The Laborer-Saving Device

Go Boy is here for your cash and to save your working-stiff ass

Boy sounds pissed -- tired of being ignored, tired of begging, tired of being broke. Might be nice to just go home and rest, quit panhandling for a change. But God has given some orders, and it never pays to ignore God.

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.

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