Taxidermied robot critters play a video game; are you just gonna watch? | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Taxidermied robot critters play a video game; are you just gonna watch?

The deer's head won't stay on, so Matt Barton drives another screw inside its neck. The deer in the other corner of the cramped clubhouse, meanwhile, quietly stares at Barton with startled, googly eyes. The fox, motionless, seems not to notice the gruesome surgery, so fixated is he on the blank television across the room.

When Barton sinks the last screw and turns on the clubhouse's power, the television comes to life, along with the animals. The fox frantically clicks his paws on a Commodore 64 keyboard and mumbles at the flashing colors on the monitor, "This part's really hard. Oh, crap!" The deer turn their heads to watch Barton leave, then turn back to the game.

It's a little creepy, if more artistically so than the automated animal band at Chuck E. Cheese's, where artist Matt Barton first worked -- sang and danced in the mouse costume, actually -- with robots. About 16 years and one fine-arts master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University later, Barton, who teaches visual and performing arts at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, is utilizing his grad-school experience with robotics -- and taxidermy. He stuffed and mechanized all the animatronic carcasses populating "Extreme Animals: the Video Game," one of 11 BigBot art installations scattered around the city this month as part of CMU and Pitt's Robot 250 initiative.

Designing the piece "involved this almost philosophical debate about what the hell is a robot," says Barton, by phone from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where "Extreme Animals" is displayed. "We were like, OK, we're just gonna make this thing that plays more on the idea of robots rather than the cutting-edge technology of robotics."

Barton scavenged the deer heads from hunters' leftovers in Schenley Park. Thanks to proximity sensors and servomotors (and Barton's screwdriver skills), the deer heads, attached to two-by-four bodies in old clothes, swivel to eyeball anyone who approaches the door or windows of the slapdash plywood clubhouse. The fox stays focused on the game. "Oh, snap! I got you again!"

The critter's commentary was recorded by Barton collaborator Jacob Ciocci, another CMU graduate, who teaches video art and animation there. Ciocci, a founder of the Paper Rad art collective and a child of the '80s, feels his cultural references mesh well with Barton's aesthetic. "If you think about animals, they're driven by the need to survive," Ciocci says. But, he adds, "if you're sitting watching someone else play a video game, all you're doing is basically rotting away."

Ciocci also produced the video loop of a space ship navigating a maelstrom of flying lips and acid-trip colors. The numbers tracking SCORE, LIFE and DEATH spin in an endless blur, matching the frenzied soundtrack. It can unnerve even an experienced gamer like 15-year-old John Bianco, who stops by one afternoon. "It's supposed to be telling us that we're so sucked into this we don't really know what's going on around us," he says.

But "Extreme Animals" also has a cozy, nostalgic feel. In every nook of the clubhouse, the animals have squirreled away childhood treasures, including an old electronic "Simon" game and even the animals' own plush animals. And no gamer's den is complete without a rat's nest of cables.

Tucked high like a treehouse on the museum's overlook above the dinosaur bones, "Extreme Animals" reels in lots of children. Many explain the piece to their puzzled parents, who laugh when they recognize the animals' mutterings and frozen gazes from their own kids' video-game stupors.

Sometimes, and perhaps unintentionally, the piece inspires a kind of reflective performance: The younger tykes tend to bunch around the windows and stare, less animated even than the creatures they ogle. "I want to go inside," says one entranced little boy with a mop of curls. When asked what he would do in there, he replies simply, "I would watch."


"Extreme Animals: the Video Game" is displayed through Sun., July 27. Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or

click to enlarge On like Donkey Kong: The animatronic gamers of "Extreme Animals" might make a monkey out of you. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY.
Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.
On like Donkey Kong: The animatronic gamers of "Extreme Animals" might make a monkey out of you.

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