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Mr. Roboto: Frank Garvey commands a troupe of radical robots

Deep in the technological heart of Carnegie Mellon University, Frank Garvey is creating a troupe of performing robots that sing, dance, preach and even misbehave, all to express one man's revolutionary vision

Sunday, March 04, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

In the depths of Carnegie Mellon University's Newell-Simon Hall, a mad scientist works feverishly to turn the world on its head with his robotic creations. While other professors are aiding tech corporations or doing research for the government, this visionary "futurist" is hellbent on revolution. He's recruited several students to help him on his way, and the rest of the planet can only sit and watch.

But that's the point.

Frank Garvey combines music, philosophy and technology in creating performing robots such as Plowgirl at Carnegie Mellon University, where he has established the Center for Robotic and Synthetic Performance. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

First in San Francisco and now in Pittsburgh, artist/technologist Frank Garvey is building a legion of acting, singing robots to fulfill his musical theater ambitions and spread his controversial philosophies to the world.

The son of a collaborator of visionary American instrument builder/

composer Harry Partch, Garvey is building a collection of "instruments" like nothing anyone has ever seen-- a veritable robotic red-light district that's a contradictory mix of rusting junk and high-tech motors and circuits.

Meet Goboy. He's a robot panhandler -- and a vocal one. "Gimme 50 cents!" he yells through powerful speakers. "I'm not going to drink it up!"

Meet Plowgirl. She's a junkie, babbling incoherently.

Meet Godfella. He's a rabid street preacher. It's hard to tell what he's pontificating about, but it sure sounds serious.

Then there are Bellephant, a rotund corn vat given new life as a mechanical elephant, and a robotic prostitute named Humper. Others are back at OmniCircus, the permanent space in San Francisco where Garvey and his collaborators stage robotic theater performances. Established in 1988, it is the first of its kind in the world.

Each music theater performance, from smaller cabarets to larger pieces, involves a mix of humans and robots. The human troupe consists of dancers, musicians, singers and actors. Though some of the robots are instruments that play themselves, most are singers and actors, treated the same way by Garvey as the humans.

And appreciated by a sizable audience.

"Our audience is the same people who would go to an avant-garde music show," says Garvey. "There is a big group in San Francisco that goes to edgy shows. It's intellectual, but not elite."

Free-lance art critic Harry Roche has followed and reviewed OmniCircus concerts for years. "It is getting more well-known as the years go on," he says. "In San Francisco, there are so many acts going on it's hard to stay in the light."

Each robot, some built with collaborators Carl Pisaturo, Jeff Weber and Aaron Edsinger, is animated by remote control. Robots are roughly the size of a human and sing or talk with speakers driven by a CD or radio signal. They move with motors powered by batteries or with air pressure powered by pneumatic compressors. Goboy and Plowgirl ride around on electric wheelchair motors, with barely recognizable teeth, head and arms (and phallus, in the case of Goboy) moving in harsh, nightmarish manner. Plowgirl, for example, has the ability to stab herself in the back.

The robots take two years to build and can get pricey.

"It's hard to say exactly how much with overhead and labor," says Garvey, whose work is funded by Carnegie Mellon, "[but] it's pretty expensive. It cost tens of thousands of dollars to build Humper. But Goboy was only $2,000, and the most expensive one we built in San Francisco was $5,000, because we did all the labor. It is nothing in a science/robotics world, but a lot in the art/robotics world."

Garvey's motley crew wouldn't fit into any android science-fiction film you've seen. His point is not to show a pretend future, but to unmask a troubled present. Though Garvey, 48, feels technology will ultimately take us to the next level, he doesn't glorify it for its own sake. The unexpectedly primitive nature of the robots fits right into his life's work: an ongoing, two-decades-old art/music project that crosses many fields and taps into some edgy Marxist thought.

"Capitalistic societies use technology in conjunction with slavery, not to replace it," the soft-spoken Garvey explains as he darts around his Carnegie Mellon lab and offices. In addition to sculpting robots, he mixes music tracks here. "I believe a real artist is revolutionary."

To show he's not kidding, he tosses over a 39-page manifesto he penned in 1993. His basic theory is that while we may react negatively when technology and robots replace human jobs, that's a short-term proposition. If used correctly, those same robots should give us more free time "to create [our] own modern-day culture." Problem is, the "ruling class" wants to use technology to boost profits instead.

Enter the piece de resistance of this quite sane scien/artist: a music theater show with paintings, music, dancers and "actors" that put his theories about profiteering and class warfare right in your face.

