A brief lunch with the Amorphic Robot Works in Munich
Interview with Chico MacMurtrie and Bill Bowen
Chico MacMurtrie - while exploring and investigating the endless artistic possibilities in robotic sculptures, new media installations and performances - founded the interdisciplinary artistic collective, the Amorphic Robot Works/ARW in 1991 inspired by a year-long residency in San Francisco.
During the first decade Chico and ARW endeavors were working on mostly metal and robotic sculptures, but since 2006 they are developing the „soft machines”. These organic works are in lack of the human-form. The Brooklyn-based collective debuted their new large scale works in Munich, so a part of the collective also visited the city for the installation process and the one week long exhibition with the artist, Chico.
Artmagazin Online had a chance to have a brief lunch and talk in Munich with the Arizona native Chico MacMurtrie a current Guggenheim Fellow in Fine Arts. I sat down with Chico MacMurtrie and one of his collaborators, an electronic and mechanical genius named Bill Bowen to hear about their thoughts on new media art, the coordination of his artwork, teamwork and future plans just before the opening of MacMurtrie’s solo show, Pneuma World at Muffatwerk.
Chico MacMurtrie source: amorphicrobotworks.org Photography by Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal c/o NeueHouse
Bill, could you tell me how the two of you met? How long are you working together and what is your role in the whole process? I am quite interested in finding out more about who is behind these sculptures besides Chico.
Bill Bowen: Well we have known of each other I guess for many years but we really kind of formally met through a mutual friend who worked at Chico’s studio in New York. I came over one day and our mutual friend was bringing up to speed some of Chico’s old machines that needed to be reworked. And so I slowly got them going. I would say I do the electronics and the software engineering I guess - the wiring and the software that runs it all.
Chico, how would you describe your role?
Chico MacMurtrie: As the artistic director of Amorphic Robot Works, my role is to conceive the idea for a new work and think about how to build the sculpture and how it would move. In a way I envision the sculptures but then it takes a whole team to produce them and bring them to live. Sometimes there is a trade off between my vision and the technical feasibility of the artwork.
Totemobile is a robotic sculpture that first appears as a life-sized Citroen DS automobile and in performance it changes into an organic 20-meter-tall totem pole. photo: Epidemic source: amorphicrobotworks.org
How many people work together on a project? Is it always the same group of people or do people come and go?
Chico MacMurtrie: People work with me on a project to project base and also do their own thing. There has never been enough funding to offer a fulltime job to any of my collaborators. But I have worked with many people continuously on and off over many years. They carry the knowledge of how things need to be solved. When you go on the website you see all these people who had been involved for years.
Do you have a database or documentation of what you have done and do you like look back into it when you are facing a new problem? Or you are just going with the flow?
Chico MacMurtrie: It is a great question, right?
Bill Bowen: I have been working with Chico for 2-3-4 years? I am very nervous of the fact that a lot of the steps rely on the old people that work with Chico. Because this is something I don’t know anything about. The truth is: technology has gotten a lot simpler and a lot cheaper since Chico started doing this work. And also because of the internet everything is easy, you can get a manual in 10 seconds. You can get an expert’s opinion on anything. You never are really stuck these days. Well it should be that way, but we still get stuck.
Chico MacMurtrie: Today if I would teach a robotic sculpture class and one of the students really wanted to computer control one of his pieces I could actually help them. I haven’t ever learned how to do what Bill does but I would say: ‘hey, if you start taking the online tutorial you will start to learn the basic electronics.’ And if they were obsessed they could do the whole thing overnight, right? And that would have been so hard to do back in the early days.
Bill Bowen: Back you needed a real engineer. The other thing is sourcing the parts. Today because of the DIY maker culture there are tons of online stores. Back in the time you had to know how to navigate, how to pick catalogues.
The Robotic Church is a site-specific installation and performance series comprising 50 computer-controlled pneumatic sculptures. Created between 1987 and 2006 and installed in ARW’s studio, a former Norwegian Seamen’s Church in, Brooklyn, New York. source: amorphicrobotworks.org
Do you guys plan to share the knowledge or you keep it as a secret so no one knows?
Bill Bowen: I am using all open source. There are no secrets. The only secret is the experience, not knowing what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.
Who is the one getting it all together besides planning and programming?
Chico MacMurtrie: The truth is I am really disorganized and Luise (Kaunert, his wife) really pushes me to be organized. She is the project manager and tries to keep all logistics organized. She tries to gather all the information so by now there is a booklet for the works. We have something when we are putting the pieces back together again. The more complicated works really need maps. But if she didn’t have these stored on the computer or online we would have had difficult situations.
I am interested if you are planning the whole procedure on computers or you are still working on paper?
