Robots are on the march. They’re on our screens, in our homes and, in Scissor Sisters frontwoman Ana Matronic’s case, all over her right arm, finds Janet Christie
THE lead singer of the chart-topping, Grammy-nominated band is a robot obsessive and wears her heart on her sleeve with a huge bionic circuitry tattoo that signals her devotion to the shiny, smart machines. Now she’s taken her love of robots on to the page with a book that profiles her choice of 100 legendary robots of popular culture.
They’re all there, from the beautiful art-deco Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the spidery little Sentinels of The Matrix and everyone’s favourite bot, Star Wars’ R2-D2. Matronic also digs deeper than the images and explores our relationship with robots, seeking to answer why we admire and fear them in equal measure.
“The book is about the interface between people and technology,” she says. “I wanted to come up with the most comprehensive list of robots from art, music, fashion, comic books and also look at how we talk about robots, how we use them and what they symbolise.”
Robots are by no means a modern phenomenon with myths and legends of metal and clay men and women stretching back to 300 BC, but advances in robotics and artificial intelligence mean they have moved from myth to being a tangible presence in the lives of humans. This month nine-year-old Josh Cathcart from Fife, who was born with his right arm missing from the elbow down, was fitted with a state-of-the art bionic hand which can be programmed with a phone app. Meanwhile, a man from Edinburgh who lost his penis in a childhood accident has been given a working prosthetic.
“I’m very keen on the opportunities robots afford with exoskeletons and prosthetics to advance our reality. That’s incredibly exciting to me,” says Matronic.
Robotics has come on in leaps and bounds in the realm of artificial intelligence too and last year a robot finally passed the Turing Test, devised by wartime Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing, in which a machine must convince humans it is human. Eugene Goostman, aka a computer program made by a Russian team, passed the test at the Royal Society in London, when it convinced a third of the judges it was human. Suddenly a world of intelligent synths like the robotic servants in the recent hit Channel 4 series Humans becomes a possibility.
But where does Matronic’s fascination with robots come from?
“I have always liked extremely shiny things like cars and I enjoy industrial design and architecture. I was born in the 1970s, so some of my first memories of pop culture are sitting in movie theatres and watching R2-D2 in Star Wars. The robots are the whole thread of action of that movie.”
She’s right. R2-D2 is one of only two characters to appear in all seven movies, the other being the gloriously gold C-3PO, and they play a vital role in the plot. No wonder the two droids wound up presenting at the 50th Academy Awards.
“Then in college I was studying pop culture and was in a happy 1970s nostalgia phase, wearing the heaviest polyester shorts I could find. I also started watching The Bionic Woman,” she says.
The 1970s US TV series starring Lindsay Wagner was a spin-off of The Bionic Man and followed the adventures of Jaime Sommers, who is nearly killed in a skydiving accident and is rebuilt with amplified hearing in her right ear, a super-strong right arm, and legs that can run at speeds exceeding 60 miles per hour.
“I loved it because it combined a strong female lead and sci-fi and she was kicking ass all over the place,” says Matronic. “This was pre-internet and the era of the fanzine, so I decided to make one dedicated to The Bionic Woman.”
At the same time Matronic read Joseph Campbell’s 1991 bestseller on comparative mythology, The Power Of Myth, which discusses how the themes and symbols of ancient narratives identify the universality of human experience across time and cultures.
“The hero’s journey is the same no matter if it’s Jesus, Luke Skywalker or Apollo, and we replicate these stories. That’s our legendary legacy as human beings,” says Matronic.
Then in the early 1990s, Matronic moved to San Francisco, which was a hotbed of cyberpunk, early experimental technology and creativity, and it was in this milieu that she discovered Donna Haraway and her book Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology And Socialist-Feminism In The Late Twentieth Century.
“That was the first dabblings into transhumanism that I discovered and I became interested in the possibilities that alien intelligence brings us. We are very close to creating alien intelligence that we can interact with. It doesn’t have to be sinister like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. All you have to do is imbue your alien intelligence algorithm with a ‘not very smug’ element.”
Matronic doesn’t buy into the “they’re coming to get us” school of thought with regard to robots, nor does she believe they will inevitably turn on us.
