Seemen's Kal Spelletich Takes Fire-Shooting Robot Art to Prague

Categories: Tech
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Spelletich with one of his terrifying, fascinating artworks.
America may not have an equivalent to Vaclav Havel, the world-renowned literary artist who led a nation to freedom. But we do have Kal Spelletich, director of the art group The Seemen. He's a leading figure in the global machine art movement, and specializes in giving installation-goers a sense of freedom as they manipulate giant, flame-throwing robots.

"I build machines and robots that I allow my audience to operate," Spelletich writes in a description of his 2001 steel, pneumatics, hydraulic and propane apparatus he dubbed The Myth of Sisyphus. "All of my pieces are kinetic. Most are extremely dangerous and incorporate fire."

Spelletich, who works out of a southeast San Francisco warehouse, is bringing his intricate machines, assembled from discarded industrial parts and computer equipment to the land of Havel. He's in residency at the Meet Factory, a Prague performance and art space. Art-loving Czechs are going gaga over our local phenom's work, with an interview on national Czech TV scheduled for broadcast next week.

We caught up with Spelletich via e-mail this week. He told us he arrived in Prague with a copy of SF Weekly in his suitcase, thus expanding our geographical distribution area by many thousands of square miles.

Spelletich writes: 

Three weeks into my stay, I have built a machine that bounces a basketball by itself, one that pours you a glass of wine, and have almost finished with a flaming/flying Christmas tree.

I made a window opener, inspired by Vaclev Havel writing that says Czech society needs to throw open a window and let in some fresh air. (A day later I read about the Czech rite of Defenestration, which is throwing out the old corrupt politicians.) The machines are all operated by the audience.

San Francisco may be the heartland of the machine art movement. But Prague residents seem particularly suited to enjoy Spelletich's creations.

The Czechs are very interested in my work. The art scene here is almost completely a sort of retro 1970s conceptualism. They are pretty blown away when I try and explain my work, that I build machines and robots that are audience operated. They look at me with puzzlement and disbelief -- not a whole lot different than the U.S. Every time I travel it becomes an audience experiment; How will a "foreign" audience interact with my work? Are they shy? Scared? Confused? Indifferent? Are they familiar with interactive art? Will they press the button? Always a challenge.

He's even poised to become something of a minor celebrity in Prague.

I was interviewed my national Czech Television, and that gets aired next week. I have been checking in with some U.S. expats. A hardy bunch! I have my own apartment, a studio, a budget and supprt.The Meet Factory, (http://meetfactory.cz/) where I am being hosted is an amazing place, with a bar/cafe, nightclub, gallery, and film house. There are several other resident artists. There is quite a vibrant scene here with deep roots in the arts. Though everyone says the good old days are long gone, and somewhere else must be the happening place, I have been hearing that my whole life. I try and be in the present; these are the good old days! 
Most arts spaces are funded by the state, and get about 95 percent of their budgets from the government. They feel the U.S. system is better. We always feel their system is better. In the U.S., spaces and artists raise money through odd jobs, fundraisers, and, for the very few with commercial work, through sales. It is exhausting and incredibly time consuming. I reckon the grass is always greener and your neighbors' apples always taste better.

Spelletich ended his missive to us with a poetic bit of travelogue, describing what it feels like for a longtime San Franciscan to live and work the Eastern European capital.

I am having a small introductory exhibit on Feb. 17, and another final exhibit in early April just before I leave. There is an amazing country and western station on AM radio here. It's really amazing. They play the usuals -- Johnny, Waylon, Willie -- you know. And then they play Czech covers of them -- really great versions! It is on 24 hours a day, and there's nothing cynical, snarky/childish about it. It's completely sincere. Amazing!  Every public place is real smoky, cigarette smoky. You forget people live this way: eye burning, clothes stinking, in throat choking cafes, resterants and especialy bars. There is still the sweet smell of coal at night in the cold winter air. 
I have an evolving blog that is documenting my adventures: http://kaltek.wordpress.com/prague-jan-april-2011/ 

Best, 
Kal

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