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Random International Takes Inspiration from Picasso to Test Our Empathy for AI

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

We are moving toward a future in which robots will become increasingly more human. And as we do, there are plenty of big questions to ask: How will we relate to robots? And will we be able to tell the difference between them and us? These are questions that sci-fi franchises like Westworld and Blade Runner have tried to answer, and the reality of the predicament may not be too far in the future as we edge closer to advanced AI.
A new kinetic work by experimental art studio Random International is exploring this idea through our innate ability to recognize human gesture. But there’s a twist: The “human” motion originates from a robotic form. The project, No One is an Island, is a collaboration with BMW’s electric vehicle brand, BMW i. No One is an Island synthesizes multiple creative mediums, combining technology, sculpture, and dance.
“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

The performative installation centers on a futuristic form that Random International made in 2019, called Fifteen Points / II—a series of robotic arms affixed with LEDs at the ends. Guided by an algorithm, the stainless steel structure slides down two rails. As it moves, it simulates an image of a human walking, using only 15 points of light. By making slight alterations to the positions of the light, the image of the “human” can change height, gender, or even mood.
“We can read other human beings and recognize them as such through very, very little information,” said Random International co-founder Hannes Koch. “[It’s a] tens-of-millions-of-years-old function in the brain…to understand whether you’re looking at something mechanical, like leaves flapping in the wind, or something alive.”
“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW, featuring Rebecca Bassett-Graham of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW, featuring Rebecca Bassett-Graham of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

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Koch and his creative partner Florian Ortkrass, who founded the London- and Berlin-based studio in 2005, believe that as soon as that function kicks in, you relate to the other being on a fundamental level—and that response can make you vulnerable. “When you recognize something as human, the next step is that you’re emotionally engaged,” said Koch.
But No One is an Island isn’t just a study of our human instincts—it’s also a performance, with dancers choreographed by who move holding their own light sources, in turn emulating the sculptural machine. In this way, the work becomes an exchange of motion, creating a poetic circularity between dancer and machine as they mimic one another.
“We asked the dancers to start testing [movements], to see if…somebody who is in utter control of their body can imitate a machine. Can they draw a perfect circle? Can they draw a perfect straight line?” asked Koch.
“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

Koch and Ortkrass looked to the series of long-exposure light paintings that created with photographer for Life magazine in 1949. In them, Picasso used a single lightbulb to create abstract compositions of light and motion that referenced his own style. Koch and Ortkrass were also reminded of ’s exploratorations of dance in the 1960s. Rauschenberg choreographed performances that verged on the absurd, and often experimented with sound. He enhanced the sounds the dancers’ bodies made by amplifying the noise of ripping paper or the ticking of alarm clocks. In the case of both Picasso and Rauschenberg, the artists married mechanical actions with human gesture, fascinated by how the motion of human bodies can be enhanced through inorganic means.
With No One is an Island originally planned as a live performance that would debut at Art Basel in Switzerland, Random International and BMW i still plan to show the installation in real life once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
“For us, it was an amazing opportunity to do all the things that we wanted to do [with] the sculpture, which essentially plays with our ability to recognize biological movement as an instant,” said Koch of the collaboration with BMW i.
“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett-Graham of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett-Graham of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

Koch and Ortkrass met during undergraduate studies at Brunel University in London, starting out with more of an interest in science and engineering and later developing a creative practice as they moved onto the Royal College of Art.
“Instead of being in a scientific context, we’re free to really follow our own interests,” said Ortkrass.
The idea behind Fifteen Points originated during their artist residency at Harvard University, working with the professor Robert D. Howe at the Harvard Biorobotics Lab. Later, they enlisted the help of the tech company Synapticon to make a full-scale sculpture of their concept.
“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

No One is an Island isn’t Koch and Ortkrass’s first foray into simulating the motion of the human body with LEDs. In Our Future Selves (2019), viewers encounter their own reflection rendered as light. When they move, their illuminated selves move, too. The artists found that viewers were most captivated with moments when the LED movement was slightly delayed, creating a dissonance.
“[You think] ‘Is it really me?’” Ortkrass said. “‘Or is it something that’s just a replication of me?’”
“All our bodies of work in some way relate to this human experience in an increasingly digitized and automated world,” added Koch.
The themes that underpin No One is an Island point to an entirely new paradigm in how we might function in a world with sentient AI. “There’s no class in school that teaches you that [something may] look alive, but it’s not, so you shouldn’t attach emotion or agency [to it],” said Ortkrass. Together, they probe not only what it might mean if a machine claims humanity, but the power and responsibility of the entity that produces it.
“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

According to Ortkrass and Koch, at its core, No One is an Island counters an essential belief that many people have about themselves. We often believe human beings are generally guided by rationality, by logical decision making. Ortkrass believes we are much more prone to a combination of emotion and impulse.
“What we see of the world is a fraction…of what’s happening,” he said. “However, on that fraction, we base 90 or 95 percent of our decisions.”
“So we literally can’t be rational rational beings, but…we always tell ourselves that we are,” he continued. No One is an Island aims to show “that we are much more driven by instincts or automatisms,” he said; that we cannot help but make human associations with something that resembles our own movement.
“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

“No One is an Island” presented by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i, featuring Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. © BMW AG. Photo by Ravi Deepres. Courtesy of BMW AG.

Together, Ortklass and Koch hope to shift our understanding of our biological tendencies and the way we empathize, as we enter a future where AI becomes more assimilated into our daily lives. “There’s a real dissonance in the way we explain the world to [ourselves] and the way that we react to the world,” said Koch. “It’s that dissonance…the rationale that we tell ourselves—the narratives that we create—in order to function in the world.”
BMW is an official partner of Artsy. Click here to learn more about Random International’s No One is an Island.
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.