A few years ago artist Kal Spelletich was working at a scenery-making shop for a boss he couldn’t stand. “He was just a loser,” he says. “He knew I had this little art career that provided something for me that a job or money doesn’t provide. He was obviously not a happy person and didn’t have his shit resolved and would take it out on the workers.”

Instead of punching the man’s lights out, Spelletich decided to build a machine that would “heal his hurt” symbolically. His larger-than-life steel head-punching machine allows the operator to determine exactly how hard, and how often, the machine beats its own head.

It was a hit with his coworkers, and it’s also a favorite at the live interactive performances put on by the Seemen, the loose collaboration of artists he’s led since 1987. “It’s fun because it will totally bust itself up,” he says. “If you run it enough it will punch its head off, or the arm will come off. It’s always a brilliant moment when it breaks. Then it’s even more fulfilling.”

Spelletich has always been a gearhead. He learned to work with his hands by helping out at his father’s construction company in Davenport, Iowa. At 13 he tried to build a car from scratch (it didn’t work). “My culture in Iowa was total white trash, tractor pull, demolition derby. There wasn’t really art in my home.”

He got involved in Davenport’s small punk scene as a teenager, and at the University of Iowa, where he enrolled in 1980, he booked punk bands and curated art parties. “I got into punk rock before I found art. Then I’d go to art shows and be like, ‘This is so lame. Art is so boring.’ But I wanted to do punk rock art that gave me the excitement and thrill and adrenaline like punk rock shows did in the late 70s and early 80s.”

In 1989, after receiving an MFA in interdisciplinary art at the University of Texas in Austin, Spelletich moved to his current home, San Francisco, and put in some time with the mechanical-performance group Survival Research Laboratories. For the past five years he and scores of Seemen have created spectacles at the annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. At the group’s performances, which he calls “postindustrial folk art,” he recruits volunteers from the audience to operate robots and machines with names such as the Bornagain Booth, the Whirling Dervish, the Fireshower, the Ring of Fire, and the Jaws of Life. The last, he says, is essentially a burning bed–and a metaphor for an intense relationship. A volunteer is strapped into it upright. “It sends you flying backward really fast until the bed lays flat,” he says. “When it falls back, eight large claws wrap around you and embrace you. The end of each claw has a little flamethrower torch on you. It’s loud and fast.

“Women who’ve come out of it sometimes say, ‘My knees are shaking. It’s like I just got fucked. It’s like someone had their way with me in a good way.’ If I can give people that feeling, maybe I’m onto something.”

He introduces the head puncher by talking about why he built it. Then he asks how many people work at a job that they hate. “Inevitably x amount of people raise their hands,” he says. “I pick someone and give them the mike and have them tell me about their crummy job. Then I let them run the head-punching machine.”

After handing over the controls, he’ll often stand at the back of the room and watch. “There’s something rewarding about pressing a button and getting a response,” he says. “It makes the audience part of the show; it breaks down the barrier between the audience and the performer. And it gives you a real-life experience. If someone goes to one of my shows, something really happens to them. There’s nothing virtual about it.”

Spelletich and fellow Seeman Jay Broemmel are currently touring across the country with 18 machines in a rented truck, including several new pieces such as a fur-covered electronic bull, which a couple is invited to fight, and the Sharkcage, in which a volunteer sits while a steel angel smashes against it again and again.

“I like to make art that can threaten the day-to-day, humdrum mentality,” Spelletich says. “It’s easy to have a simple life where nothing is threatened. I give people an opportunity to witness their mortality.”

The Seemen will make their first Chicago appearances Tuesday and Wednesday, May 2 and 3, at Deadtech, 3321 W. Fullerton. The shows are at 9; tickets are $10. Call 773-395-2844.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Castner.