For four days, a giant robot towered over speakers at the Industrial Designers Society of America's annual conference in Portland, looming behind discussions of computer-aided-design software, cars and shoes.
But its creator said no one had reason to worry. The 16-foot robot, created from pieces of polystyrene foam that once held computers and electronic equipment, posed no threat.
What I've found is that in the world there are two kinds of robot philosophies, said Michael Salter, associate professor of digital arts at the University of Oregon and a sculptor who has been creating Styrobots for eight years. The Western one is where we see them as menacing, rocket-throwing mean robots. I submit to the Eastern one. This is my big, friendly giant robot.
Salter's robots have been exhibited at museums and art shows in London, Brussels, New York, Miami and Los Angeles. His largest one, at 24 feet in height, was shown at the San Jose Museum of Art in San Jose, Calif.
I think what's interesting about Salter's work is that he uses everyday, discarded objects that many would consider 'garbage' and makes an artwork that is not only creative and humorous but that prompts the viewer to think about serious issues without coming off preachy or righteous, said Amanda Coulson, the curator of the Volta contemporary art shows, which included one of Salter's sculptures in 2009.
Before IDSA's annual meeting, held Aug. 4-7, Portland-based design consultancy Ziba Design commissioned a robot that would stand in at the main stage, then move for permanent exhibit at Ziba's offices.
As an artist, Salter was trained on looking for ways to use found objects in new ways.
I very humbly admit that the small bit of ingenuity was in looking at these [foam packing pieces] and saying: 'Wow, these almost look like stamped metal. These forms look robotic in nature,' he said. From there, it was a matter of cutting a few up and putting them back together.
His first robot was 6 feet tall. He experimented with finding the right glue that would hold without damaging the foam.
Large installations like the one for IDSA and Ziba are created with the ability to break into individual pieces two arms, two legs and the body for shipping and assembled on site.
When he first began, Salter would resort to dumpster diving in search of foam. Now he puts out a press release from the university letting people know he's in the market for foam. The parts come to him from laboratories or offices that have just unpacked new equipment. It is material that would otherwise end up in landfills without large-scale recycling programs available, but which he now stocks in preparation of his next project.
There's a kind of a pleasure of it, that you recognize a small piece, you recognize its banality and its commonality, and then all of a sudden it completely transforms itself, he said. Occasionally, it's this kind of magic that happens when you look at something you know, and it becomes something completely different.