Artist you should knowArts and Culture

Portrait Artist of the Machine World, SF’s Agnieszka Pilat

Updated: Jun 12, 2023 09:42
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The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights Bay Area artists who are doing incredible work, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place. 

Artist with ‘Spot’ the dog, admiring Spot’s portrait.

Every now again you come across a blending of ideas that gives you goosebumps.  In this case it’s classical art and robotics, something you normally do not think about together.  Artist Agnieszka Pilat has such an intimate eye for machines that the guys who make the most famous robots in the world asked her to fly to Boston to paint them.  The odd, carefully considered and refreshingly different perspectives of Pilat will make you smile, think, and recharge your ideas about robots…and us.


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A post shared by Agnieszka Pilat (@agnieszka_pilat)

Artist Name: Agnieszka Pilat
Insta: @agnieszka_pilat

Medium(s): oil, AR, video

You apply classical painting techniques in modern ways and to modern subjects, why are you painting robots and mechanical things? 

I use the portrait form to discuss machines. Why? Well… in art history, portraiture mirrors the arc of civilization, reflecting hierarchies of power. From the sacred portraiture of Christ, through medieval kings and queens to Andy Warhol’s celebrity “fame” portraits we can see how portraiture is always a site for the discussion of power. The series of paintings I create shows the real “elite” with secret power today: the machines.


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A post shared by Agnieszka Pilat (@agnieszka_pilat)

I love using an old language of oil painting to relate a new idea. Lin-Manuel Miranda used this model of mixing the old and the new in his musical, by employing hip hop to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton.  People fear the unknown, but using a familiar language (portrait painting) to introduce new realities and new technology can initiate a deeper consideration of the future that will be inhabited by ordinary humans and intelligent machines with great power.

Robots at Boston Dynamics that Pilat painted: 

You recently did an artist residency at Boston Dynamics, now some people look at the robots they make and think about the end of the world, or movies like Terminator 2.  SPOT the robot dog is being designed to work with the NYPD (bomb squad for example), and the military.  Why should people not be scared shitless by these things? 

These are legitimate fears. While machines have been some of humanity’s greatest achievements elevating us above all other animals and allowing us to land on the Moon and control the atom, machines have also threatened us with ultimate destruction for over forty years. 

Now… we must remember: technology is just a tool. I think we need to be more concerned with culture and morality: that’s what drives man’s actions. It is easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize ‘man in the arena’ to use Teddy Roosevelt’s quote. It’s convenient to jump and criticize all these technologies, including Boston Dynamics… you might even build a political movement around it, the fear of the unknown, of progress… But it’s the doing that really brings value to the world. 

“Machines are humanity’s children and they represent the best of our aspirations”

VITRURIAN MAN 2021 / 78 x 78 inch /oil on linen

How was it painting around all those Harvard and MIT engineers? And during a pandemic no less?

Awesome. The engineers at Boston Dynamics have tons of curiosity, they are fun, uber smart and hard working. To be able to cross over and build a bridge between art and technology, that is a privilege and a mission of my life. I like to think of myself as a crusader, a defender of them – the technologists and the machines they build. Think about this: everytime man wants to do something extraordinary, he builds a machine! Machines are humanity’s children and they represent the best of our aspirations. So yeah, it was really humbling to be there, and see with my own eyes Atlas (their humanoid-robot) stand up on its own feet, walk…and trip and fall. A spiritual experience of sorts… 

USS Hornet Sea and Air Museum.

I’m a sophisticated graduate with a BFA or FUCK art school!

Well, I do have a BFA. Now – my major was illustration and now playing in the fine art field, the museums and the gallery circuit, I really feel like an outsider. You really need to have a MFA to play that game well. 

You’re from Poland, what is the art scene like there?

It’s actually great, there are many awesome muralists in Poland and in the town I grew up in – Lodz. So much raw ‘canvas’ – and by canvas I mean awesome abandoned buildings, crumbling factories and walls. It’s a leftover from the textile industry. Lodz used to be a huge textile center. Also, Lodz has a great film school and as a result, a strong tradition of film posters. Some of the best in the world!

Mural by Brazilian muralist Os Gêmeos, in Lodz Poland. Photo by Pilat.

What percentage of Americans can pronounce your name correctly? And how annoying is that? 

Ha ha! Maybe 1% can pronounce it properly, it’s not an easy name to pronounce! I actually like to hear different interpretations of it, it’s charming. I don’t let people off the hook, when they ask me if I have a shorter nickname, I stick with Agnieszka!  Now… My last name, Pilat,  that is becoming more and more of a ‘brand’ is super easy, so that makes up for it. 

