Nocturne with tinfoil hats
Artist Claire Wilson creates a lowbrow yet otherworldly experience at the Stock Pavilion.
People entering UW-Madison's Stock Pavilion on the evening of Tuesday, May 29 first met a short plaster critter with a wooden back scratcher sticking up from its boxy, two-wheeled body.
"Ah, the backscratcher greeter bot!" says artist Claire Wilson. "He was there to welcome people into the Stock Pavilion or to help anyone with an itchy back." As guests filed in for Wilson's show, Awkward Nocturnes, the small robot mostly just skittered around in circles, trailing a 9-volt battery from a tangle of wires on its back. Whether it succeeded in scratching anyone else’s is unclear.
Wilson, who recently earned her master of fine arts at UW-Madison and will be moving to Philadelphia later this summer, combined her interests in sculpture, experimental sound, and deliberately crude robotics for the one-night event. As attendees walked onto the Stock Pavilion's gravel and straw main floor (built in 1909 for livestock shows and UW-Madison's agricultural program, the venue has also hosted numerous speeches and concerts over the years, from visitors including Martin Luther King Jr., R.E.M., and Rachmaninoff), the program explained the following:
"Robotic anthropologists hailing from Elsewhere have landed on our planet in the pursuit of truth, meaning, and souvenirs. Programmed to study the nuances of mankind, they have carefully collected choice artifacts, studied our methods of communication, and investigated our ways of inhabiting the world. Throughout a three-year term of field work and research, uor new friends are ready to return home. Before they leave, however, they would like to share their discoveries about our species. This research has been compiled into what they are calling a Nocturne, divided into three 'acts.'"
The performers—eight ungainly crags of plaster with various electronics and doodads grafted onto their bodies—were arrayed on the concrete seating tiers above the Pavilion floor. But before the robots played, audience members were instructed to make a "listening hat." Wilson and a couple of friends handed out sheets of aluminum foil and just let people figure it out for themselves. The most popular approach among the 40 or so people there seemed to be a close-fitting skullcap with a little stem sticking out on top. This being a campus art event, at least a few in attendance were artists themselves and managed to sculpt wild trailing ribbons and spires of foil from their own hats. Most of us weren't quite sure about our hats, often carefully reaching up around our heads to primp here and there.
Wilson says that in a previous show that eventually inspired Awkward Nocturnes, she wanted to "create an environment that was simultaneously confusing and comforting, strange and familiar."
After a few more anxious listening-hat adjustments, we settled into chairs on the Pavilion floor, looking up at the robotic sculptures and a tangle of cables. Wilson gave a brief introduction and the 15-minute performance began. This wasn't robots playing music in a Rock-afire Explosion sense. The "robotic anthropologists" instead emitted a series of clicks, rumbles, drones, and whirs, and from the audience's perspective it was hard to trace all the sounds to moving parts. The only recognizable musical instrument in sight was a floor tom, and I couldn't tell exactly how the little plaster critter perched by it was getting sound out of it. The tallest robot had two antennae that it clacked together at random intervals, like a busted timekeeper or an eccentric conductor. Another had what looked like a clock radio subsumed into a cavity of its lumpy body. Like everything else about the evening, the resulting array of noises felt disjointed, playful, and sparse.
"The performers work by using an Arduino microcontroller, an 8-channel AC relay, a lot of code, and a little magic," Wilson explained after the show. "Every 1/3 of a second of the performance had a line of code telling which performer to play or to stay silent."
After the performance, the audience was invited to come up and inspect the performers a little more closely. The antennae turned out to be mounted on the nubs of a massage machine. Some of the droning and whirring must have come from a hair dryer attached to one robot's body, pointed into a resonant green plastic tube. Yet another robot had a bunch of multicolored plastic combs sticking out of it that may or may not have had something to do with making noise.
"At the root of my work is an interest in playful absurdity, and using it as a vehicle to exploit unexamined, overlooked, or otherwise ignored aspects of our culture and daily experience," Wilson says. "That's why I enjoy working with the possibilities of sound with common objects and electronics-—these noises are often present and ignored, but have so much to offer. When I make the robotic sculptures, part of what keeps me interested in them is imaginary narratives that occur, which fuel my relationship with them. This past year, I found that while I was working on these sculptures, I imagined them as a team of extraterrestrial anthropologists who were earnestly misusing common objects."
What Wilson ended up with was a conscious mash of lowbrow and highbrow. She wanted to toy with the conventions of a classical-music performance, and deliberately stuck formal terms like "nocturne" and "acts" where they didn't belong. "Parts of the performance were structured to promise, imply, or promote a cultured experience," Wilson says, and that's of course the last place one expects to find people wearing tinfoil hats. Wilson's approach to sculpture tends to give the viewer a rugged and frank view of the materials she's using, and the robotic anthropologists took that to a near-comic extreme. From the sounds they made, I really couldn't tell you what these anthropologists made of our world, but Wilson succeeded in creating a joyously screwy world of her own.