48 robots
Metal and music
Embraced by surveillance
Lighted by seduction
Speeded by sound

Posse Time

Donald Rumsfeld’s on TV with the Pentagon propaganda line of the day. This time it’s those staged photos of special-ops forces on horseback in Afghanistan, or maybe Hollywood: a perfect cinematic realization of Bush’s religious invocation for a new crusade "against evil." Jack Valenti and Karl Rove are somewhere in the background of the media scan smirking over this quick deployment of the image-machine to get that just right down and dirty western lands feel of a posse on the hunt for the bad guys.

Suddenly, the tech ecstasy of the flare-out days of the 20th century has switched into a dark, bleak future of total control. And the crowds roar. They love it. They demand it.

It’s a simulacrum of a truly frightened population: mesmerized by terrorism yet comforted by the surveillance regimes of the disciplinary state. Ethnic scapegoating is in, and snitching’s making a comeback from its halcyon days of McCarthyism. Recently, the FBI had to shut down its hotline for snitchers because of the overwhelming response of neighbours snitching on neighbours, friends on friends, strangers on strangers, families on families, even citizens snitching on themselves.

Demands for total surveillance are everywhere. The legitimacy of torture is a debatable subject among members of the virtual class. A deep chill is in the air: of the body, of the mind, of America, of the world.

Electronic Art as Political Theory

What’s the significance of digital art in a time of political crisis? A probe of the future or a repetition of the tech ecstasy of the quickly vanished past? What does art, particularly big-machine robotic performance art, have to tell us about issues of surveillance and control? about that ambivalent psychological state where the public mind hovers between total fascination with terror and total willingness to be disciplined in the name of personal security. What does electronic art have to say about the pleasure of discipline in the simulacrum?

It turns out a lot. Sometimes prophecies of the future appear in the most unlikely spaces. Such as at Usine C, a hyperreal art performance space, during the electronic art events of Elektra.

For a week, Elektra has jammed together the artistic energies of digital performers with the spectacle-hungry energy of the Montreal streets. Politics and art and fashion and the recent history of technology in ruins and disciplinary politics on the rise have now had a week to catch the scent of something big happening from their usually particularized positions in the universe of life. This Saturday evening, in this split city on the northern boundary of the split empire of America, the major threads of contemporary political history have chosen to make their first appearance by way of the world premiere of Louis-Philippe Demers’ L’Assemblée.

The art rhetoric is perfectly staged in advance:

"L’Assemblée is the world premiere of Louis-Philippe Demers' last robotic installation. L’Assemblée stages a group of machines, 48 identical robotic members surrounding a metallic arena. This performance proposes an intense visual and aural experience."

What the art description doesn’t say, maybe what it cannot say in advance since L’Assemblée has the enigmatic quality of being purely experiential art, unpredictable in advance, is that the "48 identical robots surrounding a metallic arena" have also been worrying a lot about the political situation, and they are prepared to spill the essential political secret of future days: AS SOON AS WE ARE CLOSE TO POWER, WE WORSHIP POWER.

For these robots, the seduction of power relies on the simultaneous proximity and alienation of the worshipping crowd. The crowd is silent: not allowed to speak, only to listen. This is the world premiere of 48 robotic political theorists taking us into the codes of the future from deep within the specular logic of machine and music. In L’Assemblée the body is the lighted star at the spectacle of its own disappearance. The adoration of surveillance, then, as the technological future. 48 robotic political theorists can’t be wrong.

Robots as New Media Stars

The theatrical setting for the performance of 48 robots is ideal. AI cut with Road Warriors to produce a Blade Runner version of a Blue Velvet moment. The robots are mounted on a large-scale metallic scaffolding. An architectural membrane for robots. The visual effect is intensely cinematic. Each robot is simultaneously a light source, a motion vehicle, a site of sound performance, a witness of the gathering spectators below and a cosmic entry-point to the digital blast above. Pneumatically controlled, the robot lights are individually programmed, capable of finely machined, beautifully nuanced movement in tune to the surrounding dromoscopic sounds: light waves sweeping across the crowd of faces, arching upwards in Triumph of the Will light sculptural motifs—sometimes released from the codes to move at the pace of individualized robotic whimsy; sometimes aggressively grouped together like a robotic performance of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Robots as new media stars.

For spectators, there is a certain degree of freedom. Why not? In L’Assemblée humans are simultaneously essential plug-ins to complete the artistic circuitry of the 48 robots in a metallic arena, and completely peripheral to a robotic performance which functions automatically. To the question: What to do in the simulacrum? L’Assemblée answers simply: it doesn’t really matter. Extreme technology in the form of robots running on automatic software codes are the essential locus of power, animated equally by answering responses of adoration or indifference. L’Assemblée is the first artistic sign of the epoch of the post-human, with an existential robot philosophy of tech adoration cut with hyper-boredom.

