The ‘crawler’ robots that populate Dean Kenning’s exhibition, Evolutionary Love, are part of a critical trajectory that the artist has been developing for some time, since rejecting the ‘dominant mode of tastefully arranged, one-liner conceptual works’ that he found prevalent on graduating from art school. By embracing kinetics, a then unfashionable area, Kenning found that he was able to introduce humour and pathos into his practice, creating works with a straightforward, hands on, DIY process, in contrast to the neat conceptualism of which he had grown tired.
My first experience of robots was at high school. Our maths teacher brought in a small droid-like thing for us to play with. The machine could be programmed, on an old Acorn computer, to write and draw onto paper by calculating the distances and angles needed to create an image. We were tasked with writing our initials, in my case an ‘A’ and an ‘E’, which involved inputting a path for the robot, with a bit of trigonometry. After an hour or two, protractor still in hand, I set it off. It started well, buzzing along happily as it scribed my first letter but then, halfway through, it went off-on-one, careering over the edge of the paper, straight onto the buffed classroom tiling: it had a mind of its own much like Kenning’s crawler robots.
Having won the Mark Tanner Sculpture Award in 2020, the current exhibition at Cross Lane Projects is touring various UK galleries. Arriving at the project space, I’m greeted by Gallery Project Manager, Rebecca Larkin. Straight away I see three of Kenning’s robot crawlers, with their exposed batteries, circuits, and cameras, in amongst a tangle of colourful wiring. They’re difficult to ignore as they limp and struggle across the grey floor, pulled along by their two flailing limbs. I have a quick chat with Rebecca, who has developed a knowledge of the crawler’s functions and idiosyncrasies. I get the impression it’s a bit like looking after a friend’s pet, with patterns of behaviour to get your head around. She mentions that they are drawn to bodies, heat and, with the right provocation, they’ll start doing a humming sound.
With this in mind, I stand close to one of the crawlers as part of a cunning test. Initially, the robot doesn’t do anything, and I worry that I’ve short-circuited it with the boldness of my manoeuvre. However, it kicks into gear – is it responding to my movements?! – and soon starts giving my feet a happy slap with its paws. I walk up to another robot and engage in a stand-off. It does what seems like the robot equivalent of eyeballing me. I pause, but refuse to budge, and finally break its steely resolve with my frozen stance and it limps away from the challenge.
The three crawlers have a camera attached to their front, each rigged up to a dedicated widescreen monitor mounted on the wall. Here, the visitor can see what the crawler sees. My eyes wander to the screens, and I see some fool wearing black running trainers and brown cords with turn-ups, suddenly realising, it’s me! This is an interesting process and seeing through the crawler’s eyes adds to the experience of the space. The effect reminds me of the imagined technology, SimStim, in William Gibson’s sci-fi classic, Neuromancer, where a person’s sensory experiences are broadcast for another to access. There are other visitors to the space who I see on the screens. This creates a different experience of the angles of the room, as I try to work out where they are standing in relation to me and the position of the robot. Other notable effects can be created: there’s a great image in the accompanying catalogue showing one of the crawlers pointing its camera at a screen, and thus creating an infinity feedback loop.
Two other kinetic works, ‘Untitled (Rubber Plants)’ (2019), occupy the corner spaces of the gallery. As their title suggests they look a bit like plants, formed of two tubes of silicone rubber rotating on a base: bumping and colliding, slumping and wailing, seemingly out of control. They make a clunking sound as they move, which adds to a sense of loping drunkenness. In the context of the exhibition I initially thought they seemed comedic, but there is a hopelessness to their form and movements which relates to Kenning’s aim of introducing pathos into the work. The exhibition also includes diagrams by the artist dotted around the walls of the space, with titles such as ‘Lifeworld of AI’ (2021), they use mapping, in combination with simple illustrations, to communicate various ideas surrounding the formation of the practice. For example, the diagram ‘Where Do You Come From Artwork’ (2019), speculates on the emergence of ‘Untitled (Rubber Plants)’, asking whether the outcomes ‘sprung from the artist’s head’ or ‘out of the materials, processes and contexts that make it up?’ It’s suggested that Kenning uses these modes of mapping as a teaching tool which makes some sense as they are communicative and informative. If I’m honest, I didn’t focus too much on them as I was inevitably distracted by the kinetic pieces, most notably the crawlers who, as I browse the diagrams, start marching in unison toward the far gallery wall.
The exhibition has a substantial critical framework, including the essay ‘Little Creatures’ by Martha Barratt, available to read on the gallery website and in the accompanying publication, Vitalist Aesthetics. The essays and in-conversation pieces certainly helped me get a handle on the work beyond the immediate experience. Barratt explains that the title of the show, Evolutionary Love, is taken from an essay by the philosopher and semiotician C.S. Peirce, where Peirce foregrounds love rather than self-interest in the evolutionary process. I was surprised to see Peirce’s name here as he is well known for his research in semiotics, and so it’s interesting to learn about this other strand of his work. Various other critical and theoretical concepts are unfolded in the accompanying text, including the notion of vitalism, which is touched upon a couple of times, most notably in the title of the catalogue. Kenning acknowledges that vitalism is an often frowned upon notion, with discredited ideas regarding a hidden life force or spontaneous generation but, to him, it represents life as being ‘more than the sum of its parts’ and that, as an idea, at least acknowledges the inherent ‘weirdness of life.’
Kenning’s preface to the catalogue is direct and instructive in describing how this work has come about, outlining ‘the compulsion to make something entertaining, funny, painful and ridiculous, something that wouldn’t just “sit on its arse” entitled and pleased with how clever it was, has always felt [to Kenning] to be political.’ It sums up a key aspect of the practice, a core motivation in realising the work, and certainly connects to my experience of the robot crawlers, which made me laugh and chuckle, but which also made me feel for them as they struggled across the gallery floor. Whilst these kinetic pieces are an opportunity to speculate, for questions to emerge and trajectories to intersect across a variety of critical strands, it’s Kenning’s desire to create artworks that don’t conform to expectations, that aren’t po-faced, that are funny and sad, amusing, and painful, that resonates with me as I leave the space.
Dean Kenning: Evolutionary Love is at Cross Lane Projects, 19 March – 23 April 2022.
Anthony Ellis is a writer and researcher based in Manchester.
This review is supported by Cross Lane Projects.