The 30 Days of Robots challenge was quite a journey. I have gained 30 new pieces of art for my time, as well as pushed my boundaries and creativity in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Its been a slog, knocked me sideways and rewarded me with new boundaries in the process. This post is the story of why.
Where I started
My usual working style is to undertake discrete projects, like the Speccy-Pi or my new PSU Portable. These start, I have resistance which I push through, have a sudden surge of momentum till I complete the project, then shut down again. The the next project comes along and the cycle repeats. I’m sure you too will have experienced this at some point, if not continually too. 30 Days of Robots was designed to be an exercise in longevity; a commitment to a long term project where every day would tug the same little resistance strings, combining to strum merrily on the big ones. That I thought, would be the challenge.
Inspiration and influences
I had plenty of energy, cool parts and ideas to get through a week. On day 8 came Gateaux. Gateaux hangs, lights up and looks cool, drawing clear inspiration from the iconic robot GLADOS. But that was just the problem. Even when my ideas were spontaneous or determined by the constraints of the parts I had to work with, it begged the question of what of this is actually mine? If I can see other iconic ideas in my work then what is my work and how do I make it authentically mine? How do I feel deserving of the credit? Feel familiar?
As I built more robots, I started to realise that the ideas coming from cool robots ‘out there’ already wasn’t just giving me inspiration. It was incessantly pushing me towards an idea of what’s right; what’s acceptable as a robot. Follow this Google Image search for ‘robot’ and you’ll see what I mean. How many aren’t humanoid or humanised in some way. It’s because that’s accepted as the ‘currently correct’ image of a robot in our culture. My robots were conforming to such specifications and it frustrated me. This feeling of being pushed grew and grew till eventually it had to come out, in Blob. More on that in a mo.
Managing my time
On top of the above, I found myself building ever higher expectations of what I needed to produce each day. I was exhausting the cool looking or easy to work with parts, so producing what I considered decent and acceptable took longer and longer each day. I had not time to do other work, or go out; even the daily chores stressed me out. Finally, by day 23… Blob happened!
Blow-out of Blob
Blob turned out to be the culmination of all of these issues. So much so, that I turned completely giddy for the day and then fatigued emotional vegetable for the rest of the week. Up to then, I didn’t feel original and I’m very shy with my work. So, Blob asked the questions of, what are all the constraints of other robots skewering their way into my work? What ideas of ‘right’ are they forcing me into? How can I fly in the face of those ideas? This is Blob.
My robots had, structure, limbs, recognisable shapes or suggested functions in mind when they were built. They were made of the parts you see in other robots; head, grabbers or hands, sometimes an eye or eyes, a body, wings etc. My answer harked back to the really low-budget times of Doctor Who with the Rutan, or when Kirk would argue with a light-up brain. Now, with our modern CG monsters and television in general we scoff at those times. They feel childish, beneath what we’d expect as adults. All this was what Blob had to be.
He took 20 minutes to make, proudly features balls of masking tape and has no discernible parts whatsoever. I am very proud to have met him and the following is what he taught me.
The first thing I learned was the importance of play. The ability to make lots of whatever you like; doodles, models, sketches, paintings, pipe cleaner stick men if it takes your fancy. Just go for it. Only by producing en mass and frivolously could I first push through the noise of ideas coming from the world around me. Only by going, ‘ooh, a GLADOS-esque robot would be so cool’ could I get that idea out of my system to make room for more.
The unmentioned undertone of the ‘Inspiration and influences’ section is that I put a lot of pressure on myself; pressure of what was ‘right’, pressure of my work being better each time, pressure of ‘what is enough’ not actually being enough. The truth is, if you do that as I did, you might as well measure everything you do in this frame:
Does what I just made beat Picasso’s Guernica?
Arguably Guernica is one of the most influential, original, successful, profound, iconic, symbolic, moving and well recognised of any artwork since WWII. To measure to that is ridiculous, but if we measure our own work by anything other than, ‘did I turn up today, did I meet my basic, starting out, unmodified specification and did I enjoy it?’ then Guernica’s the bar because really nothing in between will be satisfactory. My specification was make one model robot in one day. It didn’t have to do anything, move, light up, be recognisable, of a particular size or even be original, cool and well-crafted. I just had to build it. It could have been a capacitor with the legs bent and have taken me 7 seconds to do, but if I did it then really I was done for the day. I’m not suggesting purposefully drop your standards, but do recognise when you’re pushing yourself to loftier ones. The illusion of Guernica is that it is amazing. Really, Picasso made many many ‘studies’ of every little part; ‘studies’ means he thought it was crap and drew it again. Then the illusion is complete because he finished it. That’s all! As my extremely wise wife often tells me, just do it, finish it and put it out there. So if you don’t think your work is amazing I say this to you. Just do it, finish it and allow other people think it’s amazing.