We Were Promised Robots

“Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!”
Lost in Space

. . . and robots we will have. Along with our communicators, dinner-in-a-pill and our flying cars, these sleek, gleaming metal men and women with cybernetic brains, cleansed of the pesky weaknesses, foibles or emotions of humanity, were a staple of the futuristic visions—uptopian and dystopian—of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And the Sonoma County Museum has them, just for us.

First, a spoiler; they aren’t real robots.* They aren’t Carpet Roombas or machines that build cars. The displays in the exhibition Robots, Evolution of a Cultural Icon, are artistic, not historical, as various artists give full creative rein to their inner ten-year-olds.

The Museum is located at 475 7th Street, in Santa Rosa, one block west of B Street, right across the street from the Santa Rosa Mall parking structure. Back in the 1970s or early 80s when they split Old Courthouse Square, they put the 1910 Santa Rosa Post Office up on rollers and moved it to 7th Street where it sat (on rollers) for months or maybe years until somebody rescued it and it became the museum. The floors are marble; the doors have a strong Arts and Crafts influence, as do the brass chandeliers. All of this, somehow, is a perfect contrast to a show about robots. In the foyer, three metal robot masks by Nemo Gould hang on the wall. A robot with a light in its hand flanks the curving staircase up to the upstairs gallery.

Robots are manifested in metal, in paint and paper, and in video. On one wall, a shadow box depicts a boxy robot, with its robot dog, sitting in a recliner with a box of tissues, watching a 50s-era console TV. On canvas, we are treated to a celebrity installment of Robots Behaving Badly, featuring the Lost in Space robot, in Michael Mew’s Pulling the Plug. There are several found-object sculptures. One of my favorites is a small robot made from a lawn sprinkler and a garden trowel. Patrick Amiot, western Sonoma County’s renowned “junk sculptor” has two charming pieces in the show. There are three video displays. One incorporates books, both physical books and digital footage of pages, riffled by a robotic hand, until they morph into film. There is also a music video by the pop singer Bjork which features two female robots falling in love. This is in the Mature Audiences section of the exhibit. No, really. I’m not making that up.

Nemo Gould must really love robots, because he is well-represented in this show. Several of his pieces are interactive. Two small, non-threatening robots have push buttons. One is called Blink. Guess what it does. The other one rocks from side to side when you press the button, and is waa-aay more interesting than I just made it sound.

His third interactive piece is a six-foot-tall mechanical man with red eyes and twin gun holsters. Its curving metal fingers hover just centimeters above the handles. This robot, connected to a motion sensor, rolls its shoulders in a menacing way whenever an innocent bystander comes within range. This robot disturbed me, but fascinated me. It kept reminding me of Stephen King’s Gunslinger series, and not just because it’s a gunslinger. There are animatronic animals in the Gunslinger books, and there is a gunslinger (duh!) but there isn’t, to my recollection, a robotic gunslinger. Still, this guy evoked those books for me. I’m still not sure why. Something about the low-pitched whirring sound the machine makes as the shoulders roll, unlimbering those arms for a quick draw and fire. . .eek! I’ll just go over here and look at the nice oil paintings now.

This is a fun show, and mostly great for kids. The cost is $5 for adults. It runs through the first week of April.

While I was there I went upstairs to check out that gallery, which had old oil paintings of northern California—redwood trees, lakes, rivers, waterfalls—combined with some historical artifacts including the hot spring spas and the narrow-gauge railroad. Since then, that exhibit has been replaced with an Artquest show, displaying the art of Santa Rosa’s artistic high school students. I imagine it’s a pretty good show.

But the robots are the coolest.

*The museum has added a display of robotic toy and “real” robots in one of the side rooms.

This entry was posted in View from the Road and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to We Were Promised Robots

  1. Cameo Blue says:

    Hiya, M.

    I went to see the robots this past weekend. As you said, it is a cool exhibit. It was family day that Saturday so admission was free and they served snacks in the lobby! There were a lot of kids, but it was fun to watch them interact with the some of the pieces. There was roving robot there. It was about four-feet-tall with a sequined top hat. It followed people around, talked to them, made comments about the other robots. Very entertaining.

    It was interesting that some of the male robots had their “man bits” rendered by the artists and were visible for all to see (including that six-foot robot gunslinger). But the two female robots making love in Bjork’s music video were displayed in a secluded box and marked for mature audiences. And the audio was turned down so low that you couldn’t hear the beautiful song on the video’s soundtrack!

    I went upstairs and checked out the ArtQuest exhibit. Wow! There are some very talented young artists in that program. I saw paintings, sketches, photography, video, and even fabric arts. Several had been singled out for distinction and it’s not hard to see why. They were awesome!

    I want to go back again when it’s not so crowded and spend some quality time there.

    Thanks for the heads-up on the exhibit!

  2. Marion says:

    I’m sorry I missed the top-hat robot! I might go back this weekend and see the exhibit again. I’d like to see the Artquest show.

    I found the double-standard about naked robots a little strange too. When I was there you could hear the Bjork song, and it was on continuous loop, which was distracting. You really have to hear the music in order to fully appreciate the video.

  3. Cameo Blue says:

    Heads-up. The Tour of California rolls into town on Sunday. It’s going to be huge. Downtown will be packed!. Crazy fun to be had all day! 😀

    The ArtQuest show is worth the price of admission.

    I guess they decided to turn the volume down on the video for family day. I’m glad I heard the song before going to the exhibit. It is one of her more accessible songs.

    The top-hat robot was fun. I wonder if they only brought it out for family day.

  4. Marion says:

    Are you going to take pictures at the Tour? Two years ago I went out to Occidental and took pics but I won’t be able to get into town this Sunday for it. I look foward to seeing what shots you get!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *