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Engineering marvel of mechanical leg blurs art and technology

The eatART Lab in Vancouver looks like an auto body shop from a futuristic novel. Heavy toolboxes lie half-open on…

By Matthew Parsons , in Culture , on October 17, 2012 Tags: , , , , , ,

The eatART Lab in Vancouver looks like an auto body shop from a futuristic novel. Heavy toolboxes lie half-open on workstations scattered throughout the room. A shelf above the sink holds glasses for drinking water alongside 400-millilitre beakers. A gigantic robotic snake, the world’s largest as it turns out, lies resting at the far end of the room.

But the dominating presence in the lab stands crouched on a long trailer, looking like a piece broken off of an alien spacecraft: a massive robotic leg, boasting fire-engine-red hydraulic cylinders and a metal nameplate that reads “Prosthesis.”

Prosthesis is a technological art project, currently in development here at the eatART Lab, in the industrial space behind the train station on Main Street. The giant leg, called the Alpha Leg, is a prototype for the project. When Prosthesis is complete, it will be a five-metre-tall, four-limbed, human-controlled walking machine, built to explore the relationship between humans and technology.

The Alpha Leg is a prototype for the Prosthesis project.

“It really is an extension of your body,” explains Jonathan Tippett, Prosthesis’ creator and a co-founder of eatART, the foundation that supports the project. “That’s why I call it Prosthesis.”

The project belongs to the tradition of machines like race cars and construction cranes, which require practice and forge a strong connection with the user. Tippett fears that as today’s machines become more user-friendly, people will stop making those connections. “At some point,” he explained, “the machine is taking all the fun away.”

As the Prosthesis project demonstrates, Tippett values the experience of mastering a physical skill. He is an avid snowboarder and mountain biker, as well as a mechanical engineer. “The creation of arbitrary tasks that are difficult but not impossible to master, and then spending your life trying to get good at them has been going on for millennia,” explained Tippett in his typically florid language, “and that’s the vein along which I’m continuing with Prosthesis.”

A rather exclusive club

The Alpha Leg will not serve as one of Prosthesis’ four legs. Rather, it will serve as a training device for aspiring pilots of Prosthesis, to learn how to operate its limbs. The pilot can make the leg extend, contract and jump up and down on its trailer using a sort of sophisticated joystick. “Any pilot who has any dream of operating Prosthesis itself will have to spend hours and hours and hours on the Alpha Leg,” Tippett said.

These pilots will likely be a rather exclusive club. “The way you get an opportunity to experience the machine is by helping build it,” Tippett said. “I am considering a scheme where major supporters who have contributed financially to it in a massive way, like tens of thousands of dollars kind of way, might be eligible for a training regime.” Those who contributed less might be afforded a ride in the passenger seat. As for the public, Prosthesis is technological performance art, so as of 2014 it will be shown at festivals and exhibitions.

Energy awareness through art

Tippett estimates that Prosthesis will cost $250,000 to build, but this financial burden is being lifted somewhat by eatART. The foundation’s co-director, Pip Cunningham, describes eatART as an “educational charity,” which supports artists by offering them work space for high-tech art projects. All of eatART’s projects are constructed entirely by volunteers. Nearly 100 volunteer metalworkers and engineering students participated in the construction of the Alpha Leg, according to Tippett.

All of the projects that eatART supports involve experimentation with alternative energy. “eatART itself stands for ‘Energy Awareness Through Art,’” said Cunningham, “so we only accept projects that have a component of that.” Prosthesis was accepted on the basis of its hybrid-electric power system. Tippett hopes to use the spectacle of Prosthesis to inspire a more serious discussion about alternative energy. “It’s like the Trojan-horse method,” Tippett explained.

An epic project

Jonathan Tippett and Pip Cunningham are excited to start building Prosthesis.

Technological art is fairly rare according to Morgan Rauscher, an electronic art specialist at Emily Carr University, because there is so little overlap between the art world and the tech world. Projects like Prosthesis represent the sort of collaboration that Rauscher would like to see between the two disciplines. “It is definitely an epic project, and I’m excited to see it.”

Tippett is very modest about the scope of the Prosthesis project. “I try to avoid contextualizing the level of ambition that this project represents,” he said. But even so, he had to admit, “if I sat down and thought about it, it wouldn’t compare to anything.”