Think of a robot, what do you see?
A mechanical, articulated, cold, metallic object with two arms, two legs and a thinking head? Is it really devoid of emotions? You may wonder what would happen if it accidentally emancipated itself. Because while they make our daily lives easier and fulfill our desires for comfort or modernity, robots invade our imagination of a technocentric, sterile, post-industrial future in which they evolve and flourish. However, this field opens up a wide range of possibilities: can robotics rhyme with sustainable transformation of society? Artists Selma Lepart and Nathalie Guimbretière have chosen this path: experimenting with Soft robotics and Low-tech, a winning combination.
In order to understand the issues at stake in the project, we must first go over their respective definitions. “Soft robotics” is a sub-field of robotics which uses soft or elastic materials, such as silicone or plastic. They are used in technical fields that require precise operations (e.g. surgery), as their flexibility makes the environment more accessible. In addition, soft robots are designed to interact with their environment, and tend to become more autonomous; they can lean, grasp objects of different sizes and textures, change shape, slip into hard-to-reach places… Their movement is organic, with shellfish and insects often inspiring their appearance, which can make them more endearing than the rigid robots of our imagination.
Low-tech is a rather complex concept to define. According to the low-tech lab, it is a set of systems, techniques, services, know-how, practices, lifestyles and even currents of thought, which integrate technology according to three main principles: useful, accessible and sustainable. Opposed to high-tech, it is not a question of banning new technologies or returning to a primitive way of life, but rather of living with everything we have created since the industrial revolution and deconstructing what pollutes. It is about making responsible choices and adopting a lifestyle that is respectful of the planet. This involves DIY, passing on and collaborating. A better word for it would be “appropriate technology” – that which is appropriate, and that which is appropriated.
If we remain at the definitional stage, Soft robotics and Low-tech seem at first sight incompatible. However, this combination makes more sense than it seems; although it implies a high degree of technicality, the very essence of the creation of a soft robot is its ability to adapt to a changing environment. They are intended to be robust and resilient thanks to the choice of flexible and accessible materials. The questions of how they work, how they are shaped and how they are used are treated equally, forcing engineers and designers to change their traditional way of thinking, and to work on smaller scales. According to Nathalie and Selma, Soft robotics would be Low-tech that ignores itself, or even “Wild Tech” (Emmanuel Grimaud).
The two artists meet for the first time at the ENSAD Lab in Paris, on the occasion of the open days of the studios, each being part of a distinct research group. Selma is studying questions of the autonomy of artworks and the relationship of affect we create towards them. Naturally, she is interested in Soft robotics. Nathalie focuses on the role of the designer and the anthropology of technology, questioning the relationship of individuals with technologies, the use of objects and their societal impact. They get along well, and even though time passes by, they do not lose sight of each other and evoke the idea of a collaboration. Together, they put their research into perspective, and find that the objectives and methodologies of Low-tech fit well and enrich the Soft robotics project: one adopts a technical approach and the other counterbalances it with a philosophy based on contemporary concerns.
Selma’s basic idea is to create a Soft robotics kit, a tool that can be shared and that allows prototyping objects without having an engineering background. A complete creation could result from each use, making the kit the starting point for new projects and therefore an object of study. But before designing one, artists need a field of experimentation in which they can test the creation of objects with people whose way of thinking is different from their own. Autonomy, sharing and transmission of values are the keywords. The workshop format is essential in the face of a project that has remained theoretical until now. So when the opportunity to design a workshop for engineering students presents itself to Selma, she proposes to Nathalie to make it happen.
The workshop takes place at the beginning of 2022 at IMT Atlantique; five prototypes are produced, the experience is fun and stimulating for all. The first results are conclusive for the artists from an experiential, technical and also personal point of view. First of all, the members of the groups, who did not necessarily know each other, learned to collaborate. By adopting a researcher’s attitude, they were able to make mistakes, motivate themselves, change direction, stress, and above all to discover the gaps between theory and practice. In terms of design, the creations were rather inspired by nature, so a wrist and hand prosthesis, a caterpillar, a frog and an octopus were created. Finally, Nathalie and Selma, who used to give workshops in their respective fields, complemented each other; one wanted to integrate more practice in her approach, while the other needed support for documentation and group management.
One thing is certain, the duo works on all levels and this first audience welcomes them warmly. They will have to continue to confront their project with various people to nourish it. Indeed, the more different the types of audience, or the more varied their approaches and interests, the richer the quality of the kit, and the more potential results. Also, artists, whose concerns are based on more abstract subjects, will certainly approach the project from another angle than that of aerospace researchers, or of a public with physical disabilities. As the workshops progress, the discoveries and knowledge of one person will be passed on to the others; Selma and Nathalie are keen to ensure that the scope of the sharing is as wide as possible. The real value of the kit is to cross ideas and disciplines and above all to break down prejudices by confronting one category of people with the reality of another.
