A new kind of art: the painting robots (2003)
Leonel Moura
with Henrique Garcia Pereira

The painting robots are artificial ‘organisms’ able to create their own art forms. They are equipped with environmental awareness and a small brain that runs algorithms based on simple rules. The resulting paintings are not predetermined, emerging rather from the combined effects of randomness and stigmergy, that is, indirect communication trough the environment.
Although the robots are autonomous they depend on a symbiotic relationship with human partners Not only in terms of starting and ending the procedure, but also and more deeply in the fact that the final configuration of each painting is the result of a certain gestalt fired in the brain of the human viewer. Therefore what we can consider ‘art’ here, is the result of multiple agents, some human, some artificial, immerged in a chaotic process where no one is in control and whose output is impossible to determine.
Hence, a ‘new kind of art’ represents the introduction of the complexity paradigm in the cultural and artistic realm.

The robots and their collective behaviour

Each robot is equipped with colour detection sensors, obstacle avoidance sensors, a microcontroller and actuators, for locomotion and pen manipulation. The microcontroller is an on-board chip, to which the program that contains the rules linking the sensors to the actuators is uploaded, prior to each run, through a PC serial interface.

The algorithm that underlies the program uploaded into each robot’s microcontroller induces basically two kinds of behaviour: the random behaviour that initialises the process by activating a pen, based on a small probability (usually 2/256), whenever the colour sensors read white; and the positive feed-back behaviour that reinforces the colour detected by the sensors, activating the corresponding pen (since there are two pens, the colour circle is split into two ranges – ‘warm’ and ‘cold’).
The collective behaviour of the set of robots evolving in a canvas (the terrarium that limits the space of the experience)is governed by the gradual increase of the deviation-amplifying feed-back mechanism, and the progressive decrease of the random action, until the latter is practically completely eliminated. During the process the robots show an evident behaviour change as the result of the ‘appeal’ of colour, triggering a kind of excitement not observed during the initial phase characterized by a random walk.
This is due to the stigmergic interaction between the robots, where one robot in fact reacts to what other robots have done. According to Grassé (1959), stigmergy is the production of certain behaviours in agents as a consequence of the effects produced in the local environment by a previous action of other agents.
Thus, the collective behaviour of the robots is based on randomness and stigmergy.

The emergence of complexity in real time and space

By analysing the above described course of action of the set of robots, it can be stated that from the initial random steps of the procedure, a progressive arrangement of patterns emerges, covering the canvas. These autocatalytic patterns are definitively non-random structures that are mainly composed of clusters of ink traces and patches. Hence, this experiment shows in vivo (in real time and space) how self-organized complexity emerges from a set of simple rules, provided that stigmergic interaction is effective. The vortices of concentration of ink spots, i.e., the clusters that arise in the canvas, may be looked at as the effect of strange attractors, in terms of non-linear dynamic theory. Also, in the scope of the same theory, the concept of bifurcation is found in this experiment, since the robots may take one direction or another, depending on the intensity and spatial position of the colour detected by their sensors. In fact, this experiment may be understood as the mapping of some sort of deterministic chaos, displayed in practical terms in the canvas and witnessed by the viewer. Actually, in spite of each robot being fed with the same set of rules, its detailed behaviour over time is unpredictable, and each instance of the outcome produced under similar conditions is always a singular event, dissimilar from any other.

From a scientific perspective, the proposed experiment illustrates Prigogine’s concept of dissipative structures. While receiving energy from outside, the instabilities and jumps to new forms of organization typical of such structures are the result of fluctuations amplified by positive feed-back loops. Thus, this kind of ‘runaway’ feed-back, which had always been regarded as destructive in cybernetics – as stated by Capra (1996) -, appears as a source of new order and complexity.

