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Interview with Conrad Shawcross

Though an intimidating sixteen feet tall, the industrial robot in Conrad Shawcross’s flat doesn’t look at all out of place. A flight of steps is all that separates the bustling workshop from the living space above, where the robot silently supervises our conversation through the half-open door to an adjacent room.

The device is the centrepiece of ‘The ADA Project’ (2013), Shawcross’s latest work, for which he and his team have ‘choreographed’ an industrial robotic arm, transforming it into a mesmerising sculpture that draws sweeping paths of light in six axes with a thousand-watt bulb fitted to its tip. Named after Ada Lovelace, the Victorian mathematician credited with being the world’s first computer programmer, ADA has recently performed at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and MONA in Tasmania, with live accompaniment by sound artists Holly Herndon, Beatrice Dillon and Rupert Clervaux.

 

Though known as a sculptor, Shawcross’s output is by no means static. A highlight of his sequence of rope-making machines was ‘Chord’ (2009) – two facing, claw-like frames suspending spools of brightly coloured wool, their disparate strands slowly converging into a single length of rope as though magnetised by a central point of symmetry. ADA is the latest in a long series of light works, including ‘Timepiece’ (2013), an installation that saw Camden’s Roundhouse stripped bare and reoriented around a tangle of revolving steel arms. As their orbits marked the passing minutes, hours and days, the interplay between three connected bulbs and a central gnomon cast shifting shadows that scanned the space with silhouettes of its own interior architecture.

 

While most machines stand or fall on their ability to carry out a given task faster, stronger or longer than their human rivals, Shawcross’s are engines of ambivalence, their only common ‘product’ being the alloy of unease and awe they induce in equal measure. His work encompasses quantum theory, geometry and bionics, among other fields, but simply to observe that they explore ‘scientific ideas’ obscures their true force: their science is a distinctly human one, driven by an urge to interrogate the ways in which we – often unknown to ourselves – have come to rationalise the world around us, and what might be gained or lost in that process. Just as a photograph exists at the expense of everything its frame excludes, scientific models inflect nature with their own historical or disciplinary biases: scales of measurement present competing languages, and the already slippery terminology called upon to communicate ideas can further corrupt over time.

 

With each new work surpassing the scale and engineering complexity of the last, Shawcross’s ambition shows no signs of waning. Despite these grand designs, however, he is modest and precise in conversation, hasty only to credit his team, or to draw analogies that bring the abstract to life.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve spoken before about a belief in ‘tool determinism’ in your work. What happens when the tools are digital, as in ‘The ADA Project’?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— When I first came across this robot I saw it in a fabrication studio. It was carving a piece of polystyrene to make a sculpture, and as an artist I was quite threatened by it. I was quite intrigued by that position it put me in, questioning my role as an artist.  The artist always has to change their position in the wake of technology, whether that’s the invention of the film camera, or painters in the Renaissance having to catch up with the latest pigments, or techniques for adhering gesso to a wall, or making things last or not fall off. It’s all about technology and experimentation. Instead of pretending this robot wasn’t there, I decided to buy one and learn how to use it. I realised that it was a really interesting analogy for one’s own body, because while it feels like this very threatening thing at first, what it shows you is how divorced we are from our own operating system.

 

For example, I can do this with my finger from there to there (Editor’s Note: he draws a line across the table), and if I carry on doing it I can start to affect the speed profile and I can do it fluently – but I actually don’t know how the hell I do it, or what’s involved in all the processes of all my muscles, my brain, my spinal cord, my eyes, my ears, how they all come together to do that. Whereas getting the robot to move its finger across a table is really complicated, but actually I know how to make the robot do it more than I know how I can do it myself.

 

It’s been quite interesting as a reference to one’s own body, to see how automatic we are. It shows you the structural architecture of these things and how complex they are. One of the big problems is one of objectivity in our own systems. Like linguistic determinism, I believe you can think through the tools that you know, that your ability to imagine is expanded by different ideas of making, by different skills. I really like to learn new things.

