On April 27 & 28th, Robot Immigrants premiered "My Heart Is a Traveler" at 7 Dunham in Brooklyn. This piece was presented as my collaborative M.F.A. thesis for the Performance & Interactive Media Arts (PIMA) program at Brooklyn College. This is one of the ways that Robot Immigrants described the project:
This piece explores personal stories of immigration across multiple generations and cultures set against a backdrop of perpetual technological change. By layering translations between an intangible past and an ephemeral future, we are creating multiple bridges and links across borders. What are we working towards? Can we open up a space to include new worlds, new beings, and a new era of co-existence?
Artists, Cyborgs & Robots: working together to create Collective Consciousness over the Unfathomable Cliff.
The audience traveled with us throughout the space, as we sought to answer these questions and discover the possibilities of our ambition. What follows is a mashup of my internal perspective as one of the creators of the piece and a travelogue written by a poet who embarked with us on this journey.
Here is his itinerary listing the sequence of events and the members of the collective by performance:
Leaving Safe Harbor - Tinu Oyelowo, Sophia Remolde, Eva Von Schweinitz
Searching for Sumi – Sophia Remolde
Babatunde's Song – Tinu Oyelowo
The Filipino Way – Dan Munkus
Crossing the Bridge/Processing – Sophia Remolde, Tinu Oyelowo, Eva Von Schweinitz, Kristin Arnesen, Jeremy Goren
Steerage – Sophia Remolde, Eva Von Schweinitz, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste
My Heart is a Traveler – Dan Munkus, Tinu Oyelowo, Sophia Remolde
As we travel through each section, this essay will oscillate between my personal description of what Robot Immigrants created and the poet's subjective perspective of what he experienced. He writes:
Its style is meant to give equal floor time to emotional and aesthetic evaluation by examining myself as a reflection of the works rather than treating the works as a piece of someone else. This seemed important with a show of this nature, both for the installation's performance-focused structure and due to the collective's repeated efforts to distinguish the gallery-goers present as a community, thereby making the audience the canvas by which to judge the efforts.
Leaving Safe Harbor
The shadows that started our piece are reminiscent of human form. For me, they symbolize a layer of history, of story, of memory—they are both the separation of our selves from our story and figures of those who have come before us. Our deeply personal connections with our ancestry provided the entry points into our subconscious explorations where we would confront our present and journey forward into the future.
On arrival to the space, the traveler is asked to declare their intentions in document form, submitting it to an unknown evaluator with a signed promise of truthfulness. It both relieves and recalls each traveler's personal immigrant burden, large or small, bringing it to the front of the mind for the journey to come.
Passing through cataloging throws us back to beginnings. Projected on a screen acts the artist as ferry-woman, a silhouette traced with a roving beam of bluish light. She dips her pole into the waters, dragging it deliberately, propelling further into a chorus of nautical droning, understood instinctually as a tone of long and protracted passage. To reference so primitive a means of travel is to remember that the immigrant story is undoubtedly the story of humanity, not the story of “the other”.
Searching for Sumi
For many years, I have made a commitment to chronicling my mother’s stories and experience leaving South Korea to come and marry my father in the United States. I recently learned that as a little girl in Korea, she had a dream of becoming an actress. She grew up very poor and would often see the beautiful dresses in store windows and dreamt of wearing them on the stage. Fast forward thirty years later and I, unknowingly, became an actor. When I first admitted to my mother that I was ditching my studies in psychology to become an actor, I was scared to tell her because of her strict life-long insistence that my sister and I “find a nice husband and get a steady job.” As I admitted the great chance that none of this might come to fruition, the unexpected did. She held my hands as I was crying in the Peking Buffet and she told me about her own long lost dreams of becoming an actress herself. It was in this moment that I vowed to find a way to bring my mother’s own colorful stories to the stage.
It all started with Sumi’s Story. By putting her story on the screen, it gave her a life on the stage and a way for her once-discarded dream to come true. On Saturday April 27th, Sumi came to Brooklyn to see my thesis. She almost couldn't come because my father was sick and it is becoming difficult for her to travel. I believe it was after she received our postcard with her image in the center that she resolved to be there. And for that one night, Sumi had her dream. Everyone there wanted to meet her. A stranger even asked her for her autograph! After the performance she worked that room as if she had been ready for it all her life. On the way home Sumi told my sister that when she was little, she thought if she could go up on the roof she could touch the sky. For this one night, my mother was a star.
We move further into the space and find our first waypoint – the artist confined to a tub wearing a smock of plastic, illuminated only by the projection of her ancestor relating her life's story over speakers. The layering of faces – projection upon flesh, silhouette upon projection – speaks to the interplay in all progenitor-offspring relations. We all wear the expressions of our forebears, even as we eclipse the world's memory of them.
