It only takes Kanye’s army of “KimBots” (in a clear nod to sex bots) repping his Season 6 collection, rolling out everyone from Jordyn Woods to Paris Hilton in the guise of the famous KKW in the internet-breaking way the pair is famous for, to show us the current prevalence of cloning – at least in fashion. But what if we look beyond clothes? What about the clones appearing globally everywhere from laboratories to sex shops?
It’s been a long-standing narrative that “the robots are coming”. 80’s Hollywood worked people into a frenzy as it imagined Arnold Schwarzenegger coming to suburbia, or Blade Runner’s Replicant horror – these dystopian visions had robo-paranoia at an all time high. But now that they’re actually here, what’s the deal? In ways it feels underwhelming, and that may be the most unsettling part to it. When it comes to how robots exist in our day to day lives, 2013 indie flick “Her” starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson may be closer to the truth.
Robots aren’t trying to dominate humanity, yet. At least not in the way this domination is depicted in the movies. Instead, they have silky long hair, inviting red lips, and can be programmed to your desires – they are female sex bots, here for our pleasure. It’s a cheap trick but one that will never fail; sex sells. As we prepare ourselves for yet another manifestation of women as objects created solely for the sexual pleasure of others, INDIE catches up with four artists working on various levels around the concept of robotics and the technological revolution – questioning everything from the anthropomorphism of machines, to a new code of ethics, and what we should all be thinking about considering this very potent phenomenon.
When we are living in a world becoming increasingly virtual, Kate Davis explores first hand the ethical and very real issues that come along with the rise of the robotic sex industry. Her work is centred around deep research into the subject, as much activist as artist, gaining widespread attention after releasing her project “Logging on to Love”.
What was it that first drew you to the subject of sex robots?
It made me question our ethics in relation to robots and their impact on the future of human relationships and intimacy, but it also made me question why as a society do we want them in the first place? I think the development of these kinds of robots is a feminist issue and we need to talk about it. In a time where “relationship replacements” are on the rise, I am interested in exploring the current state of love, sex and relationships.
There are obvious links between a majority of female robots, a patriarchal society and a male dominated tech industry – what are your thoughts on that?
These sex machines offer men a solution to women fighting back against sexual objectification and taking ownership over their bodies: if you don’t comply, we will create women who do. The capitalist patriarchy doesn’t care, as long as there’s a product to sell and a man to satisfy.
So are sex robots always a negative thing?
Women’s objectification and exploitation is always defended on the basis of the imagined sad, lonely man who has unmet sexual needs and lacks a companion. No matter what creators and consumers claim about the harmlessness or social good of sex robots, they project clear messages about male entitlement and what women are good for.
How do you begin the process of your work?
I ground my work on research-led projects and in my own way create a visual response. I am experimental and don’t allow myself to be limited by formal techniques. “Logging on to Love” started as a photographic series, exploring the development of sex robots and virtual relationships. Alongside this I wanted to play a more active role and use my voice, so I joined the Campaign Against Sex Robots.
What do you think is most disturbing about the rise of sex robots to the mainstream sex industry – what’s the difference between that and a blow-up doll, for instance?
I think the misconception is that these robots offer men “companionship”, when they actually offer men complete dominance and an entirely one-way relationship.
Putting AI into sex dolls and giving these dolls a “brain” is a troubling prospect. What this means is that the robots owner has the opportunity to customise it’s “personality” and demand the inanimate object to tell you it cares about you. Sex robots take away women’s humanity and our ability to have and express feelings, thoughts, needs and desires of our own.
The most disturbing part is the argument that sex robots and sex dolls will reduce male sexual violence, by giving men an outlet. This argument actually normalises male sexual violence and tells society that it is acceptable. As we know, the existence of prostituted women around the world and a multi-billion dollar porn industry has not stopped rape or abuse. The solution to men’s violence is not to provide even more female bodies to mistreat, especially replicas of women who don’t talk back and will never say no.
