New Mexico-based artist and roboticist Christian Ristow has been dropping jaws with his creations at Maker Faire Bay Area since 2008 and has been a maker all his life. Growing up in the Bay Area in the 70s and 80s, he was inspired by the “robot-combat-as-performance-art, primarily perpetrated by the group Survival Research Laboratories” (SRL). Christian ended up working with SRL for a number of years, what he calls his “schooling in the field of robotics.”
Since then, he’s done animatronics and special effects for a number of movies, including Thor, A.I., and Cowboys & Aliens. Christian also founded and led robotic performance art troupe Robochrist Industries for a number of years. He makes everything from small but fierce sculptures with self-explanatory names like Smashy Von HammersBot and Voracious Mouth (pictured below) to large-scale interactive sculptures like Hand of Man, a 26-foot-long hydraulically actuated human hand and forearm capable of picking up and crushing cars, controlled using a glove-like device that dictates its motions. Hand of Man will be smashing things at this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area, May 18 and 19.
One project you’re particularly proud of: 1. I think I’d have to say the Hand of Man. Every once in a while you complete a project that just has a certain purity, a clarity of vision, and a conceptual simplicity. And if you can top that off with reasonably good execution, you’ve got a winner. The Hand just came to me in a flash one day. I was at a festival and as I looked around I felt there was a lack of a) interactive machinery that really prioritized the experience of the individual operator, and b) violence, of the fun, recreational variety. And that’s when the idea for the Hand materialized. By now it’s had a pretty good run, including two Maker Faires, and has given an awful lot of people a really fun and unique experience.
Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from: 1. Unfortunately I’ve made this mistake more than once. If you’ve got a power transmission component, such as a roller chain for instance, that is straining and struggling, don’t just reinforce the surrounding components and assume everything downstream in the driven part of the mechanism is OK. Instead, look carefully at those driven components and verify that there is no binding or misalignment. If you’ve got an undiagnosed binding situation, your power transmission components will just fail, causing a much bigger problem.
2. Do not use CO2 to pressurize liquid fuel for use in a flamethrower. I did this once. I put 120psi of CO2 into a pair of pressure vessels which were partially filled with gasoline, and which fed a pair of liquid fuel guns on my art car for Burning Man. The first sign that something was weird was when the flame emerging from the guns was really sputtery. Then, when I depressurized the tanks and opened them, a 4-foot-tall, 2-inch-diameter geyser of fizzy gasoline shot out the top port. If there was an ignition source nearby, my life would have changed in a very bad way. The CO2 had carbonated the gasoline, in much the same way as it carbonates soft drinks. While you’re at it, don’t use gasoline in liquid fuel flamethrowers; use kerosene. Actually, just don’t build liquid fuel flamethrowers!
Great video profile of Christian’s interactive Face Forward sculpture at Maker Faire Bay Area 2012 by Jagged Melon Productions.
Three new ideas that have excited you most lately: 1. OK, this one cuts two ways. A few years ago when there was a minor explosion of off-the-shelf electronics boards that became suddenly available, I was super excited. Electronics is kind of the “final frontier” for me; it’s the one skill I really wish I had, but don’t, and I’ve always felt that a better understanding of it could really help me expand my work. So the advent of all these little companies putting out all these ready-made boards sounded like a great development. However I soon learned that some basic understanding of electronics and some basic programming skills are required to really use this stuff, and most of it is just beyond me. Classes are available in cities, but I live in a small town. I’m always checking the local university class listings for “basic electronics,” but to no avail, and I’ve never met or heard of anyone near me who works with the kind of stuff I want to learn. For now, I’m stuck. It’s one of the worst things about living in a small town.
2. The idea that you can build your own house. When I moved to New Mexico seven years ago, it was to be with my partner, Christina. She introduced me to this idea. We are about to start our second house, and this one will be “out-of-pocket,” as in no bank loan. It’s a very empowering process, building your own house.
