Jane Elliott, the Purpose of the Purposeless Robots


Jane Elliot, who has been helping run HazMat, a local punk venue in downtown Oakland for a couple of years, makes robot art in her studio right by the Webster street tube. the whimsy of her visual art is a unique combonation of charming and intriguing. The wood cut-out, wall-hung pieces speak to a kind-of purposelessness that makes me questions the industrial revolution and the nature of capitalism. There is a real sense that these robots want to serve humanity they are just not sure how to use the tools they have been given, like ourselves I’m sure.

She let me have a sneak peek at her studio recently where she is currently building her portfolio. Contact Jane directly by clicking here.

Obi: It is interesting making robot-art to me, because art-making is so human and robots are so, well, not… are there any analogies inherent in the making of robot-art? Like modern-dehumization, or the pointlessness of industrial progress?

Jane: Well – we could start with abstract sculpture – for me the works of Lee Bontecou are organic and mechanical abstracts – so we’ve got a lot of ‘inhuman’ art laying around! And then there is the social iconography of robots – they depict the best and worst and most mundane of our own human-ness. We create them to pass off our most dangerous and routine tasks (making war, vacuuming etc, building cars, replacing loved ones) and then they rebel and go their own way for bad (terminator, the matrix) or good (Ai, Johnny 5) So they do encompass a range of ‘human’ purpose and desire – there are plenty of good robots (Robby, C3P0 & R2D2, Marvin, Wall-E, Rosie) and bad ones (Daleks, Cylons, Maria/Metropolis, The Sentinels/Matrix).

Jane: I was a determined luddite as a child and eventually became a geek – as I seem to have an innate mechanical ability – but the thought of self aware super computers and out-of-control nanites still really freaks me out. Making robots that are here to help does ally some of those fears – but then I read somewhere that the ultimate existential crisis for humans may be that robots will eventually out-evolve us – thereby providing you with the ultimate in pointlessness of industrial progress – if they take over that is.

Cyborgs and bio-engineered humans are probably a really bad idea in general anyways – Although, we all do enjoy the reverse-process that we find in some movies like Ghost in the Shell, Ai, RoboCop, BladeRunner and then Data of StarTrek NG – they turn modern-dehumanization on it’s head as the cyborgs have a desire to become more human-like or find their own lost humanity (these would be the confused robots) – so I think having robots around keeps us questioning what it is to be human – which is always a good thing to do.

It seems that now days technology evolves so quickly it exceeds our ability to keep up with what these changes really mean to society – and to the world at large. Artists translate and contextualize those concerns into a visual feast for our subconscious – a knowing of our world as it is right this minute and what needs to be done.

It’s been said that adults stay awake worrying about robots, but kids go to sleep dreaming about them – so I guess I’m still a kid…

Obi: How did you come about to the robot thing? How long have you been doing it?

Jane: Hummm…. Well they’ve been a part of my world since I was a wee nerd – right there in my favorite movies and comics. Small organic shapes with hinged legs, bug eyes and antenna began to appear in my scribbles a about 6 years ago (2002). A small group of them came into clearer focus and began to populate my sketchbook – this was what I called the ‘Observer’ series. The main character was an articulated self-aware box which would attach tubes to his fellow characters to glean information about the world. Alas he had no way to really filter or analyze all the emotions and tribulations of his fellow characters – Pone to bouts of depression he would hang about on a string in a very droopy way. All during this time other small robots still came out of my pens until I finally was compelled to build a few of them. My first attempts were 3 dimensional and very complicated. Although intricate and interesting to look at, their personality and the activity of their nature was not coming through as I liked. Eventually I figured out that they needed to remain somewhat 2 dimensional.

Obi: You called them Glorified Vacuum cleaners, but you said they all have purpose too, what are some of their purposes?

Jane: I don’t know of their purpose as I’m drawing them – or even as I’m building them, but once the robot is finished it’s much easier to suppose a purpose. They fall into the friendly robot category – here to help out – much like the plucky, insipid, single-minded talking toaster on Red Dwarf – but not that dumb or annoying. I think they are mostly here to clean up the mess we’ve made of the planet – a thought that occurred to me upon reading Brautigans ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ as a grade schooler. They would be busy removing the mercury from fish – without harming the fish – or repairing the ozone layer, rebuilding mountains destroyed by strip mining, creating non-polluting transportation, filtering the air and water, disassembling weapons, reforming glaciers and planting lots and lots of trees. In giving them names I also wanted to leave their purpose open for everyone to imagine.

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