation of the American nation, began to at last be referenced.

 However, another reading of this moment is equally possible. It is one which excavates the placement and role of the Robot both within the futurological gaze of the science fiction novel and the growing inter­ventions of robots within the contemporary in­dustrial sphere. It detects the construct which imagines the robot as dutiful servant and tire­less worker, as an entity programmed to lend its physical strength in order to carry out the will of it's controllers. Within this context, the paral­leling of the robot body, with the body of the slave generates a complex set of readings which impact upon our celebration of the Mars Rover. They are readings which go back to the genesis of the term 'Robot' and its insertion and opera­tion within western literary conventions.

 The term 'Robot' first appeared in the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) written by Czech writer Karel Capek in 1920. Deriving the term 'Robot' from the Czech word 'robota' meaning 'drudgery' or 'servitude', and 'robot­nik' meaning peasant or surf, Capek's narrative positions the robot as a entity stripped of any purpose other than one of brute and cheap la­bour:


"Practically speaking, what is the best kind of work­er?…. it's the one that is cheapest. The one with the fewest needs…( Young Rossum) chucked out every­thing not directly related to work, and in doing that he virtually rejected the human being and created the Robot"

Domin from R.U.R.


The Robot/Slave class in Capek's narrative are however almost physically indistinguishable from the dominant human group. In this sense, they belong to the category of Robot which has come to be known as the 'Android'… a term derived from the Greek androeides meaning 'manlike'. What would distinguish a Robot such as the six wheeled 'Sojourner', and a host of other metallic beings such as 'Robie' of the movie 'Forbidden Planet' (1956), from the 'Android', is that it's 'otherness', it's difference from the dominant group is marked and explicit in it's visible physical make-up. Un­like the Android which, in movies ranging from Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' of 1926, to Ridley Scotts 'Blade Runner' of 1982, can effectively 'pass' as a member of the human 'norm', the Robot is im­mediately and visibly marked as 'mechanoid', as 'other', as servant or monster.

 It is this explicit marking on the level of physical appearance, which begins to suggest a metaphori­cal relationship between the Robot of science fiction, and the black subject. Both are visibly 'other' and as such are assigned particular roles within the cultural and economic order. Both are imagined within particular discourses to act according to 'type'. Both, like the 'Sojourner Truth', can be as­signed gruelling tasks in hostile and alien environments. Both are perceived as possessing a physical configuration which positions them as either compliant servant or non-compliant monster.

 What then of the 'Android'? If the Robot's visibly mechanical physiognomy explicitly marks it's 'otherness', then the Android's concealed mechanical physiognomy reveals it as a metaphor for the 'other' which is able to masquerade as a member of the dominant 'norm' . From the 'Replicant's' of Philip K Dicks 1968 novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" to the Android 'Ash' in Ridley Scott's 1979 movie "Alien", the masquerade is depicted as invariably subversive. The Androids true identity is concealed to allow it to fulfil it's pre-programmed and invariably hostile agenda. In this sense, the Android can be positioned as activating metaphorical anxieties around spectres such as the infiltrator, the 'fifth columnist', 'the red under the bed', the 'closet' dwelling sexual 'other', the international Jew, the 'white nigger'.

 What then of those instances in which elements of the robotic 'other' are juxtaposed with the human organic 'norm' within a single entity. It is here that we encounter the third category of mechanoid; The Cyborg. Derived from the term 'Cybernetic Organism', the Cyborg has been defined as 'a hu­man being who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices' (The American heritage Dictionary).

 In the case of fictional Cyborg's, such as Murphy, the central character in Paul Verhoeven's 1987 movie 'RoboCop', the depiction imagines the results of the miscegenation between the physical power of the robot 'other' with the human sensibilities of the organic 'norm'. At key points within the narrative we witness these twin entities seen as fundamentally in crisis, with 'human' principals locked in conflict with pre-programmed robotic physiognomy . In this sense, the Cyborg becomes a replaying of the 'tragic mulatto' theme, common to racial melodrama's such as Douglas Sirks 1959 movie 'The Imitation of Life', in which the character Sarah-Jane is tortured and finally destroyed by her conflicting loyalties to her black mother, and her longing for acceptance within the white world.

 An examination of the futurological gaze of science fiction as a site within which metaphors which replay notions of racial particularity and difference, has formed a ongoing seam of enquiry within my creative practice over recent years. These themes were first explored within the 1998 interac­tive installation 'Robot Bodies' and more recently extended to form the project 'The Mechanoid's Bloodline' 2001. In these projects, the digital tools of sampling, collage, random and planned jux­taposing, and user interactivity have been employed within a cultural practice which seeks in its turn to explode and render problematic the deep set presumptions around racial particularity which pervade contemporary culture.

Keith Piper 2001