Spot the Artist: a robot dog takeover at NGV Triennial in Melbourne

“First, Spot was the muse. It was a passive object in my art. And then the muse became the artist,” painter Agnieszka Pilat says of her breakthrough exhibition in Australia.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Triennial opens this week with a bright splash of yellow as a trio of Boston Dynamics robot dogs takes residence at the museum’s great hall.

The three robot dogs, nicknamed Basia, Omuzana, and Bunny, will work to fill the bare space with a series of paintings they were assigned to produce over four months, a duration of the triennial that will run from December 3rd to April 7th.

The robots will work semi-autonomously. Programmed under the guidance of Agnieszka Pilat, a Polish-American artist, they will follow the commands they were trained to understand but execute them in an order that they see fit.

The robots will decide on the direction of the arm movement, how hard to press the canvas, and whether to paint a dot or a line.

“They're not sentient machines right now even though people who will come to the show will have an impression that the machine has its own agency because it has so much personality,” says Pilat, who lives with one of the three robots, Basia.

Robots are still very much a tool, an extension of the human body in the same way a smartphone is an extension of an arm and a camera an extension of an eye. Still, Pilat prefers to imagine the machines as her apprentices.

“Think about the Renaissance when masters took apprentices of great promise to teach them how to paint. And then they would send them off to become artists in their own right.”

Pilat says it is her “dream” that machines gain self-awareness one day and look at the work she created in collaboration with robots “the very same way we look at ancient cave paintings and drawings.”

Artist Agnieszka Pilat and Boston Dynamics robot dogs. Image by Kim Landy

Pilat was born and grew up in communist Poland before moving to San Francisco, where she studied painting and illustration at the Academy of Art University. Both of these experiences informed her work and shaped her worldview as a self-described “techno-optimist.”

“When the Berlin Wall came down, the first thing my father did was buy a car. And the car was not just a tool. It was a promise of a better future. And that's what technology is to me,” she tells Cybernews.

Technology can be a source of fear but also “deserves someone to come from a different side” and “democratizes” art by making it more accessible, Pilat says.

This view brought Pilat success in Silicon Valley – with some of the tech’s biggest names among the collectors of her work – and her paintings also featured in The Matrix Resurrections.

Aside from the creative partnership with Boston Dynamics, she is also a guest artist at Agility Robotics and SpaceX.

The show in Melbourne is an opportunity for Pilat to share her message with a wider audience and a milestone as an artist, marking her first major museum exhibition on a global stage.

“The message I'm trying to bring to Melbourne is that new technology, including AI and robotics, are in the stage of infancy, and humanity collectively is teaching this new technology, bringing it up to become an adult,” Pilat says.

The installation at the NGV reflects the evolution of Pilat’s partnership with Boston Dynamics, which first invited her to paint a series of portraits of Spot in 2020.

Subsequent projects with what Pilat describes as the world’s first celebrity robot included her remotely controlling the machine to paint. This is the first time the robot dogs will be working on their own, with Pilat not present to oversee them in their “conspiracy.”

“I would like to invite the public to look at this new technology as new species or collaborators, our partners here on Earth,” she says.

NGV Triennial opens December 3rd. Handout by Agnieszka Pilat Studio

Called Heterobota, the installation is part of a lineup comprising over 100 other projects on display at the NGV for the triennial. Featured artists include Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, and fashion house Schiaparelli, as well as a collective of digital artists SMACK.

Built around the theme Magic. Matter. Memory, the NGV Triennial 2023 is meant to offer a “powerful and moving portrait of the world today,” according to the organizers. The entry is free of charge, and visitors can expect to see more than 25 world-premiere projects.

This year’s show is the third time the NGV Triennial is held after its first edition in 2017 proved to be a blockbuster success with almost 1.3 million visitors over its four-month run.

Pilat says she would like to build on her exhibition in Melbourne, where the Boston Dynamics machines are expected to paint several dozen works, and bring the show to other museums worldwide.

“I would love to bring it back to the US. Perhaps bring more robots,” Pilat says, adding that she wants “to follow up with what’s happening with generative AI, generate more content, and have robots just continue telling their story in this growth.”

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