“With the creation of a new servant class comes the idea that they’re not going to like it and they will want to escape the masters, but this idea is something we have to break free from. I have a section in my book called ‘Murderous Malfunctions’, which is about stories of robots that take over and it’s interesting that these always originate in the West. That’s because we live in a world where the slave-master binary binds us to this notion of revolt. There’s not a single story like that from the East, from Japan, where they have none of that anxiety.”
What Matronic brings to life in her book is the idea that as much as we fear robots, we also feel positive emotions towards them.
“We have an element of sentimentality about robots that you see in Asimov’s I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s The Electric Grandmother. People with Roomba vacuum cleaners for example assign personalities to them and studies show that 80 per cent of their owners name them. And there are people who clean up before them, to make it easier for the robot,” she laughs.
With all this talk about robotics I’m starting to feel out of my depth so I ask if she’s seen Robot And Frank, the 2012 sci-fi comedy drama by Jake Schreier set in the near future, in which a jewel thief with dementia and a domestic robot restart his career as a cat burglar.
“Yes, I loved that film,” she says. “It’s so beautiful because it seems very close and possible. There’s another film like that, Eva, which is the story of a roboticist charged with the emotional programming of a robot. It’s a sensitive film about emotions and artificial intelligence.”
Warming to her theme, Matronic moves on to roboticist Cynthia Breazeal who made Kismet, the first emotional robot, in the 1990s. Designed to respond to facial stimulus and read facial expressions, Kismet could emote, raise its eyebrows, express interest and revulsion and be programmed to be childlike and human. “Kismet’s capabilities are 20 years old and getting more refined,” she says. “It’s very exciting to think we could possibly have robots that we can communicate with by a simple raised eyebrow.”
In the meantime, Matronic would love to be involved with Roboapocalypse, the book from New York Times best-selling author, TV host and robotics engineer, Daniel H Wilson, which has been optioned by Steven Spielberg. “It’s the next Game Of Thrones,” she says. “It’s such a fab story and I’m totally available. I would love to voice a robot.
“I wouldn’t like to be a robot, but I’d like to be a cyborg [with organic and biomechatronic parts]. But it’s going to be a long time until a robot can walk into a room and know something has gone wrong because of the way it smells. There’s a nebulous aspect to human existence that robots have a long way to go to understand. But I would like a robot – a luggage droid that followed me with my cases, and handed me my make-up bag.”
Of course, being a Scissor Sister must require a huge amount of wardrobe action with the dazzling costumes required for their ass-slapping, foot-stomping legendary live shows.
Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that Matronic’s interest in gay/transgender culture is somehow linked to her fascination with robots, in that they’re both regarded as outside the so-called “normal” and Scissor Sisters music is all about challenging prejudice and pushing boundaries?
“Yes, I think my transgender advocacy and my transhumanist side do have a link and the robots occupy a liminal space and I’m very attracted to that. I know many people who occupy a liminal and fluid place to live. For example wicca is a liminal state and I’m interested in witches too. I’m used to the spaces in between.”
And if robots have come a long way, humans have too, reckons Matronic. “You know I recently started watching Dynasty from the beginning online, and one of the sons, Steven Carrington, was gay. Watching it now 30 years later, the homophobia, even in people that are trying to give Steven good advice, is striking. It’s a time when people believed you chose to be gay. Now we know it’s a lot more inherent and are more accepting. There’s a long way to go in this world, but we have come a long way too.”
MATRONIC divides her time between the US, where she lives with her filmmaker, musician and artist husband Seth Kirby, whom she married in New York in 2010, and the UK, where she DJs on Radio 2.
“It’s such good fun. I was a DJ already and I’m a natural talker. I did a slot presenting Eurovision on TV in 2013, then did it twice on the radio and thankfully Radio 2 have continued to give me work since then. I love being at Radio 2. I was in the toilets the other day, and the BBC shows are pumped out over the loud speakers, and I just heard Iggy Pop’s voice. I was so pleased.”
She slips into an impressive impression of the sexy rumbling that can be heard on the Godfather of Punk’s Radio 6 show on Friday nights.
“This week’s show is pop and circumstance…” she growls. “Ha, ha, ha, I loooooooooove him.”
Matronic’s own BBC radio shows feature a non-stop mix of records from the dancing days of the disco era. Along with Barry White and Donna Summer, she loves to play deep cuts and rare grooves.