The mind/body problem

The dual mind/body problem (that has been floating over Western thought since Descartes) is to be overcome by the ‘horizontal’ synergetic combination of both components, discarding any type of hierarchy, in particular the Cartesian value system, which privileges the abstract and disembodied over the concrete and embodied. It is fascinating to infer from the possibility that, since computation – a mental operation – is physically embodied, the mind/body duality put forward by Descartes must succumb the way organic/inorganic duality did under Wöhler’s achievement in the 1820s, ‘when he synthesized what everyone would have counted an organic substance – urea – from what everyone would have counted inorganic substances – ammonia and cyanic acid’, in the words of Danto (2001).
In the same line of thought the art works produced by the painting robots are the result of an indissoluble multi-agent synergy, where humans and non-humans cooperate to waste time (in the sense that art as no purpose). With a very peculiar twist, since in this process it is the robot that stands for the embodied, while the human partner can be described as the mental and disembodied counterpart.

Making the artists

Modern and contemporary art distinctive features are ‘magnificence and unusefulness’ as stressed by Fernando Pessoa referring to his own masterpiece ‘The book of disquiet’, and confirmed by the main artistic tendencies of the 20th century. In the art of our time the conceptual prevails over the formal, the context over the object manufacture and the process over the outcome.
If art forms are to be produced by robots no teleology of any kind should be considered. Accordingly, all the goal-directed characteristics present in the industrial-military and entertainment domains of robotics must be avoided. Also bio-inspired algorithms that have any flavour of ‘fitness’ in neo-Darwinian terms or any kind of pre-determined aesthetical output must be regarded as of limited and contradictory significance.
To the best of our knowledge, the ‘painting robots’ are the first experiment where robotic art is understood as a true autonomic process. In particular human creators deliberately loose control over their creations and, specifically, concentrate on ‘making the artists that make the art’ (Moura & Pereira, 2004).
Art produced by autonomous robots can not be seen as a mere tool or device for human pre-determined aesthetical purpose, although it may constitute a singular aesthetical experience. The unmanned characteristic of such a kind of art must be translated in the definitive overcoming of the anthropocentric prejudice that still dominates Western thought.

The viewer’s perspective

As opposed to ‘traditional’ artworks, the constructing of the painting by the collective set of robots can be followed step-by-step by the viewer. Hence, successive phases of the art-making process can be differentiated.

Even though the same parameters are given to the program commanding the behaviour of the set of robots, the instances produced are always different from each other, leading to features like novelty and surprise, which are at the core of contemporary art.
From the viewer’s perspective, the main difference from the usual artistic practice is that he/she witnesses the process of making it, following the shift from one chaotic attractor to another. Even though finalized paintings are kept as the memory of an exhilarating event, the true aesthetical experience focus on the dynamics of picture construction as shared, distributed and collaborative man/machine creativity. At any given moment, the configuration presented in the canvas fires a certain gestalt in the viewer, in accordance with his/her past experience, background and penchant (a correspondence may be established between the exterior colour pattern and its inner image, as interpreted by the viewer’s brain).
The propensity for pattern recognition, embedded in the human perception apparatus, produces in such a dynamic construction a kind of hypnotic effect that drives the viewer to stay focusing on the picture’s progress. A similar kind of effect is observed when one looks at sea waves or fireplaces. However, a moment comes when the viewer feels that the painting is ‘just right’ and stops the process.

A new kind of art

In the same way as, throughout time, art production was rooted on several religious, ideological, representational paradigms – and, after Duchamp, on a contextual paradigm -, this ‘new kind of art’ is entailed by the complexity paradigm.

Capra, F. (1996) The Web of life. London: Flamingo, p. 89
Danto, A. C.(2001) The body/body problem. Berkeley: The University of California Press, p. 185
Grassé, P. P.(1959) La réconstruction du nid et les coordinations inter-individuelles chez bellicositermes natalienses et cubitermes sp La théorie de la stigmergie: Essai d’interpretation des termites constructeurs, Insectes Sociaux, 6, pp. 41-48
Moura, L. and Pereira, H.G.(2004) Man+Robots Symbiotic Art. Villeurbanne: Institut d’Art Contemporain, p. 111

Ant-like Robot

Swarm of robots

010304, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 195 x 130 cm