The Sad Life of TikTok’s Viral Dancing Robot

This masterpiece is making millions cry.

Alberto Romero
OneZero
Published in
4 min readJan 13, 2022

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Can’t Help Myself — Photo by Ana Romero (Wikimedia Commons)

Another swing. Another sweep. Going on forever, to never fulfill the perpetual task it was programmed for.

This has been the reality of Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s robotic masterpiece “Can’t Help Myself.” Commissioned in 2016 for the Guggenheim museum in New York, the industrial robot arm had only one task, to keep a blood-like liquid from leaking out of a predetermined area.

Equipped with visual sensors, the robot would perceive when the liquid had gone too far and, as a graceful, elegant dancer, would move around with precisely choreographed movements to sweep the viscous fluid back into place, spreading the transparent showcase with fortuitous garnet drops.

“The robot’s endless, repetitive dance presents an absurd, Sisyphean view of contemporary issues surrounding migration and sovereignty,” says Xiaoyu Weng, curator of contemporary art who wrote about the piece. She argues one possible meaning behind Yuan and Yu’s work was to bring attention to the increasing use of technology for surveillance and border control, while the bloodstains would resemble the “lives sacrificed in border conflicts and wars.”

They also hint at how new forms of technology are permeating through everyday life, “from surveillance cameras in urban areas to smartphones that allow us to document and share moments of our lives while monitoring and controlling our behavior.”

It was precisely to share a moment of her life that a TikTok user shared a video comparing the robot’s happy dancing steps from 2016, with the decaying lifeless motions of 2021. What back then was a delightful experience for visitors that would be greeted with enthusiastic purposeless movements intertwined with dutiful sweeps of crimson water, was five years later a sad spectacle of a robot that seemed too busy doing a repetitive, boring task to even pay attention to the humans surrounding its cage.

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Alberto Romero
OneZero

AI & Tech | Analyst at CambrianAI | Weekly AI Newsletter: https://thealgorithmicbridge.substack.com/ | Contact: alber.romgar@gmail.com