Q

The White Review

— If the robot is a found object – albeit a high-tech one – and, unlike other machines that you’ve built, your input in fashioning it is a programming role. Your role as a maker seems to drift towards choreography.

A

Conrad Shawcross

— We’ve appropriated it, but we’ve also modified it a lot: we dwarfed some of the limbs, hacked into the software, stripped off all the paint, took off all the logos, extended its tip to a metre and a half. We’ve created a very new aesthetic. And we added this bulb, an omnidirectional single point source moving in space, which creates this very high-impact light effect in a room. It is a readymade, but the software package is a whole piggyback of different programs and it has taken a couple of years to develop this unique control system for it. Essentially, I am choreographing the robot. In theory, anyone could choreograph it, but you’d have to have this software package that we’ve developed, which is kind of a secret. Without the skills of communicating with the machine, it would be difficult to control.

Q

The White Review

— Another way you’ve spoken about your machines is as ‘unfinished objects’. Is that in relation to a pre-operational state that they might be encountered in – before they begin to rotate or move in some way?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— There are definitely two states in which these sculptures can exist. I am sometimes concerned with the moving works explaining themselves too much. When in a static state, a machine or engine is a truly abstract object. I try to pursue a true aesthetic of the machine and absolute good rational design, so that when the sculptures are ‘on’ and their more ‘meta’ physical process is revealed, this is in contrast to the authority of their rationality. However, a static work – pre operational, as you call it – is in a way more exciting in the way it can be interpreted more broadly. Its potential is more open, ambiguous. The next stage of the rope machine series is to maybe strip the machines of their string and leave them bare.

Q

The White Review

— ‘The ADA Project’ seems to represent a shift from producing objects (whether static pieces or process-driven machines) to producing a subject – something that at least appears to have some agency of its own, and which becomes the thing from which collaborations derive.

A

Conrad Shawcross

— This is very interesting. In terms of commissioning it is certainly a direct result of trying to make the complexity of the movement – as both a light-point in space and the body system as a whole – the primary source of inspiration. I have used light and movement for many years and in a way this new piece is a culmination of these works. In pure design terms it gives me the freedom to move a light anywhere inside an envelope at pretty much any speed. This lack of restraint is potentially a problem in creating an artwork. The story of Ada and her work on the Difference Engine (Editor’s Note: the early computer that she assisted Charles Babbage with) provide the constraint for me to create the movement and choreography.

Q

The White Review

— How autonomous is ADA?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— It is worth saying that the robot is not Ada. While of course the machine has anthropomorphic potential, it is never meant to represent her. She is to be used as a creative springboard for both me and the musicians.

Q

The White Review

— When you spoke about the artist having to respond to technology, I understood it in the sense of not being afraid to use and learn about its innovations. But it’s interesting that ‘The ADA Project’ and the residency process enacts that in a more literal sense – the artist spending time with the technology and responding to this mechanical subject ‘in person’, not as a means of learning a new skill, but as a productive process in itself.

A

Conrad Shawcross

— Certainly with ‘Metamorphosis’ (Editor’s Note: a 2012 collaboration between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet that was inspired by Titian’s Diana and Actaeon paintings, for which Shawcross created a similar robot), the link between Diana – the very seductive ruthless goddess lacking in empathy – and ours with technology was a direct reference. With ADA I’m attempting the use the machine more as an instrument – but one that only I can control. The music is submissive to the machine. This is perhaps selfish and may change later, but my intention is to create a few more commissions and then try to find an instructional home for the Ada salon (Editor’s Note: a planned pop-up space that would host a programme of Lovelace-inspired performances).

Q

The White Review

— Why did you call the paths drawn by the light ‘splines’?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— A spline is a mathematical term for a smooth curve in space, but it’s sort of time-based. It’s a three-dimensional algorithm.

