Interview with Alessandro
Neural / Issue 32 - Machine Affection
You defined your artistic practice as "minimal robotics". In this
exemplary definition, you wanted to include a specific aesthetic and / or its
attitude to be the ideal basic element for sustainable robot projects?
I chose this term with a certain reference to Minimal Art, an art form of the
late 1960s and early 1970s: a reduced design combined with stripped elementary
electronics, mostly without a designed cover or wrapping/packaging. Moreover,
simple basic circuit concepts (primary structures), few electronic components,
very little power consumption and minimal output. I think my robotic installations
act as a reference to other kinetic/robotic art and electronic sound installations,
because they enable us to experience the elementary essence of electricity (chaotic
charge and discharge, complex transformation processes). In relation to power
consumption and autonomy they also represent an ideal for sustainable robot
projects. And my installations are extremly limited due to the way they are
constructed, not able to develop any further, unable to complete duties or manage
All your works seem to be pervaded by a strong environment-friendly ethic.
Which are the principles that should be followed to create machines that could
easily integrate with the environment?
Yes, that’s how it seems, but actually I use cheapest electronic components
(solar panels) made in China, which where certainly produced not considering
any environmental standards. Furthermore, due to their tiny size, these panels
will never be able to recapture/produce the amount of energy, which was needed
to manufacture them. I like to campaign for sustainable low energetic machines,
but unfortunately I need to compromise. In general, I think, regarding to their
qualities of intensity more machines should be adjusted to the nature surrounding
them. A certain balance should be aimed for. As most of nature’s processes
are low energetic, we need more machines of the same type. It should be clear
to everyone that we are in need of machines which are build to highest standards,
easy to repair, easy to rebuild and completely recyclable.
In this sense you created the "solarsoundmodul", a simple analogue
circuit with an attached piezo speaker and a small solar-panel generating various
sound patterns and it was effectively used by different other artists. Do you
ever felt to have created a basic and standard robotic music instrument?
The Solarsoundmodul is not such a big thing. Generating sound using an analogue
inverter circuit is very popular nowadays. When I built the first Solarsoundmodul,
replacing the battery with solar panels and the dynamic speaker with a piezo,
I was really surprised about the fresh and lively sounds and the chaotic and
astable patterns, which come so close to the sounds of real birds and insects.
It took me some time to realize that the crispy and fresh sound resulted from
the fact that the sound signal was not amplified and therefore did not loose
any quality during an amplifying stage. And I also needed some time to understand,
that the natural, chaotic-like sound patterns were determined by the solar panel’s
weak and limited energy feed. Together with Miki Yui and later with Martin Kuentz
I tried to use the Solarsoundmodul as an instrument during live concerts. Soon
we found out that the Solarsoundmodul is extremely difficult to control and
play and that the sound looses a lot of ist intensity and beauty when amplified.
I think that the Solarsoundmodul is the most fundamental, autonomous, electronic
sound device- with ist simplicity, autonomy, forwardness and unlimited variance.
As a musical instrument it is only of limited use.
In some installations you hid chirping solarsoundmodul-based robots in
the wild, and I remember that once I was experiencing them and I started wondering
which sound came from a real bird and which one from one of your small robots.
Were you able to "measure" if, and how your "autonomous audio
kinetic installations" were able to dialogue with other living beings?
No, I can’t read out or measure these things. There are lots of varied
elementary interactions. All the modules are interconnected with the outside
world - the solar modules act as energy supply and sensor. The specific local
light setting is converted into sound, rhythm and movement. The modules are
hyper-sensitive, they respond differently to light incidence, light intensity,
temperature, wind, as well as humidity and rain. Further they are subject to
daily and seasonal cycles. In the past I made some experiments with interlinking
modules and plants. The modules reacted to the plant’s capacity, which
depends on the plant’s water balance. A simple communication mechanism
can be observed, since the plant is stimulated differently by the modules dependent
on changes in the plant’s metabolism. Watching the plant over a longer
period I could detect some minor changes in its growth. Sometimes the communication
is a bit fuzzy (diffuse). For instance, in installations with lots of vibration
motors I sometimes find accumulations of spiders, having their webs built between
the modules and communicating with each other in a curious way.
You developed the "suneater", another simple but very effective
circuits that uses solar energy to feed small machines. Beyond contributing
to sustainable art projects, do you think that solar energy represents the most
realistic energy source for machines?
