The Body Electric : Graves New World

Garden Bot Wall, 2011. Archival digital print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Bright White Paper. 32.7″ x 46″.

Here’s the thing about robots: they always seem to show up when you least expect them. Such is so about my recent happening across the work of artist Kathleen Graves, and such is so about the rise of the “’bot” within the scope of the artist’s digital cosmos.

Though born in Colorado in 1951, Graves has been a permanent fixture of greater New York for some time now. She was the Director of the Advanced Digital Print Studio at New York University from 2005 until 2012, when she made the choice to depart from teaching to focus on her own creative practice indefinitely. Her latest body of work—an ongoing series dubbed Bot Dialectics (2012-)—explores, modifies, and manipulates notions of garden space as informed by the evolution of nanobot technologies. The presence of the garden introduced at the hand of the artist nods to the histories of Landscape Art and plein air representation. Such illustration grants a safe and controlled version of the wild access into civilized space, an ultimate representation of the human desire to find order within the disorder of nature. In Graves’s Bot Dialectics, however, two technologies converge—that of the cultivated wilderness and that of the modified machine.

Garden Bot 5, 2011. Archival digital print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Bright White Paper. 30.6″ x 46″.

When I meet with Graves, it is a sunny day in Brooklyn and we find ourselves a seat outside of a café, under the welcoming shade of overarching branches above. Graves is a petite woman, ageless in the afternoon’s matrix with fire-engine-red hair and, appropriately enough, Schwa-shaped spectacles that would make Schwa creator Bill Barker proud. She arrives prepared: with iPad in hand, she slides through shots of her most recent creations, a speedy tour through new worlds, an Alice-in-Wonderland-like peephole into the mind of an artist and the tiny technologies that keep her captivated. With these works there is an element of subtle surprise, a whispering science fiction that calls to mind the era of Magic Eye stereograms in that they encourage the viewer to look beyond the 2D plane, a sort of second-sight that requires patience and often close inspection. Graves plays God: she unmakes the same worlds she strives to create, a regenerative cycle that mimes the entropic nature of nature itself.

Saint Bot Study, 2012. Mixed media with plants, computer chips, print material, and found objects. 15″ x 4″, plant size variable. Image courtesy of Galerie Califia.

Graves’s Bot Dialectics, however, and the creatures within them—fondly beckoned in the dappling daylight by the artist as “’bots”—are somewhat frozen in the singularity of their plane and the limitations of their functionality. Unlike the Magic Eye, these studies are not meant to trick one’s eye, but rather to train one’s understanding of looking. The “Garden Bots” are meant to exist as flat but tangible objects, installed as a 2D object within a 3D arena; her more sculptural pieces, such as the “Bot Studies,” are comprised by found objects. Graves dissembles items to remove computer chips and re-routes wires to give light to miniature anatomies. The photographs pose a challenge to a viewer’s perception of reality, portals into possibility, a scientific dream-space that makes use of Photoshop and image alteration. These neonatal ’bots are youthful fissures, tears and interruptions within controlled space. The “Bot Studies” redefine materials of industry and the technology of their functionality as a means of conceiving surreal shrine-like environs, or newfangled gizmos.

Bot Study 2, 2012. Mixed media with LED, battery pack, computer chips, and found objects. 5.5″ x 4″. Image courtesy of the artist.

The etymology of the word “robot” as we know it was coined by brothers Karel and Joseph Čapek in 1920, first appearing in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum Universal Robots). The word robota is Czech in its origin, derivative of the Proto-Slavic orbota, meaning “hard work” or “slavery.” Robot within contemporary vernacular and zeitgeist has been oft approached as an element of popular fiction—both utopic and distopic alike—a symbol of the perfecting of flaw within human-made structural composition, as well as the harbinger of the looming potential collapse of civilization altogether. Yet it cannot be ignored that in the modernity of today the presence of robotics—and the hard work they do for us—is impacting the direction of science, medicine, surveillance, weaponry, and everything in-between. Once reserved for Čapek’s stage and otherized as an opposing force to human existence, robotics and the nanotechnologies therein have exited the theater, finding their place in the natural world around us. Technology is part of native landscape; in Graves’s work, the presence of her ’bots illustrate this convergence of tech and organic matter. Graves is an artist striving to document what cannot be fully seen, but is imbued with the mythology of invention, materializing the mystery of nano with the deific brush and blur of artificial intelligence, as governed by her mortal hand.

