Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Women running the tech behind provocative robot sculpture

May 28, 2024 | Career, Art, Event, Body, Gender, Technology, Feature

Written by Ginger Gorman

CW: This post mentions suicide.

What happens when art and technology collide? And can it inspire the next generation of women in information and communications technology (ICT)?

On May 30, the Canberra-based non-profit organisation, WIC (Women in Information and Communication) will host a panel discussion around internationally-acclaimed artist Jordan Wolfson’s work Body Sculpture at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). 

(Yes, Wolfson’s work has sometimes been controversial. If you want to read more about that – and hear straight from the artist himself, read this interview.)

Body Sculpture is an animatronic installation consisting of two mechanisms: an industrial robot arm suspended from a gantry, which interacts with an animatronic cube with robotic arms. Inspired by this upcoming event, BroadAgenda editor, Ginger Gorman, had a chat with Neve Foxcroft, Operations and Maintenance Technician at the National Gallery of Australia.

Who are you and what’s your background?

My name is Neve Foxcroft and I am an artist, designer and technician living and working on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country. I am currently an Operations and Maintenance Technician at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) for the Jordan Wolfson Body Sculpture exhibition.

My practice exists in somewhat of a hybrid space, as I work with both glass and digital technology. The tension between these two areas is very much in their histories and traditions. One is based on ancient technologies continued through mentorship and the other is much more recent, rapid and fluctuating.

I’ve always enjoyed science and art and as a young adult, chose to study Visual Art at the Australian National University (ANU) specialising in glass and ceramics. Early in my degree, I was introduced to digital fabrication through the ANU MakerSpace and instantly took to it.

My main area of interest was and still is 3D printing. I started off with the commonly recognised and easily accessible fused filament fabrication method of 3D printing. For this process, a strand or filament of plastic is extruded through a heated nozzle and deposited in thin stacking layers on a print bed to build an object.

From there I was lucky enough to have access to more specialised 3D printers and in 2021, I started using a 3D printer that extruded unfired wet clay instead of plastic. This excited me as it combined the material skills and techniques that I was using in my degree with technology.

This first clay printer was very simple – the clay was extruded straight from the reservoir using a mechanical ram, which meant that once you started extruding clay there was no quick way of stopping it. As such objects are printed in one continuous extrusion or spiral, the intended shape requires careful design.

In 2022, I was able to use a different sort of clay 3D printer with a pressurised clay reservoir leading to an auger screw, a special type of screw that allows material (in this case, clay) to be transported as it rotates. This gives much more control over the extrusion, allowing it to be stopped and started quickly and resulting in the capacity to print much larger and more complex objects.

In 2023, I assisted on a research process exploring the application of a glass 3D printer. Designed and made in Australia, The Maple 3 uses glass rods which are fed through a heated block and nozzle at 1000 degrees Celsius directly into a kiln chamber heated to 500 degrees Celsius. This is by far the most complicated 3D printer I have worked on. It was an incredible opportunity.

Join WIC at the National Gallery of Australia for an inspiring panel session with the women who contributed to bringing internationally acclaimed artist Jordan Wolfson’s provocative animatronic work of art, Body Sculpture, to Canberra. Book tickets here.
What does your job involve? Why are you passionate about tech?

There are two parts to my role on this project – operations and maintenance. Jordon Wolfson’s Body Sculpture requires two operators present every time it performs. In the operator’s room behind the scenes, we turn on all the components and prepare them to run through a pre-prepared script.

During the performance, we closely monitor the robot, both visually and through specialist software to track its ‘vital signs’.

This is usually and hopefully the most routine part of the day, however, if something does not work or it moves unexpectedly, our team quickly jumps into problem-solving mode. In these situations, the scale and complexity of the artwork becomes extremely noticeable. Maintenance of the robot is a key component of the role, for smooth performance and problem prevention.

I have always been interested in how objects and materials work, so my favourite part of the job is conducting maintenance to nurture Body Sculpture. The cube component of Body Sculpture always presents new and exciting challenges and with 64 servomechanisms and over 250 custom parts, diagnosing and fixing an issue can be complicated.

Having a solid understanding of all the different parts and systems and how they work together is essential. I have made several diagrams to help myself and the team better understand the intricacies of the robotic sculpture.

What is Body Sculpture?

Body Sculpture is a robotic work of art commissioned by the NGA. The work of art is a 30-minute performance and consists of two main moving parts – a large robotic arm and an animatronic cube. The robotic arm picks up and moves the cube around the stage, while it performs a choreographed routine with its human-like arms.

