While My Robot Gently Weeps

The possibility of a robot-apoclaypse — in which robots either enslave, destroy, or otherwise disrupt human civilization — has been a recurring plot of science-fiction for some time now. The Terminator franchise is perhaps the most recognizable and popular variation on the theme. In these stories the robots are malign in their clinical, calculating, robot-like way. Not the sorts of creatures one would envision offering comfort and sympathy by one’s death-bed. But this is the scenario Dan Chen’s installation, “Last Moment Hospital,” invites us to imagine and even experience.

The robot Chen created amounts to a padded mechanical arm that “senses” the impending moment of death and while stroking the patient’s outstretched arm offers these words of succor:

“I am the Last Moment Robot. I am here to help you and guide you through your last moment on Earth. I am sorry that your family and friends can’t be with you right now, but don’t be afraid. I am here to comfort you. You are not alone, you are with me. Your family and friends love you very much, they will remember you after you are gone.”

According to Leslie Katz’s write up of the exhibit, Chen’s intent is two-fold:

“On the one hand, the image ‘reveals the cruelty of life, lack of human support/social connections,’ Dan Chen, who created the robot, tells Crave. ‘On the other hand, the robot becomes something that you can trust/depend on. It could give you the ‘placebo effect’ of comfort.'”

This, again, is an art exhibit, but one does not have to stretch the imagination very far to imagine it as a very real feature of end-of-life care in, say, Japan, for example, where robots already serve many similar purposes.

There’s a great deal that can be said about this exhibit, its message (if I may be so crass), and its plausibility. Others will be able to say most of those things with greater depth and wisdom than I; but there’s one observation I’d like to register, however inadequately.

It will be tempting for many to see in this installation a parable of technology’s nefarious application, of the manner in which machines barbarize society. But this exhibit, and its materialization if it comes to it, signals not the manner in which machines brutalize humanity, but rather another sad truth, how humanity brutalizes itself.

Technology is not neutral. This is the point I usually stress. But we are not, therefore, absolved of the manner in which we put our technologies to use. Moreover, we are not absolved of the guilt incurred by the creation of conditions which finally necessitate the design of technologies of care that must perform the acts of love and mercy that are the proper work of human persons.

The robot-apocaplyse, if it comes to it, will not arise from the maliciousness of robots, but from the inhumanity of human beings toward each other. It is a paradox: our machines become more human to the degree that we become more machine-like. The great task before us, then, is to fulfill our humanity in such a way that robots will never be needed to do for us what we alone can do for one another.

The Architectural Legacy of Barcelona’s World’s Fairs

When world’s fairs close shop most of their buildings and structures are torn down and forgotten. This is as planned; most world’s fair architecture is designed to be temporary. Moreover, some world’s fair architecture was later destroyed by fire including London’s Crystal Palace and Chicago’s White City.  There are notable exceptions to this intended and unintended architectural ephemerality, of course. The Eiffel Tower is just the most famous instance of an enduring architectural legacy bequeathed to a city by a world’s fair. Seattle’s Space Needle would be another. We might also add a number of contemporary museums that are today housed in buildings first designed as world’s fair pavilions. Examples include the Queen’s Museum of Art in New York and The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Barcelona’s diverse architectural heritage which includes ancient Roman structures alongside bold modernist designs with medieval cathedrals between them also features a surprising number of prominent world’s fair contributions. A number of these are from the Exposición Universal de Barcelona held in 1888. But the most grand and impressive structures are gathered around the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of Montjuïc and were built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.

While in Barcelona two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take in some of these public spaces. Below are a few shots I gathered with a couple of additions for perspective, both temporal and spatial. To begin with, here is a shot taken from atop a former bull fighting arena now turned into a stylish shopping center. The shot was taken with my iPod so the quality is a bit lacking, but it shows a good bit of the roundabout that is Plaça d’Espanya along with several of the structures built for the 1929 Exposition. These include the Venetian inspired towers, the St. Peter’s inspired colonnades, and the Spanish Renaissance inspired palace in the background. Also visible is the Montjuïc Communications Tower built for the 1992 Olympics.

This panoramic black and white, which clearly I did not take, shows the same area and more as it appeared in 1929.

Here is another look at the Venetian towers, this time from Montjuïc toward Plaça d’Espanya. As you can tell, most of these shots were taken on a rather cloudy day which is unfortunate.

The four columns were intended to represent the four red bars of the Catalonian flag. Because of this the originals were torn down by then Spanish President Primo de Rivera. The columns visible today were reconstructed in 2010.

Below is a shot of what was for the fair the Palau Nacional and which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Once more looking out from the Museu Nacional toward Plaça d’Espanya. Visible to the right of the towers is the converted bull fighting arena.

