Most Fine Arts majors will tell you, while serving your Double-Tall Latte, that all true artwork is dangerous. What they will not tell you, however, is that in some cases it could also win a war single-handedly.
The definition of what constitutes art now apparently contains giant roving robots, terrifying autonomous skeletons and flaming metal snakes. These five pieces of art may sound awesome, until they're killing you and everyone you love.
The Fire Shower is one of the many interactive exhibits that combine audience participation, home-brew technology, and intense bodily harm by the San Francisco art collective known as SEEMEN. The Fire Shower is a small, enclosed cage whose bars are equipped with high velocity rotors that spew flame at increasingly insane speeds until the volunteer is engulfed in a miniature fire tornado aimed solely at their exposed flesh. Why, you might ask? Because art is awesome. That's why.
The artist claims:
Kal Spelitech, the creator of the fire shower explains, "Working with fire is like playing with a wild animal. It is quite mesmerizing, but at any second it can turn on us. Using fire as an art medium always has a certain unpredictability and risk involved. On the highest level, my artwork involves pushing the envelope between terror and play and seeing how much I can involve audiences with a medium that may kill them ... I began to think about my work and what I could do there that would bring people closer to fire as an art or existential/transcendent experience ... Fear of death has always been a major cause of social change, and challenging people's fear of fire is always interesting."
We have to admit, Kal is pretty plain in what he's trying to do here: Light people on fire. He even admits freely that burning is a hilarious game to him, and that he really enjoys people's fear of death. Nobody can blame Kal for misleading us about exactly what his horrifying machines do. Indeed, it seems as if he's actually trying to warn you away. Instead, blame the art crowd for interpreting these statements as the main thesis points of a revolutionary performance piece and not, more accurately, as a sociopath's description of a "flamethrower prison for the innocent."
The Fire shower is built to a set specification. If you aren't grown to the exact proportions it was intended to hold, there are no safety precautions. If you're too fat, hey, no problem! It'll burn those unsightly pounds right off of you in a frighteningly literal fashion.
That may seem like a joke, but seriously, burns are not actually that uncommon. People frequently emerge from the shower "missing hair and smoking." Although to be fair, the Fire Shower does rely solely on volunteers--you have to actually walk up to it and step inside, even after it's explained to you that it is a walk-in barbecue for fat people. It's not exactly going to sneak into your home and replace your normal bathing station with its desperate, fiery embrace. Well, not that's been proven anyway.
Artist Mark Pauline has been making machines of destruction with his group, the ironically named Survival Research Labs, for nearly twenty years. All the more impressive is his dedication and mechanical aptitude when you consider the fact that one day, while building an absurdly deadly robot, he blew off most of his hand.
A normal man might have run screaming into the streets, attempting to warn any that would listen that the robots have finally gotten a taste for human blood, but Mark didn't even call it a day. Instead, he had his toes sawn off and stitched to his hand in place of fingers, then continued building machines of devastation for a couple more decades. The Running Machine is simply that, a machine that runs. It is the fastest and farthest reaching leg driven machine in history, able to maneuver even amidst difficult terrain. Mark didn't think that was scary enough, though, so he gave it a hunting knife. Obviously!
The artist claims:
"Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare. Since 1979, SRL has staged over 45 mechanized presentations in the United States and Europe. Each performance consists of a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire. Humans are present only as audience or operators."
SRL builds machines like the Flame Whistle, the Bombloader and of course, The New Mr. Satan—a giant metal bust of the devil that shoots flames from every orifice. All of these things had one weakness in common, and that is their distinct lack of range. Should you attend a show by SRL and, upon seeing the face of an enormous robot devil hurling flames at you, decide that you could use a bit of a jog and maybe a nice cry, the machines couldn't really stop you. Thus enters the Running Machine.
These displays are stationary exhibits, so really, is there call for a machine that can run marathons if not to chase down stragglers? Is there call for this machine to have a hunting knife if not to ... no, you know what? There is no cause for this machine to have a hunting knife. Just not at all.
Just in case you think we're overreacting here, and suppose that maybe the Running Machine has no actual audience interaction, we'd like to point you towards this image that SRL aptly captioned "Running Machine with knife stabbing at audience area."
Art can pose some pretty tough questions. It can make you question who you are as an individual, what role your society really plays in making the world a better place, or just what exactly love means. The Running Machine poses some much tougher questions, like: "how fast can you run, really?" and "could you keep it up for forty miles?" then finally, "do you like hunting?"
