Insurance is the
problem. Although Ristow has a million dollars'
worth, management has decided, possibly based on
the feature-length nighttime performances Ristow
has staged at the Brewery, that it's not enough.
"I got away with it for a while, and now they're
just wising up," Ristow admits. It seems likely
that Ristow's insurer would "wise up"
as well after attending one of these shows. With
titles like "Disturbingly Pleasurable Scenarios
of Sex and Death" and "Money: the Wound
that Never Heals," his shows have lit up the
night with an inferno of topical carnage on five
separate occasions since he moved in.
robots tend not so much to transcend artistic preciousness
as to trample and scorch it. In the truest tradition
of performance art's Italian Futurist forebears,
Ristow's art is populist—and today, landlords
be damned, the people will have their robots. The
monsters are paraded on truck beds to a sight just
off Brewery property, creating the Pied Piper effect
Ristow desires, as dozens of Artwalk attendees follow
along. The destination is a public road's dead end,
which is situated between the Brewery grounds, a
freight train stop and L.A.'s United Parcel Service
central shipping facility.
Minutes later, around
200 attendees stand in a cautious semi-circle within
yards of erratic two-ton monsters, ten-foot columns
of flame and airborne chunks of props. With a remote
controller intended for model aircraft, the solid,
bespectacled Ristow manipulates the Subjugator—a
towering, vaguely humanoid 15-foot arm with a tank-like
base—to thrash a baby carriage to bits against
the hot asphalt. This elicits laughter from the
When the show ends,
a group of college students rush over to the now
dormant Subjugator and, posing with a celebrity,
grin for a snapshot. "It has charisma,"
explains fellow tech artist Austin Richards, a member
of Ristow's three man, one woman crew. "It's
a good machine."
In 1959, the French
Minister of Culture was clobbered in the head by
machine art pioneer Jean Tinguely's dancing, eight-foot
"metamatic" and subsequently praised it
as "a good machine." When Ristow or his
team uses the same dubious industrial age vernacular
in reference to his monsters, it seems perhaps even
more perverse. And judging from the new friend Ristow
keeps in his living room, his machines are due to
only get "better." The insect-like Manipulatrix,
tractor-sized and still in progress, promises—with
its proposed chain-whip tipped mandibles—to
be a kind of insidious giant food processor action
that would, with potentially tragic consequences,
make "manipulation" an understatement.
But it's hardly out of place in this least cozy
of abodes. Rather than domesticate his warehouse
space with retro deco furniture and mod-art prints,
like so many of his neighbors, Ristow lives amid
brawny shop tools, towering shelves of electromechanical
flotsam, over a dozen obscenely-posed female mannequins
and two lively felines, Kuka and Flash, who seem
unimpressed by the hard edge of their surroundings.
on a rolling swivel chair in the center of his concrete
floor, his shaved head and cusped goatee indicating
something darker than the average engineer. "My
insurer doesn't really know what I'm up to,"
he admits. "I've told them that I build robots.
To quote my insurer, 'You're covered whether you
build robots or sand castles.' Sounds good to me!"
Could this man ever
have built sand castles? Growing up in San Francisco,
he did build red-brick forts when he was a child
... but then ceremoniously destroyed them, to the
vexation of his playmates. The sense of precision
involved in his father's surgical profession impressed
him, but perhaps not so much as the destruction
of a defunct wing of the hospital where his father
was employed. "A wrecking ball on a crane was
just the most amazing thing to watch," says
Ristow, now 30 and wistfully lamenting the loss
of this nearly defunct method of demolition.
work—massive, sputtering, self-demolishing
machines—shows a similar fascination with
destruction, Ristow's machine art influences stem
from his contemporaries in San Francisco's Survival
Research Laboratories. Founded by Ristow mentor
John Pauline in 1979, S.R.L. has established the
Bay Area as a world capital for machine art, drawing
crowds of thousands to grand spectacles of robotic
mayhem. But Ristow's work is something of a different
breed, literally; his childhood obsession with T-rex
and big cats lends his work its zoological aesthetic.
"They seem to be designed solely for the purpose
of predation," he espouses, Kuka nestling in
his lap. "There's a gratifying purity to that."