As for possible continuations of the project, the artists are thinking of several things; Selma wants to experiment and collect the tests produced by the participants, then iterate until the choices are used up. Nathalie wants to raise awareness about energy consumption by learning how to use and measure the quantities of solar energy, and then make choices accordingly. At this stage of the project, they are not using reusable or biodegradable materials but the idea is not excluded. Thinking about making the kit marketable is not on the agenda either.
Soft robots are impressively powerful objects; they are deformable, adaptable and resistant to almost anything, they will become autonomous and self-sufficient. Their “soft” aspect gives them a sympathetic side and shatters our Frankenstein syndrome. Even better, they arouse curiosity and unite those who linger on them.
Selma Lepart and Nathalie Guimbretière have not finished deconstructing preconceived ideas and desecrating robots; as long as their complex technology remains appropriate, they make an incredible ally in building a sustainable future.
Photo credit : Marielle Rossignol
“Mixing cognitive theory with art practice and philosophical thinking is what interests me. I’m not attracted to making a finished object that works.” The posture of art researchers does not differ greatly from that of scientists; artists network, define methodologies and experiment, with the aim of advancing common knowledge in a field. Selma Lepart started out creating art and found in research a way to deepen her insights. She is interested in the autonomy of artworks, their relationship to their environment, and the role of new technologies in this regard.
With a research biologist father and a qualified trainer mother, we might have expected Selma’s attraction to research, but this aspect does not come until quite late in her artistic career. In her youth, art does not play a major role, unlike swimming, which she practices at a high level. She remembers two distinct details: firstly, that water is a partially controllable element, a material that needs to be in osmosis with it, and secondly, the relationship of trust established between the coach and the swimmer. If one does not advance, neither does the other. In spite of everything, Selma sets her sights on art; she joins the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Nîmes in 2001 for two years, before flying to the Reunion Island where she continues her training at the same school for another year.
The artistic curriculum is fulfilling, she develops her own thought patterns, the experiences are positive, Selma learns a lot, and does not give up on art. She continues for two more years, this time at the Arts Décoratifs of Strasbourg, where she is initiates into craft practices, from glass blowing to engraving, via ceramics. She discovers the transition of materials during the different phases of modelling, and all the limitations that the techniques impose; also glass is untouchable during its transformation, and clay models itself differently under the hands according to its degree of humidity. Echoing swimming, Selma is fascinated by the relationship with the material and by the time she leaves school in 2007, she knows what kind of work she wants to do.
Back in Montpellier, she begins to create her first major work: Mercure Noir. In a tank about a metre high, there is a bottom of ferrofluid, a liquid attracted by magnets. It is made up of iron particles, which are themselves coated with a surfactant that prevents them from sticking together. The whole thing is bathed in a solvent (oil, water, etc.) giving it a petroleum-like texture. When activated with a magnet, the ferrofluid takes on the shape of the magnetic field spikes, and can be moved in space. Selma builds a robotic system armed with magnets connected to 12 sensors that she places under the tank. As the audience approaches, depending on the angle from which they arrive, one of the sensors is triggered, moving the magnet in its direction, and the liquid follows. Except that Selma, who self-taught herself to code for the needs of the installation, writes a correct but slow program. The numerous visitors place themselves in different parts of the tank, and then Mercure Noir only has time to go to the sensors which are activated several times in a row. Not knowing the mechanism, and despite the disturbing aspect of the ferrofluid, some consider themselves to be left out by the work.
Selma observes; the audience is disappointed not to be at the centre of attention. Her expectations and her ability to put herself at the centre of the work leads the artist to ask: how can the perception of a work of art change the behaviour of the person who experiences it?
The interactive dimension then becomes essential in Selma’s work. She produces a variety of installations that are quick and easy to set up, and always with materials that have the inherent ability to deform themselves. The larger works require more time and funding, and Selma is caught between her exhibitions, and her work at the “Living Room”, a residency that hosts three young Occitan artists per year. During the three years she spends there, she builds up a network, assists the artists in setting up projects, and thrives in collaborative work.
Then in 2016, she creates a second important work. With the installation R.E.D (Réponse Électro-Dermale), she takes her experimentation a step further; covering an entire wall, R.E.D comprises triangular silicon shapes capable of lifting thanks to shape memory wires. Made of a metal alloy, the wire expands or contracts in response to heat. The triangles are programmed to move according to their own fictitious circadian rhythm, and the presence of the audience in the room. Their movement resembles that of a bristling hair. Depending on the number of people and the time of day, R.E.D. does not react in the same way; the interaction is real, but it is never left to chance. This experience prompts Selma to start researching.
