Interview with Alessandro Ludovico for
Neural / Issue 32 - Machine Affection
(Spring 2009)

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 complex interactions.

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 future?
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 swarms?
he 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 evolution.

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 ( Together adults and kids sit and realize their robot projects and age and profession have no relevance any more.

How long the sound creatures you create during the workshops are supposed to last?
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.