Interview with Nelmarie du Preez, AT: Autonomous Times, Arebyte Gallery, London

arebyte gallery hosts South African artist Nelmarie du Preez’s first solo show entitled Autonomous Times, which imagines a future where humans might need to tame and domesticate their autonomous yet potentially dangerous artificial creations. Inspired by DIY cultures and the changing landscape of labour, she presents a new video work and installation comprised of trust or taming exercises performed on a dangerous assembly line between herself and her wild robots. The exhibition is the result of her residency at the gallery this past summer where she spent time in the lab to imagine and construct her new artwork following on her previous work Loops of Relation (2013), wherein she established a performance-based collective between herself and her robot. During the residency du Preez set out to multiply or extend her performance partner into an assembly line of feral robotic arms. She re-designed, built and programmed her new robots to establish a trusting relationship between herself and the machines. In times of autonomous cars and self-aware robots, du Preez not only wants to explore our fluctuating trust in technology but also amongst ourselves. We speak with the artist.

A: Was it crucial to the exhibition for you to take up residency at the Arebyte Gallery over the summer?
NP: Yes, this was essentially an incubation period for me.  It allowed me to come to terms with the ideas that were floating around in my head this past year as well as offer a platform to experiment and resolve some technical issues. I was also able to showcase some of the works in progress as part of the Hackney WickED weekend as well as live-streaming my process online at the South African online art platform OutoftheCUBE.

The residencies that arebyte offered this year were also somewhat themed according to ideas about labour and especially artistic labour – and in this instance the gallery’s name – which reminds us of the German word arbeit or in my case the Afrikaans word arbeid – connotes the idea of a laborious technological process. As part of my residency I envisioned the space as an assembly line where I could create and begin to programme my robotic performance partners.  This idea of the assembly line became an essential part of my final work.

A: Your key inspiration was DIY cultures and the changing landscape of labour; can you talk about your futuristic take on this way of life?
NP: I guess one can’t helped but be influenced by the many post-apocalyptic Hollywood films that have been released lately. The most recent and most influential to my work has been the movie Mad Max: Fury Road.  This film (as well as the originals) has this kind of DIY aesthetic, where mechanical parts were salvaged to create monstrous cars and weapons.  What these films lack however is an imaginative insertion of our current (and future) relationship with the technologies that we have built. For my work I wanted to imagine a kind of future where we need to tame these creations. My little robots are of course not very monstrous at all, but have some wild tendencies that I wanted to explore with different kinds of visual effects that I could create in a very DIY manner.  I made my own smoke machines with robots shooting lasers and throwing fireballs.  When looking behind the scenes the DIY-ness of my work becomes very apparent, which ultimately adds another layer of danger to the process.

A: Autonomous Times focuses on our fluctuating trust between man and machine. Do you think that this element of trust will become increasingly important in the future?
NP: Yes of course.  We are already dependent on that sense of trust, every time we get onto a train or send an email.  We trust the train (and its driver) will get us to our destination and we trust that when we send that important email that it will arrive to the correct address.  But all of these trust exercises are open for things to go horribly wrong.  There is always a moment of suspense that is present, whether we see it or not.  And these moments will only increase as times passes and we insert more and more pieces of technology into our everyday lives.  But for me what is almost more important than the trust we have in technology, is the trust we have in each other – because for the moment at least there is always a human behind the controls.  However it is very possible that our future holds technologically autonomous times, where self-aware robots determine those moments of suspense rather than the humans controlling them.

A: How did you find communicating on online forums with experts and hobbyists as a method of research for your exhibition? Did you find the fact that the labour of production occurred online as opposed to in person intriguing?
NP: My work has become completely reliant on communication via these online forums.  I am by no means an expert in programming or electronics and therefore I am dependent on the help of seemingly anonymous humans on the other side of the world. Not being an expert also plays very much into my ideas about DIY culture and how we present ourselves online.  Most of the tricks and effects that you will see in my work were inspired by DIY projects I found on sites like – whether or not these people are experts or trustworthy is almost impossible to know.  You just end up trusting the instructions and start testing it yourself.

As for the programming of my work, I started using some technology that I hadn’t worked with before.  I ended up running into stumbling blocks and each night after banging my head against a wall, I would send a detailed message on the online forum available for the products.  And every time I would wake up to an answer and THE answer to my question.  What was particularly refreshing was that the responses in a particular situation always came from a girl on the other side of the planet. Throughout the past few years I have spent a lot of time on these forums, mostly reading what other people have asked/answered without really ever posting anything myself. I think I was always a bit ashamed and afraid.  Afraid because you would of course often find someone who just wants to shame the person for asking what to them seems like a stupid question. My insecurities always made me afraid of asking the stupid question. Finally this year I said, screw it… I need help and I need it quickly. I always wonder how such online forums would exist if they occurred in person and if people would be able to respond appropriately. What online forums allow is for people to do things anonymously, whether it is to bully others or simply ask stupid questions.  There is a certain freedom in that and this freedom intrigued me.  What could this mean for the labour process and our innovative future?

A: Autonomous Times seems to constitute a continuation of your previous work Loops of Relation. Can you talk about the story behind this?
NP: Yes it certainly was inspired by my previous work where I established a performance collective between my computer/robot and myself.  Together we re-performed some of performance artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s works and began to question the changing sphere of relationships influenced by technological advancements.  I became increasingly interested in how our trust fluctuates and how this determines how we innovate.  In this performance collective I began to see the robots and myself as equal actors – where there is a constant give and take.  For this new work I expanded my performance partner to include multiple wild and almost autonomous robotic arms. Here we see how power begins to shift back and forth and where both “actors” are stuck in a moment of suspense.  It is very much like a lion and its tamer – there is always an element of fear and ultimately a fluctuating sense of trust from both sides. So my question here is maybe how will our future technologies trust us instead of us constantly trusting them?

Nelmarie du Preez: Autonomous Times, 2 October – 7 November, arebyte gallery, Unit 4, 49 White Post Lane, Queens Yard, E9 5EN, London.

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1. Nelmarie du Preez, Autonomous Times still, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and arebyte gallery.