The Artist as Change Agent:
Kal Spelletich’s Transformative Art and Performances
by Tanya Augsburg
Artist Kal Spelletich has no use for passive consumerism and inaction. With a longstanding interest in Zen philosophy and an enduring commitment to activism, Spelletich’s life has been staunchly anti-consumerist in his pursuit of making art out of recycled, freecyled, donated, stealthily procured, and otherwise “opportuned” materials scavenged from Bay area junkyards and dumpsters. While Spelletich is known primarily as a kinetic machine and robotic artist who works with fire, his conceptual and affective art work has always been much more expansive, including performance, multimedia installation, interactive participatory social practice, and more recently, abstract geometric kinetic constructions.
You can find Spelletich much of the time at his no-frills studio warehouse on the eastern industrial waterfront in San Francisco inventing contraptions that transform into art whenever he demonstrates them during shows, tours, invited lectures, and exhibitions—many of which he has either organized or curated in DIY fashion. Spelletich’s finely honed performance skills are in full display during shows and lectures as he introduces each machine or robot, chronicling his handiwork’s name, history, and capabilities. Audience members from all walks of life line up to volunteer to interact one at a time, usually under Spelletich’s attentive watch. Spelletich also performs whenever he refrains from introducing his machines to his intended audiences. For instance, Spelletich spent much of his time during the opening of Art in Motion, an inaugural kinetic art exhibition that took place on November 13, 2014 at the newly opened Jules Maeght Gallery in San Francisco, standing next to his wine pouring machine, conversing with attendees while simultaneously monitoring its output. While many of the art patrons figured out how to operate the machine on their own, they also seemed to appreciate whenever Spelletich stepped in to help as they waited patiently for their glasses to be filled one at a time.
Why do so many audience members choose to interact with Spelletich’s works? Just to clarify: the decision to get up close and personal with Spelletich’s creations is completely voluntary, without any coercion or manipulation on the part of the artist that is the hallmark of much avant-garde and participatory art (participants can get roped in by peer pressure but that’s another story). Volunteering to participate means taking stock of one’s comfort level with risk. Anticipated unpleasant emotions such as anxiety and fear can and do inevitably arise when one is about to be surrounded by flames emitted by a metal machine that resembles a post-apocalyptic instrument of death. Yet such feelings are fleeting, and tend to be followed with the cathartic thrill of being alive. Alternatively, there can be a sense of reward, as when one’s glass gets filled with wine, however clunky or messy the process. The psychological motivations and decision-making processes of the volunteer participants, as well as their reactions while interacting with the technology, are of great interest to Spelletich, who views his work as ongoing arts-based research.
While I share the artist’s fascination with his viewers’ minds, as a performance scholar and critic I’m also interested in learning more about his own. I visited Spelletich in his studio on a sunny day in June 2014, where we had a three-hour conversation about his artwork and career. Spelletich started off by mentioning that he was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa and that he is the seventh of nine children in his family. His father owned a construction company, so he grew up around tools. He began experimenting with building things and blowing them up after receiving a chemistry set when he was nine years old. He then recounted a number of transformative experiences that he has attempted to recreate with his art. His first major transformative experience occurred in 1970 at the age of ten. Spelletich heard one of his sisters play a Woodstock album that featured Jimi Hendrix. Spelletich’s responses to Hendrix’s electrifying sound were both bewilderment and curiosity as he sought to understand that which challenged his senses as well as his intellect.
In 1979 Spelletich was 18 and an undergraduate at University of Iowa when he heard the Sex Pistols for the first time, which provided similarly disorienting albeit ultimately transformative moments. That same year he visited San Francisco and attended his first punk rock concert. In those days punk rockers would leave microphones on stage for audience members to pick up and sing along when they weren’t diving into mosh pits. Punk music eroded the gulf between performer and audience as anyone present could contribute to its production through performance. Spelletich would subsequently strive to approximate punk’s interactive and participatory aesthetics as well as its raw, primal intensity with his machine art performances.
Additional transformative experiences involved activism. During college Spelletich protested against nuclear power and global injustices such as South African Apartheid. His activism has continued until the present day—he has been arrested, tear gassed and clubbed countless times, which only reinforces his drive to battle social, economic and global injustices.
