Anyone can visit Tate Britain without leaving her home thanks to Google Art Project, but how about doing so while its galleries are dark, and furthermore, with greater authority? For the next few nights, four robots, designed and programmed to navigate Tate Britain’s hallways, are available for you to control remotely, simply by using the arrow and number keys on your keyboard. After Dark, created by London-based digital product design studio The Workers and winner of this year’s Tate IK prize, kicked off August 13 and continues through August 17, with set schedules that begin in the evening after the museum closes. Live streams of the feeds are also broadcast on the project’s website.
I readied myself a couple of minutes before 5 pm EST — the first launch time — on Wednesday, figuring demand would be high and I’d have to try to score a robot early on. After all, only four machines are available for the entire world, although their operators switch at random, undefined intervals. At 5 pm, a form appeared at the bottom of the project page, requesting my name, location, and a reason why I thought I should be picked (“The robots are choosy about their controllers,” it says). Unfortunately, nothing happened when I hit “Request Control.” I made multiple attempts, but each to no avail, so I surrendered any hope of driving a robot 3,500 miles away and watched as luckier folks had their fun.
Prowling the museum in the dark is eerie. The live feed, which resembles the four-way split screen of multiplayer video games, shows the robots in different galleries, with a single spotlight attached to each crudely illuminating the spaces. The experience even seems almost criminal, as if you’re witnessing a theft in action as each bot silently rolls alone through the halls. Of course, countless others across the globe are watching with you, which interestingly allows for an intimate yet communal experience. It was also fascinating to see the locations of the various operators: sites included Stockholm, Chicago, Devon, Krakow, Monterrey, Johannesberg, Milan, and the Isle of Iona, to name a few.
“We want to digitally create the experience of being in the collection alone at night with all these amazing artworks,” Ross Cairns, one half of The Workers, explained in a video about the project. “It’s a space which during the day you can go and be a part of the public, but at night you get the space to yourself and experience it. It’s a place you’re not supposed to be, and we want to capture that experience.”
The robots started their journeys in galleries containing art from the 18th century, early 1900s, 1950s, and 20th century, offering viewers a broad scope of the institution’s works. I watched as the cameras, which can look up and down, scanned William Hogarth’s sequential works, pieces by Fiona Banner and Damien Hirst, and Mark Gertler’s painting “Merry-Go-Round.” A plaster Henry Moore resembled a spooky, ivory figure when illuminated in its dark surroundings. Arts educators also provided commentary on the work shown — a nice perk lacking from Google Art Project.
The machines can get pretty near the works, allowing for close examination, although the streams were glitchy and pixelated at times. Taking precaution to prevent rogue drivers from crashing into the priceless art, engineers fit the robots with sensors to recognize obstacles within a certain range, and the base of each one is its widest part, serving as a safety bumper to prevent it from coming into contact with objects off the ground.
Complications still arise, though (as expected of any venture of this scope): aside from the hiccups with requesting a robot and viewing the streams, it was clear that some operators had trouble navigating their automatons, sometimes ending up staring at a blank wall, stuck in a corner, or circling the same areas.
“So I think Robot 3 is really liking the Henry Moore,” one commentator joked, as the bot fixated its camera on a bronze sculpture for several minutes.
Despite its bumps, the project is still a unique way to view art that also highlights the role technology may yet play in our visual experiences. I will likely find myself making additional attempts to steer strangers through my personal tour of the museum.
“It’s really interesting to think of the artistry and the history and the technology all wrapped up in one,” Chris Hadfield, retired commander of the International Space Station, said after having a go at the helm. “You start to forget what you’re really doing and you just become really curious about the painting itself, and the robot and the hands just become an extension of your mind. That’s how technology ought to be.”