Truly a secret gem, there’s nothing at street level to suggest that there’s an incredible site-specific installation and workshop inside the former Norwegian Seamans Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Metal gates are perpetually rolled down on this brick building that dates to the 1880s. Only a doorbell next to the locked alley door gives some clue: Amorphic Robotic Works, it says.
The Robotic Church is open for performances a few times a year and the rest of the time, it functions as the workshop for Amorphic Robotic Works, a collective of artists, engineers, technicians and programmers founded by Chico MacMurtie in 1991. MacMurtie is acclaimed for his large-scale, kinetic sculptures and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for the construction of inflatable bridges that can reach across the United States-Mexico border.
While inflatables are the evolution of MacMurtie’s exploration in kinetic mechanical movement, the pneumatic robots are the origin. In the Robotic Church, fifty “humanoid performers” are positioned throughout the former church nave. There’s a control tower up top, through which MacMurtie can lead the approximately forty minute to one hour performance. He tells us that the performance is “a story of their evolution,” and in many ways, the evolution of humankind, “going back to the very beginning.” A clocking mechanism sets the timing of the performance and the robots communicate through rhythm using body language and sound. MacMurtie describes the Robotic Church performance as “looking at nature at the simplest level.”
The robots range in size from twelve inches to fifteen feet. They’re located on multiple levels of the church, a deliberate reference to the placement of religious saints in a chapel. One robot, attached to a rope, is imbued with the objective to reach the top. Guests sit on wooden benches, “as if coming to church,” MacMurtie describes.
When not activated, between three to a dozen people work in the space, testing materials and pushing the boundaries of architectural structures. In an era, where popular technology is pushing ever towards virtual reality, Amorphic Robotic Works uses analog technology to explore the human condition. Instead of getting sucked into a digital world, the kinetic sculptures remind us of what it means to be alive.
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