“Everything’s an experiment, everything’s a prototype”: How AATB created a practice for non-industrial robots
ECAL graduates Andrea Anner and Thibault Brevet see their robots as “performers” and themselves as “choreographers”.
Andrea Anner and Thibault Brevet met ten years ago at ECAL, Switzerland’s leading art and design school, where Andrea was enrolled on a master’s in type design and Thibault on a bachelor’s in graphic design, followed by a master’s in fine arts. Today, Andrea runs a small but successful art direction studio, while Thibault builds websites for cultural institutions, graphic designers and artists across Switzerland and abroad. The couple has just had a baby. So far, so normal, you might think. There’s one detail we haven’t yet mentioned, though – Andrea and Thibault also spend their evenings and weekends playing around with four industrial robotic arms. Not so normal now, right?
The story starts with Thibault attending a conference on the use of robots within the field of architecture. “He came home and said, ‘We must have a robot,’” Andrea recalls with a chuckle. “It was really in his mind and he couldn’t get it out of his mind, so we started to look for one. Eventually, we found and bought one that was previously used to stress test iron.” It turns out, robots aren’t as expensive as you might suspect, either – Andrea and Thibault picked theirs up on Craigslist (remember that?) for “around the same price as a Macbook Pro,” says Thibault.
Few people would buy a robot and instantly know how to use it, but Andrea and Thibault had already by this point become interested in programming and building tools. And because they were studying graphic design, for them that meant building printers and plotters and the like. These were not robots yet, but what Thibault calls “complex machines.” That experience meant that when they first got their hands on an industrial robot, “it was a completely natural upgrade.” And so the experimentations began.
In the decade or so since, Andrea and Thibault have turned their experimentations into a studio called AATB (a combination of their initials), which they describe as “a practice for non-industrial robots”. The description is purposefully broad. “We keep it quite generic for now,” says Thibault. “We don’t yet really know what the actual applications that we can take on outside of these usual environments will be. That’s why we say just ‘non-industrial’.”
The aim of the studio, as Andrea puts it, is to “propose these robots for artists and designers to become tools as any other tools in their workflow.” Interestingly, in terms of what the robots are capable of, the sky is basically already the limit. “What is lacking right now is not the mechanics, the mechanics have been fine for decades already. It’s a solved problem,” says Thibault. “The problem is the software – it’s the way you can put a robot in the hands of somebody that has no clue how to get it to work and be able to experiment and be productive with them. At this point, that is impossible.” He compares it to “setting up a printer or scanner 20 years ago.” (Anyone old enough to remember those dark times will know exactly the deep sense of frustration he’s referring to.)
Over the years, Andrea and Thibault have taught themselves how to programme these robots, how to control them and experiment with them. The duo is a big advocate of plunging headfirst into a problem and figuring it out as you go along. “We are really self-taught in this field,” says Andrea. “We really aren’t afraid of entering new fields.”
In many ways, they argue, this is not that daunting an obstacle to progression anymore – after all, information is easy enough to come by. “We see a lot of students where we teach and if they don’t have the skills to do something, they don’t even bother learning it,” says Thibault. “For us, it’s just, fire up Google and in two hours you know most of what you need to know.” He admits you might not be an expert after that amount of time, but you’ll have enough knowledge to make a start – and that’s a huge part of the creative process. “Everything is an experiment,” he says, “everything is a prototype.”
The work AATB has produced over the past ten years has borne out that experimental approach and has started to garner public and critical attention around the world. The studio is now seen as the leader in this new and rapidly emerging creative field. One recent project that exposed a broader audience to the huge potential of working with robots outside of a factory setting was Soap Opera. Commissioned by the V&A Dundee last year, the project sought to replicate the sense of childish wonder that is created by the act of blowing bubbles. Andrea and Thibault programmed their robotic arm to produce a series of carefully calibrated movements, dipping a plastic loop into a basin of soapy water and using it to create sweeping bubbles through the air.
GallerySoap Opera, Commissioned by V&A Dundee, 2019
“Everything around the robot that is not precise, every variable that you don’t control, becomes a problem.”Thibault Brevet
The conceptual and philosophical weight behind this idea is profound. The art historian in Thibault was aware that there is what he calls “a family of symbolism” around this subject that dates back to the 15th Century – “blowing bubbles,” he explains, “has been extensively used as a representation of the fragility of life and the way life just pops in and out of existence.” The timeliness of looking at the transience of human life through the medium of robotics is, of course, clear.
The project became a good example of a conundrum that Andrea and Thibault are very familiar with, which stems from the fact that the robot is just so perfect in its movements. “You might think that it’s good that the robot is so precise, but what it means is that everything around that is not precise, every variable that you don’t control around the robot, becomes a problem,” says Thibault. If something is even a millimetre off, all hell can break loose. “The huge struggle is actually managing the variations, managing the precision around the system. It really becomes a magnifying glass on everything around that is not controlled, because the robots can do things perfectly, over and over.”
The other challenges that Soap Opera threw up range from the sublime to the ridiculous. For instance, Andrea says, they “spent days and nights figuring out the perfect recipe for the soap – I don’t know how many different brands of soap we tried.” Yet on the other end of the scale, trying to replicate human movements proved a fascinating problem. “We tried every movement by hand first to really understand what the hand is doing, for us to be able to reproduce it with the robot,” she continues. “With the dipping in the soap tank, for example, when you do the movement by hand, you do it really automatically and don’t really notice what you’re doing.” Building an installation like this (and indeed viewing it) really makes you think about the human body and all that it’s capable of.