3. Living debt-free. When I lived in California, I definitely fell into the consensus mainstream model of “Work all the time so you can make payments on all the stuff you bought that you can barely afford. Keep working.” But now, my partner and I are on a fast track to living without any debt within a few years. That’s a very powerful idea. If you can bring your debt load down to nothing, or near nothing, then you have so much more time to create. And a much higher percentage of the creating that you do can be for yourself, experimental, fun. The potential for exciting original work just goes up. Building one’s own house and fashioning a debt-free lifestyle are, I think, a lot easier to do in rural communities, so that is one of the upsides of living in a small town. It’s a balance.
Four tools you can’t live without: 1. I only get to choose four tools?!? That’s pretty hard. Well, I’ll start with the milling machine. A mill is an amazingly versatile machine. In a pinch you can even do many lathe-like operations (although having a lathe is pretty fundamental too). These basic machine tools are the basis for making anything kinetic or anything precise.
2. TIG welder. My favorite welding process. So clean and precise. Whenever I’m faced with a fabrication job that involves welding, I think, “Can I TIG this?”
3. Knipex parallel jaw pliers. This is my new favorite hand tool. They are like channel-locks, but WAY better. They have a neat mechanism that keeps the jaws parallel, and they have a 10:1 force-multiplication ratio, which means the force at the jaws is huge. They are much like a small manual vice, in your hands.
4. Knuckle-boom crane truck. I’ve had two of these now, and for someone building and installing large-scale kinetic sculpture, I find it indispensable. My current truck is something I put together to perfectly suit my needs. I bought a crew-cab International 4900 with a 22-foot box bed, cut the bed off to make a flatbed, then mounted a HIAB knuckle-boom folding crane that I bought separately. The crane folds out of the way for travel, so I get a full 20 feet of bed space, and the cab is big enough to bring five people to and from shows. Several of my large-scale pieces can be built and unbuilt using just the crane.
Christian and his partner Christina Sporrong.
Five people/things that have inspired your work: 1. Mark Pauline, the founder of SRL. As I grew up in San Francisco, I was a big fan. When I was done with school I went and volunteered with Mark for several years. Working at SRL was like the graduate program that I never could have found anywhere else. My time there was invaluable and hugely inspirational, even still.
2. Burning Man. I first went in 1996 and my eyes were opened to a whole new world of big art and big audiences. I think there’s an undercurrent in my creative thought, maybe even a subconscious one, that says, “How would this look at Burning Man?” whenever I’m in the process of designing a new piece.
3. My partner, Christina Sporrong. Christina has a mind which is always looking for new and novel solutions to problems, and new ways to combine inspirational things she’s seen into new artwork. That is inspiring. And it’s great on many levels to be with someone very creative; we constantly egg each other on and give each other ideas.
4. My son, Kodiak Turbo Bonanza. He’s only 2.5 years old, and watching the way he discovers so many new things about the world every single day is awesome. And, having this amazing responsibility of stewarding this little human on his path into the world makes me ask myself all these deep profound questions all the time, like “What is so important in this world that I want Kodiak to be exposed to it?” and “What kind of life do I want to model for Kodiak, through my behavior?” and “What kind of values do I want to impart to Kodiak?” It’s made me reevaluate lots of important stuff, and I routinely find that I place high value on creativity, ingenuity, and self-reliance. So having him in my life has helped reinforce my connection to those values and my commitment to lead a life in accordance with them.
5. The power of individual experience. Most of my work these days is geared towards providing an experience for the participant, and it’s usually intended to be empowering or eye-opening in some way. More often than not I want the person interacting with my work to either a) get a thrill that comes from an experience which makes them feel powerful, or b) have an idea like, “Wow, I can’t believe someone built that. I wonder if I could build something like that too.” So in a way, it’s a bit cyclical. I’m inspired by the idea of giving someone a unique experience, which then in turn might actually inspire them to see the world, or themselves, differently.
Christian and his raddest creation yet, his son Kodiak.
+For more, read our 2011 interview with Christian.