By Natasha Tripney
25.02.2022 / The Stage
Fascinating lecture on empathy and humanity delivered by a robot performer
The figure sitting before us looks human. It is the size and shape of a man. It has the voice of a man. Only when it moves does its un-humanness become apparent. The whir of tiny motors can be heard as it lifts its arms and turns its head – because the star of Rimini Protokoll’s 2018 show, making its UK premiere at Battersea Arts Centre, is an animatronic model, a machine – a robot.
Rimini Protokoll’s production takes the form of a lecture presented by the German playwright and author, Thomas Melle – or, rather, a version of him. One of Melle’s books, The World at My Back, concerns his experience living with bipolar disorder and it is this that his robot doppelganger discusses, alongside the life of Alan Turing, the pioneering computer scientist who shaped how we think about artificial intelligence and coined the term ‘the imitation game’.
The act of public performance is inherently repetitious, he explains. Whether being interviewed or promoting a book, one develops patterns, programmes, delivering the same answers again and again. The machine will never be fatigued by this process. It will not catch Covid; it will not age.
The Melle-machine sits in front of a laptop and talks the audience through a series of images and videos exploring the process of its own creation. We see him visiting a prosthetics laboratory and we see a silicon mould of his head being made, each pore and hair being added by the costume department at the Munich Kammerspiele.
Melle talks about his own mind as a malfunctioning machine and reflects on how the robot replica offers a kind of release – immune as it is to boredom, awkwardness and social anxiety. The mechanical other can be viewed as a surrogate.
It is easy to forget temporarily that the version of Melle in front of us is a machine. Its face has a human softness, its hairline is slightly receding, on occasion it appears to clear its throat – things all designed to make it appear ‘real,’ to allow the audience to make an empathic connection. Then its foot twists at an odd angle and its artificial nature reasserts itself; the fact that this is not a man, but a silicon skin stretched over machine parts, its every gesture pre-programmed in a similar way to the show’s other lighting and sound cues.
Conceived and directed by Stefan Kaegi, the show has an inevitable static quality. The robot Melle does not stand or move much more than its arms; it is both an absence and a presence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Uncanny Valley is a philosophical exercise as much as a technical one, less about robots than our own pre-programming. Will you applaud at the end, it asks, and if so, why? Who is your applause for? In the end, we applaud, of course. We clap; we clap, and we keep on clapping.