Remarkably, alongside these buildings that hearken back to the architectural past there was also built one of the early twentieth century’s most famous specimens of modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion (today often referred to as the Barcelona Pavilion). As Paul Greenhalgh has put it referring to the German pavilion and the surrounding structures, “It is difficult to imagine these buildings being of the same century, and even more difficult to imagine them as part of the same event.”

Greenhalgh describes the juxtaposition as the “most dramatic example of contrast and competition between history and modernity at an exposition.” The Mies pavilion, he adds, “stunning in its opulent austerity, is an extraordinary essay on the potential of urban, domestic space to function as pure art.”

This first shot below is not my own, but taken from Wikipedia. It gives you a good look at the whole without any visitors present. Below are series of my own shots from inside the house. The original was torn down shortly after the fair in 1930. However, Spanish architects reconstructed the structure based on original plans and existing photographs between 1983 and 1986.

The pavilion also housed the sculpture below (seen from a distance above), Georg Kolbe’s Alba or Dawn. 

Finally, the fountains that line the avenue leading from Museu Nacional to Plaça d’Espanya including the massive fountain directly in front of the Museu Nacional, the Font màgica de Montjuïc, continue to put on a dazzling night time display as they were designed to do in 1929.

Embodied Art

Annie Dillard on the embodied nature of art:

“The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature. In working-class France, when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, ‘It is only the trade entering his body.’ The art must enter the body, too. A painter cannot use paint like glue or screws to fasten down the world. The tubes of paint are like fingers; they work only if, inside the painter, the neural pathways are wide and clear to the brain. Cell by cell, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, part of the brain changes physical shape to accommodate and fit paint.

You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of a paintbox. Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox, he said, is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint.”

“It is only the trade entering his body.” Love that.

From The Writing Life.

The Art of Technology and Empire

The phrase “Manifest Destiny” is likely one of those bits from high school history class that lingers on in most Americans’ memory for no obvious reason; in much the same way, for example, that I remember William Katt’s name (you know, the guy who starred in Greatest American Hero). If our memory serves us a little better than most, we’ll recall that the destiny that was so plainly manifest was America’s destiny to possess all of the territory between the eastern states and Pacific Ocean. “Go West young man!” and all of that.

What you may not immediately think of even if you do remember your American history class lucidly is the important role that technology played in the ideology of Westward expansion. In Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission, Michael Adas lays out that case in convincing detail. If David Nye’s American Technological Sublime successfully argues that the experience of the technological sublime has been America’s civil religion, then Adas has documented the attendant missionary project.

In the likely event that you don’t have time to read Adas’ sizable book, here’s the “Manifest Destiny” portion of his argument in a visual nutshell:

John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)

Yes, that is telegraph line that she is stringing out. I tend to think that the old line, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is generally misleading, but in this case, it just might work. The portrait, according to historian Merritt Roe Smith*, was commissioned by publicist George Crofutt who tasked John Gast with painting a “beautiful and charming female … floating westward through the air, bearing on her forehead the ‘Star of Empire.'” The beautiful female was to carry a book in her right hand symbolizing the “common school — the emblem of education” while with her left she “unfolds and stretches the slender wires of the telegraph, that are to flash intelligence throughout the land …”

Crofutt also wanted Gast to depict certain elements “fleeing from ‘Progress'”; these included “the Indians, buffalo, wild horses, bears and other game.” The Indians were to “turn their despairing faces toward the setting sun, as they flee from the presence of wondrous vision. The ‘Star’ is too much for them.” We should, by now, know this unfortunate part of the story well.

Smith neatly summarizes the significance of the painting: “As art goes, ‘American Progress’ is not a work of great distinction. But as a popular allegory that amalgamates the idea of America’s Manifest Destiny with an old republican symbol (the goddess Liberty, now identified as Progress) and associates progress with technological change (represented by telegraph lines, the railroads, the steam ships, the cable bridge, and the urban landscape in the background), it is a remarkable achievement.”

One could read a political allegory into the evolution of goddess Liberty into goddess Progress. A similar sort of allegory that might arise if we were to compare John Trumbull’s famous (if not quite accurate) paining of the signing of the Declaration of Independence with this later painting by Christian Schussele, “Men of Progress”:

Christian Schussele, “Men of Progress” (1863)

The two paintings are linked by the image of Benjamin Franklin who, in Trumbull’s paining, is positioned prominently before the Declaration of Independence by the side of John Hancock and, in Schussele’s work, appears in the portrait in the top left of the scene watching approvingly over these 19th century men of progress. These men included Samuel Colt, Cyrus McCormick, Charles Goodyear, Elias Howe, and Samuel Morse. We might safely call this the American Pantheon, and may not be too far off the mark if we gather that the reverence paid the Founders had been, by the middle of the 19th century, transferred to these “men of progress.”