Chico MacMurtrie: When I come up with a new idea I draw a lot to help organize my mind. To understand how will we come into an exhibition space and also to try to make people understand. Working on the computer is still much slower for me, I just like to write it out, draw it out. But at one point I need to make some kind of a model, a physical model. Since I can make the inflatables in miniatures that really helps. Because the hardest thing to understand is the dynamics. When you build it in real life it starts to behave in certain ways. How do you control it? How do you coordinate all the things it can do without having to get in the way of itself? They are so flexible that if you order the movement in the right way it forms the structure you want, but if you order the movement in the wrong way it just ends itself up getting in trouble. So you have to have a system orchestrating the series of movements to keep it out of trouble and to do what it’s supposed to do. That is the hardest challenge maybe.
Organic Arches, Chrysalis and Biomorphic Wall. Sketches by Chico MacMurtrie source: amorphicrobotworks.org
How did you end up building things which are moving?
Chico MacMurtrie: I think it is because I was always interested in movements and performance and sound. I minored in dance because I really liked the improvisations in movement. I like things in theater too so I studied lightning and I studied electronic music and I was always into making instruments to make noise. Those things just evolved and then became what is happening now. But I studied all the sculptural things, you know.
"These servo-pneumatic sculptures, consisting of interconnected chambers of high tensile composite fabric, offer an alternative vision of robotic sentience." Pneuma World at Muffatwerk, Munich 2016. Video directed by Peider A. Defilla. source: amorphicrobotworks.org
They describe you as a new-media artist. What do you think about this title? Do you consider yourself a new-media artist and if the answer is a yes, what do you think about the future and influence of new-media?
Chico MacMurtrie: I feel more like an old media artist (he laughs) – I have been using stuff that was used, when I started using it. It was discarded stuff from the automation industry and workshops, things that made machines move. I was able to get these things cheap and used. But for an artist it was also exciting because movement – you can make things move. There are a lot of artist that are interesting to me to who I can relate to but I don’t think really any of them consider themselves new-media artist so much. It is a weird title. What do you think about that title Bill?
Bill Bowen: I am a little cynical about it. I think anything that trades technological sophistication is generally complicated. When something is theoretically interesting but it’s not aesthetically interesting – I just feel new media is that stuff. And that doesn’t mean there are no amazing people doing new media. But unfortunately the people who are doing this are thinking new media is an umbrella. I always think technology should serve art and not the other way around. I feel like so much in new media is labeling something art because it is really sophisticated technically.
Chico MacMurtrie: That’s a continual battle.
"Organic Arches is a site-specific installation consisting of a progression of inflatable arches in different sizes that undergo an organic metamorphosis several times a day. " photos: Douglas Adesko source: amorphicrobotworks.org
Besides all the mechanical prospects we were talking about what does the metamorphosis means to you? Does it just come with the robotic works: this is what they do, they move, they change time to time?
Chico MacMurtrie: The fabric I am working with now really just looks like a pile of fabric when you put it someplace. But I think there is a conscious choice to make the pile of fabric, the beginning point look interesting. So I think the best example is the Arches, because they begin in a really interesting organic shape that symbolizes a lot of things. Then it’s surprising that they turn into an arch. So in a way it’s the classic example to get the material to do what I really wanted. So the metamorphosis between those two stages is important.
I have seen that there is a wide range of materials you have used during your practice. How did you end up using this ephemeral, textile-like material you use now?
Chico MacMurtrie: My idea was to make a soft machines. I made a robotic skeleton and it took me four years to make it and program the interacting and etc. At the end it still looked like a robot, like a rigid robot. We worked to make it elegant to have a smooth movement – and actually that was the first servo-controlled system that we were able to use. And there was a lot of technology so the simple action of the robot can be smooth. But it was still skeletal and metal. All of these things together still gave me a robot looking robot. Especially now when everybody can do robots you want to go on the opposite direction. I was interested in how just the quality of a gesture makes everybody individual. That’s kind of what I was interested in. This was the point of departure. When I found the material of that I could make these muscles and bones out of – it took a really long time to get the material what I wanted. It still doesn’t do completely what I wanted and it is still not completely dependable. But the plan was to make it different from the other traditional robotic materials.
Pneuma World, Muffatwerk, Munich 2016 photo: Luise Kaunert source: amorphicrobotworks.org
How should I call them: robots, sculptures, installation or it can be both?
Chico MacMurtrie: The soft machines are machines. Without the computer they are machines. They are not really robots because in a way Bill’s the one running them and – the robot really technically is supposed to be sense the environment. This thing doesn’t care at all. We are just running them with technology. We are giving them orders to repeat things.
Bill Bowen: They are definitely using robotics but are they robots? Man, I don’t know. Globally they are not aware what is happening – it’s not like a neural network. It could be done, but it’s not what we want to do.
Chico MacMurtrie: It’s enough work to make it be and move and all that other stuff is unnecessary. At one point my ambition is to pursuit the humanoid form again from this material. On one hand we are super close to be able to do it. It’s kind of the most exciting thing the horizon to get this to work. It is an interesting technical challenge.
Really huge special thanks to Gyöngyi Petrovics Lufer and Dietmar Lupfer for making this interview happen.