Interview with Artist and Roboticist Giles Walker

Craft & Design
Interview with Artist and Roboticist Giles Walker

giles walker with peepshow2

British scrap artist and roboticist Giles Walker has been making provocative art robots and kinetic sculptures for over 20 years. His unique vision and aesthetic often bear strong social commentary and refuse to go unnoticed. Giles has been a member of guerilla-art group the Mutoid Waste Company since the 80s and shows his work around the world. He’ll be showing his piece titled Peepshow at Maker Faire UK this weekend, April 27 and 28 in Newcastle, alongside a wide variety of makers. We caught up with him to learn more.

1. Tell us about the project you’re bringing to Maker Faire UK. What inspired you to make it and how long did it take?
The project is called Peepshow and consists of two “pole dancing” figures and a DJ. They are all built from scrap with windscreen wiper motors and controlled by wizard boards. At the time of building Peepshow there was a lot of news coverage encouraging the British public to readily accept the huge increase in surveillance cameras. They were everywhere. I wanted to build a piece as a reaction against these mechanical “Peeping Toms” that were appearing on every street corner. Serious research has actually found that better street lighting has a higher chance of reducing crime than CCTV. I chose pole dancers as a subject and gave them CCTV cameras as heads — playing with the concepts of voyeurism and its relationship with power. I also was interested in the challenge of whether I could make a pile of old scrap, sitting in the middle of my workshop, into something sexy!

2. What is involved in the installation process of the piece?
The installation of the pieces is very simple. I just plug them into the mains.

giles walker with peepshowGiles installing Peepshow.

3. Where else have you displayed it and what types of reactions have you received?
I have displayed this work all over the world: Australia, USA, Ukraine, Japan. The reaction is always good. People love them. They make people laugh. I actually built these figures about eight years ago now thinking they would have a lifespan of a few years. However, people still keep asking me for them! I’ve had to rebuild them a few times now.

4. How did you hear about Maker Faire UK and what made you decide to participate?
I have shown work at the Maker Faire a few times now. I think they approached me initially to show some pieces. The first year I showed a couple of drunks sitting on a bench. They shouted at people as the walked by. The following year I took bouncers. I’m into showing my art outside the “gallery” environment and the Maker Faire is a great event with a huge range of different people of all ages.

giles walker communication breakdownGiles’ Communication Breakdown piece features two bantering drunk robots (video).

5. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making robots and sculptures?
I joined up with The Mutoid Waste Company in the late 80s. It was a group that emerged from the squatting/travelling community that I was part of. We went around Europe squatting warehouses and building sculptures out of scrap. We drove around Europe in “mutated” vehicles, putting on shows, parties, festivals, anything to raise money for more diesel and welding rods! It was a very exciting time. In fact when we left London we went to Berlin to build a ramming machine to drive through the Berlin Wall, but by the time we finished building it we had a little too much attention coming from DDR officials and so chickened out!

So, I started building sculptures out of scrap — old cars, etc. I eventually started using the odd wiper motor to make them move a bit. Eventually I had a sculpture with eight or so motors and had to control it with a load of door bell switches — it was like playing the piano. It was when I got to this stage that I started looking at various control devices. That was when things went digital for me.

To be honest I’m not massively into the technology side of things. I do everything myself, and it is usually the simplest way I can find! For me the visual and conceptual side of things is important. The technology is a means to an end. Having said that, the journey you go through as you work out how you are going to successfully get to the end result is exciting as you learn more and more.

giles walker outside the boxGiles’ Outside the Box sculpture, a commentary on how homeless people are treated (video).

6. Who are your inspirations?
I think Joe Rush, who started the Mutoid Waste Company, is my greatest inspiration. He is a great artist with an amazing mind. He taught me about the huge potential of scrap — and a lot about life in general. I have also been influenced by an artist called Jim Whiting. He inspired me to get things moving. I love his work. Like me, he uses scrap, but uses compressed air to get it moving.

7. Many of your pieces are social commentaries. What are your thoughts on art’s ability to affect change?
Art is funny one, mainly because to live from your art you usually need people to buy it. But then you wonder whether if someone can afford to buy art, doesn’t that mean they have too much money?! Shouldn’t they be doing something useful with it instead? However, that has always been the relationship between art and its patrons.

I do believe art can affect change. If you look at the punk rock movement and see how that was so aggressively criticised — the music was not accepted as “real” music, the artwork wasn’t accepted as “real” art — and now its influence is in EVERYTHING and totally accepted as the norm to the point where Britain proudly showed it off to the rest of the world in the Olympic opening ceremony.

I think humour is a great weapon, and if you can make people laugh at the same time as making social commentary, you are halfway there. That is why I like to have an element of humour in my art, even if it has become a bit dark with recent pieces like The Last Supper. I think that’s where Banksy gets it right. He’s not preaching — just making people laugh at what they already know is wrong with society. In this way the message sticks.

Last Supper installationGiles’ Last Supper installation (video).

8. You are a member of the Mutoid Waste Company. Describe the crew and how being part of a collective affects your work.
As I said above, the Mutoid Waste Company came out of the squatting/travelling community in the 80s. I guess we were punks and that ethos stayed with us. It would take me a book to answer this question! When I joined, there were 15 of us and we just travelled around living in trucks and caravans and squatting buildings in order to set up a workshop. All the money we earned (which was not much) went into a pot and out of this we bought diesel, welding rods, food, and fags [cigarettes]. Everyone in the crew was a character, and they have all become a significant part of my life. We don’t work together all the time now — most of us have gone on to do our own projects — however we do get together and do large projects every now and then. We usually do a field at Glastonbury festival.

Things have changed a lot since we moved around Europe. There is not quite so much freedom. Squatting is now illegal in a lot of countries including this one. I do not think we could get away with the lifestyle we had in those days. I mean we had a convoy of 15 vehicles and about three driving licenses between us.

There are pros and cons to working in a group. The pros are that it is a real laugh — most of the time — and also you have a wealth of knowledge collectively. You also have support and people on your wavelength to bounce ideas off. You can work on a large scale. I loved it. However, something that intense — where we were all living and working together — cannot last forever, and eventually I just wanted to do something where I was not having to compromise my idea with 14 others. I miss it in some ways but know that I could not work like that at the moment.

YouTube player

Giles Walker’s Peepshow installation in action.

giles walker pole dancing robot

Check out Peepshow as well as a wide variety of other maker exhibits this weekend at Maker Faire UK. A full listing of makers and details on how to attend are on the site.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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