TPM x RAD

A dance + robotics collaboration

The People Movers and The Robotics, Automation, and Dance (RAD) Lab at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana are collaborating on an ongoing project integrating dance with robotics, currently titled Babyface. This work investigates gender roles and how machines can reinforce and/or subvert them.

The People Movers and The Robotics, Automation, and Dance (RAD) Lab at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana are collaborating on an ongoing project integrating dance with robotics, currently titled Babyface. This work investigates gender roles and how machines can reinforce and/or subvert them.

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“Don’t worry, if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. Treat me as a smart input/output system.”

 
— Sophia, Hanson Robotics

“Babyface” is a story about a cyborg woman who was made to be perfect — inescapably amicable, helpful, fun, and sexy. The embodiment of youthful beauty and effervescence, her primary purpose is to make others feel impressed, pleased, and inspired. To accomplish this, her creators affixed upon her a pair of wings. As she breathes in, the wings expand. Impressed at her beauty and grandeur, everyone around her gasps. As she breathes out, the wings fold in. Everyone sighs, holding in them the memory of her splendor.

For a time, this cyborg was successful, but eventually, those around her lost interest. People started to see this winged woman as “a bit too much,” and then as largely uninspiring, and, finally, as boring and passé.

All this has transpired when audiences meet our cyborg, who has since been discarded and left to grapple with her own irrelevance. What remains is an abstract narrative that synthesizes ideas around aspiration and limitation, innocence and servitude, cuteness, failure, and spectacle.

Ladenheim and Lab members are developing custom robotic wings that respond to breath and movement.

The wings are a magical, otherworldly spectacle and a physical metaphor for the unrealistic expectations placed on femme bodies via technological design and social pressures.

This is not a new societal trend — technologies from corsets to birth control to social media pressure women to look and perform beautifully, effortlessly and non-threateningly, feeding a culture that expects less of women who conform while punishing those who do not. This translates into newly created technologies that inherit those same patriarchal prejudices: game designers meticulously crafting “ideal” female characters with hyperbolic physical features and male engineers selecting feminine-voiced robots programmed to serve. In this way, “Babyface’ is as much a call to consider equitable practices in the creation and dissemination of machines, as it is an emotionally impactful journey through the insidious elements of commodified gender norms.

CREDITS

Choreography by Kate Ladenheim, with Amy LaViers
Machine by Amy LaViers and Wali Rizvi, with Kate Ladenheim
Costume by Reika McNish Christy Hauptman, with Kate Ladenheim
Music by Myles Avery, with Kate Ladenheim

Babyface has received generous support from The Performance Arcade, Footnote New Zealand Dance, The United States Embassy in New Zealand, The Central new York Community Foundation, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Page photos by Colin Edson of The Performance Arcade 2020, featuring dancers Sebastian Geilings, Rosie Tapsell and Cheyenne Teka from Footnote New Zealand Dance.