Material Matters: Machine Agency and Performativity


Session Title:

  • Robotics

Presentation Title:

  • Material Matters: Machine Agency and Performativity



  • We examine new forms of entanglement between human and nonhuman agents to explore the performative potential of machine-augmented environments. Our investigation seeks to establish a mutual dialogue between disciplines; it looks at performativity through the lens of machine agency and explores the potential of machine agency through the lens of performativity. In considering the performative potential of intelligent machine agents, we are interested in shifting the focus from representational issues to questions of agency and materiality.

    In early Artificial Intelligence approaches, robots sensed their environment, built complete internal models using the sensed data, constructed plans based on those models, and acted to execute their plans. Contemporary approaches, in contrast, emphasize situatedness and embodiment, aiming for intelligence (and agency) that emerges from interactions with the world (Brooks 1991, Harvey 2000, Johnston 2008). This is the starting point for considering ecologies that entangle human and nonhuman agents through embodied experience of a shared environment. In Barad’s posthumanist account of performativity, agency is “a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or some thing has” (2003). Similarly, according to Beers, it is only when robotic agents are coupled with an environment, that their potential to act is realized through the agent’s behaviour in that environment (1995). Without disregarding their differences (Suchman 2003), both human and nonhuman agents learn and know not by observing from the outside, but because they intra-act as part of the world (Barad 2003).

    The investigation situates the authors’ interdisciplinary robotic practice and their latest work Zwischenräume: a machine-augmented performance environment, which embeds a group of autonomous robots into the architectural fabric of a gallery. Our built environment becomes the machines’ medium of expression. Adopting methods from urban combat and anti-terrorist visual intelligence, Zwischenräume’s autonomous environment studies and provokes its human inhabitants. The embodied, self-motivated agents act and adapt through their intra-actions with their surrounds; shaping what they ‘desire’ to create or perform. Coupling autonomously performing agents with our built environment opens up a space for Barad’s ‘congealing of agency’ (2003) where the different agential forces not only co-evolve but potentially conspire and perform together.