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Choreographed Robots Are Tap Dancing Their Way Through London

We spoke to artist Peter William Holden about his kinetic machines that are dancing their CPUs out at London's Merge Festival.

Images by Medial Mirage / Matthias Möller

British visual artist Peter William Holden strives to dissolve the boundaries between cinematography and sculpture, often using kinetic machines as his subjects. Last night at the Merge Festival in London, three of his installations opened to the public—a series of dancing robots that use computers and mechanical elements to create what he describes as "ephemeral choreography." 

The three works on view include tap dancing robots whose rhythm and steps are controlled by visitors (titled SoleNoid), a troupe of machines with hands that move in time like an army of orchestra conductors (Vicious Circle), and a set-up of kinetic robot legs that create a mandala-like illusion (Arabesque). All three have appeared in other galleries and festivals, but the works have been updated for Merge.

Holden explained that his interest in this specialized art field was inspired by a unique event. While studying mechatronics and basic engineering, he had "a strange encounter over a garden fence" with a friend's neighbor. "He was, um, even now I'm not quite sure how to describe," Holden recalls. "He was dancing or fighting with a vacuum cleaner? Whatever it was, it was surreal."

After that, he and the vacuum-wielding man began talking about Holden's interest in mechanical and computer-based art, and he was then recommended for an artist's assistant position. A month later, he moved to Leipzig, Germany to work for Jim Whiting (known for his Herbie Hancock "Rockit" video), leading to a mentorship that resulted in Holden's own robotic projects, some of which will be at Merge. 

Holden spoke with The Creators Project about his introduction to mechanical art, why discussing the technological aspects of his installations bore him, and what to expect at his Merge installations. 

SoleNoid

The Creators Project: Are you permanently based in Leipzig, or were you just visiting when we spoke?

Peter William Holden: I’m permanently based in Leipzig, I’ve been living there since 1997. There’s been quite an amazing transformation of the city in the years since I first arrived there.

Can you tell me about your background in art? Have you always focused on mechanics and kinetic installations?

I always wanted to be an artist. Unfortunately, life is never as easy as one hopes. I enrolled for an art foundation course in the UK but couldn’t convince my parents to support me. So I drifted in and out of various mundane jobs. Fortunately, I had friends who had studied on the art foundation course. When they moved away to the University in Brighton, I visited them and ended up staying 6 years. Brighton in the 1990s was probably the most alternative city in the UK. It was incredibly vibrant. That energy the people and the town emitted rubbed off and I realized I could find a way to do what I really wanted in life.

While in Brighton I started contemplating making moving sculptures. I realized that to achieve this I’d needed some specialized skills. I began by taking a college course in basic engineering and then another in mechatronics. While I was on the mechatronics course I had a strange encounter over a garden fence with one of my friend’s neighbors, Andrew Bailey. He was um, even now I’m not quite sure how to describe it, was it dancing or fighting with a vacuum cleaner? Whatever it was it was surreal. After the vacuum cleaner had calmed down we had a little chat. One month later I was in Leipzig, Germany working as an artist’s assistant for Jim Whiting (known for his Herbie Hancock rockit video) on his project Bimbo Town. In the following years with Jim I learnt a multitude of skills which has allowed me to create my own projects some of which can be seen at the Merge festival.

Vicious Circle

Have your projects been updated or adapted at all for Merge? How will visitors interact with them in public? You mentioned that viewers will be able to "play" the tap dancing machine, in a way.

I’ll be adapting them slightly for the Merge so that they don’t all begin at the same time and fill the space with a cacophony of sound. Over time, the projects I have need less and less modifications. Vicious Circle is still undergoing fine tuning on the choreography, so I tend to edit its routine every exhibition. Having said that though I’m always looking out to find a musician to work with me to make a different composition for SoleNoid.

SoleNoid alternates between two states. It is either a pre-programmed piece performed by the machine alone or it can be played via a control panel by members of the public. There is a 16 key control panel that functions like a sequencer with each key triggering a short loop of movements / sounds. These sounds and movements can easily be patched together to produce a composition.

Arabesque and Vicious Circle are started by the audience with the press of a button and even though it is not the most interactive engagement the person pressing that button tends to get quite a kick out of it.

Can you tell me about the technology behind SoleNoid and Arabesque? How do they work?

I can, but to be honest, the technology itself is not so interesting for me. It’s really just a tool I’m using to create the visual experience—or, in the case of SoleNoid, the audial experience. I find in general in new media arts there is way too much emphasis placed on the technology rather than the results.

I love the idea that your work breaks down the boundaries between cinematography and sculpture, as well as "ephemeral animations." What drew you to these art formats and what can be gained by combining disparate mediums like these?

I suppose everything in life is fleeting and I want to try and capture this. Physical movement is the only way I could find to express it. For me these ephemeral animations and sounds, my works create are the actual artwork I produce, and the sculptures themselves are just a shell or a screen. When not in motion, the work doesn’t exist. In that sense, it has similarities with film as only when both mediums are in motion is the result the artist/director intended the observer to see visible. I suppose combining disparate mediums makes it possible to discover new or seldom explored possibilities within each medium.

What upcoming projects do you have in the works?

Currently I’m choreographing a new piece. An arrangement of Humphrey Bogart style hats. Also I will be exhibiting SoleNoid and AutoGene at the Digital Art Festival, Taipei this November, and Vicious Circle at the Clockenflap Festival in Hong Kong, also in November. 

Arabesque

Peter William Holden's work is on view at The Merge Festival in London through October 12th. For more information, visit the festival webstite here, and the artist's website here. 

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