“We think of the robots like dancers and the way we work with them like a choreographic approach.”Andrea Anner
The truth of the matter is, even though the robot is immaculately precise, like any artistic endeavour involving a tool, there is no one single approach. “There are 100 different ways to do it,” says Andrea. “There are nicer ways and more technical ways. If you asked an engineer to do the same installation, they would come up with a more technical movement, but we really looked at the robot more as a performer.”
This is a beautiful way of thinking about AATB’s work and it’s something Andrea elaborates on. “We think of the robots like dancers and we look at the way we work with them almost as a choreographic approach,” she says. This description will ring true for anyone who has watched the videos showing the outcomes from their Center for Counter-Productive Robotics workshop at ECAL. In these videos, the robots seem to be so alive and responsive – not necessarily human, but definitely animated by some versions of human emotions and sensibilities. Some of the movements are funny, others mischievous, others are almost caring (like the one programmed to comb a man’s hair). The bubble-blowing robot was also trialled here alongside student Lisa Kishtoo.
In all of this, do Andrea and Thibault still feel their graphic design backgrounds have any bearing on what they’re doing now with AATB? In some ways, they’ve veered quite a long way from their roots. But other projects have closer links to graphic design, such as TEXEL, which the pair created with Lucas Uhlmann in Bern in 2018. A huge mural covering the walls of the Sattelkammer exhibition space, it was the creation of a “foam-engraving system” developed by AATB in collaboration with Lucas.
For Andrea, their shared graphic design training can be seen in much of their output. A lot of their final outcomes have a graphic quality, for instance. “It’s really this sensibility to forms and shapes, and to how shapes relate to each other,” she says. Also, they were simply very well drilled on the importance of “paying attention to the very last detail,” and this surely helps when it comes to the unrelenting precision of the robots.
The other way that their graphic design training feeds into their practice for non-industrial robots is less visible, but more about the way their minds work and the way they approach problems. “We don’t have an engineering background, we tackle the problems really from a design perspective,” she says. “Yes, maybe we don’t work on paper or on screens anymore, as let’s say ‘classical’ graphic designers do, but basically, it’s the exact same questions we’re addressing, just applied in different ways.”
Looking ahead, this year is set to be a crucial one for the studio. Up until now, Andrea and Thibault have each effectively been working two jobs – their own businesses and, in their spare time (when they’re not looking after their newborn baby, that is), AATB. It’s a bit of a dual existence. “Some people know our work from the studio, the robot work, and they have no idea that we are also both running separate side studios,” says Thibault. “And our clients have no idea we’re doing stuff with robots.”
“The main problems facing robotics now are not solved by technical science. They are solved by the arts.”Thibault Brevet
Working hard and pouring all their savings into AATB has meant “we can afford to develop a tiny island of freedom,” he says. But while “it’s been very creatively rewarding, it’s not yet a sustainable business model”. This year, for the first time, AATB is bringing in projects at a scale where the pair can start to reduce the amount they’re doing on their other businesses. “We’d rather put two weeks of work into one of the R&D projects for the studio than for a client we don’t even care about. Our long-term goal is AATB. That’s where we are focusing our energy.”
There are myriad projects on the horizon for AATB in 2020. Most of them Andrea and Thibault can’t yet talk about openly; they can only hint. They’ll be releasing a tiling system for landscape architecture adorned with patterns created by a robot and an algorithm; in the summer, they’ll be launching an interactive installation on the rooftop of a hotel; and they’ll be preparing for an exhibition of their work in San Francisco in 2021. Alongside all of this will be more workshops at ECAL and an exhibition in Milan during Design Week. This is already a lot to have booked in by mid-February and doubtless, there is plenty more that the couple can’t yet speak about. So, it’s going to be an important year for AATB and its two founders, as in effect the side hustle becomes the primary job for both of them.
Yet, what’s unique about AATB is that their future is also, in a way, analogous to the future of this new field of art and design that they have virtually built from scratch. Yes, other creatives are using robots in their practices, but nobody else has made robotics such a core part of their work and explored the possibilities as profoundly.
So, how do they see this future playing out? Thibault compares robots to the drones we’ve seen appear everywhere over the past decade. “Five years ago, it was a very elite, niche thing. Drones were expensive and hard to use, you really needed to be an expert,” he says. “Now you can pick one up on Amazon for 150 bucks.” Robots are still very expensive, because they’re still being built for industrial use, he explains, but this market is ripe for opening up. “In a few years, we think there will be many more of these machines accessible at much more accessible prices,” he adds. “We don’t expect everyone to have a robot, it will stay a specialised tool. But it’s going to be a much more common tool, like something you’d encounter as a completely banal thing in a design studio.”
For AATB, the most exciting aspect of this is that the technical side is already easily advanced enough. The robots are already capable of doing pretty much anything a designer or artist would ever want; it’s the user experience that hasn’t been honed – the artistic possibilities that haven’t been explored. “If you want to talk about the user experience design of a robot, you have to actually talk to choreographers and not engineers,” says Thibault. “The main problems facing robotics now are not solved by technical science. They are solved by the arts. And that’s just really exciting.” It’s also not like he and Andrea know where this future is going either, he says, and that’s part of the joy of working in this area. “We don’t know,” he concludes. “The goal of the studio is to figure out all that stuff.”
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Ones to Watch 2020
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