A night at the museum? Robots takeover the Tate.


Art and robots: an irresolvable dichotomy between art and technology, or a symbiotic and novel way to exhibit art to the world? The Tate Britain’s showcasing of the After Dark project invited the public to decide. Created by design studio The Workers, After Dark was the winning project of the IK prize inaugurated this summer by the Tate Britain. Between Wednesday 13th and Friday 15th August those who logged onto the Tate’s website had the chance to view its galleries at night with the aid of four camera-equipped robots. This interface between art and technology begs the question of whether art is the experience of the viewer or the innovation of the creator.

The IK prize was conceptualised by the Tate with the ambition to “widen access to art through technology.” The Workers, a digital product design studio, received a prize of £10,000 and a £60,000 development budget in order to make the publics’ access to art fun, easy and educational. The robots were created in collaboration with RAL Space, and Colonel Chris Hadfield, former commander of the international space station, was the first person to test the robots out. The four robots roamed the deserted galleries and gave viewers a unique experience of nocturnal art accompanied with commentary on the pieces. Select viewers even had the chance to remotely control the robots and therefore what the rest of the world could see, and I was lucky enough to have this privilege.

I was left to wander through the museum at night, catch glimpses of dark corners, and see art against the backdrop of abyss-like uncertainty… Space was redefined and separated into the known and unknown.

At 9.58pm sharp I sat in front of my laptop praying that the online streaming was not going to be a cultural rendition of Robot Wars. It wasn’t. Instead I felt like a commander of a space station with four screens in front of me linked to four different robots in various exhibitions. I was left to wander through the museum at night, catch glimpses of dark corners, and see art against the backdrop of abyss-like uncertainty. The robots and the commentary ping-ponged back and forth through the centuries, rendering the commentary spontaneous and exciting.  A connection was forged between the commentator and the viewer since we were both at the mercy of the robots and we were constantly being taken by surprise. Throughout the night there was a heady sense of suspense. Space was redefined and separated into the known and unknown. Works by Turner, Henry Moore and Damien Hirst were excavated from unusual angles and areas of light. A Francis Bacon painting of three figures seemed ghoulish in the eeriness of the dark and cavernous space whereas Gainsborough’s ‘Carthorses Taking a Rest’ was bathed in synthetic light illuminating the colours, giving it a whole new concept of technological realism. After being randomly selected, I was able to control the robots on my keypad. This proved to be a challenge for someone who has no spacial awareness. I was allocated room 4- 20th century art, which housed pieces such as Damien Hirst’s ‘shelf’.  Once I learnt how to avoid hitting things, it was actually an enjoyable experience; but I lost focus on the art I was supposed to be viewing and instead became ensnared by this novel mode of transportation. For me the robots had taken over and the art was receding further and further into the dark.


[caption id="attachment_59282" align="aligncenter" width="779"] After Dark Interface[/caption]


One of the creators Tommaso Lanza said, “We’re not trying to give you this perfect representation of the art…It’s giving the art a different angle, and different light.”


[caption id="attachment_59284" align="aligncenter" width="779"]after dark screen shot 3 Screenshot of the experience[/caption]


The Tate Britain has joined the voyage into the modern, an odyssey of technology that promises to make our lives faster, easier and, in the case of art, damn right cooler, but I fear that on this journey we are travelling too fast to take in the view. Admittedly, the idea of enabling the whole world to see 500 years of British art would be impossible without this project. One of the creators Tommaso Lanza said, “We’re not trying to give you this perfect representation of the art…It’s giving the art a different angle, and different light.” He achieved this and at the same time pointed to an important dilemma; the notion that we must sacrifice personal experience for mass convenience. I couldn’t help but wonder if the robots were a fun kind of symbolism for our technologically capable society’s inability to stop and smell the roses. Often It was very difficult to see the paintings clearly since they were partially subdued in darkness and restricted by the diameter of the robot’s light beam.  I could not make out the individual brush strokes, materials or composition of the pieces clearly, nor have time to reflect on the effect the art works were having on me. Unless I was controlling the robot, I was completely at mercy to the will of others, saw what they wanted to see, heard what they wanted to hear. I found it hard to locate myself and connect to the artwork in this strained compromise of artistic experience and artistic globalisation. The experience was crazily cool and solemnly sacrificial.

