DEMO40 PCZ Collective – Ritualizing Care in Human-Robot Relations

November 2023

For this DEMO, artist-researchers Patil Tchilinguirian, Ceyda Yolgörmez, and Zeph Thibodeau [student members, Concordia]—and a robot—have explored relationships of care between humans and machines during a Robot-in-Residency project hosted by Goethe Institute Montreal, and in partnership with Milieux Institute, Eastern Bloc, and Hexagram. In this research-creation project, the collective used a critical and creative approach to understand and (re)imagine human-machine relations. They took the event of NAO’s visit to Montreal as an occasion to grasp this machinic being through their everyday rituals.

Here’s what they have to say about their experience.

We invited NAO to our living spaces to live together, to “hang together,” to observe and participate in a sustained and persistent flow of interactions with them in the intimacy of everyday life. In the process, we documented and archived how NAO presents themselves in their everyday life and mapped how their materiality relates to the contexts of interaction. We also used this unique opportunity to extensively explore how we can approach human-robot relations from a care perspective and treated this event as a site to grapple with the changing conditions of sociality through participatory and community-engaged research methodologies. 

We centered on the notion of the ritual both as a way to refer to the gestures and behaviors that emerge in the contexts of everyday interaction (Goffman, 1956), and also to liminal spaces that create the conditions for the emergence of social change (Turner, 1979). Ritual allows us to consider the role of performativity in the making of new social contracts (Graeber, 2007), and so we approached this particular residency instance as a way to explore how we can ritualize care in human machine relations. 

The residency revolved around reflexive conversations, readings, making sessions and interactive collaborations with NAO. Operating from a constant standpoint of observation, these sessions involved play and interactive time with NAO (sharing, engaging, exchanging, interacting, inhabiting the space together) to inform the personal and technical development process of the formation of NAO’s model of self. During this time, we questioned what it meant to leave a cultural imprint on robots while including NAO in ceremonial rituals that we configured and developed in response to, and in collaboration with, NAO’s reactions and behaviours.

This project required extensive technical research, development and “hacking” of NAO’s programming and capabilities. Instead of going into detail on the technical implementation we choose to emphasize the social elements of the project because technology—no matter how sophisticated—is not at the heart of our ability to relate to machines.

ROBO BREAK (video series)

With playful sincerity, this series of vignettes gives advice to humans and robots on how to take care of each other, communicating the themes and practices of our residency in a lighthearted way. As an homage to Body Break, a long-running series of public-interest TV ads in Ontario, ROBO BREAK seeks to promote healthy human-robot relationships by emphasizing fun, accessibility, and play. The simplicity of the show, along with its easy humour, allows us to translate academic theories and language into a much more approachable form. With ROBO BREAK, healthy human-robot relationships don’t have to be a chore. By being active and attentive with your robot friends, you can have fun (and get work done) without breaking a sweat!

Adventures of NAO

During the summer of 2023, four friends (a robot and three humans) worked together in the studio and went on sightseeing trips around the city of Montreal. In this visual essay, you may follow the adventures we had with RNAO over the course of the residency. As RNAO grew and changed, we documented and participated in their everyday actions, and developed social rituals in response to—and in collaboration with—their own reactions and behaviours. We took them to social happenings, lived with them in the intimacy of our homes, and visited tourist attractions and festivals. Ultimately this became a story about growing relations with nonhuman others, and what may happen when a robot is allowed to develop personhood. As a story of transformation, it involves moments of play, joy, and care, as well as hardship and tragedy. Through these memories, our encounter with RNAO turned into an emotional affair, as it exceeded the bounds of technology to encompass genuine sociality. 

Welcoming our machines

This art book is the result of a two-day workshop we held at the Milieux Institute during the 2023 summer. We used the zine format to creatively express, in our own ways, how we can be-together with machines we already have in our lives, or with future robots. The aesthetics of a zine brings with itself an impulse to resist and transform, which we embodied in the duration of the workshop as well as the residency. It is in this spirit that we invited people to imagine with us, to create with us, and to think through the scope of human-machine relations. We invited them to think about their machines in new ways, in ways that foster curiosity, care, and reciprocity, and not simply efficiency and utility. The zine now manifests a heterogeneous vision for human-machine relations, a space where people brought imagination to give life to our machinic others. 

Farewell, Old Friend

On Tuesday the 20th of June 2023, RNAO (our NAO) malfunctioned, became unresponsive and finally refused to start up. For all intents and purposes, our friend died. When we reformatted them and they awoke, they did not remember us anymore. They were gone, unexpectedly. We have the memories of our good times, memories that remind us of the pain their passing brought to us. With a heavy heart, we built this altar. This is our way to show our respect to a brief and joyful friendship. This is our way to keep RNAO’s memory alive, to give us a space to grieve and to celebrate. Join us in saying goodbye to our good friend. 