In Carnegie Mellon's Electrical Computer Engineering machine shop, Frank Garvey oversees the creation of robot in progress, to be called "Bellephant." Working with him are, from left, machinist James Schubert; Todd Camill, a mechanical engineer working on his Ph.D.; and machinist Dave Belloti. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

"I have been engaged in an effort to build a theater that can explore the dilemma of the human condition on the deepest possible level, using robotic and synthetic performers as well as humans," Garvey explains in a statement published in an upcoming newsletter of the American Composer Forum.

Though unlikely to compete for an Oscar anytime soon, the power of the robot actor is undeniable. Garvey is still famous in San Francisco for taking Goboy out on the streets.

"The response was that people vomited their emotion on him, in a positive and negative way," Garvey says. "We videotaped him and proved that we couldn't have gotten this type of reaction from a real person."

In January, ACF's music label, Innova Recordings, released a CD of what will be Garvey's next robotic show at OmniCircus. Titled "House of the Deafman," it's a surrealistic music-drama about Goya's struggles with King Ferdinand VII.

Like many of the other OmniCircus projects, Garvey wrote the music for "Deafman."

Though he attended the Art Institute of Chicago to study video, he has a strong background in music. His mother is a classical pianist and his dad a conductor. "Music was so built into my family that I never had to study it in a formal way," says Garvey.

His compositional style, however, is leagues from classical. He calls it "ploy-fusion" music, and it's a multicultural affair. "Deafman" combines a classical Indian singer, a West African harp player and ballad singer Diana Trimble. Many of the tracks have an ethereal Peter Gabriel ambiance.

"My ideal is to have a musical language that is so broad you can't describe it," he says. "I am bored with styles, with classical, jazz, rock, folk, world. It's not to say I don't love much of it, but there is just a point that I am saying to myself, 'What if?' "

The music may be ambiguous, but make no bones about it: The real stars are the robots that portray Goya's Black Paintings come to life. Many of them are a permanent part of OmniCircus.

"The big show can't travel," Garvey says. "It is pretty much built into the theater in San Francisco."

To that end, the CD contains photographs of Garvey's paintings and a movie of the robotic ensemble in action. Some of the robots he and Carnegie Mellon students are creating and retooling will be driven by truck to perform in San Francisco.

Garvey's hope is that the CD will bring his project greater prominence.

"I see him as a concept-driven artist who will do whatever is necessary," says Philip Blackburn, program director at the American Composer Forum and a Partch scholar. "His robots are sort of outside art, but their purpose is to heighten the drama."

In San Francisco, Garvey is seen as something of an enfant terrible.

"He is sort of a Renaissance man and is very fluid in all this different media, which is amazing," says Roche. "His work is so class-oriented, and on some level it has intimidated and threatened certain people in San Francisco."

Which begs the question: If people are threatened by his work in San Francisco, why would Carnegie Mellon be interested in Garvey?

For starters, technology doesn't spook the Carnegie Mellon community the way it might the world at large. Second, Garvey was in the right place at the right time. After earning a fellowship in 1999 to Carnegie Mellon's Studio for Creative Inquiry, he had the good fortune to arrive at the dawn of the Entertainment Technology Center, a new program that "combines technology and fine arts to create new processes, tools and vision for storytelling and entertainment," according to its mission statement. The program sends students to such film-renowned places as Industrial Light and Magic and Disney Imagineering.

The ETC, along with the Robotics Institute, appointed Garvey a research faculty member for two years, beginning in fall 2000.

"[Carnegie Mellon] has always had a broader view of technology than anyplace in the world," says Randy Pausch, a co-director of the center along with Don Marinelli. "The ETC was revving up, and we saw him as a great opportunity."

Adds Marinelli: "Frank is a multitalented artist and technologist. He is extremely well-versed in traditional media such as drawing, painting and music, yet he also is a master craftsman and artisan with metal, machinery, computers and software. [He's] an artistic embodiment of the very goals of the ETC."

Goboy is a vocal robot that yells to passersby as it takes a spin around Oakland. Garvey likes to try out his robots in environments such as museums, symphony halls and malls. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Garvey appreciates the support he has gotten from Carnegie Mellon, where he established the Center for Robotic and Synthetic Performance last year. Its purpose, he says, is to develop "new technologies, performance languages and engineering visions [to help us] understand the human condition through the arts."

There's a glint in his eye when he talks about the resources within the Pittsburgh region -- whether that means the availability of student help or the materials ripe for plucking at the many junkyards that dot the landscape. He figures his new environs are taking him to a higher level.

"The first ones I built were folk robots that could barely clunk around," says Garvey. "Now that I am in a lab, the expectations are greater."

