The beauty of movement explored through art and science

Daily Lines (feedback), 2020 Nature of Robotics: An Expanded Field © image EPFL Pavilions, photo: Alain Herzog

Daily Lines (feedback), 2020 Nature of Robotics: An Expanded Field © image EPFL Pavilions, photo: Alain Herzog

CDH artists in residence worked with EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory to create an innovative soft robot, which is on exhibition the EPFL Pavilions.As part of the College of Humanities artist-in-residence program, US-based artists Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson worked with EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory, led by Auke Ijspeert, to create a unique visualization of the movement of an aquatic soft robot. The work is currently being presented at the newly rebranded EPFL Pavilions – formerly ArtLab – as part of the Nature of Robotics: An Expanded Field exhibition. Focusing on the emerging perspectives and scenarios of the rapidly expanding field of robotics, the show lives at the crossroads of scientific research and the visual arts.

Dubbin and Davidson’s collaboration with Prof. Ijspeert, in charge of the Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob), represents the second CDH artistic residency, following Nora Al-Badri’s inaugural exhibition in 2019. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the artists and scientists had to devise a remote collaboration plan and complete their project while working from two different continents.

Despite the challenges of the long-distance collaboration, the use of technology to facilitate synergy between art and science ended up being a beautiful metaphor for the residency and its final product: a virtual simulation of the flow of water around a robotic manta ray, as it swims. 

“I think art is a bit like science: you ask yourself questions, and it’s a way of discovering new things. I also think there is something beautiful in our devices and simulations, so the link between art and robots can be very interesting,” said Ijspeert of the collaboration.

Art in motion

Soft robots, as their name implies, are made using pliable materials, such as silicone, rubber or even textiles, that are often designed to emulate the tissues of living organisms. Many soft robots are therefore inspired by nature, and bio-inspired robots – like the AmphiBot and Pleurobot – are one line of research done in the BioRob lab. 

Professor Ijspeert and Ph.D. student, Jonathan Arreguit, applied their expertise in using robots to better understand the locomotion of live organisms – especially swimming animals – to develop a simulation of the movement of a manta ray soft robot, which Dubbin and Davidson had previously worked on as part of the exhibition IF THIS SNAKE at the 2019 Okayama Art Summit in Japan. 

Originally built using plans by Shuichi Wakimoto and the students at the Systems Integration Lab at Okayama University, the manta has now been updated using a newer type of actuator developed by Wakimoto and his team, using the American artists’ model for the body shape. 

The new installation, entitled Delay Lines, (feedback), features the small, silicone manta ray swimming in an artificial aquatic environment, which both influences and responds to the robot’s fluttering movements, thanks to a computational device. These movements are reflected in the BioRob lab’s simulation, which uses numerical models to compute the interaction forces between virtual fluid particles, and then produces a video visualization of the fluid dynamics around the moving body of the robot.

Melissa Dubbin & Aaron Davidson Daily Lines (feedback), 2020, Detail © image EPFL Pavilions, photo: Alain Herzog

The artists explain that they named the installation based on a term used to refer to the delay of reception of a signal, for example in the context of early computing or audio effects. 

“We were interested in the physicality of analog delay lines, which are lengths of wire or cable that amount to units of time. So, a very long video cable might create an image delay of one second for an image to arrive at its destination. Our title refers to this attempt to make time visible, and feedback refers to the variation of the project we are presenting at EPFL.”

Converging scientific and artistic approaches 

The artists enjoyed the collaboration with the BioRob lab, but were also challenged to connect the simulation data to their own creation. 

“The simulations that the BioRob lab are creating for their research are beautiful, in addition to their scientific importance. But since we are artists, we were interested to see what can happen when we consider the system of operations in order to create another set of relationships for this data. For example, there is a relationship between the temperature of the computer and behavior of the visuals, and between the movement of the manta and its navigation through the simulation.”

For his part, Prof. Ijspeert found the collaboration especially interesting as a scientist who has always been drawn to artistic projects, and notes the potential of robots in particular for artistic inspiration.

“The goal of this project is partially artistic, to show how the fluid is affected by flapping fins, and we also want to send a scientific message that shows what we can do in terms of the numerical simulation of fluids for understanding and developing better robots,” he says.

EPFL Pavilion exhibition

Delay Lines, (feedback) is being presented as part of EPFL Pavilion’s exhibition Nature of Robotics: An Expanded Field which runs from November 6th, 2020 - April 25th, 2021 in Pavilion B. This exhibition is also presenting works from EPFL’s Reconfigurable Robotics and Microrobotic Systems laboratories, highlights the state of the art robotics in the Swiss academic context, and brings together more than a dozen contemporary artists from around to world, to ignite contemplation on the impact of robotics on understanding our environment and society. This exhibition is curated by Dr. Giulia Bini for EPFL Pavilions, which is under the leadership of renown Professor, Dr. Sarah Kenderdine.

Procedures for visitors:

  • Our expansive exhibit space of 650 sqm is open to 5 (five) visitors per hour, every hour that we’re open. Our docents and mediator will be available to answer your questions, three times per day, at 12:15 PM. 3 PM, and 5 PM.
  • For a more in-depth perspective, the exhibit’s curator, Giulia Bini, will be on-site this opening weekend, on March 5th and 6th at 12:15 PM. 3 PM, and 5 PM.
  • Visits are free to the public. Book your visit now:
  • Self-paced visits are available every top of the hour, from 11 AM, with the last visits starting at 5 PM. 
  • Bring a mask. We have the disinfectant. 

About Dubbin and Davidson

The work of Melissa Dubbin, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA, and Aaron S. Davidson, from Madison, Wisconsin, USA, has been described as addressing "processes of transmission and reception, interference and transference”. It often seeks to materialize immaterial or ephemeral states of matter (sound, light, air, time). The artists have co-authored a body of works producing forms, objects, images and experiences, incorporating the mediums of photography, video, sound, performance, sculpture and artists books since they began working together in 1998.

About the BioRob lab

EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob) works on the computational aspects of locomotion control, sensorimotor coordination, and learning in animals and in robots. The researchers use robots and numerical simulation to study the neural mechanisms underlying movement control and learning in animals, and in return to take inspiration from animals to design new control methods for robotics as well as novel robots capable of agile locomotion in complex environments. The lab is also interested in rehabilitation robotics, e.g. exoskeletons, and in restoring locomotion.