News Column

Tate offers chance to experience night at the museum, with the help of four robots: Prize-winning After Dark project allows web surfers to roam through galleries

August 13, 2014

Maev Kennedy



In the small hours of the next five nights, things that absolutely will not go bump in the night will be roaming the galleries of Tate Britain.

After Dark will use four robots - which move at surprising speed despite looking like the love children of a close encounter between a coat rack and a standard lamp - to let the public experience the eerie thrill of visiting the sleeping art. It has won the first IK Prize for a project that widens access to art through digital technology.

Created by design studio The Workers, After Dark was rescued from oblivion by Jane Burton, creative director of Tate Media. With the longlist already complete, she decided to go through the slush pile of dozens of discarded ideas. Most were either wildly impractical, or worthy but dull efforts from people trying to reinvent existing technology such as audio guides. But the midnight robots immediately caught her imagination, though she was not at all sure they could actually be built. The judging panel, including the Guardian's Jemima Kiss, shared her enthusiasm.

Burton said she was struck by the "playfulness and technical ambition" of the project, and enchanted that the team had delivered on every count. She expects virtual visitors to be gripped by the idea of sharing such an unusual experience. "After all, who hasn't dreamed of wandering through a museum, alone, at night?"

When the project goes live, at 10pm tonight, the robots will be controlled by members of the public logging in from anywhere in the world. They can go anywhere in the main galleries, but have been fitted with sophisticated sensors to avoid both robot wars and bumping into priceless works of art - and like the Daleks, they don't do stairs.

Although only a few people will be able to operate them - with the design team on hand backstage to intervene or cut short a session in case of disaster or dullness - anyone will be able watch their progress via live stream.

On a trial run in the clumsy hands of this operator, a robot came heart-stoppingly close to a Henry Moore marble reclining figure, but then backed off and slid politely along the side of the plinth before moving on to peer at another artwork and glance at one of its colleagues which had run into a corner and was staring forlornly at the floorboards.

The project is a world first, and a more expert pilot test-drove one of the robots at the weekend: Chris Hadfield, former International Space Station commander, whose extraterrestrial performance of David Bowie's Space Oddity has won more than 22m views on YouTube and the admiration of Bowie himself.

After the gallery closed on Saturday, Hadfield logged on from his Toronto office, drove a robot around the 20th-century sculpture gallery, and described the experience as "pretty amazing". "You forget about the robot in your hands, and it just becomes an extension of your mind - that's how technology ought to be," he said.

David di Duca, one of the three-member Workers team, said the idea came from design work they were already doing at Tate Modern and the Sainsbury Centre collection at UEA in Norwich. They were struck by the magic of having the galleries to themselves at night, and how powerful and different the experience was from their busy daytime life.

If the finished robots seem like creatures from outer space, it's not surprising: they were built with help from RAL Space, which works with the UK Space Agency on space exploration technology.

Each robot is mounted on a circular wheeled base that can move in any direction, with two slender stalks supporting a tilting "head" equipped with two cameras and LED lights, running on batteries which will power them for the entire five-hour session until 3am.

Di Duca explained that they were carefully designed and engineered to ensure the safety of the works of art. No part of the robot stretches beyond the diameter of the base, and they are not tall enough to get into trouble with the outstretched arms or other body parts of statues.

The tilting heads mean that the robots can be directed to illuminate any painting or sculpture, and the team is waiting with interest to see which works prove most popular with the public.

The Workers won a pounds 10,000 prize and a pounds 60,000 development budget - and both the gallery and the design team are already wondering what the robots could do next.

After Dark broadcasts from Tate Britain from 13 to 17 August 2014

Captions:

Lights, cameras, action

Henry Thomson's The Raising of Jairus' Daughter (left) and, above, Jacob Epstein's The Visitation and Rock Drill are examined by the project's robot cameras long after the locking of Tate Britain's doors to outsiders

Photographs: Alexey Moskvin/PA


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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