When did you arrive in San Francisco, and what was your first job? 

  1. Gold Gym, front desk. I lasted for about a week and then I got fired!
Haha, why did you get fired?
Cultural misunderstanding. When I arrived in San Francisco, I thought my English was pretty good and I thought I was funny. Well, I was wrong on both fronts, I’m not funny and my English was really basic back then. I knew the Gold Gym owner through a friend. It was a family business, with family drama. When I was introduced to one of the family members, knowing too much about behind-the-scenes, I very enthusiastically called her a black sheep. I took a Polish expression and I used it in the American context and that was a mistake. In Polish, that would have been just fine as it was meant as a compliment, a term of endearment.    I was told the next morning I was fired.

The Museum of Flight WA / 2018 Guest Artist

Let’s talk about your avant garde street art, is that Tesla and a robot dog? 

Yeah! I’m super excited to enter the space of street art and I am doing it in tandem with the NTFs, which in my view are a digital realm of street art. I call this series ‘The Shelter Project’ with the idea of adopting robots like Spot and Atlas.

It was great fun designing the poster for my street art campaign – Tesla and Spot obviously belong together, as the forward-thinking, somewhat odd, innovative ways of changing the world and also democratizing ideas. The phrase ‘ceci n’est pas un chien’ is a play on the famous Magritte surrealist painting The Treachery of Images, with a sentence in French, ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’. So there’s lots of layers there to explore and have fun with. A jazz of fine art, street art, pop and technology!

This is not a pipe.” The painting is not a pipe, but rather an image of a pipe,

Any artists you think are particularly outstanding right now?

Patricia Piccinini – for lovely ugly creatures, she is such a wonderful combination of imagination and craftsmanship. Also another female artist, in the field of installation and sculpture too – Kate MccGwire. She works in feathers, creating abstract and haunting pieces and installations, again wonderful imagination and skill combined together. 

Favorite street art right now?

Calamity Fair (John Vochatzer). Thanks to you for revealing who the artist is – I remember searching on google for a street artist in San Francisco who creates brains with a pretty smile and weird eyes… and your article came up! I’m obsessed with his brain collage – it’s super cool! The image is so well designed and it’s plastered all over San Francisco – it’s fair to say, he made me notice street art and inspired me to jump into that playground. 

How do you think SF has changed over the years?

So I’ve been in San Francisco for about 15 years now, I lived in the Mission, I still have a studio there. I moved to Knob Hill recently so my daily commute to the studio is really interesting. I bike down the hill (Stockton) to Market and I pass Tenderloin and a bit of Hayes Valley, some Castro. 

Moving in the Mission 15 years ago – that was still a bit rough, especially 16th street. Over the years with the gentrification, the neighborhood became more polished, seeing more technology workers moving in. I know there is some resentment in the community about the ‘gentrification’ in the MIssion, but for me, I always liked that. I liked that it got cleaned up and some nicer stores and restaurants were opening, that I didn’t have to step over human feces on the sidewalks, or see people sleeping in the alleys. Last year, the pandemic reversed that, and we are back with tents and needles, bad smell,  mentally unstable people and a general feeling of despair. 

Now… Looking at the glass half full, so much space for street art to flourish, and boarded up landlords and businesses often encourage and appreciate that. In that sense, knowing that all this shall pass and San Francisco will flourish again, it’s so fun to use it as a playground! It’s interesting I lived in San Francisco all these years but only after I started doing street art, I felt this great sense of ownership of the city and its neighborhoods, a sense of agency to ‘own’ these public places. 

What’s coming up for you? 

I’m super excited about AR (augmented reality) and right now that is my main focus. I’m working on a series of paintings  ‘Automata: Secret Lives of Machines’ with a layer of AR that allows interactivity between the audience and the art. In the AR activated layer, the secret actions performed by represented machines will be surprising and counterintuitive, inviting the viewer to consider looking at machines in a new light: machines as beings with a purpose, with meaning that goes beyond serving man. Of course the uber exciting part of this work is to translate this series into a street art campaign so people on the street can engage with AR with their mobile devices. I’m so fire up about that part!


Babushka 68 x 50 inch / oil on Belgium linen

Where can people find Agnieszka Pilat art?

Follow me on instagram: @agnieszka_pilat and @follow_the_machine

My website:

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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