OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Michael Salter

too much
installation image
Rice Gallery

OtherPeoplesPixels: You are well-known for your styrobots, robots built entirely out of found styrofoam packing materials, especially those used to ship electronics. How did you first begin to use styrofoam in your practice?

Michael Salter: It’s always been robots made from reclaimed polystyrene packing pieces. I simply saw the pieces as mechanical looking and started sticking them together. I have made quite a few of them, so every now and then I make something else like a race car or a motorcycle. But whatever I make it uses the found forms of the packing pieces. I just made a 20ft long robot shark named A N D Y (Autonomous Nautical Deepwater stYrobot).

OPP: Do you have a favorite robot from pop culture?

MS: A few, yes. The robot/mecha-suit from the film District 9, the robot from My Iron Giant, every era of Battlestar Gallactica’s Cylons, R2D2 & C3PO, Marvin in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Johnny 5, B9 from Lost in Space. The thing is my fascination with the robot results from an overall love of popular culture. The robot is an icon from contemporary visual culture. I grew up being told we’d all have robots in our homes. I like the Eastern ideas around robots more than the Western ideas. The robot is my friend, companion, protector as opposed to the militant killing machine. There is a film by Takashi Miike called The Great Yokai War, and in the film there is an army of monsters all made from things we discard. As you might imagine I really like this idea. Giant robot monsters made of trash.

OPP: I was hoping you would mention the Cylons! They are the most complicated to me, because ultimately they are just humans, with the capacity to be both friend or foe. I’m not so familiar with the eastern robots. Where do you think this difference comes from? What do our western robots say about  our culture?

MS: I am not sure I can separate robots by culture after all. I do know I’ve responded to the sweeter, gentler robots portrayed in media. I think Star Wars introduced me to my first 2 of these characters within robots. I guess I’ve always liked the misunderstood Frankenstein element too: when the robot is really a protecting friend but still gets beat on by some military bad guys. My point was that generally speaking western culture portrays scary, mean robots, and often japanese culture might represent the robot as the giant friend. What does that say about our cultures? I think its pretty obvious and I leave everyone to their own opinions about that.

giant styrobot
polystyrene packing materials
22 feet tall

OPP: Specific installations are titled, but it seems like specific pieces are not. Are the styrobots interchangeable?

MS: All my works are in fact titled and discrete in nature, yet integrally part of a larger installation. The end result is often a show that looks like a group show.  These disparate, tenuous connections between the work are important to the installation as a whole. Each and every styrobot is built site specifically and hence each installation is considered and deliberate in every way for every venue.

OPP: I've read that you sometimes have to destroy the large robots just to get them out of the gallery? What's that feel like?  

MS: Yes, often the giant styrobots are destroyed when a show is over. My intention is that they are to be experienced, or not, and then they are gone. Is this hard? Ask a street artist if they like getting their work washed off or painted over. I appreciate the Buddhist concept that the more things we are attached to the farther we are away from ourselves. So letting work go is okay with me. I think its liberating not to be too attached your work. 

OPP: Your exhibitions are well-crafted in my opinion. There is a compelling tension between the flatness of the icons and the dimension of the styrobots and sculptures. The icons reference consumer culture and seem to set the context for the bots… like this is the world where they live. The bots themselves reveal a lot of emotion in their postures. They are sad and vulnerable. I see them as stand-ins for human beings. Can you talk a little about how these two media work together to communicate your message?  

MS: I take great care in fabricating extremely tightly finished work. I intentionally mimic manufactured consumer products. My work has consciously employed a wide range of media. It keeps me from getting bored. I have several long running bodies of work. Most often, the collection of graphic icons I have drawn and the styrobots are exhibited. But my work includes kinetic sculpture, animation, drawing, and video. It depends entirely on the venue, institution or sight when deciding on an installation. At Rice University Gallery the icons made a perfect environment for the Giant Styrobot to exist collapsed in the corner. You are right about the icons referencing consumer culture. I am obsessed with what we see and what it makes us think. The media saturated world we live in wants my attention and my money, really, really, bad. What’s funny about the styrobots is that I don’t see their heavy psychological or emotional content until much later. I think their metaphoric content as humans is inescapable. I do find a trip to the mall tiring, and often sad.

OPP: Thanks for bringing up all the media you work in. Could you talk a bit about your graphic landscapes and your collaboration with Chris Coleman?

MS: Chris and I have been friends and collaborators for several years. We actually open a show at the Galleries of Contemporary Art at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs this evening. Aligned in motivations, concepts about politics, society and culture we make work together that looks at everyday banal behaviors, places and actions. I draw most of the digital landscape drawing and send it to Chris, and then we begin an elaborate ping ponging of ideas about narratives and motions within that drawing. Chris is particularly adept at understanding animated narrative language and the poetics of graphics in motion. We mutually develop the scene and its actions. Then the final solution is an animation that is delivered in a variety of ways like custom laser-cut acrylic framed flat screens and careful, considered projections in a different sizes.
from the installation, Visual Logistics,
University of Texas, Arlington, winter 2006.
curator Benito Huerta

OPP: Is there a difference between your graphic design impulse and your sculpture impulse, in terms of the experience of making, not in terms of the final output? Do you enjoy one more than the other?

MS: Nope, no difference. I am somewhat obsessive about creative output, and I live to be constantly generating work. I suppose I’m just afraid that if I stop I know how hard it is to start up again. I respond to any and every impulse I have all the time. My main goal is to simply stay amused, because if it ain’t fun for me, god knows it ain’t gonna be fun for anybody else.
To view more work of Michael Salter’s work, please visit michaelasalter.com.