Arts & Culture: Agnieszka and the Machine

by Jennifer Massoni Pardini

Bicoastal artist Agnieszka Pilat with Boston Dynamics’ mobile robot Spot. Their artist-directed collaboration, “B70 Self Portrait 02,” shown here, recently sold at Sotheby’s.| Photo courtesy of Pilat Art.
Bicoastal artist Agnieszka Pilat with Boston Dynamics’ mobile robot Spot. Their artist-directed collaboration, “B70 Self Portrait 02,” shown here, recently sold at Sotheby’s. | Photo courtesy of Pilat Art.

Thanks to technology, the art of the future has arrived.

On a September afternoon at Shack15, the members-only work and meeting space on the upper level of the San Francisco Ferry Building, I spot, well, Spot — the Boston Dynamics quadruped robot you’ve likely seen dancing in viral videos. Over the past two years, it has also served as both subject and collaborator for artist Agnieszka Pilat. “Every Spot I use I call Basia,” she says of the affectionate reference to the Polish diminutive for Barbara, her mother’s name.

This particular Spot/Basia crouches beneath the words “to understand the future, we must understand the machine,” the thesis statement for Renaissance 2.0, Pilat’s recent show and first with dealer Martin Muller at Modernism West (she has also exhibited locally at Google and the de Young Museum, among other venues). Per Pilat’s command from a control console, the doglike machine — developed to traverse and inspect various terrains, indoors and out — rises and prances in place, round paws echoing off concrete floors before leading a small group of visitors past plush furnishings to a vast workspace where Pilat’s finished works are on display ahead of the exhibition’s opening.

Shack15 founder Jørn Lyseggen had offered Pilat the raw space with epic views of the Bay Bridge for a three-month residency as she readied her canvases for viewing, in line with other unconventional partnerships the artist has made with Autodesk in San Francisco and the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum in Alameda. In 2019, when she learned about the Spot robot before it was commercially available (prices start at $74,500), she secured a visit to the Boston Dynamics headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts, to initially sketch what she thought was “the coolest thing in the world.” Over additional visits, sketches evolved to color studies, then portraits and, eventually, a collaboration.

Pilat has long been fascinated by machinery, particularly the older machines of American industry. Originally from Poland, she moved to San Francisco in 2005, where she studied fine art painting at the Academy of Art. Prior to the pandemic, she began dividing her time between home bases in San Francisco and New York City, where she is part of the Silver Art Projects at the World Trade Center. During one of her commonplace excursions to Boston, engineers showed Pilat the attachable Spot Arm, which can perform physical work. Her resulting “Sistine Chapel” depicts two robotic arms reaching out from diagonal corners of canvas, a contemporary echo of Michelangelo and the organic inspiration for what would become Renaissance 2.0.

As she explores fully in her collection of 12 pieces, Pilat was drawing a parallel between creators of humanity, art and technology — as well as the hyper-focused locales of Florence, Italy, and Sand Hill Road. “As much as we live in a very global world right now, most innovation started in Silicon Valley, and it’s still the hub of innovation, even though it’s changing,” Pilat says. “In Italy it was all about very localized artists. Like street art, almost. You can’t plan what you’re going to see, but you stumble onto amazing stuff, and this is when the magic happens.”

Part of that magic happened when Pilat put the Spot Arm to creative use. Via the same control console she had been using to make the robot move and walk, she directed it — not unlike an apprentice — to paint. In “B70 Self Portrait 01” and other pieces, the subject turned into the medium, she explains, producing a mix of markings she compares to the imperfect innocence of a child’s finger painting — an endearing contrast to a machine’s expected uniformity.

“I thought, OK, I have to honor it somehow in the work. It became very important because machines move. That’s what they do.” — Agnieszka Pilat

“I would play with the robot and see it move around in such a charming way,” says Pilat, who wanted to push the work even further. “I thought, OK, I have to honor it somehow in the work. It became very important because machines move. That’s what they do.”

Enter: augmented reality. With a smartphone or tablet, a viewer can open a QR code that corresponds with each painting, and an app loads an animated layer of content — to striking effect. In the case of three 78-by-78-inch canvases, “Vitruvian Man in Turquoise,” “Vitruvian Man in Pink” and “Vitruvian Man in Cool Blue” — inspired by Atlas, a bipedal humanoid robot at Boston Dynamics — each figure in oil on Belgian linen can appear to march free of the confines of da Vinci’s circle, mechanical sound effects completing the immersive experience. The bright, youthful colors are also an intentional departure from her characteristically darker palette.

“What impressed me was the growth of her work from the first time I went to her studio, where it felt like I could have been at that Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw,” Muller says on the eve of Renaissance 2.0’s closing at the end of October. “The work was perfectly accomplished but conceptually had somewhat of an academic sensibility, a certain rigidity that now is completely gone. The development in a matter of three, four years is remarkable, and the new work is not only very interesting and thought-provoking but also inviting some further exciting artistic investigations.”

Technology will continue to factor into the pursuit and value of those investigations. On October 8, a Sotheby’s auction for “B70 Self Portrait 02” closed at $31,500 to benefit Burning Man Project, after opening with a minimum bid of $7,000. And Renaissance 2.0 is nearly sold out.

Pilat will add a few more pieces to the series but is now focused on showcasing the innovation in Basia’s remaining body of work. “In the spring, I would like to have a show with the works of Basia with NFTs attached to it,” she says of digital ownership certificates. “I’m still figuring out the best way to present it, but that’s the next step.”

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