When the art of puppetry meets the technology of robotics, a beautiful blend of the mechanic and organic can occur. At Rusty Squid, designers, engineers, artists and puppeteers find a space to combine their skills and blur the lines of conventional creative problem-solving. We sat down with Rusty Squid co-founder and artistic director, David McGoran to chat about the origins of Rusty Squid, integrating the Arts, design and engineering and their latest project ‘Puppet Presence’.
What are the origins of Rusty Squid?
Basically the passion behind the company is our frustration with entrenched cultures that are quite divided. Engineers have their own identity and culture; artists have their own culture and the same with designers… And by culture, I mean it’s a legacy culture. We inherit a ways of thinking and people within those cultures are just assuming that’s the only way to think about and see the world.
And that’s uninspiring, unimaginative and stagnant. A lot of artists see art as the antithesis of technology. They believe the arts are the safe harbours of human values, the human touch, matters of the human heart. And it is perceived that technology is this thing that is imposed upon us – that it isn’t very socially intelligent.
There’s a very popular contemporary notion that technology is this thing that is outside of nature. This thing that is somehow imposed on nature.
On the other side we have engineers that view the arts as frivolous, unnecessary and decadent. Many engineers that I have known and worked with have never seen a live dance performance, let alone dance themselves, and they find art galleries irritating. This means we end up with a community of technologists that are devising our future coming from a socially and emotionally impoverished place.
Those divisions of worldview result in this fractured way that we engage with the world on so many levels. I think that’s a real problem going forward into our future. That fact that the arts are separate from engineering, that we see technology as separate from nature. So finding a space where we can start to explore integrating those things is really important. Our hope is that Rusty Squid Studio is this little seed that real cultural transformation can grow out of.
How did you become involved in this work?
I’ve always been a bit of a hybrid. I’ve played around with electronics my whole life, studied dance and worked as a dancer, got into puppetry as a way of studying movement analysis, so using puppetry as a tool for teaching and training dance. Then worked as a street puppeteer for many years as a way of travelling the world. And then wanted to get into animatronics to fuse my puppetry and engineering and that was just when animatronics were dying in the late 1990s, when CGI was coming in and wiping out the animatronics industry. So I thought I would go and study robotics and did a degree with the hope of bringing that back to the arts and shaking up both of those cultures.
Within the arts you get people who say ‘Oh I don’t do technology, I’m a ceramicist’ but ceramics IS technology! And the engineers will say ‘I’m not an artist, I’m just trying to build something practical’ but really robotics is one of the most creative acts of procreation you can do on this planet and it’s hugely poetic. So finding a common language and a common culture was always what I wanted to try and do. This meant finding people who share that vision, like Roseanne Wakely, who is an artist, designer and maker with a passion for technology; Paul O’Dowd, who is engineer and roboticist who has a deep capacity for art and design.
Both Paul and Rosie are founding members of Rusty Squid, it wouldn’t have happened without them. We’ve also been really lucky to find Rob, a roboticists and animatronics designer who has an incredible insight into animals and movement. These people were really hard to find! Bringing together that team to start what Rusty Squid really is, an incubation pool for these ideas and a new culture to grow out of.
So are you robotics engineers who do art or artists who do robotics?
Well, hopefully those terms will all start to become meaningless over time. The term engineer is a very new term. In the past there were just artisans, you were a polymath – either good at something or not. Leonardo da Vinci was a mathematician, and in order to be an engineer and scientist, he had to draw. There was no photography or other means to visually document. In order to be an artist, you had to measure the weight of the marble and build the machinery to lift it. It is a really modern phenomenon that all these things are divided. That funding streams are also divided for engineering and for the arts. You can either apply as the artist group or the engineering group, but you can’t be both. So it’s like ‘we’re going to get some engineers and artists to collaborate. So who’s the engineer and who’s the artist? ‘
Collaboration is often nothing more than individuals from different disciplines sitting down for a brief chat. There’s not only this cultural perception but what’s really interesting is how deeply entrenched it is because this is deep personal identity. Then there’s this no man’s land, which is probably the most innovative and imaginative space that isn’t occupied and that’s the space that we’re trying to exist in.
Over the years of working together we’ve found that for us, there isn’t a common culture, common language, common working practice, there aren’t common tools. So it’s very difficult for these cultures and identities to come together and work. By necessity, we have to forge new working tools and practices. So a lot of our time is spent devising new ways of working, developing new semantics and approaches. And it’s not just ideas. We’re actually building physical technology, coming up with new systems of integrating our work that are tangible systems. We develop integrated processes and a new working practice.