And while he praises S.R.L. as his finest schooling,
his fluid designs betray his formal education at
Columbia where he studied architecture, tending
toward the Baroque in an academic atmosphere he
bitterly recalls as enforced Deconstructivism.
There is a theatrical
element to Ristow's work as well, which can contrast
with the explosive combat and chaos of S.R.L. shows.
Last year's hour-long "Sex and Death"
saga included a robotic mating ritual: an initial
flirtation pantomime between a pneumatically-thrusting
giant phallus and a roving "pussy tank,"
followed by flaming ejaculation and the combustion
of a vaginal facade to reveal a set of gleaming
steel jaws. In the works is a piece on religion,
presumably no traditional passion play, and on the
back burner is "a machine opera." "I'm
going for more theater," says Ristow, "more
narrative, more choreography."
But what kind of
theater is this? Agitprop? Battle epic? Judging
from the knee-slapping Artwalk crowd, it appears
to be comedy—of the dark variety. "It's
just like a giddy, childlike laughter at seeing
something that is so wrong," explains Ristow,
searchingly. "Everything going on in the show
is kind of an inversion of the way things are supposed
to be." Indeed. It's like eerily bestial roadwork
equipment attacking, with slapstick verve, all that
we hold dear.
Ristow left San
Francisco and the all-volunteer S.R.L. in 1997 to
work in special effects, applying his mechanics
and design to commercials, major films and currently
the Jim Henson Creature shop. Besides a viable day
job, Los Angeles has provided him with a unique
audience from the under-recognized cultural crossroads
of its downtown. Away from the legions of hip, artsy
San Francisco twenty-somethings who imbue S.R.L.
events with a rave-like magnitude to match the armies
of robots in the ring, Ristow's more intimate theater
audience includes a wide cross section—from
film professionals to young Chicano gang members.
"People from the art world understand it as
an extension of 20th century art,"
says Ristow, "and people who sit on their front
porch and watch their truck rust find something
that's totally bitchin' and a good old time."
Ristow is not averse
to fame. In the past year, he has garnered international
press and been the subject of a film documentary,
The Machines of Sex and Death. His
emphasis on design and narrative, along with his
presence in the film industry, may yet make him
machine art's emissary to the mainstream. His work,
however, seems to give him pause. "A question
I've tried to answer in many different ways at many
different times," he says, "is the question
of, 'Why is this so appealing to people, and why
is this so appealing to me?'"
Whatever the appeal,
it is evident at Ristow's final performance of the
Artwalk event. As the conductor of a freight train
stalls in order to view the spectacle from his locomotive,
a pair of UPS security guards emerge from the lot
they patrol to join the crowd.
An easy chair containing
a dummy, apparently symbolic of a TV-engrossed couch
potato and—by extension—the audience
itself, is being spun precariously in the claw of
the Subjugator's arm, which is raised to its tallest
position, perpendicular to the ground. A bear-size
Spiderbot then makes conspicuous use of its appendage,
a flamethrower, in a fiery salute to Subjugator's
triumph. Subjugator engulfs the dummy in a jet of
flame, which emits from a disconcertingly groinal
position, and then releases its prey. But it doesn't
fall to the ground; the canine-like, diesel-powered
Drunken Master, staggering—as it does—like
nothing in nature, catches the flaming dummy, now
charred pitch black with fire pouring from its eye
sockets, in its meat-hook teeth. This gets the biggest
The UPS guards are
asked whether the potential danger of the display
warrants their professional concern. "No, no,"
guffaws one of them. "Y'all have fun!"
As the smoke clears,
Ristow poses triumphantly, like an outlaw counterpart
to bombastic celebrity magician David Copperfield.
But whereas Copperfield, earnestly accepting accolades,
oozes with unintentional kitsch, Ristow exudes bemusement
in his victory stance, as if to implicitly raise
the question of why one applauds such destruction
in the first place.
But not everyone
is clapping. Eight-year-old Ethan Apollo Ross has
one thing in common with Ristow's landlords. "I
don't like the flames," he says. Asked why,
he seems incredulous that the question requires
an answer: "Because they scare me!"