The basic suneater was designed by the Canadian Marc Tilden (BEAM). For
my installations I only made some modifications of the circuit. Solar energy
is an important energy source besides wind and water energy and its importance
will certainly grow because of no negative greenhouse effects. However, as the
cells’ efficiency is not much more increasable and as therefore the solar
modules will remain rather large, solar energy is not a good choice for machines
with high power consumption.
In a way, some of your small machines act as parasites, as you did in "APO"
where silver foils were wrapping/unwrapping sucking energy from neon lamps.
Do you think that parasite machines can play a substantial role in a sustainable
Potential future energy shortages could benefit the evolution and production
of parasite machines. We should learn that dissipation of energy is pollution
of the environment. Currently, energy is constantly devaluated (there is an
ongoing energy cancellation/devaluation), meaning that unused energy goes up
in smoke or is lost in heat or radiation energy (in every current transformer
a major portion of energy drops away like this). With the assistance of nanotechnology
and parasite machines possibly even the smallest available energy recesses can
be taken and utilized.
The acoustic fields in your installations is matched with micro mechanical
movements in what you call "living particles," expressing what used
to be called "electronic life-forms." In your opinion is the correspondence
between quality kinetic and sound that indicate something alive for us?
Yes, that's right. It is the correspondence between kinetics and sound which
reaches the viewer. Also a certain sound and kinetic aesthetics is needed. The
sound as well as the kinetic patterns of the Living Particles are based on identical
circuit designs of charge and recharge of lowest energy quantities. Besides
there are internal connections between the various modules. Therefore an invisible
energy correspondence exists on the one hand and an effect correspondence, such
as sounds and movement, on the other. Both permanently synchronize and the pulsing
of the system feels familiar to us. I believe that this is noticeable and it
allows us to sense a certain living quality in this bare system of electronic
parts and wires.
Size (tiny) seems to be quite an issue for your robots. Being light and
small they benefit from the small amount of energy obtained from the environment.
You arrange them in small swarms, so do you think that what they generate is
a swarm of sounds? In your opinion, which are the sound differences with real
size of the robots is determined by the size of the electronic and mechanical
components. The arrangements of swarms also allows the acoustical occupation
of larger spaces. By choosing from different sound modules and varying the quantity
of modules I can generate an intensive, compact swarm sound as well as a sequenced
progression of single sounds. The most intensive swarm sounds can only be generated
mechanically with sound waves originating from resonance. In my installation
"Living Particles Version 45" fifty small magnets rotated in irregular
intervals over glass reed switches, generating smooth metallic clicks which
were overlayed by hundreds of electronic whizzing sounds. This came very close
to real swarm sounds. However, swarm sounds of living populations are usually
much more intensive, since sound production and especially the development of
maximum volume and maximum intensity has been exposed to millions of years of
In the last decade you've conducted dozens of workshops. Which are the
most interesting reactions of participants you've noted, during and after the
creation of their small robotic creatures? Are they based on age and profession
(kids reacts differently from artists; for example)?
The participants always enjoy the workshops. It is a lot of fun to build your
own robotic creature. As soon as the circuit starts working the robots begin
to sing and jerk - there is always a great Hello. It’s a magic moment
and the constructor’s pride is often mixed with a little fear, that continuing
soldering could possibly damage the just created little robot. Time and again
it is amazing to see, that such a wimpy, handcrafted creature can arouse empathy,
can even activate a certain care in the builder. Kids mostly respond stronger
and their creatures are also more felicitous and coherent. It is difficult to
say why, but childlike curiosity and imagination fits perfect with simple analogue
electronics. In recent years I organized more and more parent-child workshops
together with Christian Faubel (derstrudel.org). Together adults and kids sit
and realize their robot projects and age and profession have no relevance any
How long the sound creatures you create during the workshops are supposed
How many creatures have been created so far?
Due to the fact that there are no wear parts, they should last several decades
- probably considerably longer. But in reality the robots often already get
damaged during their transport home (wires are ripped off etc.) and can't be
fixed again by the participants themselves because there is no soldering iron
at hand. For some time now Christian
Faubel is thinking about opening a "robot hospital", where participants
can sent their broken self-built robots and get them repaired for free. I think
we should offer this service very soon. It is difficult to say how many robots
have been created yet, but so far a lot more than one thousand creatures have
been built in about 70 workshops.