And, of course, the century was all about Progress. That sentiment was captured in this lithograph by Currier and Ives from 1876:

Currier and Ives, “The Progress of the Century” (1876)

The telegraph tape reads, “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever” along with “One and Inseparable” and “Glory to God in the Highest, On Earth Peace and Good Will Toward Men.” These political and religious sentiments are not only conveyed by the telegraph; the realities they articulate are effectively secured by the telegraph — and the railroad, and the steam boat, etc. It is technology that binds the nation together and the whole project is given a theological hue (further reinforcing Nye’s thesis).

James P. Boyd, writing in 1899, looked back upon the 19th century and marveled: “Indeed, it may be said that along many lines of invention and progress which have most intimately affected the life and civilization of the world, the nineteenth century has achieved triumphs and accomplished wonders equal, if not superior, to all other centuries combined.” This was a rose colored assessment, to be sure; it glossed over some of the century’s darker shades and, of course, seemed oblivious to the cataclysms that lay ahead.

What Boyd’s rhetoric does capture is the reduction of the notion of Progress to the narrow channel of technical advance. All other measures — be they political, religious, or cultural — are subsumed within the grand narrative of the evolution of technology. The lineaments of what Neil Postman termed technopoly have, by the close of the 19th century, begun to appear.

Early into the 21st century, we may find a painting like “American Progress” naive at best, if not offensive and misguided. Boyd’s rhetoric may strike us as grandiose and a bit too earnest. Both together suffering from a bad case of what Adas has called techno-hubris. And yet, how far do we have to go back to find similarly effusive and eschatological hopes attached to the World Wide Web and the Information Superhighway? To what degree have we continued to measure progress by the single measure of technical innovation, forsaking more demanding political and ethical standards? And haven’t we also paid homage to the goddess of technological progress, stripped perhaps of some of her earlier glory, no longer radiant, illuminated now by the lesser light of some backlit screen?


*Citations from Merritt Roe Smith are drawn from his essay, “Technological Determinism in American Culture,” in Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.

The Art Inspired by the Religion of Technology

The American painter Charles Sheeler was contracted by Fortune magazine to create a series of paintings that captured the power and majesty of American technology. Nye describes Sheeler’s paintings as follows:

Like many artists of his generation, Charles Sheeler explored the apparent omnipotence of industrialization. In six paintings commissioned by Fortune he depicted the central objects of the technological sublime: the water wheel, the railroad, electrification, and flight. Martin Friedman has observed of the series: ‘Sheeler always depicted power at absolute stasis. In his hermetic visualizations, power is not treated in terms of crashing strength but as an intellectualized concept with its mechanisms always in mint condition.’ The immobility of these paintings creates a tension between the static forms and the reader’s knowledge that all these objects move at great speed. Published together in a single issue of Fortune, Sheeler’s images were presented like a photographic essay. The accompanying text asserted: ‘The heavenly serenity of Sheeler’s style brings out the significance of the instruments of power he portrays here … He shows them for what they truly are: not strange, inhuman masses of material, but exquisite manifestations of human reason.'”

“Heavenly serenity” was not the only religiously inflected language to appear in the text. Here is another portion of the text, cited by Nye, that accompanied Sheeler’s paintings:

“What is this incredible, elusive power that man has taken so magnificently from the waters and the hills? What unguessed secrets of the universe are hinted by its transmission unchanged through unchanging strands of copper or aluminum? In what way have men’s minds, grappling with the raw phenomena of lightning and magnetism, managed to contrive so swift and carefully guarded a channel for a force that no one can fully apprehend? … It is not surprising that the modern scientist, confronted with such questions and with their partial answers, which open up still further questions, should often be a man of deep religious feeling. And it is not surprising either that the modern artist, depicting such a scientist’s handiwork, should put a devout intensity into the painting. This is as truly a religious work of art as any altarpiece, or stained-glass window, or vaulted choir.”

This further points to the entanglement of religion and technology explored by historian David Noble among others. It also suggests to me that while some have referred to the 1930s as America’s most irreligious decade, coming on the heals of the Scopes Trial debacle and fed by H. L. Menken’s acerbic wit, this may be a mischaracterization. It may be better to suggest that in the 1930s the religious impulse was more thoroughly displaced onto technology and its possibilities. Although as Nye’s study of the American technological sublime makes clear, this was a displacement that had long been in the making.

Below is one of the Sheeler’s paintings that appeared in Fortune. Another is included in the preceding post. You can see the whole spread by following the link in the first paragraph.

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