studio visit with alan rath

this conversation with alan rath took place at his studio ahead of his solo exhibition irrational exuberance.

th:   this show seems like a turning point in your work.   there are no screens.   no images.    it’s all robotic.

ar:   yeah, i’ve always been interested in mechanical movement — it’s really how i started making art — but then i made some video sculptures and kind of got distracted.  i mean i made pieces with screens for how many years?  twenty?

th:   twenty years is more than a distraction.

ar:    well, i went with it…   but continued to be interested in physical mechanical movement.  i like three-dimensional objects.   and to me, there’s something very compelling about an object that moves.   i wanted to make sculptures that didn’t just sit there.

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ar:  i did some mechanical pieces in the mid-80s and started combining those ideas with feathers in the late-90s.   my first robots that used feathers were kind of massive,  rigid things.   they moved slowly and the feathers were only a small part of the design –  not the focus.

the movement of most kinetic art work is repetitive.   what i wanted to do with robotics is different.  to me, what distinguishes robotic work from kinetic work is that robotic work is open-ended — it doesn’t just run in a loop.   the pieces i’ve been making modify their own movements.

th:   the motions constantly change?

ar:   yeah.   for me the essence of what a robot is is in its autonomy — not its shape –  for example, static humanoid sculptures aren’t robots.

th:   explain what you mean by “autonomy”?

ar:    i didn’t want to make puppets.  my work isn’t something where i’m behind the curtain with a remote control for a performance.   i think sculptures are objects that should exist independently.    a robotic sculpture should move on its own accord — without human intervention.   it should choreograph it’s own actions.    and  it should know when to move and when to sleep.

th:   have a life on its own…

ar:   yeah.   something i started doing around 1999 was eliminating on/off switches.   that switch really drove me crazy.   not visually, but conceptually.   probably didn’t matter to anybody else… but i really didn’t like the idea of turning an artwork off.   it sort of seemed like putting a painting in the closet and then, ok,  you come home and take the painting out of the closet and put it on the wall and you look at it and then you take it down and put it back in the closet when you leave.

th:   that’s something that’s always bothered me about video…   it’s only there when you’ve turned on the player.

ar:    yeah,  well i didn’t like it for my sculptures.   an object has to be all of the time, not just when you remember to turn it on.   so now my sculptures have motion detectors and they sleep when nobody’s around.

th:   when it’s asleep, it’s not actually doing something inside is it?

ar:   well it is.   the brain is always working.   kind of makes you wonder about sleep in the computer world…   but in terms of  your own life,  it makes you think about the transition between sleep and wakefulness, how we manage to boot up our consciousness.

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th:  why are you using feathers?

ar:  at first, it was just because i was looking for an extremely light, strong material.

but you know, a lot of my work makes reference to the human body and i’ve often fused machinery with organic forms or found materials to make sculptures seem more alive.    i have this idea that we’ve all become cyborgs without recognizing  it.   think about protective  clothing, vaccines, contraceptives, eyeglasses,  wristwatches, cellphones…

th:  contact lenses, pacemakers, prosthetics…

ar:   exactly.   so the feathers and the movements they can make, make these robots seem more alive.

th:   and these specific types of feathers?

ar:    i experimented with a lot of different feathers.   certain feathers enhanced certain kinds of movements.   the pheasant tail feathers are so flexible…  i can get them to bend and vibrate.   the ostrich feathers are very soft…  they kind of “fluff.”

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th:  are you interested in dance?  i mean,  some of these pieces feel very “choreographed”…

ar:  ha! that would be funny since i’m this white guy from the suburbs who can’t dance.   no.   i guess i’m not really interested in dance.   but going to an auto assembly line, now that’s pretty beautiful.  so that’s more my inspiration.

th:  well the organic nature of the feathers, the flexibility, there’s something that’s really different…

ar : than the assembly line?

th:  yeah.

ar:   well i saw these pheasant feathers used in the headdress of a chinese folk dancer in taiwan and was mesmerized.  and i am very interested in music.  that’s where i get lots of the ideas about how to handle the organization of the movements of these sculptures.

th:  you’re not working with screens anymore?

ar:  i’m taking a break.

th:   why?

ar:  i wanted to get away from them…   they’re too loaded.  we can’t see one without thinking of computers or televisions —   something we think we should be getting information from…   we don’t “see” a screen anymore –  we automatically “read” it.    i’m also over the rectangle.   too many art works are based on grids.   this body of work is based on circles and radial symmetry.     i wanted to get away from that whole cartesian way of thinking.

