For Obscura Day 2015, site-specific installation and performance The Robotic Church opened its doors in Red Hook, Brooklyn its first unveiling since September, 2013. Housed in an old Norwegian Seamen’s Church, artist and Biomorphic Wall creator Chico MacMurtrie’s studio is filled with industrial, rusting robots of all sizes—quadru- and bipedal bots lurking in corners, behind closed doors, even crouching on the open floor, erratically moving about and grazing the legs of audience members. Many are set up with percussion instruments and are controlled by MacMurtrie and his team from a balcony above the audience. The space is intimate, the air musty with aging wood.
This one-of-a-kind homage to robotics was conceived by MacMurtrie as a place to house his many metallic “saints.” He began creating them in the late 80’s and now has over 50 machines. “I gave them life, made them perform—make a living—created a place for them to sit, so they have their own little sconce,” he says. “I deemed them all saints.”
All the robotic “saints” have names, including “Dog Monkeys” and “Horny Children,” and each one is a pneumatic work of art, showcasing the importance of communication via movement and rhythm. MacMurtrie says that the exploration of humanity plays a significant role in his work—that each robot is inspired by a different aspect of humanity. “Every one of them has a story,” he says. One of the robots, “Stringbody,” is comprised of 12 different instruments, and required seven people to play it before it was hooked up to a computer program. Now, “Stringbody” and other robots are controlled via air pressure, triggered by electrical pulses sent directly from a specialized computer system pieced together by MacMurtrie and team with programming designed by Bill Bowen.
During the performance, the church transforms into a life-size puppet theater populated by metal creatures that move unfettered in a Vonnegut-esque setting where humans are the anomaly. Every few minutes, another corner comes to life with light, sound, and robotics. The piece begins with low, organ-like sustained tones. A drone sound gradually yields to beats set by robots in various positions throughout the space. The set is periodically interrupted by the ascent of “The Climber,” a humanoid robot in the middle of the room that inches slowly up a rope towards a gargantuan silver tree with a root system that dangles from the ceiling. Near the end, MacMurtrie reveals another element of his artistic direction: inflatables. A door on the second floor opens to a hanging creature enveloped in a plastic bag that expands slowly with air, then deflates at the same speed—the air sucks out of it until the plastic clings to its body like a pack of vacuum-sealed vegetables.
Arguably the highlight of the performance is “Grandfather,” or “The Tumbling Man,” the oldest of MacMurtrie’s robots. It is a cumbersome humanoid machine that attempts to stand, but instead continuously somersaults in the small square of space provided, oftentimes banging against the doors and wooden walls, utterly unable to rise on its own. Without any particular facial expression or even a well-defined humanlike contour, the sympathy this creature elicits seems to be derived almost solely from its movements. The perpetual limbo in which it folds its body over itself again and again and again seems a metaphor for the futility one can feel in the most desultory moments of life. Of his conception for “Tumbling Man,” MacMurtrie says, “I wanted to make a heavy machine that would perform a childlike act and the notion of somersaulting was the most simple, naïve and primitive action of joy, rotating your body.” He goes on to reference an older film he made about the concept that the heavy machinery of today is almost always associated with destruction, “so I thought, can I make a childlike machine with the force of these destructive machines do something more simple, gestural, innocent?”
One can feel a lifelike essence in all of MacMurtrie’s machines. Personification abounds, but it’s unclear exactly how. He does an ingenious job of blurring the lines between human aesthetic and movement, thereby raising the question of what it is to appear human. Does it lie more in motion or the features and shape of the body? The robotic church challenges its audience to explore humanity from an unlikely perspective, breaking it down to the most essential parts.