Black Death, 2009. Archival digital print. 32″ x 48″. Image courtesy of the artist.

But the world occupied by Graves’s ’bots, though brave, is fairly new, the imprints left behind in their wake still wet. Graves will continue with this series throughout the coming months, looking for new ways to inform her interest in the ecologies of robotics via the vehicle of photography, sculpture, and installation. Her series Longing For Certain Things (2009) gestures toward the genesis of varied strains of the artist’s scientific and philosophical musings, a curiosity that shape-shifts and bobs to the surface with a new identity in her Bot Dialectics.

The work within Longing For Certain Things exists at the apex of contemporary image-making and the existential ritualism of Medieval-inspired constructions of gender and body politic. If ’bots break the frame within her more recent work, the anatomy of woman and the physicality of spiritualism is what peers back at us through the divide between the realms of wild and civil space in Graves’s Longing For Certain Things. Graves cites the history of pantheism as a key influence in her Longing—everything is everything, every body is everybody. The figures here exist in space, devoid of site or specified location, sans background, entirely untethered. In Bot Dialectics, the background subsumes the plane. Both spaces are sites of imagination—bodies without a universe in Graves’s Longing, a universe devoid of the human body in her Dialectics—presenting a space that exists as both dream and nightmare, permeating the divide between artificial and real. Backgrounds without figures, figures without backgrounds beg the question: if a figure exists without a space to place it, can it ever really materialize? Can a space exist if there is no ’bot, no figure, no being to enter it? And further—does the making of a world require both?

I Modify You, 2009. Archival digital print. 32″ x 48″. Image courtesy of the artist.

Considering Graves’s practice via the lens of ritualized geometries, as spawned by explorations of varying modes of intelligence—found in the work of artist Emma Kunz2, or the opus of computer scientist Alan Turing3—in tandem with the transcendentalism of Emerson, or Lawrence Buell’s Environmental Imagination (1996), signifies new directions for ecocritique, environmentalism, and the spiritualism of natural space. Graves’s creative pilgrimage is toward a wild that cannot exist without digital technology. In his “Nature,” Emerson notes: “All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature.” Graves’s Dialectics, spurred forth by Longing, reach out into the world, grasping at the same.You can read more about them here :

Remix, 2009. Archival digital print. 32″ x 48″. Image courtesy of the artist

Garden Bot 1, 2011. Archival digital print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Bright White Paper. 30.6″ x 46″

Garden Bot 3, 2011. Archival digital print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Bright White Paper. 30.6″ x 46″

Hot Bots, 2012. Archival digital print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Bright White Paper. 30.6″ x 46″

Garden Bot 7, 2011. Archival digital print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Bright White Paper. 30.6″ x 46″

Recent Posts


What is a piece of clothing that “works”? Who is working whom? Is the one who poses the one who actually “works” hardest? The S/S 2017 collection of Berlin-based, Swedish- Vietnamese designer NHU DUONG entitled ‘WORK COLLECTION’ plays with the ideas of professionalism, leisure and appropriateness through a range of garments that are inspired by work outfits and hobby uniforms. Overalls, raw denim outfits, kung-fu pyjamas, biker pants, baggy tights and gloves, bomber-jackets, bomber suits,… [read more »]

