It is easy to find a place where humans play music. Venues for robots, on the other hand, are few and far between.
Luckily, the LEMURplex in Gowanus has just opened its doors to the public. Now, Brooklyn has a space where the public can play interesting instruments, and the instruments can play right back.
LEMUR, the acronym for League of Electronic Urban Musical Robots, is a group of artists and technologists with a simple philosophy; rather than create robots that play instruments, they build robots that are themselves original, never-before-seen instruments.
A dozen examples of the group’s work are now on display at their gallery, which sits beside the overpass on Third Avenue between Ninth and 10th streets.
“I wanted to open a space where we could create work, stage performances, show work and give classes,” said LEMUR founder and Park Slope musician Eric Singer. “This is where I happened to find an affordable space that could accommodate all of these uses. It’s also easily accessible and an up-and-coming neighborhood.”
Entering the 800-square-foot LEMURplex can be overwhelming. Walking through the gallery triggers a dozen modular percussion robots, or ModBots. Depending on the visitor’s speed, the ModBots can emit a funk beat or sound like a hurricane in a junk store. Meanwhile, the Slime-O-Tron fires off bursts of electronic music and self-help jargon, triggered by the movement of ooze through a pachinko-style box of nails.
Jessica Suarez, a music writer from Bushwick, stopped by the gallery on a recent Saturday afternoon.
“I write for music Web sites like Pitchfork, but this place interests me more than writing about indie rock,” she said. “I love how interactive it is. That is the problem with a lot of the bands I cover: there is no real way for people to engage them.”
Suarez, 26, wandered the room, pulling on the Slink-o-Tron, which activated a chirping digital melody. The further she pulled the Slinky, the faster the music became.
“I love the idea of music being able to adapt to its audience,” said Suarez, who is toying with the idea of being a LEMUR intern. “It makes people a part of the process, and that fascinates me.”
Singer, who is also an engineer and computer scientist with a passion for finding new ways to create music, founded LEMUR in 2000.
“I have always loved looking at something and imagining how I could transform that object into an instrument,” he said.
Since Singer made his first shoebox guitar at age 8, he has gone on to build dozens of instruments. Singer created a glove that let his fingers play air drums and a twisty electronic banana that bends notes like a harmonica.
Still, he wasn’t satisfied.
“I realized that all these were instruments a human would play. They would send data to a computer, and music would come out,” said Singer, but he decided he wanted to do the opposite.
“I thought, ‘Let’s create electronic music and send the data out of a computer. But where should it go?’ ” The answer of course, was musical robots.
At first, the group had help from some friends at the Manhattan robotics firm Honeybee, but soon they were striking out on their own.
“I didn’t know anything about building robots,” said Singer. “I was just arrogant enough to assume I could.” With money from a Rockefeller grant, the group began learning from the ground up. Through trial and error, they finished their first robot in 2003 and named it GuitarBot.
GuitarBot, currently on display at the gallery, is still a favorite of visitors. Strings attached to four metal rails are plucked by rotating picks. The notes are changed by small metal clamps, which jet along the strings like pistons.
GuitarBot can play set compositions, but it is also a capable improviser.
“When I met the GuitarBot, my first impression was nothing more than those four rather cold and industrial-looking rails,” said Mari Kimura, a violinist who has recorded with GuitarBot. “All that changed once I heard him play.”
In 2004, Kimura and GuitarBot began to practice together for a performance.
“There is a mechanical presence on stage beside myself that moves, and I started to imagine GuitarBot as actually four individuals,” said Kimura. “I would come in for a rehearsal and ask, ‘So, how is Mr. Two today?,’ because he is the most temperamental of the four strings.”
Visitors to the LEMURplex not only meet GuitarBot, they have the opportunity to work on their own robotic creations. The gallery doubles as a workshop and classroom, with sessions run by LEMUR members.
“I am a big supporter of learning things from scratch,” says Singer. The group has held sessions on building robotic art, creating audio and visual synthesizers, and having fun with fiberglass.
“I really feel that there is a burgeoning DIY community here in Brooklyn,” says Singer. “People are getting back into building stuff in a way that hasn’t happened since the days of amateur radio.”
For someone as hands on as Singer, it’s a welcome revolution.
The LEMURplex exhibition of robots is on display through Dec. 16 at 461 Third Ave. between Ninth and 10th streets in Gowanus. The gallery is open weekends, from noon to 5 pm. A donation of $5 is suggested. For more information, call (718) 576-1066 or visit the Web site www.lemurbots.org.
©2007 Community News Group
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