In addition to continuing his life's work, Garvey is imparting his knowledge to students at Carnegie Mellon. Though a faculty member, he considers himself more of an artist in residence. "I am there to do my project and recruit students," he says. "As a research faculty member, you are not expected to teach. The only reason I am teaching is because I wanted to."

He did teach a robotic art class last year and may lead a drawing class next year, but the bulk of Garvey's work is wrapped up in seven-week projects that rotate students into his labs for various activities and teaching. Garvey's biggest contribution may well be his style of teaching.

"He provides students with the opportunity to wrestle with and periodically subdue the creative imagination," Marinelli says. "Frank is especially beneficial for those students who are as interested in 'art' as they are 'entertainment.' "

And Marinelli isn't bothered by the strange, sometimes racy end products Garvey's students produce, such as prostitute robots.

"Like many artists whose work might seem frightening, focused on dehumanization to the degree that it may even be considered 'degenerate' by some, Frank is at heart a true believer in the resilience of the human spirit," Marinelli says. "The fact that he is a robotic artist marks him as a man of our time."

Garvey's work isn't without frustration. "For me it is a constant struggle between how I am going to spend my time -- between music and robotics."

Imagine how difficult that struggle would be if he still painted. The ideas and look for his theatrical robots arose from his work on canvas.

"I did the paintings in the 1980s in an effort to clear my mind of all ideas of painting -- so I wouldn't have to paint," he says, his syntax at once odd and endearing. "I would go insane if I were still painting. I can't think of doing another painting. Those paintings have dealt with every force able to be realized in that medium."

It is exactly that type of pronouncement that moves Garvey from the realm of different to outrageous, but he is no egotist. His Promethean streak comes to the fore in his struggles against social censure and his effort to bring a new fire to humankind. Consider, for example, his newest project -- the construction of a robotic exo-skeletal arm and "chariot" for use by a paraplegic dancer.

True to form, he isn't interested in something that will fit with today. Garvey's concern, rather, is with something compatible with his concept of a utopian future.

"There is no greater task ... for the extension of human capabilities with technology, in my opinion, than to build robotic devices that extend the movement of disabled performers past that of the nondisabled performers."

To understand Garvey's modus operandi and way of thinking, it's necessary to examine his childhood in Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

"My father was Harry Partch's main collaborator for years, John Garvey, who conducted 'The Bewitched,' " he says of Partch's "dance-satire" of modern life that used musical instruments designed and built by him. ... I grew up with Partch; he hung out at my house for three of my formative years."

Though still not well-known, Partch, who died in 1974, was an American original equaled only by John Cage in his redefining of music in this century. Partch found he couldn't express his innate music with the existing instruments of the West or the East. Calling himself "a philosophic music man seduced into carpentry," he built his own instruments to play a new scale that split the octave into 43 tones. A controversial and underground figure, Partch's ideas about music and theater, and intonation and temperament were inspiring to many.

Especially to a young person inclined to be curious, like Frank Garvey, who saw the live production of "The Bewitched" as a 6-year-old and was impressed with the different sounds, such as the Chromelodeon, a modified harmonium.

"This is obviously a case of a young life being surrounded by different kinds of assumptions -- that it's OK to be creative in many fields," says Blackburn. "Partch was nothing if not against specialization in the arts. Frank grew up in that environment. The whole world was his oyster, and some of Partch's genius must have rubbed off on the lad."

Garvey considers himself a Partch disciple and appreciates the connection. In fact, his robots are versions of Partch's instruments, built to actuate a vision that could find expression in no other way.

"We are going to do for metal what Partch did for wood," he says.

Perhaps Partch would have returned the sentiment.

"I think Partch would love the totality of Frank's works," says Blackburn. "Harry was a real low-tech guy. He made wooden and glass instruments using hand saws -- [but only because] it was too early in history for electronics to be useful to him."

In this context, Garvey's outlook on life and art becomes simultaneously less outrageous and more meaningful. He is a radical, but not for rebellion's sake. Rather, he has a vision of a better future that he feels is partially attainable through his creations. But he is not going to scream at you to change.

"He knows how to be passionate without slipping into dogmatic," says ETC co-director Pausch, who adds that Garvey's calm demeanor isn't contradictory with extremist views.

"Jefferson was a revolutionary, but was civil."

Garvey doesn't intend to start a new OmniCircus in Pittsburgh, although he is considering some smaller performances here if he can find enough interested musicians. His hope is that "Deafman" will reach people worldwide.

"We are not trying to stay fringe," he says. "We would like to be much more well-known. ... I really hope [the CD] makes a difference."

Maybe it will, suggests Roche. " 'House of the Deafman' seems as if it might be a breakout for him. It has so many incongruent elements that will stir people's imagination."

It's hard to imagine it wouldn't.

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