Editor’s note: Like Wolfson’s previous art, Body Sculpture does engender some discomfort. To quote from an article by Gina Fairley  in an article she wrote for ARTShub about ‘Body Sculpture’: “In a nutshell, as with Wolfson’s previous animatronic works Female Figure (2014) and Colored Sculpture (2016) (both controversial and criticised), this new commission aims to trigger emotional and physical responses in the viewer. Wolfson often places the viewer in a moral dilemma – as a witness to violence, self-harm or abuse. In Body Sculpture the topic of suicide is raised.”

The work is by a bloke, obviously, so where do the women come in here?

Yes, Jordan Wolfson is the North American artist behind Body Sculpture and is based in Los Angeles.

Over the course of six years, this artwork was conceptualised, created, tested and refined. It’s a huge project – far too big and drawing on too vast a scope of knowledge for just one person to do it all.

The artist and the NGA both acknowledge the long list of people who worked on Body Sculpture, as it is a project that initiated some very cool collaborations. When examining large blockbuster projects like Body Sculpture, there’s a great opportunity to pay attention to all the work that was and is still being done behind the scenes.

Invisible labour is a term historically associated with women and members of other marginalised groups, doing work that is unseen. There are many women who were either behind the scenes of the development of the project, or who are currently running and maintaining the artwork and project.

The western art world tends towards individualism, and attributing success to individuals, so this is a great opportunity to remind audiences that there were many people who were instrumental in making Body Sculpture a success.

Why is it so important to understand the work’s scale?

Scale in what sense? Are we talking physical scale? Financial scale? Scale on the international contemporary art stage? There are not many elements of this project that are small, only the individual nuts, bolts, washers and bearings.

To give readers an idea of the physical scale of the installed artwork, the weight is equal to that of 32 polar bears. If you prefer to think in cats, that’s 3,146 cats.

I don’t know if understanding the physical scale of the work is integral to appreciating it, but I do think that once viewers get some idea of the magnitude and extensiveness of the robotic components and software, it becomes even more interesting for a different reason.

How was it assembled here in Australia?

Before production even began, an American engineering firm Killstress Designs came to the NGA and completed a 3D scan of a path into the building, as well as the space hosting Body Sculpture.

From this spatial mapping, the gantry columns were designed in flat-pack form and once here, fitted just within the corners and doorways into the gallery. Everything except for the twin animatronics were shipped over in three massive shipping containers.

Once navigated into the space, we activated hidden hydraulic rams which unfolded the massive structures to their full height.

These towers contain two leaf-chain hydraulic actuators from gutted forklifts. The length of the gantry beam that the ABB robot rides along was assembled under the towers and then lifted with a chain and bolted in place. This is one of the most innovative designs in the entire sculpture and it is invisible until the work is coming down or going up.

The stage was designed around these towers, which are the largest single element of the sculpture and sealed with an epoxy coating. The truss was assembled on the floor and lifted to height by coordinated duct lifts. It was tied off to the hanging wires in the air and laser-levelled.

Each of the smaller systems (which were even more complicated and difficult to install) were fitted around this infrastructure. Next, we calibrated both of the robots, the computer vision and the stage.

What’s the most exciting or challenging thing about this particular project?

For me, the challenges are the exciting parts of the project. Operating world-class technology seen in the one-of-a-kind Body Sculpture comes with inevitable moments of problem solving under pressure. This feels like a test of my creativity as well as of my skills and everything I’ve learnt on the project.

What are you and your team trying to get across about women working in tech? Why are there still so many barriers?

I’ve been fortunate to work on great teams with women, non-binary folk and men who are very inclusive and supportive. I’ve also worked on projects and in teams with strong female role models that inspire me to keep at it. This encouragement has certainly helped me to navigate some of the barriers I’ve come across working in this field. I think working with a diverse team is really important. Combining different thinking and experiences leads to better solutions. It’s vitally important to have a diversity of minds and identities involved in the processes of creating new technologies. Otherwise, we end up with a world geared towards only one kind of person.

That’s why it has been really excited to work with Women in ICT (WIC) on a panel discussion, highlighting the importance of diversity in tech, so we can really inspire girls, women and gender diverse people to see themselves working in the industry.

  • Picture at top: Neve Foxcroft, Operations and Maintenance Technician at the National Gallery of Australia. Picture: Supplied 

Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting,came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

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