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The Lady Is a Robot 

At Xenodrome with Sparky, a "self-portrait artifact" that sings jazz from a roving chassis that's as sexy as a chassis can be

Wednesday, Aug 14 2002
A very large, clear, egglike sack hangs from a metal frame at one end of Xenodrome's warehouse lounge. Mermaids, sea nymphs, and other guests in watery-hued finery stand in small groups, sipping beverages and chatting -- all but ignoring the dark human form that floats behind them in the soft vat of cloudy fluid. I step up to the sack, don the headphones dangling from the metal frame, and peer into 150 gallons of milky water. Immediately, the body begins to writhe, lashing out against its fluent confinement, making the soft sack bulge and sway. The body twists and doubles over, somersaulting like an overactive unborn baby, until its flippered feet point skyward. The creature finds itself momentarily tangled in the hoses and tubes that provide it with necessary oxygen and the comfort of human contact from the dry world. It rights itself, and then floats into a fetal position of exhausted complacency.

I hesitantly clear my throat and speak into a communication apparatus used by deep-sea construction crews: "How are you feeling, there?"

The body wiggles to life again, pushing its head through the obscuring fog of warm liquid, into the plastic membrane that separates us. A diving mask and two wild eyes come into crisp focus. The man grins.

"Great!" he says. I listen to his slow, amplified breathing.

"I don't feel quite human," he comments, giggling. "I like that."

The man pushes his very pink, slightly wrinkled hand into the plastic skin of the sack; it bulges and swells, reaching out to me. I press my hand against his and apply pressure.

"I can feel the warmth of your hand through the rubber," says the man. "That's nice ...." The man relaxes and his body floats up toward the narrow neck of the sack.

"What's your name?" I ask.

"Waterboy," says the man. "We're all called Waterboy in here. Join us."

"The first time inside can actually be pretty scary," says 36-year-old Marque Cornblatt, creator of the womblike scuba experience. "It feels too small. You think you're going to get stuck or not be able to get out. Being underwater and feeling claustrophobic is tricky. But once you've overcome the initial fear, you get that rush -- like bungee jumping or something -- and you never ever want to come out."

Along the walls, stylish photographs portray different figures floating inside the first WaterBoy prototype, a large, man-shaped liquid-suspension unit completed with a little help from some waterbed makers. (There are also photos of BubbleBoy and BucketHead, water-filled helmets that fit over your head, with a snorkel to facilitate breathing.) In one picture, a man and a woman smile beatifically as they embrace inside the one-person water suit. Goldfish swim in and out of their legs.

"There are a lot of cultural references to this kind of experience," says Cornblatt, who is also more commonly called Waterboy. "I'm from the Star Wars generation, so the idea of a genetically engineered person grown in a vat is something familiar and interesting. It plays on that idea."

In the Xenodrome theater, BucketHead and BubbleBoy flicker on a video screen overhead, moving through crowds of people at museum openings and street fairs, looking, at once, human and very otherworldly. Someone falls to his knees and hugs the WaterBoy tank.

"Repent your dry ways," says a man in orange bathing trunks. "Embrace your moisture."

Cornblatt smiles.

"When I was a kid I got into a really bad bike accident. I was in the hospital for seven or eight weeks, connected to all these tubes and monitors," recalls Cornblatt. "I became really aware that we are not really separate from technology. We use eyeglasses and hearing aids; we put plastic valves in our hearts. Pretty soon there will be little distinction between organic and synthetic, and I think we'll be better off for being a combination of both."

Although Cornblatt does not go so far as to claim to be a transhumanist, all of his art springs from technological fantasy: Torsos of human infants are augmented by wooden cranks that spin spiral wings based on designs by da Vinci; moss-covered mannequins are topped by screens showing video loops of a human face encased in an enormous glass beaker; a metallic torso has mechanized, feathery wings and a video face caged in its chest; an old Macintosh is turned into an ancient alien fishbowl, filled with the image of human eyes blinking and staring -- for six hours.

And then there's Sparky.

Officially known as SPA-RC 1, Sparky is a "self-portrait artifact" on a roving chassis, designed to bridge the emotional chasm between human and machine. Sparky is a jazz singer.

The lights dim on the stage of Xenodrome and Leonard Thompson sits down at the piano; Lorenzo Tarrell leans his upright bass against his shoulder, nodding with knowing cool. A spotlight illuminates center stage, and Sparky spins into its halo.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen," coos the comely visage of Maria Kramer-Cornblatt on the face-monitor. "I'm gonna sing a little song by Bob Darrow."

The gorgeous voice of Cornblatt's wife fills the theater. Her robot form whirls slowly across the stage, sliding seductively close to a lucky man in the front row and giving cues to the band with an electronic wink. The crowd gives her a standing ovation.

"Oh, well, thank you very much," purrs Sparky, raising her martini glass. The trio strikes up "The Very Thought of You," and the chrome chanteuse offers each musician a solo, gliding her chassis up to their instruments, smiling, and snapping her fingers.

"I love you, Waterboy," says Sparky. For a moment, Cornblatt abandons the radio controls he has been working feverishly from the audience and runs onstage to kiss the screen.

"Thank you, baby," whispers Sparky as she begins to sing a tune by Fats Waller, rolling across the stage with automated grace.

After the set, Maria Kramer-Cornblatt slips back into the crowd and begins to mingle. "It's wonderful to be Sparky," confides Kramer-Cornblatt. "There is a certain type of personality that is really drawn out by a sexy female robot. They'll warm up to a machine faster than a real, flesh-and-blood woman."

"Sparky II will be even better," promises Cornblatt, winking at his curvaceous spouse. "It will be Web-based and have a real-time avatar personality."

There's nothing like making boyhood dreams a reality.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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