“The robot is definitely my protege,” said Pilat, 48, who splits his time between New York and San Francisco.
It might sound like a science fiction plot. But for Pilat, depicting a robot in his art is no different from Warhol’s silkscreen Marilyn Monroe. “Portrait reflects power in society,” Pilat said. “Because today more and more power comes from technology. . . to really be a significant portrait painter, I said to myself: “I have to paint portraits of machines”.
Pilat, who trained as a classical painter at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, is not employed by Boston Dynamics. She simply asked the historically secretive company if they could come in and use the robots for artistic inspiration. Boston Dynamics agreed, and later she was given studio space, although it has since been refitted.
These days, she rarely works in the Boston Dynamics building, but Pilat has brought a piece of it back to its Manhattan studio in the form of two rented Spot robots, which cost around $75,000 each for the base model. “He feels like it’s another being, that he has some self-awareness,” she said of Spot. “I feel a debt of gratitude to the machine.”
His vivid color palette and graceful depictions convey compassion for his subject, sensitive or not. Pilat said she feels a protective instinct towards advanced technologies, such as robots, that some fear. “I want to be an advocate for that,” she said, adding that machines “make our lives so much easier.” She calls the paintings of Spot and the other robots her “heroic portraits.”
“As human beings, whenever we want to do something heroic, we build a machine,” she said, citing the Wright brothers’ airplane as an example.
This is not the first time that technology has inspired Pilat. Earlier in her career, she sought out “old and abandoned” machines to paint, such as vintage computers at the Computer History Museum and aircraft parts aboard the USS Hornet Museum, both in California. She then held residencies at self-driving technology company Waymo and powertrain company Wrightspeed. “For me, America is industry and innovation,” said Pilat, who is from Poland.
But there’s just something special about Spot. “He has a really amazing personality,” she said. “It has become my companion.”
Pilat’s work with Spot has been making headlines since last fall, when she exhibited a number of her robot renderings in his solo exhibition “Thinking Machines: Renaissance 2.0” at the San Francisco Modernism gallery. The paintings in this exhibition were plays on iconic works of art: Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” became the portrait of a spiral Spot; Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” has become two outstretched mechanical claws.
When a phone was pointed at a painting, an app animated the works, adding an element of augmented reality. “It gives the illusion that the painting is alive,” Pilat said.
The abstract portraits employ a “child’s palette” of bright blues and bright pinks, a far cry from the darker hues Pilat used to paint older machines. The compositions are geometric and abstract. She sees the paintings as “a bit ‘Matrix’-y”, a deconstructed realism that asks, “What would happen to a classic painting if it were a bit digitally fragmented?” ” she said.
While these portraits have already been exhibited in a gallery, Pilat envisions something different for his long-term oeuvre. “In the future, I see these robots coming to a museum and looking at these paintings and thinking about them: ‘These are our ancestors,'” she said. “The machine is my boss.”
Jason Fiorillo, the Boston Dynamics chief legal officer who helped Pilat gain access to the company, said he was “moved” by Pilat’s representations. He opened the door to her because he thought “if we could see our technologies through her eyes, the world would benefit,” he said. Today, he says, large-format versions of Pilat’s work hang in the halls of Boston Dynamics.
“She likes to paint robots as heroes,” he said. “It’s actually how we see our robots too.”
Recently, Pilat’s attention turned to her paintings done with Spot, who went from muse to assistant. A self-portrait by Spot fetched more than $30,000 at an auction at Sotheby’s last October (she kept some of it and the rest went to the Burning Man Project). The robot has also been involved in creating basic imitations of famous works, including “Madonna and Child” and “American Gothic”.
Her next big project, which she plans to launch this spring, is a collection of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. The NFT that customers purchase will be purely encrypted data, presented as a string of numbers, collected by Spot from its movements while it paints. In addition to the digital asset, buyers will also receive a number of Spot Originals. The physical paintings will all be of the same design; in Warhol’s mind, “they’re going to be identical, but not quite,” Pilat said.
The paradox of the machine is that it’s “supposed to be repetitive and standardized, but it’s not really,” she says. “I think that’s what makes the machine a bit more human.”
Dana Gerber can be contacted at [email protected]