In 2016, the Guggenheim Museum commissioned its very first robotic artwork called Can’t Help Myself (Wannmann, 2016). The artwork is created by two of China’s most controversial artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu and can be described as a robotic arm that has one specific, life-long duty: to prevent the deep-red, bloodlike liquid, which constantly oozes outwards, from straying too far (Weng, n.d.). By dragging its sweeper across the floor in calculated, almost dance-like movements, the robot brings the liquid back into place over and over again, without it ever seeming to stop. In an effort to clean up the constant mess, the robot only makes matters worse by leaving smudges of the liquid on the floor, the walls, and itself. In the video below, you can see the robot in action. This led to the robot slowing down enormously and eventually being unplugged in 2019. In the end, the robot couldn’t help itself.
In November 2021, the artwork suddenly gained viral attention on the popular video-sharing app TikTok. Short clips of the industrial robot trying to fulfill its life-long duty were sometimes watched over 50 million times and elicited strong emotional reactions among viewers. As the robot’s once smooth movements had grown rusty over time, users sympathized with the machine and its apparent senseless existence. Comments like ‘’it looks so tired and unmotivated,’’ and ‘’Why can’t we just let it rest?’’ appeared plentiful and were liked thousands of times.
In this paper, the many ways in which Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s artwork Can’t Help Myself can be interpreted will be discussed. The emphasis will be on how the artwork allowed the artists to offer a critical reflection on modern-day issues, such as migration, surveillance, authoritarianism, and even on technology itself. Moreover, the artwork’s virality on TikTok will be taken into account to describe the similarities between the robot’s sad, meaningless life and life in a digital, capitalist-driven society. David Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit jobs’ will be discussed to reflect on the alienation that comes with doing pointless labor, and how this relates to the robot as well. Lastly, Camus’ reading of the myth of Sisyphus will be considered.
Can't Help Myself: various Interpretations
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are often seen as two of China’s most controversial artists and are known for their extreme installations and contemporary conceptual artworks (Ocula, n.d.). Most of their artworks deal with matters relating to death, perception, and the human condition and are often considered to be very confrontational and provocative. The artists’ use of unconventional media, such as machinery, human fat tissue, and even baby cadavers, is intriguing and fascinating to many (Ocula, n.d.). Popular works include the installation Old People’s Home (2008), in which 13 hyper-realistic sculptures of elderly world leaders continuously wander through a small room in electric wheelchairs (Archer, 2019), and the controversial installation Dogs Which Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), where eight dogs are strapped onto treadmills, able only to run forward (Baecker, 2017).
The artwork represents the pain that arises when immigrants are rejected and sent back to their country of origin by governments enforcing their borders.
Just like Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s other works, Can’t Help Myself is meant to be thought-provoking and confrontational. According to Xiaoyu Weng, associate curator of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation at the Guggenheim Museum, the artwork ‘’touches upon many current issues that are urgent in a global context, not only with its robotic characteristic/ materiality but also with its conceptual, socio-political messages." (Wannmann, 2016). With the robot, the artists were able to offer a critical reflection on modern-day issues, such as migration, surveillance, authoritarianism, and even on technology itself.
It can be argued that the robot of Can’t Help Myself confronts us with issues relating to surveillance, border policing, and authoritarianism. According to Tara McCullough (2020), the work ‘’is intended to represent governments’ attempts at using machinery and modern advances in technology in order to protect themselves and their countries’’. To keep citizens from escaping countries with authoritarian regimes, their governments make use of machinery and new surveillance technologies. Therefore, the robot of Can’t Help Myself represents these governments, and the bloodlike liquid represents their citizens, who are forcefully swept back into their non-free countries after trying to escape. Additionally, the artwork represents the pain that arises when immigrants, who desperately want to be able to build a new life in an unknown country, are rejected and sent back to their country of origin by governments enforcing their borders. In this way, the smudges of bloodlike liquid being left behind by the robot as it performs its task represent the violence that occurs in border zones.
