Captured on videotape, Go Boy glides up out of the darkness in his motorized wheelchair, haranguing a captive audience waiting in line outside another high-society San Francisco event.
"God told you to gimme 50 cents!" the Dolby-quality voice booms into the night. "Everybody wants what I have! Don't gimme no damn dollar! God said gimme 50 cents!"
Bystanders flinch at Go Boy's dark, skeletal appearance, unnerving in daylight and worse now, after dark, and the misshapen arm constantly moving up and down.
"Gimme 50 cents!" goes the voice.
Go Boy is a 2-year-old robot.
Built on an electric wheelchair chassis and controlled with a model-airplane transmitter, Go Boy boasts a molded epoxy-clay skeleton and a skull that seems more air than substance. A long arm juts from his torso, moving up and down on pistons. The chassis sports a flanged front end made from a hayrack. Completing the picture is the recorded, insistent, deranged -- and very African-American -- voice of a panhandler. It's attention-getting by design.
Go Boy is just one in a robotic series made by Natoma Street's Theatre Concrete. Founded by 43-year-old Frank Garvey, this group of artists works in several media -- paint, sculpture, voice, video. Its mission: to percolate ideas of dramatic social change through art.
Thus their growing line of exploited electromechanicals -- which besides Go Boy includes Plow Girl, a junkie; God Fellow, a preacher; Humper, a hooker; and Wrong Fellow, a cigar-smoking beatnik poet complete with hacking cough, among others -- is in the works.
What Theatre Concrete -- and Garvey in particular -- wants is to fake people out, to make their unconscious minds think "capitalist exploitation" when they see the robot beggar, to drive the "slave class" into awareness of its exploitation, and thence to action. Garvey says that if these truths were realized, the masses would then demand and get the 20-hour work week that somehow has never arisen from increased technological efficiency and productivity. (He declines, however, to volunteer much information about the robots' innards and construction history, considering that information beside the point.)
There certainly are pop-cultural precedents for involving robots in social change. Who could forget Gort, Klaatu's monolithic robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still, come here from the stars to tell Earthlings to make peace with one another -- or else. And way back in 1927, Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis featured an evil capitalist creating a robot duplicate of the industrial workers' leader, Maria, and using it to incite the masses to premature -- and disastrous -- rebellion.
So now Theatre Concrete is mechanizing the Marxist critique of society; Go Boy, in a word, is meant to be a laborer-saving device.
For a couple of years now, Theatre Concrete members have accompanied Go Boy to the openings of the ballet and the opera, and the Christmas-tree lighting ceremony -- upper-crust, well-coiffed happenings. They have turned Go Boy loose near those waiting outside and caught the fun on film, resulting in an excellent 25-minute documentary, Go Boy: His Continuing Adventures.
Controlled by Garvey, the digital panhandler circles bystanders whose visceral antipathy will probably cause them to sell off their high-tech stocks. "I think it's disgusting, and I'd like to see the first wheelchair get arrested," one unnatural blonde at the tree-lighting foams. "I think it's rude. I think it's terrible."
The bystander next to her decides to play good cop. "You can't go wrong with man's inhumanity to man ...," he mugs, "and the ... transmogrification of mendicants for coal and steel, taking the heart out of Christmas. She's obviously misplaced her Prozac."
"Gimme 50 cents!" says Go Boy, wheeling somewhere nearby.
"I just don't like to see this kind of bullshit," smolders another citizen, filmed after his encounter with Go Boy. Asked why not, he recites his mantra several times, sounding robotic himself. "I don't like that kind of bullshit in a public building. That's all I'm going to say."
The video's highlight is a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in early 1994, which at one point featured 80 canvases of painter Robert Ryman's work. They were white, just white, with an occasional hint of texture. Ryman is famous for this blanca art.
A hidden camera captures a docent leading a tour group past the Rymans. "He has gone from being very heavy and textural to getting as light as possible, and then at the end it starts to get into heavy texture," she fugues.
Meanwhile, another camera captures Garvey and Go Boy taking an elevator up to the exhibit. Go Boy and his handler pour past a startled security guard, the robot heading one way as the camera records Garvey blithely fiddling with the controls while perusing Robert Ryman's sugar-in-a-snowbank paintings.
"Don't run away! God said gimme 50 cents! You look real good! You got all the money!" hollers Go Boy.
After a few minutes of confusion, the security guard finally succeeds in herding the pranksters into an elevator, silencing them but not the robot.
"God said gimme 50 cents!"
"Come this way, OK?" says the guard, strain showing plainly on his face.
"I'm just like you! I went to college!"
"I'm asking you all to leave. You can come in, back up, without the machine but not with --"
"GIMME 50 CENTS!"
"This machine cannot come back up," the guard finally finishes.
"I'll be in your nightmares!"
And so on out to the street.
The moneyed class may squirm when the "poor" show up outside their regularly scheduled places of charity, but do these pranks advance social change? Won't Go Boy be ignored in the long run, as when people leave an art exhibit and largely forget it during the drive home?
At the painted-black headquarters of Theatre Concrete, the dressed-in-black Garvey holds forth in 10-minute bursts -- like some kind of proletarian pearl-diver -- on capitalism's excesses and the inevitability of class struggle. Surrounded by computer equipment, paintings, and sculptures, the artist/provocateur speaks his vision.
"Now, between 1890 and 1990, the productivity of ... the worker has gone up probably 10,000 times, [which produced] a huge amount of extra wealth. Did it free the worker? ... Did that make the worker 10,000 times richer? No. It made the worker slightly richer and much less free in terms of time. As soon as the worker figures out that we've created the means to free the worker instead of enrich the capitalist class, there's going to be the shortest, most brilliant social transformation ever. ... We're going to go from a hundred-hour work week to a 20-hour work week, and that's freedom -- 'cause if you have most of your energy free to do what you want, you're not a slave anymore."
All well and good, but why doesn't Theatre Concrete distribute information about capitalist exploitation while Go Boy does its thing? Garvey answers that he's given up on conscious thought, believing that "the conscious mind is too predictable. That great art comes from the unconscious of people that are plugged into the collective unconscious ... through your emotions, not through your ideology."
And why not have robots that dramatize the middle class' exploitation, as well as that of the underclass? It's a matter of focus, he responds.
"On a metaphoric level, [underclass robots] happen to be the most resonant," he offers. "They're the most efficient way to get to the core of things: Everybody's a beggar, everybody's a prostitute, in the working class." He maintains that the slave class will get the message about its exploitation through viewing robots like Go Boy and other kinds of art.
For Garvey, everything is pegged to that 20-hour work week. "I need to change the world so I can do what I want to do," he says, tongue barely in cheek.
Theatre Concrete is looking to move up to full-fledged "bourgeois theater" status, with the resources to make bigger, better stuff. Next on its agenda is a Valentine's Day show, Un Infelice (which means "the unhappy one" in Italian) for the "despised, abused, and betrayed." The show will feature a robotic/human re-creation of Beethoven's funeral and will be worth checking out -- especially if it ends up cutting your work week in half.