Isaac Asimov once famously said, “The world needs more dancing robots.”* In fact I would go even further and say that the world needs new and improved dancing robots. And that’s where Chris Hirst come in. His robot suit contains everything you need for a mobile dance party but now he’s looking to Kickstarter to help him take things to the next level. Seriously, how can you say no to a dancing robot? We were happy to pledge $100 and Chris returned the favor by giving us the inside scoop on all things robotic and groovy.
Where did the desire to become a dancing robot come from?
The project started in 2007. I’d been to Burning Man four times and I’d never brought something of my own, so I thought it was time to contribute something for the 2008 festival. So I went about actively brainstorming a project. Right away I knew it would involve music, which is one of my favorite things. My friend Vincenzo was also planning to go to Burning Man (for the first time) so I brought him on board the project.There were already dozens of dance camps and art cars out there, we wanted to create a new kind of dance party. So we came up with the idea of a musical costume. We liked the idea of the music source being able to wander around, bringing the dancers with it. You can dance….but you have to move with the speakers.
Originally we were thinking jacket and slacks with speakers woven into them, but there was an obvious weight problem. We moved on to a hyper-tech design, lots of computers, equipment and flashy lights mounted in various ways (like the gargoyles from Snow Crash) but that proved too complicated and expensive. Then Enzo suggested it be a robot costume, that way we could build a nice stiff frame to hold the speakers and amplifier. He moved to LA in 2008 but I kept the project going.
Have you done any other types of things that are similar to this?
I’ve never done anything like this. I’m not a shy person but I’ve never been a performer, at least doing something where all eyes are on me. I get incredibly self-conscious about performing in front of people. This project represents part of a decision I made to push myself out of my comfort zone. It’s my first attempt ever to really put myself out there and share something. I figure it might thicken up my skin a bit and give me a wider perspective.
I still feel that same fright start to build as I approach my performance location. As I begin putting on the suit, I become aware of eyes on me and it gets worse. By the time I’m fully suited I’m quite nervous, almost shaky. But then the robot head comes down over my own, and within seconds I’m calm as a Hindu calf. And I’m able to dance my heart out, right in front of everyone. They’re all looking at the robot. I’m completely concealed.
Have you gotten any funding to do this at all?
So far the robot has been funded strictly on my dime. A lot of money was poorly spent on the earlier models (this current one is #3) on the wrong amps, wrong speakers, wrong batteries, wrong everything. Needless to say I’ve learned a lot about how to run a project but I learned most of it the hard way. After a very successful week at Burning Man last year I applied for an art grant but was turned down. I’ve recouped some money through my performances in SF (thanks everyone!) but that has barely scratched the surface, and I have nothing left for the numerous upgrades listed on my kickstarter page.
Do you have any formal training in dance…or being a robot?
As a dancer I’m a complete amateur, never had a dance lesson in my life. But I love to dance anyway. I dance around my apartment all the time. But as I say on kickstarter, having no formal dance training or actual dancing skill is no reason to abstain from dancing. I have a feeling that there are a lot more closeted dance enthusiasts out there than you’d think. The robot gives those people a chance to dance without being self-conscious. He fills them with confidence, largely by setting an example with his own dancing. He broadcasts the message “this isn’t about impressing anyone, it’s just about dancing.”
What are some of your favorite dance music choices?
Since the prime directive of the project is to get people dancing, I try to tailor my playlist accordingly. I don’t actually listen to most popular dance music, I listen to bands like Morphine,They Might Be Giants, and Oingo Boingo. Lots of great stuff for dancing, but not stuff that people are going to know. So I consult my friends and they point me toward stuff that’s really going to get people moving. Making the playlist is an art form and it’s one I still need a lot of practice with. I try to add my personal choices after a run of three popular songs to get the crowd going. My hope is that they might carry the built up energy into the song I chose, and maybe enjoy it more than they would have otherwise. Like a way to share my musical taste with people in a way that maximizes their chances of enjoying it. The things I hear in music are so magical to me that I want everyone to hear them the way I hear them, and this is the closest I can get to that.