“I think disco is one of the most vast and under-appreciated genres there is,” she says. “Disco is made for dancing, and the 1970s was one of the first eras when you could dance alone, with a partner or in a group. But there’s a vast musicality to it too. There are string arrangements, things that make you think of heaven. It’s also down and dirty too.”
Born in 1974, Matronic sees the disco era as hers. “I feel like disco’s just something in my DNA. My first disco memory would definitely be something on The Muppet Show, probably the disco version of the Cantina song from Star Wars.”
Ah, that explains a lot: the fusion of disco, dayglo fur fabric creatures singing Star Wars... you can see why an impressionable four-year-old might grow up to be Ana Matronic.
The child of Sherry, an artist, and Robert, an art director, she was born Ana Lynch in Portland, Oregon. She pronounces her first name Aahn-a, to rhyme with llama, in a drawn out drawl. At the age of four her parents’ marriage broke up due to her father’s homosexuality and he died of an Aids-related illness when she was 15.
“I had two dads, my birth dad and JS. My birth dad didn’t listen to anything other than classical and show tunes – although he did like Village People, ha, ha. My mom should have known.
“And JS was into big bands and classical. We used to get into fights about music. I went through a heavy industry phase in the 1990s and he would say ‘turn down this awful music!’ And my mother listened to soul music, Motown, high-energy, soul and she loves the blues. She loves Otis Redding, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Amy Winehouse.”
After leaving home for San Francisco to be a performance artist, Matronic wound up in New York, and it was there that Scissor Sisters burst out of New York’s gay club scene in 2001. Their bonkers dress sense and pop/glam/rock/nu-disco/electroclash sound saw their eponymous album go straight to No 1 in the UK. Singles Take Your Mama and Filthy/Gorgeous helped make it the best-selling album of 2004 and they were the first group ever to win the hat-trick at the Brits international categories in 2005, scooping best group, best breakthrough act and best album. Follow-up album Ta-Dah in 2006 included I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’, written by Jake Shears, Babydaddy and Elton John, who played the piano on it.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a nation raised on a diet of Saturday night cross-dressing light entertainment stars and androgynous popstars would take Scissor Sisters to their hearts more than their homeland, where their first album got a lukewarm reception. The band have described the UK as their “spiritual home”.
“The UK and Ireland are places I love. I love that I get to come and work here, that I have a growing collection of friends here. I’ve been to Scotland many times to play and will come again. I’d like to be able to lift up The Barrowland, the bouncy floor, ceiling and all, and move it around to different cities and play in it.”
Artificial intelligence and robotics are one, thing, but that’s a whole other level of technology.
After 11 years that saw Scissor Sisters release four albums and tour the world, collaborate with Elton and Kylie, the band is on a hiatus. Have they split up, or will they be working together again?
“We will get back together,” she says. “I don’t know when that’s going to be, but we will. I definitely think The Scissors have another record and another tour in them.”
But don’t go dusting off your Lycra and feathers yet, because for the moment the five members are enjoying pursuing other projects and generally taking the weight off their platform-soled dancing shoes.
“It’s nice being off the road,” says Matronic. “And none of us miss the grind. People don’t understand what it’s like to tour. You lose all sense of time and personal space. It’s hard core. It’s the living out of a suitcase, waking up in the dark on a bus, having to go from one strange hotel to another, wandering around the airport.” She groans at the memory.
“It’s very taxing on the body to get on an aeroplane every day. It’s not good for you. I’m a much healthier person now, in many ways. The contentment in having time at home is something I’m enjoying very much.”
But for contentment, don’t read inactivity as Matronic never seems to stop working.
“For now it’s full steam ahead with a solo album and solo shows. My stuff is much more dance oriented than Scissor Sisters, there isn’t a lot of piano or guitars. I have also been attracted to dance and electronic, house and psychedelic music too. There’s a Hacienda sound, a churchy organ, an assembly of dream machines and keyboards.”
Then it might be time for the Scissor Sisters to hit the studio and the road once more. And who knows, by that time there might be a luggage droid they could take along for the ride. n
Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots Of Myth, Popular Culture And Real Life, by Ana Matronic is published by Cassell Illustrated at £14.99 on Thursday