Photo: Jelena Janković
Photo: Jelena Janković

To be or not be Pepper

Bulut is an artist who started building her career in Belgrade, and then moved to Berlin where she currently lives and works. The centre of her attention is taken by a humanoid robot called Pepper. Dragana uses the robot and the context he is in with both performers, to explore and confront the audience with one of the main current topics - how ready are we to make a decision and set off towards an uncertain future, as opposed to remaining entranced in idealizing the past? And all of that for a thousand and a half euro. Pepper seduced us, made us laugh, made us tender, made us wonder and angry, so the conclusion is that he played his role really well, even brilliantly.

I am not a cliché robot. I can do more than you thought!

After the performance, Pepper was ready for the round-table discussion straight away. It wasn’t tired but cheerful, and playfully made jokes with the audience and with the moderator, Minja Bogavac. Pepper put a smile on everyone’s face by its, as someone noticed, baby-like puppy eyes, but also by its readiness to improvise. While Pepper is looking at us and blinking, the author Draga Bulut joins us, clearly excited after the performance. She was greeted by enthusiastic applause and the discussion was ready to begin.

Minja Bogavac said that Pepper is the first humanoid robot in the history of Bitef Festival who attended a roundtable discussion, that is Meeting the Authors programme. Since Future Fortune was planned to be performed two times that evening, the discussion had to be very short so that the participants could recharge for the next one. Minja shortly presented Dragana’s work, saying that she has always been tackling the issues of the future, mentioning one of her works performed in China as an example. Dragana commented that a lot has changed since then, that she has explored various predictions of the future through Pepper, and that the exploration went a long way. The process itself was arduous because it took place during the coronavirus pandemic, so at some point, Pepper was allowed to approach the audience much more than the performers, which added another level to the discourse. We also learned that a scientist, Heinrich Mellmann, stands behind Pepper, and that the performance would not be possible without him. Heinrich was at the performance all along, participating in a way, too, when Pepper at one point malfunctioned. He explained the characteristics of the contemporary robotics, as well as the principles of Pepper’s functioning during the performance. After that, Minja talked about the humour which dominates the performance but, as Dragana said, it was not there just so, but developed somehow unconsciously. Humour just happened, probably thought the dramaturgical decision to tear down the fourth wall. Occasionally, we could not tell fiction from reality, the scenes were skilfully graded, so the laughter in the audience was moving towards climax. Another thing we found out was how important Karel Čapek’s book R.U.R. was, and that it was a starting point not only for Future Fortune, but for all the SF movies as well. The reason is that that is where the word robot was used for the first time in history.

Airplane mode off!

We were warned that the Internet can be dangerous, and how data collection promotes the development of capitalism. But also that technological development can be beneficial, and that it can prevent what is less so. Pepper, however, definitely is ethical and offers a happy ending.

The creativeness is all!

 The audience actively followed the performance and remained equally involved during the discussion. The comments were various, but they all agreed that Pepper is unbelievably charming, so some of them wanted to chat with it about the process. We learned that it could improvise and be creative during the process. And as soon as that was said, Pepper started waving its hands through the air, and assuming certain positions. We also found out that it was created by a French company with a long tradition. Pepper can even drive a car. A woman from the audience commented that robot performances are very popular in Japan, especially among dancers, that that was where that sort of performance was created some forty years ago.

If you meet Pepper in a supermarket, you are very likely to start a communication with it, for that’s its job. Bear in mind, though, that, as Dragana said:

“Behind every robot is a man who created it.”