Performing Robots


[DADeR/Empathy] “Empathy in the Eye of the Beholder: Kinesthetic Empathy and the Suffering of the Robotic Performer” – Jasmijn Ooms


Concept: (kinesthetic) empathy
Case Study:
“Can’t Help Myself” by Sun Yuan and Peng yu


Kinesthetic empathy takes on a different meaning when its subject is a robotic performer. This paper considers the dramaturgical strategy that is necessary in order to create empathy inducing devices for performance arts, and how visually humanoid-looking devices may not be central to the audience resonance. Producing convincing dramaturgy of a device lies in its possibility of the performance being an exploration of the human psyche, reflecting the emotional response of the audience that looks upon it.



The image of the cold, unfeeling robot is fading away in the perception of the twenty-first century person, as the automatized and motorised encompass the space around us. More frequently and steadily are we surrounded by robotics, ranging from robotised dogs and cats as children’s toys, to AI personalities such as Siri and Alexa. Designed for the enjoyment and utility of its human user, the interface of the robot is made to be attractive to use. On the other side of the spectrum, the soft, sleek and attractive approach of robotics is left behind when robots are utilised for more sinister purposes, such as drones and robotics designed for combat. Yet when considering robotics in the field of theatre and performance arts, the attractiveness (or imposing) presence and design of the robot is for a different purpose entirely. Non-human dramaturgies rest on the capability of the robot to resonate with its audience. While it is not entirely necessary that the non-human performer resembles the physical attributes of a human, there are several ways in which the dramaturgy of a robot can capture the attention of its audience, one being kinesthetic empathy. The element of kinesthetic empathy, as described by Kensho Miyoshi, is the “aesthetic experience of projecting oneself onto an object” (56). As such, the captivating nature of a robotic performance is brought on by the embodiment of consciousness through “kinesthetic stimuli in the observers when they empathize with an observed movement” (Miyoshi 59).

The relatability of the non-human performer is based on several aspects the all revolve around empathy inducing factors. The perceived condition of the non-human performer says much more about the human auto-response of imposing human-like emotions on a non-being. It is not abnormal for the human audience to have a personal reaction to the metaphoric nature of robots used in arts, as they often serve to communicate the perspective or emotional turmoil of the artist. Regardless of the appearance of the robot, “movement is a powerful interaction and expression medium” (Hoffman & Ju 93), suited for human interpretation. The answer to the question “what makes a robotic performer create an empathetic response for the audience?” lies in the human response to “recognize, classify, and attribute intention even to purely abstract moving shapes” (idem). The answers lie in the dramaturgy applied to the device, and the conceptual tools such as mise-en-scene, performativity, address and presence, which all are connected to the communicative ground of movement (idem). Building on the core ideas of Bleeker and Roozendaal in ‘Dramaturgy for Devices’ (2021), these various approaches prove to be key elements of the empathy inducing robotic performance.

In order to properly discuss the presence of the empathetic robot, it is necessary to discuss two particular case studies, both similar in their visceral associations, yet vastly different in their execution. The first robotic performance case study is one from MANIC/LOVE/TRUTH/LOVE (2016) by Jordan Wolfson. Wolfson’s animatronic sculptures are often the subject of his artworks, creating striking visual concepts that are usually in search of connection with its audience. One of such artworks Coloured Sculpture (2016) presents a humanoid animatronic boy, suspended in the air by heavy metal chains, whose movements are continuously guided by a computer. The boy is hoisted up into the air, dropped and dragged around like a ragdoll, as the metal chains sound uncomfortably loud at the impact of the movement. The piece is an example of robotic performance whose subject appears physically similar to the audience, having a humanoid shape, safe for the dis-jointed parts of the animatronic body that are limp and lifeless as they are dragged throughout the space. The movement of the animatronic, who is thrown across the space, starts out as a dance of sorts, posing the robot boy in different ways, and then unfolds itself into a ‘danse macabre’, violent and disturbing. In addition to its humanoid physicality, the figure’s eyes are made up of screens with animated pupils that dart around the room. These screens are fitted with facial recognition technology which means that the eyes of the animatronic can follow the movement of the audience, looking for connection with the spectator. The performance is captivating in its creation discomfort. The sounds of the motorised chains sweeping across the space and the animatronic boy crashing loudly on the floor are deafening in their impact.

