Dogs are not just for Christmas yet each year more of them than ever are dumped. But what is one person's cast-off can become, with a little careful surgery, part of a growing pack of freedom-fighting feral dogs. The dogs in question are not discarded Labradors and lurchers, but robot pooches such as Sony Aibos and WowWee Megabytes are turned from their domesticated incarnations into an automaton army under the watchful guidance of Natalie Jeremijenko, an associate professor of visual arts at New York University, who also happens to hold a degree in mechanical engineering.
Jeremijenko's army is in Bristol as part of an art exhibition called Supertoys at the Arnolfini arts centre before being released into the city to do the job for which they've been trained. "I find discarded dogs and upgrade their raison d'être," says Jeremijenko. So far, the dogs have been released into 10 contaminated sites to sniff out toxic waste; in the new year they'll be set loose on a brownfield area in Bristol to work out what nasties are lurking beneath our soil.
The first stage in turning the dogs from toys to toxic-waste finders is to upgrade them. "I ever so gently amputate their limbs," says Jeremijenko. New parts are added, such as wheels, to make the dogs into all-terrain vehicles. Next rhinoplasty is carried out – their noses are stripped back and sensors capable of detecting environmental pollutants are added. The dogs are designed for particular sites: the most common kind of toxin they'll encounter are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene. "As an experiment, lie down on the sidewalk and sniff," says Jeremijenko, "Heavy VOCs are found in the bottom 12 inches of air. It's known as the stroller phenomenon: babies in buggies are inhaling air that's a thousand times more polluted than the air adults breathe." One dog, WowWee's Megabyte II, has been hot-rodded to become a Cyber Watch Dog capable of sniffing out radioactive material.
After their cosmetic implant, the dogs are given brain surgery. "We increase their brain power by adding extra memory, microprocessors and communication devices, which will help them develop pack behaviour," says Jeremijenko. The idea is that once the dogs are released on the site, they'll follow the concentration gradient of chemicals. When they detect that a chemical is at an unsafe level (determined by environmental organisations), they'll react using their own instinctive behaviour that the manufacturers had originally given them, such as rolling over and playing dead or barking the national anthem. "The students exploit the theatrics of the toys mercilessly," says Jeremijenko wryly.
The dogs appear to be in a pack because their behaviour is dictated by the terrain and the amount of toxins present, but they can also co-ordinate with each other. One pack was fitted with whistles and "ears" so they could summon each another when one detected a chemical, as well as returning to their owners when called. "This is complex stuff," says Jeremijenko, "We are inexpensively creating robots like the Mars rover – semi-autonomous platforms capable of collecting data and covering a similar terrain and responding similarly to Nasa's rover." To buy the dogs new would cost £15 to 100 and they can be successfully cannibalised with spare electrical parts for as little as £50.
Yet in spite of their complexity, most of these dogs are upgraded by teenagers. One of Jeremijenko's most successful releases was of a pack of dogs altered by teenagers who all lived in the Bronx and released the dogs into their local Starlight Park. The park is a thin sliver of land that runs alongside the Bronx River and is flanked by a motorway, the Sheridan Express, and boxed in by a main road. There's also a train line running upstate and various pollutants (22 cars have just been fished out of this stretch of river). The site was originally a gas works, the remnants of which were buried 70 years ago beneath the park. An environmental audit might never have got off the ground. Even if it had done, few people would have known and even fewer would have cared. "This 'audit' was carried out by kids who'd never done any programming or environmental sensing before, but were interested in their local park because the contamination has a tremendous impact on them and their families. The value of this project comes from who is doing the interpretation, who is doing the monitoring and who cares," says Jeremijenko, "and when you release a pack of hot-rodded robotic dogs on a contaminated site it becomes newsworthy."
The pack of yapping dogs found serious quantities of chemicals – the discarded gas tanks were leaking chemicals into the soil. The teenagers who released the dogs have now been invited by Con Edison, the company that owns the site, to join public hearings to work out how to decontaminate the park. Once the clean-up has been finished, the park will be reconstructed and will reopen in 2010. "What the dogs can do is provide an evidence-driven way to address environmental issues and structure participation with people who would otherwise be excluded from many decision-making processes," says Jeremijenko.
So, clearly the robotic dogs are seriously good at their job of sniffing out contaminants. As Jeremijenko says, "Even though we don't have the visible smoking stacks of the industrial age, we are currently witnessing the most toxic and environmentally damaging processes that our species has ever created." But Jeremijenko, who was named one of the top 100 young inventors by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has had an exhibition at Tate Britain, is also interested in the dogs themselves and what they mean culturally: "It's a strange phenomenon, these toy dogs. These are the porcelain dolls, the tin soldiers of our generation. Toys normally have something to do with learning – construction toys teach you about construction, Monopoly teaches you about mergers and takeovers – but what are these toys for?" It looks as if one young woman and a few teenagers from the Bronx have found out exactly what a Sony Aibo is good for.
Supertoys is at the Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol until 18 January (0117 917 2300; www.arnolfini.org.uk )
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