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th:  tell me about the tripods.

ar:  tripods…   well there’s this problem with sculpture…   if you don’t want a pedestal, how does the piece interface with the floor?   it needs its own stand…  and you can’t really make a neutral pedestal, a non-existent pedestal, so it really has to be a part of the piece.    so i did all these tripod experiments…   trying to come up with my own tripod.

th:  reinvent the wheel?

ar:  well, i still sometimes use ready-made tripods.   but with some work, i want a viewer to have no associations with any recognizable object.    that’s also part of the reason i didn’t want to use any screens in this exhibition.

so the tripod issue presented a real challenge — i needed something that functioned as a tripod but didn’t look like any tripod you’ve seen before.   my tripod is asymmetrical and the “spine” leans slightly rather than standing exactly vertical.   i emphasized two legs and hid the third.  the result is something which looks much more human or animal, rather than mechanical.    but the design does what i need a tripod to do –  it stands on three points so it’s stable and it also collapses for transport.

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th:  i love the sound that some of the feather pieces make…   it’s like some other-worldly singing…    what is that?

ar:   they’re the vibrations of the motors moving the feathers.   as they speed up and slow down, they vibrate at different speeds — that makes different tones.   without the feathers, the vibrations are inaudible.    the feathers act as speaker cones and amplify the vibrations.

th:   really cool.    did you know they’d do that?

ar:  no.  it was a pleasant surprise.

th:  i find some of these pieces kind of sexy, or sensual or something

ar:   well i hope so.   i want them to feel friendly, happy, sensual, alive…  welcoming.   and yet you see the problem…  i mean they are just machines…

i think our minds are sensitive to certain kinds of motions — “wired” to recognize movements that are inviting, or on the other hand,  threatening.   and so i was wondering, can you get a machine to trigger those kinds of receptors in the human brain and what does that look like?

th:   have you ever seen birds doing a mating dance?   there’s some of that same kind of thing in the way you’re making the feathers vibrate.   i’ve seen male peacocks fan their tails and then shake them in this really kind of silly way…   and there’s something about these that remind me of that.

ar:   well that’s good.   i like that.   i hope there’s also something about flowers.   i like the way flowers bloom and open up and just really put it out there so unashamedly.   i wondered if there was some sort of mechanical way of doing that.   i guess i wanted to explore playfulness and sensuality.   those are things that i haven’t seen in kinetic machine art — the work from the 70s and 80s — it all seemed so violent.    and heavy and industrial.   i wanted movement that was playful.

th:  there is kind of a…not silliness, but something that’s funny.

ar:  silliness and funniness.   i don’t think we should take ourselves too seriously.   maybe i’m not silly enough, but i would like my work to convey those qualities.

you know,  you want your work to be attractive –  that goes back to the flower thing.  like if you’re walking in the woods and there’s all this stimulation, all this visual stuff, but a flower catches your eye and you go over to look at it.  what is it that pulls you in when there’s all this other stuff and yet you focus on this flower?

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th:  did you read that michael pollan book, botany of desire?   he essentially says plants influenced their development by manipulating us.   it’s the same kind of stuff you’re talking about.  what is it that gets the attention of this human and makes them respond in a way that benefits the plant… or in this case the sculpture?  because the sculpture is animated by our presence, that’s what wakes it up…

ar:  and the sculptures need care.   that’s part of the loop…  so they somehow have to seduce a viewer to elicit that care.

th:  i also think that in general, a work of art has to seduce a viewer to begin with, but there has to be enough there to engage you over time.   otherwise it becomes the painting you end up putting away under your bed.

ar:   something that can be discovered over time…

th:  i think these robotic pieces do that.   you’re kind of forced to think about what it means to be living.

ar:   i know that from trying to build primitive robotic arms for this work.    you realize how amazing your own arm really is.  then you think about the interaction between your brain and your arm.   then the process of how you grew up and learned to run…    we’re living in a weird time — this emergence of artificial life.  always before there was this pretty obvious distinction between what was alive and what was not.  now there’re very complex machines with very complex software that evolve and kind of make you feel like they’re sort of alive.   and they’re only going to get more sophisticated and elicit more of that question of  “can we unplug this system? should we?’  that’s kind of new.

alan rath’s exhibition,  irrational exuberance,  is up at my gallery through saturday the 18th of may.

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