Robots Sketch Human Portraits in a Life Drawing Class

Artist and roboticist Patrick Tresset talks about his latest robotic drawing installation.

At Ars Electronica’s Human Factor: Endless Prototyping, artist Patrick Tresset has installed three robots, each of which draw the portrait of a person seated across from them. Tresset, who has been working with drawing robots for years, describes the installation as a “drawing class with three students.” The performative piece features a lot of blank white paper, and as the robots finish new drawings, the white paper gets replaced with the new work, resulting in an evolving installation.

Tresset has around 12,000 of these robot drawings. Once the exhibition is finished, Tresset will add works from Ars Electronica to this robot drawing archive, though the theatrical aspect of the installation is the work’s centerpiece. Tresset previously had no idea that the robots would become such mesmerizing performers in their own rights.

“I was quite naive in the beginning—it was just to find a new way to draw,” says Tresset, who programs the robots with software to draw what they “see” through webcam eyes. The first thing was to get the robots to draw the person, and it was only after exhibiting the first time that I realized that the action of the sitter being the actor and the audience looking at the process was very interesting,” Tresset says. “It’s very easy to do this with robots because it’s easy to get humans to think that robots are intelligent or that there is some kind of agency to the robot.

While Tresset likens the installation to a life drawing class, he insists this is not a verbal pun. In other words, “life drawing” is not about an artificial intelligence drawing “life.” Having robots draw is a bit strange because drawing is such a human thing,” Tresset says. “As soon as you see a prehistoric drawing you know that it it’s an intelligent human being. But there is something strange and surreal about a robot drawing.”

While Tresset is always upgrading the robot’s software, he hasn’t been so diligent about hardware upgrades. A Tresset drawing robot features a head outfitted with a moveable webcam and a mechanized drawing arm—upgrades haven’t really been necessary. But Tresset says this is starting to change. "Now I’m upgrading the robots’ cameras,” he says. “I used to use old obsolete cameras but I had so many problems that I had to start using hi-res webcams. Depending on which camera I use the robots can seem to produce different styles of drawings.

Tresset says he wants to keep evolving the robots and their work, but also publish a book of the drawings in the near future. In September, Tresset will debut a solo exhibition in London. In it there will be 20 robots in a “primary school” setting, and the robots will do repetitive tasks as one does in grade school.The robots will have behaviors inspired by kids who are eight or nine years old,” Tresset says. “So some are going to be focused on the tasks, while others will be unfocused and bored.

Drawing robots 5RNP by Patrick Tresset, Variation media art fair 2015 from Natalianne Boucher on Vimeo

Ars Electronica’s Human Factor: Endless Prototyping runs until August 27th as part of the DRIVE. Volkswagen Group Forum in Berlin. Click here to see more work by Patrick Tresset’s drawing robots.


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