The Dark Comedy of Machine Theater
By Andrew Marcus

From Gadfly July/August 2000

The owners of Carlson Industries destroy things for profit. They're in the demolition business, with a sideline in unconventional real estate—renting out the set of decrepit warehouses that comprise downtown L.A.'s Brewery Lofts Arts Community. Christian Ristow, their tenant, destroys things for kicks, to say nothing of art. Using megalithic, animal-like robots, he's scheduled for two brief expositions of havoc amid the more discreet displays of sculpture and painting at the Brewery's bi-annual Artwalk. Preparing his machines for action on this first day of the May event, however, Ristow has received word that the landlords have had it with his artistic brand of demolition.

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.

Large, fire-breathing 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 audience.

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.

Ristow reclines 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.

Though Tinguely's 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 laugh.

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!"