Why one provocative artist built 'praying robots' for his newest installation

Kal Spelletich's praying robots, on display now in Los Angeles.
Rob Walker, Yahoo News
·Rob Walker

The experimental artist Kal Spelletich has made work with, and about, technology for years. Along the way, he developed an interest in Buddhism.

These two strands have come together in Spelletich's new exhibition that involves, among other things, praying robots.

Praying robots? Oh, we’ll get to the praying robots. But to understand what Spelletich is up to, we have to back up a few decades. Since the late 1980s, he’s done a range of playful and provocative work, much of it performance-based. You may remember him from the the movie Slacker: He’s the guy wearing a backpack of TV sets, lamenting that a real-life stabbing he happened to witness was inferior to similar events he’d seen in movies and TV shows.

Back then he was part of a collective called Seemen, which used those TV backpacks in often-jarring performances at various art spaces. Later he moved to San Francisco, working at times with the infamous Survival Research Laboratories, and putting on shows that featured an amazing array of contraptions that spewed fire and otherwise projected violent menace. An invite to his most recent “Industrial Robotics and Performance” in San Francisco this summer included this prominent notice: “YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH BY ATTENDING THIS PERFORMANCE!”

Given this fiery history, you might be surprised to learn that Spelletich’s latest work delves into the “spiritual.” Spelletich explained that this new thread wasn’t so much a break with the past as an evolution. He’s never been religious, but having outgrown knee-jerk cynicism, he’s developed a different response to spirituality that draws on his techno-artistic past.

“If technology is running the planet and us, and everyone is glued to their personal devices and this thing called the Internet,” he asks, “can tech do deeper, metaphysical work? Can it do more that just transmit information?”

For instance: As part of a residency at Arts Benicia, north of San Francisco, Spelletich made short videos of about 50 people “thinking positive thoughts” about the future. These were shown in loops, on four monitors; at any given moment the viewer was exposed to four faces, “kind of beaming at you, kind of glowing.”

There’s a clear link between that project and a current piece that’s part of the show “Artifacts of a Life Lived by the Living (to Live ),” running September 29-January 5 at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. This time, Spelletich has recorded brief clips of friends, family, and acquaintances … daydreaming. Playing with the age-old admonition get your head out of the clouds, he taped his subjects in Golden Gate Park and other outdoor settings on appropriately partly-cloudy days.

Ironically, if not surprisingly, one challenge was convincing them to block out time in their schedules to go to a park and daydream. “People kept saying, ‘Oh I don’t know Kal, I’m so busy!’” Spelletich says. “I said, ‘Yeah, it’s sort of about that.’” After all, the point of much contemporary technology seems to be to help us avoid daydreaming at all costs.

But the actual recording sessions turned out to be a pleasure, precisely because they broke the cult of busy. In the resulting installation, daydreamer clips lasting a minute or three are projected in five loops onto a ceiling, but there is also a sixth feed: a live cam with a cloudy-sky background that invites the visitor to stop, daydream, and become part of the show. The upshot pushes the quasi-Buddhist notion that daydreaming “is a very healthy thing” — a behavior that can help us solve problems, and amounts to a variation on meditation. “Just spacing out,” Spelletich muses. “Why can’t that be a practice, a healthy form of spiritual practice?”

This brings us to his current work in progress — the praying robots. These are anthropomorphic (although explicitly mechanical) objects outfitted with an array of sensors that aim to detect the viewer’s “aura.” Spelletich is a bit secretive about the details, but mentions hacked versions of sensors measuring temperature, light, pulse, humidity and so on, as well as revised and recombined versions of technologies such as lie detectors and EKG machines.

Based on what it picks up from the viewer, the machine will perform one of several “gestures” — kneeling, hand clasping, genuflecting. The physical execution, Spelletich says, will range from humorous to solemn. As a final detail, he has outfitted the robots in human clothing he has gathered from individuals who have influenced his life over the years.

“I am obsessed with how the robots are triggered, giving them some intelligence harvested from the audience,” Spelletich continues, and using that intelligence to cause what appears to be the antithesis of warmth and spirituality (a robot) to perform this sort of function. “There’s something great about combining these seemingly paradoxical things.”

The plan is to present the praying robots at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, in conjunction with the next installment of the art-and-tech-focused Zero1 Biennial. Clark, who first met with Spelletich this past summer, shies away from the word “spiritual,” but told me she is drawn to the “humanity” of the praying robots, the way they push material as well as conceptual boundaries, and the “confusing and compelling way” they address the human yearning to access the divine. Also: “They’re funny.”

The connection here to Spelletich’s more visceral performances is that they, too, use machines to jar the audience into the present, and transform passive viewing into a genuine experience. It only works if the audience responds. Can that happen when a robot is genuflecting, rather than spewing flames? Spelletich thinks so.

“Maybe I’m naïve,” he says. “I want to be naïve!”