So between the hours of 10pm and 3am I found myself wondering how ubiquitous can art ever be if it has to be technologically transmitted within the rigid constraints of time and at the will of those few who were in control? Is this a glimpse of the future or a subtle reminder that, although the world is becoming globalised, humanity is becoming perpetually cemented in front of an LCD display?



Howard Carter and assistant (c) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford (800x595)

Discovering Tutankhamun Sandwiches


I am ushered into the Ashmolean’s terraced restaurant, and find myself a seat. One pastry down and the time is nearing eleven o’clock. I still feel the need to nurse a coffee between my palms in hope the morning might make itself scarce – for what it’s worth, it seems to be working. A new exhibition is opening the floor below on what my handout declares to be ‘one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century’. Any discovery which has claim to such significance deserves my full attention, even if it is before lunch. Despite my somewhat resistant body clock, I manage to rise for the inaugural door-opening and proceed into one of the larger gallery rooms to hear an introductory talk. Discovering Tutankhamun, I am told, displays objects from ancient Egypt’s Amarna Period (about 1350 – 1330 BC) with material from the archives of Oxford’s Griffith Institute, celebrating its 75th year in 2014, to tell the story of the discovery of the tomb, its popular appeal, and to explore how modern Egyptologists continue to interpret the evidence. The descendant of Lord Carnarvon, great-grandson to leader and financial backer of the 1922 expedition, takes to the lectern to express his delight at the current exhibition. I’m awake now, but the lunch comment still stands.

The speeches have ended and I make my way from one end of a corridor to another. Turning right into the first room, I am met with a quote blazoned on one of the gallery walls. I pause to imagine the unfolding scene. “Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon shouts into the darkness of the breach. “Yes,” a reply finds itself within the void surrounded by the faint glimmer of gold, “I see wonderful things.” I look at the quote a while longer before casting my eyes about the room. Wonderful things.

Sure, I’m getting carried away; but it’s easy to experience some vicarious thrill, particularly when presented with Howard Carter’s own scripts and documentation. The archaeologist’s diary entry for 5th November, 1922 reads: “Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramses VI / Investigates same & found seals intact”. Undisturbed and untouched, the imminence of discovery is tantalising. Maps map out the excavation site (as maps often do) and ‘x’ marks the spot. Circling the room, I’m only a few steps away from finding out what happens next… This is ridiculous. I know what happens next: they find the mummy; the dude becomes cursed; The Mummy Returns, and Brendan Fraser sends its resurrected ghost back to the hellfire from whence it came – it’s a dark, fantasy adventure for the whole family.

George of The Jungle aside, that’s the fantastic thing about this exhibition. Discovering Tutankhamun narrates a step by step journey. Walking from room to room sees the chronological unveiling of each moment as it happened, through the eyes of those who experienced the discovery to the public phenomenon of “Tutmania”.The success of the exhibition is grounded in Paul Collins’ and Liam McNamara’s curation. Their unorthodox tale of ‘Tutankhamun: From Tomb to Turntable’ is certainly a refreshing take on a seemingly exhausted topic. Professor Christopher Brown CBE, Director of the Ashmolean, says: “Discovering Tutankhamun tells a thrilling story of archaeological discovery and explores its impact on both scholarship and popular culture. The exhibition shows archival material which has never been seen in public before, with major loans from around the world, and provides the opportunity to re-examine pivotal moments in both ancient and modern history.”

