Hello Dr Deborah Turnbull Tillman! Please tell us about yourself, your current role and your research background?

Hello! I'm a curator of interactive and media arts specialising in emerging and prototype practice across contemporary media arts and curatorial. I'm lucky enough to be able to teach across both practices at UNSW Art and Design at the Paddington campus.

My research background is in practice-led research on curatorial process. For this I extended my research platform, New Media Curation, into publication and a PhD on the criteria for curating these media with Professor Mari Velonaki, A/Prof Petra Gemeinboeck and Dr. Alex Davies, all associated with the Creative Robotics Lab.

More detail on these activities can be found at my creative website, the original archive and my research profile.

How did you and fellow co-curators come up with the idea for SHErobots? What inspired you?

The curatorium came together in a very collaborative and inclusive way. A/Prof Dagmar Reinhardt had been inspired by her attendance at the eCAADe conference in 2012. From 2016, she and A/Prof Lian Loke (both USYD academics in the Architecture, Design and Planning faculty, interested in Human-Computer and Human-Robot Interaction in relation to industrial and creative/social robotics) started collaborating on projects, the outcomes at times being artworks such as Code-red (2021) and Sisyphus Sweeping (2022) in the current exhibition. Because we've known of each other's work for at least a decade, across teaching, across shaping and mapping emerging practice, and across interactive and electronic arts performance and exhibition; when they asked me to join them in producing the show and we began the application to Tin Sheds board, it all just seemed to fall into place. Because each of our interests in the field of robotics is so specific, Dagmar with industrial, Lian with coding and performative aspects, and me with curatorial process and artist relationships, the themes of tool, toy and companion really grew from the industrial, social and creative robotics practices we were each already deeply engaged in.

What was the process of curating like for SHErobots? When did it start and how long did it take?

We started talking about the process in June 2021, quite a few months before the application for exhibition with Tin Sheds was due in September 2021 for the 2022 exhibition year. We met every fortnight where we plotted and reached out to our networks for an initial line up of ideas, themes, exhibition concepts and participating artists. Thankfully, we were accepted and interviewed for the slot, with it being confirmed on 22 October 2021. 

The process was very collaborative, with Lian and Dagmar leading the charge as Tin Sheds in on their home turf. Where I had curated a 3-day conference exhibition at Tin Sheds with Lian previous (Never odd or eveN, TEI2020) and knew key staff, applying for, interviewing for and winning a 6–8-week exhibition slot was quite a different experience. Along with the Gallery Director, Iakovos Amperidis, we had the Tin Sheds board curator Kate Goodwin advising us on concepts, writing, marketing and the transfer of creative ideas to a tangible exhibition people can walk around in, which was incredibly helpful. As is usual with this kind of process, the application came together quickly after much discussion, with supporting platforms like Miro, Slack, Dropbox and Zoom facilitating distance communication, ideation, membership and concept buy-in from colleagues, and perhaps most importantly, networking and discussion with like-minded female academics at various points in their careers. It was thrilling and rewarding to follow and expand on the excitement and enthusiasm this cohort had for SHErobots.

Pathetic Fallacy, 2014 by Elena Knox. Photo by Maja Baska for Tin Sheds Gallery.

What was the best part of the entire curatorial process for you? And what was the most challenging?

The best part of the exhibition was working with Lian and Dagmar again, iteratively in the way completely natural to each of us. Expanding that female-led curatorium to our international networks was incredible, as was forming ideas around de-siloing our specialisms while also interrogating the crossovers in a spatial and experimental way in an art gallery. My head still spins at the amazing opportunity of it and being supported by my colleagues at UNSW Art & Design to do the work. That was also really special; to be supported in your creative passion in a real way by those you work with every day.

The most challenging part of doing the exhibition was likely keeping up with Dagmar and Lian. They are brilliant and their ideas and outputs are quick to appear and take shape. It's why they are A/Profs and I am still a Lecturer. Being mentored in this way was fantastic, but in some ways, all consuming.

What’s the key message you would like audiences to take away from SHErobots?

That women can and are leading in the competitive and trans-disciplinary fields of industrial, creative and social robotics. They are working with people of all genders, but that we are capable of obtaining funding, of leading, of innovating and of communicating their successes. It is key to the next generations of practitioners in the fields that make up robotics practice, for example applied robotics, mechatronics, engineering, computer-science, eco-architecture, arts, building, performance and educational industries. When Dagmar suggested the name of SHErobots, there was this lightbulb moment for me where she was explaining that she meant it as a verb, that robot-ing could be an act, like making, dancing, singing, breathing, running. It's a great name; but what it means is that we are capable of doing hard things, of doing them well enough to succeed at them.

Fish-Bird, 2003 by Mari Velonaki. Photo by Maja Baska for Tin Sheds Gallery.

What’s your favourite artwork in the exhibition?

They are all such strong works, it's impossible to pick just one, sorry! A few of the artists and their works in the exhibition also featured in my final PhD exhibition, Re/Pair for the Big Anxiety Festival in 2017. UNSW Art & Design Professor Mari Velonaki's Fish-Bird is iconic in the media arts world, and is so immersive, collaborative and expressive, people are immediately drawn to it. It was made at Sydney University's ACFR over 2002/3 in collaboration with mechatronics expert A/Prof David Rye. It very much had a homecoming with this exhibition. It's personal and poignant and looks at the relationship people have to iconography associated with disability, in this instance, wheelchairs that behave more like people than machines.

Petra Gemeinboeck (Swinburne University) and Rob Saunder's work in collaboration with Rochelle Haley (UNSW Art & Design), Dancing with the Nonhuman [SYD-2-2-1], is a stunningly subtle work about robot morphology and movement; about what we expect and what is delivered, and about how we capture, trace and communicate that movement...I can't wait for the closing performance on the 9 December where Haley will engage in an expanded drawing performance with both the human and the nonhuman.

Finally, the work of Elena Knox (Lull Studios), a UNSW Art & Design PhD alumna and her work in both video and sculpture is so compelling and perhaps one of the strongest examples of feminist art in the exhibition. Weaponry disguised as jewellery embodies the narrative of the danger that female sex workers fear, even as gynoid sex workers in the artwork Gynoid Survival Kit (2016). Her famous video work Pathetic Fallacy (2014) wherein an elderly human woman grooms a robot named Gemenoid F.  There is a knowledge exchange over different viewpoints that could be any family exchange, but the idea of 'other' extends well past gender in this tableau. Both works are brief to engage with but have lasting effects on your psyche and the way you consider the female body, especially if you inhabit one.

Do you have any advice for students trying to get into curating or museum work?

Say yes, work hard, and network! Volunteer or intern where you would like to work and become invaluable. Find a niche in your field and fill it.

SHErobots is on at Tin Sheds Gallery until 10 December 2022. 


Dr Deborah Turnbull Tillman from the Creative Robotics Lab at the School of Art & Design.