When most people think "art," they think of framed paintings on a wall. Other folks have visited the Warhol and the Mattress Factory, and they have seen some large-scale installations. But Wood Street Galleries specializes in high-tech, holistic experiences. Tinkers and machinists are always at home here, and no project is too big or ambitious. With many Wood Street exhibits, you don't just see art; you enter it.
Hysterical Machines, created by Montreal artist Bill Vorn, is like the set for a sci-fi horror movie, where spidery, orb-bodied robots hover in space and jitter noisily. Their metal limbs flex and stretch, like deranged dental tools. Because they are anchored in place, the machines are easy to avoid and even walk between, but there is something threatening about their movements. Step too close and you can expect a steel karate chop, or at least a lamp shining in your face.
The sequel to Hysterical Machines is Red Light, which is another cavernous room where robotic tentacles hang from the ceiling. Each appendage is about as long and thick as a chimney tube, and each is capped with three lights. As they wriggle and writhe, the tendrils have the look of giant worms; even the lights give the impression of an annelid face. Whether they're red or hysterical, these robots have a lot of personality, and we can't help but feel anxious about their intentions.
Of course these robots have no intentions, because all they do is jostle around. Vorn's machines are exactly that -- an assemblage of gears and motors. But visitors will project all kinds of human qualities upon these over-caffeinated gizmos. Vorn has given us robots that don't really do anything; they don't dig ditches, calculate tips or transport dry ice. Their limbs have no purpose, except to move around. But we treat them as sentient beings, with thoughts and schemes and private motivations. Isaac Asimov would be proud.
Like so many Wood Street shows, Hysterical Machines creates a distinct environment. Because the gallery is divided into two windowless floors, the dark rooms can feel completely isolated. There is no hint that you're still Downtown, or even on Earth. The machines seem to "live" here, and they look like they're in control. Then again, when you think about it, aren't they?
Hysterical Machines continues through June 19. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605 or woodstreetgalleries.org.