Inside the Robot Takeover at a Red Hook Church

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Artist Chico MacMurtrie’s studio, housed in the Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Red Hook, looks less like a studio and more like that attic room of crackpot inventions where Edward Scissorhands was conceived: it’s filled with 50 wiry robots, ranging from one to 15 feet tall, which move spastically among the pews. Some play bongos, others draw on canvases, still others do somersaults. MacMurtrie calls each of them “Robotic Saints,” and each has a name: there’s Tumbling Man, String Body, Rope Climber, and Dog Monkey, to name a few. They look like the love children of C-3PO and Giacometti sculptures.

“Every single character in the Robotic Church has a story,” MacMurtie says. “Tumbling Man,” for example, is the “grandfather of all the robots,” the first MacMurtrie created, using discarded technology, repurposed as muscles, bones, and nervous systems. With this somersaulting robot, made in 1987, “my intention was to create a heavy machine with a very innocent, almost childlike expression, partly because robots and machines are often associated with destruction,” MacMurtrie says. “Tumbling Man inaugurated a whole cadre of kinetic and percussive machines that strummed, chimed, and drummed their own bodies, many of which have been restored and reunited to form the Robotic Church.”

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Inspired by his 1987–89 residency at the Exploratorium, a museum of science and art in San Francisco, McMurtrie founded AmorphicRobot Works (ARW) in 1991. It grew into an ever-changing collective of artists, engineers and scientists, devoted to exploring the potentials of machine movement, intelligence and responsiveness. “What we shared was a desire to make robotic and interactive sculpture as a reflection on the human condition,” he says. “While ARW’s output over our first decade was comprised of metal machines and robotic sculptures defined by structure, more recently I have focused on developing ‘soft machines’ based on inflatable components.”

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“I have always been interested in the the human body,” MacMurtrie says. “The essence of the body, for me, lies in movement. Rather than static form, I’m interested in changing positions, expressions, and gestures. Making kinetic and robotic sculpture allows me to explore these dynamics of the body. My work is based on a long-running fascination with living organisms and the technological entities with which we surround ourselves.”

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The Robotic Church is usually closed to the public, but was open for the first time in two years last week for a rare site-specific performance for Obscura Day 2015.

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See more on the Robotic Church here.

All photos courtesy Chico MacMurtrie. 

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