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AATB: Greve General. Photo by Calypso Mahieu

Work / Miscellaneous

Is robotics set to be the next creative trend for artists and designers?

AATB is the collaborative practice of Andrea Anner and Thibault Brevet. Having studied graphic design at ECAL, the duo, now based in Marseille, focusses their attention on robotics and the fascinating, unexplored territory of how it can be utilised outside of industry for creative (and sometimes counter-productive) means.

“It seems to us that there has not yet been much done with robotics in the field of art and design because of the technical barrier to entry,” explains Thibault, using the analogy of Arduino to further explain. Once a technology reserved for experts within the area of electronics, Arduino released a version which was more accessible, and easy to learn. As a result, “we have seen the huge wave of interactive objects being developed by artists and designers,” he continues. This is a trend now happening in robotics, as developers move towards making them more “safe, accessible and easy to programme for non-experts… we feel that we are at a sort of inflexion point where these machines are disseminating outside of the usually restricted environments: factories and robotics labs that they have been stuck in for decades.”

As a result, the area of robotics holds immense potential for artist and designers and it’s an area AATB is already taking advantage of. Last year, the duo held two workshops at their alma mater, the first replicating the introduction of the Linotype typesetting machines at the end of the 19th Century. “It sparked protests and strikes against the automation of labour more than a hundred years ago. So this question of automation and robotics is nothing new,” they add. AATB’s workshop speculated a world where robots are taking over another job, that of type designers. In protest of this movement, students had to learn how to use the technology in order to make protest signs.

The second workshop was the start of a larger body of work by AATB titled The Centre for Counter-Productive Robotics which, as the name suggests, explores how robots can be used in counter-productive contexts. “It is a deliberate will to think of robotics with a contrarian position, against the mainstream narrative of robots as do-gooders, solution-for-all-problems,” Thibault tells It’s Nice That. “We tried to reflect and approach robotics with a very simple, almost naive way of applying them to everyday situations, and mostly by putting the robots directly in the hands of the students so that they could decide by themselves, hands-on, what the robot should do.”

Beyond passing on their knowledge to the next generation of designers, AATB also works on product-based projects. In 2018, the pair developed Sunny Side Up, a robot moving a light around throughout the day, mimicking the Sun and behaving in the same way as a Wadokei. An ancient Japanese clock, the Wadokei uses a seasonal time system, with each day split in two for day and night, unlike our current field time system which splits days into 24 equal parts. Traditionally, it is unable to perfectly follow orbital mechanics and had to be adjusted constantly “It became an interesting topic for us, to be able to use robotics to achieve this perfect clock,” they recall.

After showing the original version in Milan, AATB then developed a version shown in Istanbul which constantly gazed at the International Space Station. “We achieved that by computing its orbital coordinates, and noticed that if we simply changed the parameters to compute instead the Sun’s position, we had again a Wadokei,” they outline. Now, the pair is working on an official Sunny Side Up clock which will be shown at Milan design week at the Design Switzerland exhibition at Palazzo Litta, organised by Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council.

These projects typify what is so fascinating about AATB’s practice, not only is the duo exploring the possibilities of technology but they are backing it up with thoughtful investigations. When asked about the interesting juxtaposition of nature and technology within their work, the pair responds: “In a way, there are many parallels between cosmology and robotics, it’s often about objects moving in space, following precise equations and timings. But more generally on the topic of nature, to both of us it is becoming an obsolete term, as it becomes clear that the gap between natural and artificial is less and less evident, we get more and more comfortable considering this hybridised, constructed nature: objects that are not quite yet alive but also not dead, this is where our work can exist."

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AATB: Greve General. Photo by Calypso Mahieu

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AATB: Greve General. Photo by Calypso Mahieu

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AATB: Sunny Side Up Installation

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AATB: Sunny Side Up Installation

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AATB: Atelier Luma Prototype