Lastly, Can’t Help Myself questions the place of the machine in contemporary life. As machines, algorithms, and AI can learn and advance more and more on their own, their relationship with humans might change in the future. The possibility of an AI takeover, ‘’a scenario in which artificial intelligence becomes the dominant form of intelligence.’’ (Wikipedia, n.d.), certainly exists. It would leave humans without any control of the planet and themselves, which is why Can’t Help Myself can be interpreted as a critique on today’s use of and dependence on technology. The robot represents the totality of robotic forces, while the bloodlike liquid represents human subjects trying to escape, only to be swept back in and suffer under the control of robots.
The Robot’s Virality on TikTok
In November 2021, two years after it was unplugged and stopped working, Can’t Help Myself went viral on TikTok. The artwork caused quite the commotion among users and even brought some to tears. Most users sympathized with the robot and its meaningless existence and even felt like they could relate to the robot. They commented their own interpretations of the artwork and connected it to their own digital and labor-driven lives.
In this TikTok, user @2k.kxoll compares the liveliness of the robot’s movements in 2016 and 2019 respectively. The video shows how the robot’s once smooth movements grew rusty over time and how the robot’s liquid-sweeping caused it to leave smudges on the floor, walls, and itself. The eventual encapsulation of the machine in the liquid it was supposed to sweep to the center led to it slowing down enormously. Most commenters find this sad and sympathize with the robot by saying ‘’it looks so tired and unmotivated:(.’’ and ‘’I just want to turn it off to let it ‘rest’". Additionally, the commenters relate to the machine, as they, too, are ‘’continuously cleaning up the pieces of [themselves] as [they] endlessly fall apart, alone, while everyone watches [them] and uses [them] for entertainment’’. The comment ‘’I see myself’’ also shows this relatability, and could mean this commenter, too, has lost their liveliness somewhere along the way and are tired because of the constant, meaningless work they have to do. The robot thus also helps users critically reflect on their own lives.
The robot represents us, as we senselessly spend hours a day watching YouTube videos and liking TikToks, only to realize the meaningless of it when we have already wasted our time.
According to another user, the artwork tells the story of humanity's relationship with technology. ‘’The robot is just stuck in a loop of nothingness, just like we are by working ourselves to the bone and being on the internet all the time’’, the comment says. On the one hand, technology makes our lives easier. We use the internet to find answers to our pressing questions, we use it to communicate with people from across the globe, and we even use it to do our increasingly digital jobs. On the other hand, we feel trapped by social media and its ability to keep us mindlessly engaged. We are seduced into spending as much time as possible on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, and thus meaninglessly scroll our days away. According to this user then, the robot represents us, as we senselessly spend hours a day watching YouTube videos and liking TikToks, only to realize the meaningless of it when we have already wasted our time. However, as the platforms are made to be so addictive, we cannot stop – we cannot help ourselves. We are all in ‘’a loop of nothingness,’’ that we cannot get out of.
Another commenter also connects the robot’s meaningless endeavor to contain the deep-red liquid to human hardships, as, according to them, ‘’It’s based on how people try to work and help themselves live, but the longer [they] do it the more depressing and painful it gets. No matter how hard [they] try, [they] can never help [themselves]’’. The TikTok user thus points out that, just like the robot, most people only work in order to live and find no meaning in it. The longer we do it, the more depressing it gets. The same counts for the robot; it seemingly gets sadder and sadder during the course of its 3-year-long life, as it just can’t help itself. In the same vein, we humans cannot help ourselves. We are essentially instruments, controlled by capitalist organizations, that cannot escape the meaningless, perpetual labor that comes with living in a capitalist society.
Suffering Through Pointless Labor
David Graeber, anthropologist, and professor at the London School of Economics, similarly argues that millions of us are toiling away in meaningless and pointless jobs, only because it allows us to satisfy our consumer needs in the long run. In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2019), he defines his notion of ‘bullshit jobs’ as "a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case". Examples of bullshit jobs include receptionists, door attendants, telemarketers, corporate lawyers, quality service managers, and public relations specialists.