The Running Machine knows its answers. In order they are:
"Six to eight miles an hour."
"Oh my, yes, a thousand times yes!"
Theo Jansen, a Dutch "kinetic sculptor," uses genetic algorithms to model virtual life forms with only one purpose: To survive at all costs. To some readers, that may sound like the intro to a B-grade horror movie, to other, slightly more psychotic readers, it's art. Theo takes the soundest of these hypothetical creatures and breeds the strongest together until they are at their evolutionary pinnacle, then builds them at full scale out of whatever supplies are available, and sets them loose on the local beaches. They are powered solely by the wind and are designed to walk at random the hard sand of the local beaches forever.
The artist claims:
From his website, Strandbeest.com: "Since about ten years Theo Jansen is occupied with the making of a new nature. Not pollen or seeds but plastic yellow tubes are used as the basic material of this new nature. He makes skeletons which are able to walk on the wind. Eventually he wants to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives."
Clearly, the Dutch have legalized psychedelic drugs. As an unforeseen consequence of this they have unleashed gargantuan, baroque, autonomous beach monsters that wander--with no clear purpose or direction, but plenty of whirling, spiky appendages--throughout various public places in the name of cultural improvement. The text does not mention whether they have evolved cavernous maws and a dark, endless hunger, so we are forced to assume they have.
Although to be fair to Mr. Jansen, we do consider the line "he makes skeletons which are able to walk on the wind," to be a relatively clear and concise description of his work, despite sounding like it's spoken by a Native American Shaman while prophesying the end times.
Watch to about fifteen seconds into that video, and then answer us a question: What would you do if, out enjoying a peaceful beach getaway with your loving wife and adoring children, you saw that thing charging towards you, charging on its thousand scuttling legs?
Was your first answer "kill my sweet family immediately, in order to spare them the horrors of the beasts that come?" Because ours was. If art is about the invocation of sheer emotion, no matter what that emotion may be, we believe the terror of the beach monster just succeeds on a level that the gentle calm of Monet's "Water Lilies" is not willing to go to. If art is about improving life, however, perhaps Jansen is more on the line of a critic. That is, his work does not enliven, so much as it dissects.
Experimental Interaction Unit sounds like the name of a particularly douched-up team of German techno DJs but is, in reality, a terminally psychotic and thoroughly kickass art collective. They are responsible for this particular exhibit in which something called a Shockwave Vortex Gun is placed in an otherwise empty room in a gallery. The control of the gun is then given over to internet users who can remotely target and fire the weapon at will at the museum attendees. The Shockwave Vortex Gun is, essentially, an air cannon that fires whirling eddies of focused wind. It was designed originally by, no shit, mad Nazi scientists in World War II to fire giant, targeted whirlwinds that would bring down Allied aircraft en masse.
The crazy thing? It worked. The crazier thing? These guys in San Francisco built a working one. The fucking craziest thing? Anybody that wants to can now use it to gun down hipster museum attendees from across the country, and completely legally. That's it, art is now officially a man's sport, ranking right up there with Rugby and Ultimate Fighting.
The artist claims:
From the website: "Decades of psychological and anthropological research have formulated the concept of proxemics. Proxemics is the study of the nature, degree, and effect of the spatial separation individuals naturally maintain. It defines regions around people and the acceptable social behaviors in those zones. As the distance between two people decreases the degree of intimacy is increased, culminating in physical contact and/or penetration. Gallery Shooting Gallery provides human exploration of both of these extremes of intimacy as well as a platform to study intense online interactions, their usability, and consequences."
This is a particularly heinous use of art-world buzz words and lofty concepts in order to justify, let's be honest here, logging onto the internet and hurting people that have art degrees. You had the internet at ‘hurting people.' There's just no need to talk it up like that. Particularly ridiculous is the assertion that the Gallery Shooting Gallery represents a way to decrease the distance between two people "culminating in physical contact and/or penetration." Perhaps we've been doing it entirely wrong these long, mostly celibate years, but we're pretty sure shooting people in the face with a Nazi Superweapon is not akin to fucking.
