Max Dean’s robotic installation As Yet Untitled (1992–1995) speaks to the artist’s recurrent interest in technology combined with everyday objects. Recently restored by the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Conservation Department, As Yet Untitled places the choice of archiving or tearing up found family photographs under the authority of gallery visitors. Composed of an industrial arm, conveyer belt, paper shredder, and two silhouetted hands, the mechanized robot is programmed to pick up a 4”x 6” photograph from a hopper and present it to the viewer, who then chooses to save or discard it. By pressing against two sensor hands, a visitor can instruct the machine to gently file the snapshot into an archival box. Failing any intervening action, the robot feeds the print into the paper shredder. The remaining strips are then dropped onto the conveyer belt and added to an increasing pile. As the robotic arm returns to position, the process starts over again, continuing an average of 80 times per hour—eventually, photographs that were once “saved” will be presented to future visitors and submitted to an identical treatment.
The installation invites the audience to publicly interact with the robot, which never stops its action. Tension arises from the fact that the family photographs, representing moments of intimacy and personal memories, are treated as discarded objects. Dean notes, “There’s an industrial, mechanical certainty about the machine. It’s been assigned a task and it does it brilliantly and if something doesn’t intercede, it will continue to do it. But there’s no emotion involved in that. The machine is unemotional, so to speak. What I wanted was the certainty of the machine. The machine isn’t investing its activity with value; you’re putting the value into what it’s doing. Part of what makes it complicated is what it’s picking up. I couldn’t think of anything more loaded than snapshots.” By questioning the definition of photographic displays in a museum context and extending the visitors’ responsibility and autonomy, Dean’s computer-based machine offers a unique and critical perspective to the Ryerson Image Centre’s exhibition program and collecting mandate.