Amplifier for Art, Science and Society

Nature of Robotics

An Expanded Field


EPFL Pavilions is devoting its early 2021 program to the theme of robotics, reflecting on the emerging perspectives and scenarios of this rapidly expanding field. The premise behind Nature of Robotics is to offer an unconventional look at the subject of robotics and to extend its understanding into broader notions, situated at the frontier between science and the visual arts. Modular, reconfigurable, soft, micro and bio robotics manifest the new paradigms of a discipline facing constant renewal.

Basim Magdy, New Acid, 2019
Super 16mm and computer-generated text messages transferred in Full HD
14 min. 18 sec. Commissioned by La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, France

Courtesy of the artist and artSümer, Istanbul

Basim Magdy, M . A . G . N . E . T, 2019
Super 16mm film transferred to Full HD. Color and Black and White, 21 min. Commissioned by MAAT Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, Lisbon.

Courtesy: the artist and artSümer, Istanbul

Agnes Denes
The Kingdom Series, X-Ray of Sting Ray, 1980
Four-color silkscreen with metallic and hand coloring

Courtesy: the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Katja Novitskova
Pattern of Activation (Mamaroo nursery, dawn chorus), 2017

Courtesy: the artist and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin. Photo: def image

Katja Novitskova
Pattern of Activation (Mamaroo nursery, dawn chorus), 2017
Installation view

Courtesy: the artist and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin; Photo: def image

Claudia Comte
Bunnies Emitting, 2018
4D animation. 2’08” min. Loop

Courtesy: the artist and Galerie KÖNIG

Through artists’ works and scientific productions from EPFL laboratories, Nature of Robotics invites contemporary reflection on the place of artificial agents in our natural and social ecosystems. Visions emerging from the laboratories are juxtaposed with speculative creatures, drawings, diagrams, and videos produced by contemporary artists.

The exhibition revisits the notion of the ‘expanded field’ , echoing Rosalind Krauss’s expression "the expanded field of sculpture"; this notion is employed here in order to ground a curatorial endeavour, framing robotics in environment-related thinking.

COVID-19 has introduced a novel sense of precariousness, and the role of technologies is questioned in light of a global phenomenon that challenges us at our most fundamental level. Just as Bruno Latour foresaw in relation to the ecological crisis, "the whole fabric of life" is implicated in our response to COVID-19. The virus outbreak disrupted first our bodies, then our habits, intensifying our dependence on technology for survival and communication; at the very origin of the pandemic were the consequences of our controversial relationship with the environment and the violent alteration of ecosystems. The disruption caused by the pandemic reframed all our concerns: on a deeply intertwined scale, animals and humans, the environment, biology and technology appear as the interdependent factors of an ongoing crisis. All are actors/agents of what could be an overcoming or even transcendence of its destructive forces.

Nature of Robotics widens the scope of this reflection, questioning robotics as a science; it reveals how technological advancements and developments are structurally dependent on a process of investigation and learning through 'observation' of the natural world. Cautious observers and inventive creators, artists and scientists explore the complexities of our biological ecosystems.

Gummy-like robots

EPFL MicroBioRobotic System Laboratory, Prof. Selman Sakar


© Reconfigurable Robotics Lab (RRL) and Raphaël Galeuchet


BioRobotics Lab EPFL © Alessandro Crespi, EPFL

Stretchable pumps for Soft Machines

© Vito Cacucciolo and LMTS, EPFL 2019

While far from a historical presentation of robotic art, the show nevertheless intends to acknowledge this tradition, notably through the pioneering work of Jean Tinguely in his film Study for an End of the World No. 2, shot in the Nevada desert in 1962, anticipating Krauss’s later theorization.

The exhibition’s itinerary takes the visitor from Tinguely’s Nevada desert to Trevor Paglen’s Nevada sky. Urs Fischer’s robo-snails, Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson’s artificial soft robot in the form of a manta ray, Lea Pereyre’s forms, Adrien Missika’s housefly (Musca domestica), Jürg Lehni’s Otto drawing machine resonate with a display of scientific work from EPFL, which showcases a range of recent robotic models in an alternation of amphibious vertebrates, biocompatible microrobots, insect-scale and modular origami robots, and their associated applications in multi-scaled environments from physiological fluids to space.

Agnes Denes’s Visual Philosophy punctuates the exhibition space; Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s view on synthetic biology and Basim Magdy’s films, metaphorically question the trajectories opened by scientific research. Suzanne Treister’s visions of a post-futuristic sublime, Katja Novitskova’s sci-fi-like creatures fed with imaging from the EPFL MicroBioRobotic Systems Lab, and Claudia Comte’s viscous animations hint at hypothetical "not-so-distant" futures.
Haseeb Ahmed’s site-specific work, creates a parallel between the global stock market and meteorological phenomena, while Trevor Paglen’s photographs act as a reminder of the involvement of robotic technologies in practices of war and surveillance.

Urs Fischer Maybe, 2019

© Urs Fischer. Courtesy of the artist, The Modern Institute, and Gagosian. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Autonomous Seed Disperser from Designing for the Sixth Extinction, 2013-15

Courtesy: the artist

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Rewilding with Synthetic Biology from Designing for the Sixth Extinction, 2013-15

Courtesy: the artist

Haseeb Ahmed
Stock Weather, 2020

Commissioned by EPFL Pavilions. Courtesy: the artist and Harlan Levey Projects

Melissa Dubbin & Aaron S. Davidson
Delay Lines, 2019

Collection of Ishikawa Foundation, Okayama © Dubbin & Davidson

Jurg Lehni
Otto, 2015, Two Legacies – Footnotes from the History of Two Cultures
E.A.T., Pavilion: Experiments in Art And Technology, 1972

Courtesy: the artist

Acknowledging 'expansion' as a method, Nature of Robotics explores the value of 'thinking the expanded field' as a way of approaching the increasingly interrelated network of artistic and scientific discourses. The narratives crossing the space lead towards the creation of such connections. Through an orchestrated sequence of artistic and scientific manifestations, the exhibition thus expands the field of robotics to understand it as a multi-layered discipline, magnifying our observation, knowledge and imagination of environments, and of past and future hybrid ecosystems.