The design approach of this robotic performance adheres to the different elements that Bleeker and Roozendaal describe in “Dramaturgy for Devices”. In terms of mise en scene, described as the “the arrangements of all of the resources of stage performance” (47). The space of the performance is barren, all focus is on the movement and the situated ‘torment’ of the animatronic boy, of which the movement across the floor can be documented by black marks on the floor where the boy was dropped and dragged. The overall atmosphere makes the audience very aware of their gaze and the time that they have spent standing around watching the apparent ‘suffering’. The work is full of contradictions, as it is part computer-automated machine, part humanlike figure with the appearance of consciousness. It creates a natural discomfort for the spectator, as the audience experiences the violence affecting this non-living object. While the robot is quite obviously non-human and incapable of pain, “viewers seem to be invited to project feelings onto the child-like figure and associate the purely mechanical repeated swinging and crashing of the sculpture with concepts such as punishment, abuse or violence” (Godfrey). The fact that the robot is shaped and stylised as a human boy also adds to its address to the audience and presence, as it is even difficult to describe it as merely a robot when describing it.

The performativity of Coloured Sculpture is a combination of both the design of the animatronic, the material arrangement of the chains and the animated eyes darting across the room. The desired effect is to evoke an emotional response in the audience, aware of the humanlike robot that cannot feel yet our empathetic gaze says otherwise. Timing is important for the interaction between humans and objects, and “[i]nteraction episodes between humans and objects are of a certain duration and can be repetitive overtime” (Bleeker & Roozendaal 53), yet arguably the continuous movements and crashes in Coloured Sculpture are part of its intense affect. The interactive and changing quality of the piece is partly due the interaction with the audience around the room changing positions. The piece is demanding in its presence as well, as the sounds of the chains and eerie music being played periodically during this ‘dance’ resonate around the performance space, and can be heard even when far away. Even if away from the space, the audience still has the knowledge that the animatronic boy is seeking contact with its spectators, its presence ever resonating in the background of both the space and the mind of the one who has seen him.

While Coloured Sculpture’s human-like features may be one of the features that strengthen the natural empathetic response of its audience, Can’t Help Myself by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu evokes a similar feeling, yet the subject of their performance is not at all humanoid. Can’t Help Myself’s performer is a large industrial robot made up from a single sweeping ‘arm’, continuously controlling a deep red liquid within a predetermined area, and a perfect example as a non-anthropomorphic being that evokes kinesthetic empathy. The robotic arm is similar to those used in production manufacturing and contrary to the humanlike features of Coloured Sculpture, the audience has little physical attributes that may be relatable. “All expression is performed in motion, timing and staging alone” as the robot arm performs its task (Hoffman & Ju 94). Similar to Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill for all eternity, the robot is constantly and pointlessly programmed to keep the red liquid from flowing out of the sloped area. The sensors detect that the fluid flows away again from a different side, and the robot moves frenetically to the other side to sweep it up again. By its increasingly quick and seemingly desperate movements, the task also proves useless, as the mop at the end of the mechanical arm splatters the red liquid around when moving.

The empathy inducing quality of this robot is based on its kinesthetic nature, as “an association of an observer’s own kinesthetic sensation, whether a real memory or imagination, with observed movements” (Miyoshi 56).  In terms of presence and performativity, the robot’s kinesthetic communication is key. While Coloured Sculpture’s animatronic boy is subjected to the movements that are dictated by a computer, Can’t Help Myself’s robot seems to have some sort of agency, moving itself upon seemingly having made a decision. Yet this agency is challenged, as the robot needs to perform a singular task that can never truly be completed. Its movements allow the audience to “project oneself onto [the] object and imagin[e] how it would ‘feel’ kinesthetically” (55). The robot’s movements represent the state of its surroundings, allowing the audience to interpret motions guided by emotions. If the enclosure is clean or the liquid is contained, then the movements are slower and a bit more careful. If there is a large amount of liquid to mop up and the robot can’t keep up, its movements can be interpreted as frantic and desperate.

