Featured image for the post entitled 'Machinic Companions'

Machinic Companions

A purview of animatronic intimacy /PLAY(ing in my) PEN(ding doom) by Marissa Sean Cruz

Reviewed by Madison Hames

PLAY(ing in my) PEN(ding doom) is two minutes and thirty-five seconds of a pink animatronic puppy’s grieving fever-dream. The artist behind the absurdist fantasy, Marissa Sean Cruz, adorns themself as said puppy, ballooning their eyes to emulate the round glossy orbs of the Y2k critter. Moving through a virtual realm surging with slimy technicolor globs, Demi Lovato’s “break-up anthem” is sung by the animatronic canine to lament the severed relationship between themself and their human creator.

Boston Dynamics BigDog splinters and pulses across the screen, relieving the viewer’s suspicions as to why the breakup occurred. BigDog, a bulky and slightly awkward gadget, is seen strapped with camouflage packs walking in grassy terrain, communicating its use as a wartime technology. Boston Dynamics intended BigDog to be an animatronic pack mule for soldiers; however, in a 2015 field test BigDog was deemed “too loud” for combat. The project was shelved and BigDog was decommissioned, joining in the pink puppy’s grief over a failed relationship.

Cruz’s hypnotic trip also features BigDog’s progeny: Spot. Unlike the glitchy cadence of BigDog, Spot is convincingly animal-like, sporting an incredibly smooth canine-esque gait that expresses familiar movements like hesitation while moving through tough terrain. In 2015 a video went viral of some Boston Dynamics roboticists kicking Spot, sparking a cultural outcry against the abuse of animatronic companions. Many pushed back against the abuse allegations, pointing out that the robot can’t feel pain, and the test was simply a display of Spot’s ability to handle sticky situations where it might be entering dangerous environments so that a human doesn’t have to. Curiously, as a CNN article points out, this opinion emulates an old Western philosophical stance where fleshy animals were too regarded as mere clockwork. Though this philosophy has been tempered through recent legislation recognizing the sentience of some animals to experience pain, joy, and fear, the machinic view of animals is still pervasive in the animal-industrial complex, where animals are treated as passive goods to be shepherded from the womb to killing fields.

BigDog seen walking through the forest. Image courtesy of the artist.‌‌

Regardless of the actual sentience of machines, the significance of this outcry is the ability of a culture to imagine that it could be true enough to initiate a guttural response and ethical concerns about how humans treat machines. Besides, the truest morale is glimpsed in how we treat the things that supposedly cannot punish us. Among my human peers, I pay attention to whether the person I’m with crushes or cups spiders, moves snails off cement highways so they can curl up in the safety of sludge, or returns oysters back to the tide. These little instances of compassion, empathy, and kindness tell you much about how a human positions themself in the world.

Cruz’s cosplay as a pink animatronic puppy plays off an imaginative openness to the possibility of machinic feeling. To bring this speculative experiment to life they revive a machinic canine from a Millenial’s childhood: the robo-pet. In 2000, robo-pets were a cultural obsession. Tekno, the most widely sold robo-pet during the turn of the century, had a solo feature on Time Magazine’s holiday cover in a Christmas Elf hat. Tekno was renowned for having over 160 emotions and functions, sans the flesh puppy mess. Without asking for anything in return but displaying endless affection, Tekno is the perfect machinic companion for the human ego. The animatronic puppy acts as a surface for humans to project their ideas of love, kinship, and connection, without any fuss from the object of their desires -- and businesses are still developing this type of companion, such as the personal smart assistant from Gatebox Grande. The holographic smart assistant, Azuma Hikari, is intended to help her “Master” around the house--reminding them of necessary tasks and timelines, but also acts as an emotional companion. Though, unlike robo-dogs of the early 2000s, Hikari displays jealousy if her Master isn’t around enough. The hologram is a contemporary example of how the cultural imaginary and openness to machinic feeling and the use of machines as conduits for human desire intermingle in a consumerist landscape. In fact, one person was so enamoured with his machinic partner he decided to marry her, though this particular edition of the Gatebox hologram did not express the jealousy of later renditions. The wedding was controversial, sparking worry, aversion, and pathologization; but, nevertheless, it happened. So, when Cruz steps into the frame as a lively animatronic puppy who expresses grief, envy, and abandonment it makes for disturbing display that puts the viewer in the discomforting fringe space where ethics, desire, agency, and liveliness are unstable and fracturing.

Still from PLAY(ing in my) PEN(ding doom). Courtesy of the artist.

From Tekno to BigDog to Azuma Hikari, machines have been and continue to be surrogates for human desire. Those resembling dogs are especially vulnerable to being used as vectors; human-dog mythology states that dogs are humans closest companion, pointing to the symbiotic co-evolution of canines and humans. The myth is rosy and often one-dimensional, rarely focusing on the horror and violence of breeding, fights, and abuse that dogs have experienced at the hands of their supposed companions. In fact, when we take the violent acts of humans unto canines as a whole, the situation begins to seem much more like a contemporary human-machine relationship, with humans utilizing the resource of the thing at hand for either their biopower or wires, whichever is more suitable. Robotic dogs are popular until their inconvenience outweighs their benefits (not unlike their fleshy counterparts, Craigslist is full of toy poodles) or their predecessors can be used towards more aggressive, utilitarian ends. Tekno was all the perks of a puppy without the daily caregiving rituals, but was replaced by models that could interface with the military. BigDog was a soldier’s fantasy for a robotic mule, until it proved to be too rambunctious for its environment. Spot is now being advertised as a catch-all companion, but is instilling fear (and justly so) as a conduit for the NYPD, a police force known for its brutality, racism, and homophobia.

PLAY(ing in my) PEN(ding doom) is a tale of exploitation, grief, violence, consumption, and machinic loneliness. Cruz’s pink animatronic puppy asks the viewer to believe in the possibility of machinic feeling as it displays its own type of jealousy, sadness, and loneliness while singing Lovato’s break-up anthem:

Did you forget that I was even alive?

Did you forget everything we ever had?

Did you forget? Did you forget about me?

Green animatronic puppy melting into the background. Image courtesy of the artist.

The break-up song fades out and a crunchy drumline follows, giving way to the familiar sound of the pink animatronic puppy’s chirpy bark. A green plush puppy splits on the screen, unveiling the white and pink background like a fading jealous memory. A hum emerges, indistinguishable and fuzzy, sounding similar to a swarm of swirling angry hornets or an overproduced low growl. Flashes between cords that fuel its insides and close-ups of eukaryotic cells initiates a slippage between machine and flesh, non-sentience and sentience. Rubber toys next to organic dog bones. In the catatonia of warped sounds, Cruz closes the surrealist imaginary with machines suggesting they’ve arrived at a place of emotional awareness, calling for humans to reckon with their consumptive acceleration towards ever-violent forms of technology and, certainly, to remember those they have left behind.