Marshall McLuhan and Robot Sex

It has been a dismal autumn for the cinema here in Rotterdam, but a couple of weeks ago I spotted a gem among the endless screenings of Skyfall. Robot & Frank is set in the near future and tells the story of Frank, the aging cat burglar, and his personal robot butler. The robot in the film bears a striking resemblance to Asimo, the robot that Honda has been developing since the mid-1980s, but it is actually a diminutive actress wearing a robot suit. I must admit I was a little disappointed to find out it wasn’t a real robot, but I suppose these are still early days for personal robot butlers.

Four or five years ago, on a visit to Miraikan in Tokyo, I saw Asimo strut his stuff to a starstruck audience, but otherwise my only encounter with robots came a year ago in November 2011, when the V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media here in Rotterdam organized We Are All Crew (as in “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew”), a three-day event to acknowledge the centenary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan.

Now, the only context I had for McLuhan was a cameo appearance in Annie Hall (watch it here if you need a reminder of the days when Woody Allen was funny) and I’m none the wiser now, but for the moment, the Ballad of Marshall McLuhan by Canadian comedy trio The Vestibules is perhaps all I need to know.

Star billing on the second evening of We Are All Crew went to the premiere of Them F*ckin’ Robots, a documentary film about the electronic artist and professional tinkerer Norman White by Dutch journalists and filmmakers Ine Poppe and Sam Nemeth. I had an invitation to the film screening, but no clear idea of what to expect; I just went along to see what would evolve.

What evolved was a well-made and affectionate portrait of the pioneer of electronic and robot art in Canada. Norman White taught at the Ontario College of Art and Design from 1978 to 2003 when he “retired” to continue teaching at Ryerson University in Toronto. The title of the film, Them F*ckin’ Robots, refers to an electro-mechanical sex machine that Norman White and fellow artist Laura Kikauka created in 1988. White built the male and Kikauka the female, but they worked separately, only consulting with each other on the dimensions of the engaging organs before bringing the machines together for a public performance. This is how Norman White describes it on his website.

The male machine, the first and last anthropomorphic robot I’ve ever built, responds to the magnetic fields generated by the female organ, thereby increasing its rate of breathing and moving its limbs, simultaneously charging a capacitor to strobing “orgasm”. The female machine, on the other hand, is a diverse assemblage including a boiling kettle, a squirting oil pump, a twitching sewing machine treadle, and huge solenoid on a fur-covered board — all hanging from an old bedspring and energized by an electronic power sequencer.

Here’s a low resolution video of what ensued with a soundtrack by Tom Third, also a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design!

In 1986, Norman White and several other artists, including Laura Kikauka, launched the Strategic Arts Initiative, which was conceived as the Canadian response to the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars”). The initiative was based on the concept of the global village pioneered by McLuhan. These days the global village is a bit of a cliché, but do we really think about it the way McLuhan did? Click here for a brief clip of McLuhan explaining the concept of the global village.

According to White, the purpose of the Strategic Arts Initiative was…

…to show the relevance of the arts in the world’s communication ecology. Communications technologies are putting us in touch with the whole planet, but most of us are not aware of how this situation can change our sensibility. We are all trapped in an invisible mesh of electronic talk. We still use communications to transport information. We have not yet understood that the new technologies are also transforming relationships. One of the roles of the artist in this context is to reveal these relationships.

The first Strategic Arts Initiative was a cross-Atlantic event co-hosted between Toronto and  Salerno in May 1986, and Toronto and Paris in June 1986. To mark the 25th anniversary, V2_ in Rotterdam and the InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre in Toronto co-presented Strategic Arts Initiative 2.0 during We Are All Crew.

Now, I didn’t know any of this was happening, so when the film finished and we had had our drinks and chatted with people, I was astonished to see the room transformed as one installation after another was activated. The experience showed me that I am actually terribly shy of robots and electronic communications. Sure, I can email and Internet with the best of them, but when it comes to electronically mediated touch and feel, I’m a little cautious.

If this has only whetted your appetite, there is more on electronic arts in Canada at Shifting Polarities, a research project by Caroline Langill funded by the Fondation Langlois. In addition to a history of electronic media works, there are also interviews with artists, including some of the people involved in the Strategic Arts Initiative. Have fun!

The final word goes to the artists to explain and demonstrate the electronic and robot works they did for Strategic Arts Initiative 2.0.

De-Coupled by Doug Back, 2011

International Feel by David Rokeby, 2011

Displaced Perspectives 2.0 by Graham Smith, 1986 & 2011

Telephonic Armwrestling by Norman White, 1986 & 2011

Knock Knock by Carl Hamfelt and Laura Kikauka, 2011

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One thought on “Marshall McLuhan and Robot Sex

  1. Awesome!! Love that Woody Allen clip … yah, he used to be really funny … are you hinting at an android makeover? After all he did go to the Isaac Asimov School for Science and Literature. By the way, great sex from Normon’s and Laura’s robotic lovers. Never imagined Marshall McLuhan to be so wickedly ironic/funny.


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