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Fish-Bird: Conceptual Foundation

Previous: Background

To place Fish-Bird within a contemporary art context, we argue that it confronts major continuing issues and concerns regarding interaction through the human/machine interface. The dialogical approach taken in this work both requires and fosters notions of trust and shared intimacy. It is intended that the technology used will be largely invisible to the audience. Going further than a willing suspension of disbelief, a lack of audience perception of the underlying technological apparatus focuses attention on the poetics and aesthetics of the artwork, and promotes a deeper psychological and/or experimental involvement of the participant/viewer.

Robots in the context of popular culture have often been associated with anthropomorphic representations. Although they represent characters, the robots in Fish-Bird are not anthropomorphic. The audience internalizes the characters through observation of the words and movements that flow between the characters, and between the characters and the audience, in response to audience behaviour. Through movement and text the artwork creates the sense of a person, and allows an audience to experience that person through the perception of what is not present.

 The Wheelchair




Bird. A printer can be seen at the top right of the wheelchair frame.

The wheelchair was chosen as the dominant object of the installation for several reasons. A wheelchair is the ultimate kinetic object, since it self-subverts its role as a static object by having wheels. At the same time, a wheelchair is an object that suggests interaction – movement of the wheelchair needs either the effort of the person who sits in it, or of the one who assists by pushing it. A wheelchair inevitably suggests the presence or the absence of a person.

Furthermore, the wheelchair was chosen because of its relationship to the human – it is designed to almost perfectly frame and support the human body, to assist its user to achieve physical tasks that they may otherwise be unable to perform. In a similar manner, the Fish-Bird project utilizes the wheelchairs as vehicles for communication between the two characters (Fish and Bird) and their visitors. Finally, the wheelchair also possesses an aesthetic that is very different from the popular idea of a robot, as it is neither anthropomorphic nor ‘cute.’ Given that a wheelchair is a socially charged object, the interactive behaviour and the scripting of how the chair should move was developed in consultation with wheelchair users. The participants are actively discouraged from sitting on the wheelchairs: if a participant sits on a wheelchair a sensor embedded in the seat upholstery pauses the entire system until the participant vacates the wheelchair.


Movement and text are ancient interfaces that people respond to regardless of their gender or ethnicity. In the Fish-Bird project, the robots use movement to convey awareness – for example, they turn to face a person entering the installation space. Changes of speed and direction are used to convey mood and intention. A robot indicates dissatisfaction or frustration during interaction with a human or robot participant by accelerating to a distant corner, where it remains facing the walls until its ‘mood’ changes.

The manner in which the participants move in the space, their proximity to the robots, and the time spent with them determines the behaviour of the robots towards them. In a way, human participants try to read the ‘body language’ of the robots and the robots the body language of the participants. Fish-Bird has seven behavioural patterns based on the seven days of the week. For example, they seem to be more ‘happy’ and ‘energetic’ on a Friday and they tend to be more ‘lethargic’ on a Monday. The way that the robots interact with a participant depends on six basic conditions: a) the day of the week; b) the state of the ‘relationship’ between the robots; c) how they ‘feel’ about themselves; d) how much time the participant spends in the installation space; e) his/her proximity to the robots and f) his/her ‘body language.’

Overt communication between the robots and human participants occurs through the medium of written text. Miniature thermal printers integrated with the wheel chairs to produce the ‘handwritten’ text. A text phrase is assembled from digitized bitmaps of the glyphs in the chosen fonts, and printed sideways onto a slip of paper that is cut and released to fall to the floor. Several of these slips of paper can be seen in the photo on the previous page, and the printer can be seen mounted at the right side of the wheelchair in the adjacent photo.

Each wheelchair writes in a cursive font that reflects its ‘personality.’ Different fonts also serve as a practical cue that assists the audience to identify existing text written by a particular character. The written messages are subdivided into two categories: personal messages communicated between the two robots, and messages written by a robot to a human participant. Personal messages are selected from fragments of love-letters offered by friends, from the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, and from text composed by Velonaki. Text can also be composed by the system in real time.

Next: Realisation

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