Performing Robots

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Acting Like a Robot Podcast Series


How do we imagine the future of robots? What does it mean to share the world with them?

In this podcast series, Luc de Groen examines together with scientists and artists what the future of social robotics will look like, and how could theatre – specifically object theatre – can inform this field.

This podcast is a part of the larger research project Acting Like a Robot.


Luc de Groen, the creator of this podcast series, is a program organizer and theatre maker with a broad experience as a dramaturg. His works are shaped by his wide range of practices in which he connects different fields and ways of thinking about theatre.




**Podcasts are in Dutch



Often in our imaginations, the stories of robots are dystopian. They become just like humans, sometimes even smarter and stronger, and the fear that they will one day take over our world manifests in these stories. HBO’s popular TV series Westworld is one such example. We are all too familiar with such narratives of robotic conquest – but what are robots? What do they really do in the world?

In this episde, Luc de Groen speaks with four researchers – Maaike Bleeker, Nirav Christophe , Ulrike Quade, and Koen Hendriks – who try to answer these questions from their own fields and also in collaboration with each other. Perhaps robots may in the end take over our world, but not in the dystopian way we imagine them to do. Perhaps their revolution will not take the forms of battle and conquest, but through the changes in our own behaviors. Rather than replacing us, they may be living alongside us.

Then, what does it mean to live in a society that robots are a part of? At the Social AI Lab at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Koen Hendriks (Professor of Artificial Intelligence) introduces various social robots including NAO and Pepper. Making a robot ‘social’ to human perception is a tricky matter. How can humans and robots understand each other? What can robots do, and what do they understand? To a roboticist these questions are both philosophical as well as technical challenges.

When we introduce robots in our lives, we also change our ways to accommodate them. We often think of robots in terms of what they can do for us – but at the end of the day, it is indeed an ‘inter’action where conversations emerge from both ends.


In this episode, Luc de Groen walks through the exhibition Robots in Captivity by Bram Ellens in Buitenplaats Doornburgh. Various robots here, from toys to large-scale industrial robot arms, live as captors and the entire space buzzes with their liveliness. If they are but robots, where does this sense of ‘life’ come from?

The central theme of this episode is the overlap between robots and theatre – one of the main questions that is investigated in Acting Like a Robot. Theatre has a long history of bringing objects into life. Theatre maker Ulrike Quade’s main interest, puppets, is one such example. Researchers of this projects take special interest in puppetry, as robots can be seen as a continuation of puppets. If theatre has the capability to bring souls into puppets, how can this knowledge be transmitted to robotics?

Maaike Bleeker (Professor of Media and Performance, Utrecht University) explains that theatre can serve as a testbed for robots, as there is already a long-existing knowledge and practice of designing interactions, responses, movements, and situations – all of which are major technical concerns in social robotics. In theatre setting, it is also possible to think from the perspective of the robot, instead of the other way around. Bleeker notes that in many experiments the researchers have realized that mimicking human behaviors or that of other animals simply do not work out in working with robots. Rather, it is important to think from the robot itself, its bodily structure, and the context in which it is placed – thus the question: what does it mean to “Act Like a Robot”?


Robots are already a part of our lives. Take, for example, the Roomba which is a robot vacuum that is becoming increasingly common in our domestic environment. In this episode, the making process of robots it investigated. What would a Roomba look like if it wasn’t created entirely for profit by engineers and business people? What if more people – such as artists or consumers – were involved from the very beginning of its development phase?

To do so requires interdisciplinary work. Researchers of Acting Like a Robot has much to share on this topic, as they approach robotics from their own fields but in collaborative and collective manners. Interdisciplinarity is not just taking from each other’s field, but working together around a shared object, which in this case is robots. This is a challenging but a rewarding process that raises many important questions. How can you be creative with people in radically different fields? How do you go beyond mere exchange of knowledge and push the boundaries together? Interdisciplinary research is a process in which experiments and exploration are central. It is about sharing different perspectives and taking things apart for closer analysis, but also about disappointment and working together to overcome challenges.

Nirav Christophe (Professor of Performative Creative Processes, Utrecht School of the Arts) shares his expertise on making and creative processes and provides insight for trans- and interdisciplinary- research. Making process, or co-creation, is about working together and adjusting our ways. In transdisciplinary research we often work toward creating a product without knowing what it will look like. Critical thinking is required in the process itself: what do we want the results to look like, and how do we define them? How do we work together and stay creative at the same time?

Acting Like a Robot is an interdisciplinary and co-creative research process where contributions from theatre artists and scholars reshape the development process of robots. Christophe emphasizes that from the perspective of theatre, what is important in robots is not the object per se, but experience. How are interactions designed? What is experienced in the encounter with the robot? What affects this experience?

At the end of the day, we ask, how do these questions reshape robotics?


Have you ever seen a robot feel bored, happy, or sad? Have you ever looked into the eyes of a robot and seen it fear for death – not in the way humans feel, but how it feels as a robot? Have you ever had the sense that a robot might have a soul?

The central theme of this episode is “bezieling” a Dutch word that refers to soul or animation – a sense of living. To what extent does a robot come to life in the same way as a puppet? Is it a matter of skillful deceit, or is there really something else there? What is happening in those moments of animation when they come to life? What can robots do that neither puppets nor humans can? Researchers have observed that in order to bring robots to life, you cannot make them mimic the behaviors of other beings or objects: we must think from the robot itself as unique entities. Other than that, there is no clear, single way to create bezieling. Sometimes robots seem alive when they are performing on stage, impressing the audience. In other cases, bezieling emerges from our grounded interaction with robots, and this interaction varies depending on the person, context, robot, and much more.

Ulrike Quade (theatre maker, Ulrike Quade Company) shares her experience of working with puppets and robots. What can puppeteers and theatre makers offer for robots? How is puppetry relevant for robotics? She explains how the expertise of puppeteers can inform the developments in human-robot interactions as puppets and robots indeed share many similarities to a puppeteer’s eyes. Most importantly, it is us humans that bring these objects to life. Although narratives in science fiction dream of fully autonomous robots, for now it is in our interaction with them that bezieling is created – just as in puppets.