The robot offers a critical reflection on how our capitalist structures do not allow us to live life in a meaningful way, just like the robot’s life duty does not allow it to live a life of meaning.
Even though these employees know their job is pointless, they still go to work every day to do the meaningless tasks they are asked to do, as they have no choice but to surrender themselves to the workings of our capitalist-driven society. Based on Graeber, I would construct another interpretation of the artwork: even though the robot knows its efforts are in vain, it still can’t help itself and continues to fulfill its duty every single day. In a way, the robot thus offers a critical reflection on how our capitalist structures do not allow us to live life in a meaningful way, just like the robot’s life duty does not allow it to live a life of meaning.
Additionally, the robot’s endless and pointless endeavor to keep the liquid from straying too far can be compared to the myth of Sisyphus, in which the death-defying hero is condemned to meaningless labor by the gods, for all of eternity. Sisyphus’ endless task consisted of repeatedly rolling a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top of the hill (Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.). In chapter four of his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus (2021), Albert Camus compares Sisyphus’ fate with that of humans living in a capitalist-driven society. Essentially, humans struggle through pointless labor every day and spend their lives doing the same meaningless tasks, just like Sisyphus did. In the same way, Camus' reading of the myth of Sisyphus can be connected to the robot of Can’t Help Myself, as it, too, continuously tries to complete its task, only to struggle through the same pointless labor when the liquid oozes outwards again. With the help of Camus, Can’t Help Myself can thus, once again, be interpreted as a critique of the capitalist structures of society.
Understanding Can't Help Myself
Can’t Help Myself, like almost any other artwork, can be interpreted in multiple ways. Firstly, it offers a critique of how powerful governments deal with immigration and human life in border zones. Additionally, by comparing the robot, which sweeps a bloodlike liquid back to its center for as long as it lives, to controlling governments, the artists offer a critique on authoritarian regimes that do everything in their power to make sure their citizens cannot escape. Moreover, Can’t Help Myself can be interpreted as a critique on today’s use of and dependence on technology, as we should be careful of a changing relationship between humans and machines that become too knowledgeable.
Furthermore, the artwork’s virality on TikTok led to users feeling a certain relatability and making certain connections between the robot’s endless duty and the hardships that come with living in a digital, capitalist-driven society. According to one commenter, the artwork tells the story of humanity's relationship with technology, as we ‘’are stuck in a loop of nothingness,’’ by spending hours a day watching YouTube videos and liking TikToks, only to realize the meaningless of it when we have already wasted our time. Another user points out that, just like the robot, most people only work in order to live and find no meaning in it. We cannot escape the meaningless, perpetual labor that comes with living in a capitalist society, just like the robot cannot escape its meaningless task.
Lastly, the robot’s connection to Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit jobs’ and Camus’ reading of the myth of Sisyphus allows us to interpret the work as a critique on contemporary life, and especially on the meaninglessness of labor. The robot’s constant engagement in pointless labor – as the liquid oozes outwards over and over again, just when the robot has swept it back to its center – can be compared to how we, too, have no choice but to surrender ourselves to pointless jobs, as meaningless labor is at the center of the workings of capitalist society.
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Baecker, A. (2017, October 18). In Defense of Difficult Art at the Guggenheim’s Controversial Exhibition. Slate Magazine.
Camus, A. (2021). Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Tingle Books.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). The Myth of Sisyphus | Summary, Analysis, & Facts.
Graeber, D. (2019). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (1st ed.). Simon & Schuster.
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Wannmann, A. (2016, December 28). [Exclusive] The Guggenheim’s First Robotic Artwork Is Out of Control. Vice.
Weng, X. (n.d.). Can’t Help Myself. The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation.
Wikipedia. (n.d.). AI takeover.