Focus Artistic Research

Dancing with the Nonhuman: An Aesthetics of Encounter

Project lead: Petra Gemeinböck
Department: Media Theory
Robots are set to be all around us—in our workplaces and our homes; in hospitals, elderly care and schools. We are promised that they will be our drivers, couriers, receptionists, managers, soldiers, teachers, doctors, nurses, therapists and lovers. Yet, the way we imagine robots and our relations with them has been confined by a small set of assumptions and experiences. The design of robots is currently understood as an engineering task, but looking to a future where we live with robots, roboticists are not only engineering machines but also the fabric of our future society. This is most obvious in ‘social robots’ that mimic humans or pets, often in cute or stereotypically gendered ways. This design of social robots deliberately blurs the difference between biological and mechanical bodies for the purpose of eliciting human emotions. Dancing with the Nonhuman puts forward an alternative vision embracing the unique machine characteristics of robots to create new opportunities for expanding our experiences with non-humanlike machines. The project’s novel hypothesis is that movement rather than appearance is at the centre of relation-making, and that social agency is not a pre-given property but is enacted in the encounter.

The space for possibility thus materializes in the interaction. This perspective shifts the focus from representation to performativity, and in doing so, challenges the assumption that robots require familiar humanlike or animal-like forms to become affective social actors.

Dancing with the Nonhuman will bring together a team of experts from creative robotics and choreography to develop a unique arts-based methodology to study the aesthetic and social potential of movement and performance-making for human-robot interaction. The project will deliver a new methodology, which develops a corporeal interface in the form of a technically extended costume to give dancers an intimate embodied insight into the machine morphology and perceptual world to develop a movement language for robots, which supports aesthetic and social connection-making, without relying on human likeness. The project will integrate this mapping method in an experimental practice of performance-making that aesthetically expands human-machine encounters by probing into rigid subject-object boundaries and rendering them elastic.

This research re-imagines the design of robots and the ways they are woven into our social fabric.
The project will engage the public into this important socio-cultural topic through public workshops, a symposium, and a public performance with dancers and robots, which will allow participants and audiences to experience the research findings. Given the promise that robots will affect every aspect of our daily lives, the potential social and cultural benefits of better understanding human-robot relations cannot be overstated.