Chico MacMurtrie's Robot Orchestra Lands In Red Hook

You haven't lived till you've seen a robot symphony in an old Norwegian church.

Robotic Church courtesy of Robert Wright

For the Brooklyn-based artist Chico MacMurtrie, “there’s a fine line between an artist and an engineer. If an artist really understands engineering, amazing things can happen.” Like robots. Sitting at the intersection between the “wowof engineering and the “play” of creative expression, MacMurtrie’s site-specific sculptures embrace technology and robotics, and surprise audiences with wholly unusual aesthetic interventions.

Totemobile courtesy of Chico MacMurtrie / ARW.

At first glance his Totemobile seems like an ordinary sculpture of a pop cultural icon—the 1965 Citroën DS. But over the course of 20 minutes, the thing opens up tall, stretching 60 feet high—way up—like a real-life Transformer. Or take Chrysalis, a large squid-like moving-sculptural environment that crawls around a gallery space and consists of 100 white fabric tubes that harden and soften, evoking crystal formations.

Chrysalis from Chico MacMurtrie / ARW.

And for a little bit of sci-fi, The Robotic Church is a performance starring a society of 35 computer-controlled robots that make a defined range of sounds and rhythms that verge on the cusp of language.

Robotic Church Money Dogs courtesy of Mathew Galindo.

MacMurtrie, who studied art at UCLA, is interested in the connectivity between the human and the machine, how muscle and computer software or biological processes and programming sequences come together through art. On November 9th, several of MacMurtrie’s works will be on show at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, including Forest of Totems, an interactive installation consisting of five inflatable totem poles that grow organically from a large central artery. We caught up with the artist and talked about performance, techno, and machine failure.

Forest of Totems courtesy of Chico MacMurtrie / ARW.

The Creators Project: One of the things that’s really interesting about how you approach your sculptures is your commitment to “performance.” How did you come to performance and what does that medium allow you to express?
Chico MacMurtrie: I was always interested in performance. I was making endurance performances with my own body and that evolved out of my interest in movement and martial art, anthropology, archeology and dance. As an undergraduate at UCLA I was painting and sculpting and I was looking for the medium I really wanted, so at one point I actually jumped into my painting that was already very, very thick. When I jumped into the painting I thought I improved it. I stood there and looked at the painting for an hour or so, and I realized I couldn’t move anymore. I was frozen by the paint on my body. That was the most portent moment that crossed over the act of painting, performance and the act of sculpture.

How has that literal and metaphorical leap impacted your current work in robotics?
I began making these skins that I would wear during performances, and I would do these transformational performances. The skins eventually became the machines that I make today. I slowly began to do performances with them as extensions of my body, and then I began to add mechanisms to them, and then I stepped away and I began to integrate robotic elements. I would perform in telemetry suits, and I would teach the machines behavior with my own body. Eventually I stepped away completely and just controlled the machines from a control console and the machines would be on their own. With the Chrysalis project, I became interested in creating entire environments where the robotic device not only performs but eventually surrounds the audience, and allows the audience to interact with it.

Chrysalis at Pioneer Works.

So it is possible to interact with and experience the work from a visual distance but to also go inside of it?
Absolutely. And I encourage that. One opening night these children were playing around in it and there was nothing to stop them. I wasn’t stopping them, and they were the ones showing the adults that it was OK to go through this live thing. They were in and out of it and finally the adults came in. That really changes things. It’s meant to be experienced in all those different ways — from a distance, it takes you in and you go into it and it changes shape. The environment is constantly changing and it gives you a whole different way to look at art.

You’ve talked a lot about how culture is moving away from human to human interaction and more towards human to machine interaction.
Everybody has a bank card, everybody has a cellphone, especially with the NSA coming out into the open, we’re being monitored and machine culture watches us to an extent that we’ve never been watched. The bank can freeze all your assets. As companies get you the consumer more and more comfortable with a device, they are easing in that control of watching you, of being able to get you the product you want, to keep making money on you, because you are getting comfortable with the robot. The bottom line is, technology is further along than we choose to accept. And the goal of these big companies is to profit more and more by controlling your life, the human. Ironically, I created a society of these machines that we can control. And the metaphor was that I can control this society of machines in the same way that they control our society.

That actually makes me think a lot about techno, which is essentially music made by machines that often sounds like machines, and techno emerged at around the same time you began experimenting with robotics. In The Robotic Church performance the machines are making music.The Stringed Body sculpture is literally playing itself.
When I first started making the machines I was involved in this notion of the condition of the machine. Their body parts are instruments. The machines of The Stringed Body, which has eight differential stringed instruments inside of itself, performs with its body but what it does is it performs a sound landscape. And that landscape is about mood and emotion, to change the mood and the emotion in the performance. The interesting parallel with techno is that the way techno is built is that a composer would do it all electronically, you could take that source information and send it to my machines and they will perform it.

Robotic Church (Teaser) from Chico MacMurtrie / ARW.

How does the element of surprise impact your sculptures? With Totemobile, for instance, I imagine that if someone is wondering into this performance they’re not expecting a perfectly fine looking car to suddenly open up and become a giant 60 foot tall sculpture—a real life Transformer.
Surprise is the most important drive. When you watch it go from a car to this 60 foot blooming totem, it’s an amazing slow process and it’s intentionally slow, like 15 to 20 minutes, for this whole thing to happen. It’s equally interesting to arrive when the thing is 60 foot tall and it descends back down into a car again. How the hell did that become a car? I’m very happy that the element of surprise is built into the entire experience, at any moment someone pops in. And to take an iconic object — it was my first piece where I took a real iconic object and I turned it into something else. Instead of the classic forward and reverse of the car, in 15 minutes it grows and emerges out of the earth.

The thing about machines and technology, though, is that as virtuosic as they can be, machines aren’t always perfect. They are prone to failure. Computers freeze, cars break down. When you’re using machines in a live performance context, how do you deal with the possibility of failure?

With The Robotic Church there’s 35 machines performing. From the beginning of the performance to the end of the performance, chances are something will happen to one of the machines. And in this case, it’s a society of machines and if one fails, that’s great. We just pick it up with the other machines. The Totemobile, for example, is an extremely well engineered artwork. There’s 350 sensors on that thing, and with The Robotic Church there’s only a handful of sensors needed. The thing is, you’re going to have failure the whole time or you’ll never get to where you are. We work with failure, and it’s a process that improves the work and gets it to endure time.

Do you think there’s something frightening to an audience about a society of machines?
 There is fear because some of these machines are powerful or daunting — in The Robotic Church especially because you’re surrounded by machines. And on the other hand they’re humorous.  Fear and humor open you up to the experience. I like the fact that through humor and through fear I can hit an audience in the nerves and open up a lot for them in terms of their experience. Even the smell and the action and the relationship to movement is haunting. There’s movements that scare you, there’s movements that make you laugh. I play with that a lot in this performance.

"Chrysalis" and "Forest of Totems" will be appearing at Pioneer Works:

NOVEMBER 9th (Saturday) & 10th (Sunday) from 3 to 6 PM

NOVEMBER 17th (Sunday) from 3 to 6 PM

NOVEMBER 24th (Sunday) CLOSING Reception from 4 to 7 PM

"Robotic Church" Performances:

These dates will coordinate with the Pioneer Works exhibitions dates, and will have 1-2 scheduled performances towards the end of the Pioneer Works viewing hours.

Each performance is approximately 30 minutes long.

Actual performance times will be announced soon so that people can reserve spots for viewing. Performances are Free, however due to limited seating reservations are needed. Check the following sites for updated performance times:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RoboticChurchNewYork

Twitter: @RoboticChurch