Fernando Orellana by Samuel Jablon

Samuel Jablon and Fernando Orellana reveal the secret to hacking electric toys and discuss the artistic merits of Play-Doh.

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Population, 2011. By Fernando Orellana.

I met Fernando Orellana at the Vermont Studio Center about a year ago after catching a glimpse of the manipulated and reprogrammed toys crawling around his studio. I spoke with him about his work and we discussed current projects, new directions, permanence, and the machines or artificial intelligences that create art.

Samuel Jablon Will you tell me about your current projects?

Fernando Orellana My current project is titled Population. It started a couple years ago, in response to our ongoing petroleum wars and a fascination with the automobile. Back then I created a machine I dubbed The Exturder. The machine was programmed with the task of making 429,674 Play-Doh automobiles, which is the estimated number of automobiles the Ford Motor Company made in 1947, the year Henry Ford died. This process continues to this day, though I have only achieved a very small percentage of that goal, somewhere in the range of 9000 to 10000 individual Play-Doh automobiles. As the automobiles were made, I encased them in clear epoxy, which seals the ephemeral Play-Doh automobile into the distant future.

As I encased these miniature automobiles in parking-lot configurations, I realized that I was not just sealing the automobiles in epoxy; I was mummifying and entombing them. Like the Pharaohs of antiquity, I was sending my automobiles off in a time machine, to see realities and futures I can only dream of. Instead of elaborate Pyramids serving as the vessel, I was using wall-hung artworks.

In response to this I have designed my new series, Population. Since all the Play-Doh automobiles will need drivers in the future, I thought it only appropriate to start extruding the Play-Doh people that would operate the automobiles. However, these drivers will no doubt get hungry and need shelter, so I will also extrude all the Play-Doh cows they might need to eat and the Play-Doh houses they might require. In varying configurations, the worldly things outlined above will also be encased in epoxy, accompanying the automobiles into oblivion.

SJ Why Play-Doh?

FO There are a couple reasons I chose Play-Doh. Most importantly, it is because Play-Doh is super awesome fun and comes in lots of great colors. But that is obvious.

Here are my other reasons:

Play-Doh has some special magic ingredient in it (probably tons of salt) that doesn’t allow anything to grow on it. Which means I can let the dough dry and store for later use without worrying about bugs and a rancid smell.

People have asked me why I do not make my own generic version of Play-Doh, which leads me to another reason to use Play-Doh: The product Play-Doh comes from an assembly line of machines and people, just like automobiles do. I thought it appropriate to use a material that was itself a product of the industrial age. As I type this sentence, just like the automobile, tons and tons of Play-Doh are being churned out, flying away to fill every corner of the world.

I also like to think that I am in a way rescuing the Play-Doh. Most of the time, Play-Doh just ends up as more landfill, passing through the peanut-butter filled hands of children and then discarded. I save some of it from that ultimate fate. However, the other side of that coin is less altruistic because Play-Doh is biodegradable. Which means that instead of just melting away back into nothing, I encase it in plastic epoxy, entombing it inside of ‘Art’ forever. Circle of life I guess?

Extruder, 2008. By Fernando Orellana

SJ What interests you about assembly lines?

FO That is a good question. I guess I love the precision and efficiency of it. And how it acts like a program. On one side of the assembly line you feed it instructions, raw materials, people, and robots. On the other side you get Twinkies! Ding! Your TV dinner is done.

SJ There is an aspect of manufactured precision to your work, could you talk about some of your other projects? Like your drawing machines and other robotic sculptures?

FO I made the drawing machine years ago. In many ways it opened up a lot of doors for me. A machine that arrives at the ability to make and appreciate art still fascinates me. It reminds of us of how abstract the concept of art is. I have future plans to develop the design of that machine further, but, these days, other ideas keep me more entertained.

In relation to other robotic sculpture, perhaps Paradiso has me the most interested right now. It is basically a piece that constantly creates a reality television show starting Adam, Eve, and a Spaceman. The piece asks these questions:

What conversations did we have during our tenure in paradise?
What conversations might we have if we could re-enter it now?
What is our relationship with each other and the invisible Spaceman?