That same year, she joins the Reflective Interaction research group at the ENSAD Lab in Paris, one of the only ones working on the subject that interests her. But to get in, she has to pass the PhD exam, for which she is competing with fifty other people. She wins her place in the group and it is there, during the open days of the laboratories, that she meets Nathalie Guimbretière, her future collaborator and friend. Far from her living and working environment in Montpellier, she perseveres in the pursuit of her studies and her thesis at SACRe between 2017 and 2019. Nevertheless, she travels back and forth between the two cities every week; Selma’s father is diagnosed with Charcot’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease that affects motor skills, phonation and swallowing. His life expectancy is drastically reduced, so Selma leaves Paris and ENSAD Lab for good.
However, she continues her research, this time at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie de la vie, whose objective is to study all facets of the conception of life, even artificial life. Her work is more academic, she no longer develops projects for her thesis, but rather draws up an inventory of what the autonomy of artworks represents, or their capacity to become autonomous. Slightly different from her personal work, her thesis focuses on the projects of other artists or creators and addresses complex issues related to embodied cognition or motivation. In addition, she finds a reassuring coach/swimmer relationship with her new director, and a collaborative environment.
As part of her thesis, Selma discovers Soft robotics and realises that Mercure Noir and R.E.D are based on the same principles. The works interact with their environment and lead individuals to engage in this interaction. As a paradox, Soft robotics is also developed for the needs of people with motor disabilities. Selma wants to further these studies, so every time Nathalie comes to Montpellier, they discuss the possibility of implementing their future LowSoRo project, until the day the proposal for the IMT Atlantique workshop comes through. Today, the artists are looking to develop and iterate the workshops, and continue their journey in parallel.
In May 2022, Selma is working on a film with Vincent Ducarne, of which she is the author. The initial script was co-written with Michael Verger for the ENS seminar Without computer : anthropocene and digital imaginaries in 2019. The fiction features the investigation of the loss of an artificial intelligence, through the interrogation of the scientist who created it. This work, although still in production, could be the subject of an exhibition in the near future, and even illustrate her thesis defense.
Selma Lepart has embarked on the impossible quest to create an autonomous work of art, and all the events in her life so far seem to converge in this direction.
With strength and determination, she listened to her instincts and made the most of each experience to contribute to the common artistic knowledge.
Insights on artistic research
What is Art? If we find some definitions that seem relevant, this question has remained at the heart of debates between theorists throughout the centuries. Today we still do not have a clear answer, which makes it even more difficult to conceptualise artistic research. How can we do research in the arts if we cannot define Art? This discipline, which has a tradition going back several centuries, has suffered from a very late official recognition. Its essence is transdisciplinarity, and through it, contemporary artist-researchers are pushing the limits of science and new technologies.
Since the beginning of their existence, artists have examined the world around them at a given moment and transcribed their observations into their works, thus reflecting the values of their time. When History shows us facts and events produced in the past, Art refers us to the state of society at the time of these facts. It shows us the mentalities, the struggles, the social, if not religious or political fractures. When we talk about scientific advances, artists take hold of them, test them in a different way, one that does not always bring a result or a concrete application, but which aims to take a prospective look at our future.
Like all forms of research, arts research is also in the direction of innovation. When Selma Lepart wishes to deepen the question of matter in movement, she is looking at materials that are little known to the general public, and technical processes that require the support of engineers. As a neophyte with no formal training, she learns on the job and in collaboration, creating her own mediums for the needs of her installations. However, the beliefs that art has only an aesthetic purpose and that engineering, on the contrary, only produces objects with a function, are popular misconceptions, even in scientific or academic circles. The function of the work of art is simply more blurred.
Some artist-researchers choose to follow the doctoral path, which allows them to benefit from pedagogical supervision, and to work with a group of individuals who focus on the same themes. The aim is to nurture one’s own research and that of others, through the experiences of the thesis. Although research encourages researchers to use experimental protocols, the risk of this method is to have a group that adopts the same thinking mechanisms. Yet for Selma and Nathalie, reshaping their thinking is an essential exercise in growing and evolving as artists and one way to address this, is to diversify encounters, hence the need to create spaces for this, by producing workshops for example.
These workshops are also used to design a kit, which will serve as a support for their studies. The question of support in research is very important because it gives legitimacy to the research itself. Unlike scientists relying on previously formulated studies and theories, or anthropologists doing fieldwork, the artist-researcher must create his or her own materials. And despite the new generations of artists who are setting up valid models, and their willingness to nuance thesis formats that are considered too rigid (at least in France), research in the arts is still too rarely valued.
