Tantalus Synthesis
Tantalus Synthesis Instillation overview by Jessica Field

Jessica Field

Tantalus Synthesis, 2005

Field Studies V2
Field Studies V1
Robot Zoo Project
Early Robots
Allegory of Pulse
Automata Films
Tantalus Synthesis
Mechanical Sculptures
Youth Workshops
Adult Workshops
Contact Info

Tantalus Synthesis from Jessica Field on Vimeo.


This installation is comprised of five electronically networked robots that interact with the viewer. It was built in colaboration with Puppeteer artist Shawna Reiter who is the co-director of Clunk Puppet Lab.

The puppets are designed to have the goal of attaining as much motion as possible. The viewer’s motion triggers the robot's motion, via a motion sensor. Each robot is programmed with their own rules of conduct based on their characters' ideal way of attaining motion. The robots are programmed to measure success and failure based on the length of time that the viewer moves in front of them and on how much attention other robots receive from the viewer.


When the viewers' response fulfills their desire for motion, the puppets are successful, or conversely, they will experience a conflict with their ideology. The robots are dependent on the viewer's responses to prove to themselves that their rules of conduct are correct. This personality flaw confines them to constantly measure their success and failure. It is this act of obsessing over their influences on the audience they are unable to ever experience a feeling of content.

All the robot characters exist in an environment that is socially competitive in that they all rely on the viewer to satisfy their desire. When the viewer engages with the piece, they realize over time that it is impossible to satisfy all the robots' desires for motion, since the robots are focused on rating their achievement in attaining motion. In viewing all of the puppets at once, the viewer sees them perpetually shifting from a sense of success to the experience of failure. Thus all of those involved in an environment conducive to competition and absorbed by the desire for success become trapped in an eternal conflict between their environment and themselves.

About the Characters

Regan uses sensuality to entice her audience to stay with her. To keep her audience she provocatively waves her arm to ask the viewer to come closer.

Goneril uses mystique with a sense of playful humour as her method of attracting an audience so they will egg her on to continue performing.

Cordellia uses ecstatic over the top dancing to charm the audience in watching her perform so they will help her to continue her dance just to see how exuberant she will become.

Technical Info

These robots were all built using automata mechanical theory. The reference used in designing these robots came from the book, Cabaret Mechanical Movement written by Aidan Lawrence Onn and Gary Alexander. This book shows how to think in terms of automata and has diagrams of good cam and linkages designs to help get you started.

All the characters movements were designed to stay true to their character and intensive research into movement was required figure out how a motor could replace a human being. Using the Mechanical Cabaret book as a starting point, we began to design our movements by creating them in cardboard first to see what types of mechanisms we would need to achieve the complexity of motion we were looking for.

These robots went through many prototypes, the first was in cardboard, then they became wooden mechanisms, then using the wood parts as a template they were constructed yet again using more durable materials such as poly carbonate and metal.