Michael Shiloh

Artist - Engineer - Educator - Weird stuff aficionado

Artist Statement

I have a passion for building things, taking things apart, and using the bits that I find to make new things. I love experimenting with new ideas, new devices, and new techniques. I like using parts in ways for which they were not intended. I like setting up situations where people have experiences that they may not have otherwise.

My research interests include how people behave around robots, unusual mechanisms, and surprising uses of technology.

My practice includes participatory art, machine art, experimental sound art, and conceptual furniture.

My aesthetic is rough and unrefined. I like to use discarded, surplus, and recycled materials: While the environmental advantages are obvious, my reasons are aesthetic and personal: I am drawn to items that others consider worthless and I derive great pleasure from reusing discarded materials. I favor "DIY" construction techniques and exposed mechanisms because I want people to think "I could make that". (See Who Gets to Play below.)

My art follows these main themes:

1: Who gets to play?

I'm disturbed by exclusionary attitudes, such as might be perceived regarding math or computer programming ("you must be this smart to understand this"). I like to set up situations which allow/encourage/force visitors to participate in the creation of the artwork. I consider this a form of Relational Aesthetics, in the sense that I act more as a facilitator than a maker, and I regard the art both as the (visitor) constructed result and as the information exchanged between the artist and the viewers, and between the viewers. I consider this work provocative in that it allows unrelated individuals to participate in a common feeling or event they might not otherwise experience collectively, and it raises questions of identity and qualifications.


I set up discarded electrical and electronic devices on tables, along with tools. I also strung up wires along the walls carrying low voltages. Visitors disassembled the devices, removed components (e.g. motors, LEDs, speakers), and connected them to the wires to activate them. I and my volunteers moved between participants, assisting in identifying usable components and hooking them up. - "Robots on the March!" Artists' Television Access, San Francisco, 2005

I made very simple robots and brought a pair of computers. The unprogrammed robots had no "personality". Visitors sat at the computers and programmed the robots to give them a personality. My assistants and I helped explain how to do this, but left the choice of personality up to the participants. The robots then ran around the gallery until another visitor picked a robot and changed its personality. - “Automatic: Robotic Art”, Lowerdeck Gallery, San Francisco, 2009

From 2006 to 2009 I organized and ran a giant workshop at the San Francisco Bay Area Maker Faire, in which we gathered about 6 tons of discarded electronic, mechanical, and scrap material, provided tools and consumables such as wire and batteries, and allowed visitors to take things apart and build whatever they wanted. While some were highly skilled, the visitors that interested me the most were families who started by identifying one "maker" (usually a young boy) while the rest claimed to have no such skill. After awhile the "non-makers" soon got involved as well. This fascinated me because they had overcome their self-identification as a non-maker. At the time I didn't situate this as an art project, but in retrospect this clearly is a Relational Aesthetics installation.

2. Conceptual Furniture:

I made a series of furniture from concrete, scrap wood, scrap metal, and broken glass. The furniture appeared dangerous but in fact was quite safe and functional. This was an early project (1990s) and I've not made any since, perhaps because I've not been inspired by the proper scrap metal or and no longer have access to the broken glass from shattered bus shelters.

3. Critical Robotics:

This series once again challenges exclusionary assumptions, this time specifically addressing the assumption that robotics research can only be performed by highly trained engineers, in well equipped labs, using very expensive and complex equipment and components. My robots are designed to be non-precious, encouraging visitors to modify them, in some cases mechanically, in others programmatically.


Telepresence Robot (Robonica): A very simple mobile platform, a little less than human height, with a camera, screen, microphone, and loudspeaker, running custom video conferencing software accessible via a website. The website software allows a remote viewer to "drive" the robot around, seeing what the robot sees and hearing what the robot hears, while being projected onto the screen and loud speaker of the robot. In this way the remote viewer is "projected" into a remote physical space, allowing interaction with people there. The purpose of this project is not to develop a telepresence robot, but to encourage participant and bystanders to make additions or modifications to the robot, to see what ideas non-roboticists might come up with. Currently available only on the New York University Abu Dhabi campus to "drive" or modify.

Robot with No Personality 2 (Man or Machine): Building on the "Robots With No Personality" project from 2009, this is a human sized robot that has the ability to express itself in very simple ways: changing the shape of its mouth and eyes, moving its ears, moving itself, and speaking. The robot approaches visitors and engages in very simple conversations. This robot is paired with a "Personality Creation Station" where other visitors select how the robot should respond to various situations. Of interest is what sort of choices visitors make in choosing the robot's responses, and in other visitors' reactions to the robot's behaviour. This project is a work in progress.

4. Machine Art:

I've been a part of the machine performance group Survival Research Labs for 4 decades, putting on performances with machines that we build. Each machine is very large and complex, interacting with each other and other sets and props. SRL performances tell a story, in contrast to later derivatives such as Robot Wars and Robo Games.

5. Sound Art:

Combining my interest in experimental music and mechanisms, I have made a series of sound making machines. I'm interested in making sound in as unconventional way as possible, so I avoid simple wind, percussion, and string devices and try to make sound in other ways, such as rolling scrap metal in a large metal cylinder or bending plastic that creaks when bent.