Soon, you may hear a pronounced jingle whenever Contemporary Arts Center employees walk around their building.
If so, it’s because they will be carrying change — lots of it — so art lovers can use the new payphone on the gloriously resurrected Metrobot.
The landmark 27-foot-high, gold-colored aluminum robot sculpture by Nam June Paik will once again be on a sidewalk outside the CAC in downtown Cincinnati, where it was from 1988 to 2003. But this will be a different sidewalk — because the CAC is itself in a new location.
And Metrobot is receiving a $140,000 refurbishment for its homecoming. It will be unveiled at a 10:30 a.m. public ceremony on Sept. 10, on Walnut Street just north of Sixth in front of the CAC (44 E. Sixth St.), as part of the museum’s 75th anniversary celebration.
Despite this being the age of cellular communications, Metrobot will once again have a working payphone. Previously, its payphone was a revenue-generator for CAC. Legend has it that it was the most popular one in the city.
“I’m hoping to make it a dime,” says Dave Gearding, CAC’s facility director. “It will be a push-button Pixie phone. And it will also be refurbished.”
Paik, a Korean-American artist who died in 2006, is considered a pioneer of video art. His often-witty work used video technology to comment on the brave new world of mass communications.
Metrobot originally was given to the CAC by the late Albert Vontz Jr., owner of beer-and-wine wholesaler Heidelberg Distributing, in 1988 to mark the city’s bicentennial. Its boxy pieces are sculptural interpretations of old radio and television cabinets, one of Paik’s favorite materials.
Besides the phone, Metrobot was capable of playing videos, telling time and displaying changing messages because of its communications devices. Its face, set into a TV set-like head, had neon tubing beneath a plastic cover. It also had a fluorescent-tube-lit pink heart in its chest.
When it stood sentry outside the CAC, the museum was then on the second floor of the Formica Building/Mercantile Center on Fifth Street, above a big Walgreens.
In 2003, the CAC moved to its current Zaha Hadid-designed building at Sixth and Walnut streets and left Metrobot behind. In 2009, it had to be removed from Fifth Street and placed in storage.
During that time, many sites were considered for it — reportedly even the airport. Meanwhile, Paik’s reputation kept growing after his death, increasing Metrobot’s value.
“It was always our intention to bring Metrobot back, it was just finding the perfect location,” says Raphaela Platow, CAC director, via email from Europe. “After a really thoughtful and diligent search, we discovered there is no place like home, and right in front of the CAC is the perfect location.”
The CAC also needed money to refurbish the sculpture’s weathered exterior and upgrade the many electronic parts that were outdated or wasted energy.
Funding was eventually provided by Margaret and Albert Vontz III (the son of Vontz Jr.) and the Ralph V. Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation. Local designer Thomas Strohmaier, who had worked with Paik originally on Metrobot’s design, supervised the refurbishment with Rick Vogt of Tri-State Fabricators and Vince Klusty of Klusty Sign Associates.
According to gallery owner Carl Solway, Metrobot’s local roots go back to a time when the CAC was embarrassed about its location. “They wanted a sign that would dramatize their location above Walgreens,” he says. “Jack Boulton, when he was director, would make jokes about being the ‘Contemporary Arts Center above a Walgreens.’ ” (Boulton was director from 1972-1976.)
When Vontz Jr. agreed to put up money, Solway proposed Paik as the artist. “Paik made a study for it — a big robot figure,” Solway says. “He was famous for making robot figures. They were meant as a metaphor that, because of television and technology, we have become electronic robots. Do we now experience the world only through electronic media? Have we given up experiencing the world in a physical way? So it was a comment about the black heart of technology.”
Maybe that’s so, but Metrobot wasn’t taken so seriously by the public — or Vontz Jr. They saw it as cute, something out of a primitive 3D sci-fi movie from the 1950s, like Robot Monster. And it was functional.
“It was a type of the piece of art he hoped people would see and laugh,” Vontz III says. “That’s one of the main appreciations of art is to be able to find the humor in things. He was more than willing to do it. It hit his fancy.”
“He donated it with no strings attached to the CAC,” Vontz III continues. “But by all means we hoped it would continue to be a piece of Cincinnati so when the opportunity came up, we wanted to help bring Metrobot back.”
The CAC did not need to consult with Paik’s foundation about this move, Platow says. “The artist understood that any of his sculptures, which had technology elements incorporated in them, would need upgrade or replacement in future years. Anticipating this, the artist provided the CAC with a signed certificate which authorizes the owner to upgrade or replace the technology of the piece in future years without altering the authentication of the work.”
The refurbishment process has involved workers taking apart the many sections of the mighty Metrobot until its separated pieces bore little resemblance to the towering whole. Of course, the intention was always to carefully reassemble the parts again.
Bringing Metrobot up-to-date for the 21st century has meant, among other things, that a new full-color video message board will replace a backlit color transparency in the stomach. In the extended arm, where previously there was a simpler flip-system message board, there now will be a digital LED amber-colored one with video capability.
The three old cathode-ray monitors in the right calf that once played Paik’s laserdisc videos are being replaced with more energy-efficient LED monitors that will play videos digitally — controls are inside the CAC. All the new materials are energy efficient.
“Metrobot will still be gold on the outside, but on the inside it will be all green,” Strohmaier says.
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