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Gallery invites artists to design the robots we never had

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Detail from image by British artist Vero Navarro
Detail from image by British artist Vero Navarro with colored pencils, of tiny scavenger robots. It is one of 70 included in the Robo Show, which opens Friday at Light Grey Art Lab in south Minneapolis.
Courtesy Light Grey Art Lab

A commonly voiced disappointment of the 21st century is that we don't have jet packs yet. But weren't we also promised robots?     

Luckily, the folks at the Light Grey Art Lab can help salve the pain, a little. 

Co-founder and owner Lindsay Nohl stood next to a huge tabletop covered with dozens of submissions for The Robo Show.

"It's pretty funny: Some people went botanical robot," Nohl said of the designs. "Some people went cat and dog robot, and some people did some really serious stuff. War machines and things like that, so it's pretty cool to see what they did."  

  The gallery deals in artistic challenges. Every six weeks or so, the staff comes up with an idea and throws it out on the Internet to see what comes back. Nohl remembered that she was in the car with Chris Hajny, the other co-founder, when they came up with the robot idea.    

"And we thought to ourselves, how cool would it be if people could create their own mech and be the pilot of their individual robots?" she recalled.    

Evan Palmer's piece, ''The Final Battle''
Many of the images in the Robo Show are tongue-in-cheek. Evan Palmer's piece, "The Final Battle," envisions a war where cats and dogs attempt to finally resolve their eternal dispute.
Courtesy Light Grey Art Lab

According to Hajny, the term "mech" describes something quite specific. 

"A mech is, in most cases, a giant, walking, pilotable robot," he said.    

Sometimes the pilot rides inside; other designs have remote control.

Light Grey Art Lab posted its challenge and waited to see what came back. Gallery manager Jenny Bookler said they got a ton of submissions, 70 pictures in all. And they got something else, too.  

"Every person wrote giant descriptions of their world, their background, and how the pilot works with the machinery, and stuff like that," she said. "And so I think the artists got really into describing the entire scene that they were trying to set up with their images."  

  The table stood awash in color and a huge range of robotic permutation. In one design, a horde of cat-controlled mechs rumbles with dog-driven mechs, each apparently determined to settle their ancient disagreements forever. There are robots with cities on their backs, and tiny robots scavenging for discarded nuts and bolts.   

  As Bookler pointed out, some take a little examination before you understand what you are seeing.   

  "Some of them are like a sense of scale shift," she said. "So this one, you see a robot that's very small in comparison to all the botanicals around it." It takes a moment to realize the robot is submerged and surrounded by weeds. 

Ed Skudder's  ''Mobile Force Propaganda Poster''
Ed Skudder's "Mobile Force Propaganda Poster."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Then you notice there's a tiny person swimming alongside.  

  "So you have a sense of how big or small the people that are piloting these robots are," said Bookler.    

  Twin Cities graphic artist Jesse Lindhorst submitted a 1980s-inspired image of a woman sitting on the raised hand of her mech, taking a break. It's done in dreamy pastels. He said he has submitted for five or six shows at the gallery. He loves the challenges, but he also loves seeing what others produce.  

  "And it's really exciting," he said. "Because it shows how people's minds work so differently when given the same task."  

  Light Grey Art Lab is just a stone's throw from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Bookler, Nohl and Hajny are all MCAD grads, and Nohl and Hajny teach there. So it's not surprising that they get local submissions; what is surprising is the number of pieces coming in from farther afield. Bookler said they get submissions from Europe, the Middle East and Asia.    

Lindsay Nohl, Chis Hajny and Jenny Bookler
Light Grey Art Lab founders Lindsay Nohl and Chis Hajny, and gallery manager Jenny Bookler stand with some of the 70 submissions for the Robo Show.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Usually a third to a half of the artists are international," she said.      

Many of the artists who submit have jobs making video games or animation on the West Coast.   

  Ed Scudder works for Warner Brothers Animation. He came up with a 1940s pilot-recruitment poster — if they had needed pilots for giant robots in World War II, that is. This is the first time he's submitted, but he's been following Light Grey for a while.     

The show opens with a reception Friday evening, but he'll join in via the Web, because all the images are also posted online at that time.  

  "I've actually never been to one in person, because I'm out in Los Angeles," he said. "But I keep seeing the photos and everything they always post online. It seems like such an amazing place to be and they put so much time and effort in."     

For Light Grey Art Lab, that online community is important. All the artwork from all their shows are archived on the Web, so the mechs will keep stalking, far into the future.