Robots Roaming the Tate

In ART & FASHION, Commentary, HOME by Figgy Guyver

A slovenly generation we may be, but this is something else.

At the beginning of this month, the Tate Britain awarded the first of the annual IK Prize. The three successful artists, known as ‘The Workers’, received £60,000 to facilitate the creation of four robots (yes, you heard me right, robots). These machines are designed to roam the gallery at night under the control of four ‘fortunate’ users from the comfort of their own homes. The prize seeks original ideas for using digital technology to help connect the Tate’s collection to a wider audience (apparently).

workersThe Workers’ looking smug in their slightly-too-thick glasses.

So, let’s think Pros:

  • The need to separate chair from man and go to a gallery is instantly eradicated. Why bother going to see Waterhouse’s ‘Lady of Shalott’ when I’ve just googled his entire collection in like, literally five seconds?
  • Distance isn’t an issue. No transport costs and no travel time.
  • Robots are cool. We ought to admit that now.


  • Repeat first pro in negative voice. I can’t help but feel that this is the older generation’s attempt to get into our ‘hip young people’s’ good books. Individuals among the stereotypical ‘youth of today’ might find themselves sofa-ridden with no interest in what hangs on the white walls of Pimlico and making these people the Tate’s target audience seems bizarre. If the effort of turning up to a gallery – let alone googling an image – exceeds the interest in going, then organising for a robot to look around for us is surely no stronger a pull. (Besides, isn’t the idea to encourage pale teenagers to leave dark rooms? Sitting in a dark room watching an image of a dark room must have seemed the obvious solution to judge, Jimmy Wales and co).
  • It’s just not the same. I want you to imagine you’re standing on Waterloo Bridge. It’s dark; breezy but warm; you can hear the hum of traffic and the buzz of chatting people over the quiet ripple of water below your feet. The bright lights of the city are stretching out in front of you. (OK, maybe I’m overdoing it, but it really is good). Now, you’re in your room looking at a photo of the same view. It’s kind of bad quality, a bit too dark and frankly, you’ve got better things to do. It’s not quite the same thing.
  • Let’s try again. You’re standing in the Tate Britain with the high white walls arching over you. It’s just you and Moore’s ‘Recumbent Figure’. You check over your shoulder and reach out to place your hand on the smooth cold stone. You have time with it. You can sit and stare and take it in. Think about that on a screen. A sculpture is an easy example to tackle by taking away its third dimension, but it really is the same with a painting. Zooming in just doesn’t satisfy the want for textures, for subtle colour variations or for the effect of light and shadow.

Tate Britain Robot Images
The ‘high quality’ robot’s-eye-view, available for a lucky few.

In theory, it’s a ludicrous idea and in practice it’s no better. The dramatic cuts that Westminster coalition ministers have made in recent months mean that this is a momentous move for a charity, and not one that can afford to go wrong. Making the Tate’s collection more accessible to a wider audience doesn’t seem a bad plan, which is why I reckon that using this huge sum of money to enhance four people’s evening entertainment is missing the point.

Plus, isn’t dodging the party of tiny school children and circumnavigating the mass of men in the slightly-too-thick-rimmed specs all part of the gallery experience? If I were one of the chosen few I think ramming the robot into walls would be a high priority.

Olivia Vonberg

Olivia Vonberg is currently en-route to Kazakhstan, (she’s on her gap yah, not just running away from life) and can speak Russian. She used to sing as an alto in choir and remembers the tours fondly, Krakow anyone? We think she’s quite the jet setter. 

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