My Life with the Robo-Guitarrista

Under an hour after meeting José Duarte, he asked me if I wanted to build a robot. “It will make music. And have arms made of chainsaws” he said. “At the end, it will catch on fire.” 

José, sans robot.

José, sans robot.

In Costa Rica’s experimental art community, José’s status seems to sit comfortably between the levels of “local hero” and “celebrity.” Much like the a robot with chainsaw arms, his projects are rarely implicit. This is to say when you see one of his pieces, there’s no way you’ll forget it. After living in Taiwan to study computer music, José’s return to Costa Rica in 2007 was met with gusto. Since then, he’s best known for two main projects—“Extremos Sonoros,” a concert series of experimental noise music, and “Sonorum,” a sound house for interactive arts. The programs have been around long enough that at least one of its current members grew up attending “Extremos Sonoros” concerts. In a way, he’s created a bit of a dynasty for himself. It’s quite nice. He’s also created a platform to help build robots that destroy themselves. That’s nice too.

It’s been two weeks since we first discussed the robot (which José has asked me to refer to as KILLER ROBOT in all official documentation), and the project is still very much alive—though with fewer chainsaws. The current incarnation of the robot orchestra is one made from household appliances. Blenders spin into action, knocking mallets into gongs. Tea kettles whistle tunes while sitting on a MIDI-controlled hot plate. Instead of the robot catching on fire, its mouth will open and freshly popped popcorn will come streaming out. 

José’s wife, Ileana, is kindly lending her popcorn machine. She says she’s used to this kind of thing. 

We ended up pitching the project to San Jose's Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, who were--wonderfully--quite enthused. The museum’s current exhibition focuses on the atrocities carried out by the United Fruit company in Central America, and our passiveness towards the death that makes first-world domesticity possible. The robot orchestra now, while arguably more child-friendly, still attempts to balance kitsch with a sense of self-aware globalism. Food processors churn up bananas while spraying a mock pesticide on a crop in the center of the room. I’m not sure if it’s more apt to call it a depressing type of humor, or a humorous attempt at instilling depression. Either way, it’ll make one hell of a day to the museum. 

While José convinces Ileana to borrow the juicer, I’ve slowly been working on one of the more traditionally musical additions to the ensemble, a robotic guitarist. The construction is rather basic--a series of six DC motors spin wildly when given a MIDI command, prompting a (hopefully) tasteful tremolo. With a few of these guitars around, we hope to produce an overzealous bachata chorus to accompany the proverbial destruction of our banana plant. My presumed outcome is political sarcasm, likely at its kinkiest. 

My notebook generally looks like this now. 

My notebook generally looks like this now. 

Several hours of my week were spent inside catching up on my Arduino syntax. Given the news from home, my tutorial projects took on a political theme. 

I was encouraged to send an email to one Thómas de Camino, a local mad scientist of sorts. Thómas, like José, seems to find joy in making art that embodies his eccentricism. Check, for instance, his website of Youtube "chance music," in which the specific piece you hear is determined by how quickly--and in what order--the videos load. By day, Thómas works as the director of La Inventoria, a laboratory-cum-creator's wonderland on the outskirts of San José. If you happen to be in Costa Rica and in dire need of a high-quality lasercut, this is your place. 

I parked myself in La Inventoria to print the chassis for the Robo-Guitarrista. This little plastic thing sits on the far side of the bridge and holds six motors, each wired to a frantically spinning pick. Inside the little divots sit microswitches, each of which can manually trigger the motors if so desired. 

The Robo-Guitarrista, a part of José's installation "KILLER ROBOT", will be opening in late September at the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo. Until then, we welcome your ceiling fans, vacuum cleaners, and lawnmowers with open arms.