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Alternative Culture Articles

December 31, 2000

Techno-Performance Art
By Royce Carlson

The sound of explosions and the sight of fire and smoke in the evening sky drew me closer. "What the hell is going on?" I thought, as I made my way through the crowd of people gathered around some kind of performance. What I saw was a battle between a remotely controlled machine spitting fire and another machine that looked like a small army tank with a huge claw on the front. This was the performance of SEEMEN at Burning Man ’99, a festival of art and self-expression held in the Nevada desert each year.

This is a genre of art that has yet to be adequately named. It combines computer technology, robotics and mechanical engineering to produce kinetic art. The SEEMEN group, consisting of about 40 artists and extreme technology inventors, is among a small number of artists creating in this field.

Perhaps the best known of the "Techno-Performance" artists is Mark Pauline who founded Survival Research Laboratories in the San Francisco area in 1978. SRL builds incredibly dangerous machines that attack each other in public performances. An SRL show is not like the cute little "battle-bots" TV show. SRL’s Pitching Machine, for example, launches 6 foot-long 2 x 4’s at 120 miles per hour with a range of about 800 feet. It has an automatic loader that holds 20 boards and is powered by a 500 horsepower Eldorado engine. Another machine, currently under construction is powered by jet engines.

Self-destructive art like that produced by SRL is not a totally new concept. Perhaps the father of this idea is Gustav Metzger. Born in 1926 he developed the concept of auto-destructive art in the 60’s and 70’s as social commentary on the destructive forces in society. He began with paintings using acid on nylon so that the painting dissolved before your eyes. He developed the concept on paper of sculptures that would disintegrate during the course of an exhibition and other self-destructive art ideas that, for one reason or another, were not allowed by the museums he hoped to exhibit them at.

As new technology is developed, artists get a hold of it to see what can be done. The advent of easily affordable computers and robotics has allowed artists to experiment in the area of automated electromechanical performances. The Amorphic Robot Works and Ullanta Performance Robotics produce shows where the performers are robots.

In another vein, the Large Hot Pipe Organ is the world’s only midi-controlled propane explosion organ. It has twenty vertical steel steam pipes with propane injectors that are controlled with a computer. It weighs 11 tons and can be heard easily over 2 miles away. You can hear an MP3 of the LHPO at their web site.

At the Burning Man Festival there are several artists exploring the use of technology to create art. From the L2K Array, a 500’ diameter circle of 2000 computer controlled lights, to the Laser Man, a huge outline of a figure produced by lasers, it is an ideal environment for grand techno-artistic experiments.

One of the more spectacular techno-performances at Burning Man is Dr. Mega Volt. He wears a special suit and has a large truck with two giant Tesla coils on top. His performance consists of being zapped by hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity.

I have always had a boyish fascination with art and technology (especially if it involves fire and loud noises) so this kind of art is a real thrill. That’s why I just bought myself a MIG welder for Christmas. The fun is about to begin!


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Royce Carlson