Norma Jeane: Scene with ShyBot A collaboration between The Lab and the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco with support of Desert X and CODAME ART+TECH


Imagine a shy robot

The Italian artist Norma Jeane worked with a team of engineers to design a robot that they subsequently liberated in Palm Desert.

This robot has no function in the traditional sense. It does not serve us; it probably will not enslave us (perhaps only our imagination). Instead, this robot is programmed to run. To run immediately, with nervous electric heartbeat, in the opposite direction as soon as it senses the presence of a human being.

Shyness is considered a trait unique to the human condition — no animals, let alone machines, can be ever be shy. The story goes that shyness is a reflection of our self-consciousness, of our uncertainty about who we are in relationship to a world made up of other uncertain beings. As humans we are condemned to be free: there are no moral supports, no justifications, and no algorithms on which we can base our decisions. We must make and remake our significance within that world, constantly and from moment to moment.

This is why Norma Jeane stages Scene with ShyBot as liberation.

The ShyBot, equipped with a camera, transmits to The Lab a live stream of its point-of-view – a view based on an algorithm designed precisely to evade the human perspective. This is Norma Jeane’s fantasy of the desert sublime: the machine is let loose in the landscape, free of the human determinism that thus far framed its existence, and we, in turn, are free to imagine a world liberated from the indeterminacy of us.

Panel Discussion

At the close of the exhibition on March 4 at 7:30pm, The Lab will host a round table discussion conceived by Tobias Rees on the relationship between human and artificial intelligence.

A powerful question that emanates from the Shybot concerns similarity and difference between ‘the’ human and ‘the’ machine. Can one draw clear boundaries between humans and machines? It is common wisdom that humans think (and are shy) –– and that machines neither think nor are shy. Machines are mute, cold, endowed with neither reason nor emotion.

But what if … ?

What would it mean to discover a shared ground between humans and machines? What would it mean to think about both humans and machines from the perspective of this commonality? What new, what unexpected understanding of the human –– or of machines –– would emerge? Or is this all futile nonsense, because humans are humans and machines machines?

The show closes with a discussion of just these questions, a discussion of the artist with an anthropologist, a designer, and a physicist.

  • Norma Jeane, artist
  • Eric Hanson, designer (Codame)
  • Tobias Rees, anthropologist (McGill University)
  • Federico Faggin (Synaptics, Inc.)

Click here to register.


Norma Jeane
(the artist) was born when Marilyn Monroe (the movie star) died: in the night between August 4th and 5th, 1962. By taking possession of somebody else’s personal data, renouncing a specific gender, and creating a proliferation of personalities, NJ is an artist without a body, and therefore without a personal biography that extends beyond his/her artistic curriculum. Norma Jeane’s work has been featured in solo and group exhibitons worldwide including MoMA, P.S.1 and Swiss Institute, New York; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Helmhaus, Zurich; Frieze Project, London; Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin; Culture Station 284, Seoul; Galleria Continua, Beijing; Biennale de Lyon, Venice Biennale, and Liverpool Biennial.

A part of the Mapping the City project, Norma Jeane: Scene with ShyBot  is curated by Marina Pugliese and Dena Beard, and is a collaboration between The Lab and the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco, with support of Desert X and Codame Art+Tech.

Read the New York Times article on Norma Jeane
and the Desert X project