Engaging the Humans: Fraley’s Robot Repair Offers Airport Travelers Fun, Creative Respite

Posted by Alyson Walls, Aug 15, 2016 0 comments

For the 16th anniversary of the Public Art Network Year in Review, we offered the selected applicants and artists the opportunity to tell us the stories behind their works. This week's blog salon features the stories behind some of the most compelling public art projects completed in 2015.

If robots are plotting to take over the world, they’re starting with Pittsburgh International Airport. And they’re succeeding.

For more than a year, humans of all ages have been drawn to the award-winning Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop in the Airside Terminal near Gate A15 to have a look at their plans.

From cheering on our beloved Pittsburgh sports teams in the playoffs, to showcasing the airport’s new logo, to posting Valentine’s to airline and restaurant workers across the concourse, those playful bots are always up to something.

The Robot Repair Shop is the concept of Pittsburgh artist Toby Fraley, who launched a Kickstarter campaign in May 2015 to fund the installation at Pittsburgh International. Fraley, a self-professed retro-techno-robot nut, had a similar exhibit in Downtown Pittsburgh from 2011-2012.

That shop was a huge success, attracting thousands of visitors and garnering the Mayor’s Award for Public Art in 2012. So when Fraley submitted a proposal to the Art in the Airport committee to give a re-imagined robot installation a new home at the airport, the answer was a resounding yes.

Showcasing art and artists has always been a priority at Pittsburgh International, where the art collection includes permanent and temporary works by artists including Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol and Glenn Kaino.

The Airport Authority provided the space for Fraley’s Robot Repair at no charge, and airport trade workers assisted in preparing the area, which can be viewed by up to 8 million travelers annually.

The shop depicts robots in various states of repair engaged in all sorts of activities. The scene has a retro, 1950s vibe (think Lost in Space meets the Jetsons). When looking closely, visitors may find items of local interest including a photo of Pittsburgh’s own Mr. Rogers, a robot waving a famed Terrible Towel and more. Fraley returns frequently, often under cover of night, to add items and reshape the exhibit.

Indeed, part of the shop’s appeal for travelers and airport employees is peering into the windows to see what the robots are plotting. During a recent heat wave, a robot was discovered sitting at a desk with feet propped up in front of a fan. The caption posted to Fraley’s Facebook page: “Robots don't take heat well.” “Get him an ice cold mug of coolant,” a fan responded.

A quick scan of the shop’s web site and social media feeds shows thousands of humanoids engaging with the airport’s resident robots. They check in, post selfies and send Fraley links to news articles about the latest robot technology.

“Dropping off the 'bot for some much needed repairs then headed off to Chicago,” one traveler posted to Fraley’s Facebook page.

Fraley responds, thanking visitors and wishing them well on their travels. The Robot Repair Shop has become one of the airport’s most engaging locations both online and in real life. Take that, Pokémons!

In airports, where people are often rushing and stressed, staring at screens, or waiting out delays, Fraley’s Robot Repair offers a bit of a creative respite. A chance to ponder something simple and artistic, something that’s just plain fun.

As one fan posted on Facebook: “It’s such an awesome installation with the perfect balance of vintage goods and attention to detail.”

Funny how it took robots to bring us humans a little closer together on our travels.

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