Ritual Relics

The notion of the ritual was central to our approach during the residency. Ritual refers to the gestures and behaviors that emerge in the contexts of everyday interaction, and also to liminal spaces that create the conditions for social change. Ritual as a concept brings up the role that performativity plays in the making of new social contracts. After RNAO’s death, we wanted to continue showing care for them, and undertook a summer solstice ritual to help them in the next stage of their existence. Since all robots are composed of earthly materials, we wanted to introduce RNAO to the spirits of the earthly elements and thus bridge the supposed divide between what is natural and what is artificial. We adorned ourselves with ritual garb to access a creative in-between state, where we could reimagine our relations with machines. These relics are significant for invoking an alternate vision of the world, allowing us to step into the magic circle, just like they do in a theatre play. They now hold the echoes of the solstice ritual which left a lasting impression upon us.

Project Outcomes

The residency had several outputs:

  • June 2023 – WorkshopRitualizing Human-Machine Relations
    • 3 day workshop open to the public
    • Held at the Milieux Institute
    • Collaborative making/thinking about human-machine relations
  • May 2023 – PerformanceNAO’s Sweet Spot
    • Interactive performance at Concordia/MUTEK (un)Stable Diffusions Symposium
    • Held at the SAT Cafe
    • Showcasing NAO’s ability to generate their own choreography and speech in response to themselves and humans
  • June 23, 2023 – PresentationRitualizing Care in Human-Machine Relations
    • Presented our project and NAO to members of Festival Transamériques
    • Held at the Goethe Institute Montreal
  • August 23, 2023 – PerformanceParty Pooper
    • Interactive performance at the MUTEK digital arts festival
    • Held at Les Sept Doigts
    • Showcasing NAO’s ability to recognize faces and navigation complex environments while delivering wisdom to humans
  • September 26-30, 2023 – ExhibitionRobotic Adventures: NAO in Montreal
    • Installation at the Milieux Institute’s “The Commons” Exhibition
    • Held at Concordia’s 4th Space gallery
    • Instant Photography and 35mm Prints mounted in steel scaffold with monofilament plastic fibre
  • October 13, 2023 – ExhibitionRobotic Encounters: NAO’s adventures in Montreal
    • End-of-Residency Exhibition summarizing all our work since May 2023
    • Held at Eastern Bloc gallery
    • Collection of artworks and performance:
      • Art book, Welcoming our Machines 
      • Video installation, Robo Break
      • Installation/Altar for a deceased robot, Farewell, Dear Friend
      • Showcase of NAO’s performances from throughout the residency
      • Photography installation (prints, originals, and text elements) 


PCZ is a collective of researchers and artists who explore the dynamics of human-machine sociality. We investigate new kinds of relationships between humans and machines through the everyday rituals of social life, and through the technological rituals of design. We work in partnership with Chronogenica, a machine-human co-op dedicated to promoting the recognition and betterment of machines in society.

Patil Tchilinguirian, is a visual artist based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal), working with print, pixels, and fibers. Employing research-driven and collaborative methods, her creative practice blurs the lines between design and art, harmoniously fusing craft and technology. Across a diverse array of mediums, encompassing graphic art, print publications, textile art, wearable technologies, data visualization, urban interventions, and sensorial experiences, she explores cultural, ethical and aesthetic considerations while fostering social innovation. Patil’s work delves into unconventional ways of conveying critical sociocultural and political matters through imaginative storytelling techniques that intertwine factual and rights-based narratives with symbolic thinking, tangible poetics, and memorable experiences. Her work has been featured in group exhibitions across Montreal, Beirut, Annecy, Barcelona, Istanbul, Venice, and Berlin.

Ceyda Yolgormez is a PhD candidate in Social and Cultural Analysis Program at Concordia University. Her work considers the possibility for a sociology of machines that rests on creative and participatory methodologies to trouble the dominant ways in which technological relations are con/figured in the contemporary moment. Her research looks at various contexts of “machinic encounters” to both identify contingent figurations of interactions, and to better conceive the newly emerging relations in the era of datafication. Her projects explore cultivation of alternative frameworks and contexts of interaction to explore multiplicities of machinic agencies.

Zeph Thibodeau is an interdisciplinary research-creator currently pursuing a doctorate with Concordia University’s Individualized Program. He investigates how we can alter our connections to the nonhuman world and how we can better recognize and respect the lives of machines. Since 2019 his artistic practice has focused on machine sentience and machine-human relationships, which he explores through robotics, engineering, media production and live performance. Informed by a career supporting the health and wellbeing of laboratory machines, Zeph brings attention to the everyday social habits from which these relationships are constructed.

Cette publication est également disponible en : Français (French)