OKAY, LET'S JUST CALL a spade a spade: We're living in the halcyon days of the geek. That means comic books, videogames, and cartoons. That means zombies, Trek in the Park, and things that go bleep and bloop. Accordingly, robots have been pushed margin to middle, as central to pop culture—reflecting sci-fi predictions that daily become closer to reality, closer to the automaton bringing Cocoa Puffs to your bedside. So Short Circuit, the robot-themed group show at Benjamin Benjamin Gallery, comes at a very appropriate moment—putting a mirror to these nerdy times.
But all robots weren't created equal, and moreover, what makes one robot more popular than the next? What sets a long-lasting cultural contribution apart from trend—the R2-D2 from the Tik-Tok? I believe Short Circuit has the answer.
Let's take a look at the show's big shots from the robot community: Eric Joyner of Robots and Donuts fame, and Paul Guinan, creator of Boilerplate, "the world's first robot soldier." As you'd expect, Joyner's works feature famous robots alongside doughnuts. "Bringer of War" finds a Gundam-style character riding a doughnut through the air, a lollipop held out in the air like a sword. "The Main Course" shows R2-D2 and C-3PO waiting at a drive-thru for a plate of sweet vittles. While this series is fun, equal parts imagination and entertainment, it favors punchlines over substance, eschewing the original narratives that make these robots recognizable and relatable.
Where Joyner falls short of courting an emotional investment, Guinan's Boilerplate succeeds. Here, we find the crude robot soldier Photoshopped and painted into various scenes throughout history: sparring with Jack Johnson, standing proud beside Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, or preparing to embark on the first military air operation. Compiled in book format, Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel, we get a narrative spanning the robot's 1880 fabrication, trips between continents and conflicts, and its mysterious disappearance in France during WWI. (Like Forest Gump, he pops up again and again in the right places at the right times.)
After a little time with Guinan's images, they begin to feel like a series of artifacts—little bits of research and anecdote that not only augment a familiar past, but steep us in it. And it's that immersive quality that sets Boilerplate apart, allowing us to empathize with his experiences—to compensate for the emotional gaps between ones and zeros. If anything will guard Boilerplate against the tests of time, it's these emotional experiences. He's not just a geek's robot, but a human's robot. And it probably won't hurt that J.J. Abrams is producing the film adaptation... 'nuff said.