When in 1921 Czech writer Karel Capek presented to the world his science fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the technical object called “robot” was portrayed as a subject supposed to act as an obedient slave. Nowadays, what better illustrates such servitude role than the domestic vacuum cleaner Roomba, the crown jewel of domestic automation? But shouldn’t artificial objects upheavals and demand alternative functions, less humiliating and way more creative? The piece “Sobra la falta” (2008) , by the Argentinian artist collective Proyecto Biopus, goes precisely in that direction.
The phrase “Sobra la falta” can be translated as “the lack.” The artwork is basically a “recycling” robot built with cheap components, which collects garbage thrown by the exhibition visitors, and uses the disposed material to draw pictures. Following simple software rules, the little thing crawls towards the dump site, executes a fine-toothed comb, sorts out objects of similar color and shapes and finally “sculpts” an image on the floor, based on shots previously taken. Then, a second robot suddenly “erases” the first’s work in order to it begin a new one, disturbing the living space comprised of humans beings and machines and jeopardizing the Good Neighbor Policy between them. After the fulfillment of robot’s participatory injunctions, the relationship is regained, referring to some meditations included in the introduction of the book Participation, edited by Claire Bishop (Bishop, 13).
Proyecto Biopus intends to generate left-wing commentary from the piece, putting in perspective social problems embodied by the labor conditions of sanitation workers, a well known unprivileged working class. In this respect, “Sobra la falta” can be compared to the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles involving cleaning work, including “Touch Sanitation” (1970-80) in which she collaborated with the New York Department of Sanitation. The group reveals, by means of a simple robot, cracks on the wall of the social relations brought on by new technologies (as suggested in another context by Nicolas Bourriaud, in Relational Aesthetics, p. 68). At the same time, “Sobra la falta” questions two crucial problems of our time: fly-tipping (illegal dumping) and blind consumerism.
A suggestion for relational aesthetics followers: How about display the Argentine group robot next to candy packages of Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres ? The critical potential of the two pieces would be better leveraged…