One aspect of the Paradiso is a mini-television studio/sculpture, complete with video cameras, backdrops, lights, and three actors: Adam, Eve, and the Spaceman. Projected in an adjacent room, the live video broadcast uses three computer generated voices and a database of character dialogue to create a continuously changing program. The result is an endless conversation between the characters of paradise, sometimes insightful, often times humorous, and always entertaining.

I am also excited about a new direction in relation to ghosts and robotics. I want to make robotic devices and vessels for the dead, or as I like to call them, the living impaired. But I do not want to say too much on that, as I will ruin the surprise.

SJ So why make machines to make art? 

FO For me, my initial machine was a way to separate myself from the mark making process, which at first was the driving force, but later yielded to a larger discussion.

Machines that make art have been around for a couple centuries. Some of the earliest, using nothing more then metal gears, could even sign their own work. I think at the heart of the matter is the nature of art itself. Art is very much a human practice, with its creation, and, more importantly, its appreciation seemingly lost on all other known species. To give a machine, or simulation, the ability to make and understand something as art is a profound notion. It suggests that, maybe one day, we can pass on to another sentient species (artificial or not) the very things that makes us human. It also points to art standing separately from humanity, floating in the wind.

SJ That is oddly beautiful. When I think of machines being able to learn I always take it right to terminator and judgment day, or man vs. machine. This idea of art standing separately from humanity in a strange way sets art free. Is this how you approach your process?

FO I am not sure if it is the way I approach my process, but I do like to think that art is separate from the human condition. That it is some force of nature that we discovered, but did not invent or control completely. Our communal sense of recognizing something as beautiful comes to mind, even when the argument is that beauty is not part of the equation at all. In my life long romance with the art-force (sic), at the end of the day, I cannot accurately tell you why I am driven to make a art. It is just something that I do and cannot imagine not doing. Like gravity, I am always drawn to it. (laughter)

SJ Would you talk about why you hijack and reprogram toys? 

FO I see hacking into electronic toys as part of something I like to call the hyper-ready made. Do you want one hundred plastic squeaking bacon toys? A ton of red and pink gummy bears? Wood veneered refrigerators? Vampire teeth for your wiener dogs?  No problem. Someone has all of that and much, much more, ready and wiling to ship to you anywhere in the world. All of this is at the touch of a couple buttons and a valid credit card. Poof! She has skin-tight potato pants!

8520 S.W. 27th, Pl., 2004. By Fernando Orellana.

SJ Your new exhibition Slideways at Satellite 66 [in San Francisco] is a series of digital paintings. How did you start this series?

FO About a year ago, I started doing VJ gigs with a couple of my friends here in Troy. We did visual for Kid Koala and Diplo while they were performing in town. My role was to provide real-time content to the VJ software. I did that by using a Wacom Tablet, Photoshop, and a laptop. The results were nothing less then awesome, visual candy bars to go along with the oozing sounds coming from the DJ’s turntables.

The drawings I made during the live sessions were temporary, deleted almost as soon as I made them. A year later, I decided to make series that would be more permanent. The images in my new series Slideways come from the universe of autonomy. They are the product of my consciousness being distracted by external influences, all of which help me remove deliberate mark making from the art making equation. The initial drawings surface quickly, almost as if they already existed. In many ways, I am just transcribing the images into this world, allowing them to take shape on their own. This is also the case for the imagery’s subject, which surfaces from within the labyrinth of initial lines and I think is a reflection of both my internal and external psychology. The resulting pictures are complex, multilayered, and often humorous, if not ridiculous.

Real-Time visuals created by Vidvox and Fernando Orellana for Diplo performance at EMPAC as part of the One Dot Zero festival. Troy, NY, 2010.

SJ How does permanence play a role in your work besides Play-Doh being encased in epoxy?

FO Permanence is something that new media artists have to consider every time they make something. Unlike the traditional mediums, digital technologies and their associated products are not built to last. Motors fail, software changes, screens burn out, and computers fizzle out. With them, go all the visions and hard work of a generation of artists, lost into digital noise. This is one of the reasons that I started to encase things in epoxy. It is has the exact opposite properties; it actually gets harder as it ages. Ironically, the Play-Doh that I entomb inside the epoxy is like the pixels on this screen, designed for purposeful obsolescence.

If you are in San Francisco be sure to check out Fernando’s solo show, Slideways, at Satellite 66.

Samuel Jablon is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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