Share This Page

Wood Street Galleries' interactive 'Miracles' exhibit asks tough questions

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 6:13 p.m.
www.joeykennedyphotography.com
DSM-V1 (2012) by Bill Vorn
www.joeykennedyphotography.com
Bill Vorn
www.joeykennedyphotography.com
Louis-Philippe Demers
www.joeykennedyphotography.com
'The Limping Machine' from 'La Cour des Miracles (1997)' by Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers
www.joeykennedyphotography.com
'The Harassing Machine' from 'La Cour des Miracles (1997)' by Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers

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 kshaw@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.