Can A Robot Make Art?

Two Masters students at Switzerland’s Basel Academy of Art have created a robot capable of painting original artwork. The word “original” floats fairly close to the word “random,” prompting the question: can a robot make art? Maybe the robot is the art. After all, art making art is very meta.

Made up of two aluminum arms and an acrylic box on wheels that’s been laser cut according to original design, the robot is named BNJMN – but pronounced like the name Benjamin, the use of acronym playing with the idea that this little nonliving bot can do something only humans are supposed to. Made from the minds of students Danilo Wanner and Travis Purrington, it’s described as a “mobile sensory image production mechanism,” and it’s programmed with 436 lines of code that tell it to roam in search of paper, paint whatever, and sign the work before beginning the cycle over again.


BNJMN has five servomechanisms for movement and two sensors for art-making. It’s able to move straight ahead or rotate, using the light sensor and the touch sensor to find paper by determining the amount of reflected light gathered.

The two aluminum arms are coded with a program called the Expressive Output Cycle, and are designed with a joint and spring system that allows for control over the pressure of each mark made. BNJMN works remotely with 9V batteries, with an Arduino Uno brain on board along with a remote micro-controller. It also has an on/off switch for resting, something living artists probably wish they had from time to time. Only a robot’s off time is definite.


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Animal New York described the robot’s work as “minimal and meditative–a bit like Franz Kline without all the drama.” It moves slowly across the table searching for paper, but once the two arms prepare for brush mode, they spring into action, painting rough jagged lines in red and gray. At the end of the creative cycle, the bot moves down to the corner of the paper and draws a squiggle with a line underneath for a signature.

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BNJMN is different from all the art-making robots who came before him in that he’s not coded with a predetermined image to draw. He sketches something different on each piece of paper he finds, and even though the work is still coming from a random set of 0s and 1s, the design itself is still technically autonomous from any sort of human interference.

It’s a funny thing for a robot to do – something without emotion creating in a medium that’s propelled forward by feeling and constantly being driven by the human experience. Little BNJMN knows nothing outside of finding paper and making marks on it – one more way to ponder the question “is it art?”

Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 10.21.05 PMTechnical info and featured image via the Creative Applications Network.


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