This Ada Lovelace-Inspired Artwork Pits Musicians Against a Robot

A new installation asks musicians to respond to a robot whose movements are inspired by mathematician Ada Lovelace's work.

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Oct 14 2014, 2:20pm

Conrad Shawcross, The ADA Project, 2013. Image: Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

Before me in a warehouse stands a giant metal robotic arm. One by one, four musicians step into its caged arena. As the robot twists and turns, the musicians respond. A silent audience witnesses a unique collaboration between human and machine.

I'm at the launch of the ADA Salon, presented by the artist Conrad Shawcross and the Vinyl Factory at the Brewer Street Car Park, an independent company that brings together artists and musicians. The Salon, in London's Soho, invites people to discover Shawcross' robotic installation, the ADA Project.

For the ongoing work, the artist invites a series of musicians to live with a robotic machine for a week at a time. The machine, programmed to move within specific parameters, is the starting point from which they must create a piece. As Conrad succinctly put it before the first performance of the night, "The music is subservient to the machine."

The project questions the dominance between man and robot. Shawcross admitted that his first impression of the machine, originally a welding arm, was "one of fear; it usurped my position as an artist." His mission to understand the arm led him to reprogram it to move with a "human inefficiency." Hacked by humans, the machine then goes on to influence human musicians. It's a complex collaboration.

The project is named after Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician and arguably the first computer programmer. Overlapping as it does with Ada Lovelace Day, which celebrates women in maths and science, it's fitting that the four current collaborations are with women.

The music is subservient to the machine

Shawcross' robot moves to algorithms based on unrealised drawings of Lovelace. The artist took ratios from the drawings, rewrote them as code, and hacked them into its operating system. The ratios are then translated into a series of splines—defined movements of the arm in 3D space. 

For the launch last Friday, electronic musicians Beatrice Dillon and Rupert Clervaux, Mira Calix, and Tamara Barnett Herrin and Mylo gathered to perform their commissioned pieces live with the robot.

The robot's long, jointed arm extended and moved, with a light on its end cutting through the darkness. Part dance, part stand-off, it was an unworldly collaboration.

Dillon & Clervaux responded to an algorithm based on a 9:8 ratio. In Sequence 1, they sampled percussion made out of rhythms played on different parts of the robot. The piece culminated in a fast and furious drum solo, seemingly conducted by the circular movements from the robotic arm.

Mira Calix with the ADA Project. Image by the author

Tamara Barnett Herrin and Mylo's ratio of 5:4 led to a synth-based song sung directly to the robot, Ada Make a Bed for Your Phoenix. Holly Herndon, who was unable to attend the event, used vocal processing and synthesis of the robot's movements to create Relations, a soundscape that emoted the robot as it twisted and folded around the space.

The last piece was by visual and aural artist Mira Calix, If Then While For. Baroque in style, it nodded to Alan Turing, whose work on artificial intelligence took up where Lovelace and Babbage left off. Like Turing, Calix questioned the consciousness within the machine. 

In a poignant lament, the soprano called for the machine to fall in love with her. As its robot arm bowed to the ground, I agreed with the musician that it was "hard to think of the machine in terms of simple binary 0 and 1s."

Shawcross broke his own rules for that last piece, as there was no strict ratio constraining musician or machine. Although he's keen for the robot not to be personified, even he admitted it was hard not to read emotion into the performance.

Over the month, visitors are invited to the Ada Salon to witness the piece in movement to the recorded performances, like a giant robotic jukebox. Calix told me she hopes it will lead people to ask more questions about the relationship between man and machine, and perhaps, as Conrad noted, remind us that we are "totally separated from our own operating system."