Visitors to the Sixteen Birds installation play a crucial role in the deployment of its robotic components: a computer vision system detects the presence of people in the installation space, which begins a process of transforming the sixteen limp white fabric shapes hanging from the ceiling into bird-like structures. The inflated birds are then animated by a pneumatic system, and begin to move their pointed, extended wings in a coordinated flight-like motion. They are suspended at eye level, so their elegant movement as well as their suggestion of further responsiveness draws people toward them. At this point, the environmentally-conscious metaphor of Sixteen Birds really comes into play: too high a level of encroachment by people in the space will cause the bird nearest to them to deflate. This is followed in short order by a general crash of the system, as one by one the forms go back to their lifeless initial state. A strong environmentalist position is already implicit in the bio-mimetic shape of the birds, and is reinforced in other features of the work. For example, in the first exhibition of Sixteen Birds, the configuration of the sculptural group as a whole suggested the flow of the local river, threatened by over-development. MacMurtrie has been artistic director of Amorphic Robot Works (ARW) since 1991, a collective of artists and engineers who have most recently worked with MacMurtrie to develop the Inflatable Bodies technology, allowing him to shift his robotic art practice from metal and wood materials into a lightweight, flexible form. Sixteen Birds is the first multi-part installation that uses this technology, and whether we call its component forms robots or sculptures is moot in light of the subtle lifelike qualities that they convey.
About the author
Chico MacMurtrie was born in New Mexico in 1961. He received his B.F.A. from the University of Arizona and an M.F.A. in New Forms and Concepts from the University of California at Los Angeles. Since 1989, MacMurtrie has exhibited in more than 20 countries worldwide, receiving support from more than 15 national, local, and international granting agencies, and 30 corporate sponsors. His awards include five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his work has been the subject of numerous international broadcasts and texts including the BBC’s Pandemonium, the Discovery Channel’s The Next Step, and Mark Dery’s book Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century.
Chico acts as the Artistic Director of Amorphic Robot Works (ARW), a collective he founded in 1991, consisting of artists and engineers who help in the realization of his work. Since that time, his investigations have resulted in the creation of more than 250 mechanical sculptures that assume anthropomorphic and abstract forms.