The NGV is open at NGV International and The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Fed Square.

Visitors aged 16 years and over must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have a valid medical exemption, in line with the Chief Health Officer’s Directions. Masks are currently required when visiting NGV design store only.

Information for your visit

21 Aug 14

Contemporary artefacts and narcissistic robots: an interview with Wade Marynowsky

David Hurlston, Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria: Nostalgia for Obsolete Futures is an amazing exhibition. It includes work you have made between 2009 and the present, in a wide range of media: video, robotics, sculpture and interactive new media. In terms of the diversity of your practice, you are a hard artist to pin down. I have heard your work described as both humorous and unnerving, and also I’ve heard you described as an ‘anti-disciplinary’ artist. How would you best describe your practice and yourself?

Wade Marynowsky: I would call myself a media artist. I wouldn’t use the term ‘new media artist’. I work with contemporary popular culture, and I’m interested in the way technology is increasingly encompassing our lives. The way that technology affects us is a concern behind much of my work. I use humour to invite the viewer into the work, and then, hopefully, to think critically about the crazy world in which we live.

The way that I work is to be true to my materials, but at the same time I am conceptually driven. I start with an idea, and then it’s a matter of realising that idea. Which medium I choose to work in doesn’t matter; that’s why I call myself ‘inter-disciplinary’ or ‘anti-disciplinary’, because I’m not a traditionalist in the sense that ‘I only work in paint’, or ‘I’m a sculptor that only works with form’. I try to figure out how to make the work based around the concept. This approach has seen me learn robotics for the past eight years, and to work with people who can help me realise my visions.

DH: One of the major works in the exhibition is The hosts: a masquerade of improvising automations, 2009. Can you explain the concept for this work?

WM: It is a masquerade ball for robots and it also questions the masquerade that is artificial intelligence. In many artificial intelligence experiments, there is something of a trick going on, in which we try and guess whether the computer is thinking or not. The key element of this work is that people can experience the robots firsthand, by being very close to them. The robots autonomously navigate a given space: their main behaviour is called ‘avoid and wander’, which some viewers have commented is their own mode of practice in everyday life! The robots are able to navigate using sensors that detect any object which could be a human, wall or any other kind of object. The most interesting thing that came out of the original exhibition of The hosts is that people believed that the robots were responding to them, or they at least expected the robots to respond to them. This preconceived notion of how a robot operates comes from science fiction films.

I reacted to this by making a narcissistic robot in The discrete charm of the bourgeoisie robot 2, 2010. This robot only cares for itself, it doesn’t care for humans and it is something of a parody of upper-class or snobby people. I think about art and how it can be elitist, and how sometimes it is hard for people to understand. This work is a critique of the art world as well as a comment on robots being narcissistic.

While my robots use abstracted human-like forms, I am actually interested in creating an uncanny visual effect. Because the robots are so ornate, they draw you in unexpectedly – there’s an attract-and-repulse effect, a kind of ‘double-take’ effect.

DH: What I find particularly interesting about your work The Acconci robot, 2012, is that, at first glance, it appears to be a static wooden box, but when you turn away it follows you!

WM: The Acconci robot is the third iteration of my research into robotics. I have stripped it back to look like a crate so people can project whatever notion they have of a robot onto it; and because people expected robots to respond to them in my previous work, in this case it does! The work also takes inspiration from the 1969 performance work Following piece by Vito Acconci, where the artist followed unsuspecting individuals in an urban setting as far as he could.

DH: In 2012 you held an exhibition titled Universal Remote, which included One room, one button: composition for padded room, 2012, and also the Remote Tribe works, 2012. Can you explain a bit about the inspiration for that exhibition?

WM: I was interested in exploring the term ‘universal remote’, as well as what it means to be universally remote. With the introduction of mobile technologies, we can be remote, we can be tele-present and we can work from the comfort of home, even from bed. In the exhibition I was proposing that we think about these things in relation to technology becoming a part of our lives.

