On a brisk fall afternoon in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, just a few blocks from the East River, a community of robots huddles, dormant and immobilized, suspended in time. The robots populate an old Norwegian seaman’s church, crouching in the corners of the nave. These are the saints — totaling about fifty in number — of Chico MacMurtrie’s Robotic Church, created over a span of nearly two decades. The church is part of an award-winning, interdisciplinary collective known as Amorphic Robotic Works.
On most days, nearly every square inch of it appears to be covered with tools and materials. The effect is such that, upon entering, it feels like trespassing upon the sacred domain of both artistic genius and mad scientist.
The robotic saints are in hibernation today, but it’s not hard to observe the singular nature of each machine. This quality of individuality, MacMurtrie explains, is a product of time as much as anything else. The machines “wear down and their motion [becomes] more fluid with time”; as a result, each of them develop their own style of movement, with distinct features and quirks. “And because they [are] all different characters,” he tells ARTpublika Magazine, “I started viewing them as this sort of society of machines that [are] each of a different quality and stage in evolution.”
At the peak of this robotic society, MacMurtrie created a piece called Skeletal Reflections. It was an attempt to realistically depict the anatomy of the human body, “including the spine, the articulation of the digits of the finger, the expressions in the face.” And herein lies the crucial part of MacMurtrie’s thinking — these robots are essentially a tool to understand something fundamentally human. “Every human has an identity that's based on their physical body — their gait. And, each of them, in addition, is carrying their own history, and all of that informed the making of the machines that make up the Robotic Church.”
The robots also stimulate a response within a human audience. MacMurtrie cites the piece Tumbling Man — a hard metal machine he controls with his own body, wearing a suit with sensors. The creation’s sole purpose is to somersault. “[It faces] this incredible struggle to somersault. I’d bend my elbow and it causes this to go shhk shhk shhk,” — he mimes the creaky stiffness of a robotic arm — “but everybody's looking at the machine and they're like, ‘Come on. Get up. Get up.’" This was not the response he anticipated: “I could get it to somersault, but people wanted it to stand.” The audience knew MacMurtrie was in control, but “they felt empathy for the metal machine. They wanted it to succeed.”
Performances — or, more appropriately, mass services — take place a few times a year. When people enter the dimly lit church, “there’s this anticipation,” speculates MacMurtrie: “Everyone wants [the performance] to be something different. The moment [the robots] come alive is the moment their suspicions are answered. They see that it’s about the advent of sound and communication. Ultimately, it's about the religion of nature.”
The performances, though, are quite a feat to stage; so, for most of the year, the robots nap in dusty corners, and MacMurtrie uses the space as a studio. In this way, the Church gives him a space to create.
MacMurtrie’s interest in “imbuing movement into these humanoid figures” is informed by his early performance art. “I had painted, and I had sculpted, and I worked with all the traditional mediums — and I was after something different.”
In an essay, he writes:
“I began to suspect that I could learn more from my own body than from traditional techniques…One night I used my whole body to make a direct impression on the impasto surface, ending up covered in thick paint. The real discovery was in how the paint encased my body, forming a second skin as it hardened. The act of shedding this skin became a cathartic moment in my performances...This in turn led to another tantalizing discovery: the empty latex skin, buffeted by ambient air currents, suggested the possibility of an autonomous form. I envisioned artificially reanimating that form and imbuing it with life of its own.”
He then began to put “mechanical structures inside [of] them.” This naturally progressed into machines performing outside of his body. “The medium of robotics is the medium of today,” he explains. “The medium of painting is the medium of yesteryear — even though, if you go to any of the major galleries today, they are moving in and selling paintings, traditional sculpture, drawings, and prints. Multimedia or robotic installations are harder to sell.”
As time passed, MacMurtrie became increasingly preoccupied with the inherent geometry of nature, which led him away from hard machines — like the Tumbling Man and Skeletal Reflections — and into what he refers to as the “Soft Machine.” He also wanted audiences to interact with these machines on a more intimate level. “This desire for physical, expressive interaction suggested an entirely different kind of machine body, one more supple and forgiving,” he writes. This desire is why soft machines, created with high tensile fabric, now make up the bulk of his work.
His most recent project, which is still in production, is called Border Crossers. ARW’s website explains that this “series of lightweight robotic sculptures…poetically explore the notion of borders and boundary conditions. The inflatable sculptures rise up to several stories high and extend across a given threshold.” Ultimately, MacMurtrie hopes to create six of these machines, three on each side of the U.S./Mexico border.
It’s essential that the Border Crossers be made from this soft (but strong) fabric: “They're fragile when you take them out into the environment and you put them in this vulnerable situation—a soft machine going against a hard metal wall. I'm trying to have this positive soft force take on the harshness of this rusty wall that divides a country.”
MacMurtrie is originally from Arizona, which led some inspiration to this project.
“I always imagined these machines of mine moving across the desert. Light is coming into them—the light of the desert, the light of the sun, the light of nature—and the surrounding brings them to life, gives them their skin, gives them their hue, their luminosity. And that's why this material is so important. It’s powerful stuff made from a very strong fiber weave. It’s capable of imitating mechanical systems when you inflate it and make it rigid.”
In November, two of his Border Crossers will be performing in Berlin, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“If somebody wanted to shoot this thing down — while it was performing this act of equality, of freedom, of human nature — it's still vulnerable, as vulnerable as the people who are up against this wall. It reflects the compassion and the softness of the humans and what they go through to try to find a better life.”
Of course, these performances don’t always go according to plan. For instance, a test run of a Border Crosser in Michigan last year resulted in a “puncture in an important bit of plastic casing,” which MacMurtrie and his team were able to fix in about an hour. Still, he has learned to embrace failure. He believes that all of these machines “succeed even if they fail because you find a way to make them work, so they become what they're supposed to become. They all represent a different period of growth.”
MacMurtrie didn’t always share this perspective. “At first when they broke I was like, ‘Oh man, that keeps breaking! Why does that break?” But, eventually he realized, each machine “was created with its weaknesses. Just like we are." Amen to that.
Note* Image of "DogMonkey" by Mathew Galindo, curtesy of The Robotic Church / All other images curtesy of Betty Vine