Giles Walker had his eye on the exponential rise of robotics before anyone, building humanistic creatures out of old parts of discarded technological waste that has been left to die, in the light-speed development of new technologies and gadgets. He uses his work to trick and interact with the human world, to ask us to consider issues such as homelessness and post “terror” surveillance.
How do you first think up a piece?
I enjoy bringing the human form to life and imposing characteristics that are recognisable as intrinsically human. The juxtaposition of having a mechanical figure show, perhaps, a human weakness creates an opportunity to hold a mirror up to our own species and play with it’s eccentricities. My machines are not positive icons of a future to come – these sculptures are lost “souls” – redundant technological remnants society has discarded on its accelerating trajectory. I also strongly believe in my work providing some sort of social commentary whether it is about homelessness or surveillance. For example, the “robot pole dancers” came about because I wanted to use CCTV cameras to make a piece about surveillance and the rapid increase of camera presence on the streets. I was thinking along the lines of starting a piece relating surveillance, voyeurism, and power. Us, watching them, watching us.
Most humanoid robots being created for selling purposes are female – why do you think this is?
Most robots created for selling are either made to serve us or kill us. I think that most development money now comes from the sex trade or the arms trade. Ironically, the tech industry seems desperate to create the ultimate killing, or loving machine. The robots developed for the commercial market tend to be docile and portray a character that has a complete willingness to serve or please others. Sadly, the creators of these robots have probably succumbed to every cliché in the book and decided that the “female” is best suited to this role.
It’s an age old story that women have been seducing men with their “sensuality”, their bodies or the way they move. I find that fascinating looking at your pole dancer robots – the same emotion arises even though they are non-sentient objects made from found pieces and scrap metals.
It is strange that something that was once a pile of scrap on my studio floor has been turned into something that can evoke emotion of this sort. Over the years I have discovered that emotions can be acted out in the movement of everyday objects and simple mechanisms. Kinetic sculpture, as with the choreography of dance, or physical theatre, can also strive to find a “poetry in motion” and this became the main drive behind my work.
What do you think about the fact that the biggest robotic industry growing now seems to be sex bots? What effects do you think this could have on humanity?
The sex industry often leads technological innovation. I think it was a porn site that first invented the software for online shopping. I can see why the tech industry is obsessed with sex bot development. It is because they see this huge cash carrot dangling in front of them encouraging them to develop something that people can fuck (and can believe they have some no strings attached intimacy with at the same time). But for the rest of us, what really is the point? Surely the potentially negative effects on humanity that come with the sex bot package far outweigh the benefits?
Wagenknecht considers the differences between what is human, and what’s humanoid. The artist attacks the dark functions of the patriarchy among other societal systems that are visible in their existence, but function “invisibly”. Merging ideas of the female body and the absence of it, in congruence with seemingly innocuous household gadgets that were created to replace human labour.
In your last series “Alone Together” you were tackling the subject of working with something that had replaced the labour of women (the vacuum cleaner). But what happens when the object turns from a machine replacing female labour, to a machine that aesthetically mirrors a “woman” in the form of a sex bot?
With “Alone Together” I was making a body of work about visibility and invisibility – who has the right to exist and in what spaces. I wanted the works to be self portraits in the sense. I am present but not, which is very much how womens’ labour is translated by society, be it motherhood or a desk job. The whole point of the body of work is about it not being a performance. And yet everyone I showed it to was asking “Where’s the video? I want to see you nude, on the canvas.” There’s this experience of always knowing your body is entertainment to other people. That’s part of why I wanted to make this exhibition. The #MeToo movement was just getting started, and there was a lot of pressure to out our experiences of abuse, but my abuse isn’t available for click-bait. It is not available for entertainment. Part of this exhibition is to respond to women being used for men’s advancement, gaze and so on, but also how women were always the robots in a sense and now are becoming exactly that.
Most humanoid robots being created for commercial use are female – why do you think this is?
Men are the primary designers of consumer robotics, it is of course obvious submissive women are the dream of any patriarchy.
Recently, there were stripper robots showcased in Las Vegas. Is this a “sex sells” tactic by AI developers wanting to sell robots or make them a mainstream commodity?
