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Review: Mattress Factory's 'Gestures' exhibit lets visitors meet the robots

| Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008

"Meet the Made," the 11th installment of the Mattress Factory's "Gestures" series, is unique among its predecessors because its focus is on robotic art.

Organized by Carl DiSalvo and Ian Ingram, the exhibit, on display in the museum's annex building along Monterey Street in the North Side, was conceived as part of a citywide community art and technology program known as Robot 250 , which was designed in conjunction with Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary.

DiSalvo, an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Ingram, an artist-in-residence at the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, had set up robotic workshops at the Mattress Factory before the exhibit that were in conjunction with Robot 250. So it was only natural that they would be invited to curate a show there.

As with "Gestures" exhibits of the past, the bulk of the artists chosen are from the Pittsburgh area. But this exhibit presents a collection of ideas about what robots are or could be, the ways robots reflect what it means to be human, and the robot as "the current instance of an ancient notional entity that sits at the intersection of the makeable and the only imaginable," according to DiSalvo and Ingram's statement.

To put it more simply, the goal is to present "behavioral sculptures," Ingram says. "I kind of see them as somewhat related to kinetic sculpture, and animation and film," Ingram says. "They are sculptural objects that can not only move and have gestures, but they can also have a semblance of mindful intent or some kind of behavior."

Ingram points to Adam Shreckhise's "Empathy Implant," a robot created to communicate, interact and tell stories, as a perfect example. Basically a machine that can tell a story about itself, it's actively involved in recording its own movements via sound and video, as well as the ambient sounds and movement in the room in which it is contained. Those movements and sounds are played back by the machine itself. "If you are in the room long enough, you actually end up hearing snippets of your own voice and noises that you heard it make," Ingram says.

"In essence, when you think about it, it has a semblance of mindful intent, which is the core of what it is," Ingram says. "That's its aesthetic. That's what makes it a behavioral sculpture more than anything else."

However, not everything is as high-tech as that piece. "Another real crux of this show," Ingram says, "is that, while everything else associated with Robot 250 has to do with robots or fit the definition of what a robot is, we wanted to show that people could make things that weren't robotic, but that talked about robotics."

Chris Beauregard and Jesse Hulcher's piece might look like robots, but instead is life-size pink robotic versions of the artists, envisioned as their version of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. Their piece underscores a much more human relationship to machines via a duel-to-the-death version of the robot effigies played out on an accompanying video.

Kim Beck's "Quartered and Drawn" doesn't rely on robots; rather, it is a wall drawing in which visitors "serve as labor," according to the artist, literally completing the piece by filling in black squares drawn on the wall with pencil, ultimately forming a pixelated image, much like on a computer screen.

Like that piece, some of the pieces have a two-fold purpose: to address technology while addressing absurdities associated with it. For example, "The Toil of Tilling," a human-size locust-like robot that visitors can operate to gather grain, was created by Chris Lisowski to bring attention to worldwide hunger and the recent rise in food prices. Lisowski describes the situation as being to the "point of ridiculousness": "I'm addressing a basic human need in the 21st century through an equally absurd image, a giant robotic locust.

"We spend so much time, effort and money on technological gadgetry when more stuff hasn't brought us any closer to true happiness," Lisowski says. "If we would actively participate in the equal distribution of food and technology, famine would cease to exist."

Food also is the focus of an installation by Betsy James DiSalvo. Her piece, "The Productivity Paradox and the Cupcake Robot," explores technology's impact on the home. Visitors to the exhibit's opening-night reception were privy to large gourmet cupcakes given away for free, which were decorated by DiSalvo's robotic-like installation according to each visitor's answers to a personality quiz.

The robot actually made more of a mess than anything; thus, DiSalvo says, "This robot is introduced to reduce work and instead makes more work, and less-meaningful work for homemakers."

It's a point well taken, and one that underscores the many paradoxical viewpoints presented in this most compelling exhibit.

Additional Information:

'Gestures:Meet the Made'

What: The 11th installment of a series of exhibits featuring small site-specific works by artists from throughout the region

When: Through Aug. 31. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays

Where: Mattress Factory annex building, 1414 Monterey St., North Side

Admission: $10; $8 for senior citizens; $7 for students; free for age 5 and younger. Half-off admission Thursdays (except group tours)

Details: 412-231-3169

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