One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that research in the arts often starts from the artist’s personal interest in a particular subject, which can create a gap between theory and practice. This is logical, however; we may be curious and want to investigate all existing subjects, but we will always be more attracted to our own needs or interests. In soft robotics, the best specialists in prosthetic hands are probably those who have lost their hands. In the United States, many more women work in this field, which has resulted in creations related to female needs, particularly in the gynaecological sphere. In any case, research often starts from a common or personal interest.
The artistic fields are no exception, and this is even part of the initial definition of the artist, the one laid down at the beginning of the 16th century and led by the famous Leonardo da Vinci: the artist is no longer a simple craftsman or entrepreneur as long as he or she creates for himself or herself. And mixing his or her art with disciplines that are a priori distant is an open door to innovation.
In 2022, it is still difficult to materialise research in the arts, and to claim its complexity. Making it accessible and shareable to all is a new challenge, and some artists, like Selma Lepart and Nathalie Guimbretière, are working hard to make it happen.
“I keep being amazed by our multiple conditioning, the hardness of becoming aware, of having to change.” Whether it is for our own personal development, for the planet or for society, awareness is the key step to change in our thinking. It sets the limits of our state at the moment and pushes us to ask ourselves: how can we act? More and more people are questioning themselves. By experimenting with new technologies, crossing scientific disciplines, and contributing to research, artist-researchers leave a scent of revolution, like a contemporary Renaissance. Nathalie Guimbretière is an example in this respect; thanks to her tricks, she strives to avoid comfort and self-centredness, the great enemies of change.
Nathalie grows up between the countryside and the seaside. Her parents, a painter and journalist, let her immerse herself in nature and discover the world around her. She observes, builds, paints, reads, decides. Very early on, questions about the way the world works and the entities that inhabit it preoccupy her, and will never leave her. With a strong attraction for cultures and travels, Nathalie sees herself becoming an ethnomusicologist. But the image and visuals, too important, push her to launch a career as a graphic designer for socially engaged sponsors, like Attac France. This period is short, and she moves to the opposite end of the spectrum by working as an art director for a communication agency for luxury brands. After three years, her values catch up with her and she leaves the field; visual creation implies a certain ethics and a great responsibility, so she refocuses on her own political and social convictions. Back in the associative, cultural, local authority and prison sectors, her clients include music festivals, theatres, media libraries and the Secours Populaire.
For Nathalie, conditioning and neutrality are the objects of a fierce struggle, it is no longer enough to resign ourselves to the fact that “we have always done it this way”. And self-questioning is essential in the process. For, according to her, confronting other ways of thinking pushes us into uncomfortable areas of friction, from which new thinking emerges. When our opinion on a subject is fixed, the thought disappears, and with it our motivation to act.
This is followed by studies in art and philosophy, completed with a PhD in art and philosophy of art, this time at the University Paul Valéry in Montpellier. There, she joins the RIRRA 21 research laboratory, which focuses on literature, and at the same time, she joins the research laboratory of the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs (“Ensad Lab”) as an associate researcher in the GoD|Art group, which studies art forms that are not considered as such, such as comics or video games. With this group, she uses punk methods, she experiments with playful means of construction, with whatever she can get her hands on. This is the beginning of the application of the low-tech concept in her artistic practice. She also travels a lot, and is convinced that otherness, whether in relation to cultures or social groups, is necessary to accompany change.
At the Ensad Lab, she meets Selma Lepart, her future friend. They meet regularly in Montpellier where Nathalie, hosted by Selma, pursues her thesis. The LowSoRo project slowly emerges.
In 2019, after ten years, she puts her career as a freelance art director on hold; in addition to academic research, she focuses on the transmission and sharing of knowledge, key values in her eyes. She lives between Paris and Angers, between her city studio and her country studio. In Angers, she continues to lead various workshops and courses with different audiences and practices multiple arts. For example, in June 2022, she accompanies young people aged 16-30, unemployed and untrained, in a web documentary creation workshop, to train them in audiovisual professions. She also gives workshops at the prison in Angers as part of the Premiers Plans festival.
In Paris, she works in a former linear particle accelerator with a collective called sas (Science Art Société); their idea is to carry out projects at the crossroads of the arts (plastic, digital, performative) and sciences (physics, biology) with researchers, artists, but also pupils and students from underprivileged suburbs, in order to fight against the under-representation of minorities in the scientific and artistic worlds. Thanks to this unusual space, the group explores sound spatialisation, and Nathalie gives audio/visual performances. Finally, she researches and teaches at the Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay at the Laboratoire Centre de Recherche en Design (ENS-ENSCI), as well as at the Université Paul Valéry de Montpellier. She also co-creates in 2021 with Milan Otal, the Collectif Pronaos, a multidisciplinary artistic collective mixing scientists and artists.
