[ISEA2011] Paper: Margaret Seymour – I, Robot: re-thinking Jack Burnham’s systems esthetics


Writing in the 1960’s and 70’s, American art critic Jack Burnham argued strongly against the prevailing Formalist approach to art criticism. Instead he put forward the idea of a ‘systems esthetic’, a way of rethinking art as a system or network of social-technical processes. While he showed great foresight in shifting the emphasis away from artifacts and towards the idea of networks and systems, Burnham was criticised for his quasi-scientific rationalism and for transposing the myth of progress onto avant-garde art. In attempting to come up with an all-encompassing theory of art he repeats a number of very traditional ideas, including the argument that sculpture is fundamentally mimetic. According to Burnham, sculptors in the past had to content themselves with life-like but static representations of human or animal figures. In the 1960’s, as the simulation of the living organism became closely aligned with technology and cybernetics, Burnham speaks of artists and scientists sharing “an unstoppable craving to wrest the secrets of the natural order form God – with the unconscious aim of controlling human destiny, if not in fact becoming God itself.” (_ack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture, New York: George Braziller, n.d., p.314).

This paper examines Burnham’s ideas and tests them against recent ‘robotic’ works by Australian artists Mari Velonaki, Simon Yates, Wade Marynowsky and one of my own works. While not all these artists use cutting edge technology, each work questions what it means to be human in a world where machines are often autonomously acting agents. In doing so however, each artist seeks to do more than simply imitate life.

  • Margaret Seymour  is an artist and a lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, Australia. Her creative research incorporates a wide range of approaches to art making including sculpture, video installation, interactive objects and 2D and 3D computer imaging. While her choice of medium depends on the particular idea she is exploring, she often combines new and ‘obsolete’ technologies. In doing so she aims to create a bridge between the two. It is often argued that electronic space is replacing or annihilating real space, however Margaret is interested in making objects and installations where the two modes overlap and where the viewer’s physical presence is an integral part of the work.  margaretseymour.net

Full text (PDF)  p. 2209-2214