Christian Gjørret on robot & performance festival Café Neu Romance

R.U.R. , photo: archive of Café Neu Romance festival

Prague recently saw the return of robots in Café Neu Romance, an annual festival held at the National Technical Library celebrating robots and artistic performance. I met with the festival’s founder Christian Gjørret to discuss how this year’s edition went and have him explain what it was all about.

Christian Gjørret,  photo: archive of Aarhus University
“Café Neu Romance is a robot performance festival and it has several main aims. One, is to brand Prague as the cultural-historical centre of robots. There are lots of stories and legends connecting robots and the city. One is of course the play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek which gave us the word robot; another is the legend of the Golem (as an automaton) created by Rabbi Loew, and you also have the astronomical clock on Prague’s Old Town Square, a wonderful example of programmed or robot masterpieces from the Middle Ages.

“Two, Prague is already known as a magical city and it is known for performance, for example, it has a rich puppet history. So there are those aspects... The name of the festival itself – romance – is a combination of robot and performance.”

Puppetry is an interesting inspiration when regarding robots: someone pulling the strings...

“There was the great Czech puppeteer Jiří Trnka and he animated a famous work in the 1960s called The Hand. A hand forces itself into the home of an artist and forces him to work until he suddenly dies. In the West – I am from Denmark – the film was interpreted as being strongly anti-communist or against the totalitarian regime [ed. note. the film was later banned by the Czechoslovak authorities], while in Czechoslovakia it could be interpreted as being anti-capitalist and how people are treated as ‘robots’. In any case, there were many stories here in this region where there are double-sided stories, but which challenge those in power and challenge the status quo.”

“One of the aims of Café Neu Romance is to ‘brand’ Prague as the cultural-historical centre of robots. Ater all, the word robot was coined here.”

Where did your own interest in robots come from?

“Maybe when I was five or so I encountered some first stories and comics about robots. And played with robot toys. Much later, I was influenced by the legendary German band Kraftwerk (who are coming to Prague this week) and movies like A Clockwork Orange. The protagonist, Alex, is human but they try and programme him to behave and he doesn’t have free will. They try and make him into a puppet.

”As far as robotics are concerned, Lego changed everything with Lego Mindstorms in 1998, which made it much easier for kids and others to build and programme their own robots. I am not a nerdy technical person and this was a great opportunity, I felt. Then, having spent years reading about robotics and related fields, I thought why not do something more with it.”

So that was the basic impulse for Café Neu Romance. The National Technical Library is, I imagine, is also the perfect for this kind of festival…

R.U.R. ,  photo: archive of Café Neu Romance festival
“It is an interesting story: I think it took around 20 years for the library to go ahead and finally be completed in 2009. It is an amazing building and it is perfect, situated in the heart of the area of the technical university – that is the perfect place for this festival, close to the students, with amazing facilities. The location makes it more attractive, for example, for foreign guests to take part.”

Not to knock any of the older libraries but this one really does feel like you are somewhere else… One of the big highlights at this year’s Café, which just took place, was an unusual production of Čapek’s R.U.R. What was unusual about it?

“Usually, when you have performances they involve a human element on the stage, a person interacting several robots but this time robots performed all the roles by themselves. So you had nine little robots by themselves which 100 years or so after Čapek wrote the play and I think that is totally amazing. Not in his wildest dreams, I think, could he have imagined it! The other aspect is that these robots were built and pre-programmed by students from Jeseník who also made all of the ‘period’ costumes. They put a lot of great work into it.”

“Lego changed everything with Lego Mindstorms, which made it possible for kids to build and programme their own robots.”

Did they use Lego to build the robots or items? And what about their voices: were they robotic or pre-recorded in English?

“Mostly Lego. One boy was in charge of the sound and that was pre-recorded in English and English as a second language also presented a challenge but they felt it would be most appropriate and they were up to it. The play itself lasted about 30 minutes.”

It must have been a strange feeling to view just this robots scooting around, communicating…

“I think everyone who saw the opening felt it was a unique experience. These robots designed by children were fascinating.”

“This year we saw a production of R.U.R. which had nine little robots interacting by themselves - 100 years after Čapek wrote the play. That is totally amazing.”

Many serious artists are working with technology in performance, scoping what it means to be human – connecting through chips, with exoskeletons in performance. Today, how much are we dependent on machines and much do we live in a new symbiosis?

“One example, last year we invited Nigel Ackland who lost his lower arm in a work accident who has one of the world’s most advanced bionic arms. He had it implanted and it works incredibly. Last year when we went out for a drink and his hand really impressed the bartenders, as he can turn it 360 degrees!

“Some of the people who came to meet him after the lecture last year I think also wanted to have a hand like that because they could see the possibilities! He also got some proposals for add-ons which could be integrated right in the arm like a smart phone and so on. So technology always changes a bit of how we live and how we see ourselves.”

Nigel Ackland,  photo: archive of Café Neu Romance festival
Next year will the fifth for Café Neu Romance… do you already have ideas?

“Absolutely. The working title is ‘Wake up, Hurvínek, the Golden Rooster is calling you!’ Hurvínek is a famous Czech puppet and the rooster is on the astronomical clock and both have anniversaries next year. The idea is to get the working title out to hopefully inspire and generate many creative contributions.”