In the studio with Agnieszka Pilat

Elisa Scarton

Agnieszka Pilat’s Heterobota, 2023, tests our threshold for machines to exist outside of servitude and develop their own creative pursuits. Audiences are invited into the home of Basia, Vanya and Bunny to observe and interact with them as they go about their daily routines. In their studio, the robots’ behaviour and creative capacity seemingly echoes our own.

‘If Andy Warhol were alive, Spot would be his Marilyn Monroe’, Agniezska Pilat tells me over Earl Grey tea with honey and lemon. The Polish artist has taken a break from installing her NGV Triennial 2023 work to share the story, perhaps for the hundredth time, of how a classically trained portraitist born behind the iron curtain in Łódź found herself teaching robot dogs to paint.

‘Historically portraiture reflects power in society and works around patronage,’ she explains. ‘So I started painting portraits of technology as the new aristocracy. The aristocracy of now.’

The aristocrat in question was a thirty-kilogram robot dog named Spot created by American engineering and robotics design company Boston Dynamics, whose engineers encouraged Pilat to not just paint her subject but to interact and work with it, too.

Soon Pilat had purchased her very own Spot, which she christened with the name Basia. In December, Basia began a four-month residency in a dedicated gallery space on the ground floor of NGV International, joined by her ‘family’ of fellow robot dogs, Bunny and Vanya.

Pilat has named her NGV Triennial installation Heterobota, playing on the Greek word ‘heteros’, which is used in science as a prefix meaning ‘different’. Every three days, Basia will complete a new canvas bearing sixteen symbols encoded with a language that only Pilat and the robot dogs know. When hung side-by-side, the thirty-plus canvases make up a manifesto she imagines will one day be the first example of the primitive language of a new civilisation, because, unless something drastic happens, ‘AI will keep on progressing’ until one can imagine robot dogs wandering the halls of future art galleries marvelling at the work of their ancient ancestors.

Terrified? Pilat acknowledges that not everyone is jazzed by the idea.

‘People bring a lot of misconceptions about robots, but they are just like any other species. Have you seen those images of the creatures that live deep in the ocean? They look very odd to us, but who are we to judge? It’s the same with spiders. We fear them, but we have learned to cohabitate. These robots can barely paint. Their work is like children’s scrawls. They are not looking for world domination.’

Throughout Pilat’s childhood in communist Poland, technology was a radio in a locked room where her parents covertly listened to Radio Free Europe. As an adult and an artist, she understands that technology has power, and she wants to be a part of its growth as ‘opposed to sitting on the sidelines and criticising its role in art’.

She envisions herself more as a Renaissance teacher, in the vein of those who taught Da Vinci and Michelangelo, guiding her students in a kindergarten-like studio with docking stations for ‘naptime’ and QR codes scattered about to help the robots orient themselves.

‘For humans, the digital environment is not native, the physical environment is. For the robots, it’s the opposite, so we [Pilat, together with an engineer and her assistant] are helping them. They’re clueless in the space without us.’

Even their palette is ‘babyish.

‘When you work in portraiture, the age and personality of your subject informs your colour selection. Back at Boston Dynamics, I painted Spot in a solemn Rembrandt palette of earth tones, but when I tried that with the robots, it came out very hostile looking’, Pilat explains.

‘It was like dressing a young person in the clothes of an old person. It didn’t fit. So, I changed the colour palette to one that was very bright and subtly lit, black and white on a bright blue background.

I half joke that I chose blue because it makes a very striking combination with the yellow of the robots, of Bunny, in particular. It goes back to Warhol and the power of the image. Bunny wants to be seen. Bunny wants to take good photos. The blue and yellow look very good on Instagram.’

Bunny is the clown sister to the other two robot dogs in Heterobota, a contrast to Basia’s serious artist type and Vanya’s protective mothering.

Bunny is also a response to the moment Pilat feels we’re all experiencing, a moment when many of us go to galleries to take social media snaps of ourselves with a painting in the background.

‘Is that a bad thing?’ she asks me. ‘I don’t know. Bunny totally embraces it. She’s posing and acting silly, checking herself out to see if she’s being noticed.’

Bunny is programmed to act this way. Sometimes she and her sisters will deviate from the script in what Pilat describes as ‘ghosts in the programming’. In this, they feel almost human.

‘Their personalities are a hybrid of their natural behaviour. This nature comes from how they’re built and programmed, which is not very different from us really’, she adds.

‘When we think about our personalities, how much of it is generic and how much of it is influenced by external factors? We make decisions, but these robots also make decisions. They respond to us applauding certain behaviours, adapting and modifying in their quest for further validation. In that sense, they’re more human than we could possibly imagine.’

Elisa Scarton is NGV Senior Editorial Coordinator.

See Agnieszka Pilat’s Heterobota, 2023, as part of NGV Triennial until 28 April

Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria. Supported by the Joe White Bequest. Courtesy of the artist.
Research Partner RMIT Health Transformation Lab.
Proudly supported by Major Partner Telstra.

NGV Triennial 2023 is supported by Presenting Partner Creative Victoria, Principal Partner Mercedes-Benz, and Major Partners Chadstone – The Fashion Capital, Telstra, MECCA and Deakin University. The NGV sincerely thanks Triennial Champions: Felton Bequest, July Cao, Barry Janes & Paul Cross, Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, NGVWA, and Neville & Diana Bertalli, and we recognise all generous supporters to the NGV Triennial 2023.