Art/Design, Tech

A dystopian robot arm took over TikTok

But not for the reasons you think.

words by: Sahar Khraibani
Feb 22, 2022

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, two of China’s most notorious artists who are known for using controversial materials like live animals and human tissue in their work, launched an installation for the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2016. The artwork, titled “Can’t Help Myself” (2016-19), featured an industrial robot arm in a big glass box with one mission: To confine a pool of sticky crimson liquid leaking out onto the floor.


The robot arm, which was equipped with a custom-designed shovel, would be activated when the liquid (which, despite the artists’ earlier controversy, was not blood) traveled outside of a predetermined circle. The machine would then twist around the casing, scraping the liquid back into place, using one of 32 pre-programmed movements.


The moves — labeled “scratch an itch,” “bow and shake,” “ass shake,” and so on — looked different when “Can’t Help Myself” was shown in the main show at the 2019 Venice Biennale. The robot arm had slowed with time as if it had grown tired of the never-ending work it was trained to undertake. Furthermore, the white floors were smudged in an eerie pink, and the glass walls of its box were spattered with scarlet.


This worn-out version of the artwork has now been resurrected on TikTok. Users capture its steady collapse in many videos, adding their own soundtrack — Lana Del Rey’s “Dealer” or Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)” among several others.


Clearly, people are sad. “Can’t Help Myself” slowing down and its rumored “death” in 2019, when it ran out of hydraulic fluid, have certainly struck a chord, with one of the video tributes surpassing 90 million views.


It goes without saying that the internet came up with so many theories and interpretations of the artwork. One user shared: “No piece of art has ever emotionally affected me the way this robot arm piece has. “It’s programmed to try to contain the hydraulic fluid that’s constantly leaking out and required to keep itself running… if too much escapes, it will die so it’s desperately trying to pull it back to continue to fight for another day.”


It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why TikTok’s audience, a generation facing low employment prospects, terrible work settings, and a pandemic that has left them “unable to cope with life,” resonates with the despair of this robotic arm.


While the speculations over the true meaning of “Can’t Help Myself” is amusing, the official Guggenheim description sheds more light on the matter. It argues that the artwork was actually meant to address “current challenges around migration and sovereignty.”


The descriptor reads: “The bloodstain-like marks that accumulate around it evoke the violence that results from surveilling and guarding border zones. Such visceral associations call attention to the consequences of authoritarianism guided by certain political agendas that seek to draw more borders between places and cultures.” The robot arm also highlights the expanding use of technology to assist in border policing it explains.


In the end, it’s difficult to determine if the artists behind “Can’t Help Myself” were trying to make a point about humans’ self-centered inclination to see their own mirror everywhere they look, or if they just intended to make a joke about it, but what is evident is that Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s artwork is a success.


In related robotics news, check out Sophia the robot and read about a brain-controlled robotic arm that can sense touch.


Photo via Sun Yuan and Peng Yu