Strangely Compelling 'Shybot' Roams California Desert Avoiding Humans

The Desert X Biennial art project frees the little rover from us.

A lone little robot roamed California’s Sonoran Desert for a week this month. Its only mission: Avoiding humans.

“Shybot” was part of a weirdly mesmerizing art project in early March. It was designed by the Italian artist Norma Jeane and engineers for the Desert X Biennial, which uses the “canvas” of the Coachella Valley in southern California and its desert landscape. It’s one of several projects ongoing through the end of April.

The rover’s camera streamed its experiences back to The Lab art gallery in San Francisco, which presented the work in collaboration with the city’s Italian Cultural Institute. The robot had no practical purpose. It traveled wherever it rolled, though assiduously avoided humans, and was forced to maneuver around obstacles too large for it to climb. Drones tracked its progress from the air — which Shybot at times appeared not to appreciate.

If you’re wondering what the point of the project was, whether it’s a comment on machine versus nature, or a study of a land without humans, the artist tried to clarify in a statement, calling it a “fantasy of the desert sublime.”

“The machine is let loose in the landscape, free of the human determinism that thus far framed its existence,” Jeane said. “And we, in turn, are free to imagine a world liberated from the indeterminacy of us.”

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