The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hosting its second Art + Technology program, more than 40 years after the first one enraged feminist protesters by showcasing the work of dozens of men and no women. As opposed to the debut edition that ran from 1967-1971, LACMA's current iteration is comparatively balanced, with two female artists among six total recipients, including a pair of collaborators. But according to Syracuse-based artist Annina Rüst and her robotic installation "A Piece of the Pie Chart," the gender divide is still an issue in the tech workplace as well as in universities, museums, galleries and festivals.
With a pair of masters degrees in both technology and fine art, Rüst works as Assistant Professor in the Transmedia Department of the Computer Art Program at Syracuse University. While studying art and technology, Rüst developed an interest in what she describes as "automatic software processes and algorithmic instruction as art media." Meanwhile, she also became aware that she was often in the minority gender-wise, and became concerned about the lack of female presence in the arts and technology worlds overall. So she designed a robot to generate edible pies with charts as a way to physically impart data as a form of contemporary feminist protest.
"Working on the robot does not just mean interface design and programming, electronics hacking, and working in the machine shop," Rüst explains. "It also includes collecting and curating publicly available diversity data."
Rüst's machine is activated through a computer workstation, which enables users to select a pie chart that illustrates gender inequality within different arts and technology environments. Users place the pre-baked pies onto the machine, at which point a linear actuator sends the edible pie onto a conveyor belt and a heat gun warms up the chocolate topping to enable the pie charts to adhere to the existing pastry. Hoses from vacuum cleaners that are suspended from the ceiling are attached to robot arms, which in turn guide a hose to the previously selected pie chart. This activates the vacuum cleaner, which sucks up the diagram, and the arm that holds the hose places the pie-chart onto the pie. A webcam then snaps a picture to post on Twitter
before the pies either become part of the display or are packaged by the user and sent to the corresponding institutions.
Rüst developed the technology on her own, with family members helping bake the pies and making sure they taste OK.
"I do see the project as a mirror of myself, the female tech producer," she observes. "The machine is a miniature version of an automatized assembly line, a symbol of the industrial revolution, a period in time where tremendous social and technical transformation happened. In my factory-style setup, I am producing not just pies but an audience that will take action towards making technology a more diverse discipline in order to transform tech culture."
While the idea behind it is serious in nature, viewers are drawn in by the pie robot's inherent silliness, which makes Rüst's resulting message all the more salient. As a machine that's also a work of art with a social purpose, it's effective because it's whimsical. The process raises as many questions as it answers, and brings awareness to the lack of female presence in the world of art and technology.
"Gender is a very contentious topic in the tech world," Rüst maintains. "Many technologists immediately get defensive when the topic of gender and technology is discussed. I therefore chose a 'sweet,' humorous, seemingly non-threatening form of protest using pies."
But the choice to use edible pies isn't really a tongue-in-cheek critique of the old-fashioned notion that a "woman's place is in the home." Instead, Rüst wanted to do more than just convert data onto a standard graph or 2D pie chart. She aimed to merge gender data visualization with action in order to give gender statistics a material representation:
"The pies are a multisensory symbol explaining how women fare economically in the art+tech industry. They show that women receive a small share of what art+technology work has to offer. This data mapping style adds urgency to the technofeminist cause: It is not a data visualization to be passively consumed. What comes out of the machine is an object along with instructions to mail it to the place where the data originated. It asks people to take action and gives them directions for mailing or tweeting the pies."
When asked what she hopes viewers will take away from the robotic installation, Rüst responds, "It's a Rube-Goldberg-like contraption that mixes robotics hardware with more domestic tools such as a vacuum cleaner, a heat gun, and baked goods. So far, many people have commented that they like this eclectic mix of robotics and the domestic because it helps them imagine a technology future designed by an equally eclectic and diverse set of technology producers. In short, I am happiest when I can appeal to an audience's sense of imagination.”