Made On Earth — Spying for Kicks

Craft & Design


In a panopticon, every prison cell is visible from a central guard tower. No one can get away with anything and so, in theory, everyone behaves. Kalopticon, on the other hand, a life-sized robot created by San Francisco artist Kal Spelletich, invites disorder, and toys with the notion of surveillance.

Spelletich was born in a hospital elevator. At 9, he began tinkering with a chemistry set. He took a construction job as soon as he could hold a hammer, and started rebuilding engines before he had a license. He’s also an actor — think “TV guy” in the 1991 film Slacker. Oh yeah, and there’s his whole art thing: degrees from the University of Iowa and the University of Texas, and lecturer at San Francisco State University.

The artist, whose interactive works include a burning bed that straps a participant in for a backward free-fall, unveiled Kalopticon at the Close Calls: 2008 show in Sausalito, Calif. Spelletich used his own measurements, cast his own face, and dressed his creation in his own duds. But Kalopticon is rude. It kicks, jerks, and turns away just when you lean in for a closer look. Machine malice isn’t at work, though. Cameras in the robot’s mouth and on the ceiling above feed real-time footage to TV monitors 30 feet away, where a joystick lets participants control Kalopticon’s flails.

The installation tickles the Big Brother nerve intentionally, Spelletich says, noting that all over the world, cameras with an eye on the public are increasing.

“Why just let the military and law enforcement play with this stuff?” he asks. “You can use a flamethrower for art. You can play with surveillance art, too. Technology isn’t bad, it’s what you do with it.”

These days, Spelletich is playing with a 12-foot-tall machine that reads brain waves and responds with a hug, and a robot hooked up to leeches.

“I’m a bit of a political animal,” Spelletich says, as if that weren’t obvious. “I find the leech to be a great metaphor for a lot of the problems with the planet and our society.”

Kalopticon in Action:

Kal Spelletich:

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