There’s seems to be a connection between the mechanical and organic in your body of work. What is this about?
This is about breaking down the barrier between our Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity as being separate from and outside of nature… ‘Man made’. I think it’s really dangerous for some of the issues we’re battling with now and in the future.
Environmental degradation is a huge issue and that’s the result of the technology that’s been developed and our capacity for consumption. I think because it has been developed in a non-integrated way, because there is this dominant view of the world being dualist, that this is problematic. We see ourselves as having dominion over nature rather than being an integral part of it. We perceive humanity, technology and nature all as completely isolated and separate things. However, I think that we have far more in common with nature and that we forget who we are. We haven’t evolved from early homo sapiens, we ARE early homo sapiens. We’re a lot simpler than we like to think we are. Our fight, flight and freeze mechanisms are absolutely the same and haven’t changed much for thousands and thousands of years. That’s the language that we speak and we forget that because we’re trapped in this virtual, audiovisual 2D head-talking, TV world and we forget about the body.
I think calling people to remember our human animal also helps us have more affinity with technology. We’re not that different and the world we’re entering into in the next hundred to a thousand years is one where humans and machines start to resemble each other more and more. We’re going to have to understand how much we have in common. How integrated we actually already are, how intimately interconnected and inseparable humanity and technology is, and it’s just a bit of a delusion that we’re outside of that.
The ongoing evolution in artificial intelligence, for example, is one of the most important and potentially disruptive and concerning shifts and the history of mankind. And maybe not just the human race but maybe life as we know it? It might be akin to cellular life starting in the first place. We’ve got to be aware of that unfolding story and our place in it if we’re going to navigate that in a healthy way.
So can you tell us a little more about the forthcoming Summer Schools and Internships?
We’re aiming to integrate the arts, design and engineering – and that’s one of the key things that the forthcoming internships and summer schools are about. So, for the internships, there’s bit of poetic terrorism in us getting together an artist, a designer and an engineer together to create a parallel micro-company to Rusty Squid, in the hope that we can continue to transform those cultures and influence those cultures into not being so wary of working with one another.
For the summer school, we’re doing five weeks of intimate and intensive training inside the Puppet Place in July and August – and again were blending puppetry, robotics, and design in a unique way. The Squids have been working hard incubating new approaches to learning and constructing new training tools to help share our unique practice and skill sets. The workshops are devised for emerging art, design, and engineering professionals.
Our first workshop will focus on ‘the Neutral Puppet’, which goes back to the first principles of movement. The emotion of motion. The hope is to get engineers, artists and designers in their bodies, moving, being physical with one another, because by necessity, to be a good software developer, sculpture or model maker, you spend a lot of time alone. We can become relatively isolated and yet we’re making things that are busting out of the research lab or studio for use in our personal lives. We therefore have a huge responsibility to understand social and emotional dynamics in our body.
The next workshop will examine “Designing for Digital Fabrication”, getting artists to not fear digital tools and not to think that art just has to be handcraft. We start with the material, go into the digital and come back to the physical. Students will get their hands on our laser cutter, 3D printer and other tools the Squids use.
Then, we’re looking at “the Art of Animatronics” in a workshop. Here were breathing life into machines but teaching animatronics for artists and designers, rather than for the film industry. Animatronics is an incredibly powerful skill set that has yet to break free of its FX origins.
Next we’re inviting designers and artists to learn to program and write code in our “Interaction Design” workshop. But were not teaching it in the way it’s normally taught. We’re turning things completely inside out and upside down – it’s accessible, tangible, and physical. We’re looking at sensors and electronics but fundamentally we’re looking at the creation of emotional relationships. It’s going to be a blast!
The final workshop of the summer is “Play and Practice”. This is a chance for students to work closely with the Squids on a micro project of their own. It’s a glimpse into the working practice and integrated development process that allows Rusty Squid to work as an ensemble, protect our creativity when up against tight deadlines and budgets and produce the work that we do.
Each workshop carefully builds upon the last and they are intentionally laid out in this order. Our hope is that students will join us for the full five weeks and get the full benefit. For those who want to do all five, we’re offering the fifth workshop for free.
And the latest project, ‘Puppet Presence’, can you tell us more..?
