I’ve had an ongoing document of my thoughts about my project, the Tweenbots, for some time. They are the ideas that can’t seem to fit well into a 15 minute talk, or the website itself. Their current format isn’t perfect, but hopefully helps capture some of my inspiration and thoughts about the work.
What is a Tweenbot?
Tweenbots are simple human-dependent cardboard robots that are placed in urban public space. Each Tweenbot rolls along at a constant speed, in a straight line, and is equipped with a flag that says that the Tweenbot is trying to get to a certain destination in the city (e.g. the southwest corner of Washington Square Park). The flag asks people aim the Tweenbot in the right direction to get there. The Tweenbot’s success is dependent people’s willingness to step outside of habitual actions and engage with a technological object in the city space. As emotive characters placed in the improbable setting of the city, Tweenbots create an unexpected interaction, disrupting the narratives of our everyday experience, and offering a fleeting and playful connection in the context of the city street.
Why Did You Create the Tweenbots?
In the fall of 2008, I spent a lot of time observing pedestrians in New York City. I watched them in part for design research and in part to find ways of understanding and expressing my own relationship to the vast metropolis that surrounded me. The city held a fascination because there were so many people, and yet so few connections amongst them. There was so much shared space and life moving through it, and and yet that life existed in valences carefully protected from intrusion by the unknown. It seemed a difficult thing to transgress against the unwritten rules governing the space and our interactions. Milgram’s system overload theory talks about how people who live in modern cities experience cognitive overload from so much sensory input and as a result become self-focused, navigating as quickly and efficiently as possible, ignoring everything else. Often, people appeared to be navigating the city like automatons.
But, the city is also a vast expanse of possibility. I constantly noticed objects and people, and I constantly created stories about them— even a fleeting interaction in the course of walking to work could elicit a sense of the poetic and profound. Faces and figures often stuck with me long after their owner disappeared. As I walked from one tall building to another in my daily routine, I thought about ways that I could introduce spontaneity, curiosity, and play into the mundane context of urban public space without being intrusive or demanding. I wanted to change the way that people were engaging with the world around them—if only for a moment— so that I could show the thing that I felt was just below the surface if this vast network of streets and bodies: our humanity.
I did this with robots.
Why Did You Make the Tweenbots the Way You Did?
Because of their their simplicity, Tweenbots are perhaps better described as characters in robot form than actual robots. But, they do play with the rich associations that have been built around our concept of what a robot is and what it does. In our common understanding, robots exist to assist people. Tweenbots inverse the traditional robot/human hierarchy by asking humans to help robots. The use of robot-like qualities in the Tweenbot’s design helps facilitate an interaction that people might not be willing to undertake with less evocative objects, or with humans. While the fact that people will help a cardboard robot and not a homeless person (for example) may be viewed as a sad commentary on humanity as a whole, my goal was not so much to highlight our deficiencies as it was to work within the constraints of my own ability to create and deploy something that would be capable of engaging people.
That something is equipped with a smile, a tragically confident mien, and rounded tummy. The Tweenbots are in constant motion— they roll along at a cheerful pace, heading autonomously and with tragic equanimity toward both peril and success.The simple physical and gestural aspects of the Tweenbots are capable of evoking wide range of emotional responses from people. Their minimal features and uncomplicated movements provide plenty of space for the human mind to fill in specifics, rendering them more powerful in the imagination than they would be if they were more detailed and formed. Tweenbots function as vessels for the projection of meaning that results from deeply embedded mental processes that we use to help explain the world around us— the same processes that compel us to make everything in our own image through anthropomorphization. Because people are so prone to explain the behavior of non-human devices in human terms, the Tweenbots become creatures that are lost, vulnerable, and express intention. In other words, people bring the Tweenbots to life. And, they help them because they recognize themselves in them. (see the uncanny valley, the work of roboticist Masaharo Mori, and Scott McCloud’sUnderstanding Comics).
This tendency is incredibly powerful. The attribution of human qualities was one of the things I was surprised to witness over and over as people helped the Tweenbots navigate the city. People talked to Tweenbots. One man turned Sam, my first Tweenbot, back along the path he had just traversed, saying out loud to him “you can’t go that way, it is toward the road.” When people refer to a Tweenbot on the street, they usually use the pronoun “he” rather than “it.” And, with the exception of a handful of instances, people did not pick the Tweenbot off the ground to inspect it as one might an ordinary object. As much as people may rationally know that this is just a cardboard form with wheels, there is often gentleness and respect in the way people treat them that shows there is something more at work. A spark of life is leant.
Why Don’t you Stick ____ On the Tweenbots?
