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FUTURE’S EVE The Future Is… Fembots?

Each page refresh brings news of the latest in robotics and artificial intelligence, sending ripples of anticipation and fear across social media networks. And what’s more exciting than a future filled with sexy, useful, caring and curious fembots? Emerging performance artist Michelle Aitken steps up to this question in Future’s Eve, with just her roomba as companion. It’s her first solo show and will be held across four nights (Feb 5, 6, 10 & 11) at Paper Mountain as part of Peaks 2018 and Fringe World, starting at 9pm each night and running for approximately 55 minutes. JESS COCKERILL caught up with Michelle to talk about corrupting innocent young AIs on Twitter and losing your virginity to sex bots.

Future’s Eve promises a “one-woman, one-roomba” exploration of feminised robots and AI from the past, present and future. Why do you think performance art – dance, projection, theatre – is the best medium for asking these questions?

Well, I’m not a scientist, so… [laughs]. I think it’s something that has a really fascinating aspect to it visually. We’ve got videos of robots, people are immediately hooked on them because of that uncanny lifelike thing about them.

On stage, it’s me, and my body… my real human woman body, as a juxtaposition to the robot women bodies. A roomba, some lasers, a feminist version of the technoscientific future, performed by me and a video of a robot with some pom-poms. I make breakfast for everyone live on stage, using electrical appliances, and then serve it to everyone, along with some secrets.

How much does retro-futurism play into your performance?

I think the aesthetic is definitely on the retro side. Olivia Tartaglia is the designer, I asked her to work with me because she’s really very good at that retrofuturist/feminist/’fun and shiny to the point of being trash’ aesthetic. And Azariah Felton, the composer, all the stuff he’s writing is super synthy, 8-bit, samples from people talking, from videos and films.

Our visual vocabulary is still shiny one-piece suits, wearing alfoil hats. The roles of women from vintage housewife ideals are being transferred so strongly to the development of new AIs. Women robots – gendered robots – work as receptionists, secretaries, assistants, aged care workers, household domestic robots, and then hyper-sexual object robots. And that seems so based in the past.

What drew you to these themes?

Microsoft’s AI bot Tay | Source: Wikipedia

Honestly, I probably saw something on Facebook and read some clickbait article. I just got obsessed with these images. In fiction – and what’s turning into reality – these robot women are born sexy. They have children’s minds in hypersexual adult bodies, with men falling in love with that. It seems to be really mirrored in sex robot development. Hypersexual doll bodies, with a personality that’s like, “I have just seen the world for the first time, and you’re the only man I’ll love because you’re the only man I’ve ever seen, teach me everything!”

At Microsoft they released that Twitter AI bot named Tay, and it really quickly turned into a fascist troll because they set up this image of a young teenage girl who wanted to learn things from her friends on Twitter, so of course people taught it terrible things. Surprise.

Maybe it’s better that those desires are projected onto inanimate objects, sparing real women from having to deal with it?

If people have really niche fetish stuff, please go ahead and share it with your robot. I mean there’s no point in feeling sorry for the robots, because they’re not subjective, but then is there still a problem with doing anything you want to them? I think it does play a part in contributing to images of violence against women. In a society where women are continually objectified, and it has a negative impact on our lives and work… it’s just reinforcing more of the same.

Roxxxy the Sex Robot | Source: Paul Sakuma / AP Photo

For instance, there’s a sex robot called Roxxxy. You can watch these YouTube videos of her creators talking about the robot’s functions, and what it can do for people, but it’s funny because it’s this man who can’t even say anything about women’s bodies or sex. If you can’t say vagina, I don’t want you making a robot one! I don’t feel good about that.

But I’m also really trying not to hook into that voyeurism, alienating or making fun of people. I don’t want to say no to having sex with robots, because I think you can’t stop it… but there’s things we can learn, there’s things we can enhance about sex and relationships with robots, and I think representing women that you can own as literal objects isn’t the best way.

There are definitely parallels between the cringe factor of internet dating only a decade ago, and now people use Tinder daily. There were similar attitudes about vibrators, and now we have sex robots. Maybe it’s just the next step. Do you think robots can ever truly replace human intimacy?

I guess it depends on how far we’re looking into the future. The guys from RealDoll talk about how it’s not meant to replace a real human relationship, they’re just providing a different sort of companionship. I hope it stays differentiated.

Do you reckon having sex with an AI robot will count as losing your virginity?

That’s a really good question. I guess it highlights virginity as a social construct. I’m sure you can break your hymen on a robot dick. That’s a line I never thought I’d say.

You can break your hymen horse riding, I hear. So I guess you can lose your virginity to a horse, technically.

I guess… Those are the real questions. We’ll see what the future holds. Maybe by then, I can get a robot to do my performance for me. Once I’m a smash-hit robot artist.

Robot Restaurant | Image by Jess Cockerill

Of all the robots you’ve come across, which one is your favourite?

Can I have two? One is my favourite because it is so hideously sexist by accident. It’s made by this artist Clayton Bailey, and it’s called Sweetheart. It’s not a functional robot, it’s a sculpture of a robot, but it’s a working coffee urn with a percolator for a head, and two lampshade breasts. It got kicked out of the museum in the 70’s for being a sexist image of a robot. He said it was just his idea of what a pretty woman robot should be like.

The other is this robot called Valkyrie, made by NASA a short time ago, and it’s a bipedal, humanoid rescue robot to be used in space. It’s got a female body and torso, and a feminine robot face. It’s this massive mega-functional life-saving robot. They went out of their way to make it represent a woman but still being a super functional, useful, important robot. I think that’s great. It’s good to have both. I don’t mind women sex robots as long as we also have useful women robots, and male sex robots too.

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