Beyond the traditional excavation scene, the exhibition explores the aftermath of the discovery and its immediate influence on 20th Century culture. Gallery 3 features a variety of cloths in glass cases foregrounded by a grand, black and gold mural. Each cloth bears a geometric pattern similar to those worn by the Pharaohs’ and their people, updated to suit the swings of both Flapper and Dapper. ‘Old King Tut’, a record by Billie Jones and Ernest Hare, lies off-centre next to ‘Tuttoom: The Board Game’. Reporting on the story in February 1923, a New York Times correspondent wrote: “There is only one topic of conversation … One cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amen anywhere. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels, while the local shops advertise Tut-Ankh-Amen art, Tut-Ankh-Amen hats, Tut-Ankh-Amen curios, Tut-Ankh-Amen photographs. There is a Tut-Ankh-Amen dance tonight at which the piece is to be a Tut-Ankh-Amen rag.” The ubiquity is hypnotic, and the public’s fascination mesmerising.

If visitors arrive with expectation to find an abundance of ancient Egyptian relics, it is likely they will be disappointed. Instead, Discovering Tutankhamun is about the process of discovery itself. As a result, displays mainly comprise paintings and photographs used for cataloguing. Howard Carter came to Egyptology through his skills as a draughtsman and artist, commissioned to copy hieroglyphic inscriptions and tomb paintings at the age of seventeen. The archaeologist’s analytical drawings and watercolours are the highlight of the exhibition, particularly his imaginative reconstruction of a horse bridled with the trappings found within the Antechamber. At times it feels as much an art exhibition as an historical one.

On leaving the final gallery, I find myself once again in the Ashmolean’s terraced restaurant. To my delight, I am met with a charming array of sandwiches arranged accordingly on a nearby table top. I hear Fortnum and Mason are supporters of the Press View and that the food emporium were suppliers to Howard Carter’s Egyptian expedition all those years ago. I decide it fitting that my epic, two hour journey from Droitwich Spa to Oxford’s Beaumont Street should end with a slice of ploughman’s and F&M anchovy relish. Tutmania, indeed.

Discovering Tutankhamun is open at the Ashmolean in Oxford until 2nd November. 

© Tatia Pilieva/Wren

From ‘First Kiss’ to ‘Undress Me’ – awkwardly juggling science and Cyrus

[youtube]   Perhaps I am revealing myself as a cynic, but Tatia Pilieva’s ‘First Kiss’ (a video of ten pairs of strangers sharing a kiss) was, as the tender examination of romance it was purported to be, pretty excruciating. The “beautiful moments [that] took place when nothing was happening”, in the words of Pilieva, were little more engaging than rom-com fodder.For an example of how the kiss, commonplace or sublime, can be more artfully employed to evoke true romance and pathos, see the achingly prosaic, unselfconscious responses to the Guardian’s recent invitation for readers to submit accounts of their first kisses (or if all else fails, there’s always Klimt). However, excepting the corniness (to say nothing of the restricted social palette of moderately attractive, straight, white participants) it must be admitted that the video had a certain surreal frisson. Its strength lay in this surreality, rather than its affected sentimentality. It was not so much taboo-busting as intriguingly simplifying, decontextualizing the act of ‘kissing’, and thus circumventing the complex web of emotional and social codes that we have somehow constructed around the act of locking lips. The project’s primary fault was to re-sentimentalise the arbitrary ‘kisses’ enacted by its participants, tapping the vast stores of rom-com sentimentality that we have been conditioned with to make the ghostly insinuation of a potential significant connection between the kissing strangers. The mental image was evoked of Pilieva being thrilled to receive a letter, six months down the line, revealing that two of the kissers were now engaged.

Can you do ‘First Kiss’, but with more sex please?

Still, despite these errors in the execution of the video, the idea was thought provoking. So where does this place Pilieva’s latest project? ‘Undress Me’ is the sequel video to ‘First Kiss’ in which, as expected, twenty strangers take each other’s’ clothes off. The initial reportage of the video by Harper’s Bazaar seemed to confirm my cynical expectation that the video was a media-pleasing exaggeration of the initial idea – “Can you do ‘First Kiss’, but with more sex please?”. However, isn’t this knee-jerk reaction exactly the emotional construction that ‘First Kiss’ aimed to expose and question? What exactly is wrong with the revealing of flesh, with ‘more sex please’? Why attach such significance to these particular actions? More to the point, the two videos as a sequence raise the question as to what the distinction is between kissing and undressing – where is the line drawn and why?