On a beach on the Galapagos Island of Floreana there is a mailbox made out of an old barrel. In the 1700’s, sailors headed out to sea would leave correspondence to family and friends in this box. Sailors heading in the opposite direction—back to their native lands— would collect the letters and notes of those headed out, and deliver them by hand to the addresses that were near their homes. This practice continues today, and by some accounts is sometimes faster than real mail. Receiving a letter hand-delivered by a stranger is far more meaningful than walking out to your mailbox for a letter that has been processed by a machine. The serendipity of the Galapagos Island mail system is lacking in many of our more sophisticated and technological processes.
In the course of creating Tweenbots, I have had many people suggest adding GPS, embedded cameras, audio devices, and other technological components to the Tweenbots. For me, the goal is to create something as absolutely stripped of complexity. I embrace “dead simple” for two reasons: One, Tweenbots are about people not technology. Fundamentally, the Tweenbots reveal the creativity if people and allow them to do the thinking on behalf of the ‘bot, thus creating a human-robot hybrid. Rather than hacking technology, the project is about hacking people. The Tweenbots rely on people to do what they are extremely good at doing— in a glance they can determine the best course for the Tweenbots, assess the terrain of the sidewalk, and send it on its way (see the work of Louis von Ahn, the Google image labeler, reCAPTCHA). And in doing this, they create a form of art through their gestures, interaction, and humanness. The second reason that the Tweenbots are simple is because increased technological complexity amounts to decreased trust, emotional response, and willingness to engage with an unknown object moving down the street. It complicates the interaction when you suspect that the thing you are helping may be taking your picture and uploading it to the internet, or that there is someone somewhere with a remote control laughing at you behind a bush. There is enough technology in the world that does this already. I am concerned here with the opposite kind of experience— not technological but humanistic.
What Other Ideas Influenced the Tweenbots?
While most of my initial work on the Tweenbots involved designing and producing the cardboard robots themselves, the Tweenbots are fundamentally about participatory art, and about how an interaction in the everyday context of urban public space creates a new—if fleeting—experience of the city. Similar goals have been explored in art practices ranging from theatre to games. In the following paragraphs, I give some examples which were influential to the Tweenbot’s development.
One way of thinking about the Tweenbot’s journey is to see it as a crowdsourced adaptation of the Situationists International’s concept of the dérive. A Tweenbot is released to drift through the city and its journey plots the geography not simply of physical architecture, but of a human architecture as people engage (or choose not to engage) with the robot. The Tweenbot’s movement through the city reflects both on the physical and psychological geography of the urban environment as they act upon her, while she, through her presence, acts upon them in turn. (see SI, Guy Debord, Psychogeography).
The work of Alan Kaprow blurred the lines between performance and reality through “happenings,” which were often situated in urban public space and underscored the idea of “life as art.” Embracing the everyday aspects of life through experiential and experimental theatre, happenings abandoned the conventions of the proscenium stage and involved audience participation in art . The placement of a cardboard robot character in the setting of the city opens up the possibility for an interactive narrative form to unfold—not through the control of an author, but through the ad-hoc participation of pedestrians willing to take part. In this way, the open-ended fate of the Tweenbots becomes part of a collaborative narrative written as an activity where the “finished text is the product of an interactive and negotiated exchange” .
Contemporary games continue in a similar vein of highlighting unseen patterns of urban life and reformatting them for ludic purposes. In speaking about the large-scale urban game PacManhattan, Kevin Slavin, co-founder of the company Area/Code, describes how it “brings a kind of restoration of something that is disappearing in Manhattan, which is public space. We haven’t really lost the spaces, you can still go there, but their use has become increasingly restricted, explicitly and implicitly. The things that have happened over the last ten years point to the need to restore the idea of thinking of the city as a system upon which things can be run” . Games such as PacManhattan and Big Urban Game revitalize the way that people see the city around them. By transforming the city into a Pac-man grid or creating 25 foot high game pieces that people transport through the streets, a new program of play supplants the habituated use of public space.
I cannot say with certainty that encountering a Tweenbot on the way home from work permanently changes someone’s experience of the spot on the sidewalk where they discover it. I feel that most people create a cartography grounded in individual experience, where memories are stitched together to form paths of association through the streets. If so, I hope that the Tweenbot’s journey contributes to experiencing that that interval in the landscape as more playful and spontaneous. And, perhaps this interaction helps us reconsider our relationship to urban space on the whole. The open-ended and participatory qualities of the Tweenbot’s journey highlight the significance of our random discoveries and individual actions, which when combine with those of others, enable something as small as a cardboard robot navigate a vast space. Our asynchronous interactions in the city’s network take on a collective meaning through the Tweenbot’s journey. It reveals our interconnectedness. By virtue of the fact that someone helped the Tweenbot a block ago on Waverley Place, I encounter the Tweenbot now on the sidewalk, and my sending him along means that he will encounter someone else down the line.
