ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If I learned anything from Transformers, the 2007 movie reboot that pits robots against robots, it’s that I’ll pretty much watch anything that involves a giant robot. This includes a recent test run of a 40-foot art robot commanded by artist Chico MacMurtie, and created under his direction by an interdisciplinary team of undergraduates at University of Michigan. It’s a part of his residency at the UM Institute for the Humanities.
The test run was the official launch of a “Border Crosser” robot, designed, of course, to cross borders — specifically the border between Mexico and the United States. (MacMurtie is based in Arizona and Brooklyn.) With the rise and reign of a president who won the support of xenophobes by promising a massive wall between the US and Mexico, MacMurtie’s creation serves a poetic and political function.
But as the old saying goes, the course of a 40-foot experimental art robot never did run smooth. I arrived early because, you know, GIANT ROBOT, and was luckily able to witness the pre-test run. A high wind caused a puncture in an important bit of plastic casing, which was air-pressurized and responsible for extending the robot arm. MacMurtie and his 15-person team — which includes students majoring in art, engineering, information design, and performing arts — proceeded to perform triage on the once-mighty robot, which spent the hour in an abject and flaccid state. It resembled the remains of a giant squid, washed up on a beach.
And yet, as the Terminator canon has taught us, the machines always rise again, and after nearly an hour of improvisational repairs, surrounded by a crowd of 200, “Border Crosser” extended once more to its full glory. In the meantime, I spoke with the creative team and Amanda Krugliak, the director of UMIH Gallery who orchestrated the residency and exhibition.
“In the past, I’ve worked on things like a high-altitude weather balloon, which is more applied science,” said Nicholas Billovits, an engineering student, “but this is art.” Billovits helped design the vehicle base, which carries the valve mechanisms and blower that inflate the robot arm, and which interacts with electronics controls to make the “Border Crosser” mobile. MacMurtie hopes the robot will be able to approach a border (either physical or metaphorical), deploy its arm as a demi-arc that “rainbows” over the border, and then retract the arm and roll on its way.
“We track the pressure inside the inflatable tubes,” explained Billovits, “and it maintains consistent air pressure. It’s sort of like using a mixing board for sound application, but instead of frequency, you’re changing air pressure.”
MacMurtie has a long history with inflatable robots, which he calls “soft machines.” He has coordinated robotics-based art projects for at least a decade, and hopes to deploy several “Border Crosser” robots along the Mexico-US border, as well as in Europe. Naturally, I know better than to bother an artist who’s trying to get a 40-foot robot to perform for a waiting crowd, but I was able to catch MacMurtie a couple days later in the UMIH Gallery, in front of large-scale pencil and paper renderings on display there.
“I’m interested to see how far it goes,” he said. “For it to be really complete, there need to be two of them, one representing each side of the border. When both of those can meet together and, say, legally have a moment to perform that gesture of unity, of peace … it’s like a rainbow — sort of this beautiful image that doesn’t get stopped by borders.” MacMurtie is intrigued by the idea that robots can create connections, and his concept sketches project a kind of dystopian view of the role that borders may play in the future.
“This represents an exclusive, utopian city built by the 1%,” said MacMurtie, referring to one section of his drawing. (As an aside, he said that Bill Gates recently purchased a huge swath of property near Phoenix.) Another second, polluted quadrant represented Mexico; a third part suggested post-hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico; and the fourth — a swirling vortex representing a polluted ocean — featured flotillas of plastic waste. Walls won’t isolate us from problems, he said. “Ultimately, how isolated can we be?”
Perhaps the highest social function that art can serve is thoughtful transgression: the pushing of boundaries. Machines have become commonplace accessories, often drivers of our daily activities. But it’s still surprising and interesting to see robots deployed in the name of poetry and unity, rather than warfare or capitalism. The robotics field, and the creative canon, has yet to conclude whether robots can learn to feel. But in the case of Border Crossers, they can certainly leave a viewer feeling all kinds of ways about the future.
Border Crossers continues at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery through March 23.