robots aren’t just cool – they can contribute to conversations around gender, race and class, says ana matronic
As part of the Scissor Sisters, Ana Matronic gave us the highest of heels and disco hits galore. In her latest iteration as a writer of the book Robot Takeover, a study of the role of robots within popular culture, fashion, art and science, Ana...
Photography Karen Baker
Your stage name is a firm nod to robot culture, and you have a tattoo of circuitry on your shoulder; when did you start digging R2D2 and his pals?
My fascination with robots began when Star Wars came out and with it the dawn of the action figure. I wasn't even three year's old and me and my sister loved it. Basically, I'm a magpie who's attracted to shiny things. Robots, essentially, are toys and tools that come to life and every kid loves that. Whether that's the Velveteen Rabbit, or the Sorcerers Apprentice, or the Nutcracker were full of stories like this when we were kids. There's that secret hope that our toys all come to life when we leave the room, so it's partly an extension of that. As I was writing the book, I realised I like things that aren't one of the other; that are in-between. Robots are not people and they're not alive but they have life. They are alike but different from. It's the same reason I was obsessed with butterflies as a little kid; they start out one way and they end up another. I'm also really interested in mysticism and people who involve themselves in a faith or a dogma but aren't consciously a part of it, they go in-between. I'm actively involved in, and an advocate for, trans-rights and LGBTQ rights and for the people who live in-between genders and who don't live on the strict binary of male/female. It's something that's long fascinated me; I'm not interested in one or the other, I'm interested in both and I'm at the intersection of it. I think that's where it all comes from!
Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us, and more recently Target, caused some consternation from the American right when they announced they were to stop dividing toys by gender. That seems pretty progressive and great, right…
Conversation and discourse in whatever subject is a good thing. It's very exciting that children are given more options to express themselves now; whether it's a girl playing with a rocket ship or a boy having tea with his teddy bears, it's much more open for individual expression and that's what kids should be given. Binaries in this world are very, very limiting and the male/female binary is absolutely one of the most limiting. I think it's a great conversation to have and I'm really amazed and encourage by the comfort that I see young people possessing with this subject. I have a Goddaughter who is 12-years-old and is identifying as gender fluid. This is something that 10 years ago wasn't even in the vocabulary of a 12 year-old. To me, it's a very positive thing; it means that people won't be bound by certain expectation, but based on how they identify. It gives a lot more freedom to people who aren't necessarily comfortable identifying as one or the other.
Robots are certainly non-binary in that sense, and have been since their invention.
Robots are gender neutral -- C3P0 is a great example of this. He's called 'he' and is obviously gendered male but he doesn't possess typical male or macho personality traits. That gets him assigned as the "gay robot", but I think that robots allow us to discuss and examine gender in a really interesting way, in addition to race, economic class, all kinds of issues. With race, in particular in America and in the West, robots are viewed as a new servant class. The West has been involved in using and been maligning races and assigning them to the job of servant or 'less than' for centuries. There's a great deal of examination, I'm thinking in particular of the work of Janelle Monaé, who uses the analogy of the robot to make statements about African American history and identity in a really interesting way that I think needs to be explored more in science fiction - considering the ideas of trans-humanisation and the way that humans will eventually upgrade and express themselves through prosthetics and neural implants. That has very far-reaching economic implications because it will be the rich who can afford these things who will get them. So robots and Artificial Intelligence allow us a lens to look at all the issues of being human in this world right now, which I think is really fascinating. Robots are our avatars for exploring these issues and I find that fascinating.
But what about A.I. overtaking us and destroying the human race, Terminator style?
The fear of a robot takeover is something we should put to use. I think a healthy dose of fear and skepticism is a good thing. It means that people like me that advocate for A.I. are also very closely scrutinising the ethics and morality behind all of the new strides that we make in this area. If we create Super Intelligence, I would advocate for keeping that Super Intelligence in a box. Don't put it on legs, don't give it red glowing eyes, don't give it chainsaws for hands (laughs). The Terminator is amazing and a great story but it is just that - a story. It's not the obvious logical conclusion. I think that A.I. and robots allow us to expand our abilities to include what we're capable of physically and mentality, but there is an intelligence that humans possess that is a long, long time coming from robots. Robots will be able to walk, talk and communicate with us eventually, but it will be a long time before a robot can walk into a room full of people and sense that two people in that room just got into a fight. It will be a long time before robots will be given hairs that can stand up on the back of their neck. So there is what I call a subtle intelligence that humans possess. I think robots seeing us as their creators, as something from them, but not like them, through that an area of mutual respect can be achieved and we can co-exist.
How did you narrow down the robots to the 100 you talk about in your book, Robot Takeover?
I really tried to not necessarily come up with the definitive 100 greatest robots; 'this one's the most cool' and 'this one's the least cool'! But I tried to come up with a comprehensive list of all of the different ways in which we talk about robots and what they symbolize. Quantifying 'coolness' is something I've always had a little issue with because robots by their very definition are super cool. Robots by their very nature are super cool. It was a fine line between wanting to be as comprehensive as possible, as inclusive as possible and shining the light on lesser-known robots who I think add a lot to the conversation. So, for instance, there's Adam Link who's one of the very first robots in American pop culture who inspired Isaac Asimov to write his first story of robots. And then there's a great film about the emotional programming of robots from Spain, called Eva, which came out in 2011.
It's the most beautiful robot film; it's everything A.I. should have been; it's a really beautiful and effecting story. There's a fantastic book by a woman named Marge Piercy called 'He, She and It' which juxtaposes the creation of an android in a Jewish Freetown in the United States, with the creation of a Gollum by a Rabbi who really lived in a Prague ghetto, a Jewish ghetto, in 1700. So it's a really amazing, really imaginative idea around the story of this legend from the 18th Century, juxtaposed with science fiction and speculative fiction that occurs in the future in America. It's fascinating! And I also found I couldn't have a conversation about fictional robots without having a conversation about real robots. I was really good at the pop culture stuff, but the real stuff was a real learning curve, so I did a lot of research in that area. I already found that I overlooked one robot that I should have added, whose name is Darwin. I really should have put him in the book and I didn't and I'm dumb and I apologise to Darwin's owner for that (laughs).
How are you feeling about the new Star Wars?
I'm cautiously optimistic. George Lucas hurt my feelings with the prequels (laughs) and I thought that JJ Abrams did a great job with the Star Trek reboot. So I'm excited. I think the casting is great; I would watch Oscar Isaac recite the phone book as I would Gwendoline Christie so I'm excited to see it.
What's next for you and robots?
I think the next big thing I'm focusing on is music; I'm working on my solo record and putting together a tour. I told my husband that I'd like a robot to come on tour with me so…. I'd like some robot backing dancers please!
Robot Takeover by Ana Matronic, published by Cassell Illustrated is out now, £14,99
Text Hattie Collins