The aquatic environment containing the energy of the piece, further reined in by the plastic drapings, decontextualizes the artist as representative of “human.” The emotional component remains but the physical component is hidden, diffused in billowed coverings and fluid movements. Movements obscured, yet always transparent, both in physicality and intention. The inner, human mechanics remain present to the eye that wishes to focus, and that is a choice every individual is free to make. The artist takes over the narration and a synergy is achieved between the layered physicality and the emotional catharsis of the personal narrative, lending honesty to the feelings of loss and weight to the burdened movements.
Dan and Tinu interviewed their parents in a similar documentary style and we used the themes inherent in their experiences to generate the physical life of the piece. As influences, their stories helped us figure out our own relationships to growing up in a multicultural experience where, in various ways, we all experienced some sense of Otherness.
Babatunde's talking and Tinu's impersonation brought up many issues of translation and the undercurrents that run beneath the surface of appearance. As children of immigrant parents, we are the ones who need to dig deeper in order to unearth the truths that they seldom admit. Survival sometimes requires developing a protective layer. Is the way to get under this to have it transmitted through our own selves?
Biomimicry was a hot topic in robotics at this time, as the German engineering company Festo had unveiled its latest creation: the BionicOpter, a bio-mimicking dragonfly robot. Creating robots in biology's likeness, I questioned: how much are we created in our parents' likeness? How close can we get to telling their story for them? Are we simply mimicking them or are we the conduit? Are we simply designed like them and thus able to do really clever impersonations? Or do we carry them with us and could their story come through us?
With limited prompting we move to the room's center. There a modest throne sits, borne up and covered in hundreds of pounds of fresh, rich soil. The artist works, wordlessly and deliberately, to remove this soil with nothing but bare hands, moving it to a pile of seeming deference.
In this work the relative watches over, speaking in words familiar to ears but easily lost to cadence, creating less a narrative and more a soundtrack for an action whose scope demands a meditative mindset lest it degrade to frustration, anger or despair.
And when the artist takes the throne, the transmission begins. The music shifts from instrumental to folk verse as the words are amplified through the daughter of the father. The creation acts as the voice of the creator in every instance, art or family.
The immigrant narrative is hardest to bear when it reveals the ignorance of the native in power. He was fired for how he spoke the language. He was fired for how he played the music. He was fired for a cadence that was faultless but foreign. He was fired by those who never learned to listen.
The Filipino Way
How do we separate ourselves from our parents' expectations of us? Can we ever really be free from them? And what are our responsibilities to our parents as they age? One condition of the immigrant is sacrifice; one must give up their homeland in order to build a new life, with new opportunities. Even if you go back you can only ever be a Native Tourist, never really a part of any one place. So you work. And you work hard. You do it so that future generations can live better lives. How do we devote our lives back to them and still maintain our own?
Gloria "dreams in equations." Dan relates to her words and his own emotions as if he were reading them off a customs form. I think sometimes it takes getting further away from something before you can get close to it. Through deconstructing Gloria's story, I feel like we found her song.
Subject indicates travel.
Subject indicates travel.
Subject indicates travel, a voice compels,
to a small nook in the gallery's corner, containing the artist in a plastic observation booth, observing his relative and describing the encounter.
Monitor and subject are the terms of the conversation. The emotion of personal narrative is excised in the play-by-play of such impersonal terms. The inherent emotional experience of the immigrant narrative, so present in our journey this far, collapses to create negative space for us, the surrounding observers, to inhabit with our own notions of subject and monitor, age and youth, generation and generation.
In this manner emotion returns to the scene as supplied by the travelers rather than the artist, bypassing the barrier of articulation that inevitably filters artist intention, trusting the community’s emotional understanding.
Then the monitor cuts out and the subject takes over, revealing a pragmatic understanding of the role our descendents play in our lives. Emotion is removed there as well, but in a way that the space is replaced by the speaker with a priority on survival, of all actions based in prudent management of the resources life gives us, flesh included. The emotion is secondary because it is unavoidable. The pragmatic is primary because of its uncertainty.
