Robot seriously

Cory Elliott and Darren “d6” Barnes


Darren "d6" Barnes and Cory Elliott share a love for robots.

Photo/Brad Bynum

Robotronia vs. Intruder Alert! is on display at the Holland Micro Gallery in the Bibo Coffee Co., 945 Record St., through Sept. 19.

Here’s a fun fact: the word “robot” is derived from a Czech word meaning “slave.” Czech playwright Karel apek used the term in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots to describe synthetic humanoid servants. Ever since then, robots have sparked the imaginations of writers, artists and musicians of all stripes. In film especially, many of the most iconic images in its history feature robots: Maria in Metropolis, Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and even Optimus Prime in those terrible Transformers movies.

But arguably the best and most iconic of all movie robots are R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars.

Cory Elliott was 8 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, and the movie made a huge impression on him.

“It completely blew my mind,” he said recently. “I was a sheltered latchkey kid who didn’t know anything about science fiction, didn’t know anything about having my mind blown, and that movie just wiped us all out.”

Elliott and Darren “d6” Barnes have been collaborating on various art projects for nearly 25 years. Their exhibition Robotronia vs. Intruder Alert! is on display at the Holland Micro Gallery in the Bibo Coffee Co. on Record Street through Sept. 19. It’s a small survey of their robot-themed collaborations dating back to 1990.

A highlight of the exhibition is a group of paintings by Elliott, spray painted stencils on faux wood panels. Each panel features four or five different handcut stencil paintings of different colors layered on top of each other, and each depicts a Star Wars droid. The marquee names, R2-D2 and C-3PO, are there, but so is the assassin robot IG-88, the imperial probe droid that discovered the rebel base on Hoth, and others.

Elliott said he was inspired by high-profile artists, like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, who often use stencils and spray paint, but that he has never been a street artist or graffiti writer because he’s a “rule follower.”

“But I really love that culture,” he said. “I love seeing the graffiti trains.”

The exhibition also includes sheet metal robot heads designed by Barnes, and many other robot images, some of it taken from Intruder Alert zines that the two artists have created together intermittently over the years. Barnes and Elliot have also created large robot puppets and are closely associated with the local “celebrity robot” Hotshot Few Thousand (“Interview with the robot,” RN&R feature story, July 11, 2013).

“What we saw growing up primarily were what you would call dumb robots—single task robots—'I’m going to weld. That’s what I’m going to do.'” said Barnes. “And then slowly it’s like they’re multitasking. But they’re doing three things maybe. But they’re alluding to taking over humanity.”

What’s the lasting appeal of robots?

“It’s kind of a nostalgia thing for me,” said Barnes. “I’ve always liked the big, clunking, laborious, totally useless [robots].”

He said he also sees robots as a sort of gateway to many other science fiction possibilities: flying cars and Jetsons-style robot maids. Human beings’ use of tools, and our close relationship with them, is one of the things that perhaps define us as different from other animals, and robots are the ultimate expression of that.

According to Elliott, robots can inspire many fantastical thoughts: “Our fantasy would be, ’I’m afraid to die. I don’t want to die! If I was a robot, I could be repaired and fixed and upgraded and moved forward.’”

The artists say that’s a better immortality fantasy than magical vampires.