Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Jesus in space: AMAZING interview with a guy who makes robots for Christian theme parks

"When our man Mark Hosler was in Florida last year, he met a guy named Joe with a curious vocation: Joe makes robots for Christian theme parks and churches. (Joe has a last name but prefers to remain anonymous.) Mark, a founding member of the band Negativland, hit it off with Joe and the two decided to collaborate. Joe created a robot of Abraham Lincoln to be featured in Negativlandland, an art show at Gigantic Art Space in New York this past October."

STAY FREE!: You have a job description which I never in a million years even imagine existed. How long have you been working for this place?

JOE: Well, for three and a half years. We make themed environments for churches; making animatrons is a specialty of that. The animatrons are for the churches that want to go for the real Disneyesque feel.

STAY FREE!: So for the full Christian animatronic experience, you're the go-to guy?

JOE: Yeah. These are often done for children's ministries. Some animatrons are computer programmed and you activate them by motion detector or by pressure plate. Some are actually advanced puppets; you use a remote and speak the lines through a mic.

STAY FREE!: Are you involved at the actual design level?

JOE: I'm mainly on the production side. I get to see all the funny designs produced, even the mistakes.

STAY FREE!: Can you share anything that's struck you as over-the-top?

JOE: Some churches want a sort of natural environment, like rocks and trees. And then there's the other extreme where you build a time machine prop that lights up and fogs as people walk out of it in costume on stage: Moses brought back from the past, for example. We do Bible stories, and there's a Jesus-in-space theme, which is basically the idea that this religion will endure into the Jetson age. That's a pretty popular theme, actually; it's not about the Apocalyptic side of the religion.

STAY FREE!: You haven't made any animatronic Antichrists or 666 beasts or anything like that?

JOE: No. A lot of the people at the company, myself included, do not have any kind of religious belief. So we joke about getting a contract for a Satanic church. The only non-Christian theme we've done is a Hindu wedding. And it wasn't even a wedding, it was actually just a presentation of the couple for a very rich doctor. We built an entire Hindu temple ruins and fountains and everything.

STAY FREE!: You were talking about Jesus in space.

JOE: Yeah, Jesus in space. Jesus with four fingers instead of five! That's another really striking thing about the company: every Bible character that we do has four fingers on each hand instead of five.

STAY FREE!: You do edgy artwork yourself, and you've got lots of tattoos, so I wouldn't peg you for being a Christian-theme-park-creator kinda guy. How comfortable are you working in that environment?

JOE: Well, it's complicated because the people who run the company promote themselves as Christians. They are really easy people to work for, but they're business people, all of them. There is oddness in the work shop when clients tour through and you cannot say what you want to say. Otherwise, it's pretty much a normal production shop. The hard part is not so much building these things, but going to churches to install them. The pastors of the churches are usually pretty much business people, but a janitor or someone who has strong religious beliefs will come up and expect you to have the same feelings. That's the most difficult part because you have to worry about saying the wrong thing, and if it gets back to the owners, they will either cut your production level, or not allow you to go on site, where you make most of the overtime.

STAY FREE!: So are the churches seeking you guys out or is your company actively selling itself?

JOE: It started small with this niche, and then I think it grew by word of mouth. They promote themselves at Christian merchandising shows, where the companies who make robes for pastors and other products all show their stuff.

STAY FREE!: I know about that. We [Negativland] are getting ready to do a new live show called "It's All In Your Head' about fundamentalism and the belief in a single God and how it's tearing our world apart. I went to my local Christian Bible bookstore to do some research, and it's really incredible to see how the merchandising of Christ has evolved. There are now Christian versions of every kind of music: Christian death metal, Christian goth, synthpop. There's Christian punk, Christian alternative. There are actually jokey references to piercings in the plastic and ceramic Christian geegaws in these stores, because Jesus was pierced for you ! What you're doing at the other end of it seems like, well, I assume these churches have a buttload of money. . .

JOE: Yeah. Baptist churches mainly.

STAY FREE!: They seem to want to be real flashy to compete with the hyper-intense entertainment of the secular world.

JOE: Yeah, that's the thinking. And the competitiveness between churches is pretty incredible. We'll do a church in, say, Plano, Texas. The next thing you know, we've got a contract for another church in Plano, right down the road! That's how this business has been built. Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano is the size of a football stadium. I had no idea churches had this kind of money. But some churches will have a private school for kids, gift shops, workout rooms, pools. . . . You could live in these things if you wanted to.

