Article 5 minutes of reading

Sustainable robotics is taking up an ArtScience residency

Article author :

Marie-Flore Pirmez

A voracious fan of podcasts and documentaries, Marie-Flore is a firm believer in the revival of print journalism thanks to the many opportunities offered by the web and long-form magazines. When she takes off her journalist's hat, you're likely to find her hiking or in a yoga studio.

read more

Exploring how robots and other automatons can contribute to sustainability in a world in which they are increasingly present. Such is the expressed goal of the Sustainable Robotics research residency, at the intersection between the arts and the sciences. An initiative driven by a Brussels organisation which actively supports breaking down the barriers between these disciplines.

Founded in 2017, the non-profit body Ohme (pronounced ‘home’) supports and offers its expertise to artists by various means, including arts and technical residencies. With what ambition? To create synergies between the arts and the sciences to foster artistic production, access to certain technologies or skills, or to encourage talking about research and societal issues in different ways. Amongst the 2024 vintage of residencies, the theme of sustainable robotics is one which has established itself at the forefront. ‘It all came about due to us working very closely with the university milieu’, explains Camilla Colombo, artistic director and curator at Ohme. ‘With the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and its Flemish counterpart, the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB), but above all with specialised research institutions such as the Brussels Institute for Advanced Studies (BrIAS) and FARI, an artificial intelligence, data and robotics research institute which focuses on the question of the common good. “Sustainable robotics” is an idea to which several words have been attached, but the domain remains to be invented. It is that which makes the research prospects interesting for this residency.’

‘One thing we can be certain of, is that we cannot settle for approaching sustainable robotics solely through its environmental prism. In robotics also, sustainability must be social and economic.’

Camilla Colombo, Ohme

International bodies are already getting down to work on the concept, amongst them Sustainable Robotics. The first university sustainable robotics community. In their respective approaches, both Sustainable Robotics and FARI for that matter consider the development of new technologies such as robotics as a catalyst for action to achieve the 17 sustainable development aims adopted by the United Nations in 2015. The well-known SDGs, for Sustainable Development Goals. One thing we can be certain of, is that we cannot settle for approaching sustainable robotics solely through its environmental prism. In robotics also, sustainability must be social and economic.’

From January to May of this year, the crème de la crème of international robotics experts have each taken their turn at the microphone to present their research to the two artists selected for the residency. A means of inspiring and creating interdisciplinary exchange, without forcing any particular outcome. ‘The objective of this residency is that there is no objective,’ states Raoul Sommeillier, the co-founder of Ohme, with a touch of irony. ‘Not in the literal sense of the term, in any case. The artists have no obligation to provide us with deliverables at the end of the programme. They may perhaps develop prototypes, or produce written documentation. The time and the resources are rather allocated to exploration and research, which is pretty rare in residencies of this type.’

Going beyond anthropocentrism of the machine

When one thinks of ‘sustainable robotics’ the image which most readily comes to mind is that of self-sufficient robots sorting waste. Machines useful to the society of tomorrow, certainly, but from a utilitarian perspective. In terms of the approach adopted by the duo of artists, nevertheless, in addition to a marked interest in the holistic sustainability of robots, there can be found the same intention to develop a critical reflection on the relationships humans maintain with the machine. Dewi Brunet, a folding artist whom kingkong had already met for an earlier article, is continuing his research into our sensitiveness to the plant world. ‘This residency takes place within the context of the iterations I am developing on robotic imaginaries’, he explains. ‘I am convinced that new automated hybrids can change our perceptions, take us beyond the anthropocentrism that is currently being fed in the development of new machines. Such a process will increasingly need to engage with biomimetics (Editor’s note, a process of innovation inspired by the living world).’

‘We manufacture highly specialised robots which meet a unique need, but which bring with them other problems. Not to mention the fact that they very quickly become obsolete.’

Dewi Brunet, folding artist

With the aid of the researchers, the Brussels-based artist would like to develop automated foldings with materials other than paper. To do so, he is investigating bio-sourced materials. ‘I have already made folds with dried kombucha fungi, but I have also discovered the existence of a biomaterial called “self-healing”. This self-healing aspect fascinates me because I sometimes have the impression that robotics is an extreme domain of innovation which is going round in circles. Scientists say so themselves: we manufacture highly specialised robots which meet a unique need, but which bring with them other problems. Not to mention the fact that they very quickly become obsolete.’

High tech versus low tech, adaptive electronics, inspiration from the living world… Reflections which the Flemish artist Kris Verdonck has also embarked on. Whilst he exhibits imaginings which are much more pessimistic than Dewi, Kris’ artistic practice is also in line with an exploration of the human-machine relationship. ‘I do not have much empathy for the machines in our everyday lives. I have focused at length on the exploration of their destruction, from explosion to notions of deprivation. My big research question during this residency will be to find ways to reproduce the functioning of the living world whilst being as self-sufficient as possible.’ More concretely, how to use the energy of the wind and the sun to provide movement to works which replicate the rhythm of our environment. Not so simple in a world which has established mechanisms which still function within a just-in-time rationale, as much in low sunlight contexts as in periods of bright sunshine.

Breaking down the barriers of the artistic-scientific worlds

You may have picked up on it in the title: the term ‘ArtScience’ is relatively recent. Employed for the first time by the American artist Todd Siler in his book Breaking the mind barrier in 1990, more and more researchers, engineers and artists are appropriating the concept to think through new ways of connecting people from backgrounds erroneously thought of as opposed. ArtScience is not purely art to which science is added. It rather transcends all of their forms of knowledge. ‘Historically, the separation of the arts and sciences disciplines occurs relatively late,’ notes Raoul Sommeillier. ‘The more the production of knowledge has evolved, the more the academic domain has organised this knowledge and its production. The concept of a discipline came into being around the eighteenth century, with the industrial revolution above all. And it must be stressed that this distinction has been more than beneficial. It has notably permitted the development of intra-disciplinary languages, the specialisation of researchers, and, finally, progress. But today the issues of society have changed. We can no longer base ourselves on a mono-disciplinary vision to provide solutions to global problems. Hence the value of supporting encounters between the disciplines.’

Even if a deliverable work is not the target of the Sustainable Robotics residency, Ohme will all the same offer an opportunity for exhibition to all of the artists in residence in 2024. The organisation is aiming for the beginning of 2025. Date and location to be specified. To follow on ohme.be.

Call for projects

A story, projects or an idea to share?

Suggest your content on kingkong.

Share this article on

also discover