‘It seemed like a good idea to see what the future might look like’: Rob and Nick Carter on making art with computers and robots

As a three-hour looped film based on a still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder comes to London, we meet its creators to find out why Andy Warhol ‘would definitely be using this kind of technology’ were he alive today

Marcel Proust wrote that it is only through art that ‘we can escape from ourselves’. However, in a culture of inattention, when we are constantly encouraged to flick and click, how do we slow down enough to give art the time it deserves?

This was the question the London-based artists Rob and Nick Carter asked themselves in 2008, after reading that the average time spent looking at a work of art in a museum is 27.2 seconds.

To encourage people to look longer, the artists converted a painting by the Dutch Old Master Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621) into an animated digital film on a three-hour loop. Transforming Still Life Painting  depicts a masterful display of floral abundance gradually changing throughout the day.

Ever since the Middle Ages, artists have tried to mark the passing of time. In the Dutch Golden Age, painters used the medium of still life to convey life’s transitory nature, revealing the certainty of death through the white blooms of mould on a bunch of grapes, or the split flesh of an overripe pear. Tiny animals, insects and snails were symbolic of impermanence, and a reminder that everything becomes worm food in the end.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Vase of Flowers in a Window, circa 1618

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621), Vase of Flowers in a Window, circa 1618. Oil on panel. 64 x 46 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Photo: Bridgeman Images

In the Carters’ version — made with the Moving Picture Company, leading specialists in CGI and animation — weather patterns change throughout the day, the flowers close as evening draws in, and insects move across the scene.

The work made its debut at TEFAF in Maastricht, and was shown at the Frick Collection in New York in 2013-14 alongside the exhibition Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis. When it was exhibited by the Fine Art Society in London in 2013, people were mesmerised. ‘One woman watched the entire three hours,’ says Nick.

To be as accurate as possible, the artists researched the botanical history of the original painting. ‘The arrangement is not natural,’ says Rob. ‘These flowers would have bloomed at different times of the season. Bosschaert would have had several specialist painters in his studio working on one flower at a time. He then brought it all together into one composition.’

Rob and Nicky Carter with Heidi, the car-manufacturing robot

Rob and Nick Carter with Heidi, the car-making robot that has turned its ‘gripper’ to art. Photo: James Kelly

In many ways, this process is not dissimilar to the way the husband-and-wife team work. Having spotted the creative possibilities of digital technology early, the art-world pioneers have been working with cutting-edge media companies for almost two decades to realise their concepts. ‘Although I think Bosschaert had more studio assistants than us,’ says Rob.

The duo met at Uppingham School in Rutland in the 1980s, but didn’t get together until 1997. ‘Rob invited me round to paint on his photographs,’ says Nick, who studied art and art history at Goldsmiths University in the YBA years.

The artists’ early works depicted large multicoloured circles that made your eyes swim and played tricks on your mind. Unsurprisingly, they became a hit with ‘Generation E’ and were featured at the Groucho Club, where Nick was the curator. Later, they experimented with photograms, 3D printing and CGI.

Rob and Nick Carter, Transforming Still Life Painting, 2009-12

A still from Rob and Nick Carter (b. 1968 & b. 1969), Transforming Still Life Painting, 2009-12. Digital animation and Apple Mac, in artists’ frame. Three-hour continuous loop. This work is number 12 from an edition of 12 plus five artists’ proofs. Overall: 28⅛ x 13 x 4⅜ in (71.3 x 58.7 x 11 cm). Sold for £52,920 on 25 May 2023 at Christie’s in London

‘I think we can proudly say we set something off,’ says Nick. ‘We are seeing many more digital artworks being made.’

Rob agrees: ‘In the past, the idea of buying a work of art that you had to plug in was seen as odd. Nowadays it is totally accepted.’

Their recent explorations have been in robotics. ‘We read that the likelihood of an artist’s work being fully automated in 20 years was about 4 per cent,’ Rob adds. ‘Now, that’s low — but it is not zero. It seemed a good idea to see what the future might look like.’

‘[The robot’s] Sunflowers took 49 hours, 3 minutes and 3 seconds to paint, and the stroke count is 9,153’ — Rob Carter

Currently working in their studio in Acton is Heidi, a KUKA six-axis robot used in car factories to produce everything from doors to bonnets. It has taken the couple six years to make the high-end industrial robot operational. Today Heidi is fully autonomous, from blank canvas through to finished painting.

The robot is able to switch brushes and colours thanks to 130,000 lines of bespoke software code, which turns a photograph of a work of art into information that it can understand.

Rob and Nick Carter, Sunflowers, Robot Paintings, 2021 (after Vincent van Gough, Sunflowers, 1888)

Rob and Nick Carter, Sunflowers, Robot Paintings, 2021 (after Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, 1888). Acrylic on wooden board, framed. Painting time: 49:03:03; stroke count: 9,153. © Rob and Nick Carter

Four variations of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) hanging in the Carters’ gallery in London’s Lancaster Gate are testament to what Heidi can do. While the works do not have the fiery depths or luminosity of an actual Van Gogh, they are, without a doubt, well executed and very nice to look at.

‘Heidi’s Sunflowers  took 49 hours, 3 minutes and 3 seconds to paint, and the stroke count is 9,153,’ says Rob, offering up the kind of data Andy Warhol would have appreciated.

Rob and Nick Carter, 12 Robot Paintings, Birth of Venus, after Botticelli, after Warhol, 2021

Rob and Nick Carter, 12 Robot Paintings, Birth of Venus, after Botticelli, after Warhol, 2021. Acrylic on board. Painting time: 10:04:03; stroke count: 1,902. © Rob and Nick Carter

‘I think if Warhol were alive today he would definitely be using this kind of technology,’ says Nick. A short film was made of the process for another work (above), based on the the Pop artist’s silkscreen of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Is Heidi the artist of the future? ‘There are already “painting villages” in China reproducing hundreds of Van Gogh masterpieces,’ notes Rob. ‘It is not a huge leap to imagine it being done by robots.’

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By then, however, the Carters will have moved on to the next new thing. The digital world is shaping our visual culture at every level, and it is important that artists like Rob and Nick Carter are there to push the creative potential of what comes next — even if it takes a while for the rest of the world to catch up with them.


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