Preparing to Welcome the Chthulucene | Agustina Zegers

Preparing to Welcome the Chthulucene is a text made up of living exercises to accompany Haraway’s theorization of the Chthulucene and her upcoming book Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Haraway posits that not only should we name the Anthropocene carefully (including the terms Capitalocene and Plantationocene within its narrative) but that we should also be using this crucial ecological timeframe to move towards a dynamically multi-species, “sym-chtonic“, sym-poietic future: the Chthulucene.… [read more »]

Laboria Cuboniks in Conversation

Laboria Cuboniks is currently a group of 6 women working together online to redefine a feminism adequate to the twenty-first century. They collectively wrote Xenofeminsim: A Politics for Alienation in 2014. Here, in conversation with Postcontemporary Issue guest editors Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik they discuss the dissatisfactions and limitations of historical feminism and the importance of theorizing “the future” as a feminist project. Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik: The initial formulation of your political… [read more »]

Situating Global Forms: An Anthropology of Cosmopolitan Science

Aihwa Ong, interviewed by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik Constructing Globality Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik: Your anthropological research pays close attention to specific emerging and inventive configurations of globally-constituted modernization, particularly in East Asia and its diaspora. Throughout this work you identity many ways in which ‘things that used to be fused together — identity, entitlement, territoriality, and nationality — are being taken apart and realigned in innovative relationships and spaces by neoliberal technologies… [read more »]

Ways Of Living ⎮ Arcadia Missa

Ways of Living, curated by the team behind Arcadia Missa, moves beyond the home as a site of political contestation and into the working place, the artist studio, the public sphere, and nature. While so-called ‘social practice’ taught us that any attempt of art to engage with issues outside its own institutional reality are easily coopted into the mythologizing machinery of individualism and patriarchy, art still possesses an ability to address issues far beyond the… [read more »]

What is at Stake in the Future? | Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek

Every ‘future’ inscribes a demand upon the present. This is so whether at the level of human imagination, or within the sphere of political or aesthetic action necessary to reach towards their realisation. Futures make explicit the implicit contents of our own times, crystallising trajectories, tendencies, projects, theories and contingencies. Moreover, futures map the absent within the present, the presents which could never come into actuality, the wreckage of dreams past and desires vanquished. Futures… [read more »]

Dog Plays | Hayley Silverman

Hayley Silverman’s “Dog Plays,” an ongoing series in which a cast of untrained dogs take on the role of characters from a range of pop-culture texts, disrupt the canon of identities traditionally represented in Hollywood as they are re-inhabited by animals. Calling on artifacts ranging from Richard Linklater films, to science-fiction thrillers, to Depression-era musicals that rhapsodize class difference, these performances investigate how our understanding of narrative, authority and identity transforms when we project stories,… [read more »]

A poem by Ser Serpas

ripped apart you rip me apart collage million dead collage donde queda mi cuerpo el temporal como dios en mil partes clothing as point of impact a totem is a wrap around a city as it is engagement with one’s surroundings and engagement with that which has been worn out discarded and filtered into alms buckets and newly tagged i wear my surroundings on my feet when it wears out i see only my vantage… [read more »]

DISCREET Call for Participants

DISCREET – An Intelligence Agency for the People The 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art invites you to apply for one of fifteen spaces open to individuals interested in taking an active part in a three-week-long public workshop conceived of by Armen Avanessian and Alexander Martos for the formation and development of a civil secret service organization. Held from June 22 to July 11, 2016, the workshop brings together renegade experts from art, theory, technology,… [read more »]

Parent and Parroting | Nancy Lupo

Each year retail displays are readied in preparation for the gestation and labor of the catch-all holiday season before floating into a colorless postnatal celebration of mundane plenty. Capitalism’s sympathetic pregnancy makes for a cold and lifeless pas de deux, at times humorously inseparable from the vitality of social milestones. In Parent and Parroting, Nancy Lupo continues with a series of interventions into commercial products and industrialized food. Her interferences often reveal or reconfigure the… [read more »]