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In a London bunker, robo-art comes to life

LONDON — In a concrete chamber beneath central London, a host of obscure-looking machines are whirring to life, electronic eyes are trembling and winking, and a set of colored circles are pulsing to the beat of a human heart.

The subterranean display is part of the British capital's Kinetica Art Fair, a show devoted to cutting-edge art which speaks, plays, or otherwise interacts with its audience. Director Dianne Harris said the show, now in its second year, was a unique opportunity to introduce visitors to work that bridges the divide between art and computer science.

Harris said the show was "better than going to see 'Avatar' with your 3-D specs."

"This kind of art is the future ... It affects you in a different way than a static piece of sculpture," she said Thursday. "It talks to you."

Sometimes literally. Just outside the venue, a black-and-white robot with a large lamp for a head and a sling around its arm leaned against a trash bin, playing back the recorded ramblings of a homeless man.

Inside the darkened exhibition space, the heart beat mixed with the eerie wailing of the "Theremin Ensemble," a kind of mini-robot orchestra which sounded like a set of singing saws.

One installation, which looked like a glowing "Star Trek" prop, periodically emitted out loud blasts of static as viewers approached. Artist Robin McGinley described the noise as the music of the radiation left over from the creation of the universe.

"You're playing the sound of the Big Bang," he told onlookers. "Not bad for a Thursday."

Most works were interactive in some way — like a light-powered mobile that whirled lazily under the heat of a 1,000-watt lamp, or a wall of eyes carried on LED displays that wriggled and blinked as spectators approached.

One particularly striking piece featured 100 virtual butterflies displayed on video fins projecting from a mirrored surface. Approached by viewers, the iridescent insects either tamely landed or fluttered away.

Most works were unabashedly electronic, like one which spun a cloud of tiny lights at 1,000 rounds per minute to create a variety of flashing three-dimensional images.

Others were a bit lower tech. One portrait machine consisted of a pantograph (a device pioneered in the 17th century) which used a gel pen to sketch the outline of a plaster head.

"It's a three dimensional scanner as (Leonardo) Da Vinci could have made it," 33-year-old artist Balint Bolygo said.

Across the room, five colored rings projected on to a wall shuddered in time with a heartbeat broadcast over a sound system. The effect, created by projecting a light through bowls of water, was a reference to athletic endeavor and the 2012 Olympics, according to artist Sally Butterfield.

London-based artist Jason Bruges called the show a "celebration of both the old and the new," noting that the roots of what he and his colleagues called "Kinetic Art" could be traced to the 1960s and even earlier.

Harris, the fair's director, insisted the computer-driven, interactive installations like the ones shown off Thursday had a bright future. But could any of these high-concept works ever attract big money?

McGinley, one of the artists behind the "Hydro-Acoustic Big Bang Filter," acknowledged that his futuristic, static-belching machine was more of showpiece than something a collector would cart off to install in his or her living room.

"They're difficult sells, I suppose," he said.

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