Frank Garvey

Resident archivist Jack Dangers goes to the circus with Bay Area multimedia industrial performer, Frank Garvey

Frank Garvey is a robot-building, multimedia artist and composer who released two noisy, industrial, electronic albums in the late 1970s, ‘LABYRINTH (Prison Walls)’ in 1978, and ‘Omnicircus’ in 1979. They’re very hard to track down, and so far I’ve only managed to get hold of ‘Omnicircus’. It’s a private pressing, with a handmade cover, but both albums are on YouTube, so you can check them out.

Garvey grew up in a musical family in Illinois. His mother was a classical pianist, and his father had worked with the composer Harry Partch, who was well known for building his own strange instruments and it was Partch who stimulated Garvey’s interest in building robots.

The sleevenotes on ‘Omnicircus’ – a sheet of typed A4 pasted onto the back of a plain white sleeve – explain that the album contains the music “for the first two sections of Omnicircus, a theatre piece for electronic music, computer graphics, video synthesis, dance, sculpture, architecture and drama”.

Around 13 years after the album, Garvey established OmniCircus as a live performance art group with its own theatre/workshop space, where he also lived. He and his collaborators built remote-controlled mechanical sculptures there. One of the robots, called Goboy, was made from a wheelchair and roamed the streets of San Francisco begging. It had a speaker, and would shout things like, “God said gimme 50 cents!”. It was reminiscent of the kinetic, auto-destructing sculptures by Jean Tinguely, but with a more pointed social commentary about homelessness and capitalism. The robots appeared in OmniCircus events like Mystery Box House, alongside weird clowns and people writhing in sacks. It was all very underground, counterculture and avowedly Marxist.

Garvey was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2011 and he lost the OmniCircus space, rendering him homeless. A crowdfunding page was launched in 2014 to raise money so he could buy an RV to tour and live in. 

Last year, he updated the fundraiser saying that he was free of cancer and was being loaned a house in Champaign, Illinois, but also that he was back in San Francisco. He’s active on his Facebook page, where he posts almost exclusively about his anti-capitalist politics. His bio reads “I, Garvey, am a composer-performer-filmmaker-roboticist-eschatologist”.

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