designboom (DB): what themes does ‘no one is an island’ address?

random international (RI): no one is an island explores our human need to connect with one another, and experiments with both the pitfalls and the poetry that occur when the other is not human but machine. do we develop a capacity for empathy towards that machine just because it tries to move like us? it’s fascinating just how little visual information it actually takes to open us up, emotionally and instinctively. we feel so very comfortable around something that seems to ‘want’ to imitate us. it’s something that leaves us vulnerable to the potential of a betrayal by the machine and, at the same time, offers the possibility of new, previously unfelt, sensations.

the notion of interconnectedness on a personal, as well as a societal level is a subject that we feel a strong need to explore in our work. the precision necessary for the machine to convey the human-like qualities that enable this kind of connection is the result of a delicate balance; the resulting dynamic cannot exist in isolation. the same seems true for the fragility of the parameters and values that hold our human societies together.

random international interview: no one is an island performance between human and machine

DB: in what ways does the centerpiece – the robotic sculpture ‘fifteen points / ii’ – interact with the dancers from company wayne mcgregor?

RI: the sculpture that lives in the gallery is essentially a machine whose constituent elements are robotic components, each one lifeless and mechanical on its own. throughout the performance, the two dancers witness what could be described as a self-diagnostic process through which the robot slowly comes to life. they are engaging with that process choreographically, responding to its mechanistic movement with their own human movement. as the performance progresses, the dancers seem to wrestle signs of sentience out of the sculpture, which the robot expresses through nothing but motion. by the very end, human and machine walk together.

random international interview: no one is an island performance between human and machine

DB: the collaborative work premieres live during frieze london 2021, following an online launch in three chapters due to the exceptional circumstances of the past year. are there any additions/changes particular to the live experience?

RI: there was certainly a sense of evolution. our initial broad questions, surrounding the human capacity for empathy with machines, have developed into a debate about vulnerability as a concrete, emotional and practical consequence of our cohabitation with mechanical objects. if only they move like we do, it seems as though we have no alternative but to imbue these objects with notions of sentience. with regards to the performance of the work itself, the enforced slow motion of the project turned out to be an interesting catalyst for sustained refinement. the way that we set the performative aspect of the work, through the collaboration with wayne, has changed significantly over the year. in having to dedicate more time to the creation process, we ended up giving the sculpture more time to come to life in the performance. where initially we were working within a framework of brief walking and resting cycles, we now see a fifteen minute performance with a clear narrative arc.

random international interview: no one is an island performance between human and machine

DB: in novemeber 2020, designboom visited studio wayne mcgregor in london to preview the performance while the AI technology and the dancers were still learning from one another. how would you describe this learning process? what did each learn from the other?

RI: it’s been incredible to witness just how much of a relationship dynamic can play out through movement alone. it’s been even more noteworthy for us to understand how much capacity we have for a relationship with a machine, and how easily a machine can participate in that dynamic when it expresses itself through a kind of body language that we, as humans, can relate to. this has given us so much food for thought and learning that we are dedicating our next program of exhibitions, showing different bodies of work over the following year, to the overarching theme ‘a machine for living in’.

random international interview: no one is an island performance between human and machine

DB: can you share more about ‘body/light’, the second artwork that will be on view during frieze london 2021? in what ways does it reinterpret pablo picasso’s famed ‘light drawings’?

RI: we felt that ‘body / light’ was needed as a counterpoint to the precisely choreographed interventions with the sculpture. where ‘fifteen points’ clearly asks us to remain spectators, watching a machine that imitates the human solely by moving light points in space, ‘body / light’ invites us to engage ourselves on a physical level with the same medium. in ‘body / light’, a machine vision equips our augmented mirror image with a lit echo of our physical movement. these light traces, which follow the movement of our extremities, enable us to create instantaneous light paintings in the three-dimensional space that surrounds our body. it’s a playful way to raise a kinaesthetic awareness of how we move our bodies in space, and to encourage one another to claim authorship for that movement.