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The Secret Life of Robots

on Mon, 02/24/2014 - 00:00

Robots have been slowly invading Pittsburgh for nearly a century now. In 1927—just seven years after the term was first coined by Czech playwright Karel Capek—Westinghouse employee Roy James Wensley attached a head, arms, body and legs to a piece of phone answering equipment known as a Televox, in effect creating the world’s first robot. The Westinghouse Company later added the seven-foot tall Elektro the Moto-Man to its growing stable of metal creations, while robotics pioneers like William “Red” Whittaker made national headlines at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, culminating with the Wall Street Journal declaring in 1999 that the Steel City was now “Roboburgh” because of the university’s achievements.

While Wensley and Whittaker may have demonstrated the variety of tasks a robot is capable of performing, Pittsburgh artist Toby Atticus Fraley has been busy in recent years showcasing the lifestyles that robots exhibit when the world’s media is not watching. Starting with the opening of Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop on Sixth Avenue in late 2011—an exhibition art installation created as part of the city’s Project Pop Up—Fraley has given both residents and visitors to the Steel City an entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes activities of his retro-style robots. While the Robot Repair Shop closed in 2013, the Pittsburgh Culture Trust has enabled Toby Fraley to explore his artwork even further with “The Secret Life of Robots” at SPACE on Liberty Avenue, which opened on February 21, 2014, and runs through April 27, 2014.

“Everyday scenes from the lives of robots have been captured in this exhibition for us to observe,” Fraley explains in the press release announcing the installation. “Robots assembled from pieces of Americana illustrate mundane everyday rituals, acts of daring, and precious milestones. These scenes of great joy and crushing sadness cover the beginning to the end of a typical robot’s lifespan, celebrating and revering the beauty in the everyday.” In the capable artistic hands of Toby Fraley, it turns out that the “secret life of robots” is not that far from the lives experienced by their human counterparts across the globe—including parents witnessing the first steps of their child, a mother vacuuming the carpet while their own youngster is literally climbing-the-walls in the background, and an elderly robot having difficulty removing the lids from his medicine bottles.

“Just a lot of brainstorming,” Fraley says in regards to the inspiration behind the individual pieces that make up “The Secret Life of Robots.” “Sitting around thinking, ‘What are boring things that I do in everyday life that a robot might be doing also?’ Just mundane little snippets.” When asked if the various artwork reflect his own life, Fraley adds, “A couple. Either me or scenarios that I’ve had friends or family go through.” One specific element of the exhibit, meanwhile, does indeed have direct ties to a member of his family. “It’s one of my mom’s favorite TV shows,” he explains of the classic 1960s espionage series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that appears on a small television located on a kitchen counter. “It’s for my mom.”

In terms of a personal favorite amongst the robots on display at SPACE, Toby Fraley admits that it depends on the moment. “It bounces around,” he says. “I made some of these eighteen months ago, so I’m a little burned out on them already. I kind of like the one where the robot spirit is up above the other robot. It’s strange seeing a robot all white like that. I don’t know what it is, it’s kind of eerie. So that’s my new favorite right now.” The piece in question contains an elderly robot, presumably on his death bed, with another robot at his side as the aforementioned “spirit” hovers overhead. The scene is likewise reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

The retro-style robotic sculptures of Toby Atticus Fraley were influenced by old Popular Science magazines of the 1950s and 60s that featured futuristic flying cars and other science fiction-tinged flights of fancy that many believed would be part of everyday society in the years to come. While that future never materialized, the depictions—as well as the era—inspired Fraley nonetheless. In addition to the robots themselves, for instance, almost all of the exhibits from “The Secret Life of Robots” reflect the interior designs of a 1950s suburban home, from the kitchens to the dining rooms to the bedroom sets.

“I just like well-designed things made of durable materials,” Toby Fraley explains of his fascination with the decade. “Today everything just seems cookie cutter, made out of plastic. Back then, they hired a good designer, they made it out of steel and cast aluminum. That’s why they’re still around today because they’re made out of good materials. I just have an eye for quality. I like quality things and I think those were quality items back then.”

Fraley had previously crafted a donation box—featuring a robot carrying a large crate—for the Wood Street Gallery, which is likewise operated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The piece inspired curator Murray Horne to contact Toby Fraley soon afterwards about creating the larger exhibit that became known as “The Secret Life of Robots.” Horne was also impressed by the now defunct Robot Repair Shop, as were many others within the region. “Kind of sad sometimes,” Fraley says of the public’s reaction to the closing of the fictitious store. “I get random emails. When someone sees some work of mine, they’ll say, ‘It’s great new work, but damn, I really miss that Robot Repair Shop.’ And I miss it too. It had a good run there, but I do miss it.”

The “Lonely Robot” of Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop did make a brief reappearance during the Highmark First Night activities on December 31, 2013, as a guest of the Renaissance Hotel, a mere block-and-half away from the original exhibit. “The Cultural Trust asked me if I wanted to have the robot revisit town,” Fraley explains. “I said yes, and I knew the Renaissance really liked the repair shop so I asked them if they would mind hosting him, so it kind of came about that way. They were fans all along.” As for Fraley keeping the flame alive in terms of the region’s rich history in the field of robotics with his robot-themed installations and exhibits, the artist insists that it is not intentional. “It’s kind of happenstance,” he says. “It’s kind of where I landed and it just happens to be a techie town for robots here. It’s more coincidence really.”

In addition to Pittsburgh, Toby Fraley is generating buzz across the country as well. Over the past year, his works have appeared in Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, and Fraley will be participating in the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver, Colorado, over the July 4, 2014, weekend. “It’s great,” Fraley says of the public’s reaction outside of the Steel City. “I’m lucky. My work kind of carries over around the US. It’s kind of really approachable artwork, it’s not too out there that the general person doesn’t get it, so I think that helps. The people around the country appreciate it. Knock on wood.”

If “The Secret Life of Robots” is any indication, no knocking on wood is necessary for the continual success of Toby Atticus Fraley.

Anthony Letizia (February 24, 2014)

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