Machine Ménagerie

by Joseph Thibodeau



Machine Ménagerie is an installation comprising a collection of small autonomous robots living together in a transparent enclosure. Ranging in shape and sophistication, these artificial creatures have no “function”. They spend their time entangled in a mesh of interactions with each other and the environment, much as we do. They are embodiments of certain human ideas about life and consciousness, and as such they can serve to critique definitions of intelligence and selfhood. Encountering non-biological lifelike entities, how do we attempt to understand their actions and reactions? How do we apply our concepts and assumptions of selfhood, agency and motivation to these objects, and what does it reveal about our ways of thinking?


Chris Salter in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier


Totem is a commission for the Barbican Centre London’s massive 2019 exhibition AI: More Than Human. This is large-scale, 14 meter tall light installation asks whether an artificial entity can develop autonomy and consciousness. The installation’s body consists of 10 steel fabricated, double sided light boxes, more than 6000 LEDs, lenticular lenses and sense organs consisting of cameras and microphones together with a range of machine learning algorithms that generate the Totem’s behavior. The installation exerts its presence on its onlookers through changes in its brightness, rhythms and patterns.

Totem’s sensors scan the environment for changes in motion and sound, feeding this information to a spiking neural network; a system of software patterned after the operation of real biological neurons in the human brain. This neural network then influences the central rhythms and pulsing rate of the light. The installation thus moves through different states – from an unconscious state of dreaming that produces patterns that appear to us as random and noisy to a state of being awake where its patterns and rhythms are perceivable, entrancing and hypnotic. The actions of the installation thus evolve not solely from its human creators but from its own autonomous being based on interaction with its environment.

A totem is an object that represents a group or a tribe and is believed to possess supernatural powers. Increasingly, as we project supernatural powers and beliefs onto AI, Totem provokes us to ask how will live together with our technological others.


Photo Credit(s): Agustina Isidori


gameplay 3

Collaborators: Julia Salles, Luciano Frizzera & Julia Zamboni

PICT. IO is a collaborative game for humans and machines based on the popular drawing game Pictionary. This game builds on Google’s’ experiment Quick, Draw, which uses a neural network to guess what you are drawing. In this game, each team is composed of two humans and one machine, communicating through drawings and speech, as they work together to solve challenges.

The project aims at creating a situation in which the AI players are allowed and expected to make mistakes, just like human players. The introduction of mistakes is a stimulus for the game to be a fun experience, other than a showcasing of the machine’s technical ability.

With this game, we also aim at stimulating curiosity and enthusiasm in the topics of AI, to clarify technical aspects about the state of the art of machine learning and AI in general, and to encourage reflection on the ethical and social consequences of the technologies in our daily lives.

Online game:


lets-playgameplay 1



Collaborators: Ceyda Yolgormez, Tony Higuchi

with Cyrus LK

“dialogical_net” is an immersive Role Playing Game experience where three players (one bot and two humans) perform the role of machines in a network that is about to be exterminated by a viral outbreak. The players, in dialogue with the conversational agent, face existential questions in the year 3030 while cooperatively uncovering the game’s lore. By immersing the audience into this imaginary universe and allowing them to embody these cybernetic characters, we intend to seed the question of what it means to be a machine; and furthermore, to speculate on what kinds of relations could human beings have with the machines.

This project challenges the traditional and current representations of human-machine relations by inviting the public to participate in an interactive experience product of a research-creation process that took place at the intersection of sociology, game design and interactive art. In addition, it facilitates the dissemination of novel perspectives on art practices as well as scientific knowledge through a creative process that respects openness and democratic values such as technological recycling, DIY and Open Source.

The project is the result of joint efforts of two PhD students with different disciplinary backgrounds (sociology, digital art, cognitive psychology), which allowed different questions to leak into the project’s conceptual framework. The innovative nature of the work comes from its employment of a nonhuman agent not simply as a decorative tool, nor as a databank for furthering the interests of the players as is commonly done in the games; but rather as another player with whom the players share an experience, and explore the narrative together. As the outcome of a research-creation, the interactions that emerge within the gamespace are subjected to critical inquiry where we discuss the conditions of possibility for creating different categories in conceptualization of the machinic agencies.