STAY FREE!: So they are also for people to retreat from the rest of the world?

JOE: Yeah. One huge church has a 24-hour prayer group called Prayer Warriors. Each person will pray for an hour and then call the next, so that someone is praying every hour in the day. They have it structured so that a group of them prays for the west wall, another group prays for the east wall, and for the north and south so at all times there's somebody praying to keep the spirits out; 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every wall of the church is protected by prayer. And then I've run into the other side of it, the speaking in tongues.

STAY FREE!: I live in the South now, and I went to a very poor black Pentecostal gospel church service around here and loved it. After a few hours the band and the choir built up to going berserk, the congregation was chanting along, people were speaking in tongues and they were kind of fainting, you know, collapsing in each other's arms. It was very unstructured and improvised, kind of like going to some sort of shamanic trance-inducing rock and roll show! The energy of it was very orgasmic, very sexual. And I thought, what are they tapping into? Because it's something very real.

JOE: It's probably good therapy.

STAY FREE!: I bet it is! So I wondered what you think about helping these people promote their churches and viewpoints. A lot of them are probably quite fundamentalist and intolerant.

JOE: When I first started, I was very uncomfortable with it, but I don't look at it that way anymore. Children's pastors talk about how you need to hook 'em while they're young. But it's gonna blow up in their faces when these children think back on this, because it's too weird and creepy--too forced on them. So I think it's gonna have the opposite effect, and it will make kids less inclined to become religious. Maybe I'm just rationalizing. But I hope I'm right.

STAY FREE!: Any other interesting stories come to mind?

JOE: For a Christian publishing company in Colorado, we made an animatronic moose that was bisected by a huge fireplace chimney made out of solid rock and mortar. The head and forelimbs came out one side to greet the people and when you walk around you see its ass and the back limbs hanging down.

STAY FREE!: Was it supposed to be a moose that had been shot and stuffed and mounted?

JOE: It sort of had that feeling. It was always on and it had about twenty-some-odd phrases it would say, basically jokes about its position.

STAY FREE!: Really? What was the Christian angle?

JOE: I don't know. The moose would be snoozing and then wake up and say, "Hey down there!" Most of the things conceived by this company are really corny and not very funny. We were in Tennessee hanging these characters in outer space that had bubbles around their head--like anti-gravity kids floating all over the place. And there was one kid who had a real provocative ass on her. It was drawn that way by a designer. It was a joke for two jobs because we re-use the same characters over and over again. At some point they finally cut the ass off of this kid because I guess it was just too much of an ass. They just cut it off so that the waist then met the legs!

In Texas we made two archangels guarding the church entrance with huge swords, and they had the best mullets. Any angel or archangel that this company makes, the hairstyle is the mullet.

STAY FREE!: So that's what we're gonna see up in heaven when we finally shuffle off this mortal coil: angels with mullets?

JOE: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the owner has one of the most extreme mullets I've ever seen.

STAY FREE!: I wanted to ask you about this impressionistic image of Jesus you sent me.

JOE: That's a thirty-foot tall by twenty-feet wide painting in a huge, sculpted 3-D frame in the lobby of this church.

STAY FREE!: That little boy with the basketball and that little girl: what is her hand doing there? Hey?!?!

JOE: Yeah, what's her hand grabbing? (laughs)

STAY FREE!: The little Asian girl definitely seems to have a fistful of something under that robe! And the head and mouth of that little boy is turned right to the same spot.

JOE: Before it was printed almost two stories high, no one seemed to notice. But this is where it gets really awkward because we have to be really quiet about these things when we work at the site.

STAY FREE!: Are many of the people you work with Christian?

JOE: There are quite a few. One night back at a hotel one of my co-workers started telling me a list of things that confirmed his belief in God. One was a Buddhist temple destroyed by mudslides, which he believed was obviously done by God.

STAY FREE!: Is there anything else you want to share? Are you doing much of your own art?

JOE: I'm excited about the Abraham Lincoln robot you want me to build for Negativland's art show. I'm still working on his eye-poppin' and pelvic-thrust action, and I thought it would be hilarious if his chair was on a track and pulled out from under him, causing him to do a great flop fall. But I don't think it'll work.

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