Meet the Red Hook artist making performance art out of robots in an old church

Chico MacMurtrie blends engineering and art into a completely unique experience.

Chico MacMurtrie is the artist behind Robotic Church.

(Photo by Tyler Woods)

On Friday night about 40 people gathered in the nave of an old Norwegian sailors’ church to experience more than 50 robots bang, pluck and drum on their instruments.

Friday afternoon was blustery and it was raining hard and had gotten dark as the audience made their way into the side entrance of a brick church down by the water in Red Hook. The robots are arranged all throughout the church: some up on the mezzanine looking down at the audience, some affixed to the walls, and some are behind doors which open and close when it’s that robot’s time for a solo. During the performance, attention is drawn to robots by lighting up different parts of the church, which was otherwise lightless, save for the occasional and perfect flash of lightning visible through the church’s windows.

"I view them as a society of machines."
Chico MacMurtrie

The robots, particularly when many play at once, are loud.
They don’t play in unison, and there’s not much in the way of melody. There did seem to be some type of narrative being played out, however. One robot climbs a rope in the center of the room. Another, half-man, half-woman robot, stands atop a globe. Yet another plays from inside a plastic bag, which is vacuum sealed and seems to suffocate the twitching machine. As a whole, the piece tends toward being unsettling, surreal and profound.

It’s all the work of artist Chico MacMurtrie and his collaborators. About half the show is preprogrammed, and the other half is played live by the group. MacMurtrie has spent countless hours building and maintaining the decidedly lo-fi robots, all of which are built primarily from found materials, and most or all of which are powered by pneumatic cylinders rather than electricity.
“The objective was to make you aware of the human condition and the body,” MacMurtrie said. “I was fascinated by the motion of a machine depicting the most primitive aspect of us. Each one has taught me how to build the next one and the next one and the next one. I view them as a society of machines.”
After the audience filtered out, MacMurtrie and a group of friends and collaborators brought out a few bottles of wine and sat in a circle in the middle of the church, explaining how it all came to be. MacMurtrie had bought the church 15 years ago, when it was, as he put it, “bombed out.”
“There were like 30 kids living here, anarchist kids who were involved in all that in Seattle,” MacMurtrie recalled, referring to the WTO protests of 1999. “There were stoves and parachutes on the rafters. [MacMurtrie’s friend] Tony was like, ‘Cheeks, there’s no floors, there’s no roof, there’s no gas.'”
But he bought it nonetheless, and after a grant came through he was able to get it cleaned out and began repairs. It was, he thought, the perfect place for his robots.
His work has continued to involve engineering. A recent piece, Chrysalis, is a “site specific, ever-changing, interactive inflatable architectural robotic environment.”

“If you look at art today, the stuff that’s on the cutting edge is the perfect medium for artists and the perfect medium for engineers, but neither can do it themselves. It’s the perfect collaboration,” MacMurtrie said. “I appreciate my experience with engineering ’cause it’s made me more logical and I plan better. If you work like an engineer, once you plan something you have to build the damn thing.”


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