Merlin Betts considers the news that a robot is propping up our contemporary arts centre.

Doors Closed, Exhibitions Open

As part of its efforts to reduce the spread of Coronavirus, HBC ordered that a number of businesses and attractions close, including museums and galleries. Hastings Contemporary has obeyed this closure, like everyone else, but is doing its best to continue providing access to artworks. Through what is reportedly the first time telepresence robot technology has been used in a gallery in the UK, Hastings Contemporary and Bristol Robotics Lab will provide audiences with remote access to the gallery’s exhibitions even while its doors remain closed.

PICTURE: Will Barrett

Robot-assisted tours of the current programme will allow would-be visitors stuck at home to be guided around the gallery by curators and the other members of the HC team. This technology may also allow local artist-educators to run interactive art lessons involving the gallery, using the same robot assistance to show children and students around exhibitions. 

Other plans to enable remote access to the gallery’s resources include: developing a new online hub of art and mindfulness resources, with a focus on entertaining or engaging the children of key workers; creating bespoke digital art lessons and creative learning activities for many of Hastings’ temporarily closed schools; and virtual 3D renderings of the gallery’s three postponed spring shows. The shows are: Victor Pasmore: Line & Space; Stephen Chambers: The Court of Redonda; and Quentin Blake: We Live In Worrying Times.

Liz Gilmore, Director of Hastings Contemporary said: “As we navigate through these testing times and manage the loss of important revenue streams, I’m thrilled to embrace such innovation and creativity […] next week I will be leading some virtual tours to bring to life the incredible exhibitions on offer, prioritising people who are most affected by the lockdown and are now having to self-isolate for a number of weeks […] Recordings of these tours will be made available to the public afterwards. In this way, over the months ahead, we hope to continue our exciting future calendar of contemporary art exhibitions, and our educational and community engagement programmes.”

Robot Technology as a Social Enabler

The ‘Double’ – the robot Hastings Contemporary will be using – is a two-wheeled videoconferencing platform that can guide an operator and up to five people through real time tours. It was created by Bristol Robotics as part of D4D, a national research project which states it “will investigate the evolving ways in which we as disabled and non-disabled people express, perform, experience and practice ‘community’.” D4D stands for “Dis/engagement, Dis/enfranchisement, Dis/parity and Dissent”. The Double’s use at Hastings Contemporary will help Bristol Robotics and D4D refine the use of telepresence technology to improve remote access to art, culture and community well beyond the end of Coronavirus. 

Praminda Caleb-Solly, Professor for Assistive Robotics and Intelligent Health Technologies at the Bristol Robotics Lab, UWE said, “I am absolutely thrilled to team up with Hastings Contemporary as part of our Arts and Humanities Research Council D4D project to provide people who are socially isolated the opportunity to enjoy art via the telepresence robot.”

PICTURE: Will Barrett

She continues, “This is an excellent example of how robotics technology can be used to support people in difficult situations such as we are currently experiencing. There are other applications for the use of telepresence robots within health and social care and I look forward to learning from our experiences at Hastings how to apply them elsewhere.”

Esther Fox, Head of Accentuate, an arts and culture organisation that aims to support the talents of deaf and disabled people, is part of the research project at D4D. She’s also a Hastings Contemporary trustee and HIP featured her in the run-up to AltPitch Arts and Technology Festival.

Esther says D4D: “explores how new technologies can change experiences of disability, social belonging and community engagement. Up until now we have been working with disabled people to explore how the telepresence robot might open up access to spaces they could not experience. We are now excited to see how we can enable a wider group of people to access great art and combat isolation, particularly those with underlying health conditions who are having to self-isolate.”

AltPitch’s Proof of Concept

AltPitch Arts and Technology festival is dedicated to exploring the relationship between the digital world and humanity, and the responsibilities that come with our technological expansion. It had planned a week of exciting performances and supporting events to provoke thought and debate, bring together creatives and innovators, question our daily use of technology, and ultimately help the audience to find their own answers to pressing questions about how humanity will function in the future.

Anastasia Witts, Executive Producer of AltPitch Festival, says “There are a few valuable lessons we can learn in these extraordinary situation. And one thing is obvious from the start – the necessity to stay at home pushes people to embrace technology in a much more thoughtful way and to re-think their relationships with it. Computer literacy is growing by the day and people realise that digital technology contains so many helpful options, and we have only been using it superficially. On behalf of the AltPitch Festival, we are delighted to see the Hastings Contemporary leading the way and quickly adapting to the needs of the situation showing ingenuity, resilience and opening new exciting opportunities for the art lovers. The AltPitch Festival is very happy to support this initiative.”

Even if most of its public events have been shut down (the venues closed due to COVID-19) AltPitch has been able to use digital technology to carry on. #echochamber, the Anglo-Icelandic opera about sexism and shaming on social media (which uses a live twitter feed as part of performances) was streamed on the festival Facebook page and can be watched until 27th April on the AltPitch website. Meanwhile, the work of Bristol Robotics Lab and Hastings Contemporary has gone some way to proving the festival’s core concept: that arts and technology can work together to improve access to social resources and even increase profit. The AltPitch Platform – a day of lectures from experienced speakers, hopes to return in September this year. 

What about the Virus? 

We all have to put on a brave face, engage in that ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, the spirit we only bring out when we’ve already been beaten and want to resurrect ourselves. It’s great that we have a robot rolling around a gallery, providing access to disabled and self-isolating individuals alike. That is a good thing. But what is art, and what is a gallery, any gallery perhaps, when set against death and economic collapse? Reality is knocking at the door, and even the arts world (perhaps as expected, actually) doesn’t seem overly interested in it. 

I think there’s a chance we’re going to get through this pandemic relatively ‘easily’, so just the few tens of thousands of deaths that Dominic Cummings allegedly said is a price worth paying. What will we have learned by the time we get to the other side? Will we just have a better relationship with digital and remote technology? Will we care more or less about each other? Will people stop saying economic collapse and NHS workers and patients without protective gear, without funding, is “not political”? I think it’s summed up beautifully with the image of a couple, sitting in relative comfort at home, looking through a robot at one of the scenes of devastation or disarray from The Age of Turmoil, Edward Burra’s War in the Sun, say. Looking at it and saying to each other, “Isn’t that a wonderful painting?” and “Such an expressive palette!” and, soon after, going back to Netflix and a pot of fresh-boiled pasta. The day carries on. 

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