There's a red brick church in the middle of a quiet street a few blocks from the Red Hook, Brooklyn, IKEA store. Like the Swedish furniture behemoth, it has a Viking heritage and houses an agglomeration of deconstructed objects. But instead of piecemeal bookcases and bunk beds, The Robotic Church is stocked with dormant mechanical "saints" that artist Chico MacMurtrie periodically rouses to perform as a robotic orchestra.
"Three years ago I had to make a decision whether to save these machines which were stored in a container in Munich, Germany," says MacMurtrie, a soft-spoken Arizona native. He led a 60-person crew (loosely known as Amorphic Robot Works) to create the robotic players in his 50-piece, MIDI-controlled orchestra over the course of a 10-year European tour.
"We shipped them (to Brooklyn) ... and one-by-one they went under the knife and we restored them to their original condition. I thought to myself, 'These machines have ... lived several lives. They should be deemed saints.' "
The success of a performance he staged in the former Episcopal church for his marriage ceremony convinced MacMurtrie to open the doors of The Robotic Church to the world.
"We tuned all the machines, we rewrote some sequences ... and we opened it to the public three years ago. Ever since, we've done these performances, and we sell the house out."
The former Norwegian seamen's church, and subsequent ashtray factory, which MacMurtrie acquired in 2001, seats 70 people and serves as the artist's studio between Robotic Church performances.
"My background in robotics is a different path than most roboticists because I didn't study engineering," says MacMurtrie, a fine artist whose work is grounded in physical and symbolic gesture. "I started making bodies based on what I understood about my body. Then I started making humanoid performers that at first were puppet skins, and then they became puppets, and then they became mechanisms, and slowly I taught myself everything I needed to know. Each machine that I built taught me what I needed to learn about the next machine."
MacMurtrie consulted with several engineers, including his eldest brother, to create the movements of his robotic troupe.
"I found a need to make these machines play different qualities of percussion," says MacMurtrie, an experienced drum maker and drummer." The lines depict the human form but it didn't need to be more than that for me, so faces are just sort of a semblance of a face in the case of a lot of them ... what's more important (are) the gestures that they perform with their bodies. They're communicating with gesture, they're communicating through sounds, and they're also communicating as a society of machines. Each of them individually has a very simple role but when you orchestrate them all together it becomes much bigger in what it can be."
MacMurtrie works with a team to build soundscapes with a series of sequences and layer live improvisation on top of them. Their hour-long performances draw people from all over the world.
"You're sort of enclosed in this space and things are happening all around you in 360. It's a uniquely different experience for every human that comes into the church."
Over time, MacMurtrie's work with robotic skeletons led him to explore the muscles and other soft tissues that facilitate body language. This led to a period of creating inflatable "soft machines" that complement his metal performing robots.
"After a 15-year period of working with hard machines we moved into the idea of the soft machine," says MacMurtrie. "Over the last 10 years, the notion of inflatable architecture has evolved from (my early efforts) to build humanoid soft machines."
One of the latest manifestations of this work is a 60-foot, soft sculpture that MacMurtrie will unveil at the Super Bowl 50 festivities in San Jose, Calif. Titled "Border Crossers," the piece is envisioned as the first of six inflatable towers that will be strategically deflated to create archways over the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
"Imagine six of these "border crossers" being staged on the border; three in Mexico and three in America. The idea is simultaneously all of these bend over the border at the same time, forming a massive archway for a moment and maybe Google Maps captures that border. Basically ... it's a symbol of the idea of opening the borders and letting all the tension go."
MacMurtrie acknowledges that the border conflict between the U.S. and Mexico is an intense one, but he views it in the context of border disputes between Korea and China, Palestine and Israel and other nations. He conceived the piece as a peaceful gesture and meditation on artificial boundaries rather than as a direct political commentary.
"We certainly will talk about the border crossing issues in and around the city of San Jose if that comes up and we're ready to address that any time it happens," says MacMurtrie. "(As when) people come to The Robotic Church they have really different interpretations, this concept of a tower bending over and crossing the border ... is really open to interpretation. It opens up a whole bunch of thoughts but most importantly, it's about the gesture and opening up a conversation about the issues."
Robotic Church performances will be held on December 9, 10 & 11, 2015. 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM. 111 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn. Advance Tickets: $40.00.