Robots and Avatars targets Facebook and Pluto in flourish of experimentalism at FACT

By Ben Miller | 26 April 2012
A photo of a woman looking at a piece of light blue coloured digital art inside a gallery
Chris Sugrue, Base 8 (2011). Installation view at FACT
© Photo: Brian Slater
Exhibition: Robots and Avatars, Foundation for Arts and Creative Technology, Liverpool, until May 27 2012

Robots and Avatars is very much experimental, right down to the operability of its alien exhibits. Compass, for example, stands silently in the large dark room where it once forcibly roamed people around in a machine you could wear around your waist.

Intended as a performance piece, Lawrence Malstaf’s contraption is now simply a documentation of the force it once had when it propelled people towards or away from a series of magnetic fields. Indeed, it's easy to assume - as some visitors have - that the exhibition is over once you’ve left the space (having entered via ADA, a giant silver ball with bits of coal on the outside, which decorated the walls in black lines when previous visitors pushed it around).

An image of a screen showing mangled projections of people on a darkened gallery wall
Alastair Eilbeck and James Bailey, MeYouandUs (2011). Installation view at FACT© Photo: Brian Slater
But a realm of the highly curious, improbable, amusing and migraine-inducingly complicated lies in wait upstairs. It includes rep.licants.org, a “bot” which automatically controls your Facebook or Twitter account, devised by Swiss media designer and computer scientist Matthieu Cherubini.

“You’ve got my full attention. I lost my train of thought. Everything is running smoothly,” the imposter responds to a casual greeting by a friend on its employer’s Facebook wall. Perhaps a tad cold, but just as meaningful as most of the interactions on social networks, you might argue.

It apparently depends on being able to recreate your online persona, so the more active you are, the more productive it’s likely to be. In other words, if you already post updates every time you blink then the bot is likely to delight your array of gawping friends.

On another screen, Shu Lea Cheang – the first net artist employed by Guggenheim New York, during the late 1990s – has made some sort of game aiming to turn an orgasm into a self-sustaining pleasure via genomes and red blood cells. UKI debuted at Sundance more than a decade ago, and there appears to have been a lot of nudity involved.

Aymeric Mansoux, Dave Griffiths and Marloes de Valk offer more possible protection from techno-social angst with Naked on Pluto, a (probably) spoof website promising “The Guarantee of Universal Friendship Strength”.

“It looks like you’re confused. Let me click ok for you,” it suggests, parodying the tame efforts of familiar help packages. “Smash the decentralised conspiracy.”

The most mesmerising piece here might be Chris Sugrue’s Base 8. As you move your hands through dark space, shifting objects and structures create the visual and tactile illusion that your fingers are moving around. And in MeYouAndUs, Alastair Eilbeck and James Bailey have created a playful platform liable to turn viewers into speeded-up cartoons of themselves.

A screen of revolving black and white lines make the body appear as a morph, growing closer and stronger in colour as you approach. A nearby camera records people, then adds their eyes to the top of a six-storey set of faces, dropping down a level as each new sitter has their face captured.

Finally, hilariously, a big screen reveals we’ve been watched throughout, and speeds up the tapes of our unsuspecting movements through the space so that everyone looks a bit silly. Given that most of these artists have been brave enough to show their designs while they’re still in development, being momentarily duped seems a small price to pay.

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