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News & Notes

Drones Extend Artistic Potential

Exploring the human-drone relationship through art

June 19, 2017

It’s understood that to create art, you usually need a tool. Whether it’s a paintbrush, computer, or pencil, humans typically use some kind of mechanism to create artistic works.

But what if that tool didn’t do exactly what you told it to?

Enter the Flying Pantograph. This drone got a good deal of press when it was announced last year — and because drones that make art tend to get people’s attention. But the drone’s creator, Sang-won Leigh, didn’t want to just create a flashy drone project.

Leigh, who’s pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at MIT and a research assistant at the Fluid Interfaces group at the MIT Media Lab, explains the primary motivation behind his work is using robots as extensions of the human body — like a prosthetic. His interest in drones stems from the mobility and freedom of the machines.

“I reached a point where I wanted to use a medium that is free of one constraint we never get to break — gravity,” he says.
What is it?

The Fluid Interfaces group at the MIT Media Lab focuses on radically rethinking the relationship between humans and computers. The Flying Pantograph was borne from that focus.

Traditionally, a pantograph is a mechanism using two writing utensils to change the scale of an illustration. The Flying Pantograph works using a similar premise — while a human participant writes on a surface, the pantograph makes the same movements.

So pantographs have always served as an artistic extension of the artist. Leigh just wanted to take things a bit further, using a drone to extend that artistic potential.

“Your drawing doesn’t become a direct copy of your own acts, but forces you to follow certain rules and deal with uncertainty brought in by the machine extension,” Leigh says.

What’s it like?

For Leigh, the question of what constitutes art is a complicated one. “I personally think art is a communication,” he says. “A piece, act, or experience that conveys a message, often in an aesthetic form. In the case of ‘A Flying Pantograph,’ I don’t think the message is in the system itself, but the overall experience and the afterthought one may go through constitute the art aspect of it.”

So … what exactly is that experience?

Leigh equates the experience of the Flying Pantograph to a child learning how to use their body for the first time. Eventually, he says, you “learn to master your own body.”

And Leigh uses the word “body” with intent — the pantograph is not intended to be an automated mechanism. It’s meant to work collaboratively with the human, as an extension of the body. In most science fiction, artificial intelligence and other technologies are meant to replace or supersede human capabilities, Leigh says. But in the process of using the pantograph, the human is still at the center of the creative process.

“Your drawing doesn’t become a direct copy of your own acts, but forces you to follow certain rules and deal with uncertainty brought in by the machine extension,” he says.
Is it art?

The Flying Pantograph creates marks on a whiteboard as the human user dictates its movements. By most definitions, this would constitute art. To Leigh, the pantograph could certainly be used as an artistic tool — just one that has its own system of behavior.

For example, if a user were to make a quick, broad stroke with the pen, the pantograph may render the stroke differently than the user intended. This difference is intentional, and is meant to force the user of the pantograph to reflect on the tool and its function. Again, it all goes back to “mastering” the use of the tool.

That might sound unusual. We expect tools to behave exactly how we tell them to: a pencil draws a line, a paintbrush creates a stroke. But Leigh explains that the behaviors of these artistic tools are taken for granted.

“Tools we use to create art already are agents that have encoded behaviors,” he explains. “We use different brushes, sprays, or what not to decide what kind of expression we want to make. Then it more comes down to the question of, on the spectrum from full automation to full human control, what is the critical point where we see something as art?”

Leigh’s work is featured in the July/August 2017 issue of Drone360 magazine, alongside various other artists using drones to make creative works. The issue hits newsstands July 18.
Featured image: Sang-won Leigh