LEMUR sounded like it would be AWESOME: the League of Electronic Musical Robots would be performing at UC Irvine's Beall Center for Art and Technology, which almost always has rocking robotics; even when installations are Pong-era blips, they're ironically and nostalgically so. And robots make everybody happy, especially if they're robot butlers or talking cars. But mostly robot butlers.
But Eric Singer and seemingly every other member of NYU's Interactive Telecommunication program, with grants from not just the Rockefeller Foundation but at least five others, have given us . . . robot cymbals and robot bells. You can control the cymbals and bells from an interactive pedestal. You can also withdraw money from your bank account by putting your fingers on a touch screen. . . . I'm afraid this no longer sets the world on fire.
While I've seen some fantastic and goofy robot bands in the past decade—most particularly Captured by Robots, evil creatures who'd stuck their kindly creator in S & M restraints and abused him like Mommy Dearest while they performed such evil songs as "I Just Peed Your Waterbed"—most robot music ends up
. . . well, robotic. Like the kind of atonal music you'd learn to (de-)compose at NYU's Interactive Telecommunication program.
(I had to watch most of the group's creations online, via videos of past performances; most of the exhibit was still being installed when I arrived for the press preview.) (Also, one of my very best friends, Sherry, attended NYU's Interactive Telecommunication program and absolutely loved every second; she can program a MIDI like nobody's business. But her tastes also run to the screams of Diamanda Galas.)
Online, I listened to a past composition for Guitarbot—which is totally different from Captured by Robots' Gtrbot666, because it has vowels and isn't evil. The music was very like the mellow opening strains of a Metallica ballad, before the screech begins. It wasn't offensive, but there was nothing to it.
Robotics and music have not been novelsince the Moog. I would make a lemur joke here about cliffs, but I'm afraid I already used it in the title.
Last year, the beloved Trimpin, showing at Orange County Museum of Art, had a couple of snoozy, self-playing pieces that I ignored instead of savaged because I'd met him and he was a lovely fellow.
With LEMUR, as with Trimpin, there's little to see: of the more than 20 "sculptures," exactly six give you anything to look at (the rest are small objects up in the rafters), and five of those are identical. Meanwhile, projected on the floor are colorful geometricisms (my friend asked Singer if they related to Archimedes' theories on music and geometric harmonics, but the answer, sadly, was no) that were no Pink Floyd at the Laserium. In fact, they weren't even the fractals my NYU roommates programmed while they were stoned.
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The five identical sculptures were called Forestbots. They stand high on their pedestals, their white fiber-optic tentacles (with little condom- or grenade-looking rattles at the tips) waving happily. By the name, I'd assume they were supposed to evoke trees in a forest—and to an extent they did. But they were also spidery, octopusoisand squid-like. Their noise really was charming, with a happy rhythm that could provoke some tribal dancing from folks who didn't even know they had native in them. But
. . . that was it.
If you're earning your grants by making robots, it would seem they would need more bells and whistles than just bells and cymbals. If your focus was on the music, it would have to be a composition or a song worth listening to. And if you want to wrap it up as art, you'd need something more visually arresting than tentacles that resemble my mom's old poseable floor lamps, except they're bigger and they wave. With rattles.
I've been accused (often) of looking at art as entertainment instead of taking it seriously. Usually, art takes itself seriously enough for the both of us. But in a case like this, the joyous (and evil) decade-old, one-man-band Captured By Robots singing stupid ditties while dressed in a slave mask (and activating his clanging "robots" with foot pedals) has it all over this serious band of academics. There's a song and a story to the one. The other? Anybody can play a synthesizer these days. It's all the interactive you need.
LEMUR at UC Irvine's Beall Center for Art and Technology, West Peltason & Pereira, Irvine, (949) 824-4339. Open Tues.-Wed., noon-5 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., noon-8 p.m. Through March 19. Free.