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Edward Ihnatowicz was an artist whose interest in finding ways to emulate animal movement led him to become a pioneer of robotic art.
Born in Poland, Ihnatowicz came to England as a refugee in 1943 and studied at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. Dissatisfied with what he saw as the limitations of traditional art, he developed his enthusiasm for machinery to the point where, in the late 1960s, he was able to build the first computer-controlled sculptures that responded actively to sound and movement.
Ihnatowicz approached the making of a machine that moved in response to its environment very much as an artist. He aimed to capture the effect of an animal responding to its environment. Interested in photography and filmmaking, he once recorded a lioness in its cage in a zoo. The big cat briefly turned to look at the camera and then looked away, which led him to think about creating a sculpture that could do something similar in an art gallery, with the same feeling of a moment of contact with another seemingly sentient being.
He contacted people in the field of powered prosthetics, and taught himself about fluidics and digital computers. Inspired by the workings of a lobster claw, Ihnatowicz designed a large machine that was dubbed Senster (part sensor, detecting both sound and motion, and part monster). Microphones in its ‘head’ allowed it to track the source of sound, while radar units enabled it to respond to movement. Within a second or two the ‘head’ could move to anywhere within a total space of more than 1,000 cubic feet, with sophisticated computer programmes ensuring that the machine’s movements were convincingly life like and smooth.
Commissioned by the giant electrical corporation Philips, Senster was installed in an exhibition space dedicated to science and technology in Eindhoven, Holland. The machine was a great success, and people enjoyed interacting with the curious artwork. However, within four years Philips decided to dismantle it.
Senster marked the pinnacle of Ihnatowicz’s achievements and is remembered today as a pioneering piece of technology-based art. However, its dependence on collaboration with, and investment from, a major engineering corporation, and its location in a science theme park, highlighted some of the compromises that Ihnatowicz later identified as having killed off this once promising sphere of artistic engagement with technology.