The Robotic Chair controls its destiny

The seemingly standard chair collapsed, leaving its parts strewn about the stage. Moments later a whirring sound filled the room as the dismembered object resurrected into its original form.

The Robotic Chair, or self-destructive chair, was shown in a live demonstration yesterday at the Yale Art Gallery Auditorium supported by the Tetelman Fellowship and co-sponsored by the Yale School of Art and Yale Faculty of Engineering. Following the exhibition, Max Dean and Raffaello D’Andrea — two members of the object’s creative team — demystified the process as they spoke about the motivation behind and significance of what they call the “smart chair.”

Students watch a demonstration of The Robotic Chair at the Yale Art Gallery. The “smart chair” can collapse and recover almost 100 percent of the time.
Ben Beitler
Students watch a demonstration of The Robotic Chair at the Yale Art Gallery. The “smart chair” can collapse and recover almost 100 percent of the time.

Constructed mechanically with wood, aluminum and pins and controlled by a camera that senses the position, the chair can recover from the collapse almost 100 percent of the time, the creators said.

Dean, a visual artist who initially conceived the idea, is known for his interactive kinetic installations that demonstrate a hybrid of robotics and artistry.

“I wanted to make an object that could control its own destiny,” he told the crowd yesterday.

Dean said he has been involved in this field of art for thirty-five years and has been obsessed with the creation of the chair for more than two decades.

Since then, he has executed other similar projects such as “The Table,” an autonomous robotic object that forges relationships with museum-goers — following them through the galleries and reacting to people through an emotion algorithm. Dean worked with D’Andrea — an expert in designing algorithms and technology for controlling autonomous systems — on this venture, as well as “The Chair.”

Though D’Andrea is an engineer, not a visual artist, he said he formed a deep connection to the chair largely because of its interpretative value. It relates to understandings of time, he said.

“There is an intimate relation between time and entropy because time is a progression towards entropy or disorder. [The Robotic Chair] is against time because it can put itself back together,” D’Andrea said. “This is a way to fight against the progression to disorder.”

Daphne Fitzpatrick, who is a visiting artist in the sculpture department at the Yale School of Art, like D’Andrea, said the demonstration drew an emotional response from her.

“I thought it was a surprisingly emotional object,” she said in an e-mail to the News. “The anthropomorphic quality has the effect of eliciting strong feelings of empathy.”

As part of the presentation, Dean and D’Andrea read reactionary comments from The Chair’s YouTube video — illustrating both good and bad reviews. Like some of the comments, several students in the audience said they did not understand the object’s purpose.

Others said it was impressive, but not necessarily fine art.

“I’m not sure I would consider it art,” Jason Rabinovitch ’08 said.

Dean and D’Andrea said they are accustomed to criticism against the object’s utility, but it was never intended to be a utilitarian piece of furniture. There does not need to be immediate usefulness for everything, D’Andrea added.

There are six of the Robotic Chairs and five are still available for purchase, Dean said. It will be on display today at the Yale School of Art in Room 126.

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