Paranoid androids

Machine art. Interactive kinetic sculpture. Robotic performance art. Extreme technology art. Whatever you call it, it's usually violent, incendiary, and nihilistic. That's what makes it fun.

The Seemen, a San Francisco-based machine-art collective, descend on the Orbit Room on Tuesday, April 21, to show this cloistered town the thrill of robotic theater. The 40-odd members of the group--all tech-heads, inventors, and self-styled obsessive mechanics--are led by Kal Spelletich, a sort of mad scientist (he calls himself a post-industrial folk artist) who insists on the "incredible expressive power of technology." The group builds wicked robotic creatures, most remote-controlled, and then sets the things loose to search and destroy (or at least to provoke and entertain). Some mainstays of their collection: Serberus, a 400-pound, 80-mph, three-headed dog that aggressively begs the audience for attention; Clappyboy, an 8-foot tall, fire-spewing monster that features talking-head Rush Limbaugh on its TV-monitor face, giant crashing cymbals for hands, and blasts the "1812 Overture"; and Guardian Angel, a "flapping-winged, goat-headed, chain-swinging, claw-scratching angel."

You get the idea. How the small courtyard of the Orbit Room will contain these and 20-odd other like beasts and their audience will prove a trick in itself.

Spelletich, once the right-hand man of Mark Pauline, the leader of the infamous machine-art collective Survival Research Laboratories, split from SRL years ago to form the Seemen. His group differs from the bigger, louder granddaddy robot-art group in a few crucial ways. First, the Seemen can tour and show their artwork more freely, given the Seemen's robots' more manageable sizes (SRL favors gargantuan monsters that are a bitch to ship around and require weeks of re-building). Second, Spelletich insists on involving the audience in the operation of his wee beasties. Third, he's open to lay discussion about the building and meaning of his machines (Pauline tends toward condescending and opaque explanations). The results: a user-friendly SRL, but with all the dark humor and Frankenstein theory intact.

And it's paid off. Over the last 14 years, the Seemen have presented over 150 performances in the U.S. and Canada, often in warehouses, galleries, and vacant lots. The group has received grants from every venerable foundation in the art world, and has pieces featured in the permanent collections of the New York Museum of Modern Art and the new Getty Museum in Los Angeles--a perfect combo of underground perversity and broad appeal.

This Dallas stop is one of seven on the Seemen's current Southwestern tour; if Tuesday night proves a sell-out, a second show will be added on Wednesday.

So check it out. How often do you get a chance to pet a three-headed mechanical dog from hell?

The Seemen, April 21 at the Orbit Room, 2809 Commerce, Dallas. For info, call (214) 748-5399.


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