Crossing the Bridge/Processing
We wanted to mirror our human customs process at the beginning of the piece with a virtual customs process before entering in the Technological World. We were stumped on how to create avatars of the audience in the space, or otherwise create the illusion that people were being scanned into the computer system. It was difficult to envision a way to do this without it feeling cliché, aesthetically undesirable, or lacking meaning. And then we found a new Max/MSP object called jit.conway that created an interesting visual effect on video. When I researched this object further, I realized that it had some insane metaphorical relevance. The object played John Conway’s Game of Life with the pixels of each image. In short, the number of neighbors that each pixel is surrounded by determines whether it lives, dies, or changes state. It is a model of emergence that allows the computer to self-organize itself into something completely new. That week, I discovered an article in Wired Magazine that created links between consistent swarming behavior across biological beings and how this could be developed in robots. It cited Conway’s Game of Life as one of the earliest breakthroughs in this line of thinking. The implication is that there may be underlying laws that occur across all complex systems, from our neurons to the internet to the very development of the universe itself. Figuring out how individuals work together may be more important than how they work alone. The power of this metaphor is what drove me to continue down this path.
Around we turn back to the throne room, where a path has been made through the mound of earth to a doorway beyond. At the doorway stands a customs agent ready to further process us. The assembled travelers - given a minimum of prompts - are uncertain of how to proceed, approaching tentatively at first and in individual fashion as though receiving Eucharist. The nature of this passage soon becomes clear, however, and societal training has the group queueing up in short time.
A device sweeps over our face to scan and capture us. Where before we were asked to recall our immigrant narratives, we are physically anointed as immigrants now. To work the gathered audience into the narrative in this manner is to fully value all our inevitable immigrant narratives, be they more recent in the bloodlines or more distant, identifiable in the communal human experience rather than the personal narrative. It is in embracing this universality that the exhibition achieves its pulse, delivering life to the satellite organs that constitute the show's body – that is, the personal narratives of the artists.
When we cross that threshold like human steerage, we are shown both dystopia and histories past in simultaneity. Technology will not eliminate fear of the other or manipulation of the ill advantaged. It will only change the color of the developments. The resolution is controllable, however; generations can strengthen or weaken the picture for both themselves and the whole.
A human dances with a flying robot. They struggle to communicate. They malfunction. The technology agent translates what is going on inside the robot's mind. Battery: 89%...Waiting...Waiting...Connected!
I am encouraged to make the links clearer:
Do you ever have trouble with your immigrant?
Why won't this immigrant work?
¡Perdóneme! Hablas ingles?!?
They keep at it. It happens again. They never give up.
Eventually, working together, they are freed. They escape the confines of the Technology World and emerge back into the Human World, changed. However, their connection is a challenging one. It will take more time and more work until they can understand each other better. There will be more time. There will be more work.
Our scanned faces decorate the walls within, pixelated and corrupted to dehumanizing effect. Wires festoon the cramped space like spider veins, and in the room's center the artist works an unnamed robot to the point of battery death. The representation of exploited immigrant is clear despite the lack of any human features. During our time in steerage, we witness the unceremonious sapping of three batteries, replaced with sharp call-and-responses between the artist and customs operator. The sharpness is necessary to sever the link of commonality.
My Heart is a Traveler
It started with a personal connection, attempting to understand our immigrant parents’ struggles and how they have affected our lives and art. I believe it was this deep connection that drew other people to this project, and to give so much of themselves in the process. Even if all of the parts of our world could not find a way to fully co-exist, I do know that it was the community around us, whose support and generosity made the project possible. Every person who joined the Robot Immigrants, from 7 Dunham to the set builders and designers, our performers to our documenters and tech experts, went above and beyond in donating their time, resources, and skills to helping this project come alive. They were the cells in our Game of Life—by surrounding us with their energy, we stayed alive. And in this sense, Robot Immigrants expanded beyond three individual stories and into a realm that included more than I could ever imagine.
"I am bringing an open heart."
"I am bringing my crayons."
"I am bringing cheese."
I feel grateful to have had the time to reach so far down inside myself, to journey back through my ancestry and find that mythic story that enlightens my present life and propels me forward. I feel so grateful and inspired by the incredible artists who joined us on this journey, bringing so many of their wonderful gifts to make this possible. I love that we were able to share our story with so many fellow travelers from various walks (and flights) of life. Everything that we bring to the journey is a special part of it. The Robot was also born here from its own state of Otherness, and it too has its own story to share. Together, we shall continue to fly.
Returning from steerage, the air is lightened. We are welcomed by the true humanity. Not our base humanity of exploitation and fear, but the part of us that identifies with the similarity and simplicity of what we have to “declare” on reentering. Our earlier written stories are read aloud to us. Our goals, our travails, our pithy leisures and our honest intentions to join the greater whole.
In our personal narratives, that whole is the nation we've chosen as home. In the universal narrative, the whole exists in the striving for empathy.
For more on this journey and for future travels, please visit: robotimmigrants.com