by Ruixuan Li
The life-size robot named after Mark Pauline, the founder of Survival Research Laboratories, leans forward a coffee table on its knees. I put my hand onto the device that is wrapped in fabric and standing in front of the robot, and started to grip it. The robot moved back upright with his arms stretched up and then lean forward again. Its speed goes with how deep I grip the pressure sensor. This is one of the seven headless robots on display in Intention Machines at Catharine Clark Gallery near San Francisco Design Center. All of the seven robots represent people who have profoundly influenced the artist’s life, and can move based on inputs from viewers, such as proximity, touch, and ambient sound. Photographs of the sun, respectively inspired by these figures and modified with various apparatus, are also included in the show. This solo exhibition for Kal Spelletich opens through May 23rd 2015 along with several special events.
“I am sorry about being late, do you need water or coffee?” Kal Spelletich came into the kitchen where I was told by the gallery assistant that it is a good place for interview, with his motorcycle helmet in his right arm. “I bring you flowers!” He splayed his left hand and passed two yellow wildroses to me.
It is quite rare that a commercial gallery has these avant-garde installations exhibited, which has turned Catharine Clark Gallery into an experimental laboratory. However, such a fusion goes with Spelletich’s interest in combining things that don’t seem coming together. Artworks hang in museums are too obvious to attract Spelletich who sees art as a small part of his life and shows his enthusiasm for many different fields: science, Zen study, music, the nature, etc.
As an old friend of Burning Man, Spelletich stopped participating the famous event from Year 2000. This collective is becoming extremely fashionable in these years and thus has failed in appealing to him. “Once it is popular, it is less interesting. Going out up to Black Rock City is ghetto! You should do this in the city to be radical,” says Spelletic, who dislocates the robots in a white-cube gallery to allow a wider range of viewers to come with neither expensive tickets nor fuels for driving. The costless interactions offer San Francisco citizens an access to the uncanny installations, confuse them, and then inspire them to think about their true nature. At the same time, for both viewers and Spelletich himself, it is an opportunity to learn new things.
“You always learn from your audience. I don’t know everything. I’m the student of my life.” Live audience is important to Spelletich, because he could conduct on-site tests with them when he does not understand his own pieces. He loves watching people who behave in a totally different way than what he supposes, which could add even more diversities into these variable machines. The artist calls the communications between the robots and audience as “energy”, and he thinks that the energy is floating everywhere but unseen. According to him, everyone has the energy no matter they can recognize it or not. When audience approaches the robots, the live people’s different energy could be quantified by heartbeats, pulse, breathe, pressure, etc. and then injected into the robots. Then, the robots convert the energy and make bio-feedbacks to the audience with prayer or blessing postures. Although the humanized machines manufactured by Spelletich can be associated with the monster Frankenstein, they are opposite creatures against it. Unlike the monster who attacks its maker and villagers due to mutual distrust, the intention machines try to induce goodness and supports in energy fields.
Nevertheless, Spelletich does share a similarity with Doctor Frankenstein–both of them breed new life into dead things. In order to make Arbor Aeronautics, a 20 foot Monterey Pine tree robot covered with naturally occurring traditional healing herbs, Spelletich drove his car to collect trees blown down by a storm. “I plant a lot of trees. If I do have a religion, it is the environment.” He always question about “what keeps the planet functioning” and “who makes decisions for us in our life.” “The most important things for human beings are why are we on the planet and what should we do,” says the artist. To use technology as a metaphor of this exploration, he made Master Mind Machine (which reads people’s brain waves and react by moving and hugging) and Kalopticon, his robotic self-portrait that can be controlled by manipulating a voodoo doll at a monitor. “You think in certain ways, then robots think in certain ways. Can you control them by your thoughts?” Based on this doubt, he made some of the intention machines whose respondance are very difficult to be triggered so that audience need to make efforts to help them. After you “do a favor to them,” you will get their thanks– blessing in reward.
“People who I exhibit their figures here have extra positive energy that I feel like,” says Spelletich. These spiritual mentors play a role in suggesting visitors to do good for others, “which has not been addressed by Western contemporary art.” The artist
admits that he has very few collectors, and it is hard for galleries to show such arts that make very little money. But, Catharine Clark loves both his idea and works. She even borrowed one piece of his works from Jules Maeght Gallery for the show. When mentioning these two galleries who are representing him, Spelletich says, “both Jules and Catharine are making risks. They need to pay rent, and they risk losing money.” But Jules and Catharine are still willing to show these unprofitable works, because they believe in these intentional machines’ good intention.
After the interview, I took a photo of Spelletic standing next to the robot Kay Miller. He asked: “Do you like the photo? Did I answer all your questions? Did I help you?” “Yes,” I said, and I smelled the wildroses all the way.