What Have You Learned from the Tweenbots?
Because I approached this project as an artist, I did not develop ways of analyzing or recording complex data about the interactions. I view what I am doing as a kind of people-art. Prior to creating the Tweenbots, I had developed many technological objects and environments that were “interactive.” At some point in that process, I became tired of these kinds of systems, because I realized that nothing I could make could ever come close to having the expressive, unpredictable, beautiful, crazy poetry of people being people in everyday contexts. So, I started to think about ways that I could take my work one step further—where interaction itself was the art form, and I was just creating the most simple ways of engaging people to do whatever it was that they might do in a more open-ended system.
There is a facial expression that I came to recognize after observing several journeys: people look at a Tweenbot’s smiling face and instinctually smile back as they bend down and grab its arm or shoulder to turn it. Are they responding to the Tweenbots own expression—like adults smile in response to children— or are they laughing to themselves because helping a cardboard robot in New York City is somewhat absurd? I was never a temptation to reduce this question to a survey. I did a few interviews, but was otherwise content to record what took place on video. The extension of a hand, the managing of bags and backpacks as people lean forward to read a the flag, is for me a physical poetry, and given my initial doubt that that the Tweenbots would survive—much less be helped— each of these interactions remains irreducible.
One thing is certain: people help Tweenbots.
Each time I walk to the start-point of a Tweenbots journey, I feel a sense of apprehension. But, seconds after releasing him or her and moving away, my concerns disappear, and I realize that I have a giddy grin on my face. It is always surprisingly affirming to see what unfolds. That thing that I wished to have happen is playing out on the sidewalk. It is people being expressive, playful, curious, helpful. It is people being people in public.
Once, a man picked up a Tweenbot and biked with him across Central Park to deliver him to his destination, where he was greeted by a cheering crowd that had gathered, waiting. On a particularly hot day in Washington Square Park, the rubber treads on the Tweenbot’s wheel heated to the point that they stretched out and one of them fell off. Because the wheels were imbalanced from this missing tread, the Tweenbot began to spin pathetically in circles. Two men backtracked along the Tweenbot’s path and found the lost tire tread. Together, they gently picked up the Tweenbot and fixed his tire before sending him on his way.
One thing that I never expected to see in the scale that it occurs is strangers helping Tweenbots together. Occasionally, when someone reads the flag and doesn’t know which way to aim the Tweenbot, they will ask other passers-by for help. People cluster around the Tweenbot. Ad hoc groups form, and suddenly strangers are smiling at each other, speculating on the Tweenbots journey, and working together to help it out. Sometimes there are people who send the Tweenbot along and then follow it, watching others help— acting as temporary chaperones. They make explanations for the Tweenbot, giving information about it to others as they pass.
But, not everyone that sees a Tweenbot helps it. And, not everyone who helps a Tweenbot reads the flag. There are some people who will extricate a Tweenbot from a crevice, or set it right when it is trapped against a curb, without actually aiming it in the right direction. It’s like they instinctually act to save it from grinding and obvious trouble, but beyond that leave it to its own devices. There are those who approach the Tweenbot, read the flag, and walk away without helping. There are also those who notice the Tweenbot and do not stop. And those who do not notice them at all. The people who choose not the help are as important to the Tweenbot’s story as those who become deeply invested in its fate.
A small cardboard robot can change someone’s experience of the city. The name “Tweenbot” is a combination of the words “between” and “robot.” It describes the essence of an exploration that operates in the nebulous spaces between robot and human, between what is real and what is imagined. Tweenbots are always in between places. They are real, physical objects that are placed in the city, but they are, by their form and context, also characters that we build up in our imagination. On their own, they are simply robots, but with humans, they become cyborgs that tell small stories about a big city. We project upon their simple forms deeply human traits—vulnerability and intention—and respond through action that conveys deeply human characteristics—empathy, and kindness. They are, at the core of their being, phatic gestures that are inserted everyday spaces without every knowing what kind of conversation will unfold. Wherever they go, the Tweenbots are creating tiny stories that reside in the imagination of the people who see and interact with them. The Tweenbots are part of an open-ended text that is written in collaboration with and for, the people of New York, as they attempt in their own small way transform the mundane reality of the city into something that reveals humanity, imagination and interconnection.