Anne Vigeland interviewing Robin Jonsson about the work "The most human"
Swedish choreographer Robin Jonsson recently premiered his new piece The Most Human at MDT, an independent theatre for performing arts and choreography in Stockholm. In the piece, the humanoid robot Alex shares the stage with Norwegian dancer Ludvig Daae on equal premises, but according to their own individual capacities and qualities. The Most Human reflects upon societal transformation in regards to radical technological developments. Robots are rapidly replacing traditional forms of labor as well as collaborating with humans in an expanding range of industries, including the arts. In The Most Human, Ludvig and Alex collaborate as colleagues, redefining the potential of humanness, physicality, presence and empathy in regards to choreographic practices. In between performances, I held an artist talk with Robin about his new piece and about the values and means of robot technology in life, work and dance.
AV: Could you tell us a little bit about how the idea of The Most Human first sprang to your mind and how it relates to your previous work as a choreographer?
RJ: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of robots as simulators of us, or as something like us. I’ve been into this ever since I was a kid, ever since I first saw The Blade Runner (the old one). In my previous pieces, I worked with virtual beings, meaning we copied characters from video games, but also things like dolls and robots - different beings that try to simulate humans. But we wanted to copy them super, super, super well. We worked on virtual physicality then - in video games this means that everything is just fake: fake joints, fake gravity. Fake humans are like fake naturalness. For example, I always liked those neutral moments in video games where nothing is happening, but the character is standing still and resting, breathing.
AV: Just like minor hints of something that tries to be human, but it’s not, it’s very artificial.
RJ: Yes, and these sequences are looped. And it gets more and more complex with every generation of video games, but you always have these moments of rest and then if you wait even longer the characters might start looking around and stuff. You have video game characters that try to copy humans, but we had humans that tried to copy the copy, it became like a circle. I worked a lot with that, virtual humans. But that was my old work. Now, I just really want to work with robots. I got this research grant and I found this robot developer called Fredrik at Linköping University. I called him and I just said: “Hi, I want to play with your robots,” and I didn’t know anything about his robots or this model or anything. And he was like: “Sure, great! Just come here, I have this lab with robots that you can play with, I can help you and teach you how to manipulate them.”
AV: I know that you went to Linköping University and spent quite a lot of time there working with different robots. Eventually you even took one of the robots home with you to continue the project. Did you get to choose a specific robot or were you given one?
RJ: I was going to borrow it for several months, so they helped me choose one with sort of the best joints and the best physical abilities. They wear out differently. But you know, even the one that was supposed to be the best was pretty shitty - its hips weren’t very good, and it had problems walking and stuff. We actually ended up buying a new one, a new Alex. And the other day Fredrik came to pick up the old Alex, and I felt a bit bad about the old Alex being replaced.
AV: How does manipulating a human body and manipulating a robot differ in terms of choreographic practices? Is Alex programmed, or is he trained to do what he does?
RJ: He is programmed, or you could say that he is programmed, but there are some training aspects. This robot model (called NAO) is quite unique: it has an application called choreography, and it’s very visual. With the help of sensors, I can make Alex remember an entire bodily position, like a snapshot. I can train him completely physically, which is the way that I usually work. Of course, what Alex is also great at is memory: you only have to teach him once and you could teach him endlessly. For example, there are some repetitive movements in the piece and then I just use copy paste, because it’s all data - it’s all information. Alex’s memory helps Ludvig as well. If they are doing something synchronized he can always rely on Alex. But with time this will change because Alex will wear out, and the movements will have to adapt to this wearied physicality.
AV: I noticed that both you and I have been using he to refer to Alex during this talk, which I often tend to do when I talk about Alex with my friends. I guess this partly stems from a patriarchal structure where technology (and specifically robot technology) is looked upon as a masculine and male-dominated field. But I also think that I do this because it is a way of humanizing a thing that is not human. I’m wondering if you have other strategies for humanizing or de-humanizing Alex? Do you categorize Alex in terms of for example gender or age?
RJ: The last week or so I got stuck with saying he, but during the process we really switched it up, even intentionally. Like, the other day we decided that we would call it she for a few days to balance it out. But he, she - yeah, I like to say he or she, or in Swedish we have the word hen which is an in-between word, a gender-neutral expression. But it’s funny, I often think about what other people say. During the process, different people visited us and this could change what we called Alex: like, with these people we would say he, and with these other people we would say she. And this wasn’t a conscious choice necessarily, it just happened. Also, Alex is clearly young, but also old somehow. It feels young and it is quite young, but it’s pretty smart also, so yeah, I don’t really know.