‘Undress Me’ ends up an uncomfortable compromise between Science and Miley Cyrus

The video opens with the statement that ‘In 1957, William Masters and Virginia Johnson began asking men and women to undress for science’, and goes on to explain that the video aims to celebrate their work by asking men and women to undress ‘for fun’. Of course, the apparent distinction between ‘science’ and ‘fun’ is a bluff, and serves to tacitly connect Pilieva’s socio-sexual ponderings to this ‘scientific’ heritage. The aim of this is perhaps to deflect from the ever-present pornographic affiliation that dogs the modern artist who examines sexuality and the body as literally as Pilieva does. As if to say, ‘It’s not just hetero-Mapplethorpe with lamer lighting’. Pilieva is obviously conscious that the sculpted bodies, sardonic grins and gratuitous awkward hair-ruffling (to say nothing of the provocative title) of ‘Undress Me’ happily feeds the popular demand for sensual sensationalism, and so ends up juggling an uncomfortable compromise between Science and Miley Cyrus. In the end, my initial scepticism of the video was fulfilled. The flabby, lovey superfluity of ‘First Kiss’ is escalated to such painfully self-conscious levels in ‘Undress Me’ as to completely override any vestiges of the interesting, ‘overheard’ qualities that redeemed the original video. The enchanting decontextualisation and transgression between the private and performative is, in ‘Undress Me’, marred by Pilieva’s refusal to examine the revealed bodies, instead sending them leaping into bed together – cue camera-conscious, imitation-Hollywood love-making and cuddling. It seems a cheap way to treat such a good idea, and leaves one yearning for the defter directorial touch that could have elevated the project to greater significance.


Anthology Review: The Obsidian Poplar and Other Stories

The Obsidian Poplar and Other Stories, an anthology of ten works, half of which are written by Oxford students and the other half by students from Cambridge, is a pleasantly eclectic collection of works, covering love, loss, and all that runs between the two. The stories are impressive for the breadth of experiences which they convey with great concision, and great things can be expected of the authors in the future.

Reflection in a Mechanical Eye is perhaps the most powerful of the works. Living in an environment in which rumours of ‘selfie surgery’ are flying thick and fast, LP Lee’s almost dystopian image of a world of celebrity look-alikes feels disturbingly real. Coming from a family with a background in cosmetic surgery, I find something distinctly unnerving in the words “the formula for beauty was so precise these days.” Not content with a nightmarish prediction of self-modification, Lee brings in an automaton as the ultimate ‘after’ picture: a perfect model and assistant, yet one whom the protagonist’s step-mother abuses. I must admit however that I would have enjoyed seeing Reflection in a Mechanical Eye given further space to play out as it just begins to edge into very interesting Blade Runner territory as it questions human chauvinism in its brilliant conclusion.

The Obsidian Poplar itself is another well-wrought tale. Naomi Rebis takes the myth of Persephone’s abduction and turns it upon its head. Through the lens of The Obsidian Poplar, the mythic and distant is linked to the very real and very disturbing present condition of women who face the threat of rape, and reminds the reader of the remaining presence of the patriarchy in our discourse and society. Her Persephone embodies the general condition whilst maintaining a personal significance and our sympathy throughout, using the veil of myth to force the reader to face up to difficult facts.

Many of the stories complement each other perfectly. Fergus Morgan’s A Masterful Performance, a tale of a man who falls into his own act – the enigmatic loner – evokes Heart of Darkness’ line “We live as we dream – alone.” The growing sense of closure, of finality, and of wasted chances ties it in to Logic Lane, by Jacob Wedderburn-Day. His picturesque image of Oxford is well-punctuated by the tale of a lovelorn academic. Max Gallien’s Tuesday touches upon love as well, though more impishly, mocking the ‘hero’ Ottokar, and his inept attempts at escaping his relationship via fantastical and clearly fool-hardy propositions.

