How the Tate Brought a Pioneering Art-Robot Back Online

By Jacob Lewis on at

Dismantled almost 40 years ago, the robotic art pioneer Edward Ihnatowicz's robo-creation Senster is featured this week in the "The Gallery of Lost Art", the Tate's new online exhibition that unveils the stories behind lost artworks by some of the world’s most famous artists.

Curated by Tate Modern, and produced in partnership with Channel 4, the year-long virtual exhibition explores the circumstances behind the loss of major works of art. You can browse archival images, films, interviews, blogs and essays, all laid out for examination on virtual tables, revealing evidence relating to the loss of works by over forty artists across the twentieth century.

Senster -- a mix of the words "sense" and "monster" -- was a large crane-like robot based on the design of a lobster claw. Installed in Evoluon, Eindhoven, Holland in 1970, the robot's "head" would react to sound and follow people around the room. It was Ihnatowicz's interest in the emulation of animal movement that led him to become a pioneer of robotic art. Recording a lioness in its cage in a zoo, Ihnatowicz noticed the big cat turn and look at the camera then look away, leading him to ponder creating a sculpture that could do something similar in an art gallery, with the same feeling of a moment of contact with another seemingly sentient being.

He created Senster with microphones in its "head" that allowed it to track the source of sound, while radar units enabled it to respond to movement. The machine was powered by an early Phillips computer the size of a fridge with just 8k memory.

Senster would cut an intimidating but inquisitive figure as its head swept around the museum. In an interview on the website gallery website, Ihnatowicz's son Richard pointed out how much care was needed when testing a mechanical beast that "could take your head off".

"One of the things about a thing this big -- it had immense power, and if things went wrong and you were in the way, it could be extremely dangerous," Richard commented.

Senster secures its place in "The Gallery of Lost Art" for being dismantled after just four years on show. The electronic components of the "creature" were given away to local electronics enthusiasts, while the mechanical structure is now on show as an ugly outdoor sculpture at an engineering company. Seeing as the whole point of it was interactivity and percieved personality, leaving the dead metal shell stood out in the cold without its brain seems a bit wrong, don't you think?

Senster wasn't Ihnatowicz's first piece of robot art. In 1968 he created SAM (Sound Activated Mobile), the first moving sculpture which moved directly and recognisably in response to what was going on around it. The robot resembled a flower and would react to sound by turning to face the source of noise like something out of Alice in Wonderland. All pretty impressive stuff for the '60s.

Ihnatowicz and his peers inspired plenty of weird and wonderful interactive robotic art installations over the years. "As Yet Untitled" was the odd name of a robot installed in Ontario in 1992 by the artist Max Dean, which gave the viewer the opportunity to determine the fate of family photos. The robot was programmed to pick up a photo; present it to the viewer and let them decide whether to shred or archive it.

In 1995 we reached a terrifying moment for human artists everywhere when robots stopped just being the art, and started making it. Aaron was the first robot artist, and the brainchild of Professor Harold Cohen, a British abstract painter. The result of 23 years of research and £100,000, it produces original pieces of art itself, and even cleans up its paintbrushes afterwards like all good robots should.

The spirit of Ihnatowicz's Senster shone through recently in "Fearful Symmetries", a temporary art instillation on show earlier this month in the "The Tanks" room at the Tate. The robot consisted of a glowing tetrahedron floating around over peoples' heads, making them resemble a Sim with one of those green diamonds over them. The hovering light reacts to people in the audience in basically the same way as Senster did, thanks to a series of Microsoft Kinect cameras stuck around the room. Its creator Ruairi Glynn said it was supposed to show a big difference between adults and children: "It's about how as we grow older we seem to lose that faculty, a willingfullness [sic] to project life into things." The glowing installation hovered hypnotically in the dark room reacting to movement and noise in the crowd, but big old Senster had buckets more personality than a silly floating triangle.

Robotic art is still championed at events like Artbots (the annual robot talent show) with artists, engineers and coders from around the globe coming together to make mechanical magic. If only an Artbot nerd would go get Senster's lifeless body going again. Bring it back to life and you'd really scare the hell out of the engineers who drive past it every day.

Main image credit: © Edward Ihnatowicz, courtesy of Olga Ihnatowicz