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Conservation Notes: Magic numbers and dongles

September 9th, 2013

Part four of a series on the conservation of Max Dean’s As Yet Untitled. Get up to speed on the project.

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By Sherry Phillips, conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art

This week, we sent off As Yet Untitled to VOX, Centre de l’image contemporaine, where it will be included in Le Mois de la Photo à Montreal, running Sept. 5 to Oct. 5, 2013. It was a hectic week leading up to packing the installation, and every day that we ran the robot program we learned something new: usually something quirky, possibly undesirable, but something that had to be addressed nevertheless.

There is a certain amount of imprecision in programming and teaching the robot. Much of the process is trial and error and repetition and running out to the local electronics store for supplies (see below). We spent long hours simply turning the control unit off and on, repeating robot actions by manually moving the arm back to its zero point, testing alignment marks, and watching and waiting for discrepancies, anomalies and tics. Once those arose, we began the long process of looking for and correcting the potential source of the problem, which could be as simple as a misplaced period within a line of code.

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As Yet Untitled is time-based media and performance art. We needed to patiently teach it how to move through its performance by establishing the coordinates for each of its five joints: the shoulder, arm, elbow and two wrists. To get a sense of how it moves, check out another famous Canadian robot, the Canadarm 2, which has an impressive seven joints in all.

I eavesdropped with interest and admiration to the telephone chats between Marcel and Richard, and although they were speaking English, I really never fully understood what they were saying. One conversation was particularly engaging for me as an outsider: this is where I learned about the concept of a “magic number.” It’s kind of a calibration number; it could be zero but may not be, it can show up out of the blue and may have no real meaning, it might be specific to only this robot and can be critical to know in order to calibrate the robot.

On another occasion I accused Marcel and Max of making up the term “dongle” to describe a piece of hardware on the back of the control unit. But it really is a word, probably arbitrary in its coinage (did someone think it was more descriptive than “thingy”?). As it turns out, it refers to a piece of hardware in the computer industry that acts like a key. Without the dongle the program/robot will not run; in this robot’s case, the dongle is attached to the auxiliary emergency-stop switch.

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At the conclusion of the loan in Montreal, the robot will return to the AGO. I’ll need to establish a maintenance program and schedule for the robot and the installation’s various components; the arm should be occasionally manipulated, the compressor operated and the conveyor motor occasionally turned to prevent seals from desiccating and leaking. I’ve also requested that some space be found at the Gallery in order to install at least the robot and control unit so we can continue refinements of the program while the process is still fresh in our minds.

One of the most challenging aspects of the project was the identification and, in this case, numerical qualification of the movement in part and in whole — in other words the “performance” of the piece. The robot is capable of subtlety, and its actions should be precisely replicated each cycle, unlike a human performance, when there will be variations between each cycle. We spent many hours discussing and adjusting each joint, especially the wrist joints, where the movement could be most fluid and very delicate. In the end, however, the robot’s performance is still only as good as the information its human programmers can give it.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


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: Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Rebooting Max Dean’s As Yet Untitled

May 13th, 2013

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. Gift of Jay Smith, David Fleck, Gilles Ouellette and Terry Burgoyne, 2007. Collection Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo by Sean Weaver/AGO.

By Sherry Phillips, Conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art

“The viewer has the opportunity to determine the fate of found family photographs. The robot is programmed to pick up a photo from the hopper on the right, present it to the viewer, wait several seconds for a response before proceeding. Should the viewer choose to intervene by covering one or both of the hand silhouettes in front of them, the robot will place the photo in an archival box. Should the viewer choose not to act, the robot will place the photo in a shredder and the shredded photo will be conveyed to a pile. The robot runs continuously.” (Dean, 2013)

The passage above, taken from artist Max Dean’s website, provides a description of As Yet Untitled as the robot featured in the artwork might: succinct and detached, without any of the emotion we often attach to a family photo. Photographs are often the first personal possessions rescued from a fire or flood that has devastated a home. They are records of times past and loved ones who may no longer be with us. On the other hand, the photographs used in this artwork were all found, which means that someone discarded them. What circumstances could lead to the discarded family memories? And when faced with shredding or salvation, what response will the viewer, a stranger, choose for someone else’s photographic memories?

The concepts that the time-based media installation evokes are complex, and so are the physical components that allow it to operate. Like all pieces of technology, they need upkeep. The Conservation Department of the AGO is undertaking a restoration and mechanical upgrading of As Yet Untitled, in collaboration with Max Dean, Dr. Richard Voyles — associate professor in the University of Denver’s Department of Computer Engineering — and Marcel Verner of PV Labs in Hamilton, Ont. The aim is to prepare the work, which became part of the AGO’s collection in 2007, to be exhibited and ensure that the technology is rugged and reliable well into the future. The work has been promised for loan to the city-wide Le Mois de la Photo, in Montreal, Quebec, September to October 2013.

Time-based media, meaning that time or duration is a dimension of the artwork and is revealed to the viewer over time, often involve a kinetic component. In the case of As Yet Untitled, there are several synchronized moving parts and as with any mechanical system, components wear or become obsolete. Unlike more traditional areas of art conservation, the conservation of contemporary art may involve the replacement of an artwork, in part or entirety, in order to continue the operation and comprehension as the artist intended. In this case, all components of the work will be inspected and upgraded as needed, and a new controller will be designed and programmed to correctly operate the various components. Max Dean as well as computer and robotics specialists will take the lead on upgrades to the mechanical and operational program systems and, as the conservator, my main role will be documentation of changes to the current format of the artwork.


Sherry will be conducting work on As Yet Untitled until mid-August 2013, and will add updates to the blog along the way. Use this link to find more As Yet Untitled posts!


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program