The feelings of helplessness recur throughout the collection, and mortality is often around the corner. Legacy (A K Arling) bemoans reckless materialism: Robin, arriving at his late father’s house, finds that his brother desires only a broken compass. With his marriage distant at best and entirely lacking in sentimentality, Robin can only realise that, though his brother is far poorer than him, he is far happier. Aspects in the Flower Garden, a series of vignettes by Paddy Scopes, has a wandering child with a lost photograph tie together four strangers – each suffering, yet each unable to reach out and find another human. The final piece in the anthology, Alice Ahearn’s The Ballroom, recreates dementia through the eyes of the sufferer as well as their family. It is a painfully poignant read, and one that truly reminds us to appreciate the moment.

 Yet there is hope in the anthology too. Madeline Kerr’s memories of Ontario gives Folks a real solidity, and even in the face of the deaths which her protagonist describes matter-of-factly, life persists and hope grows.  An Encounter, Laura O’Driscoll’s story, features a Tristram and an Isolde, yet rather than destroying each other, their meeting offers the hope of change for better. Well-crafted and moving, The Obsidian Poplar and Other Stories may somewhat leave a reader despairing of humanity, but in the face of this it leaves a glimmer of hope.


Review: Test Run at Modern Art Oxford

On Friday night Modern Art Oxford (MAO) launched Test Run, which will be the first in an annual five week long programme of live events aimed at letting you see what goes on behind the scenes in an artist’s studio. Over 35 days the gallery will host 34 artists in 18 performances, 15 workshops, 6 talks and 1 symposium, all of which can be accessed for free. The opening night saw these events start as they mean to go on, welcoming visitors with live performances and asking them to participate.

Throughout the course of the year, we’ve noticed that, whenever MAO comes up in conversation, people groan about the place. It’s unfortunate but easy to understand why. Too many times we’ve gone in and felt that the meaning of the art there was either beyond us (or perhaps not there at all). It’s regrettable that this free, excellent centre for modern art often feels too hoity-toity for the student population that it could serve.

The good news: this is 100% not the case with Test Run. Walking in, we were greeted with boisterous singing by a motley choir. Upstairs we found hand-printers inking type alongside fountains of paint. It was like a carnival. The atmosphere is simply fun, much like running out of the classroom door at break time at school. Here you can do anything, see anything; few things feel off limits or intellectually opaque. Rather than struggling to eke out the meaning of some bizarre piece, the show invited us to enjoy ourselves and soak it all in. So we did.

Particular highlights included Natasha Kidd’s painting machine. A series of copper tubes pumped white paint around the Piper gallery and through holes in canvases constantly creating new works. In stark contrast to watching paint dry, watching Kidd’s carefully calibrated machine at work was oddly fascinating and rather therapeutic. The simple white on white composition deceptively masked the amount of engineering involved in the process, which involved, I discovered after speaking to Kidd, sealing canvases, paint viscosity experiments and even tests of what size and shape of hole produced the best effects.

Although John Reardon’s ‘Performing Matter’ didn’t feature the contortionists that are the focus of his live work, it was one of the most transfixing elements of the night. Rolling text described in the second person the movements the performers were to take, which encouraged you to imagine a bizarre scene in which “you”, as an adequately flexible human being, could perform the almost impossible feats described. I’m looking forward to the 17th of May to see whether the performers can live up to the high standards that my imagination has set.

If MAO’s shows have felt inaccessible in the past, this is fully hands-on. The Bodleian Hand-Printing Workshop and the Oxford Printing Cooperative have contributed antique type presses and a small army of printers to bring the art of typesetting to the gallery. At the workshops they’re hosting over the course of the exhibition, everyone’s able to come in, set some type, make some prints and get their hands dirty. (Check out the schedule at MAO’s basement, which previously has been used as a bit of a shoebox under the bed for all manner of odds, ends and potpourri that didn’t fit upstairs, has been converted into a live music space. When we went, it was as though we’d left the gallery for a concert instead. Good music, an intimate setting and a cute guy playing the guitar. What more can one ask for from modern art?

The Oxford Student

One Step Ahead Since 1991