+-Human at the Roundhouse: Be confronted by machines that pretend to be alive

Wayne McGregor. Picture; Rick Guest

Wayne McGregor. Picture; Rick Guest - Credit: Archant

As a future where human needs are met by robots looms ever closer, one artist collective wants to show us what it will feel like to live in a science fiction world finds Bridget Galton

+-Human by Random International. Picture; Sidd Khajuria

+-Human by Random International. Picture; Sidd Khajuria - Credit: Archant

Random International has previously explored the relationship between man and machine with robotic limbs showing the difference between biological and mechanical movement, and Rain Room which used motion sensors to let viewers walk through a torrential downpour without getting wet.

But co-founder Hannes Koch, says their latest work at The Roundhouse +/- Human ranks among their most ambitious.

The ‘zoological art installation’ features a swarm of helium-filled blimps programmed with motion sensors and algorithms to react intelligently to human bodies in the space.

“It’s highly experimental it’s never been done before, we have been developing the concept and working on it for two years,” he says.

Rain Room. Picture: Sidd Khajuria

Rain Room. Picture: Sidd Khajuria - Credit: Archant

“We are trying to create an experience which allows you to find out how it feels to be physically confronted with machines that pretend to be alive.

“These great spheres, fluttering graceful orbs in space fly according to a swarming algorithm that is not specific to any species. They react collectively to individuals according to behavioural rules.”

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Koch adds that while we are increasingly used to interacting with technology, it is usually either in a virtual, artificial environment or via a two-dimensional screen. He points out that Uber is basically a swarm and it won’t be long before driverless cars will use similar algorithms.

“This technology will become more and more physical and it’s timely to investigate the emotional effect of this upon human beings - to experience that technology in an environment and feel what it will do to us as humans.”

Using electronic music by Warp Records’ Mark Pritchard, the hypnotic installation was commissioned by renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor who will curate a series of dance works exploring the relationship between human bodies and autonomous mechanical entities - performed by Royal Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor dancers.

Visitors can see the installation on its own or book for the series of live performances in and around the installation.

“We were commissioned by Wayne to provide the physical framework or sculpture that sits at the centre and uses the full height of the Roundhouse space,” says Koch. “The added performative element allowing the audience to experience the artwork with choreography interventions was really attractive to us.”

Koch says the most technically complicated part of the huge programming task was to make the swarm of 1.5m wide balloons “look natural and fragile like animals.”

“It’s a digital simulation of swarming or flocking but the point of the work is that people don’t think about the technology they just experience it. We want them to perceive it as alive through its movement and physical behaviour. Each sphere has to know where it is and where it’s come from at any given time. It’s a live algorithm based on real time input that generates the new flight path and reacts to the unpredictable presence of the viewer. It’s quite a ride.”

He hopes to refine the programming so viewers can read the swarm’s reaction as “shy, curious, passive or aggressive”.

“The really interesting bit is for us to experiment with what it might feel for someone being chosen by the swarm.”

He adds: “We are interested in the impact of technology on the human experience. Inspired to provide the prototype spaces to create emotional experiences of how it will feel to live in this machine-led world. A small number in the artistic community are working right now on connecting this stuff to the general public. For many of us it’s extremely relevant and perhaps worrying. It’s good to have artistic engagement with that. To raise questions that everyone should ask rather than leaving it to tech and business.”

+-Human runs at The Roundhouse from August 10-28 with dance performances on August 11.12. 18. 19. 25. 26. roundhouse.org.uk