Q

The White Review

— Time has been a consistent theme in your work, yet the things you’ve created out of that interest often present different, perhaps contradictory, models of time. In ‘Chord’ it’s linear, symmetrical, but ‘Timepiece’ is cyclical, drawing attention more to timekeeping. Do you see them as competing models, or do the different iterations represent a development of thought?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— In a way the rope machines are distinct. They are all dealing with time, but different aspects and problems associated with it. I was fascinated by this rope machine I’d seen on a documentary – it was a massive industrial wire-making thing that was pulling all these steel cables together. I was amazed by this apex of it all coming together and I got very obsessed with making a machine. In quite a naïve way I thought I was making some kind of model of time – the spools were planets and they were coming together to form this collective history, and any moment can be traced back to a certain point in the rope – but if I had made a model of time I would be a Nobel Prize-winning physicist now. That’s where it succeeds as an artwork – in its failure as a model. Its failure highlights the problems associated with our perception of time as a line or a cycle, and our reliance on metaphor to understand or describe time.

Q

The White Review

— And ‘Timepiece’?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— ‘Timepiece’ was very much a response to the room at the Roundhouse. It was a turning point when I discovered there were twenty-four columns in the space. I looked at where the number came up, and it really is quite unique to the day. I was looking at why we have twenty-four hours in a day, and no-one really knows why there are twenty-four and not, say, ten. One compelling idea is that you would use your thumb to count the digits on each finger; you’d have these twelve indexes, using your thumb as a counting system. Before there were number descriptions you would vaguely know what time that was by counting slowly through these indexes.

Q

The White Review

— Who came up with that system?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— It’s just one that I read online, but it’s one that I find quite compelling. In Ancient Rome, they would have a sundial in the day and then a water clock at night, but because the day and the night would constantly be changing lengths, you had this crazy system – it’s probably why the whole Roman Empire collapsed – where it would be relatively easy to tell the time on the equinox, because night would be as long as day. But as summer approached, the hour would get longer by an incremental amount, and so would the day, and you had to calibrate all your water clocks to compensate. By the time you got to the summer solstice, the period that was twelve hours at the equinox became eighteen or twenty hours long, and in the night clock the hours are really short. I don’t know how anyone ever met anyone or kept time. It sounds completely barmy.

 

I was looking at the clock and its peculiarities. It’s the ubiquitous system that governs us all, and we all use it – there’s this tyranny of time – I wanted to make this huge, ominous presence, but really to turn the clock back into this peculiar thing again, because it’s the result of 3,000 years of endeavour from many different cultures to try and keep an regulate time. 360 comes out of the Mayan calendar, and the Pythagoreans, the Mayans and the Ancient Egyptians were all obsessed with it. But the 365-and-a-quarter days in the year – they all willfully ignored the 5-and-a-quarter days because they were so ugly, while 360 is a beautiful number: you can slice it into 12, into 6, into 3, into 4. Christmas is the only time of year when you ask, ‘Is it a Wednesday? A Thursday?’, because it’s the time when they were resetting the calendar, because they wanted 360 days in the year. That’s why most civilizations in the world have that week off, get really drunk, and start again.

Q

The White Review

— Is it often that ambiguity in ostensibly empirical ideas that interests you?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— Yes, I guess the thing that I want to do is try and chisel away at some of the assumptions about what’s real and what’s certain, and things like this clock thing – it’s so easy and familiar, it’s taken as this normal thing, whereas if you could see it from an objective point of view or take that step back, it’s really bizarre. I like to be able to show the stilts or the fragile foundations that we stand on in terms of our sense of realit, how precarious things are and how our brains get used to the familiar and learn to think of things as normal. These things could be so different, with just the slightest bits of change in history. We could have been governed by different systems.

Q

The White Review

— When I saw ‘Timepiece’ there was a kind of optical illusion to it as well – the rotational vector of the metal arm set against the straight line drawn by the bulb, distorting where the pivot point lies. Those distortions are there in ‘Slow Arc Across a Cube’ (2007) too. Is optical illusion a part of this process of ‘making strange’?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— Yes, the cube was definitely destabilizing, and quite intense. When people are in there they feel quite dizzy and sometimes quite nauseous. It puts the architecture of the room (which is usually this stable space of control, of safety) into flux: the ceiling starts coming down and the floor starts coming up. It’s quite unnerving.