Spelletich majored in interdisciplinary arts in college and studied the historical avant-garde. Surrealism’s objective to create startling effects through strange juxtapositions was not unknown to him—it just didn’t go far enough. The menacing and volatile machine art of Mark Pauline and his Survival Research Labs profiled in V. Vale’s Industrial Culture Handbook and Pranks Re/Search books did, inspiring some early art experiments involving skateboards and the mechanical reanimation of road kill.
By 1985 the government’s lack of response to the growing AIDS epidemic profoundly impacted Spelletich as one of his brothers became infected with the HIV virus. Having witnessed his brother succumb to AIDS in 1989, Spelletich created multimedia installation environments such as Bedroom (1989) in which he juxtaposed abject byproducts of dank humanity—found soiled mattresses—with a video loop of clouds shot from an airplane—visual metaphors of lightness, transformation, and transcendence.
After receiving his MFA degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Spelletich moved to San Francisco and joined the SRL crew. By 1994 he had moved on and into his current studio, having already formed his own ad hoc art collective in 1988 called SEEMEN that lasted until 2004. With SEEMEN Spelletich constructed at the 1996 Burning Man festival some of its earliest (and notorious) interactive performance installations, most resoundingly GATES OF HELL and HELCO.
One constant theme I have gleaned from viewing Spelletich’s art has been the nexus between emotions, cognition, and consciousness. A striking example can be seen with Spelletich’s early Head Punching Machine (1995-1996), an anthropomorphic metal machine with a smooth, cylinder-shaped head. Using a remote control, participants can move the machine’s arm to clank noisily its noggin, and in so doing, produce kinetic images of jarring aggression as well as loud noise. Head Punching Machine invokes SRL’s dark nihilistic humor by offering participants the opportunity to vicariously experience various scenarios, ranging from heady eureka moments to murderous revenge.
Spelletich made numerous pyrotechnic machines during the 1990s with self-explanatory names such as Shark Cage (1998), Fire Shower (1999), Kali Chair (1999), Burning Bed (2000), Ring of Fire (2000), and Strap-On (2000), a flamethrowing dildo. Writing this essay in 2014 I can’t recall exactly how I ended up standing in Fire Shower during one of Spelletich’s shows back in 2000, but fourteen years later I still remember vividly the hypnotic beauty of the whirling flames circling me and the adrenaline rush I felt immediately afterwards.
Post 9/11 Spelletich has become increasing interested in building machines that demonstrate intelligence while also experimenting with biofeedback sensors. A notable example is Monkey on Your Back (2006), a backpack robot with multiple arms and EKG sensors that respond to changes in the participant’s heart rate. The complexity of its operation, and the frustration it inevitably fosters, simulates the perplexing experiences of addiction and its faulty decision making processes that Spelletich has understood first-hand.
Spelletich’s work since 2009 has taken a more positive turn, which he credits in part to his commitment to living by Buddhist principles. It seems patently evident that his art manifests his protest against the general sense of negativity that has loomed since the 2008 financial collapse. Spelletich filmed 50 people daydreaming while looking up to the sky for his five-channel video installation, With Your Head in the Clouds (2013). First shown at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles as part of the group show, Artifacts of a Life Lived by the Living (to Live), Spelletich set up a live camera so that viewers could see themselves included in the projected assembly of dreamers. For a four-channel video installation Looking Hopefully Towards the Future (2013), he recorded 30 people doing exactly that. Revolting against the defeatist paralysis of despair, Spelletich contributes to centuries-old arts tradition of representing human expression while making powerful social commentary.
The mental correlate of hope can be regarded as meditation or prayer. Spelletich has taken up a serious investigation of prayer’s visible manifestations—movement and gesture—as a means of exploring potentialities for technology’s spirituality by fabricating spiritual technologies. Spelletich highlights the kinetics of prayer in his 2014 collaboration with painter Nelson Loskamp, a series of wooden prayer wheels that participants spin to rotate Loskamp’s paintings. He has assembled several kinetic motorized metal sculptures called Praying Hands (2014). Turn on one machine and two metallic hands jerk noisily towards each other until their fingers interlock. Flip a switch on another and the thumb and fingers of a metallic hand conjoin in a Buddhist prayer gesture for banishing obstacles and negative thoughts known as karana mudra.
Spelletich has advanced his arts-based research on prayer further with what he calls mystical machines. Locally Euclidean (2014) is a recent project composed of abstract interactive kinetic constructions (five of which are currently on display until January 31, 2015 as part of aforementioned Jules Maeght Gallery’s Art in Motion exhibition) made out of scrap metal and carefully selected found wood that he has collected over the years from redwood forests and construction jobs. Interactivity transforms into unique meditative experience as each piece transposes in unexpected ways when turned on by sensors that respond to each individual viewer’s touch, heartbeat, and as Spelletich claims, aura.
