Inside Natali Leduc’s studio space (a converted barn in North Saanich), the acrid smell of burning metal and the buzz of fluorescent lights would be hard to ignore were it not for a 12-foot tall steel frame that dominates the space. The frame will eventually become a metal-plated banana peel spread on the ground, left there, perhaps, by a giant robot with a sense of humour. With any luck, it is on its way to Burning Man in a month’s time.
Called the Jokeatron 5200, people can walk inside, record a joke into a microphone and have it broadcast outside. Every joke will be followed by a pre-recorded laugh track, “so even if your joke is lame, you’ll get a laugh,” said Leduc.
Burning Man, the famous desert festival held yearly in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, is built on principles like communal effort, radical inclusion, decommodification and radical self-expression. This year’s theme is “I, Robot,” and Leduc said she is the only Canadian to get a grant this year. While she said it was generous, it is not sufficient to cover the costs of construction and transportation. She has started an Indiegogo campaign to cover the rest.
Leduc said she got the idea about a year and a half ago, and it evolved over time. Its peels were supposed to have a 24-foot spread, but “it looks like it’s going to be a little longer.”
As the project evolved, she said she forgot what originally inspired her, but knew the name had to reflect its newfound scale.
“Because it’s evolved, it can’t be 4200 anymore. It has to be 5200,” said Leduc.
The sculpture is a continuation of a theme for Leduc, who has been to Burning Man twice before. Her prior pieces have had the suffix “-atron”, including a “Churnatron 1400,” a double-decker, four-person bicycle that churns ice cream as it moves. She said she wanted to explore humanity’s attachment with technology, and the progress of technology over time. However, Leduc notes that jokes are the one thing robots have not yet mastered.
“What I like about it is that it is a platform for other people to do something with,” said Leduc of her sculpture. “Once it’s done, everybody will be able to tell whatever jokes they want.”
Leduc has been involved with arts and crafts since she got her first car.
“When I got my first car, I decorated it. I painted the whole outside and inside. I started gluing marbles on the dash and putting pipe cleaners on the steering wheel and doing things to it,” she said. When she moved to Houston, TX a year later, she met many people doing similar things to their cars. She began modifying cars and bicycles, making contraptions that got more and more complex.
“For me, I find it very difficult to draw and paint, but I found this to be easier, working with my hands, working in three dimensions,” she said.
“If I’m not creating, I’m not a happy person,” she said.
Leduc is building the structure to withstand the heat and alkaline dust of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, not to mention wear and tear by 70,000 participants, many of whom will be uninhibited — for a variety of reasons. Leduc is bringing spare speakers, microphones and lights. Though the sculpture is not supposed to be climbed, it is sturdy enough to survive it.
The festival is scheduled for August 26, and Leduc says she wants to complete it by mid-August so she can transport it to Nevada in time to install it.
For more information, visit igg.me/at/jokeatron5200/x.