Q

The White Review

— Another theme seems to be parts and wholes, constituent parts. Does that help us understand why you seem to be interested in process more than stasis? I’m thinking of your ‘Lattice Cube Sequence’ (2011), which, though consisting of static objects, shows a structure in its stages of formation (or disintegration, depending on which way you read it); or again of the rope machines, where you’re watching as something is being made.

A

Conrad Shawcross

— A lot of the works look at ancient Platonic solids and these eternal, essential forms that were all about the geometry of the sphere. For me that’s very intriguing. The lattice came out of these regular ones we made out of regular tetrahedrons. I just set myself the challenge of, instead of making a piece made of cubes, I would use the primary Platonic solid – the tetrahedron – and see what happens.

Q

The White Review

— What makes it a primary form?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— In Ancient Greece, it was the symbol of the atom, the indivisible unit, because it is the simplest of the Platonic solids: it has four sides, and below four you go down to two dimensions. They used it as a symbol of the atom, which in Greek times was not what we know as the atom today, because it was sort of cannibalised by eager scientists in the 1890s.

Q

The White Review

— The ones who found the ‘real’ atom?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— Yes, they found it and thought it was the indivisible unit, the basic essence of everything. And they called it the atom because they were sort of showing off, but within a generation they’d divided the atom into smaller elements, and it completely ruins the original philosophical definition of what an atom is. The tetrahedron is a perfect building block for that, and I wanted to use that as my brick. We made these sculptures, but actually tetrahedrons are completely unruly: they don’t tessellate because they come round and form jagged bits, and they don’t fit together like cubes. There aren’t many rules governing a tetrahedron’s regularity apart from one that means it forms this tetrahelix (Editor’s Note: he points to a sculpture in the kitchen).

Q

The White Review

— That attempt to expose these gaps or deficiencies in theory is something that often appears in your work, yet ‘Palindrome’ was introduced as a ‘perfect diagram of a hole’. What did you mean by that?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— A hole is a void inside an object, and the thing that a hole requires is a host. You can’t have a hole without a host because it just becomes space. I’m actually doing this show at the Science Museum at the moment – the running title is ‘Holes in the Collection’. It’s looking at the perceptual nuances of what a hole is, and all the different types of holes. We’re importing a lot of different artworks like ones by Rachel Whiteread, where she’s filled a hole and then got rid of the host, so you’re left with this positive of the hole. We’ve got Anish Kapoor’s ‘Descent into Limbo’, we’re trying to borrow Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Ascent into Limbo’, we’ve got Gordon Matta-Clark’s cut-out holes in floors and some photographs of that kind of work. There are all these different interesting elements – quantum tunneling, black holes, Klein bottles…

Q

The White Review

— Quantum tunneling being the idea that you can theoretically move through solid objects?

A

Conrad Shawcross

— Yes,  we’ve got an expert speaking about that. All smartphones deploy quantum tunneling, even though the term is a metaphor for a theoretical, mathematical idea. I don’t really know how it works but it allows you to have far more memory on your phone.

Q

The White Review

— The theme reminds me of something in ‘Timepiece’, where there was a recommendation that the audience didn’t crowd the central space, enforcing a gap for the shadows to be cast.

A

Conrad Shawcross

— Yes, we didn’t want it to be too crowded. It’s nice that everyone forms their own shadowmaker, and everyone becomes part of the experience.

Q

The White Review

— How are you approaching displaying holes in an exhibition context?
A

Conrad Shawcross

— We’re trying to do them all on a maquette level, so you can’t quite tell the difference between the real scientific objects and the art objects – there’s an ambiguity between the two. You’ll walk through the show through different phases, different stages, and you’ll hopefully leave realising how ubiquitous, how essential holes are to industry and our reality and to science and our modern world. And also how problematic they are perceptually, philosophically, and existentially. Birth, death; we all come from a hole; we all get put in a hole at the end of our life: holes are everywhere.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Conrad Shawcross is a London-based artist, whose practice focuses on mechanical sculpture. He has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions internationally at such venues as the MONA in Tasmania, the Palais de Tokyo, and Victoria Miro Gallery.

Patrick Sykes is a writer and editor currently based in Beirut.



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