Machine Dreams

"Tentacle Piece" squats on angular, black steel legs, spewing prehensile canvas digits that hang in expectant stasis, waiting for motion. In spite of its greasy pulleys and cogwheels, there's something almost endearing about the thing. But that's not hard to fathom once you meet its maker.

In fact, 23-year-old kinetic sculptor Joe Riche, a shaggy, goateed kid who talks about his creations as if they were offspring, seems rather attached to the little fella, along with the rest of his mechanized menagerie. Pointing to a photograph of another piece, "Radio-Controlled Crawling Backhoe," Riche says fondly, "This guy is detached, so he can crawl around the space and be a menace. He'll be the brat in this performance. Most of the machines are stationary, waiting for us to feed them the juice."

In contrast, Riche's creative partner, Ben Thompson, takes a generational, Darwinian tack with his automated inventions. "My older pieces are more recognizable objects, like an insect and a marionette," says Thompson. "But now I'm trying to distill it down until I can get the object out of the picture and focus on the beauty of the machine."

One of Thompson's newer works, based on the earlier insect, is less recognizable, though it shares some of the same functions. "It still crawls like an insect," he says, "but it's like the second generation, a product of evolution."

The pair spends months in the shop creating the oddly lifelike gizmos for staged spectacles that set the clanking machinery loose against a backdrop of sampled industrial noise, recycled instruction videos and slide projections. They'll join forces this Friday night for a Denver premiere at the Bug Performance and Media Art Center. "For lack of a better word, we call the event a performance," Riche says.

Both artists began as more orthodox sculptors, creating works that stood still when you looked at them in a gallery. But the traditional gallery experience left them cold. "I hated openings, where you had to have a smile on your face and shake hands," says Riche, who's clearly having a much better time since switching to the industrial age. "Now I can have fun while I'm showing the art. With machines, the art never stops being creative."

Riche admits that there's a certain blue-collar aesthetic involved. He graduated from college with a degree in industrial design rather than an art pedigree, and he almost exclusively uses salvaged materials--mechanical parts, pneumatic systems and all manner of junk found at scrap yards and surplus stores--to build his sculptures. As a result, he's developed an affinity for the working class.

"A lot of it," he says, "is about gettin' dirty, workin' with tools, diggin' in scrap yards. When I go to the yards, they always ask me, 'What are you making with that?' so I tell them. Sometimes the junk people show up--people you'd never expect at an art event."

On a higher conceptual level, the influence of Mark Pauline, known for staging spooky robot wars under Bay Area viaducts, is evident in the duo's works. Their past performances have included battling flame-throwing devices, though Riche concedes that the Bug's antique interior won't allow for such contraptions to be used. In spite of some ominous-sounding reactions (one reviewer said he left a show feeling as if he'd "been beaten"), the performances are certainly user-friendly, filled with elements of humor and the unexpected.

"Things are floppin' around--comical things happen," Riche says. "That's what brings a sense of beauty to it."

Standing in headsets, throwing switches and operating remote controls at what they call their "mission control," Riche and Thompson forge into their shows with only a sketchy plan. "Usually we have no idea what's going on," Riche says. "If you try to be too serious, it still doesn't happen the way you want it to."

"We're just poor artists," Thompson adds. "Without much financial backing, things are pretty low-tech, so we run into problems: We're always blowing breakers, or the machines break down.

"But that's part of it--it brings in a human aspect. Our machines do show a human side--they can be kind of clumsy like humans, they break like humans. They're not perfect."

Riche recalls how, ten minutes into one performance, a fifteen-foot-tall piece from which a fifty-pound rock swung popped a belt. "I had to climb up to the top of the piece, where the motor and pulleys were, and fix it on the spot, during the show," he says. "There I was, yelling down, 'Hey, I need a three-inch socket!' People just thought it was part of the show."

In keeping with that perspective, anything may happen at this weekend's show. Thompson arrived here from Louisiana only a week before the performance, while Riche, attending the University of Denver as an MFA candidate, has been working in Colorado, and neither artist knows exactly what the other's got planned. It doesn't really matter to them, though, since spontaneity is built into every show.

"Instead of walking around with your little wineglass," Riche says, "you have an experience, you have the art pushed in your face, affecting all your senses."

--Susan Froyd

Artifacts of Mass Distraction, 8 p.m. February 27, Bug Performance and Media Arts Center, 3654 Navajo Street, $8-$10, 477-5977.

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