In One room, one button: composition for a padded room, I’m looking at the concept of smart homes. I was inspired by a documentary on smart homes and homes of the future in which a woman said, ‘It’s just this one button, and I don’t have to think’. She presses one button and everything in the house goes off, all the roller-doors go down, the windows shut, the lights switch off and the heaters switch off. I think it is an interesting concept to think about – what the pros and cons of this technology or any new technology are. The French cultural theorist Paul Virilio has commented that every new technological invention is accompanied by a new co-disaster or kind of accident. For example, train wrecks accompanied the invention of the train. One room, one button: composition for a padded room consists of eight panels and one chaise lounge that acts as a bed for Freudian psychotherapy – the implication being that technology can have detrimental psychological impacts on its users.

In Universal Remote the room that contained this work acted as a portal; after you left it you saw four large remote controls made from wood, they are sort of like totem poles – artefacts from a remote tribe. The idea was to reimagine history, to invent a people whose technology is wood. It’s a reflection of our own culture, too, because remote controls are our artefacts and signifiers of popular culture. Like the member of a tribe who holds a talking stick, in our culture the person who holds the remote control has the power to speak. The person with the remote control has the power to change the channels and decide what everyone should watch. In my home, if my dad wanted to watch the footy and I wanted to watch a movie there was always a battle. The result is that multiple televisions are introduced, one in every room, and then no-one sits together anymore. With these works I am commenting on contemporary society and on how an everyday object can become a significant artefact when placed within the context of the gallery.

DH: One of the works in the exhibition The Balance of Your Account is Reflected in Your Face (2012) seems to produce an instant response in viewers! How did this work come about?

WM: The body of work for Universal Remote was developed while I was undertaking a residency in Montréal at the Darling Foundry. I went to an ATM to withdraw money, and I’m not sure what happened exactly but something triggered in my brain. My original concept was to create an ATM that looked like crystal shards (something similar to the crystal cave in the original Superman movie). I was also inspired by Jeff Koons’s piece Vase of flowers, 1988 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), made from cut pieces of mirror. When I looked at that piece I thought ‘That work is worth a lot of money’; so my work is about ideas of value in relation to the art object. I also think ATMs will become obsolete in the not too distant future; already we have PayPass. Just as the remote control will become a relic from the past, the ATM will also disappear. I’m interested in the idea that these objects are specific artefacts of our time. I am also interested in them being machines, and about how we relate to the machine experience.

DH: Nostalgia for Obsolete Futures features a number of new works. One of these, Stairway to heaven, 2014, is an autonomous performance piece that was recorded at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. Can you explain how this work came about?

WM: I was teaching Media Art and Production, and as part of the course my students and I looked at Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925), as well as at references to the sequence in Hollywood, including in The Untouchables (1987). Shortly after this I was walking through the Botanical Gardens in Sydney when I came across what I think are referred to as the Queen’s Steps: a set of stairs which Queen Elizabeth walked down once. Anyway, they are really steep stairs and for some reason I had a vision of pushing a piano down them. This was partly inspired by the stair sequence in Battleship Potemkin, and also the thought that I could create an interesting sound piece using the stairs to compose the music. That’s where the inspiration came from, but then I had to try and realise the idea! The process in this case was to take photos, make a mock-up image in Photoshop and then write a paragraph about the work. I then sent this to various people. I pitched Stairway to heaven to the Biennale of Sydney to no avail; then pitched it to the Australia Council; and finally to the NGV.

DH: Nostalgia for Obsolete Futures presents an impressive body of work that you have produced in a relatively short time. Where do you see your practice taking you in the future?

WM: I am working on a major project called Robot Opera, which consists of eight autonomous robots, sound and light. It’s a one-hour outdoor performance to be presented by Performance Space at Carriageworks, Sydney, in 2015. I’m in the process of designing the robots both technically and aesthetically. The intention is that GPS will enable the robots to geo-locate, allowing for a type of choreography, which I’m interested in using to present arrangements. The particular arrangements and sets will create a new form or genre of opera – a robot opera – an immersive and exciting experience for viewers. The audience again will be able to walk freely among the robots, interacting with them. Other technical aspects include infrared cameras and night vision cameras which will allow face tracking, similar to The Acconci robot, but this time in complete darkness. The robots will know if there are humans present and hopefully swarm around them. I’m also planning on projecting the footage taken by the robots, and there will be a soundtrack and lighting as well as sound and light produced by the robots themselves.