Can Machines Think? Review of The Imitation Game, Manchester Art Gallery

“Can machines think? Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?” asked Alan Turing in his landmark paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Turing’s study was published in 1950, but the question whether machines can successfully imitate human behaviour still resonates today. Eight artists delve into our fascination with artificial intelligence and man/machine relationships in The Imitation Game at the Manchester Art Gallery this year.

Of all the works on display, Tove Kjellmark’s Talk (2015) is the most philosophical. It features two robot skeletons sitting in a small, dimly lit room with red drapes. Encountering these characters is like stumbling into someone’s living room amid a private chat. The androids ruminate on the nature of human consciousness, emphasising the gravity of their words with life-like gesticulations. If interrupted, they politely ask audience to shush before recommencing. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Agent Ruby (1999-2002), an online artificially intelligent software, similarly interacts with gallery visitors – when a question is typed into the computer, the ‘chat bot’ replies by searching the internet for suitable words and phrases to construct a realistic conversation.

An exhibition highlight is James Capper’s TELESTEP (2015), a walking sculpture resembling a long-legged spider built from industrial machinery. Whereas the other robotic figures on display are designed to look human or at least comfortingly familiar, the sharply angular hydraulic figures of Capper’s Earth Marking Division series appear threatening, and they imitate the way humans use machines to scrape, grate and pulverise the urban landscape through oil drilling, road digging and construction. In blurring the line between human and computer, TELESTEP is not as effective as Paul Granjon’s Am I Robot (2016), a robot which roams the gallery and interacts with visitors, but it’s appearance is nevertheless startling.  Capper will also operate the mobile sculpture live in the gallery on advertised dates, leaving marks on the gallery floor through the exhibition.

Two artists focus on the relationship between technology and romantic intimacy. Mari Velonaki’s Fish-Bird (2003-present) is a pair of robots in the form of two unoccupied wheelchairs, which stroll around an enclosed gallery space, like two lost critters. The two robots, named Fish and Bird, are in love but they struggle to communicate with each other. Using small thermal printers, each device prints little notes for their object of desire, but the messages fall to the ground, leaving sprinkles of litter all over the floor.  Visitors can enter the melancholy installation and are allowed to pocket the small love letters.

Inspired by an historic incident at the University of Manchester’s computing department, David Link’s LoveLetters_1.0 (2009) installation is a selection of love letters displayed on a blackboard. What makes them unusual is that these romantic notes were generated by a computer. Link’s software emulates an earlier model devised by Christopher Strachey, a peer of Alan Turing. Strachey’s own programme was built for the Ferranti Mark I computer, which produced numerous billet-doux that were scattered all over the university’s department notice board between August 1953 and May 1954. Using phrases like “You are my lovable desire”, “my breathless rapture” and “yours anxiously”, the memos are unnervingly impassioned yet coldly efficient.

Yu-Chen Wang’s Heart to Heart (2015-6) and Ed Atkins’ Performance Capture (2015-6) are the two films showcased at their gallery. Wang’s film presents on three screens, but not always simultaneously, a whimsical but puzzling sci-fi tale about machines inside the Museum of Science and Industry, and how they talk and interact with each other. Atkins’ work is based on an earlier project from last year’s Manchester International Festival in which 120 festival participants were filmed and digitally altered onto a computer. Performance Capture shows a floating head and forearms, which delivers an abstract monologue through different voices – as the dense script continues, the CGI avatar continues to deteriorate as if aging at an accelerated pace. If the other works were about machines imitating humanity, this is about humanity being ‘captured’ by technology; of how hundreds are homogenised, streamlined and disembodied until bereft of individuality.

The Imitation Game, until 5 June 2016, Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 3JL. For more information, visit

1. Installation photographs of The Imitation Game (2016) . Courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.