Inspiration and Ideas

I am currently compiling a collection of photographs and words that have shaped my practice as an artist/maker. Below is an article I wrote in response to Professor Yamanaka Shunji’s design talk at The Japan House in Kensington, January 2019. 

01. On Purpose


Mechanical Robot

“No matter what it is that you are doing, do it with purpose”, those words rang through my head, A lesson that I was taught some years ago whilst studying anatomy and physiology, my tutor and inspiration at that time was talking about performing everyday activities, specifically walking.

I understood the point, to walk with purpose is a means to completing a journey efficiently whilst using the body effectively. It made perfect sense. However, that logic, which I have since applied to many things in life, is not universal. This evening, I have, once and for all, unlearned that lesson.
Professor Yamanaka Shunji is a designer of the truest form, his work is both beautiful and fascinating. His explorations of form and function have resulted in some of the most curious and humanistic objects that are inexplicably spirited.

Inspired by nature, Professor Shunji’s robots are constructed of 3D printed pieces that fit together much like the vertebrae in a spine. The interlinking pieces move in ways reminiscent of children’s toys; a slinky coiling and springing it’s way down stairs, or a wooden snake held at one end undulating one way and then the other menacingly.

Robotic Clock

Despite it’s stainless steel body, which could have a cold, metallic feel. The smooth, curved edges of the mechanical parts that make up the robotic clock give it the characteristics of a Heron. It is sleek, it’s movements perfectly calculated.

The simplicity of the design and manufacture  of these robots is not to be snubbed. Looking at some of the monstrosities created by Boston Dynamics, it is plain to see the clear difference in approach that the East and the West have to robotics.

In 1998 I worked as a graphic designer and production assistant on a number of projects for Honda. It was then that I developed an interest in robotics, having been shown videos of their prototype P3, the first walking humanoid robot, developed whilst working towards the creation of Asimo.

Battery operated robot based on a nudibranch.

Asimo became legendary, running and jumping upstairs, then starring in a number of music videos. It’s mechanics and movements based on that of a human, it’s purpose was to be a carer, a mobility assistant.

Boston Dynamics and other such companies are in the business of creating machines that can replace humans in situations to protect life, but selectively and certainly not as caregivers. Their development is fuelled by the need to initiate or control military situations without risking lives.

Aeolidia papillosa aka Shaggy Mouse Nudibranch.

Whereas Honda’s robot was created to be an alternative that could protect the dignity and modesty of a person who had lost mobility, Boston Dynamics’ work considers no emotional involvement. 

This is perhaps the reason that the movements of these robots are jolty and erratic, lacking fluidity, and aesthetically, they look like engines, there is no stealth or consideration of form relating to the animal that their behaviour may be based on.

Professor Shunji talks of his roots, showing us a video of a traditional wooden puppet that he made in his workshop, a boy rowing on a ship. It’s stunning, watching the video and hearing him speak fondly of his childhood and his home, you can almost smell the woodworking shop. A smell that always ignites nostalgia for me, having lived above a timber-merchant during the years I was at university.

The robots are based on the anatomy of creatures, my favourite being a nudibranch. To be able to see these objects collectively, to hold them, to feel the kinetic energy and most of all, to witness the vulnerability captured by the responses that they make to sensors, is truly inspiring. It brings an awareness that their creator is the most humble, respectful and kind of human beings. Someone who should be influential. A true inspiration.

On being asked what his creations are for, Professor Shunji states, “to discover the potential of itself”, his work is exploratory, it has no defined purpose. He does not create with an objective, he creates an object with potential.

“Prototyping in Japan” was an exhibition of Professor Yamanaka Shunji’s work at The Japan House London, Kensington. See more of his work on instagram @yam_sketch
January 2019.