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robotlab, bios [bible] + the big picture; curated by Murray Horne; Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh; April 21 – September 3, 2017

Review by Rachel Klipa, Independent Scholar

Installation view of a KR16 writing the Bible in bios [bible] + the big picture, robotlab. Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh, PA, April 21 – September 3, 2017. Photo: Rachel Klipa.

“Do you think that there will be a robot apocalypse?” my cousin Stefanie asked after seeing two of KUKA Robotics’ signature orange KR16 industrial robots perform extraordinary tasks at the exhibition, bios [bible] + the big picture, by the German artist collective robotlab, at Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

On the second floor of Wood Street Galleries, the KR16 renders a Martian landscape on canvas using a ballpoint pen in real time. The robot draws the desolate Mars terrain using a single, continuous line, which meticulously reveals the contours of a sloped and jagged hillside. The drawing is from an image taken by the Mast Camera instrument on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. The robot’s ability to interpret the image’s data permits the KR16 to create an original work of art uninterrupted within six months’ time.

Another KR16 is located in the gallery’s third floor exhibition space. Here, the robot holds a dip pen and writes the fourth edition of Martin Luther’s Bible in German on a scroll. The pen, connected to an inkwell that is changed manually, writes each line of Scripture without quivering. The robot applies an exact and consistent amount of pressure to the pen’s nib with every calligraphic stroke. Perfectly symmetrical columns of text align across the scroll without deviation.

In simple terms, the work of the robots is spellbinding. Yet the exhibition, on view for the first time in the United States, does more than just awe the viewer.

And that is precisely the point–for curator Murray Horne, bios [bible] + the big picture proposes a coexistence between humans and robots, one where the public understands a robot’s functionality and is accepting of a machine quietly working in public, and possibly, private spaces.

The robots’ abilities to draw Mars and to write the Bible cannot overshadow the achievements of NASA and its Mars Curiosity rover, nor the great impact Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible had on Germany and Western Europe; however, the re-contextualization of a KR16, which is mainly used in automobile factories, showcases the adaptability of a robot, and the possibility for it to fortify the framework of many disciplines.

Since its founding in 2000 at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, robotlab’s projects highlight the need for individuals to experience robots in various capacities and settings as technology advances. robotlab’s installations do not suggest that robots should replace the work of human beings, but rather be used in a manner that complements and questions contemporary life.

Advancements can reconcile or alienate. bios [bible] + the big picture opens questions on problem-solving, data collection, exploration, dissemination, and the distinction between software and moral codes.

Rachel Klipa works for the Office of Public Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her current research pertains to New Deal post-office murals by industrial designer Alexander J. Kostellow (1897-1954), and Serbia's first modern artist Nadežda Petrović (1873-1915). She will soon leave for Belgrade, Serbia to study Serbia’s contemporary art scene.