Robotic animals coming to an intersection near you

17 January 2016 - 02:00 By Ashraf Jamal
Robot bird.
Robot bird.
Image: Supplied.

The African Robots project splices wirework street art with DIY robotics to breed a brand new zoo of loony roadside creatures, writes Ashraf Jamal

South Africa is the only country in the world that calls traffic lights "robots". The word stems from the Russian for slave worker: robotnik. And I suppose an efficient, colour-coded stop-start traffic system is a reasonable adaptation of the term.


Traffic lights are low-level functionaries in a world overrun by machines which do our bidding. In an ideal world - one assigned to perpetual leisure - machines will assume total responsibility for our desires and actions.

This fantasy, which would also prove a nightmare, has its earliest roots in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, rebooted a century later in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a dystopian sci-fi world which proved the prototype for all our man-versus-machine sagas, most notably Blade Runner, or, most locally, Neill Blomkamp's Chappie.

Robots are everywhere. They feed our imagination, define our lives. Such is their ubiquity that now we are merely an extension of them. Indeed a study has proved that Steve Jobs's iPod is a thing more sacred, more desirable, and more iconic and impressive than the image, life and work of Mother Teresa. That the Catholic Church has since dubbed her a saint in no way defrays the fact that Jobs's fetish objects are the ultimate item of contemporary worship.

And the machines we most desire, from phones to virtual-reality headsets, are not only desirable because they are convenient, or keep us connected, but because they ensure that we are anywhere and everywhere but in the here and now.

So-called efficiency has swallowed up time, destroyed the present tense, ushering forth the cult of slowness - a desperate bid to cauterise a manically addictive and distracted connectivity.

Enter Ralph Borland - designer, artist, activist and craft-beer brewer. On a trip to São Paulo, Borland bought some cheap Chinese toys which, on returning to Cape Town, he hacked, shifting the electronics to a rudimentary wirework shell. The result was a flapping starling with a grating voice box.

But what proved so disarmingly engaging about this creature was its unabashed lo-tech, art-brut and hand-crafted quality, for what we were looking at was a revamped curio, ubiquitous across South Africa, and typically sold at intersections monitored by robots; except of course that now the armature was no longer static, the creatures no longer mute.


By giving the wirework object movement and sound - by galvanising it as it were - Borland rightly felt that he would fuel the existing local and touristic yen for our wired curios. By bringing together a group of wireworkers in his African Robots project, Borland sought to create an "interactive electronic street art" - and by "street art" Borland meant art sold by people on the street.

The objects, while bespoke, were not perceived as rarefied art objects designed for the white cube, but as affordable triggers of wonder and delight.

Borland has been a wireworker since he was a boy and came to hacking more recently. His vision has value precisely because it embraces toys with a raw analogue quality. It's a steam-punk aesthetic, something rough-and-ready, bulbous, clumsy, and endearing because of its oddity.

The taste for such creatures is rapidly returning, at the precise moment when the likes of Mark Zuckerberg makes the creation of a personal "butler" his new year's resolution. Here lies the paradox that affects all our lives - slowness versus speed, vinyl versus digital, things vulnerable to time, raw, scratched, quasi-mortal as opposed to things synthetically programmed, perfected, ideal.

This split between the raw and the cooked is something we're stuck with. What Borland has championed is the raw, or better, the means to cook the raw. His initiative, which formed part of the SA-UK Seasons, a North-South arts exchange, led him to the Harare International Festival of the Arts, and on to to an exhibition and workshop at the Muti Gallery in Cape Town.

In its early stages, African Robots will prove a small but vital contribution to an ever expanding market for African curios. However, these African Robots are not merely intended as mute displays but as interactive celebrations of innovative informal labour.

By cross-hatching cellphone repair networks with street-craft - the digital and handcrafted - the project is highly promising. Key to the venture is the very rewiring of our psyches.

It seeks to recover our connection to the bountiful "wealth of human knowledge and mechanics" to which we are all heirs. Borland and his collaborators aim to democratise access to technological know-how - and thus to defy the "black box" of commercially driven technology.