Dancing disco robots

Interview with the founders of the robot-workshops

Ralf, Christian and Cordula give robot-workshops at Mediamatic since 2006. At the 10th of April they organized a disco with self-made robots from participants of their workshop. 'To give workshops is a social event in the first place.'

You are working together with Mediamatic since 2006. How did this come about?
Ralf: ‘It was an idea of Mediamatic to do it in this context, but Christian started the workshops already nine years ago: making walking and analog robots. I started ten years ago with making simple robots. The robots we work with are based on BEAM technology which stands for Biology Electronics, Aesthetics and Mechanics.’

What is your background?
Ralf: ‘I am an artist.’ Christian: ‘I do some artistic work, but I am not a professional artist. I work as a scientist.’

So this something you do in your freetime?
Christian: ‘It’s more serious than a hobby, because it interferes with my work and it inspires my research. A hobby is often a retreat from something, but for me teaching this workshop is the opposite of that. To teach workshops is a social event in the first place. It’s about meeting people and exchanging ideas. Then it sounds strange that your hobby is meeting people.’

What kind of scientist are you?
‘I work in a laboratory that tries to transport ideas from neuroscience to technical problems such as robotics. It is an interdisciplinary laboratory. Doing these workshops is another way of being interdisciplinary.’

And you, Cordula?
‘I am a stage and costume designer. I teach workshops together with Christian and Ralf since three years. I am not so much into the technical part of the workshop, but I support the people in designing the robots.' Christian: ‘We want to keep the format open. Having a good mixture of how your I teach workshops together with Christian and Ralf since three years. I am not so much into the technical part of this workshop should look like and the technical part. We don’t want to do only the technical stuff, but we also want to emphasize the creative part work and explore new ways of performing. Today we used the overhead projector.’

Do you need a lot of technical knowledge to participate in your workshops?
Christian: ‘No, because the electronics we work with are very simple. If you want to understand it, it is still a bit difficult, even for us it is still a bit unclear what is going on. But you don’t have to be on that level to understand the concept, the idea. You put together something very simple, but when you have interaction something complex comes out of it.’ Cordula: ‘We had people here who said: “I have never soldered before and I don’t know how robots work at all”. But it’s great that even those people in the end have robots dancing here.’ Ralf: and you can also learn the basics of electronics. You are suprised by what you can do with it.’

Why do your workshops fit so well to Mediamatic?
Christian: ‘I am amazed about Mediamatic because it works so well. People who show up are a good mixture of different backgrounds.’ Cordula: ‘There is a variety of age, women and men.’ Ralf: ‘Lots of professionals too, who know nothing about soldering.’ Christian: ‘There is a network here which works very well and an openness to experimental workshops. We appreciate that a lot.’

What kind of robots do you make?
Christian: ‘We are interested in the autonomy of the robots. The robots we made today are already more complex because they show a variety of motion patterns. But the solar robots are much more simple. They collect energy and when they have enough they decharge it. You might say it is not a robot, but in our opinion it is an autonomous kinetic object that has some sensing capability. We don’t program our robots with the computer, but their behaviour emerges out of simple networks and out of their body shapes.’

Are you making kinetic art with the robots?
Christian: ‘Yes, it can be kinetic art. And doing a workshop can be social art. The presentation is a performance.’ Ralf: ‘But it depends on the context. The workshop is a performance, and also a very complex performance.’ Christian: ‘A dance party with kinetic devices is really a form of art.’