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Fearful Symmetries: a robotic performance at Tate Modern

By Clare S Ryan, on 24 August 2012

Credit: Simon Kennedy

Fearful Symmetries is a new robotic installation by Ruairi Glynn (UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment), commissioned for the Tate’s Undercurrent programme at their new Tanks gallery. Clare Ryan went to see the performance live.

In the bowels of Tate Modern, an industrial cave, hidden for decades, has been awakened. As the crowd chatters expectantly outside the Tanks gallery, something lies in wait behind heavy doors.

The audience file into the cavernous space and turn to see a bright triangular light floating in the middle of the room, in stark relief against the dense darkness in the concrete tank. As we start to gather around the angular orb, it begins to slide back and forth – activated by our arrival.

Deep bass sounds bounce off the walls and the almost animal-like motions of the light captivate us. Clapping, whistling, waving audience members try and attract its attention. Murmurs of intrigue join the resonating beats – can it see us? Can it hear us? Is it motion sensitive?

As it hovers above your head, you gaze upwards and reach out your hands as the pointed, glowing orb takes you in. Guiding the audience around the space, it is playfully encouraging us to become a part of the performance.

Step forward the robot’s creator, Ruairi Glynn. “This work is a direct reaction to the Tanks space itself,” he said.

“We have filled the space with the sounds of this living machine, mixed live by our team of sound artists. The movements have been choreographed by master puppeteers with a lifetime’s experience breathing life into inanimate objects.

“The entire installation will be constantly creating a different environment from one moment to the next and is completely reactive to the audience in the space.”

Ruairi explains how scanners attached to the ceiling are recognising the tops of our heads and directing the motion of the robot, explaining why it stops to hover directly above us. However, although this is the biggest delta robot (i.e. three arms and a universal joint at the base) ever made, it’s not used to having 200 heads to scan at once. “It’s confused!” jokes Ruairi.

Discussing the work outside over a glass of wine, I ask myself whether this is art or architecture. We’re in the Tate, so we expect ‘art’ – but would an artist give away the tricks of his performance as Ruairi has done? Explain in detail how it was made, the process behind the robot’s movements? I can’t help but think that artists protect the mystery behind their work a bit more closely.

But, then, is it architecture? Clearly not in the traditional sense of designing buildings, but there is a familiar focus in Fearful Symmetries on materials, technology and a design that interacts with its surroundings.

Whether art or architecture, the new Tanks gallery at Tate Modern is a truly dramatic space, and I imagine that it will be a key player in all the performance and installation art that the gallery has scheduled over the coming months. What I’m trying to say is – I think it’s worth a trip down to the Tate’s basement.

Photo by Simon Kennedy (www.simonkennedy.net)

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