University City

Robots engage visitors in new art exhibit

The latest exhibit at Davidson College’s Visual Art Center features robotic artwork that interacts with and engages visitors.

Called “Parodic Machines,” the free exhibit is open daily and runs through Dec. 13 in Van Every/Smith Galleries. The show was curated by Paula Gaetano Adi and features works by Nick Bontrager, David Bowen, Matt Kenyon, Hye Yeon Nam and Fernando Orellana.

Here’s a sampling of what to expect: Five appendages with skeletal-looking hands are mounted to a wall. When a person enters, the hands follow and point at onlookers until they sense a smile – and then they wave in unison.

Another piece includes a trio of helium-filled balloons that carry house flies as cargo. The movement of the blimps is determined by small swarms of houseflies that live within chambers hanging from each blimp.

Sensors detect the changing light patterns created by the flies and send that information to an on-board micro-controller, which activates motors connected to propellers that move the devices.

Visitors also can sit in the replica of the pod featured in Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The piece, made from hand-sewn vinyl, is a scale model of the private space in which the characters, Dave and Frank, discuss the possibility of shutting down HAL 9000.

Lia Newman, director/curator of the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College, brought in a guest curator to put on what she called a true, 21st-century exhibit.

“This exhibition is far more interactive than many exhibitions, where you simply observe from afar,” said Newman. “Several of these works require human interaction. ... We have certainly never done any exhibitions like this before.”

Newman admires the artists’ use of sophisticated technology to create art but admits they’re all a bit absurd.

“These pieces don’t have a practical application, despite their reliance on science, engineering, etc.,” said Newman. “They are all a bit silly ... but we rely heavily on technology in our lives, so it only makes sense that the art world would progress in such a way as well.”

Newman said people won’t find an exhibit like it anywhere else in the Charlotte area.

“Through this exhibition, we are bridging the gap between science, technology, engineering, mathematics and art,” she said. “Hopefully, we will gain some new advocates for contemporary art through this interdisciplinary approach.”

The artists visited campus to install their work, as well as teach workshops, participate in a panel discussion and attend the opening reception last month.

Nearly 100 CMS students taking robotics courses at McClintock Middle School in Charlotte visited the exhibition and got a private tour from the artists.

David Taylor, the school’s robotics and science and technology engineering and mathematics teacher, said the exhibit truly opened their minds to new concepts.

“This was an awesome experience for my students,” he said. “They had the opportunity to view robotics in a creative and artistic light. It helped them think differently and change their outlooks on art as well as STEM. It actually has changed my thinking too.”

Madison Burkardt, an eighth-grader said, “It was pretty cool because I liked art already, but it was even cooler because of the mechanical aspects. I liked how everything worked.”

Caroline Lueck, also an eighth-grader, said she didn’t quite get it right away.

“It was confusing at first, and I did not understand what was going on with the art, because I do not think in that way,” she said. “I normally think with a purpose, so this was a different way of thinking. After they explained it to us, I understood it. Then I thought it was really cool. I want to see more things like it.”

Regina Caldwell, also an eighth-grader, said, “It was very interesting because usually in robotics we do stuff for a purpose. Instead the robots were not designed to specifically do anything. I liked it. It was cool.”

Assistant Curator Rosemary Gardner said having the artists install their pieces was the most interesting part of the process. She and Newman had to learn how to handle possible malfunctions, as well as learn about raising flies.

“This is very unique,” she said. “And that was most apparent during installation. We’re normally taught how to care for artwork ... so raising flies is way outside of our normal duties.”

Gardner said no flies were injured in the making of the exhibit.

“They are pampered, they have no dangers and the live a very good life flying around in blimps,” she said. “It’s absurd but wonderful – very different than a typical show.”

Ralph Blakely of Charleston has been a member of Davidson College’s Art Collection Advisory Committee for four years. He visited the exhibit last week.

“I like the idea that all of this technological stuff is being employed to create an artistic experience, a sense of an art event almost.” he said.

The artwork mimics the age in which we live.

“It is a stage in the evolution of art…,” said Blakely. “I’m very pleased Davidson is exhibiting this material for younger audiences, who understand it far better than I do, and in a way that makes intellectual sense. I think it’s really nifty.”