Rusty Squid - Future Art

Rusty Squid are a small team of artists, designers and engineers.  They might be best known for their Heart Robot, a robot which has a soft body and simulated heartbeat, who squeezes the hand it holds.  Their project Book Hive, an interactive art installation at Bristol University Library, was a honeycomb of books which opened and closed, fluttering their pages in response to the movements made by people interacting with it.

Their work involves projects which merge robotics, computer programming, design and puppetry, creating something that’s both technically and artistically brilliant.  As advancements in technology are being made at an increasing pace, what role will artists have to play in the future?

Who better to answer this question than David McGoran, artist, Co-Director of Rusty Squid and Senior Technical Instructor at The Fabrication Centre, University of West England.  Due to the nature of Rusty Squid’s work, David is frequently asked to give interviews so we were delighted when he decided to speak to us.

'Technology is what happens to you after the age of 20' (David McGoran)
David McGoran, Co-Director of Rusty Squid, with Heart Robot.  Photo by Ben Dowden

David McGoran, Co-Director of Rusty Squid, with Heart Robot.  Photo by Ben Dowden

You’re a very small team with a really mixed skillset, tell us a bit about yourselves. 
We are a very small team.  We have Rosie, who is on leave for 6months (which is the beauty of our team, that we can take breaks like that), we have Rob, an engineer who’s been with us for 4 years, Helen an interactive designer; Zac, who is very new and is a software designer.  We also take on 2 young people every year to work as interns in the workshop.
 

It’s an interesting choice of name too, how did you come up with it?
Basically we are a group of artists, engineers and designers who were really excited to work together.  When we started working together we needed a name, something all-encompassing to describe what it is we do, I’m fairly sure we were using something really embarrassing for ages.  Then one of guys, who was really into cephalopods at the time, came up with the thought of using squid and we thought rust, because its human made but it’s also almost organic. 

There’s so many diverse disciplines which feed into what we do, so something with multiple legs makes sense.  All those different skills working together in one beast.


You describe yourselves as being artists who explore primal emotions with embodied machines, why the combination of emotions with robotics?
The primal emotions are a response to the contemporary fine art world, it’s a rebuking of the status quo. It’s easy to forget who we are, or what we are.  We’re just naked apes, essentially.  The current Judaeo-Christian ideals that we follow are not a true account of what we are, they actually go against what we are.

There has been so much emphasis on the frontal cortex of our brain, it’s really celebrated, but that part of us came much later in our development.  The focus has been on testing computers to be great at chess, when building computers and testing them out that was always what was important, but it’s just maths, right?  Computers are great at that!  What they’re not so great at is the physicality and movement and all the emotive stuff. 

The Fine art world is so focused on the conceptual.  We want to tap into the stuff that came before that, the things at the core of our being, the emotions and sensuality, the things we’re great at.  The basic human element.

It’s the attraction / repulsion that we’re interested in, the animal side, we want to create a vocabulary with people who fear technology, get them to engage with it on a human level. 

Heart Robot being built.  Photograph by Ben Dowden

Heart Robot being built.  Photograph by Ben Dowden

There’s a danger now that technologies, such as robotics, are being developed by people who have great scientific minds but they have social skills which are very poor.  There needs to be better integration of the human animal with technology, rather than just the logic, there needs to be a re-prioritising.

 

Combining art, engineering and design is a really interesting approach to what you do.  It’s not a usual approach, but each are, essentially, all problem solvers.  Tell me a bit about how this works in your team, specifically.
It’s an integration of art, design and engineering.  These things are normally defined by themselves.  Engineering is about pattern and trial and error.  A good engineer predicts the future, what the likely outcome of a system is.  A designer does the reverse, they reverse engineer the problem solving process, they start with the outcome that they want to achieve and work towards that.  The thing that they all have in common is their willingness to step outside of ‘what’s done.’  There’s more meaning in that.  They’re ready to question something; why is it being done this way; why can’t it be done a different way.

Craft is often criticised for doing that, for just following the normal way of doing something.  It’s criticised as being taken up by people who don’t want to try making things in a different way.

When I started teaching programming in the art college, it was an act of poetic terrorism.  You’d be surprised at the reactions from the students, ‘I don’t do technology I’m an artist!’

 

That’s annoying because historically artists who have embraced technology have had more staying power.  You only have to look at Leonardo Da Vinci to see that stance of 'artists can’t do technology' as being incorrect.  Painters can paint with tubes of paint now because of advancements in technology, we don’t have to mix our paint anymore!
Exactly, and that’s why I say, technology is what happens to you after the age of 20, everything else is just brushed aside as being the norm, but it’s like, how do you think this stuff came about?!  Look at the tools you’re using, these were the latest technology once and you’re using them now, so why not try another technology?  Those are the basic tools of the future.

Engineers do the other thing where they say, ‘Oh I can’t be creative’ they have a limited idea of their abilities too, but there’s no real reason for that.  Our identities are always defined by what we’re not.
 

