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I, Robot Exhibit 

Build a better robot, and the world will beat a path to the City Museum to see it

What is it about robots that we can't resist? We love the cute little R2-D2 ones and even the big mean Saturn 3 ones trying to ravish Farrah Fawcett. When something mechanical starts acting like something organic, especially a human being, it's cute, sure -- but look long enough, and you start to ponder the whys and wherefores of the spark of life. The replicants from Blade Runner, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation and characters from Isaac Asimov's I, Robot scribblings all yearn to be fully human, which makes us wonder just what that means.

Robot design is what interests Bill Christman. The local artist, corndog aficionado and creator of the Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem and Beatnik Bob's Cafe on the third floor of downtown's City Museum put out a call that was answered by electric men and their makers across the land. Robot Builders, a temporary exhibit of about 30 functional and decorative robots, opens at the museum Wednesday.

Christman says he is crazy about robots and has been making his own since about age 5. "I like the style. I like the fact that they don't talk back," he says. "They do all your dirty work for you. They have a kind of naïve, charming quality. If you think of Popular Mechanics magazines back in the '40s and '50s, they always portrayed this great new world that science was going to bring to us, and robots were part of this. They were going to be vacuuming your rugs and cutting your lawn. The robots in this exhibit are more about style, although there's one that plays the piano."

The 'bots, which range in height from 18 inches to 7 feet, are not required to move, make noise or light up (although some do all three) -- they need only look cool. Judges will dole out awards to their creators in the categories of Most Photogenic, Meanest-Looking, Best Bells and Whistles, Best Nonmetal, Best Metal and Most Peculiar.

The contest attracted entries from local kids, including a group of girls from Nerinx Hall High School, and from adults from as far away as both coasts and Canada. A Kansas City art collector lent the exhibit three pieces by Clayton Bailey, a professional fabricator of life-size robots known for his wild imagination. Bailey has created an army of hundreds of humorous-looking robots from 1940s appliances that have been taken apart, stripped of paint, polished and re-formed à la Frankenstein's monster. (He has also crafted bizarre ceramic pieces such as his "burping bowls" and made "raygun popguns" that can shoot a wine cork 100 feet.) At the City Museum show, visitors will meet a creature called the Bug Zapper, a "humanoid bug with an actual bug zapper embedded in his chest," says Christman, and Secretary, whose "head is an old, giant coffee pot, and she delivers coffee."

The robot exhibit can be seen in tandem with the museum's new exhibit of vintage toasters. Both shows feature plenty of chrome, says Christman, and both feature a "streamlined '40s look" from a future that never was.

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