JULY 7, 2012

Robot invasion: Art and technology interact in Fe Gallery exhibit
By Kurt Shaw, TribLIVE, July 7, 2012

Once the stuff of science fiction, robots are increasingly becoming part of our reality.

“R.O.U.S. / Robots of Unusual Size,” a new exhibit at Fe Arts Gallery in Lawrenceville, explores the notion of robots in a contemporary context — what they are, what we think they are and what they can become.

The exhibit was organized by Melanie Luke, longstanding board member of the nonprofit gallery, who says, “If you look at the direction of technology and where we are headed, robots are unavoidable. We’re having fun with it with this show, but going forward we have to be aware of the direction of robotics and how it’s going to interplay with our daily lives.”

To that end, the eight artists who contributed work for this exhibit explore a wide range of robotic potential.

The exhibit begins with what else — artwork created by a robot. Or more specifically, by PAM, a robot that paints in the Abstract Expressionist vein that was created by sculptor Adam Shreckhise of Stanton Heights.

In the exhibit, 11 untitled paintings by PAM are on display on one wall. PAM is an acronym for “Portrait of the Artist as a Machine.”

“She works by dropping powdered pigment and water onto various painting surfaces,” Shreckhise says. “PAM makes decisions in that process through the complicated wiring of a score of interconnected switches, which make up her body and brain. So, as abstract paintings often give insight into the human condition, PAM’s paintings lend insight into the mechanical condition.”

Just like many of the paintings of the Ab-Ex artists of half a century ago, the paintings in this exhibit are unaltered, uncropped, exactly as PAM made them.

From visual output to sound, Richard Upchurch of Brooklyn, N.Y., created 30 voice-recording robots that are designed to engage the visitor in play. Turn a volume knob on one of them and you will hear something previously recorded by another visitor. Hit the record button, and the previous recording is lost.

“You must experience that moment for all it’s worth before it’s gone,” Upchurch says.

Thus, the pieces require interaction both with the object and other visitors. “It’s a means of discovery through sound and voice,” Upchurch says. “A means of simple and direct communication. Altogether, (the pieces) reflect community, a gathering of different voices.”

Like Upchurch’s pieces, Carnegie Mellon University art and computer science student Joel Simon’s “Small Talk Robot” engages visitors with direct communication. However, instead of just sound, it uses text and data culled from the Internet and puts it in the form of questions. As if engaging in small talk, an LED screen flickers real-time text punctuated with typical small-talk questions and phrases like “How about that?” and “I hate Mondays.”

Simon says motivation for the piece came from a desire to have viewers explore their relationship with robots and their everyday use of small talk. “If a robot is capable of small talk, and small talk is often the majority of a relationship, then that says something.”

There also is humor in the piece, as it makes fun of how silly and ridiculous small talk is. Another element is that, while the piece is openly absurd in itself, robot companionship is becoming increasingly practical and useful.

“If the elderly can have robotic animals to keep them company, then why can’t the rest of us have robots to fill in at cocktail parties and art-gallery openings for us?” Simon asks.

Works by Don L. Jones and Toby Atticus Fraley also add a lighthearted element to the exhibit, giving viewers an opportunity to interact with life-size robot sculptures made from found objects that are every bit what we may have imagined a robot could be.

A sculptor based in Ingram, Jones’ three pieces in this show — “Cycle Sam,” “Maintenance Matt” and “Biker Baby” — have all been constructed from found and recycled materials. “Maintenance Mat” and “Cycle Sam” are not new. They have appeared in shows and installations all over the city — PPG Place, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Carnegie Science Center, to name a few.

“Maintenance Matt” is the second robot that Jones built and is formed around two vintage vacuum cleaners and painted bright yellow. “He also comes with a light in his mouth so that he can see what he’s working on,” Jones says.

“Cycle Sam” is built on a vintage motorized exercise bike. “This piece has been modified and upgraded over the years and seems to be a favorite with crowds.”

Jones’ newest piece, “Biker Baby” is built on a secondhand purple reproduction ’70s-style bike. “Once again, she’s built from recycled and found parts,” Jones says. “She’s a collection of a coffee pot, chrome tubes, ice bucket, yellow sunglasses, checkerboard belt, pool balls, aluminum containers, stainless bowls and even earrings. She’s my favorite for now.”

Then there is Toby Atticus Fraley’s piece “Robot 65,” an “old man” robot, which is so named because he happens to be the 65th piece in a series of robot sculptures the Dormont-based sculptor has created.

Fraley, who makes most of his robots on a commission basis around other people’s themes or ideas, says that “for this show, I was able to move away from those themes and make a piece I wanted to make. I had sketched out this idea over a year ago but never had the opportunity to act on it.

“In the real world, a robot, such as an assembly-line robot, works, breaks down, gets repaired and goes back to work,” Fraley says. “They never appear much older, and they always work as well as they did the day they were constructed (through repairs).

“My idea was, what if a robot was left to deal with its mechanical issues with no maintenance? What if they appeared to age as a human does and needed the help of tools, such as a cane, in order to carry on?”

Giving a robot this very human characteristic lends the piece a whole new feel and it’s not necessarily a good one.

“As opposed to the self-assured, invincible impressions my past robots had, this guy is obviously in distress,” Fraley says. “It’s a sad situation he’s gotten himself into, and it’s sad thinking the same scene is playing itself out somewhere with a human in his shoes.”

Also adding a bit of levity are two untitled paintings of robots with human “girlfriends” by the Rev. Daisher Rocket of Greensburg. Amazed by the personal addiction many people have to their cell phones, iPods and other computer and robot-like stuff, Rocket makes art about what will happen when these robot-like devices become able to care for us back, and how we, as humans, are so used to the idea of throwing away items for the new, better thing.

“My work deals with the point where the robot falls in love, just as the human is getting tired of them,” Rocket says. “As for the aesthetic of the work, I take parts from pop culture and art history to make fun of how we, as people, have created all this style and, now, we can program the robots to do it for us. This is another aspect of people being mean to the machines.”

Like it or not, robots are here to stay.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

"My Future Friend" by Ben KatzDetails
‘R.O.U.S. / Robots of Unusual Size’
When: Through July 28. 4-8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; noon-6 p.m. Saturdays; noon-4 p.m. Sundays
Where: Fe Arts Gallery, 4102 Butler St., Lawrenceville
Details: 412-860-6028 or www.fegallery.org

Ben Katz's piece "My Future Friend" is a part of the Robots of Unusual Size group show at Fe Gallery in Lawrenceville, running through July 27, 2012.