openFrameworks, Robotics
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Fearful Symmetry: Ruairi Glynn’s mesmerising installation comes back to life

This summer, visitors to Sao Paulo’s Itau Cultural Gallery find themselves face-to-face with a host of artificial life forms. Amongst them is a new version of artist Ruairi Glynn’s interactive installation Fearful Symmetry, which was first shown at the Tate Modern, London, in 2012.

Glynn’s robotic works explore human relations with machines, in particular our impulse to project life and emotion into the inanimate. In the piece currently on show at Itau, a glowing tetrahedron glides through the air, rushing down to play with gallery visitors and pulling away when too many of them come too close. Despite a primitive appearance, its responsive behaviour draws the public in – inspiring curiosity, trepidation and even emotional affinity.

Fearful Symmetry was originally commissioned in 2011 after Tate curator Mark Miller saw one of Glynn’s earlier site specific works Motive Colloquies, at the Centre Pompidou. There, Glynn had installed a robotic sculpture between Francis Bacon’s Triptych ‘Three Figures in a Room’ (1964) & Pablo Picasso’s ‘Femmes devant la mer’ (1956). The intervention was a response to the abstract qualities of movement found in the surrounding paintings and, over the course of the installation, the robot also responded to the movement of the gallery’s visitors. It was these relationships that fascinated Miller and are also found at the heart of Fearful Symmetry.

Marking the 2012 launch of Tate’s new live-art space – the Tate Tanks – the piece was, notably, the only installation to be exhibited in a programme otherwise made up of human performances. The Tank’s scale, at seven metres tall and 32 metres in diameter was initially an intimidating space to occupy. It had lain dormant, cloaked in darkness, for decades, a fact which inspired Glynn’s concept of a site specific ‘living’ luminaire that moved around the tank, interacting with the public and revealing the dramatic, cavernous concrete chamber they were in.

↑ Lidar Scan at Tate Modern Revealing the scale of the Tanks and the central rail that robot hung from

Taking its title Fearful Symmetry from William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, which recounts a startling encounter with a mysterious creature in the night, Glynn intended the installation to, “create an immediate, visceral and uncanny affect on the public as they encountered the intimidating dark space and the strange life-form that inhabited it. It certainly fulfilled that ambition.

Fearful Symmetry’s success lies in the apparent intentionality and complexity of movement manifesting from such a simple looking form. Glynn ascribes a variety of influences from Cybernetician William Grey Walter’s Tortoises and Artist Edward Ihnatowicz’s Senster, to the abstract worlds of Bauhaus Theatre and the perceptual psychology research of Fritz Heider & Marianne Simmel’s An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior (1944).

To achieve his own animation of abstract form and have it occupy the entirety of the Tate’s South Tank, Glynn built an enormous, bespoke, Delta Robot. As he explains, Hidden up above in the darkness, like a long string marionette puppeteer, the five-metre tall autonomous robot, custom built to manipulate the motion of the luminaire beneath it, moved back and forth through the space on a 21-metre motorised rail. An array of Kinect sensors mounted on the travelling robot built a real-time 3D point cloud of its local environment, detecting the public and reading their individual movements using gesture recognition algorithms. Reciprocally, the agile performer responded with behaviours choreographed in collaboration with a team of puppeteers, giving the machine its uncannily human character.”

Puppetry, which played an important role in the development of Fearful Symmetry’s behaviour, is of particular interest to Glynn, who is currently writing his PhD on what he calls ‘Irresistible Animacy’, an aesthetic quality of life found in interactive and robotic art. Glynn discusses the idea that we cannot help but see life in inorganic bodies, if they have certain kinetic attributes, pointing out that, “even the faintest expressions of purposeful behaviour in objects can bring them to life, in the eye of the observer”. He proposes that puppetry has a lot to teach us about how best to use motion to influence the senses – in order to create palpable and, in this context, playful relationships between object (performer) and viewer. The ambiguity of such connections draws upon the aesthetic effect of the uncanny that Freud, amongst others, has discussed for its visceral impact on audiences.

“An uncanny effect is often easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality… It is this factor which contributes not a little to the uncanny effect attaching to magical practices.” – Freud.

These are themes that the artist repeatedly returns to in his work, drawing upon perceptual psychology, neuroaesthetics and cybernetics to provoke conversation around our changing relationships with technology. “In a world increasingly inhabited by artificially intelligent machines, contextually aware gadgets, sensory spaces and robotic agency, will our sense of our built environment as inert and lifeless, change to one rich in synthetic personalities, and strange forms of artificial life?” asks Glynn.

Similar questions are explored by the curators of Itau’s current exhibition, Consciência Cibernética [?], who have brought together work that “is not conscious, but exhibits important characteristics that, in a near future, may be part of cybernetic machines with a conscience.” Four years after Fearful Symmetry was first presented, Glynn was approached by the exhibition’s organisers to bring the work to Sao Paulo – but initially resisted the invite.

“I was thrilled to be invited to such a timely show but Fearful Symmetry in its original form was simply too big for other venues that have approached me. When I explained this to Itau Cultural, they offered to commission a new tour-able version and I jumped at the chance. I’m very grateful for their help in bringing this piece of work back to life.” – Ruairi Glynn

In this new evolution, Fearful Symmetry’s Delta Robot manipulator has been replaced by a Universal Robot UR10 industrial robot arm and is fixed stationary, rather than on a travelling rail. Sensing remains the same, using Kinect cameras, and the illuminated Tetrahedron ‘head’ (the only element actually visible to the public) is the original piece exhibited at the Tate. The work’s kinetic and sound behaviours have been updated with the support of Glynn’s collaborators roboticist Jessica In and sound artist Emmett Glynn – “It’s been great to see the public interacting with Fearful Symmetry again. Having created this new, more flexible and mobile version, I very much look forward to introducing it to more audiences around the world.”

↑ Studio Build of Delta Robot for Tate Modern

Motion control for Fearful Symmetry’s first incarnation at the Tate was a combination of different robotic systems integrated within LabVIEW. Its 5 metre tall custom built Delta Robot, was driven by Maxon DC Servos via EPOS2 Positioning Control Units and its Tetrahedron “Head” directed by pan and tilt Dynamixel RX64 servos. The 21 meter motorised rail that the entire robot travelled on from HepcoMotion was powered by an Industrial Baldor MircorFlexE100 Servo Drive System. To make Fearful Symmetry less complex for touring. the new version uses an “off the shelf” UR10 Industrial Robot Arm from Universal Robots. The primary motion of the UR10 arm is controlled by a motion path script comprising of URScript commands sent from openFrameworks which also manages sensing from an array of Kinects, and rules of behaviour. The waypoints for this path script are updated and sent to the robot at intervals of ~2 seconds to respond to the position and movements of gallery visitors. To give a sense of real-time responsiveness, the rotation of the Tetrahedron head, continues to directed by Dynamixel servos that are updated ~0.03 seconds. The motion of the robot varies in speed and acceleration mirroring the qualities of movement of visitors to the gallery. The more animated the public are, the more animated the Tetrahedron becomes. When people are motionless it hovers above them turning slowly. Fearful Symmetry‘s flat white glow comes from laser-cut Electroluminescent Sheet material from Lumitec.

Consciência Cibernética [?] runs at Itau Cultural, Sao Paulo, Brazil, until August 6th 2017 http://www.itaucultural.org.br/conscienciacibernetica/en/sobre/

Ruairi Glynn practices as an installation artist and directs the Interactive Architecture Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. The new Masters in Design for Performance and Interaction launches in Autumn 2017.

Ruairi GlynnInteractive Architecture