Can’t Help Myself – Sun Yuan and Peng Yu

As humans, we like to think everything else has a personality and a sentient consciousness. This is why we talk to our plants, name inanimate objects and write books or make films about animals having a secret life or toys that move around when we aren’t looking. The phenomena is called Anthropomorphism, and it is where human characteristics, morals and activities are attributed to anything that isn’t human.

“Can’t Help Myself” is possibly one of the greatest examples of anthropomorphism, as essentially it is a robot, but people can’t help but have some sort of emotional reaction to what is really nothing more than a glamorised road sweeper.

If you haven’t seen this in action, it is understandable why viewers have such strong reactions to the piece.

Yuan and Yu are artists with a dark sense of humour and a deep ethical understanding. They are known for their controversial outlooks and hyper realistic and often disturbing creations, made to invoke a reaction from those viewing the work. So when this piece was commissioned by the Guggenheim museum, Yuan and Yu rose to the challenge and made a robotic arm with visual recognition sensors. The intention of this creation was to look at the changing way humans and machines exist together and how territorial control is being taken over by automation.

The mechanic arm has been placed in an acrylic box, and has been programmed to retain the fluid which seeps out, when it gets to a certain point on the floor. The arm has been programmed with 32 “human like” gestures, with names such as “scratch and itch”, “bow and shake” and “ass shake”. The only thing that this machine has been told to do is to contain the liquid within a certain parameter. The visual sensors which are placed above the arm, trigger a reaction if the liquid forms almost a perfect circle, or if there are people viewing the machine. This is the logic behind the piece, but the reactions to the arm have been quite enlighting.

As the arm is encased in a box, viewers have reportedly felt that it represents an office space, but with no door so that there is no escape. Also, due to the deep red colour and viscosity of the liquid, viewers relate this to blood rather than just a liquid, adding to the human like quality of the machine. The gestures are like it is waving at people, or dancing, or sometimes juddering which gives the effect that the arm is worn out, adding to its emotional pull on viewers feelings.

Yuan and Yu have made the ultimate Sisyphus of the modern times. A machine where its task is endless and really quite pointless, yet it will continue to do so, as that is what it is programmed to do. It is arguable that if it were a human doing this job, after a while they would have either given up and let the fluid run, or been inventive with the broom and made a barrier. But this is the point of the piece… to make people think about their relationship with machines and how while the arm may feel oddly humanised, it doesn’t have the AI to develop a solution to the problem that it is tackling. It is blindly doing what it is told.

What is most interesting about this piece is the way others have interpreted it. Yuan and Yu’s original intention was the relationship between man and machine, but others have related it to areas such as mental health, physical pain and the simple drudgery of the rat race. As I have always said, art is a very subjective matter, but when videos of this piece hit Tiktok and Twitter, audiences were divided between a deep emotional reaction and that of steely logic.

On Twitter, several viral threads affixed other interpretations to the work. Many revolved around an unsubstantiated claim that the robot essentially “died” when it ran out of liquid in 2019. One Twitter user who branded himself #luckygordy claimed the piece was about “the hydraulic fluid in relation to how we kill ourselves both mentally and physically for money just in an attempt to sustain life, how the system is set up for us to fail on purpose to essentially enslave us and to steal the best years of our lives. to play the game that the richest people of the world have designed. How this robs us of our happiness, passion and our inner peace. How we are slowly drowning with more responsibilities, with more expected of us, less rewarding pay-offs and less free time to enjoy ourselves.”

“The robot isn’t leaking fluid,” wrote another Twitter user named aidan lang syne. “It uses computer vision to futilely keep the fluid within an arbitrary zone; it’s about automated surveillance and border control, not robot depression or whatever.”

However you see “Can’t Help Myself”, it is a true mastery that evokes such powerful feelings. What do you think of this piece? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?

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