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RAD Lab, artist-in-residence collaborate to combine art and science


Miranda Holloway

This Robotics, Automation, and Dance (RAD) Lab and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Grainger College of Engineering and artist-in-residence Kate Ladenheim are working in collaboration to explore how the gendered normalisms that dominate screens and stages intersect with the diminutive status of being “cute” in the context of robotics. 
In a choreographed dance, Ladenheim has a set of robotic wings attached to her back. These wings are controlled by a force-sensitive resistor, which wraps around her lower ribcage. As she breathes, the FSR is triggered by the changes in pressure and the wings move accordingly.
“We wanted to design an embodied connection between the performer and the machine in order to give the sense that, at times, the performer and the machine are working together in harmony,” Amy LaViers, RAD Lab Director, said.  “The clear, plastic wings are clearly not part of the human performer, and so it is striking to see moments when the artificial motion seems coherent to the performer’s -- an extension of her breath.”
The mechanical actuation and control design of the wings was led by RAD Lab student Wali Rizvi, and the design of sensing and fabric attachment to Ladenheim was led by RAD Lab student Reika McNish.  
Her custom costume is built from clear vinyl and includes a skirt, corset, and backpack. The costume both holds the necessary electronics and contributes to Ladenheim’s artistic investigation in to feminine depictions of robots. 
“This piece is responding to an unfortunate circularity with deep historical roots: technologies (from corsets 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 simultaneously punishing those who do not,” Ladenheim said. “This translates into newly created technologies (i.e. Instagram algorithms that prioritize and highlight promoters that perpetuate these stereotypes, the voice of Siri or Alexa, and Sophia the Robot) that inherit those same patriarchal prejudices. This work uses technology creation and embodied practice in tandem to exploit these patterns and reveal the emotional impact of this harmful circularity.”
The group has been invited to perform in the Dance NOW Festival at Joe’s Pub and the Public Theater in New York City in September. This festival invites choreographers to perform in a showcase that gives the artist five minutes to create a complete artistic statement. 
Ladenheim is the second artist-in-residence to collaborate with the RAD Lab, and will continue through next year. 
“In the RAD Lab we are working on understanding how movement can communicate information, which is meaningful in context for human viewers. As a choreographer, Kate is an expert in creating meaningful composition for her audiences.  Her artistic development is creating fodder for theater-based and immersive user studies where we will be able to query human participants on their perceptions of machine-based motion.”
The RAD Lab focuses on the design of embodied abstractions and high-level control systems for robots with variable and perceptually meaningful motion.  In addition to traditional tools in dynamics and control and empirical measurement, choreographic practice and taxonomies like the Laban/Bartenieff Movement System allow the lab to study explicit, conscious strategies of embodiment and human movement creation.
Ladenheim leads The People Movers dance company, and was recently named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” and “Best of 2018.”