The power of the Shockwave Vortex Cannon has been greatly diminished for use in this exhibit, and the artists equate it to the force inflicted by a strike from a "strong pillow." This makes it sound all cuddly and lovely, until you stop and wonder just what the hell a "strong pillow strike," feels like. The cruel genius of children that helped to create such playground menaces as the "ice-packed snow ball," and the "squirt gun fulla' pee," was also responsible for what we liked to call the "Brick Pillow." Whereby one would fold their pillow in half, stuff it as hard as possible into the bottom of the pillowcase, then twist the rest of the case closed until you effectively had a deadly Pillow Mace that could knock your younger brother unconscious without leaving a bruise.
This is what we imagine "a strong pillow strike," to be. When you couple that force with the unbelievable vicious streak that the anonymity of the internet brings out in people (See Cracked comment section below for prime examples) you can bet every exhibition of the Gallery Shooting Gallery ends with a small pile of unconscious Metrosexuals stacked haphazardly in a corner - their limp bodies being repeatedly and endlessly blasted by tiny hurricane after tiny hurricane until Emergency Services are called.
The Serpent Mother is an interactive sculpture, originally designed by The Lotus Girls for the Burning Man Festival which, for those of you who don't know it, is essentially a bunch of filthy hippies getting burnt off of their asses, stripping naked, and then welding monstrous devices out of scrap metal in order to dance around them. Kind of like combining a Phish concert with the A-Team, if that helps.
The Serpent Mother is 168 feet long, 20 feet high, includes 41 separate flamethrowers, and a hydraulic head and jaw. The sculpture is fully interactive. All flamethrowers and crushing jaws are controlled by the audience that, up until this point, has mostly been made up of 'shroomed out hippies who would sooner eat a steak than harm a fellow human being. It is now, however, attempting to go on a tour which promises to look a whole lot like the biblical apocalypse.
The artist claims:
From the website: "There has never been a sculpture like the Serpent Mother. The warmth of her fire and her circular design create an experience in which over 1000 people come together--drawn in by her embrace ... She prompts her audience not only to interact with the art, but also with one another. Wherever she exists, she creates new communities ... The Serpent Mother challenges the traditional art perspective by creating an interactive experience which is the opposite of passive viewing. Unlike an unapproachable painting in a prestigious museum which invites only an intellectual admiration, the Serpent Mother invites viewers to physically engage in her art."
The above explanation could be considered fairly accurate. It's just that it ends that last sentence a tad bit early. It really should read "the Serpent Mother invites viewers to physically engage in her art, by lighting them on fire and devouring them, so that they might be consumed amongst the ravaged steel of her burning guts."
The audience control over The Serpent Mother extends not only to the flamethrowers that run along her spine, but also to the hydraulics of the head and jaws--all fully operational. They also control the blue flame jets that burn from her teeth, as well as the directed bursts of steam she shoots from her nostrils. Watching this video of The Serpent Mother in action should make you more fully aware of the size and scale of the thing.
It is truly, awe-inspiringly massive. Also, it will serve as incontrovertible proof that the devil exists, as only he could finally combine three of the greatest fears of man throughout time--fire, giant snakes, and deadly robots--into one enormous monstrosity. Word is that the artists, in an attempt to more completely expose your darkest, most secret fears, are currently upgrading The Serpent Mother to make it shoot thousands of poisonous spiders that tell everybody about your impotence and how you cried that one time while watching The Little Mermaid.
The real danger of The Serpent Mother comes from its audience participation. As the video makes clear, there are no safety measures around it. Anybody can and does crowd around. It can be walked in, crawled through and climbed on with nobody there to warn you when the flamethrowers kick on. Who would be stupid enough to climb on it? Well, drugged out hippies for one.
For two, its head is mobile--controlled by a joystick in the audience. This joystick also works the jaws, flaming teeth, and jets of burning steam that we mentioned earlier. Thus far it has only been controlled by peace loving flower children, but we remind you once again that it's going on tour and if there's anything that Bruce Willis has taught us, it's that organized terrorist cells are waiting literally everywhere to take over anything that could be used as a weapon.
The fact that you made it a snake--Jesus, you might as well just send a fucking handwritten invitation to Cobra Commander. And, you know, good luck handling C.O.B.R.A with your crack team of barefoot vegetarians, Burning Man.
Learn about some other things that you wouldn't expect to burn your eyebrows off until it's too late with Mr. Brockaway's rundown of The 10 Most Terrifyingly Inspirational '80s Songs. Then go read Dan O'Brien spew vitriol in the general direction of Hannah Montana.
You can find a whole site full of Robert Brockway's writing at IFightRobots.com.