Second Career for Old Robot: ArtBy David Cohn
02:00 AM Dec. 07, 2004 PT
Assembly-line robots can do more than just build cars. A European art group claims they can draw, dance, even DJ a party.
Robotlab acquires industrial robots -- the metal arms on factory floors that wield welding torches and other manufacturing tools -- and reprograms them to become performers in public spaces. Some of the reprogrammed beasts spin tunes, others paint, and still others perform intricate dances to music.
"Sometimes the artistic community looks at us as something very technical, and then the engineers think we are very artistic -- it is really something like a mixture," said Jan Zappe, who co-founded robotlab in 2000. Zappe, 35, studied chemistry and philosophy. His cohorts include a robotics engineer and a graphics designer.
Although the robots can weigh 820 pounds and are designed to make everything from cars to bulldozers, they can be remarkably supple, with more than enough finesse to draw on canvas.
For one installation, the group retooled a KR 125/2 robot with a pen instead of a pneumatic hammer, and placed it in front of an easel. Human participants sat still while a video camera in the robot's arm sent a digital image to a computer, which sent an analysis of the image to the arm, which then drew the portrait.
Another traveling project trained the arms to mimic the scratching movements of DJs. At one event the robo DJ selected the music and decided when to scratch. Zappe said the robot's timing and choice of music were "not very harmonic." So the robotlab crew reprogrammed the machine to help it place the scratches at more appropriate times.
The machines can even dance. Using 7-foot industrial robots, robotlab organized a dance troupe with Swiss choreographer Pablo Ventura. Being all arms, literally, the robots couldn't traverse the stage, but human performers enhanced their show.
Zappe said robotlab hopes, within the next year, to collaborate with electronic music pioneer Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk. "This will be something like a man-machine collaboration, but it's still in development now," said Zappe.
"All our projects have two sides: the artistic and ideas side and the technical side," Zappe said. "Every project is a new invention