This weekend at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a robot will create drawings based on a live nude model.
The nude is not gratuitous. It’s an homage — and bait.
Fernando Orellana’s new show, which debuts Aug. 20, features tools used by famed 19th century Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins — rigged so they can be triggered by his ghostly presence. Eakins taught at PAFA more than a century ago, and it was his enthusiasm for using live nude models in his classes that ultimately led to his dismissal. Orellana hopes their cheeky placement in the exhibition will incentivize the ghostly professor to make an appearance.
For someone setting up an exhibition designed to lure a ghost back from the dead, the El Salvador-born artist maintains a healthy dose of skepticism.
“I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever seen ghosts, or seen anything move that’s not explainable,” he says.
Still, Orellana, who teaches robotic art at Union College in upstate New York, has been building machines that use EMF waves to create real-life renderings for a few years now. At PAFA, a panoply of Eakins’ own personal objects (watercolor box, paints, brushes, palette) will be used by robots to create imagery of their own. Three of the machines holding these tools will move according to pre-programmed code, but the fourth has a robotic arm that will be directed only by electromagnetic sensors and LED matrices.
If this reminds you of an episode of “Ghost Hunters,” you’re not far off. Orellana uses many of the same tools and procedures that the dudes from the SyFy network do when they’re scouting for paranormal activity.
A tap on the shoulder
Orellana hedges on whether the supernatural is really involved — “I use ‘paranormal event’ in huge quotation marks,” he says — but he’s been interested in the possibilities for a while, ever since a dubious character tapped him on the shoulder on a Manhattan sidewalk and gave him a phantasmic message.
“We were crossing the street,” he recalls, “and this gentleman was standing on the corner. As I walked past he tapped me on my shoulder and said ‘Can you hear them? Ghosts are jealous.’ That really resonated with me.”
Instead of just dismissing the encounter, he decided to turn it into art.
“I thought it was funny to think of ghosts as normal people who are just kind of bummed out they don’t have bodies and are sort of roaming around,” he says. “From a design point of view, there’s a whole market — well, not a market — an opportunity there to help all these ghosts.”
Designing for the dead
How do you design for the dead? Orellana spent a year solving the puzzle.
In his view, a ghost that died decades ago wouldn’t know what to do with a smartphone, for example, because “if you’re a ghost, I feel like you can’t learn because you don’t have a brain anymore. You’re just kind of an accumulation of everything you learned up until that moment when you die.”
The answer turned out to be relatively simple: Use things people were already connected to before they died. Orellana started hitting up estate sales and collecting “junk” that heirs were looking to get rid of to use in his installations.
In the case of Thomas Eakins, the repurposed items are hardly junk.
Eakins’ 120-year-old palette itself is considered a national treasure in its own right, and Orellana wasn’t able to actually touch it while he was building the machine. Instead, he had to trace it on foam core and build a lifesize replica to test with. Opening night will be the first time he tests the machine using Eakins’ actual accoutrements. The show runs through Nov. 6.
‘I really want to believe’
Orellana realizes an otherworldly appearance is not the only thing that could get his robot to start sketching.
“Any fluctuation in electromagnetic field or temperature or infrared will trigger it,” he says. “That could include radio waves or cell phone signals or a bright enough light.”
He has gotten spooked, though. “A couple times while I’ve been working the machine went off by mistake. I’m a late-night worker so I’ll be sitting there programming one of the machines and one of them will go off, and that’s either a bug in my program which is most likely, or could be…I don’t know!”
Even so, he maintains that he’s a firm non-believer. So far.
“That little prickly feeling at the back of your neck — I’m almost certain that those prickly things are you just freaking yourself out,” he says. “But in the production of these pieces I’ve heard so many stories, and I believe them, I can’t say that they’re not real.
“I really want to believe in ghosts. I want to have an experience.”