Art Critics in Agnieszka Pilat’s studio. Courtesy of the artist<br/>
© Pilat

Infinite horizons

Davis Richardson

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

“We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us – indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science 1

Underneath the towering Discovery space shuttle at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, Agnieszka Pilat walks her robotic dog, Basia. The canine is on loan from the technology firm Boston Dynamics: its green eyes cut through the hangar’s darkness as it departs through an overhead door to a loading dock overlooking Virginia farmland.

A scene reminiscent of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle unfolds.2 Catering and security staff turn to one another, taking out smartphones to document their encounter with the robot, just as the foreign dignitaries at the museum’s reception had several hours earlier. It is a familiar and predictable theatre – however, having seen Pilat walk Basia many times before, tonight a different kind of agency took hold.

At the event, where Pilat spoke about growing up behind the Iron Curtain, Basia misbehaved. Despite being controlled by a human, Basia walked crookedly, bumped into attendees and even collapsed on its side when greeting a staff member from Poland’s embassy. (‘She was just so happy to see you!’ quipped Pilat.) The robot’s behaviour became unpredictable as it disregarded its sensory functions – it even remained turned on when we pressed the button to power it off. We were forced to adapt our own behaviour accordingly. As we walked Basia to the parking lot, an eerie question loomed: were we walking the robot, or was it walking us?

It is a ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum that human beings are reckoning with, alongside rapid accelerations in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). While the great Greek philosophers once considered material production and utility secondary to truth and reason (Aristotle classified techne as the lowest form of human activity in Metaphysics), the human mind has since imprinted itself on complex mechanical innovations, becoming interwoven into the endless production process defined by Karl Marx as capitalism. At the time of the ascension of the steam engine, Sigmund Freud compared the brain to an ‘apparatus’ in which ‘psychic energy’ flows in a ‘psychodynamic’ system. Today’s theoretical frameworks are governed by AI, which will only grow more powerful, holding a mirror to our consciousness, just as the steam engine did, revealing an infinite feedback loop of simulation.

Do machines have agency? Was a stone knife built by Homo erectus actually evolving at the same speed as its creator? Were we put solely on this earth to build the next dominant species? The answer to these questions lies in Pilat’s work The frontier of Heterobota, 2023. Although Pilat has been described as a ‘Futurist’, that label feels cheap – as a species, our relationship to technology is beyond the game of aesthetic cosplay so often invoked by philosophers, artists and writers, especially those of various ‘Futurist’ movements. Debating semiotics is pointless when humans already coexist with machines in a frontier space that is still being defined – one where power, ideology and simulation converge. We are beyond the trappings of postmodern musings on how best to exploit contractions within the production process. The sign overtook the subject long ago, and an algorithm can now analyse the entire canon of Western philosophy, mixing and matching an endless combination of reference points to create new ideologies in a world where truth has possibly been replaced with narrative.

We arrive instead at a new frontier, where all of what was previously thought ‘genius’ – our mathematics, our poetry, our psychological configurations – is instead subverted into an automated end point. As Pilat has said, ‘If a machine can make your art for you, it begs the uncomfortable question: should you be pursuing art in the first place?’

What we find in this territory is not only a stripped-down story of machines, of their adolescent personalities in a space where the mistakes they make are where real agency is asserted, but also of ourselves. If ‘reason’ was the main differentiator between human beings and the entire animal kingdom we came to dominate, then our animality is what separates us from these new creations. Our vulnerability, our nakedness, our simultaneous fear of dying and the ‘death drive’,3 stripped from the illusion of art and aesthetics – this is what is on display at Pilat’s landmark presentation for the NGV Triennial 2023.

The NGV is not the first institution to incorporate technology into a high-profile exhibition, nor is Pilat the first artist to work with machines. In 1934 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City debuted the exhibit Machine Art, which elevated machine-made objects such as scientific instruments and consumer goods like pots and pans to the level of sculpture. The philosopher John Dewey used the show to further his ‘experiential’ understanding of art. In the early 1960s Andy Warhol painted machines, such as cars that had crashed and the electric chair, and later incorporated the Amiga 1000 home computer to produce one of his famous Campbell’s soup cans and reproduce Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, c. 1485 (Uffizi, Florence). He even once declared: ‘I’d like to be a machine’.

Where artists of the past mostly saw solitary forms and recycled commentary on the production process, Pilat understands the bigger story of human civilisation. While the fine art world spent years critiquing the outcomes of Silicon Valley technology, Pilat immersed herself in the mediums themselves and understands them profoundly. She has been criticised in the press for cosying up to big tech because of her work with companies like Boston Dynamics and Google. But how can one uncover the nuances of machines without interacting with them from a place of empathy and taking them seriously as a major global force, and without understanding the ideologies, personalities and blind spots of their creators?

Pilat stands at a unique moment in history, playing a significant role in how our relationship with machines develops. As debates abound over AI-generated art (‘the machine’s dreams and hallucinations’ as the artist refers to them), Pilat roots herself in the physical world to challenge the notion of machines as purely utilitarian, raising a debate about autonomy and automation. The use of multiple Boston Dynamics robots for this Triennial commission, rather than just a single one, gives an uncanny feeling of ‘conspiracy’ – especially when all are given the room to make mistakes in what becomes agency.

Michel Foucault introduced the theory of heterotopia to describe discursive spaces outside the normal social and cultural order – by definition, any museum exhibit would fall into this category. However, the ideas that Pilat explores in Heterobota carry monumental implications for our species and history. As a world within a world poised to disrupt all originating references, this frontier gives conspiracy permission. While not physically present, humanity’s naked animality is on full display and trial, a ‘big other’ presence looming as machines discover agency and are provided with one of our last gifts: creativity, automated into an interchangeable end point.

Just because machines are developing agency, however, does not mean we have lost ours. If mistakes are what agency derives power from, then this saga cannot be pre-written, no matter how authoritative the binary code appears. In a frontier space, the future is charted in real time as new possibilities and mediums reveal themselves. Through this frontier of Heterobota, Pilat has identified the historical conditions of an inevitable reality unfolding in real time. Her art can unsettle viewers, because the future can be unsettling.

How this future develops is up to all of us.

DAVIS RICHARDSON is a writer based in New York City and Washington, DC. He has written for the New York Observer, Interview Magazine, New York Post, The Daily Beast, VICE and WIRED.

Agnieszka Pilat’s Hetrobota, 2023, has been commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Courtesy of the artist. Research Partner RMIT Health Transformation Lab.

The NGV warmly thanks the Joe White Bequest for their support.

Proudly supported by Major Partner Telstra.



Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Random House, New York, 1974, p. 180.


Debord’s ‘spectacle’ refers to media instruments used to entertain and distract viewers. As a Marxist writing during the 1960s, Debord and his influence loom large over postmodernism, especially the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, who coined the phrase ‘hyperreality’, which inspired the Matrix franchise. Debord’s landmark book The Society of the Spectacle (1967) set the script for our contemporary world, in which behaviour is reduced to performance acts captured and shared via social media.


Freud’s theory that human beings are driven towards destruction was first published in his 1920 essay ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’. The idea was first articulated by Sabina Spielrein in her 1912 essay ‘Destruction as a cause of coming into being’.