Robotic Church

Artist Chico MacMurtrie and ‘The Robotic Church’ at Amorphic Robot Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted)

“For the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to solve the human,” artist Chico MacMurtrie explained, surrounded by the mechanical beings which he’s animated with metal and air in this quest to give his sculptures life. From his studio, the former Norwegian Seamen’s Church, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he’s now working on what might be his most ambitious project yet, a bridge to cross the US-Mexico border. Deploying inflatable robots on either side of the divide, the Border Crossers are as much a test of international collaboration as the capabilities of pneumatics to replicate organic movement.

This month, MacMurtrie was named a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, an award which will go towards building the Border Crossers with Amorphic Robot Works (ARW), where he’s artistic director. The first 40-foot prototype debuted this February in San José, California, with ZERO1. “What I was interested in was this peaceful metaphor of open borders,” he said. “The role of this sculpture is to form this bridge, to have this gesture of unity, of peace.”

Formed from a composite fabric designed with Dyneema, the goliath sculpture unfolds slowly, undulating forward to touch the ground before rising again. You can see its performance in this video from San José:

In the fall, MacMurtrie and ARW plan to test an even taller 60-foot version at Pioneer Works in Red Hook to simulate the height of the current border fence. Initially, the plan was for six Border Crossers to simultaneously arrive on either side of the fence, and rise at once. Although the number may go down, the intent remains the same: to symbolically rise above the border, if only for a moment. The sinewy movement is similar to MacMurtrie/ARW’s “Chrysalis” exhibited back in 2013 at Pioneer Works, where inflatable arms unfolded with glacial movement from the ceiling, and opened into a portal.

Chico MacMurtrie/ARW, “Border Crossers,” concept illustration (2007) (courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Much like ARW’s The Robotic Churchan installation that’s been open to seasonal public performances since 2013, Border Crossers is about giving people an unexpected experience through machines. The Robotic Church includes around 50 “robotic saints” built from 1987 to 2006, which rhythmically bang on drums, play marimba, strum mellow strings, and even paint a picture. As static objects, they seem like a jumble of junkyard parts, but as soon as pneumatic air pumps into their metal muscles they begin to climb ropes, gesture wildly, or attempt to stand, like the “Tumbling Man” who acts as the finale as he barrels out a door and flails futilely on the metal floor. I’ve been lucky enough to catch a couple of performances organized by Atlas Obscura, and each, although based on a computerized program, felt unpredictable as the robots came into their individual expressions of life on the walls, ceiling, and floor.

MacMurtrie himself grew up in Arizona along the US-Mexico divide, which inspired this evolution from kinetic beings into a larger experience with pneumatics. “When I was a kid growing up on the border, my friends would come through the fence to go to school,” he said. “All the sudden, the border started getting fortified, and I was like, ‘what is this about.’”

That newly militarized fence was part of what propelled him to find a way, as an artist, to cross it. And to realize the project, ARW is collaborating with institutions on either side of the border, such as the El Paso Museum of Art in Texas, ASU Museum in Tempe, Arizona, and mayors from the two Naco towns on either side, one in Arizona and the other in Mexico.

“Our biggest challenge, past making them, is breaking ground on a diplomatic level,” MacMurtrie said. “This is where the power of the idea has to fend for itself.”

Chico MacMurtrie with charcoal conceptual drawings for ‘Pneuma World’

Charcoal conceptual drawing for ‘Pneuma World’

Along with the Border Crossers, MacMurtrie and ARW are spending this summer preparing for the opening of Pneuma World in September at Muffatwerk in Munich, which will include 10 days of performance in an inflatable-filled space. With the lightweight inflatables, people can be much more a part of the interaction than in The Robotic Church, and they can walk freely among the work without the fear of colliding with metal bodies. Following this series, Pneuma World will travel to RadialSystem in Berlin. Much of this performance is being conceptualized in MacMurtrie’s charcoal drawings, which show a huge tree giving life to roaming humanoids that are scattered around a primordial landscape. These human-like entities might also find their way into Border Crossers, where MacMurtrie is considering having one ride on a sculpture and be transported to the other side.

While designed with the US-Mexico border in mind, MacMurtrie imagines the Border Crossers as bridges for anywhere that’s divided, as something of a portable ambassador. Like The Robotic Church, the Border Crossers are ultimately a challenge of, as MacMurtrie puts it, “bringing life into something that has none.” He adds that “a lot of it belongs in fantasy before I prove it otherwise.” During Hyperallergic’s visit to the ARW space in Red Hook, the team shared some of The Robotic Church performance, and you can see some of this mechanized life in the video below.

Exterior of the former Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Red Hook, now home to Amorphic Robot Works

The inflatable robot studio

Installation view of ‘The Robotic Church’

Installation view of ‘The Robotic Church’

Installation view of ‘The Robotic Church’

Installation view of ‘The Robotic Church’

Installation view of ‘The Robotic Church’

Installation view of ‘The Robotic Church’

Installation view of ‘The Robotic Church’

One of the performers in ‘The Robotic Church’

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

13 replies on “The Robots Being Built to Cross the US-Mexico Border”

  1. I like the geometry, the motion, the drawings, the painted-over photographs, the studio, but I question the artist’s motives, titles and ultimately intelligence.
    I know that all people can’t possibly be all for everyone.
    Even Stephen Hawking can be an idiot sometimes.

    1. No need to bring personal insults into criticism. I welcome opinions on the art I cover, but keep in mind we’re all humans here.

      1. I like the artwork.
        The political cheap shot, I can do without.
        Also, by mentioning one of the brightest minds in the known Universe, I thought that I made half a compliment.
        You know that he’s bitching about AI, no?
        I don’t, as in let there be robots and more (or sumptin’ : )

  2. Why not create things that make Mexico a better place so that people want to live there and build the country better for all? A country slowly dies if large segments of the (usually young) population leave. Create a better Mexico, not a way to leave Mexico.

    1. I don’t think the robots are helping anyone leave or go, but creating a symbolic bridge where there is now a pretty heavy division.

          1. isn’t hispanic?
            Thanks for the info!
            It fooled me,
            and I don’t think that’s easy.
            It seems that it may be.
            Being human comes with surprises.
            Hope that AI will do better : )

          2. Thanks again!
            But can anyone explain to me how the US Census doesn’t know how many illegals are in the US, but a (hispanic) researcher/writer knows how many Mexicans have left?

            I do appreciate the discussion and your input, Hrag,
            I really do,
            and for the “record” : )
            I am more latin than the Latinos, or at least feel so.

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