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.