It’s never easy to be peripheral to the (technological) action, to be refused an easy confirming assent to persisting dreams of imprinting (human) biology on technology, but if that’s the way it is, then with L’Assemblée you take your pre-programmed, pre-configured, pre-coded subject-position. You can choose to be a robo-lurker, sitting on the dark edge of the concrete floor, smoking and looking and thinking and feeling the pulsating sound wave-forms and moving light arrays of the 48 robots. A spectacle of immense seduction in a metallic arena.

Or moving physically into the epicenter of L’Assemblée—your body as part of the crowd triangulated by 48 robots, strobe lights, and cameras—you can choose deep immersion in the emotional experience of L’Assemblée. It’s the preferred position of many: part adoration of the choir of 48 robots above; part narcissism of being the light-object of technological desire.

Life in the interval between adoration and abandonment. This is an art of experience, not an art of observation. Its outsourcing of the future can only be activated by human spectators. Perhaps that is why as you sway with the crowd, caught up in a strange trance-like mood of seduction of the image/sound/light machine, you can actually feel the ocular regime of the eye of surveillance. All those light arrays, all that drone sound, all those blurred images, all that hypnotic movement as the orchestra of robots moves from a single light and a single sound that registers the beginning of the simulacrum to immensely complicated, immensely beautiful wave-forms of light and sound and images that hook their way directly to the pleasure receptors of the nervous system. Participants in the interval of the simulacrum are simultaneously humiliated (you are forced to look upwards at the robotic light array) and transformed into instant stars for one new media moment (robot lights constantly sweep over the crowd, displaying the captured faces on video screens).

It turns out that robots are skilled in the language of seduction and the games of artifice. Fascination is the only rule, with a gradient of aesthetic pleasure running from the exterior of the performance to its interior, from people as spectators on the outside of the metallic arena to the body of the crowd tranced on the concrete floor, transfixed by the beat and lights of the 48 robotic machine-performers. Total sensory involvement through total bodily desensitization.

As suddenly as L’Assemblée began, it abruptly ends. Robot lights go dark. Sound vanishes. The surrounding networks of screens go blue, then black. Bodies have their trance-plugs pulled. Everybody falls back into the loneliness of the digital crowd. Crescendo followed by blankness: the code of the new body. So, you are left standing there on an empty performance floor thinking what is the relationship between large-scale robotic performance and the relentless movement of contemporary technology towards the invisibility of genetic engineering, nano-technology, machine-to-machine communication via spyware. Is this nostalgia or futurism? And of course it is both: nostalgia because L’Assemblée is a resurrection-effect of ancient collective rituals—adoration, congregation, transcendence, shared ritualistic experience that always marks the entry of the sacred; and futurism because L’Assemblée indicates that the space of the (technological) sacred is running on full automatic, with the worshipping (electronic) crowd as alternating currents of adoration and indifference. Future nostalgia as the opening code of the 21st century.

Post-performance, we’re talking to David Therrien, a nomad artist from Phoenix, Arizona who was there to see the show and maybe to lend a body jolt of solar energy to the performance. Therrien is one of those larger than life performance artists of the American scene: probing at the edge of robotic technology, restless to look beyond the horizon, experimenting with new communication technologies to reverse-engineer globalization. With a wireless imagination that’s truly global and a performance body as a suicide machine, he tells us that he has just started a new performance space in Phoenix. In the 90s it was called the Icehouse. Now it’s a factory space for large-scale machinic performance called Automatic. Why Automatic? Because for Therrien, "comfort and control" is the real direction of technology. As he says: "What’s really seductive is the perfection of technology. People really want to leave their imperfect bodies. They want to imprint biology onto technology."

In L’Assemblée, if we can’t exit the body, then at least for one performance, for one Elektra moment, perhaps we want to be in the presence of the automatic, surrounded by the aura of technological perfection, the comforting presence of Demers’ seductive vision of 48 robots engaged in a highly structured ritual of total control. That this hope for technological perfection is probably unattainable makes L’Assemblée’s robotic performance all the more seductive. L’Assemblée is a dream of impossible transcendence in a troubled time. Its visual topology is about crowds and surveillance. However, its aesthetic topology is about something else: the new order of the technological sublime as the common dream of all the assembled robots.

Disassembled Robots

With this significant political difference. Like a strange mutation, the aesthetic model of L’Assemblée has no sooner been performed than it slips the traces of Usine C, entering the political arena as the new order of power in the "war against terrorism." Now the political robots assemble, each with its scripted lines: Bush spotlights an audience of Muslims with this aphorism: "Evil has no holy day." Rumsfeld was last seen throwing money out of air force helicopters, rapping all the while "It’s just a matter of economics." Those special-ops forces are still on their tired horses, deep in bandit country. "The noose is tightening. Wanted: Dead or Alive."

The script goes on.