Kal Spelletich’s new show at the Catharine Clark Gallery opens April 11th on Utah Street in San Francisco, and spans five years of work. It includes robotic renderings of culture heroes of the Bay Area: Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder and owner of City Lights Bookstore; Emory Douglas, graphic artist who made the iconic images associated with the Black Panther Party; Mark Pauline, founder of the technology collective, Survival Research Labs; and documentary filmmaker Les Blank.
Brainless, headless, the Spelletich robot is activated by your touch or your breath. Under the influence of your energy, it twines its fingers in prayer or prostrates itself or spins like a dervish for as long as it can. Then it goes inert. The gears stop turning, or the steel fingers go rigid. The robot wears denim or sweats, but wears them loosely, because there are no bones; it has no flesh. A typical list of media used in construction: “clothes, electronics, sensors, coffee table, steel.”
When you activate the interface (apply your hand to a copper plate or breathe two buck chuck into a breathalyzer), you’re impressed by the robot’s lively response, its urgent, repetitive movement. This is, literally, the moment of connection: you are the mind of the machine.
The former artistic director of Seemen, a machine-art collective, Spelletich has also been associated with the Cacophony Society, Burning Man, and Survival Research Labs. A Burning Man motto, “safety third,” probably references Spelletich’s work, which The New York Times has described as “apocalyptic” and “intense.” (Earlier works include robots that shoot fire in irregular bursts that char the hot dogs impaled on the forks of their rusty arms.) Spelletich visited CIIS in Fall 2014, where he spoke, rivetingly, to MFA students at the University. We talked again on February 24th, 2015 in the long green warehouse Spelletich has occupied for 19 years on Marin Street in the Bayview. This is where he builds his praying robots: dresses armatures with the unwashed clothes of people he admires, and wires them up to river stones and copper plates so that human touch can bring them to a kind of life.
In Volume 6 of Mission at Tenth Spelletich discusses at length how technology can do spiritual work – and why an atheist cares.