Perhaps even more demonstrably contemplative are his series of kinetic praying robots from 2013-2014 that he alternatively calls intention machines. Each praying robot is in itself a gesture of gratitude, appreciation, and love as it is modeled after a particular individual who has either mentored or inspired the artist. Each praying robot is headless, wears the donated clothing of its namesake, and performs certain distinct gestures of its prototype that Spelletich interprets as prayer. For example, the Mark Pauline Praying Robot (2013-2014) wears one of Pauline’s dirty coveralls that took considerable persuasion on Spelletich’s part to obtain. When activated, it rises from its wooden coffee table base with its arms raised. The participant sets a praying robot in motion by touching an interface sensor that enables the robot to read the participant’s aura and respond with an appropriate gesture. This is where mysticism comes into play. With no stored memory, each response is spontaneous and unique. In the age of ubiquitous surveillance the act of building intelligent machines that lack any capacity to store data on individuals ought to be regarded as an overt act of conscientious objection.
Decades of guerilla gardening finally found form in Spelletich’s art with his treebots (2010)— kinetic hybrid sculptures made up of pieces of trees covered with lichen bolted to moving machine parts, gears, and motors. During our conversation Spelletich informs me that the integration of tree parts and kinetic machines has unnerved some spectators. He regards their expressions of disapproval as unanticipated yet significant findings in his ongoing research. “What other unexpected results have you come across?,” I ask, while sitting at his kitchen table sipping green tea.
Spelletich thinks carefully before detailing how the sadistic streaks of some people become unleashed by technology. Participants will maniacally run a machine—the Head Punching Machine in particular— without stopping until it breaks, which it has done many times.
“How does that make you feel?”
Spelletich sighs. He replies that the breakage is disappointing because he then has to worry about the cost to repair it. His answer surprises me. Earlier in our discussion Spelletich stated adamantly his belief that art must be separate from money—because money changes everything. Having to spend money to fix work designed to give pleasure to himself and to others alters his relation to it.
The mention of money veers our dialogue in another direction. There is no denying that money has transformed San Francisco, as it leads the country in income inequality and real estate prices. Spelletich would prefer to stay in the city known for its history of activism and innovation, but acknowledges that it may be time to move on rather than become stuck in the unproductive feedback loop of cynical thinking and complacent inaction that has accompanied San Francisco’s latest tech boom. “Cynicism is lazy,” Spelletich says, taking direct aim at ironic hipsters, tech billionaires, and all those who have failed to act, resist, or envision possible solutions to the disappearance of art and culture resulting from skyrocketing rents and hypergentrification. His statement, a cerebral head punch if there ever was one, is as radical as his art.
Tanya Augsburg is a feminist performance scholar, contemporary art critic, juror, and curator. She teaches at San Francisco State University where she is Associate Professor of Liberal Studies in the areas of the Creative Arts and Humanities. She was the juror and a co-curator of Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze, a travelling exhibition sponsored by the Women’s Caucus of Art that was shown at SOMARTs in San Francisco and the Kinsey Institute Gallery. In 2012 she was the American Juror for the exhibition Woman + Body that took place in Gwangju and Seoul, South Korea. She is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively entitled, Looking at Men: Feminist Challenges to the Male Gaze.
Photocredits (from top of page):
All Works by Kal Spelletich
Seemen Performance in Phoenix, Summer 2000, Photo: Tanya Augsburg, 2000
Photo: Arnaud Gaertner, 2014, Courtesy of Jules Maeght Gallery
Flight Simulator (2002), Photo: Kal Spelletich, 2013
Author Anticipating Fire Shower, Photo: Meladie Roberts, 2000
Strap-On, Photo: Tanya Augsburg, 2000
Arbor Aeronautics, Photo: Kal Spelletich, 2013
Kal Spelletich Introducing his Head Punching Machine in Phoenix, Photo: Tanya Augsburg, 2000
Locally Euclidian, Photo: Tanya Augsburg, 2014
Mark Pauline Praying Robot (2013-2014), kaltek.wordpress.com
Photo: Arnaud Gaertner, 2014, Courtesy of Jules Maeght Gallery