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Conservation Notes: Robot parts on the GO

July 31st, 2013

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In May our conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art, Sherry Phillips, introduced you to Max Dean’s As Yet Untitled and described the work being done to restore and upgrade its parts. Last month, she reported that while most of the piece’s mechanical components were in good shape, its air compressors were shot and the conveyor-belt motor needed a tuneup. Here is Sherry’s latest update on the team’s progress:

Email exchanges between Toronto, Hamilton and Denver have been very frequent lately. Fortunately Marcel Verner — one of our partners on this project — is conversant in VAL (Variable Assembly Language), the programming language required to teach the robot how to move through the appropriate range of motion. The language is specific to Unimation Inc. Industrial robots and operates the arm on terms it can process.

Special transport on the GO.

Special transport on the GO.

Marcel needed to spend some time comprehending the original source code in order to program the robotic arm. However, we knew that the code was probably located on a series of 3 ½” and 5 1/4” floppy disks or located on antiquated laptops that hadn’t been used for many years. Would the disks be viable and would the laptops even work?

To find out, I packed up the boxes containing both laptops and the disks and hand-delivered them to Marcel in Hamilton — maybe the first time I’ve ever transported components of artwork by GO train — so he could spend a weekend in the comfort of his own space sorting through the original files and equipment. One of the laptops could not be revived, but the other turned on with the first press of a button. The floppy disks also worked as they should, in spite of their age and any material degradation that can be expected with this type of media storage.

Last week we had a very productive visit with Marcel, Max Dean and Conservation intern Sjoukje Van der Laan: we greased the robotic arm and tested each I/O (input/output) board circuit to ensure a connection with each action of the installation. Now that we are satisfied that all components link to the I/O board , we are in a better position to make the I/O connection to the control unit.

Max Dean, As Yet Untitled , 2007/670, Puma 550 industrial robot, found family snap shots, conveyor, shredder, metal, electronics, installation: 60” x 144” x 120” (152.4 x 365.8 x 304.8 cm), edition of 3. Collection Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo by Sean Weaver/AGO.

Max Dean, As Yet Untitled , 2007/670,
Puma 550 industrial robot, found family snap shots, conveyor, shredder, metal, electronics, installation: 60” x 144” x 120” (152.4 x 365.8 x 304.8 cm), edition of 3.
Collection Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo by Sean Weaver/AGO.

The Denver-built control unit is complete now that we sourced some very particular amplifiers and delivered them to Dr. Richard Voyles at Mark V Automation in Denver. There was even better news this morning when I opened my email and found a message from Dr. Voyles with the tracking number for the shipment, because as soon as the new control unit arrives it will be take to the work space and connected to the installation through the I/O board interface. At this point, Marcel will begin to teach the robot how to move through the defined x-y-z coordinates of the installation we experience as As Yet Untitled.

As we move through this process, it’s interesting to note how easy it is anthropomorphize the robot — attributing human characteristics to it is natural given that the arm was designed to replicate and replace a type of manual labour. As we talk through the task of breaking down a seemingly simple action (i.e. picking up a photo) into its component actions, we get a new appreciation for the intricacies of motion.


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