Imagine an insane asylum filled with robots and that’s what you get with “La Cour des Miracles” (The Court of Miracles), an interactive robotic installation at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust‘s Wood Street Galleries, Downtown.
Not just an installation piece, but an interactive, multimedia environment that responds to the presence of the visitor through light, sound and the convulsive actions of six seemingly disturbed robots arranged in and around cages.
The installation is the creation of Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers, two Montreal-based artists who are pioneers in robotic art.
Vorn has been working in the field of robotic art for more than 20 years, creating evocative installations and performance projects that involve robotics and motion control, sound, lighting, video and cybernetic processes.
A multidisciplinary artist, Demers has worked on the conception and production of numerous large-scale interactive robotic installations, several of which can be found in theater, opera, subway stations, art museums, science museums, music events and trade shows.
Once inside “La Cour des Miracles,” you become explorer and intruder, as six robotic characters — the Begging Machine, Convulsive Machine, Crawling Machine, the Harassing Machine, Heretic Machine and Limping Machine — bid for your attention in the most aggressive ways.
For example, the Begging Machine moves its trunk back and forth on its base and raises its mechanical arm toward the visitor as he or she walks by. In order to emphasize this solicitation behavior, the Begging Machine has a suction device fixed at the end of its arm.
The Limping Machine walks painfully toward the visitor while stumbling awkwardly because of a deficient (or distorted) member of its body. The Convulsive Machine is a thin metal structure shaking with frequent but irregular spasms, especially when the visitor comes too close. And the Crawling Machine creeps laboriously on the floor. Slow and vulnerable, it tries to run desperately away from all who approach it.
Then, there is the Harassing Machine, which gets the visitor’s attention by moving its articulated arms toward them. At the extremity of these members are small tentacles agitated by compressed air that tease the intruders with annoying touches.
Finally, the Heretic Machine, which is locked up in a cage, violently lunges toward the visitor, grabs the metal grid of the cage with its arms and shakes it furiously.
All of this happens to a backdrop of pulsing lights and screeching noises that assimilate both machine-like and prehistoric animal sounds.
“It’s a primitive structure, but the gestures we can all relate to,” says Cultural Trust curator Murray Horne.
In his statement about the piece, Vorn writes: “By creating this universe of faked realities loaded with ‘pain’ and ‘groan,’ the aim of this work is to induce empathy of the viewer toward these ‘characters’ which are solely articulated metallic structures.”
In effect, these anthropomorphic robots were created to “challenge our senses,” Horne says.
“All of the robots are in very psychic states, like you are in an insane asylum,” Horne says. “But, the point is that they are machines and … in these gestures, cause us to respond to them as humans, because we recognize what the gesture might be.”
Even though Vorn and Demers originally created this installation in 1997, Horne says it represents “a pivotal point in robotic art because of its intensity.”
“Coming to this show is about as intense as it gets, mainly because of the gestures,” Horne says. “But the questions it asks — about robots in the future, robots as domestic help, robots in our military — are all very important questions.”
Also on display is Vorn’s “DSM-VI,” another installation that includes eight similarly anthropomorphic robots that shake, rock and gyrate to yet another disturbing soundtrack filled with machine-like noise.
Horne says that, in effect, each is expressing symptoms of “abnormal” psychological behaviors and stuck with some serious “mental health” problems, such as neurosis, psychosis, personality disorders, paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, delirium and other forms of behavior and mental disorders.
“The title is inspired by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a reference manual published by the American Psychiatric Association,” Horne says. “So, even though they are machines, we respond to them like mental patients.”
This, he says, begs the question: “In 10 or 20 years time, when we have robots for domestic help, how are we going to respond to them? The same way?”
Kurt Shaw is art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.