Designing African Robots


Ralph Borland studied Fine Art, majoring in Sculpture and English, at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town and later did a Masters degree in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University on the creative use of electronics. His thesis work, Suited for Subversion (2002), a protective-performance suit for street protest, was selected for the exhibition Safe at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2005, and subsequently made part of their permanent collection.

Ralph will talk about his current project AFRICAN ROBOTS, which intervenes in street ‘wire art’ production in Southern Africa (particularly South Africa and Zimbabwe). Here, informal sector artists make largely ornamental goods from galvanised steel fencing wire and other cheap materials, which they sell in the street. African Robots brings DIY electronics knowhow and cheap components to produce interactive and kinetic forms of work; African automatons such as birds, animals and insects.

One of the intentions of African Robots has been to democratise access to technological knowhow: mechanical forms that have been in use for centuries for example, as well as computational and electronic principles. The ‘curriculum’ (one of the visions of the project is for an African Robots Academy) includes emphasis on non-European and extra-Western examples of such knowledge: the 12th century Islamic inventor Al-Jazari’s automaton designs for example (which include some of the earliest known examples of programmable devices) and fields such as Ethnomathematics, which recognise the use of mathematical principles found in non-maths places (often in craft practices such as weaving).