INFERNO: I was a robot at Elektra Festival

Festival Elektra Inferno

Amongst the main obsessions to haunt the modern-day imagination, robotics still feature prominently. In contemporary imagery, from Robot Cop to Iron Man, fantasy surrounding anthropomorphic machines continues to grow. So it is hard to refuse when you are invited to participate by the organisers of the “mechanical” themed Elektra Festival, AUTOMATA, in INFERNO, the Rolls Royce of robotic performances by the Quebecois artists Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers.

This is an opportunity to experience INFERNO through the psychological preparation and equipment in a first-hand experience of the show. 


The robotic future of art at Montréal’s Elektra Festival

Robots were indeed well represented at this 17th Elektra Festival. At the exhibition AUTOMATA, Art Made By Machines For Machines, visitors were able to discover several archetypes of the genre, with for example, Bios (Bible), the mechanical arm by the German Robotlab team, that precisely (re)-writes the Bible with the nib of an ink pen.

Robot Art Elektra Festival
Bios [Bible], Robotlab ©MaxenceGrugier

But also, Orchestrer La Perte / Perpetual Devotion, the participatory performance by Simon Laroche and David Szanto (QC-CA), with another arm attempting to feed the human who appeared before it. There was also What Do Machines Sing Of, the both funny and moving karaoke singing robot by Martin Backes (DE), as well as the robotic installation like a drawing class 5RNP Etude Humaine #1 by Patrick Tresset (FR), or the sexual machines by Norman T. White and Laura E. Kikauka (Them Fucking Robots).

What do machines sing of? from Martin Backes 

Even sculpture was broadly mechanical this year (see Machine With Hair Caught In It and Silence Of The Wolf_Secret Keeping Machine by the Koreans U_Joo + Limeeyoung). Other mechanical entities haunted the huge Arsenal Contemporary Art hall, like the Mega Hysterical Machine by Bill Vorn, moving about on the ceiling. Bill Vorn (accompanied by LP Demers), also responsible for what many now describe as a participatory and immersive performance: INFERNO.

“Impressive”, “captivating”, “stimulating”, but also “stressful”, INFERNO is a unique experience that deserves this string of epithets, with a few superlatives for good measure. To end up in the body – and the mind – of an upper atmosphere minor or a futuristic soldier, during a show, is an outstanding event that you will not easily forget. 


Automata Elektra limeeyoung
Silence of the Wolf: The Secret Keeping Machine Ujoo+Limheeyoung (b.1976+1979, Korea) kinetic sculpture

Don't spin, don't fight, against the machine

There was great excitement on Friday 3rd June 2016 at 11pm. A crowd of visitors, including my lucky self, had been invited to participate in the performance that would take place an hour later, adorning the famous exoskeletons! Before the start, the artists invited the volunteers to a short briefing. This was essential for the creators of the piece to explain the technical aspects, as well as the postures to adopt during this performance esteemed to be emotionally and physically testing. 

Inferno Elektra Bill Vorn

The exoskeleton created by Vorn and Demers, a mechanical structure that covers the upper part of the body, shoulders, waist and arms, weighs about 44 pounds (20 kilos). Despite its harmonious design, above all it is destined to keep you in a state of submission close to sadomasochistic confinement. The artists control each part of its structure during the performance. Your movements are chosen for you here. Bill Vorn explained this to the participants from the outset, “it is better to work with the machine than to fight against or resist it”. The aluminium structure replicates our human framework. In the future it would enable a man of average height, strength and weight to bear heavy loads. For the time being it is about art, and the 24 machines appearing on stage are solely to make us feel the antagonistic sensations of power and coercion, by following the ten levels of hell described in Dante’s Inferno. After making us sign a waiver guaranteeing that we are in full command and in good health, the creators offer some advice (Don't spin, don't fight, against the machine, beware of your movements). Then it’s time to harness up and enter the arena. 

“I’ll be a robot, just for one day”

It is hard to describe the overriding atmosphere upon my arrival. The Technodrome by Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers was submerged in darkness. The machines were suspended in a blue light, slowly swaying about. Most of the voluntary participants were clearly over-excited. Some of them were fooling around, but they were in fact chilling out.

Bill Vorn Inferno
Some smiles before the show...

As for me, before putting on this “mechanical appendage”, I felt a sort of unexpected pleasure. I was finally able to step into the shoes of the science-fictional characters from my childhood/adolescence: to fight against the Alien in the shoes of Ripley in Alien I and to become a cyborg, like in Dona Harraway’s texts. The technicians surrounded us. They were attentive and put our arms in the supports as intended. Our overalls resembled those worn by fighter pilots or Star Wars mechanics. The machine was a snug fit around my arms and shoulders, with a presence, but one that was not too heavy, on my upper back.

Before starting, you could still move the upper body, then Bill Vorn went behind us and immobilised the machine by means of a hydraulic system enabling us to be manipulated remotely. Losing the power to lift your arms, surrounded by claustrophobic sounds, was already a test in itself. You had to reassure yourself that everything would be fine and that we would dance to the rhythm of the machine. With the artists behind the console, the 24 exoskeletons and their prisoners were the centre of attention and were surrounded by the public. And so the show began. 

Let's begin..

Robotic trance and altered state

The audio fluxes gave way to the enormous beat of a huge volume falling from very high up. It made some people jump. The automated arms began to tremble. Then the rhythm changed. We started to fully comprehend what it meant to be directed in spite of ourselves and what is more unpredictably! The dark and martial techno rapidly accelerated. The machines followed the movement and therefore we followed suite. Participating was important and we all moved our lower bodies at a pace more or less in synchronisation with our upper anatomy. With our arms outstretched and lamps lit up at their extremities, the 24 exoskeletons swayed, pulled and pushed, in the heat of a fiendish mechanical trance. People smiled, looked at each other and danced with their eyes closed…


It is essential to just let yourself go in INFERNO. You are directed by the machine and are no more than a puppet. But in your guts you sense that you are a puppet with incredible power. It is a strange experience, one that is both exhausting (you dance for an hour, half an hour, or forty-five minutes with 44 pounds/20 kilos on your back) and stimulating. Everything becomes possible. You can imagine whatever you want. The public disappears, the music takes you, your body begins to anticipate the movements and you wonder where this ability, this adaptability comes from. Each track lasts about 5 minutes, with rest time in between. 

Bill Vorn Elektra
Don't fight against the machine...

Some people ask to leave, others, who are more robust, keep going until the end. Courage and endurance are required to complete the whole session. You need to pace yourself. Caught up with enthusiasm, the time passes quickly. Technicians come and remove my load after forty or so minutes. I am wet with sweat; my energy has been unleashed. The experience is exhilarating! I did it! I was a robot, “just for one day”… 

Maxence Grugier

Photo: Maxence Grugier for BIAN 2016 & JB Luneau for Némo Biennale 2015

Read also:

Are we now fully immersed in the age of machines? This is the question that we will all be asking, from 3rd June to 3rd July 2016, during the international cultural rendezvous organised by ELEKTRA and the Arsenal Contemporary Art space in Montreal, as part of the major exhibition for the 3rd International Digital Art Biennial (BIAN). An exhibition with as theme AUTOMATA: art made by machines for machines. read article