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while (true) continue_else loop forever by Katie Rose Pipkin
“while (true) continue_else loop forever”, 2016Katie Rose Pipkin

These robots are better at art than you are

New exhibition The Art of Bots shows that computer programmes are seriously talented artists

Bots can flood your Twitter feed with racist abuse, infect your phone with a Grindr-based virus or get you into trouble with the police by buying ecstasy over the darknet. But The Art of Bots, a festival thrown by digital culture gurus Abandon Normal Devices (AND), shows that the computer programmes are also capable of remarkable artistic endeavours. AND gathered together a transatlantic coterie of bot-creating artists, and asked them: “At what point does a bot begin to lead a life of its own? Have bots enslaved us or are they revolutionising the way we create, consume and think?”

We went to the exhibition to meet the future darlings of the art world.


Allison Parrish is the ringmaster of a circus of generative poetry bots, which she says throw out gnomic non-sequiturs “like a four-year-old, or someone who’s stoned.” “The Ephemerides”, for example, pairs wisps of computer-generated poetry with pictures of deep space from a Nasa database. To Parrish, bots and space probes are deeply alike: both “venture into realms inhospitable to human survival and send back telemetry telling us what is found there”. Parrish’s programmes could be viewed as digital successors to Georges Perec or Italo Calvino, the masters of Oulipian constrained writing. But she feels her bots are far better than any human writer at creating “wonder, serendipity and satire”.


Shiv Intiger” is the brainchild of ‘creative coder’ Julien Deswaef and Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, a digital artist who co-curated the exhibition. It scrapes objects from an online file-sharing forum for 3D printing enthusiasts and combines them into geometrically obscure new forms, possessed of an angular formlessness that would make Julio González wince. Plummer-Fernandez says the first 3D printing company he asked to render his bot’s reconstituted, otherworldly work returned the designs unmade, saying the shapes simply “weren’t printable”. In distorting and reforming corporate trademarks and brand devices, meanwhile, Darius Kazemi’s “Glitch Logos bot effortlessly mirrors and subverts work that advertising consultants are paid millions for whenever a multinational conglomerate fancies a rebrand.


One room of the exhibition was dominated by Chris and Ali Rodley’s “Magic Realism Bot”, projecting preternatural screeds on to a cracked white wall. I’d met this bot before, but never IRL. Online, the automated author pitches unwritten magic realism stories once every two hours, its only commissioning editor the dark void of Twitter.

“A prince invents a better version of sexual intercourse: doing nothing at all,” reads one. Another: “By touching a vulva, you can reach another dimension. It is filled with mermaids and candles.” Seeing the bot abstracted from a churning Twitter feed, its stories emblazoned on an otherwise unadorned wall in foot-high letters, was like being confronted by a reanimated Gabriel García Márquez.


The microbiome of a human body contains more bacteria cells than cells of homo sapiens, and many of those microbes are essential to human life. Katie Rose Pipkin’s “bodies.html // perfectly emulated human #1” is a reminder that we are all holistic collectives of microbial entities, organic bots mindlessly working away within us to keep us alive. A human life is condensed into a rapidly cascading stream of text: “produce parathyroid. fire synapse. speak. breath. see.” With the push of a button, any passer-by can euthanise the bot, sending it into death throes: “stop. pain. arrest. perspire. collapse. stop.” But unlike a human body, the bot is immortal, and soon flickers back into life: “heartbeat. heartbeat.


Other installations further blurred the bot/human distinction. Matthew Plummer-Fernandez sees Jeff Thompson’s Bot Art School, which issues algorithmically derived drawing instructions at random, as putting the viewer in the position of a bot: “Jeff says he’s not the artist any more. He’s now the teaching assistant. The bot is the teacher itself. And the audience is producing the art. They came expecting to see generated art – but they are the art. They are the bots.” The bot instructed me to “construct a sketch with musics”. With bot-like subservience, I rapidly complied.


Until they learn to self-replicate and consume the planet, leaving behind only a sludgy grey detritus, behind every great bot there must be a great coder. George Buckenham is the creator of Cheap Bots, Done Quick, a bot-creating platform which hosts automated Twitter feeds such as unicode garden. Despite the fact I’d never coded anything more complicated than an electric toothbrush, with Buckenham’s superlatively patient help I was able craft my own bot. The Dazed bot was soon up and running on Twitter, firing out hourly headlines for non-existent articles: “The Kawaii health goth who made a zine to piss off James Franco”, “The beatboxing neo-Pagans who call out fat-shamers on Grindr”. The Dazed bot will trundle along merrily until the heat death of the universe, spitting out headlines into the ether. Bots will inherit the earth.

The Art of Bots was curated by Abandon Normal Devices. Visit their website for details of film happenings, exhibitions, performances, online projects, residencies, public realm interventions and their roaming biennial festival