The Actor Who Played Robocop Is Now an Art Historian, and He’s Returning to Detroit to Face a New Threat: ‘The Crisis of Beauty’

Actor and art historian Peter Weller is participating in this fall's Culture Lab Detroit conference with Amy Sherald, Anicka Yi, and others.

Still from Robocop, 1987.

The 1987 sci-fi thriller Robocop tells the story of a miraculous resurrection, of a slain police officer who turns into a crime-fighting cyborg. But few know that behind the story of Robocop is another professional reincarnation that’s almost as surprising.

It turns out that Peter Weller, the actor who played Robocop, has become an art historian. He went back to school in 2004, at age 57, and earned a Master’s degree in Roman and Renaissance Art at Syracuse University, followed by a PhD in Italian Renaissance art history at UCLA in 2013. Since then, he’s split his time between acting, producing, and art history. (He has also appeared in David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation Naked Lunch and the 1984 cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.)

This fall, Weller will return to Detroit, the setting of Robocop, in his new role. His mission? To introduce the first night of the Culture Lab Detroit conference with a presentation on beauty in Renaissance art.

Peter Weller, 2017. Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Uplift Family Services.

“Crisis of Beauty” is the theme of this year’s conference, an annual event that brings together artists and thinkers for a weekend of projects and public discussions on October 11 and 12.

As in previous years, this edition’s theme was selected for its “relevance to the headlines,” Jane Schulak, founder of Culture Lab Detroit, tells artnet News in an email. Previous conferences have focused on topics such as the “post-truth” era and the institutional “walls” that define our daily lives. Hilton Als, Coco Fusco, Trevor Paglen, and Theaster Gates have been among past participants.

“We chose this year’s theme because we notice that there is a radical reevaluation of the standards and definition of beauty happening in art and storytelling,” Schulak says. “Who determines what beauty is? It’s a question you see playing out in art, tech, politics, Hollywood, and so on.”

The crowd at Culture Lab Detroit in 2015. Courtesy of Culture Lab Detroit.

The first night will include a panel on “The Aesthetics of Tomorrow,” and will feature Mark Pauline, an artist and founder of Survival Research Laboratories; architect Eyal Weizman; and artist Anicka Yi. Yesomi Umolu, a curator at the University of Chicago and director of the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, will moderate.

The second night of the conference features panel on the formation and performance of identity titled “Seeing and Being Seen” with critic and filmmaker dream Hampton, artist and musician Juliana Huxtable, and painter Amy Sherald. It will be moderated by Jazmine Hughes, an associate editor for The New York Times Magazine.

From left: Eyal Weizman, Anicka Yi, and Mark Pauline. Courtesy of Culture Lab Detroit.

This is the sixth edition of Schulak’s conference. “The main thing that has changed over the years, besides the theme, has been the city itself,” she says. “There are still many challenges, but new solutions and voices have risen up.  We have witnessed a shift in the narrative about Detroit. In many ways, it’s a story about the beauty of resilience—and it’s a story that many people have fought hard to tell.”

L to R: Amy Sherald, Juliana Huxtable, and dream Hampton. Courtesy of Culture Lab Detroit.

Indeed, the book on Detroit is still being written—and it looks like the city won’t be needing cyborg officers anytime soon.


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