Interview: Standing stones and swarm robotics…

Standing stones and swarm robotics… artist Dr Robert Walton explores the mysteries of old and new technology

By Megan van Vegten

Published on Ingenium 30 September 2022

Can a robot be as trustworthy as a stone? Multi-award-winning artist and director Dr Robert Walton is preparing to captivate audiences with an immersive experience that reimagines the expressive potential of ancient and emerging technologies through the immersive performance installation “Sacrifice.”

The Resident Artist in the School of Computing and Information Systems (CIS) in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology and a Senior Lecturer at the Victorian College of the Arts, Dr Walton is a conceptual, media and performance artist and director. His creative endeavours span theatre, choreography, installation, writing and interactive art.

Originally from England, Dr Walton has worked on projects for Melbourne Connect and Arts Centre Melbourne through CIS since 2019. These initiatives integrate performance, computers and data through a multidisciplinary approach. They give students and collaborators unique opportunities to contribute and gain knowledge and skills through a revolutionary artistic endeavour.

“Sacrifice” examines viewpoints from performance art, artificial intelligence, mechatronics, robotics, manufacturing, archaeology and philosophy. The installation blends globally significant ancient standing stones with cutting-edge swarm robotics and artificial intelligence technologies.

The first prototype of “Sacrifice” will be showcased between 17-19 November 2022 at the Science Gallery Melbourne.

“My work gives us a chance to discover ways of being and doing with machines that are open ended and mysterious. We are creating technologies of contemplation, feeling and discovery. They have their own autonomy and require us to meet them in wonder. They resist giving us easy answers, and try instead to provoke sensitivity to new possibilities,” Dr Walton said.

To create Sacrifice, photogrammetry techniques are used to create sub-centimetre accurate digital twins of ancient standing stones made by humans. Here in Melbourne, the archaeological material has been recreated using a combination of hand-crafted and digital manufacturing techniques.

“Sacrifice” is the result of Dr Walton’s practice-driven research, ‘Investigating Standing Stones and Swarm Robotics: A New Approach to Ancient and Emerging Technologies.’

“Ancient standing stones and swarming robotics are two technologies you never normally think of in the same breath. But I am taking a long view of performance, ritual, and technology. They are connected because they move us from mystery to awareness. It is not initially clear how to interact with them or what knowledge they may reveal. We need to slow down, listen differently, and change the way our thoughts and bodies move,” Dr Walton said.

Robert Walton and standing stone model

“With standing stones, people are drawn to experience the unknowable and contemplate hand-made objects that have existed for thousands of years to think about time in a different way than our everyday life. When we combine those ancient technologies with emerging technologies, similar questions remain. What’s the relationship between timing and trust? Can we work beyond words (without verbal language)? How sensitive can our interaction with technologies be? Do we rely on algorithmic rituals to unlock knowledge with our tech? Can encounters with a ‘stone swarm’ be contemplative, emotional, and awesome?”

The project team includes lead roboticist Dr Airlie Chapman, Senior lecturer (Mechanical Engineering); lead archaeologist Dr Aleksandra Michalewicz (Melbourne Data Analytics Platform); and four PhD candidates: Elena Vella (Mechanical Engineering); Daniel Williams (Electrical and Electronic Engineering); Goran Đurić (Theatre); and Thomas Keep (Archaeology).

This research project is funded by the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Ethicsthrough the Art, AI and Digital Ethics Seed Fund and the Centre for Contemplative Studies.

For more information and updates on the progress of “Sacrifice,” please visit


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