The artist moves from teaching to academic research, from artistic practices to training workshops, from individual work to collective work, from one city to another. Each time she alternates, she has to reprogram herself intellectually, sometimes very quickly. She crosses the fields of anthropology, philosophy, art and considers the workshop as a social and political space. Also, moving around to look for new images is part of her methodology, creating a meeting space between individuals to write a collective story, following this idea that has become a leitmotiv for her: to cross theory and practice at all times and in all places. When Nathalie works on a project by bringing together people with a high level of disability, both physical and mental, and the general public, she contributes to opening up new possibilities for the future development of the territory around this problem. Art makes it possible to create these “islands of thought“, open spaces of thinking.
Today, with the LowSoRo project, whose workshop took place in January 2022 at IMT Atlantique, she manages to apply her low tech philosophy for the first time through an artistic and technical practice, while feeding her research. Soft robotics could be a complete practice, still vast of experimentations, and which leads her to consider low tech under a new angle.
Nathalie Guimbretière understood that multiplying disciplines, opening up to other knowledge, and confronting the realities of others was vital in order to avoid confinement and isolation.
And art, beyond its thousand virtues, is a powerful way to overcome this.
Insights on low-tech
“The best energy is the energy we don’t use!” This quote is so widely used in politics and mass media that it is difficult to find the author. Taken out of context and used as a commercial slogan, it sometimes creates waves of approval, sometimes waves of indignation. Like technology, its meaning varies according to the way it is used. The low-tech approach faces this dilemma ; central to contemporary debates and yet gaining more and more recognition from official institutions. Artists, designers and thinkers interested in new technologies bring justice to it by adopting a line of reasoning that conforms to its definition: useful, accessible, sustainable.
Far from the technophobic image it conveys, low-tech encourages us to rethink the relevance of technological uses and willingly allies itself with high-tech through a logic of complementarity. Thinking low-tech means exercising one’s critical mind with regard to the objects we use and what we do with them. This is the entry point that Nathalie Guimbretière uses to link her approach to Soft Robotics, that of the anthropology of technology; this discipline seeks precisely to define the role and use of objects or technologies, and to understand their impact on human and social behaviour. One of its best-known thinkers, André-Georges Haudricourt, tells us that “any object, if you study it correctly, the whole society comes with it“.
Understanding the relationships that people have with technologies is essential for design research and technical innovation. But it is also important to understand what the objects we use are made of; by analysing their composition from their raw materials, their provenance, their method of extraction and manufacture, their cost, their human and environmental impact. Because our consumption patterns, particularly in the West, have not changed since the Glorious Thirty, on the contrary they have become more pronounced, and our society has failed to adapt to the changes brought about by this lifestyle. Today, more than ever, designers have the responsibility to bring new solutions in the respect of human rights and ecology, and to the detriment of consumerism.
So low-tech seems like an ideal solution because it encourages us to question our habits and then change our thinking. Soft robotics is full of examples; NASA researchers have identified lava tunnels on the moon, craters 500-900 metres wide, which could be used as long-term storage spaces for equipment. Except that the rovers used to explore the sites are designed for smooth terrain, and their current design leads to their loss, or degradation. To avoid this, scientists have launched an international call for projects: one of the winning ideas is a soft robot inspired by centipedes, dressed in a fabric capable of regenerating itself. Its movements will be organic and it will be able to adapt to unpredictable environments. The originality of the project automatically places it in the category of innovations, and the technology used is only intended for certain specific operations.
However, the materials used to produce the soft robots, and the manufacturing chain, call into question the low-tech nature of this example. But if we go in this strict direction, the question could also be asked of a bicycle, as Philippe Bihouix reminds us. Because it is the approach that counts; to manage to modify our mental images of robots or art, to question our ways of living and our conditioning, to observe and be inspired by our environment. It is not a question of abandoning all forms of technology, but of understanding them and appropriating them for a relevant and sustainable use. And if Selma Lepart and Nathalie Guimbretière wish to create an accessible soft robotics kit, it is above all with the idea of teaching this flexibility of mind.
Low-tech thinking is a great exercise that challenges our brains.
Step by step, we will educate ourselves to change and discern, with the aim of reducing our ecological footprint and social injustices.
After all, it is nature that inspires the best ideas; “inventions are only failed imitations“, Haudricourt as a great observer has once again hit the nail on the head.