ALAVs - Blubber Bots

Chapter 3 Encountering Otherness

yellow_quotationCommunication is an adventure of a subjectivity, different from that which is dominated by the concern to recover itself, different from that of coinciding in consciousness; it will involve uncertainty (Levinas, 1980, p. 120).

In this chapter, I introduce the first of the interactive robotic art installations discussed in the book. The Autonomous Light Air Vessels (ALAVs) are flocks of blimp-like robots. In the first version of the installation, these robots did not communicate using human language, although this capability was introduced in later versions. In all versions, the robots communicate through their movement, sounds and lights. In spite of their unusual behaviour, visitors to the installation can see how the robots appear to interact with one other, and are encouraged to interact with the robots themselves in various ways.

This chapter extends Emmanuel Levinas’ conception of the encounter between self and other even further beyond considerations of human-human interactions than David Clark argues is possible in his consideration of human-animal relations (in particular that between Levinas and other prisoners of war with Bobby the dog) discussed in Chapter 2. An encounter with the ALAVs is relatively easy to frame as an ‘adventure’ that involves a great deal of ‘uncertainty’ (Levinas, 1980 p. 120). Indeed, interactions between humans and these robots are excellent examples of encounters that bring self and other into proximity even as they remain separated by an irreducible distance (where this idea of distance in Levinasian terms refers to the difference between communicators more than their physical positioning).

This chapter therefore concerns itself with the initial moment when self and other meet, identifying the importance of paying attention and being open to the other’s otherness. This moment is described by Levinas as ‘the face to face’ although, as I explain, for Levinas the face does not need to be a physical human face, which allows me to extend this idea to a consideration of human-ALAV encounters.

Levinas, E. (1980) Otherwise than being, or, beyond essence. Hague: M. Nijhoff, p. 120.

Image taken by Jed Berk: