A Wood Street exhibit tests the lines between human, animal and machine | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Wood Street exhibit tests the lines between human, animal and machine

The installation is at first so unpleasant that you might want to flee

click to enlarge Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demer, La Cour des Miracles
"Limping Machine," from Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers' La Cour des Miracles

In the not-too-distant future, it is easy to imagine, humans will not only have robot helpers and companions but will be robot hybrids themselves. Despite science-fiction depictions of evil robots, such machines are already enmeshed in aspects of our lives like manufacturing, science and health care. In fact, cyborgs and fyborgs walk among us as prosthetics, robotic exoskeletons and even Google Glasses become more advanced and commonplace.

Technology exists to serve us. But given our tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, it seems entirely possible that your next Roomba could look like Rosie from The Jetsons, C-3PO or even a Terminator or Transformer. At what point would they become more than appliances? And would their servitude become ethically objectionable, particularly if they were bionic? Thankfully, our technological tools are, for the moment, emotionally neutral.

Still, if you think it might be cool for robots to be more like us, check out La Cour des Miracles, at Wood Street Galleries. Curated by Murray Horne, the galleries' two floors are filled with two installations, one by Bill Vorn and one by Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers. Both use intelligent robotics to create surreal landscapes of suffering machines. In the first one, the viewer, assaulted by noise, flashing lights and metallic clicks, must navigate a darkened and menacing space of metal barriers, fencing and cages that corral and contain "animats" — neither animal nor human.

Disconcerting and clamorous, the installation is at first so unpleasant that you might want to flee. But then you realize that the machines are anguished and miserable, and you start to feel sorry for them. Like those animals at the zoo that pace back and forth incessantly, these creatures also exhibit abnormal behavior. They are misfit machines that limp, whine, groan, screech, convulse and hiss. Some even lash out at visitors.

Vorn's DSM-VI is a more somber immersive environment, despite the grating background noise. Robots here look more human, some with big sad eyes, others with articulated limbs, but they exhibit behaviors found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Their torments are psychological — depression, neurosis, paranoia and delirium.

While both installations elicit our empathy, our discomfort takes us only so far. Ultimately there is no way to help these contraptions, and our total indifference gets the better of us.

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