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  • Jamie Grogan

Tragedy and Art (and Robots)


For those that keep up with TikTok trends, you might have seen the sad tale of a robot suffering from burnout - it’s been blowing up the app in recent weeks - but what does ‘Can’t Help Myself’ have to say about the post-covid work culture?




Running Up That Hill


‘Can't Help Myself’ was commissioned by the Guggenheim for the 2016 exhibition "Tales of Our Time." Components of the work include visual recognition sensors that can track the movement of the coloured water (which is not blood, contrary to what it seems). The arm will scoop up the substance if the liquid pools too far from it. The liquid is periodically splattered across the walls, implying bloodshed and hidden violence.


The goal of the piece, according to "Tales of Our Time" curator and former Guggenheim curator Xiaoyu Weng, is to animate this machine and make it look more human. The arm is

programmed to make a number of weird moves, like "scratch an itch," "bow and shake," and

"ass shake," and spectators are intended to watch as it does these odd things. Who is more at

risk in this scenario—the person who created the equipment or the person who operates it?


Over time the machine begins to ‘fatigue’, its movements slowing and becoming more laborious. The humanisation it inspired in onlookers now evokes sadness and sympathy for an inanimate object that has, to all intents and purposes, burnt itself out for our benefit. The Sisyphean task of our poor robot friend is easily comparable to the struggle many in the workforce face in a deeply divided post-covid industry.



Start-Ups and The Ship of Theseus


Data from Bamboo HR shows that turnover is at an all time high post-covid, and nowhere is this more apparent than at tech start-ups; is this a shock to anyone? The often broad reaching requirements of technical positions have a workforce - either too fatigued or underqualified - in a state of burnout much faster than five years ago. And this isn’t even factoring in often arbitrary work requirements such as a 40-hour-minimum or On-Site only.


For many burgeoning tech companies, this also puts them in a state of decline. Is a company

still the same company if 99% of its employees are replaced over the course of a couple of

years? Like the eponymous Greek ship, could a company reasonably say they have the same

goals any more when the mechanism used to get them there is now completely transformed?


Even referring to this hypothetical workforce as a ‘Mechanism’ for progress is itself part of the problem; the brutal race to get back to (or even exceed) pre-Covid market viability has many companies treating the workforce simply as ropes and sails rather than human beings with boundaries and needs. Start Ups, once the pioneers of different ways of work, have begun to fail the very people whose lives they once transformed.



What does this have to do with a Robot Arm?


The answer is as simple as it’s always been; listen to your employees. Unlike the sad, burnt-out robot arm of the title, your employees have minds to decide with and voices that deserve to be heard. Much has been made of Elon Musk's controversial RTO ultimatum and many experts agree he’s simply made Tesla / SpaceX a much less desirable employer for some of the best talent in the business.


Where you sit on the issue may vary, but with work culture the Genie is fully out of the bottle,

except in this case, companies are able to ‘Help Themselves’. If a business doesn’t want to

slowly - and tragically - break down in front of an audience it needs to turn inwards; such is the power of art (and robots).

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