“If you’re gonna make a flamethrower, goddammit, do it right.”
From a production standpoint, Chip Flynn is an expert with fire. He doesn’t start the fires himself, of course, he has the robots he builds to do it for him. He is, quite literally, the master of puppets. He’s the invisible Fagan behind the scenes, issuing coded instructions to his merry band of mechanical pranksters. It’s a pursuit that forms a virtuous cycle of creation and destruction. Chip harnesses his gleeful curiosity and darker impulses to create a theatrical spectacle. He’s a metal fabricator by trade. At heart though, he’s an artist using his substantial skills to engage in a public discourse about the nature of the human condition and the inevitability of cultural demise.
I met Chip in Hamtramck, Michigan, at a local art gallery called Public Pool. Chip and his partner Leith Campbell founded a Detroit-based art collective called Ape Technology. Their current exhibition, entitled Slendrotron, had opened at the gallery a few days before my visit. I stop by the gallery on a tip that it’s a vital part of the Hamtramck art scene. There’s a low-key crowd huddled into the one room storefront gallery and I quickly spy Chip tinkering with his hulking mechanical creation. We chat over slugs of beer from a keg in the corner. It turns out to be a bittersweet moment for Chip.
Ape Technology, as a collective, has a reputation as the enfant terribles of the Detroit art scene. Their performances are renowned for terrifying spectacles of fiery destruction, with giant mechanical cyborgs lumbering across a stage, hell-bent on mutual carnage. Their creative act is a labor of love that ultimately, succumbs to the inevitable pull of chaos. But a reckoning is at hand.
Chip and Leith had a third partner, Brad Ballard, who had taken his own life in the days before the opening of the exhibition. I don’t press Chip too much on the subject. The effects of the tragedy are obviously very raw and recent. I can tell that Chip was still processing this event while trying to stay strong and continue with the work they had shared together. We stand in the room with their glorious Slendrotron creation, a full-size robotic orchestra programmed to play Javanese Gamelan music according to an algorithmic formula.
Chip’s philosophical outlook seems to evolve in front of me. He explains that while most of their robotic performances end in some sort of fiery destructive climax, Slendrotron is different in that it creates an endlessly repeating, yet always original series of beautiful musical compositions. As he settles into this thought, I can see him soften, engulfed in sorrow over his lost friend. Slendrotron’s strange song rings through the gallery like a melancholy requiem, its performance transformed into a memorial for their departed third partner. I watch as Chip struggles with the hard truths laid bare. The logic of chaos can be harnessed temporarily, but never fully grasped.
As I leave the gallery, I can’t help but think about my own fascination with fire and destruction. What is it, I wonder, about the spectacle of chaos that we find so mesmerizing? What do we have to learn from this power that is so much greater than our own?
Two days later I meet Chip again at his 10,000-square-foot metal fabricating shop in Detroit’s New Center area. We talk about his inherent mechanical ingenuity, how he gets his aggressions out, and why he owns so much stuff.
RA: So how did this all start?
CF: I’m originally from Port Huron, MI, which was really kind of known for industrial music… bands like Hunting Lodge came from there. I managed a record store, and we had all the most cutting edge industrial music. I got exposed to all that music and we also had these VHS tapes from Survival Research Laboratories [SLR], which was kind of the granddaddy of mechanical performance art. I got really into these tapes…I rented a VCR and started watching them religiously. So, I’m this little industrial, punk rock kid just kind of sulking around the house, obsessed with [SRL founder] Mark Paulina, and one day my mom just called him up and handed me the phone. The next thing you know, I’m on a bus to go meet with him and see his shop. It didn’t really go well; I think I kind of just annoyed him and he just ignored me, basically. But then, I saw him working on this backhoe and trying to turn into a walking leg. It wasn’t working and he couldn’t figure it out. I’m like, “Is that a Victor VL5 pump?” I told him that he had the hoses hooked up backward. He thought I was just a dumb kid but then he switched it around and it worked. After that, I think he kind of decided that he liked having me around. I hung around for a while, but then I had to go back home to finish high school.
After high school, I got this blue-collar job working at a robotics company in Detroit. Mark called me up one day and offered me a job going to Europe for 3 months to help him put on a show. I had to make a decision. I quit my job and packed up to move to San Francisco. I drove to San Francisco with a four by eight-foot trailer carrying a welder, a tool box, a grinder and a chop saw, very bare bones. Ten years later I moved back to Detroit with two fifty-foot shipping containers filled with 70,000 pounds of equipment. I’ve gotten a lot more stuff since.
RA: Why did you move back to Detroit?
CF: During the dot-com bubble in San Francisco, when rents starting soaring, doubling and tripling and quadrupling, most of my friends could just roll up their mattress and find another spot. But I was in big trouble. I can’t just pick up and move with a U-Haul. I need forklifts and flatbed trailers. I have so much stuff, man. I need room. It was to the point that I couldn’t even work on my art anymore because I would have to work so much on regular fabrication jobs just to make my rent money. Working on projects that interest me was my whole reason for being there so I just didn’t really see the point. So, I made the decision to move back to Detroit.
RA: I’ve talked to people around here that are getting pushed out of their spaces.
CF: It’s such a shame… just when Detroit is starting to take off, now you hear stories about people doubling or quadrupling the rent. People have got to understand… sure, that can happen over a period of time, but let people start thriving first. It’s just driving people away and now they’re going to have an empty building. It’s just a shame. The people that were here 10 years ago and they didn’t buy a place, big mistake.
RA: Do you own this place?
RA: This seems like an interesting neighborhood. I heard there are some great parties around here.
CF: I fuckin’ hate it. I don’t want anything to do with that. You know, these Burning Man hippie shit kids really piss me off. They’re running around with their little propane torch puffers going “Whoo Hoo!” You can’t make a real flamethrower with propane. You’ve gotta use gasoline and if you’re gonna make a flamethrower, goddammit, do it right.
RA: Your current project is Slendrotron, but it’s a work in progress. What’s the goal?
CF: It’s a mechanical orchestra that is loosely based on the Javanese tradition of Gamelan music. There is no pre-programmed score; the music is randomly generated by an algorithmic process programmed into a computer. The algorithm keeps track of overall form and marks the end of each phrase by striking the gong. We’re working on expanding this project and turning it into an orchestra for a puppet show based on Indonesian mythology. We’re making puppets of Sita and Hanuman, and all those traditional mythic characters. They’re going to be shadow puppets against a giant plastic backdrop. We’re going to use lasers and giant video projectors with rear projection to create the changes of scenery. This all culminates, hopefully, in a giant robotic shadow-puppet show that will premiere at Dlectricity in the fall of 2017.
RA: This seems like a bit of a departure for you.
CF: It does feel nice to make the Slendrotron because that’s such a nice piece. It is nice to make something beautiful. It doesn’t all have to be fire and destruction. Destruction is just an emotion. So, of course, there’s times when it’s a good way for me to get my aggression out. But, it’s such a crutch to use fire. It’s easy to make explosions and fire. It’s a little bit harder making something that is theatrically compelling and interesting. I think that for the stories that we want to tell right now, fire’s not really necessary for the narrative.