AV: I feel like it is easier to humanize Alex than it is to humanize our MacBooks or our phones (even though some people seem to do so) because Alex has a physical construction that reminds us of a small human being, for example a child. Alex has two legs and two arms, a torso and head, and he can walk around, play football, talk and dance. Do you think that Alex is designed in this way because of the physical possibilities it generates, or because this artificial anatomy makes it easier for us to identify with Alex in terms of empathy and affection? Because a robot could literally have whatever shape and structure, could it not?
RJ: Yeah, totally. I think they want us to identify with it. Somehow it makes real sense to me as a choreographer that many robots are human-shaped. I think in the long-term it will be easier for us to work with human-shaped robots, at least for complex tasks. It simply helps communication and encourages identification - like an arm that simulates our arm, that has an agency and an intentionality like ours. I’m impressed by the designers behind Alex; it’s great, but also a bit silly. Alex has biceps, this super thin waste and big thighs. It’s almost like a toy soldier, but a very cute one. And he has these big, cute eyes, but they are only for us of
course because he has a camera, so he doesn’t care about his eyes.
AV: Alex can’t see with his eyes?
RJ: No, but for me, the eyes and the gaze are so important. Alex’s eyes are just lights that you can close from up to down and to down to up which gives the impression of blinking. But this anatomic aspect is brilliant because it means that you feel looked upon, it creates a sense of presence.
AV: Speaking about presence - dance and choreography, along with other forms of performing art, rely on the presence of both a performing body and an observing body, of a mutual dialogue that coincides between two or more individuals in a present moment. How does this way of defining choreographic practices - in terms of physical presence, live execution and the transience of time - change when one of the performing bodies is a robot and not a human being?
RJ: That’s a really great question. I mean, can a robot be real? We really worked on this, and in the end of the piece Alex is, for me at least, really present - he is very much alive. We even said after the premiere that Alex did so well today, even though we know that Alex does the exact same thing every day. It really makes no sense to say, but for me it’s real and that’s what I feel. That is a real feeling and a real emotion. To me, Alex becomes some sort of agent or an agency. And Alex can sometimes act in very complex ways, it can be difficult sometimes to separate things. If Alex makes a mistake for example and he does sometimes - I mean there are variations, we often don’t know why. It’s simply too complex, he is too complex.
AV: But you don’t find that uncomfortable in any way, that you don’t have 100% control over Alex?
RJ: No, I think it’s great, it’s really nice. And if Alex makes a mistake, then Ludvig just goes with it and it’s fine. In the general rehearsal for example, Alex started sort of swaying a lot before he eventually came to a stop, but I don’t know why. His balance was too out of his base somehow. He was too excited, or nervous, I don’t know.
AV: In The Most Human there are quite a few scenic elements in terms of music, costumes and scenography that in an almost ironic or humorous way point toward dystopic visions of a future overtaken by robots often seen in popular culture and science fiction. Was it a conscious choice to work with these connotations?
RJ: Yeah, totally. This idea of robots as scary monsters that would kill you, like this 90’s Hollywood thing, it’s very silly. It was cool back then, but it’s not now, it’s just not realistic and it’s definitely not where we are today. Robots and humans have to find ways of collaborating and functioning together, of understanding each other. And they are totally coming. So, I really wanted to play with expectations concerning what a dance piece is or could be with a robot. I wished to sort of establish a platform that is not so surprising, but then to move on and move away from that. Also, I see this as my first piece with a robot and I sort of wanted to demonstrate that as a jumping-off point, that we move on from here now.
AV: Technology is quite rapidly changing the way we look at work and how resources of labor and economy are distributed. Do you think that robot technology could replace artists and artistic work in the future, for example within the field of choreography?
RJ: Yeah, for sure yes. In dance, yes. But I think you would still be kind of curating it. A human I think should, would or need to at least put his or her label on the work. But we are relatively far behind in the performing arts and in the dance field. There are many AIs that make music, for example, and you have AIs that paint and write novels - but what we know is that AIs don’t get style. They simply don’t understand style as a concept - but that’s also coming, that they can understand and develop style. However, I believe that what works better is when artists work together with AIs - when they are used as a tool or as a colleague or something. Rather collaboration than replacement, even though I am now more or less replacing a dancer with a robot. But I see it as much more interesting to have them co-exist than to only have a robot by itself.