Mawhrin-Skel Residency

Oct 1, 2005 — May 31, 2006



Western Front


This group residency brought together Vancouver-based artists who worked in new media, electronics, sculpture, installation, and performance. Robots were created by Deanne Achong, Kate Armstrong, Joelle Ciona, David Floren, and Matt Smith, with help from Dina González Mascaró, and the residency culminated in a performance and exhibition.

The name of the residency is based on the fictional character conceived by Ian M. Banks in his 1989 novel The Player of Games. Mawhrin-Skel is an intelligent drone that failed to meet the conditions of its original purpose and was left to wander aimlessly through a near utopian environment where it became a social nuisance and prankster. The character provided an entry point into the study of robots as both cultural artifacts and autonomous members of society. This project examined ideas of function, autonomy, artificial intelligence, and purpose-driven technology.

The residency began as a series of robotics workshops. The artists worked with a pre-built circuit board that contained an embedded controller, wireless Internet connector, motor controllers, and sensor inputs. 

The system was able to transmit and receive sensor data and motion commands in a "poetic" programming language. The artists customized these circuits by altering the language of the controller, added sculptural components (static and moveable) along with sensors, and designed behaviours. 

The wireless internet connection allowed the devices to talk to each other and mingle their conversations on the web. The "eyes" of one machine could influence the actions of another. Keywords could generate furious activity or silence. 

The robots included: a spinning top that winded up threads, a glass globe that used hardware voice recognition to react to conversations in the space, a crow that saw the world through multi-faceted eyes, an instrument that measured cellphone and WiFi traffic, a long nosed creature that drove around and emits high pitched tones, and a set of chart recorders that outputted levels of data-streaming activity from the robots.

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Western Front is a non-profit
artist-run centre in Vancouver.

We acknowledge the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations as traditional owners of the land upon which Western Front stands.