Which is unhealthy...
Yes.  These paradigms are especially unhealthy for the world we’re moving into.  We have to get over these somehow, understand that we can do much more than we let ourselves do.  It’s limiting.


But it’s comforting too right?  The obstructions we put upon ourselves are due to the fact people like to have their field of view narrowed, they feel safe in restriction, in boundaries.
Yes they do and that’s why it’s important to do training and open up people’s minds to the possibilities of doing things a different way.  We recognise that and we provide training and Summer Schools to help people learn.


What do you teach at the Summer Schools?
We do stuff with interactives, we show people how to make and build these things using DC motors and actuators and other things.  We’re stuck with time and budget restrictions but we do our best within that.  We want to re-design technology by using primal, emotional human elements.
 

Entertaining a young audience member.  Photograph by Ben Dowden

Entertaining a young audience member.  Photograph by Ben Dowden

How?
Well, most technology is designed in a very boxy specific way, it’s not the best design.  Actuators are fitted into the joints of robotics and this makes the movement really weird, it’s not right.  If you look at the walking robots they’re gate is all wrong and that’s because it’s not a calculated thing, walking is a controlled fall, the human brain isn’t really doing anything when we’re walking around, because it doesn’t need to.  Actuators have been built mostly to turn, like waterwheels and windmills turn.  Imagine if we redesigned technology from an emotional or primal point of view and not a calculating point of view.  Something softer.


Like the Heart Robot?  Like the simulation men used for medical training?  In both these cases the emotional connection to a robot, the suspension of disbelief is important, in order to build that connection.
Exactly.  The Heart Robot was really interesting, it has a heartbeat, it squeezes your hand and it breathes a little bit, you can feel a little bit of air being expelled from its nostrils.  And it reacts to touch as well, like if it got hit it would stiffen up, so much so that the puppeteer couldn’t manoeuvre it and it became hard to move it around, so the interaction had a resonance because it reacted to the way it was treated. 

There is another layer of poetry with that, a man-made infant, the idea of procreation and creation and procreating an infant like robot.  The thing is that, technologically, mankind is pregnant now and it’s about to give birth, whether it likes it or not!  We’ve not realised that yet and we’re not ready.  I’m worried because we’re not ready.
 

A piece of the Hive.  Photograph by Adam Laity

A piece of the Hive.  Photograph by Adam Laity

What is it that you’re worried about? 
Technology is advancing incredibly fast, the amount of work and money being invested into developing Ai and robotics from big companies is rather astounding.  But largely it is under the guise to be helpful to humanity. 

The speed at which things are coming is scary.  We are not prepared for what’s coming.  The world we are creating is being driven by programmers and a lot of these people work in a very isolated way, it’s the nature of the job but it means that there is less of an interest in social interaction.  This means there will be a big problem with polarisation.


Which is why, when it comes to developing technologies like robotics, the input of artists is so important, to tilt the balance.  Are you worried that we’ll have a technocracy?
Yes, exactly.  The neo-luddite movement we’re seeing an increase of now, claims to have human values at its core, they idealise nature, it’s a moralist resurgence but it’s the same problem, it’s a polarity. 

The animal world is wrapped up in technology.  We are technology making animals and technology formed animals.  People are dismissive of technology because it’s very simple, or seems very simple but it’s not.

I give talks to engineers which teaches them about interactions with objects, I use a piece of cloth and animate it as a demonstration of passive dynamics and they get really enthusiastic about this.  I’ve spoken to them about all the research that’s available on it and they were blown away, asking, can you send us the links, where can we find it?  The problem is that so much research that’s being down now is a repeat of the stuff that’s been done already and they don’t know that.


That’s interesting that you picked up on the research element, because that’s speaking to them in their own language.  You were connecting with what they understand.  Are you, by any chance a Jim Henson fan?
Why do you ask that?


Because Jim Henson used puppets to provoke an emotional connection, because of his work with animatronics and because he was seeking to connect a huge amount of people through one thing.  They way his creature shop builds puppets is very organic, they use a skeleton, eyes, it’s a similar thing to what you’re doing.
Yeah, that’s right!  I love Jim Henson and Stan Winston and Disney and Pixar, they all manage to do this so well, create a real emotional connection using technology.  Which shows that technology needs to be driven by the right values.  It took a decade for Pixar to get set up and to make Toy Story and during that time they invented new tools to make animations, they put the time in and came out with something amazing.

A face in the workshop.  Photograph by Adam Laity

A face in the workshop.  Photograph by Adam Laity

Understandably, a lot of your projects are secretive but can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
The company attracts a lot of attention and we get a lot of request to talk to magazines and newspapers, which we just can’t do because we don’t have the time and also, we’re in a really delicate spot in terms of what we do.  It can be taken in all sorts of strange ways.

Right now we are in the middle of a big researching process.  We are working on creating tools which combine story-boarding and flow-codes, which should hopefully make character building interaction more creative, more primal and more human.

Sleepy robot.  Photograph by Ben Dowden

Sleepy robot.  Photograph by Ben Dowden

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