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Christy Dena’s digital writing residency will make you rethink robots

Jul 10, 2013

From HAL 9000 in the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, to trashy action flicks like I, Robot, many a cautionary tale has been spun about putting our trust in robots. As a film genre, it has a history almost as old as motion picture itself. Since Fritz Lang let loose the Maschinenmensch to inflict chaos and carnage on Metropolis in 1927, it has spawned literally hundreds of retellings and re-imaginings in films, television series, books and comics. The dreaded Daleks of Dr Who , all of the Terminators travelling through time, the Cylon armies chasing the Battlestar Galatica, the renegade replicants in Blade Runner along with other examples have cemented a narrative of robots as killers in the collective consciousness.

It’s an ambitious project that wants to pull apart 80 or so years of stories of killer robots. Transmedia artist Dr Christy Dena is using a six month residency and an experimental interactive screening environment to take up that challenge. She is the first recipient of the Digital Writing Residency, a joint initiative of the Queensland University of Technology and the Australia Council for the Arts. The residency, which starts today, comes with $35,000 and a placement at The Cube —an interactive environment comprised of 14 high-definition projectors, over 40 multi-touch screens and high-end sound equipment—which is housed at the QUT Science and Engineering Centre in Brisbane.

Dena will work with a team of creatives to develop Robot University, a project that seeks to explore a framework for ethical human–robot interaction. Recounting her wonder at the early chatbots, Dena’s fascination with robots is long lived. But her view of them is a little different: ‘I see robots as a new species.’

‘As a new species it important that we think about how we interact with this growing community of intelligent robots,’ Dena said, ‘it is inevitable that we will be existing alongside them.’ Through the use of leading interactive technology such as motion sensors, high-definition projectors and touch screens Robot University wants to help people to think differently about robots.

Dena isn’t just focused on gadgetry though, the project also relies on storytelling devices such as dialogue and narrative. As Dena notes, ‘People interact better with robots when they have a backstory.’ That makes sense when you think about some of the most loveable robots on screen: the namesake in Pixar sci-fi rom com hit WALL-EStar Wars stalwalds C-3PO and R2D2, Data in Star Trek: Next Generation, even the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. Their quirky incorporation of human traits is what we warm to. Dena hopes to use the array of new tech and the age old art of storytelling to expand some of these alternative images of robots.

And that is exactly what digital writing is about. ‘Digital writing is any creative writing that uses digital technology in its creation and display,’ explains Jason Nelson, net artist, digital poet and member of the Literature Board, ‘Ideally, digital writing involves interactive techniques, where all the media used, the images, sounds, video/animation, interface, code and words all become critical texts within a digital literary creation.’

Dena and Robot University obviously fit the bill. ‘Christy has been an international leader in transmedia storytelling for almost a decade,’ Nelson said, ‘Her work has crossed over from highly literary creations to more commercial projects with major entertainment companies, and clearly shown an ability to adapt new technologies to literary projects.’ A space like The Cube, with world-leading experimental technologies, is an exciting new canvas.

‘The Cube’s program areas include science, technology, engineering and math, but it lives at the nexus of these disciplines and the arts’ explains Lubi Thomas, Senior Curator at QUT Precincts which caretake all of the exhibition spaces at QUT including The Cube. ‘For the Cube to do its job—inspiring the next generation and broadening the demographic of people interested in science, technology, engineering and math—we need to create compelling projects that inspire curiosity and enquiry,’ She said.

‘The Digital Writing Residency will play an integral role in developing new knowledge and methodologies of engagement and presentation for digital projects,’ Thomas said, ‘And these projects will exist at large scale and in public places.’ For Lubi Thomas, Dena’s experimental creative methodologies result in projects that are ‘off the map so to speak, and the Cube is definitely off the map!’

The digital writing residency is a first of its kind run by a government arts funding agency. Christy Dena will be working with a team of respected creators including Unity programmer Adam Single, sound designer and composer Jacek Tuschewski , 3D modeller and animator Paul Stapelberg and visual artist Simon Boxer. The Literature Board of the Australia Council provided $20,000 to the residency.