3Q: Giles Walker
Not all roboticists are scientists or engineers. Giles Walker, an artist in Brixton, south London, specialises in turning scrap metal into animatronic sculptures — ‘art robots’ that do not involve AI. Walker uses low-tech, unashamedly cheap technologies to animate artbots: car windscreen wiper motors for big clumsy movements, radio-control servos for delicate ones, coordinated via a communications protocol used in theatre lighting. His replica of the 1928 talking tin man Eric is a star of the London Science Museum’s Robots exhibition (reviewed here). Another of Walker’s works on display there, The Last Supper, enters darker territory. This animatronic ‘ensemble piece’ involves 12 mechanical figures sitting around a table. The figures — many with faces that are humanoid, yet smoothly featureless — talk about sin and forgiveness. A doll-like sculpture of a naked child backed by a cross stands on the table. It’s a bizarre scene, packed with a sense of foreboding. Here, Walker explains what’s important when building a robot for art’s sake — and what makes it all worthwhile.
What sets animatronic figures apart?
Everyone immediately likes mechanical or kinetic art. People are drawn to moving things. If they see them as a robot, they are even more drawn. Robots appeal because they have such cult status already: old ones, because you see a relatively naive picture of the future held by people of the past; new ones, because they offer a glimpse into the future that may be just as naive. And I think attempts at replicating humans, whether in Frankenstein or a robot, have always fascinated people.
What are your criteria for your mechanical figures?
You see these robots coming out of Japan. Mine, by comparison, are very low budget. You can only afford a certain number of motions, so you think about movements that say the most about the character you are trying to portray. They don’t look human, but they behave in a human way. It could be through just a telephone or handbag — I give them a human trait that is instantly recognisable. The characters I create always tend to have fallen through the safety net of society. I built a ‘homeless’ character (Outside the Box) a few weeks ago to make a point. Few pay attention to a homeless person; the irony is that everyone pays attention to a homeless robot. I crafted it so that when people walked past, it told its stories. I didn’t fashion it like a Hollywood cliché.
There is an idea of robots as utopian, but that is not quite true. Funding for robotic development mainly comes from the arms trade or medical science, either to make us kill each other more efficiently — drones, Big Dog — or to help make us live longer, using nanotechnology, robot-assisted da Vinci surgery or exoskeletons. Such advances make you wonder whether have we really developed as a species or are just cancelling ourselves out. My machines are not positive icons of the future. They will not improve our lives by being a more efficient workforce, freeing up more leisure time for the working man. They are lost ‘souls’, redundant, the technological remnants society has discarded on its accelerating trajectory. Most of my sculptures, including those in The Last Supper, smoke. Robots aren’t supposed to smoke. The juxtaposition of having a mechanical figure show, perhaps, a human weakness creates an opportunity to hold a mirror up to our own species and play with its eccentricities.
Are there surprises when your creations ‘come to life’?
It’s the best moment. You build them to formula – one elbow move tends to be the same as any other. But when you first see all the joints moving at the same time, that’s the peak. If you make it do a certain move, it encapsulates everything that you have been trying to say with that character. That’s the buzz, that’s what you do it for. You fire it up for the first time, and it will have this nervous tic in its neck, and it’s like, yes! Then you can start fine-tuning it.
Interview by Celeste Biever, Nature’s chief news and features editor. She tweets at @celestebiever. Robots runs at London’s Science Museum until 3 September. The Last Supper shows there until 29 May. (View the installation in action here.)
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.