From Welded Worshipers, a Joyful Pneumatic Noise
Chico MacMurtrie’s Robot Musicians Perform in Brooklyn
Robert Wright for The New York Times
By BENJAMIN PRESTON
Published: September 12, 2013 in The New York Times
CHICO MacMURTRIE, a Brooklyn-based artist, has been building robots for nearly three decades. His creations do not vacuum the house, teach foreign languages to children or try to take over the world; they were designed to play music, mainly syncopated rhythms, and perhaps evoke some thought about humanity.
Most are abstract creatures, from knee high to larger than life size, controlled by a concert of computers, pneumatic actuators and small motors. Though they were all made for different installations around the world, the robots have in common a sort of whimsical darkness, born of the contrast between the brutality of their machinery and the innocence of their awkward movements. One robot, for example, plucks its own stringed body, while others hop around on the floor in a manner not unlike children playing leapfrog.
Now, MacMurtrie has assembled his sizable collection into an orchestra that will perform for the first time on the East Coast, in what Mr. MacMurtrie calls the “Robotic Church.” Three free shows will take place on Sunday, Sept. 22, at 111 Pioneer Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Additional concerts are planned for the weekends through Oct. 27. Times are listed on the Robotic Church Facebook page. Seating will be limited, and visitors are asked to make reservations on the Facebook page.
The site is the former Norwegian Seamen’s Church, a 19th-century building that Mr. MacMurtrie has used as the studio for Amorphic Robot Works, the robotic sculpture group he runs, since 2001. Some of the church’s original white plaster walls and trim work remain, leaving hints of the building’s Protestant origins, but the ceiling is a vast dark space with exposed rafters.
Mr. MacMurtrie has repurposed the space for what he calls robotic “masses,” drawing inspiration for the installation’s religious theme from the building’s original use. Its ecclesiastical architecture inspired him to present his mechanical creations in corners and on walls, in front where a preacher would stand and even in the balcony, where they are intended to evoke saints in a chapel.
“The ‘Robotic Church’ is about taking this society of machines that have traveled around the world and putting them into a permanent home,” said Mr. MacMurtrie, a native of Bisbee, Ariz., who made his first robot sculpture in 1987 for an M.F.A. thesis at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Working with his wife, Luise Kaunert — who manages many of his shows — and a small staff, he composes each “mass” by computer. During the concert, more than a dozen robots are programmed to rise up and join in an incremental buildup of sound, creating what Mr. MacMurtrie said he hopes will be a viscerally uplifting experience.
The robots share an organic quality that mimics the human body’s imperfect nature. Many of their faces resemble impressions of a tortured soul, formed from vacuum-molded plastic, melted metal or bent and soldered wires. In spots, cuts and welds parallel the scars and deformities that life can write upon skin and bone.
“As our human society is being taken over by technology, we have to reflect and think about the human condition,” Mr. MacMurtrie said.
The “performers” include Transparent Body, who affects a sort of tap dance on a metal sheet; lights shine from within its plastic body and face. Queeko, a childlike form, stands about a foot tall and plays a drum that sounds like a slightly unbalanced washing machine.
There’s String Body, which has banjo strings in its neck that are plucked by a motor-driven pick.
The arms and legs of String Body contain bass strings that can change pitch with its movement, and across its rib cage are stretched harp strings.
House Player, a human-size robot with a pair of large mallets, plays a giant xylophone whose keys are made from thick planks of wood. One of the more sympathetic characters is Tumbling Man. It weighs in at about 200 pounds and kicks up a row as it tries to stand, but continually falls forward. Its steel feet strike the metal floor of the church with a resounding thud. Its struggle, Mr. MacMurtrie said, is among the most identifiably “human.”
As other robots perform, Rope Climber works its way up a thick rope hanging from the ceiling.
“They’re kind of a tribe of machines that evolved one from another,” Mr. MacMurtrie said. “The pieces themselves were my teachers. Each time I built one, I would learn something for the next step.”
During a visit to his workshop last month, Mr. MacMurtrie, Ms. Kaunert and their team were busy readying the robots’ various MIDI sequences as well as the pneumatic air-supply hoses and computer cables the robots depend on. The group can run the whole show without loud compressor motors switching on mid-performance.
But there was plenty of noise: a cacophony of drumming, thumping, chiming, metallic thuds and atonal string notes, accompanied by the hisses of the pneumatic rams that operate many of the robots’ body parts, creating the show’s complex sonic texture. Two men in a control booth high above the floor work the computers, making the air-dependent machines come alive at the right times.
Mr. MacMurtrie tested out the robots’ credibility as metallic clergy on Aug. 17, when he and his wife held a wedding ceremony for family and friends from the East Coast and Europe. (They had officially tied the knot in December at Brooklyn Borough Hall.) After Ms. Kaunert’s uncle, a retired minister, delivered the blessing, the robots were activated for celebratory drumming.