serpent

Serpent Mother: The Flaming Lotus Girls from San Francisco warmed the night with a fiery dragon.

Each generation lays claim to the past with much the same force as it imagines the future. Sometimes we look to a period in the past and call it the Golden Age, whether it’s the Golden Age of TV or the Golden Age of DIY.

I was reminded of this while sitting on a plane to Amsterdam. I read about a Dutch painting from 1605, The Golden Age by Joachim Wtewael, that had gone on display at the Met in New York City. The painting depicts an idyllic forest, bathed in blue light, and full of resting sheep and goats, colorful birds, and cats and dogs. People inhabit this forest, without need of clothes or shelter, and live off the fruit from the boughs of trees. This is not a dark forest filled with wild creatures. It is a dreamlike state. The Golden Age is a picture of how we wish it might have been, even if it never was.

I recalled this painting after spending several days at Robodock (robodock.org), an art and technology festival held in September on the abandoned grounds of an enormous shipyard north of the city. Robodock reinhabited this industrial landscape that working men and large machines once dominated. Artists transformed the factory into a playful fantasia, something beautiful and carefree, yet pulsating, with extreme machines bathed in purple light. Here, we were invited to take control of the machinery in this giant factory and make our lives more wondrous and vibrant. I wandered around in a trance, not wholly conscious that I was living for a few nights in a made-up world.

Robodock Kickoff

Drumming signals the opening of Robodock. Acro-batic drummers are suspended down the outside wall of the main shipyard building, and come to life once a spotlight hits them. Next, the door to the warehouse opens to groaning sounds, harsh lights, and a blanket of fog. Soon, a train car emerges. Imagine this: the boxcar moves 20 feet on a section

of track, pulled forward on chains by one man; when the train stops at the end of the track, two sets of hydraulic legs descend and lift the train up off the track; now, the man pulls the section of track forward before the train is lowered upon the track and then tugged forward another 20 feet. It is a Sisyphean task to move this train, and it’s repeated to move the boxcar back inside.

As I follow it inside, the rest of the warehouse comes to life: a large fan puffs up the parachute of a dress worn by a woman in mid-air; an ice sculpture holds a flame burning inside; a mobile coffee shop built out of an old motorcycle serves java; a chef’s knives have piezoelectric pickups so that he makes music while he slices onions; and a man made of sawdust has his head buried in the side of a building topped with surreal clocks. I stop at Robocross for a drum solo by a brilliantly lit, spike-haired robotic drummer created by Frank Barnes of Berlin (robocross.de).

Delinus (delinus.com) of the Netherlands is zooming around in a delightful red-and-white plane that looks like a childhood toy. His other creation, Chez Jopie, is a small engine pulling a train of barstools. Soon, the Ferris wheel from Time Circus (laika.be) of Belgium begins to spin, next to a carousel designed as the underside of a hoop skirt.

Then La Machine (lamachine.fr) starts to play. This French musical troupe, directed by François Delarozière, created a workshop with 35 different machines — they’re playing mechanized instruments of their own making. Ever heard someone composing on a lathe?

Origins of Robodock

Robodock celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2007. Maik ter Veer is the founder and organizer of the festival, which runs for four nights in September. The event grew out of an artists’ collective that squatted in abandoned buildings in Amsterdam, and they have struggled to stay in the areas they’ve brought back to life. Ter Veer dreams of building a permanent home for Robodock so it becomes a year-round activity.

He has managed to get increasing funding from the city and the national government. This has given him a budget to bring in artists from around the world, and this year he has quite a few groups from the Bay Area. Ter Veer is especially happy to have Mark Pauline and Survival Research Labs, calling Pauline the “father of the machine art movement.” SRL produced a show for the finale of Robodock

on Saturday night.

All the facilities at Robodock are designed by members of this artistic community — the ticket booths, the bar, the coffee and food stands (the latter serving quite good vegetarian food). Most things are old and repurposed. Nothing is new. Nothing is commercial.

Robodock by Day

Coming in early the next day, I visit Pauline and his team of about 25 people from San Francisco. Their orange, 40-foot shipping container, filled with machine tools as well as machines of destruction, was late in arriving and they’re feeling rushed to complete their work in time. Pauline speeds by on an orange bike with a black basket.

The artists are late sleepers for the most part. Jarico Reesce of San Francisco’s Cyclecide looks haggard and complains about the rain and the tent he’s been sleeping in. There’s much work to be done by day to create this wonderful illusion at night. The warehouse looks plain, almost uninviting.

A very loud noise catches my attention. Ben Blakebrough of Australia is testing his twin-engine hovercraft he calls Triclops. It’s a “re-appropriation” of an original idea from the 1950s. It has two wooden propellers that create a column of air and allow him to glide across the concrete floor of the warehouse.

Fire and Rain

There’s plenty going on outside on the piers at night. The Flaming Lotus Girls have set up Serpent Mother, a spectacular fire sculpture: a large head sits atop a long body that coils around an egg. Along the serpent’s spine are 41 “poofers,” which Jessica Hobbs, one of the Girls, describes as a “participant-activated flame effect.” In the cool mist, people huddle in the middle to be heated and surprised by the bursts of flame. Across from the Serpent Mother is the giant mechanical hand built on-site by Christian Ristow’s Robochrist Industries (see “Talk to the Hand,” page 50).

I run into Jon Sarriugarte of SRL and we walk to the end of the pier where a Russian freighter named Stubnitz has been converted into a nightclub. Sarriugarte says he thinks that subsequent generations will look back on our time as the “golden age of gasoline.” Pauline has restored a V-2 rocket engine to working order and it’s part of an incredibly loud performance that consumes lots of fuel. SRL will use 70 gallons of propane, 110 gallons of gasoline, and 10 gallons of diesel in rehearsal and in their Saturday midnight performance. Sarriugarte adds, “The next generation won’t be able to burn fuel the way we’re doing here.”

Rusty Oliver of Hazard Factory organized Power Tool Racing. He and about ten others came from Seattle and they’re staying in a yurt on the other side of the shipyard. One custom-built racer is Apocapony, a blue belt sander with a My Little Pony doll glued on top. Holding a bullhorn, Oliver is having a great time coaxing people to step forward and race. After one pair of racers screech to the finish line, he bellows: “Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone horribly right!”

On the end of the pier is the Pendulum of Fire. The pendulum has openings on both sides, and alternating bursts of fire shoot out to cause the pendulum to swing. To a bystander, the giant flamethrower seems to be doing fine. However, once I walk behind it to meet one of its creators, Joe Bard of Pyrokinetics, I hear him grumbling. The pendulum isn’t swinging far enough.

He stops the pendulum and apologizes to the crowd: “It’s just not working. I’ll get it working. Please come back.” He explains to me what is wrong. “I’m having serious problems with the European propane tanks. The internal valves are different. I can’t get a constant flow of vapor.”

Someone says that Bard needs an accumulator tank. “That’s what we’re trying to get,” he responds. After a few minutes, a member of the team spots the tank coming and cries out in joy. Kimric Smythe of SRL is operating the forklift that delivers the white tank. Bard presses his hands together and exclaims, “Oh! Great!” Everything will be perfect now for the final performance.

My route home from Amsterdam took me through New York, and I made time to visit the Met and see this Dutch painting that was part of the Age of Rembrandt exhibition.

I had trouble finding it at first, mostly because I was looking for a large painting. Wtewael’s The Golden Age turned out to be surprisingly small, slightly larger than an ordinary sheet of paper: such an idyllic fantasy captured in the smallest frame.

See more photos of Robodock: makezine.com/go/robodock