With body-armored riot police poised like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in front of a corporate city called Niketown, the uprising late last year against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle seemed science-fictional at times. If the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA) has its way, the future of civil disobedience will be even stranger. This team of artists has already engineered a new form of resistance: robot protesters.
Three disruptive automatons have now been manufactured by the IAA, an anonymous group of artists founded in 1998. The group’s Web site declares that it develops technologies for the “emerging market of cultural insurrection.” While other researchers fashion robots to work in environments that are physically hazardous to humans, the IAA is building robots to speak out in areas where free speech has been regulated out of existence. The IAA takes technologies that have been developed to serve corporate, institutional and military interests and uses them to challenge and subvert those interests.
IAA has so far built three civilly disobedient machines. The first, an anthropomorphic mobile robot known variously as Pamphleteer, Little Brother or Petit Frre, proffers subversive literature to passersby. Its partner in protest, GraffitiWriter, functions much like a remote-control dot-matrix printer-one that uses an array of spray paint cans as its print head and the sidewalk as its blank page. GraffitiWriter has now been used more than 200 times in seven cities by, among others, a Girl Scout troop, a homeless man and a policeman. A larger-scale version of this robot, called StreetWriter, is now in the final stages of development. Mounted to a car bumper, it paints huge messages on the street in letters that are legible from tall buildings and low-flying aircraft. Though painting the sidewalk or streets may strike some onlookers as anti-social, these robots are in some sense only imitating certain forms of corporate activity: Reebok recently commissioned a New York City artist to spray-paint advertising onto sidewalks and streets without city permission.