How an Art Collective Shipwrecked a Giant Astronaut at Burning Man

Robots arts collective talk about their work for this year’s Burning Man.

by DJ Pangburn
Sep 21 2016, 8:15pm

All images courtesy the artists

Using an assortment of reclaimed wood and found materials to create gigantic public sculptures, the Robots art collective eschews traditional public art practices and still ends up with massive work. The works have ranged from a wooden lattice skull wedged between two buildings, to an enormous Alice in Wonderland-esque blue teapot in the middle of a New Hampshire forest.

Robots' work has many inspirations, but much of the sculptures are rooted in science fiction, nature, and geometry. The collective, as member Jen Patterson tells The Creators Project, was recently in Nevada working on a Burning Man build. And like most of the group’s works, and most things seen at Burning Man, it was big and ambitious.

“We [built] a giant shipwrecked astronaut emerging from the sand,” Patterson says. “The sculpture was a useful space inside his torso, and his skull and space helmet were performance area. We [built] this for Camp Rubber Armstrong, who will reuse the sculpture in future years.”

While the collective fluctuates between two and 15 members, depending on the project’s scope, the Burning Man Robots team included Patterson, Lee Whiteman, James Harris, and Stephen Shiell. Whiteman started making these larg- scale sculptures in the Welsh countryside back in 1995, “reconfiguring chairs into public sculptures,” as Patterson explains.

“[He] started doing graffiti with objects rather than paint in around 2005,” Patterson says. “Then whilst working on a music video for Bat For Lashes around 2009, it gave him the opportunity to build some large-scale sculptures out of found objects and recycled materials.  He then took this concept of these large-scale sculptures into public art and Robots collective was born. Since then we have created sculptures all over the world.” Patterson says that working with reclaimed wood means that Robots don’t need a big budget in the initial phases of the project. Indeed, materials for sculptures can even be found close to where the collective ends up leaving the sculpture. “Using free materials also gives you creative freedom to experiment as you go, knowing that you have a limitless supply,” says Patterson.

Robots both sketches out the sculptures and improvises during the build. A lot of what happens with a sculpture depends on logistics. “An ideal situation is to build the sculpture responding to existing buildings and to allow it to grow and change organically,” Patterson notes. “Increasingly, we need to build and install our sculptures in modular parts—this involves more planning and pre-design.”

The collective took the modular parts approach for their build of their shipwrecked astronaut. After sketching it up, Robots plotted key measurements, with the team sculpting freehand around those frameworks.

“We're not carpenters so we have developed our own techniques and coming at building from a creative point of you rather than a crafted point of view,” explains Patterson. “We're only just starting to catch up with ourselves as far as real carpentry goes. But our self-taught intuitive approach has helped us to attempt very complex joinery that perhaps we would have not tried had we been trained carpenters.”

Whiteman tells The Creators Project that the Burning Man build was tough out there in the Nevada desert. He was in awe of the other creators who worked on some of the bigger installations. “It's hard to gauge reactions at the festival,” he explains. “For one, people have dust masks and goggles on, so you can't see reactions. Also, Burning Man is visually stimulating everywhere you look. The people at our camp and a few that I talked to near the sculpture really enjoyed the intricate nature of the skull and the joinery involved, so from a crafting point-of-view I got very positive feedback.”

“You compete with the desert, and scale has to enormous to gain any traction there, then you compete with everything and everybody else,” he adds. “I think a vehicle is the way to really get reactions. For me, in some ways Burning Man has always been the last place I ever wanted to put a sculpture just because it's one of the only places in the world where these things are the norm. But, personally, I loved the way the astronaut seemed to be buried in the sand—it was so reminiscent of those early sci-fi book covers from the 70s.”

Click here to see more work by Robots art collective.


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burning man
found objects
Burning Man installation
Jen Patterson
Kimber Sykes
Lee Whiteman
Robots art collective
Rubber Armstrong Theme Camp
graffiti objects
reclaimed wood
shipwrecked astronaut