Maybe you’ve seen the Boston Dynamics robot Spot dance, climb stairs, and screen hospital patients for COVID-19. Now, with one human’s help, the bright-yellow, dog-like robot created by the Waltham company is an artist, too.
Agnieszka Pilat, the guest artist in residence at robotics company Boston Dynamics, has been painting portraits of Spot and the company’s other advanced robots since the fall of 2020. But for a number of paintings, as well as an upcoming NFT project, she has enlisted Spot as a co-artist of sorts. Pilat places an oil stick in its “paw,” as she calls it, and uses a control panel to manually guide the dexterous machine around the canvas. The manual process is partly because she believes “the design and the authorship should stay with me,” but she also loves the crude style that emerges from the machine’s inexpert brushstrokes.
“The robot is definitely my protégé,” said Pilat, 48, who splits her time between New York and San Francisco.
This might sound like a sci-fi plot. But to Pilat, depicting a robot in her art is no different than Warhol screen-printing Marilyn Monroe. “Portraiture reflects the power in society,” said Pilat. “Because today, more and more of the power is with technology . . . to be really a meaningful portrait painter, I thought, ‘I have to paint portraits of machines.’”
Pilat, who was trained as a classical painter at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, isn’t employed by Boston Dynamics. She simply asked the historically secretive company if she could come in and use the robots for artistic inspiration. Boston Dynamics agreed, and later she was given a studio space, though it since has been repurposed.
These days, she rarely works in the Boston Dynamics building, but Pilat has taken a piece of it back to her Manhattan studio in the form of two leased Spot robots, which carry a price tag of around $75,000 each for the basic model. “It has that feeling that this is another being, that it has some amount of self-awareness,” she said of Spot. “I feel a debt of gratitude to the machine.”
Her bright color palette and graceful depictions convey compassion for her subject, sentient or not. Pilat said she feels a protective instinct toward new-fangled technology, such as robots, which some people fear. “I kind of want to be the defender of it,” she said, adding that machines “make our life so much easier.” She calls the paintings of Spot and the other robots her “heroic portraits.”
“As humans, every time we want to do something heroic, we build a machine,” she said, pointing to the Wright brothers’ airplane as an example.
This isn’t the first time technology has served as Pilat’s inspiration. Earlier in her career, she sought out “old, derelict” machines to paint, such as vintage computers at the Computer History Museum and aircraft parts aboard the USS Hornet museum, both in California. She later held residencies at the self-driving technology company Waymo and powertrain company Wrightspeed. “For me, America is industry and innovation,” said Pilat, who is originally from Poland.
But there’s just something special about Spot. “It has a really amazing personality,” she said. “It became my companion.”
Pilat’s work with Spot has made headlines since last fall, when she exhibited a number of her robot renderings in her solo show “Thinking Machines: Renaissance 2.0″ at the San Francisco gallery Modernism. The paintings in that show were plays on iconic works of art: Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” became a portrait of a spiraling Spot; Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” became two outstretched mechanical claws.
When a phone was held up to a painting, an app animated the works, adding an element of augmented reality. “It gives an illusion that the painting is alive,” Pilat said.
The abstract portraits employ “a child’s palette” of bright blues and hot pinks, a far cry from the moodier hues Pilat used when painting older machines. The compositions are geometric and abstract. She sees the paintings as “a bit ‘Matrix’-y,” a deconstructed realism that asks, “What would happen to a classical painting if it was digitally broken up a little bit?” she said.
While these portraits have already been shown in a gallery, Pilat envisions something different for her artwork long-term. “In the future, I see these robots coming to a museum and looking at these paintings and thinking about them, ‘These are our ancestors,’” she said. “The machine is my patron.”
Jason Fiorillo, the chief legal officer for Boston Dynamics who helped provide Pilat with access to the company, said he is “touched” by Pilat’s portrayals. He opened the door to her because he figured that “if we can see our technologies through her eyes, the world would benefit,” he said. Today, he said, large-format versions of Pilat’s work hang in the halls of Boston Dynamics.
“She likes to paint robots as heroes,” he said. “That’s actually the way we see our robots, as well.”
Recently, Pilat’s focus has turned to her paintings made with Spot, who has transformed from muse to assistant. A self-portrait by Spot fetched over $30,000 at a Sotheby’s auction this past October (she kept a portion, and the rest went to support the Burning Man Project). The robot has also been involved in crafting basic imitations of famous works, including “Madonna and Child” and “American Gothic.”
Her next big project, which she plans to debut this spring, is a collection of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. The NFT that patrons buy will be purely encrypted data, presented as a string of numbers, collected by Spot from its movements while it paints. In addition to the digital asset, buyers will also get a number of Spot originals. The physical paintings will all be the same design; in the spirit of Warhol, “they’re going to be identical, but not quite,” Pilat said.
The paradox of the machine is that it’s “supposed to be repetitive and standardized, but it’s not really,” she said. “I think that’s what makes the machine a little more human.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at email@example.com