Totemobile is a robotic sculpture that initially appears as a life-sized
representation of the culturally iconic Citroën DS automobile.
In performance, this familiar figure is visually exploded, subverted
and elaborated through various levels of abstraction until it reaches
its final form: an organic 18 meter-tall totem pole. Upon reaching
its full height, the work blooms with light, in the form of multiple
organically-inspired inflatable sculptures suggesting the final
maturation of an enormous biological organism.
The initial form of the robotic sculpture is surprisingly simple,
and belies the existence of nearly 50 interdependent machines
of varying aesthetic and functional purposes. As the sculpture
opens and rises, these metal and inflatable machines give voice
to varying modes of mobile abstraction, which develop throughout
the growth and final “blooming” of the full, 18 meter tall work.
As the familiar structure visually decomposes into its constituent
geometric parts, each part becomes a more organic version
of the original, and eventually lends its decomposing body to support
the life of the new organism it harbors. This automobile’s point
of natural transcendence lies in its inflatable airbags: in protecting
and distancing its unforgiving synthetic body from us, the inflatable
provides a point of direct contact with biological frailty. This point
of contact provides the “crack”, which harbors the germ
of the unassailable automobile’s biological aspirations. The Citroen
becomes fertile ground, which this growing inflatable seed covertly
consumes, co-opts and subverts for its own needs — the new
thriving body yielding where required to insure the viability
of its new-found skeleton, the comfortable and utilitarian form
of the Citroen DS leaving its pedestrian servitude and stretching
to achieve the organic beauty and flexibility more subtly suggested
in its original architecture.
The form of the totem pole is narrative in nature. As the sculpture
rises, multiple narratives unfold. In the collision, negotiation
and compromises reached between the organic and the inorganic
aspects of it, narratives suggesting entropy, domination,
transformation, mortality and the nature of strength are exposed.
Once the resulting half-breed reaches its full mechanical height,
the inflatables finally bloom brightly into view in a moment
of hybrid ecstasy, and the mechanized lid opens revealing the new
growth of an organic stamen. This sign of the fully-mature
organism extends further into the sky as if seeking the sun.
Taking large inflating breaths, it increases in strength and size.
The elaborate organic machine assimilates and conforms to
its architectural confines, as if it were using the limited space
the building provides to support its own growth — reminding us
of a tenacious growing ivy.
After 20 years of practice using robotics, seeking to create
metaphors with machines, and emulating the human condition,
MacMurtrie’s Totemobile is the first of his sculptures that attempts
to drastically change the direction his work has taken by engaging
popular culture. Totemobile is a hybrid of an iconic symbol
of popular culture and the notion of organic aspiration. It is a car
that makes a biological journey upward, instead of the culturally
and mechanically familiar forward and reverse. In our comfort
with cars, we are invited on that journey with Totemobile,
reinspiring awe in the nature that has sheltered and conveyed us,
long before the appearance of the automobile.
In using robotics to explore the natural world’s growth
and transformation, MacMurtrie and ARW (Amorphic Robot Works)
use means which are, at first sight, vastly divergent from their
subject. This apparent collision of incongruous matter highlights
the unexpected appearance of an elaborate robotic device, whose
sole purpose is its own living, and calls our attention back
to the substance and priority of those basic biological systems
of which we are a part. Systems whose fecundity and adaptability
MacMurtrie’s work in robotics both emulates and envies.
Our creations in this world strive for an endurance and resonance
so far achieved only by nature Herself. By moving away from
the idea of longevity through unassailability, toward finding it
in interconnection, interaction, and adaptability, perhaps we can
express a higher form of intelligence in our own creations.
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