A Portrait of the Machine
Written by on June 6, 2023
Technology and robotics have long been examined in science fiction literature, art, film, and television, often exploring what the future could hold and how technology could be integrated into our lives through both positive and negative perspectives. Today, many of the leading technology companies are working on impressive and advanced robotic creations that have been constructed to benefit humanity.
What these creations mean for the distant future is anyone’s guess, but Polish artist Agnieszka Pilat is a self-described tech optimist who is inspired by the innovations of today’s modern robotics. After moving to San Francisco, Pilat became fascinated with honoring aging technology through portraiture. Eventually, this led her on the path to paint portraits of some of today’s newest, most highly developed machines such as advanced robotics, which she believes to be humanity’s children.
Although Pilat does not consume cannabis, she supports legalization.
“What I’ve always liked about that, you know, [cannabis] culture, is the push towards innovation and also the push towards the outside the cultural norms. I think society really gets a lot out of it,” she says.
Agnieszka and Spot take a walk in New York. (Credit Aaron Richter)
Portraits of Power
Traditionally, art portraits feature people with power, such as aristocrats, the wealthy, or those with religious positions of high rank. Having grown up in Poland during a time when the Iron Curtain still divided Europe, Pilat saw the differences of power on display between Poland and the U.S. To Pilat, portraiture reflects power and aristocracy in society, and once she moved to the states, she saw America’s aristocracy as a machine. This realization has led her to a successful career exploring the cultural significance of machines and technology through her work.
In 2016, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of a fire department alarm bell. This became the first of multiple in her art series entitled #Disrupt, which also included portraits of an old projector, a vintage table fan, and a telephone. She chose to paint these items with a darker palette, each depicted with reverence, which, she adds, is the same way she might paint an elderly person.
“I wanted to honor these old machines that are kind of sitting without people really paying them tribute,” Pilat explains. “So like a song of unsung heroes, I wanted just to give them tribute in that.”
Spot stands in front of its collaborative art. (Courtesy Agnieszka Pilat)
She was approached by Waymo CEO John Krafcik to paint a portrait of the company’s new lidar (which stands for light detection and ranging) sensor technology. Lidar is a component in the Waymo Driver, the company’s autonomous driving technology. Pilat spent a few months working on that project in the same style as her previous machine portraits, but described the result as “very hostile and unpleasant.”
It became clear to Pilat that if old technology is comparative to older people, then Waymo’s lidar technology is more similar to children.
“So I had to rethink. In human years this machine is like a young child, I have to change my whole approach,” Pilat says. “Like, what do young kids do? They dress funny, they dress [in] very bright colors. They wear two different shoes, and their mother’s hat with like six feathers. So I really approached [Waymo] with this innocence and kind of silliness. So we see very strong movements, like changing the color palette, [from] the way I painted from old machines to new machines.”
Digit stands near collaborative art. (Credit Kegan Sims)
The Color of Youth
This realization altered the course of her work going forward. Pilat’s unique art residencies allowed her to work with a few highly advanced robotic creations, including Boston Dynamics’s Spot and Atlas, and Agility Robotics’ Digit.
Boston Dynamics’s Spot is a bright yellow mobile robot touted for its ability to inspect progress on construction sites or conduct routine inspections, while Atlas is a bipedal, humanoid robot that emulates the power and balance of human agility. Agility Robotics’ Digit is a teal-colored human-centric robot that was designed to work alongside humans, and is also bipedal, but features a leg structure similar to that of birds, which bend backwards rather than forward at the knee.
In Pilat’s 2021 exhibition Thinking Machines: Renaissance 2.0, she painted Spot and Atlas as subjects in fine art recreations. Atlas was painted in the same position of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and Spot was the focus of a piece inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Bright pinks, blues, yellow, and gold recreated numerous classical works, depicting new technology with vibrancy and youthfulness. These paintings also interacted with augmented reality when viewed through the lens of a cell phone camera, adding another element of technology to the exhibit.
In Pilat’s most recent exhibit, ROBOTa, which was on display at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco between November and December 2022, she collaborated directly with Spot and Digit as her “apprentices” in the creation of abstract paintings.
Credit Mark Sommerfeld
“I call them ‘apprentices’ because [I’m] going back to the power in society and the impact of technology,” Pilat explains. “I think these are very early years, still extremely early. And as a person in culture, I feel it’s my responsibility to, early on, come in and quote, ‘Train these robots.’”
Controlling Spot and Digit required exploring what the robots are capable of. For example, Spot can be manually directed with a remote control. For Digit, Agility Robotics provided Pilat with a basic programming language, which allowed her to tell Digit where to go and what to do. Both of the robots were given either a paint brush with paint applied, or an oil stick, to perform Pilat’s art directions. Even though Spot and Digits are robots, mistakes still happened in the painting process, and Pilat shares that she cherishes those mistakes more than the work itself.
“They are full of mistakes and mistakes make them human. Also, mistakes make them remind us [that] these are just children, they’re just learning,” she says.
Pilat is optimistic about the future of technology.
“Knowing that the best minds really work on technology, the smartest, the most talented, hard working people often, I have lots of optimism [in] technology for that reason,” she says.
Next up for Pilat, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, is honoring her work in an exhibit set to debut in December 2023.
This article was originally published in the February 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.