At this point, there isn’t much novelty left in arming robots with art supplies. We’ve seen it and we get it; machines can mark up canvasses too. Still, these projects always occupy some interesting conceptual territory, and they’re good jumping off points for asking bigger questions about art, authorship, and autonomy.
BNJMN, a paintbrush-wielding bot created by two students at the Basel Academy of Art and Design, gives us one such question to consider: Is there a difference between a robotic artist and an artistic robot? Or, in other words, to what extent can you program something resembling an artistic personality?
At first glance, BNJMN doesn’t seem much different from his forebears. He looks like a sleek external hard drive on wheels, carrying two paint markers in his articulated arms. But he does act a bit differently. Once pointed to a sheet of paper, he’ll carefully size it up with a dangling antenna and position himself just so. Then, his “Expressive Output Cycle” kicks into gear, randomizing the movement and pressure of his two painting limbs. Occasionally he’ll stop for a moment–considering his next move?–and then start back in on his work.
The canvasses all end up looking similar–the bot just has two brushes, after all–but they do exhibit a little aesthetic variety. Some have just a few sweeping, expressive strokes; others are filled with short stabs, or dense tangles of angular lines. After completion, BNJMN signs each in the bottom right corner.
Of course, thoughtful pauses and programmed signatures don’t make BNJMN any more of an artist than the microwave in your kitchen. And the mockumentary-style clip here ends up endowing him with a false sort of agency, like when someone says, “oh you naughty little Roomba” to their robotic vacuum. It’s cute, but it’s a bit of a distraction.
Because BNJMN’s creators, Danilo Wanner and Travis Purrington, did genuinely try to give him some measure of autonomy. “We conceived the project starting from the idea of a certain kind of robot rather than the desired visual outcome,” Wanner says. “BNJMNs paintings are really an expression of a style that was fashioned from his construction, abilities, and limitations … We feel more like mentors than creators of his artworks.”
So in that sense, you could say that BNJMN is more artistic than some of his robotic colleagues. He may not learn or develop, and he may not know what he’s doing, but there is some spontaneity in his work–and that all comes from within.