While Yuan and Yu’s piece has been created as a critique of contemporary migration and surveillance of border zones, it is easy to affiliate the performance with other themes as well, such as meaningless, endless labour and the futile attempts to fix a problem that cannot be fixed anymore. The robot addresses the public as well, and interacts with the audience that watches from outside of the enclosure surrounding it. The labour is interrupted when its visual-recognition sensors senses visitors in the space, and then exchanged for another quick task: doing a little dance for its audience. This address utilises the arm of the robot as a ‘head’, capable of “basic nonverbal communicative behaviour”, acknowledging the audience in the space, reaching out to them (Hoffman & Ju 104). Similarly to Coloured Sculpture though, the audience is addressed in their presence, yet acutely aware that they are unable to step in to help the apparent ‘suffering’ of the robot. Addressed by Hoffman and Ju, one of the elements that create movement which contribute to human comprehension and empathy, is the presence of programmable ‘flaws’ in the robot, such as confusion or considering an action carefully. This behaviour ‘humanises’ the device, instead of centralising the non-human perfection of a robotic being.

The visceral nature of these two performances underlines the importance of creating empathy inducing devices when attempting to create pieces in which the non-human performer is central. These, however, are extreme examples in their visceral nature, Coloured Sculpture being reminiscent of themes of child abuse, and Can’t Help Myself being visually violent in its use of a blood-like liquid. These examples pose the powerful nature of viscerality in performance, especially considering when the performer is not human. The audience is able to recognise key factors within the robotic performer that need to be relatable in some kind of way, in order to create the empathetic spectator that may resonate with the robot. This can be done by even including a singular human-like element, such as the human-like shape of the animatronic in Coloured Sculpture, or the expressive movements and recognisable ominous liquid in Can’t Help Myself.

Referring back to Bleeker and Roozendaal, the possibilities of dramaturgy applied with robotics are not based on a singular element, but are structured on several aspects that work together to create an engaging entirety. In order to evoke the empathetic response of the audience, there needs to be a connection present that the spectator may recognise in themselves, whether it is the mise en scene or performativity. The possibilities that are virtually present are vast, and likely more attainable than it seems. While some device-focused dramaturgies may focus on the physicality of the robot, others may focus on the movement and so on. Yet both of these case studies show that the robotic performances that resonate with its audience is to apply a human-like imperfection to them. For Can’t Help Myself this is due to the impossible task that can never be completed by the robot, and Coloured Sculpture addresses this by taking the apparent agency away from its anthropomorphic performer. This imperfect quality of the attempted communication of both performances allows for an emotional recognition for the audience, possibly relating to the feelings of imbalance, imperfection or being out of control.

If a conclusion can be reached about producing convincing dramaturgies for devices is that not one element of mise en scene, performativity, address and presence can be taken away, as one always affects the other. Creating robotic performances that may affect the spectator personally, evoking empathetic feelings, requires a piece that evokes the natural human response of kinesthetic empathy. The device as a performer can serve as an exploration of the human psyche and their empathetic response, whether the device has human-like features or not. Kinesthetic empathy occurs naturally when the movements of the performer are triggered by emotional responses. These emotional triggers can be the recognition of an unhelpful spectator while the robotic performer itself is helpless in its performative situation.



Primary Sources

Wolfson, Jordan. Coloured Sculpture. 2016. Tate Modern, New York.

Yuan, Sun & Yu, Peng. Can’t Help Myself. 2016 Guggenheim Museum, New York.


Secondary Sources

Bleeker, Maaike & Roozendaal, Marco C. “Dramaturgy for Devices: Theatre as

Perspective on the Design of Smart Objects” Designing Smart Objects in Everyday Life, 2021, pp. 43-55. PDF.

Hoffman, Guy & Ju, Wendy. “Designing Robots with Movement in Mind.” Journal

of Human-Robot Interaction, vol. 3, no. 1, 2014, pp. 89-122. DOI:10.5898/JHRI.3.1.Hoffman. PDF.

Bax, Christine. “Watching ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ is like Looking at a Caged Animal.”

HypercriticBETA, 2022. Accessed 2 February 2022.

Godfrey, Mark. “Jordan Wolfson: ‘Coloured Sculpture’.” Tate, 2016. Accessed 30 January 2022.

Weng, Xiaoyu. “Sun Yuan and Peng Yu: ‘Can’t Help Myself’” Guggenheim

Collection Online. 2016.

Accessed 20 January 2022.

Miyoshi, Kensho. “What Allows us to Kinesthetically Empathize with Motions of

Non-Anthropomorphic Objects?” Somaesthetics and Technology, vol. 4, no. 2,  2019, pp. 52-67. DOI: PDF.