For the last 30 years, Chico MacMurtrie has created metaphors with machines exploring the intersection of robotic sculpture, new media installation and performance. His recent work, developed and produced with his interdisciplinary collective Amorphic Robot Works (ARW), comprises light-weight “soft” machines activated by air pressure. This exhibition highlights a selection of works from MacMurtrie’s “Inflatable Architectural Bodies” series from 2004 through the present.
These servo-pneumatic sculptures, consisting of interconnected chambers of high tensile composite fabric, offer an alternative vision of robotic sentience — one in which the machine appears vulnerable and ephemeral as it transforms through a sequence of motions. The soft machines strive to achieve simple gestures or actions, as if searching for basic dignity or a sign of their existence. In some cases, during the span of a performance, they relapse or degenerate into embryonic lumps of matter, and then undergo the vital ordeal of rebirth.
Designed and built at increasingly large scales, these ephemeral bodies, either freestanding or suspended in mid-air, use air pressure and its opposite, vacuum, to inflate and deflate through an articulated series of movements. They exhibit the phenomena of gradual metamorphosis, growth, decay, and interaction. As works of sculpture they reveal a spectrum of form through the many in-between states of transformation. Reminiscent of organisms, they inhabit the space with their soft bodies in a deflated state before unfurling into monumental geometric structures. Pneuma World is composed of nine individual robotic sculptures that document Amorphic Robot Works’ increasingly sophisticated artistic and technological exploration of this specific medium over the course of a decade.
For its first incarnation, Pneuma World kinetically animates the vast space of Muffatwerk in Munich in four distinct compositions of movement, sound, shape and volume over an hour-long performance or “life” cycle. A seemingly inert wall of interconnected fabric tubes transforms into a breathing membrane gliding through space; another inflatable sculpture descends from the ceiling upon the audience, gently enveloping them in a giant molecular structure. These compositions, first imagined by MacMurtrie in a series of four large-scale drawings, are achieved in real space and time using Midi-based software. Designed by ARW collaborator Bill Bowen, this software is capable of interpolating and mapping the data coordinates of the sculptures’ movements and velocity through space. This software also provides the technological foundation for the audience’s journey through this immersive environment. Visitors, following the machines’ progression deep into the exhibition space, find themselves enveloped in and surrounded by a robotic world in motion cycling from a soft, deflated state into a taut, almost metallic state. They have become part of a world that promises increasingly close connections between the inflatable sculptural body, the human body and the environment. In making visible the flow of air within these soft sculptural bodies, Pneuma World thus offers a metaphor for humans’ precarious yet vital relationship with our environment, and reconsiders the possibilities for a total art experience.
Pneuma World by Chico MacMurtrie/ARW at Muffatwerk, Munich 2016. Video directed by Peider A. Defilla.