A Defense of the Robot Parade

Here in New Orleans, we are blessed with an overabundance of things to do on a given day. Last Sunday, my partner & I went to a Robot Parade on Piety St. in the Bywater, which I greatly enjoyed. Not everyone liked it as much as I did. NOLA Media Group's art critic, Doug MacCash, wrote:

In the hollow aftermath on Piety Street, I felt sorry for the Robot Parade organizers. I felt sorry for the members of the crowd, who certainly had better things to do. And I was embarrassed for having enthusiastically recommended the event, which had been in the planning stages for months.

I'm not chiding Doug MacCash for his response. Opinions are an art critic's stock in trade, and anyway I don't begrudge anyone who answers to the psychotic commentariat of NOLA.com. I would however like to contest his & others' characterization of the parade as a dud and a disappointment.

I attended on a whim-- I worked Sunday, but had a little time right around when the Robot Parade was set to kick off. Because these were robots (and because the Bywater is increasingly full of people for whom "New Orleans time" has as much meaning as "New Orleans food" or "New Orleans culture") I felt this parade might begin punctually, and I hustled my long-suffering partner out the door.

"A big-time serenade / it must be a street parade""Come on!" I said. "I don't want to have to jog all over the Bywater looking for robots. It's twenty after; they could be anywhere by now!"

As it turned out, we weren't late. The issue of where exactly the robots were remained largely unresolved, but a large, good-natured crowd filled Piety St. by the Ironworks, including more children than I usually see at events downtown.

Since there were no robots to gawk at, I was able to talk to neighbors and friends, many accompanied by their partners & kids. It was still warm enough to enjoy Piety St. Snoballs, and Pizza Delicious was doing gangbusters business across the street.

Expectations & turnout were high. This was partly due to the organizers' track record of amazing mechanical creations, but mostly I think owing to the vivid evocative power of the phrase "robot parade."

The various possible Robot Parades I'd anticipated ran a gamut: perhaps there would be towering metallic floats bedecked with strobe lights, belching steam--a Truckasaurus Rex built of shopping carts and bicycle parts. Or perhaps the robots would all be very small, like radio-controlled toy cars, creating a 'Tit-Rex dynamic in which a thick & passive crowd huddles around a tiny, close-to-the-ground trickle of movement, light & creativity.

When the robots finally emerged, many in the crowd seemed underwhelmed both by their numbers and by the robots themselves. I too had expected more robots, but I found the two who paraded unexpectedly sympathetic.

One of the robots was a balky quad-copter; its operator nudged it along with his foot like an impatient dog owner. The other robot rolled on treads, with only a foot or two of wiring separating the creation from its Pygmalion. Neither it nor the recalcitrant whirligig looked capable of shooting hellfire missiles or putting assembly-line workers out of business.

The Robot Parade had planned an ambitious route, from Piety St. to Franklin Ave., thence up to St. Claude "and maybe as far as Cafe Envie" in the Quarter, but instead they barely managed 30 yards. Anyone who's ever compiled a huge day-off to-do list and then spent the day cooking breakfast or making love should find this as relatable as I did. Plans change.
Coulda been worse
It's important art challenges our most comfortable and long-held notions. One's sense of what constitutes a parade was challenged. Ought we blame the robots, or ought we instead examine our own desires, our own untouchable imagined Robot Parades that we came hoping to see obligingly enacted for us?

My go-to in such cases is Proust: all fulfillment of expectation is disappointment. I brought my own expectations to the #robotparade, as did MacCash and others, but no real and specific #robotparade could ever match the multifarious & ideal #robotparades of our imaginations. Whether what we anticipate is a robot parade, a love affair, or the church in Balbec, from the seed of our desire grows the greenery of achievement whose flower is discontent.

But would you have rather seen the young gods of the Bywater unveil a gleaming, soulless mechanical army, marching in lockstep? Would that have been preferable? Did you really hope for gargantuan, precision-engineered metal monsters frightening the children, blaring noise, commanding attention? Is that what you wanted, to leave the parade convinced of robot superiority, demoralized by your own organic inadequacy, ready to replace the mules of Krewe Du Vieux with Go-Bots? Would THAT have constituted a more worthwhile afternoon?

The parading robots were reassuringly harmless. These were not the chrome golems of the Terminator films, not the heinous protean leviathans of "Transformers." No, these were New Orleans robots, and you know what? They were doing their best. They were getting along as best they could.

There are no doubt other cities where one is surrounded by functional, competent, efficient robots. Boston, perhaps, or Tokyo. Here in New Orleans, our robots are janky. On a given day, only a couple will show up; the rest were probably somewhere getting high. I have compassion for our city's robots. Feeling generosity-- towards these mechanical creatures, towards whatever organizational or technical problems-- costs me nothing, and is also one of the only important things we humans can still do better than machines.

"Hurray!"An afternoon spent standing outside in comfortable weather chatting with neighbors & meeting friends' families is neither a waste of time nor a disappointment. MacCash needn't feel sorry for me, nor for anyone else who attended. Nobody paid for tickets. The event wasn't a failure; it was funny, unexpected, and sociable.

A failed event looks and feels much different-- for instance the astroturfed gentrifier-oriented debacle that was St. Claude Main Street's recent invasive, neighbor-alienating "Night Market."

The robot parade may have tweaked our expectations, but it also gathered a lot of humans who live in this part of town (and welcome visitors from elsewhere) together near some interesting art, and there was good food and drink. People looked to be enjoying themselves; even a career curmudgeon like Library Chronicles' jeffrey couldn't deny how pleasant it all was. A little music wouldn't have gone amiss, but then again the ambient sounds of kids and people talking in the open air was nice in its own right.

On our way home, a couple blocks from the parade, my partner and I saw someone who'd painted his face like the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz. He might have been affiliated with the robot parade, or seen it as an opportunity to practice his face-painting, or really, it could have just been coincidence.

He had a drink in one hand and was dancing, sort of-- moving like one of the spray-painted buskers in Jackson Square. He was surrounded by laughing people; he was laughing himself. While I'm not here to tell anyone how they ought to feel about anything, I will say that those who didn't get what they wanted from the robot parade might do well to learn from this gentleman's example. Perhaps he too came out hoping for a grand spectacle he could passively watch or consume, but he was just as ready to step up and be the spectacle himself.

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One Response to A Defense of the Robot Parade

  1. rusty lazer says:

    perfect! exactly what i would've expected had i been there. i used to love that places kept odd hours, things that were supposed to happen didn't, and you had to slather on pounds of imagination to make the often inane seem magical. appreciate your point of view 🙂