Visual artist Chico MacMurtrie creates large-scale robotic sculptures, installations, and performances that reflect a deep fascination for both living organisms and contemporary technology. In 1991, he founded Amorphic Robot Works, a creative and interdisciplinary collective dedicated to the study of movement and the creation of experimental robotic and interactive artwork.
The resulting inflatable “Soft-Machines” are larger than life but also a reflection of it. MacMurtrie’s material of choice? Dyneema® Composite Fabric ...
CM: Since the late 1980s, I have been building robotic sculptures, primarily with materials still used for most robotics today: metals and plastics in combination with electric, hydraulic, and pneumatic actuators. In 2000, I created “Skeletal Reflections,” a sophisticated servo-controlled, pneumatic, humanoid metal robot that is able to interpret the viewer’s body language or posture in order to perform classical poses found in the history of art.
Even though this work was presented at the World Expo in Hanover and other international venues, I felt like I hadn’t achieved what I was after: the expression of soft-movement contained in routine human motions. Furthermore, my metallic machines were not well suited for interacting physically and safely with humans, which was an increasingly important goal. I dreamed of doing yoga with robots or embracing them—rather than only directing and observing them.
My desire for physical, expressive interaction suggested an entirely different kind of machine body, one more subtle and forgiving. It inspired me to shift toward lightweight materials and inflatable technology. My works are both performative sculptures and objects. It is important that they work sculpturally when they are, for example, in a deflated/organic or inflated/rigid state. In performance, they come alive and exhibit the phenomena of gradual metamorphosis, growth, decay, and interaction.
The quality of form and movement is equally important to me.
CM: For the past ten to fifteen years I have been investigating the possibilities of creating inflatable sculpture in a way that hasn’t been done before in the art world. I have created inflatable actuators that are both elegant and powerful, and that are able to initiate the transformation of multiple structures in a complex engagement with each other.
In this process, Dyneema® Composite Fabric has proven itself to be very strong and durable, yet pliable and soft. It is capable of providing the dynamic qualities of a muscle and bone interaction. My most recent work, the “Border Crosser,” is sixty feet tall—a scale that wouldn’t have been possible without using Dyneema® Composite Fabric. This particular sculpture, with a structure similar to a triangular communication tower, is also able to sustain up to 35-miles-an-hour winds without visibly moving.
But when “Border Crosser” is arching into a bridge, the movement is very soft and gentle. I also like that the fabric is translucent and absorbs daylight, creating a sense of being alive.
CM: My work has benefited tremendously from my close collaboration with the very skilled and experienced Dyneema® team in Mesa, Arizona: Chris Adams, Wes Hatcher, and Jon Holweger.
Before I start the production of a new artwork, I usually meet with them in order to determine the best type of fabric to fit the needs of each sculpture. This ongoing conversation has helped improve and refine my process and technical knowledge.
Together, we have been able to solve technical problems and find new ways of configuring and assembling my work. Working with Dyneema® has therefore allowed me to work more efficiently and on a much larger scale. It has opened up a lot of new possibilities.
CM: It is the bone, the flesh, and the muscle of my practice. While my ambition as an artist is to create a magical experience for my audience, in the back of my mind I am thinking a lot about how to seal the material—to make it airtight—and how to create a structure that can sustain stress testing.
Developing a series of techniques to work with Dyneema® is key to any success. The material can be challenging to work with at times, but the result always blows people’s minds. Many of them are amazed by the sculptural qualities, the size, and complexity of structures made with only air and fabric.
CM: What is clear to me is that soft machines made with Dyneema® Composite Fabric can go where other, harder machines cannot, thanks to their light weight and ability to change size and shape.
My future “Soft-Machines” also promise closer and more physical interaction between humans and machines. Beyond the confines of my professional field, I also think the possibilities are endless. Just imagine how this strong material could be used in all sorts of sustainable ways, from stopping floods to preventing injuries. Maybe one day it will be used to create renewable energy or inflatable robotic satellites and rovers in space.