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Rising Art: Automata's Intelligence

A new species has been spotted in the Bywater, and one prior sighting has been recorded. It has unexplained vestiges and fast-moving parts, is swift and reptilian. It is Automata 2011, an exhibition of kinetic and mechanical sculpture defying categorization, but existing somewhere between Burning Man, Northeast progress and the Rust Belt. "Art exhibition" it is not.

It is a robotics convention, an experiment, a party (it only exists to the public as “opening” and “closing” events), a meetingplace for kinetic sculptors, a place to run around and have fun. Myrtle Von Damitz, a painter, formed Automata out of a need for a robotics outlet in New Orleans.

Shows like Automata (named to avoid but approach Kinetica, a museum of art and technology in London), appear in other places, but the semblance is the first of its kind in New Orleans. There are meet-ups of robotics tinkerers, to be sure, but the coming-together of mechanics, artists, inventors, and the like, with a particular bent toward robotics, is unique and unprecedented here.

At the opening on Saturday, April 9th, grown people were spinning around a merry-go-round (“Swing Turbine” by Mark Koven of Asheville, NC), jumping for joy, with crazed, happy expressions, wondering, WHY DON'T WE ALWAYS DO THIS? What is the role of art? Is comedic film not also film? Should the role of art be to entertain?

I am inclined not to call it art; is that because that will call into question why all art isn’t as fun as Automata?

Keene Kopper, a participating architect and sculptor, when asked, “what is Automata?” said, “I wouldn’t categorize it.”

Bob Snead’s piece, for example, is a converted ATM machine inside the industrial, warehouse space, which orates, "You are probably looking for money but I don't have any money, so please go away," "Now I have no recourse," and, "You're just here because of the stupid hippies."

Snead built the piece from a hundred-dollar touch-screen on Ebay, a flash animation screen which acts as a mouse. In New Haven, CT, Snead installed a different version in a strip mall, "guerilla-style," and cops thought he was stealing an ATM while he was de-installing the piece.

Automata begs extension--what if Snead’s piece were installed outside of a commercial storefront in New Orleans, and people were faced with interacting with it while attempting to milk an ATM, for real?

"Developing all the conditions conducive to anybody's ability to figure something out and make something new is what I'm hoping for," Von Damitz said about the show’s outreach. “A big question in New Orleans is whether or not everybody needs to go to college. Every skill you can use making something at Automata, you can use in an industry." Automata showcases the "scrappy people in New Orleans who already know how to do everything."

Von Damitz wants to continue the ingenuity. She envisions robotics classes for kids, a supply store with a club or membership, enabling the purchase of wholesale-price supplies. In future Automatas, she hopes to work with people in different disciplines, including biology, medical science, mechanics, and construction-- “Real skills and trades.”

The Ironworks location has a literal skeleton in the corner, and dogs roaming free. I came to the warehouse to get some answers about the deeply uncategorizable exhibition, and ended up hanging out for a couple of hours with Snead, Von Damitz, Kopper and James Goedert, realizing that the more fruitful of the possibilities was to just riff with them, jazz improv-style, and see where the night took us.

A unique component of Automata, facilitated by Von Damitz and her demeanor, is its community. Hanging out during setup, Kopper was replacing fans that last week’s thunderstorms took out. Goedert’s night involved “going to Lowe's a couple of times, getting a cutting apparatus,” hoping “it all pans out." Later, he returned, and Ariadne Doyle’s serene helix appeared to lack a complete electrical circuit, but Goedert had “an extra plug and finishing wire,” and offered to solder the necessary parts.

Tonight’s closing reception will figure differently than the opening, in several ways. "Living automatons," live performers, will swing from a ring and perform Burlesque dancing on a built stage. Much of the work that was formerly indoors will move outside.

Many of the favorites will still be there: Christopher Denis’ elegant trees. Mik Kastner’s showdown of two hot glue guns, facing each other, hooked up to.an air compressor and shooting glue at each other methodically, building a large spiderweb. David Sullivan’s spoofing facial recognition technology.

"They all seem interrelated, and I don't know why yet," said Von Damitz of Automata’s crux. Computers appear alongside pulleys and squeaky wheels. To be Automata, "we need the little machines that fail," she said. Curating, she understands "someone's temperament and skills,” and explains why they fit in if they don't see why they fit in. “You have to understand the way it works down here. You can't just show up with your monster." Though she strikes a balance, many of the more technologically advanced artists are harder to lure.

"I do want to put us on the map," said Von Damitz. “We're trying to provide funds for artists.” The organic structure of the show, Von Damitz hopes, is that New Orleans, specifically Automata, will become a destination for robotics.

Amazingly for such a new being as Automata, show participants see a cut of funds raised. Artists’ materials are covered, and outright grants given, whether the artists use the money to work on their entry, or to pay rent if the show demands more time off of work is their own prerogative.

And the show has already proven to be something that local businesses love to sponsor. With fundraising activities as ingenuous as its curation and parts, Von Damitz and the artists pulled off a Cheap art auction, a raffle, and a backyard barbecue shortly before the opening.

But, said Von Damitz, "We need an institutional relationship. We need money to accomplish our goals."

Like a new technological advancement or a highly advanced, yet unnamed life form, “If you're talking about biological materials, it's the petri dish, rather than the finished product."