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the first breath

relative control in soft robotics

Jonathan Pêpe, Christian Duriez & Jean-Jacques Gay - November 10, 2023

the original language of this article is french

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about this contribution

Exo-biote is a work by artist Jonathan Pêpe, first created in 2014 at Le Fresnoy, Studio National des Arts Contemporains, in collaboration with the DEFROST (DEFormable RObotic SofTware) team at INRIA (Institut National de Recherche en Sciences et Technologies du Numérique) and Cristal (Centre de Recherche en Informatique, Signal et Automatique de Lille), headed by Christian Duriez. The result of the meeting between this artist and scientist, the work has enabled them to question their respective disciplines and helped them evolve their practices, and consequently contributed to the development of “Soft Robotics,” also known as “deformable” robotics. As the DEFROST team explored the field of medical assistance equipment, the artist began to imagine a futuristic prosthetic life for his work, a robot composed of flexible materials. To achieve this, casting practices, well known in art but less so in science, particularly in the field of digital technologies, were necessary. This project stimulated reflection by intersecting practices and perspectives, between the arts and sciences. Jean-Jacques Gay—curator and art critic with a long-standing commitment to multidisciplinary approaches—offered to chronicle this singular experience.

At the heart of this project, and of this kind of robotics are strategies for controlling these deformable objects. Traditional robots are mainly made of hard, articulated parts that allow them to be controlled according to a rigorous, precise, calculable, and predictable geometry. How can the mechanical life of these “soft” robots be reconceptualized to challenge the various paradigms of robotic control and make way for “relative control”? The prosthetic function envisaged by the artist stimulates this approach to thinking and doing, offering a field of experimentation as concrete as it is original. The sculptor and researcher are working together to design objects from the inside out, to achieve the deformation of these objects, whose activity would depend on the breath of a compressor. Animated in this way, by a “pneuma”—recalling the myth of vital breath that the Stoics borrowed from the language of biology (Muller 2006) —these objects become organs or body parts that can be shaped or repaired as required. This pneuma is akin to the cybernetic energy that Nicolas Schöffer described as “the awareness of the vital process that maintains the balance of all phenomena” in a biotope.

For both the scientist and sculptor, deformable, pneumatic robotics use breath that brings control and maintains vital equilibrium. Vital for sculpture, medicine, art, and design within an organogenesis defined as “the genesis of the artifact, and the genesis of social and psychosomatic organs through the reconstitution of the techno-aesthetic environment” (Stiegler 2015).

Eight years after their first collaboration on Exo-biote, the artist and researcher come back on the designing of these objects, which they produce, to implement this pneuma in their respective practices. These practices, which have become more common, overlap, and echo the reflections on hybridization by American theorist, physicist, and feminist Karen Barad. In 2005, Barad questioned “the givenness of the differential categories of ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman,’ examining the practices through which these differential boundaries are stabilized and destabilized.”

Since the flexible, deformable robots of Exo-biote, the artist and researcher have been cultivating alternative forms of control, even non-control, that make manifest the destabilization of these subject/object boundaries. This questioning of the notion of control empowers their machines and nurtures forms of life that the artist and scientist seek to develop.


authors: Jonathan Pêpe, artist
Christian Duriez, research team director DEFROST, INRIA.
Jean-Jacques Gay, art critic, journalist, and researcher at the Citu-Paragraphe laboratory

production and editing: Jean-Jacques Gay

editorial mediation: Jean-Jacques Gay

financial support:
This article was supported by Chaire Beauté·s PSL – L’Oréal.
Exo-biote, pneumatic and lighting installation, Jonathan Pêpe, Production Le Fresnoy, 2014–2015.

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Copyright 2023 by the authors.


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Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Muller, Robert. 2006. Les stoïciens, l’ordre et le monde. Paris: Vrin.

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Shepherd, Robert, et al. 2011. « Multigait soft robot.” Proceedings of the national academy of sciences 108.51: 20400-20403.

Stiegler, Bernard. 2020. Qu’appelle-t-on panser ? T2 : La leçon de Greta Thunberg. Paris: Les Liens qui libèrent.

Soto, Ana M. and Carlos Sonnenschein. 2006. La société des cellules. Nouvelle approche du cancer. Paris: Éditions Syllepse.

Wiener, Norbert. 1948. Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press / New York, NY: Wiley.

to cite this article

This article is using Chicago format for its references

Pêpe, Jonathan, Christian Duriez, and Jean-Jacques Gay. 2023. “The First Breath: Relative Control in Soft Robotics.” .able journal:

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