The iconic question of what is porn vs what is art is mimicked in the question of what is AI vs art. That is where we are right now. Porn invented the Internet and I would argue AI is inventing the future of the Internet. Pornography has always depended on new technologies for profit, paving the path for mainstream adoption and AI is no different. Sex/Porn has always motivated the innovation for the majority of any technology.
How has the landscape of sci-fi and the zeitgeist of robotics influenced your work as an artist?
All of my work looks at how a process can be transparent, but the structures of functioning is a secret. An artist’s role in society has always been to adapt and encapsulate complex social structures and ideas in a way that society can parse. Art is similar to mathematics in that way; it can articulate emotions and expressions where words often fail to do so. Be it codes and algorithms, or even mental/physical borders, we all exist as artificial social constructs manifested by power and the people in power. This is why inclusivity is so important – I know bias will always exist as long as humans also exist but with some awareness, we can minimize the damage it creates.
Joey Holder’s fascinating body of work is just that – a body. Unlike most artists questioning the field of rising technology, her work comes from a deeply biological point of view. Surpassing our modern faith in machines, she overreaches these contemporary desires and pseudo-religions in favour of a world where we are heavily sentient, along with the Earth, Nature and our fellow creatures, so much so that modern tech and robotics can seem almost gratuitous and ineffectual in her world – unless its being employed to enhance the existence of what’s already here.
Does your work still centre around the convergence of nature and sci-fi or technology now, such as your work featured in the “Ambient Intelligence” exhibition?
The video I showed in this exhibition, “Hydrozoan” was from a past project whereby I collaborated with researchers & scientists at Nottingham University. During this project I researched several future food production methods, including vertical farming techniques which often use computation to control the growth and yield of crops through robotic functions. More recently I collaborated with a deep-sea marine biologist and a computational biologist at Cambridge to create “Ophiux“. During the project I began to think about how different species of animal and plant life are sampled in science and utilised for our own means. I imagined a future in which every single life-form, human and animal, had been discovered and used as “data” for human evolution. Although fictional, the work was very much a reflection on real scientific research.
There’s an argument we are already becoming cyborgs – like in the work of artist Esmay Wagemans – what do you think of this stance?
It seems as if everything has become a branch of computer science, even our own bodies probed, imaged, modeled and mapped: re-drawn as digital information. When we think about robots we often think of machine bodies made in our human image, but in my research I focus on the more hidden biotech worlds of nanotechnology and computational genetics. Biological processes are increasingly thought of as algorithms, and therefore life itself thought of as something that could be computer programmed. If life can be reduced to this, we need to think about what could be lost within this process, and question what it means to be human.
I think it may have something to do with the role of “inventor creates object that he has ownership of” – do you have anything to say about that opinion?
I think the world of humans is unequal and robotic creations are a reflection of that world. I prefer to look at the world and at nature as a whole, a nature that we are part of and connected to. Often we seek to create divisions and hierarchies between living things and even non-living things. Nature has always been “queer” so to speak, and we are also part of that, and we should work hard to break down or re-address the hierarchies and classifications between sex and gender roles in our societies. The structures and positions of sexual preferences and gender are in constant shift and transformation.
How do you think the increase in AI and robots could mess with human brains and ethics?
We have seen the way that animals have been treated during the advancement of capitalism, as Rosi Braidottii states in “The Posthuman” – “in advanced capitalism, animals of all categories and species have been turned into tradable, disposal bodies, inscribed in a global market of post-anthropocentric exploitation”. With the advancement of AI and every possibility that it could surpass human intelligence, humans could then be considered lower down the food chain in comparison with machines, and under the same logic could then be treated as disposable. First World humans and bodies are already disposable in this capitalist society and we need to re-program our value systems today to be able to find ways of living ethically together in the future. Increasingly computation is taking over human knowledge and I think we need to seriously question this new landscape — examining the ethical implications of such technologies and who is governing them.
All images courtesy of the respective artists
Giles Walker images by Natasa Leoni