One of the of features I’m planning to add is a tablet which would be mounted to the side of the robot for people to come up and look through my library and cue up their own songs. This way people would be able to get the music they want, when they want it, rather than being slavishly tied to my eclectic taste.
Have you thought about having some original music created for your dance moves?
No original music yet, but come back in a year and the robot might cutting his own hip hop album (I can just see his face on the cover).
What are some of your more interesting experiences?
A definite side effect of the robot is the perspective it gives me. In some ways it can be like a psychology experiment, fortunately it’s one that doesn’t harm the subjects. I’ve had many hilarious moments. Here are a few:
I was performing in the Helen Diller playground one morning and there must have been fifteen toddlers swarming around me. And I hear this kid standing right up close to me (where I can’t see) yelling “I KNOW YOU’RE NOT REAL! I KNOW YOU’RE NOT A REAL ROBOT!” And his voice was so indignant! Another kid just kept yelling “HI ROBOT! HI ROBOT! HI ROBOT!” I waved at him and he waved back, but he just kept yelling it.
I’ve overheard several adults who weren’t as clever as that kid, though. Three different times I’ve overheard conversation to my left or right involving “how do they get it to move so life-like?” I love that, because these people aren’t stupid or anything, they’re just so captured by the experience that they’ve actually been able to suspend their disbelief without even trying. Later they’ll feel silly, but for that moment they got to be kids again. The robot looks silly but he’s also quite a convincing robot.
-photo by docpop.org-
The reaction from children varies. The extremes of their reactions are exuberance and hypnosis. During an Embarcadero performance I had a kid stare at me for at least thirty minutes. The adult with him just hung around patiently while he sat and stared, mesmerized. His face showed neither fear nor happiness, just endless fascination. I like to think I contributed to his sense of wonder.
Another moment, one of my favorite moments, was last year at Burning Man. I had a crowd going and was playing lots of good dancing stuff, and then the song “As the World Falls Down” by David Bowie (from the movie Labrynth) came on, and everyone just grabbed a partner and started slow dancing. It was unbelievably sweet and romantic. Several people came up with hugs and kisses for the robot. I’m quite a softy (as you could probably guess from my song selection) and that was one of the sweetest moments of my life.
-photo by docpop.org-
Have you ever heard of anyone else doing something like this? Do you have any plans to create more dance robots to create a robot dance army?
There may be something like the robot dance party out there but I haven’t heard of it. It’s a simple concept but as far as I can tell it has not been done before. If there are other dancing robots out there, I’d love to meet them! In the meantime, there are more robots on their way. I’ve recruited four other people to build their own robots of their own design (and budget). The only requirement is that they have a radio receiver. We will transmit our music on an FM frequency and all tune in, resulting in a five-robot dance party. Five unique robots all playing the same music. I’m anticipating that it will greatly increase the overall effect. Then the next step is to add a detailed DIY to my website and start actively recruiting more people to design and build their own robots. I feel like once people have seen the effect with five robots they’ll be very interested signing on. And who knows how far that could go? twenty? thirty? a hundred? Only time will tell.
What would be a dream performance experience for you?
Well I am a die-hard They Might Be Giants fan and I feel like the robot is very much in tune with stuff they’re doing for kids these days, so I have this dream of performing with them at a free children’s concert in the park. The robot could mingle through the crowds doing my dance thing and getting the kids excited, plus he could go up on stage with the Johns and dance while they play “Robot Parade.” I love performing for adults but the reactions I’ve gotten from children have really won me over. And I think the band would love it too.
So if you know anyone who knows the Johns, ask them to direct them to my website. ;)
Big thanks to Chris for letting us peek into his metal machine music world. Everyone should head over to Kickstarter and help Chris take his robot suit to the next level!
*OK, you got me, Asimov never said that but wouldn’t it have been cool if he did?