The basic question here is “ what can robotic tele-presence research learn from the art of puppetry?”
Rusty Squid is collaborating with robotics researcher Paul Bremner from the Bristol Robotics Lab and Psychology researcher Chris Beven from UOB. The project is part of the ‘Being There’ project funded by EPSRC. It’s a project we’ve been secretly wanting for years.
There are three goals for the Puppet Presence project. One is to bring the creative industries, and more specifically stop-motion animators, animatronics professionals, artists and live puppeteers together with the robotics research community because they don’t know about each other’s work. The robotics research community has little idea about the many years of study and practice that has gone into understanding movement and communication by artists. Even just things like eye movement notation in stop-motion animation, all the research about blinking and so forth. So the robotics community is trying to reinvent the wheel because there’s such a gulf between those communities.
Another goal is to involve the general public in having a say in the direction that tele-operated technology is going because there are really important social concerns and issues that are involved. The public often have a knee-jerk reaction to technology once it’s been developed, so we’re trying to find imaginative and playful ways to engage them during the development process.
And then the third goal is more technical. When you are tele-operating a robot, you have either got a motion capture suit on or you are inside a motion capture environment. There are a couple of issues that arise. One is that the robot has different proportions to the operator, so the time for a limb to travel through space is different. You also have a much simpler set of joints or degrees of freedom and the robot can’t perform many of the subtle movements of a human. A robot often can’t shrug for example. So there has to be a layer of software that is doing some interpretation. Another issue is that there is lag time, a delay, so the software has to do some prediction about where it thinks the action is going to go. And then there is the issue of sensor-noise. The sensors aren’t accurate, and can pick up things that aren’t there, so there has to be some filtering, which means there has to be some decision-making. So between the operator and the interpretive robot there is this layer of software that is interpreting, translating and adapting movement.
Then there is the serious issue of trust… How do you trust that you are being represented accurately?
Roboticists see this as a problem and are trying to get perfect one-to-one mapping relationships but we’ve come in and said, actually this is a creative-platform, because that’s what artists do. They interpret or rather emulate the world and represent that back to their audiences. So, robot avatars provide the opportunity for a new creative platform, and we’re helping researchers realise that. Rather than struggling for hyper realistic robot movements let’s work to make it meaningful and trustworthy. So Rusty Squid is designing and building a motion capture puppet with a one-to-one proportional relationship with a Nao Humanoid robot. The puppet has tiny sensors in each of its joints so as it’s animated, the motion and position of the limbs can be recorded. Two puppeteers will observe the tele-operator and will, in effect, replace the software system. They will be the human equivalent to this digital layer of interpretive software. This will happen in real-time with the actual software system. We can then produce two streams of data, one from how the puppeteers interpret the operator’s movements and the other how the software does it. The researchers can take away and compare to see if there are fundamental patterns or principles that they can learn from.
It’s a great project for Rusty Squid, for us to evangelise this need to integrate the arts, engineering and design, in the hope that we can also integrate our humanity with our technological ecosystem to better face our uncertain future.
Interview by Emma Windsor
Rusty Squid Summer Internship
Rusty Squid have three posts available for the Summer Internship 2016 for an Artist, an Engineer and a Designer. They are looking for the brave, the innovative, the playful. Those who have vision and an appetite for excellence – the misfits, the hybrids, the mutants. These three separate 0.6 posts (3 days/week equivalent) will last 4 months. Positions start May 16th. This is an unpaid internship, however we will provide one-on-one mentoring, professional training, funding for materials and a free place on the five-week intensive 2016 Squid School worth £1,400.
View the Rusty Squid website for further information and to make an application: www.rustysquid.co.uk/internship
Rusty Squid Summer School
Join Rusty Squid for 5 weeks of intimate intensive training inside the Squid studio in July and August. The Squid team have been incubating new approaches to learning and new training tools to help share their unique practice and skill sets. Workshops fusing robotics, animatronics and puppetry devised for emerging art, design, and engineering professionals.
Based in the heart of Bristol, Puppet Place offers workspace for artists and creatives including puppeteers, prop makers, graphic designers and filmmakers. Benefits of becoming a resident at Puppet Place include a profile on our website, advice and information, discounted rates on hire rates in the fabrication and rehearsal studios and more. To join Rusty Squid and artists like them, contact Rachel McNally at rachel [at] puppetplace.org or call 0117 929 3593.