Paul Granjon: It doesn’t hurt at all

Niki Russell

Aboard the female Sexed Robot, lights flashing in my eyes, I come to the end of the third of Inbetween Time’s performance lecture series (Lecturama). Paul Granjon has led us through a brief history of his work, attempted to make fire, demonstrated his Sexed Robots and sung us a love song, all without losing the thread somewhere along the way. This thread, spun from a collection of bits, not only pulled out of the skip but also bought through online specialists, has led me to this point: stood upright on this motorised scooter with gendered personality, as she seaches for another with a “complementary genital mode.” It’s a shame that “he” doesn’t seem to be turned on.

Sat amongst the ubiquitous laptop, assorted electronic equipment and full complement of corresponding wires, Granjon begins his lecture in his characteristically affable and droll manner. Describing his journey from rescued BBC Micros to homemade robots, we get a sense of what is meant by “reflections and experiments on the co-evolution of human and machine.” Yet somewhere squashed in between the human and machine is a whole range of other animals, some ‘real’ and others fictional or dreamt: Fluffy Tamagochi which apparently produces its own ‘shit’; Little Tutu, a robot ‘dog’ that moves and barks in time with Granjon’s singing; and a whole array of performing animals.

There is something about these ‘animals’ that brings to mind Disney, Mickey’s red shorts and white gloves, the reversal of roles that allows him to own a pet dog. Yet I am not overcome with the same sense of repulsion I feel when confronted with this walking rodent, or for that matter, with the film featuring narrator Morgan Freeman’s patronising humanisation of ‘marching’ penguins. Perhaps it is the two-way infection that makes it more appealing, as we are shown an image of Granjon donning a robotic tail and ears combo. This image is only glimpsed but we see enough to understand that it’s coming from a decidedly other angle than Stelarc’s desire for a third ear.

Granjon was at the last Inbetween Time with his Furman, a man-sized kicking robot that knocked him to the floor. We are told that he has “recovered fully” from this attack, although people hearing for the first time about his selflessly ineffectual attempt to create 2 robots capable of penetrative intercourse, might be forgiven for thinking that the attack had far-reaching consequences.

We are vulnerable to the glitch in technology that Paul Granjon is worried about: he can make robots but the switches he uses everyday are a mystery. The solution? Get back to basics, try to light a fire using basic equipment; oh, and of course, use a video camera to relay this attempt back to a projector so everyone can watch. He takes us through the process step-by-step, filling us in on his success rate—“I make life easy for myself and still I’m not able to light the fire.” No fear, this time he has handpicked the best material, his lucky board, a bow, drumstick, jar, glove and knife—“this time it’s for real!” The audience sits expectantly as the minutes pass by and Granjon with his seesaw bow action explains his technical devices (the “air-flow corridor”, a channel cut out of the bottom of the board). His amplified breath distorts as he tries to fan the ‘flames’. One more attempt; his ‘lucky’ board breaks. We have spent 20 minutes willing the act of fire creation, when we were supposedly here to explore the “co-evolution of man and machine.” Never mind, there’s always next time.

Onto the Sexed Robots, one male and one female in their chipboard arena (like animals in a zoo enclosure). These robots have a number of states: normal, singing, in heat, sleeping, and battery alert. Granjon puts them straight to ‘in heat’, anticipating a successful act of penetration. Not content to allow the robots to get on with it, Granjon wants to get in on the action, hence the modifications to the female robot that allow him to climb aboard. Goggles transfer the “cognition system of the female robot to a human operator” allowing us to see what she sees, to feel what she feels. “Unfortunately” says Granjon, “being a female sex robot is a bit limited on the sensory level.” And after my own experience, I know how that feels.

4 February 2006