A robot, a man. On the tabletop, nine spoons. When the man approaches, the robot identifies his face. The robot wants to feed him. It takes one of the spoons and places it in the man’s mouth, who for a moment seems as helpless as a baby or a very old person. If you think about it, the times in life when one is fed are rare. Will spectators accept to eat food without knowing what it is? Will they be willing to be fed by a machine? Will they trust the machine?
“Orchestrer la perte / Perpetual demotion” is a robot installation created by digital artist Simon Laroche and the doctoral fellow and gastronomy researcher David Szanto at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 2014. As part of the Hedonistika project, the Physical/ité exhibition presented works that juxtaposed and opposed ideas on food, technology, and art. On this occasion, the artist and the researcher designed a strange feeding machine and an experience where the concoctions ingested by spectators were as important as the way they were ingested.
We no longer question the act of feeding ourselves. It is a daily and extremely banal event. Yet it involves a very intimate act. Few people depend on others to feed. To develop the robot, Simon began by imagining some of its characteristics, such as its size and the materials it would be made of. “The first step was to foresee the robot-spectator interaction. The robot needed to be taller than the person in order to be able to lean forward. I wanted human participants to be in a subservient position, which would feel unusual and uncomfortable. They are subjected to the experience,” points out the artist.
Following various tests and more research, Simon took an interest in robots designed to feed animals in farms and decided to adapt a robot model from the food industry. He opted for a smooth chrome finish (which is purposefully impersonal) that conceals as many mechanical parts, such as rivets and bolts, as possible. “The robot is a chrome mirror that is as neutral as possible. Essentially, it provides a distorted image of the person in front of it. After the experience, one of the spectators said that being fed by the machine and seeing his deformed reflection gave him the impression that he was very old and increasingly frail,” says Simon.
In his work with robots, Simon investigates how we project human attitudes onto automated machines. It makes for a powerful illusion.
The robot’s attempts to find its way to the person’s mouth seem like displays of shyness or even tenderness. But, in fact, they are just cleverly orchestrated electrical impulses.
“Movement is critical. A sudden move by a machine provokes a violent reaction, while more delicate movement elicits other emotions. This relationship helps us to investigate the machine-like properties in people and the human intentions we mistakenly attribute to machines,” points out Simon.