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This artist built a stripper robot 10 years ago. Now his creation’s gone beyond his control.

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In 1989, Giles Walker was a young artist traveling around Europe with the state-of-the-art Mutoid Waste Company. He was in Berlin building a machine to ram through the Berlin Wall. Little did he know that nearly 30 years later, he would achieve internet fandom for building stripper robots with heads made from CCTV cameras.

I met Walker in his London studio and followed him as he began working on his latest pole-dancing robot  — a bigger, raunchier, and sassier version. He’s been commissioned to make the first robot cam girl and has a bigger budget than usual to work with, so he going to town on it with all the bells and whistles. 

For something that is basically a bunch of mannequin body parts, motors, and a brooding CCTV head, the robot was truly impressive to watch as Walker gradually brought it to life. 

Walker working on his newest robot and using the original as comparison.

Walker working on his newest robot and using the original as comparison.

Image: Nikolay Nikolov/mashable

“I was sort of creating robots that were kind of dysfunctional, or that lived on the edges of society.”

It was the small details that mattered most – “gesture,” as he calls it. “It’s the choice of wrists and ankles, how they move and react, that says so much about someone” well, technically, something in this case. 

“That’s the unknown, which is actually the fun bit because it all fires up and then does something weird and you think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s who that one is,’” Walker says.

But the truth is, Walker worries that few really know and understand why he ventured into the slightly creepy territory of robot strippers. Particularly at a time when we are still trying to find the vocabulary with which to even start a debate about sexbots and the deeply disturbing ways they are used to objectify the female body. 

'Patricia and Monique'

‘Patricia and Monique’

“The interesting thing about these pole dancers is that even though I built them 10 years ago, they’ve now kind of taken on a new role – they weren’t sexbots, they were something completely different, about something completely different,” Walker says.

The robots, CCTV heads and all, were originally built as an uncomfortable commentary on the pervasiveness of technology. Walker became interested in the concept about a decade ago, when surveillance cameras began popping up all over the UK. “That got me thinking about the idea of voyeurism: who has the power of the gaze – the watcher and the one being watched,” he says. 

Fast forward to today, and that message is all the more powerful — and personal — as it becomes clearer how much of our personal data is exploited online. Nonetheless, Walker worries that the original message and metaphor is lost on those who have only come to know about his robot strippers in the past year, assuming that they are, if nothing else, to be used in the sex industry. Walker isn’t entirely sure how to deal with the unavoidable creepiness that comes with that. One thing’s for sure — it seems that he never expected to be building the kind of sculptures he’s building today.

'Outside the Box'

‘Outside the Box’

I was sort of creating robots that were kind of dysfunctional, or that lived on the edges of society,” Walker says. “They were homeless robots, or they were prostitutes, or they were just drunks. The overall story I liked about all that work was, you know, technology is developing so fast and all this technology is getting thrown away, pretty much before it even makes the shops.”

“Even though I built them 10 years ago, they’ve now kind of taken on a new role – they weren’t sexbots.

Walker says that he’s built over a hundred robot sculptures of different sizes and quality. Very few, however, are explicitly humanoid. “If you look, I hardly ever use human heads because I find human heads are kind of, unless they’re like really perfect, they end up looking like spooky dolls,” he says. “And I don’t want to do spooky dolls.” So if you look at his work closely, you’ll find sculptures with loudspeakers, hammers, cars, CCTV cameras instead of heads. 

And yet — there is something profoundly human in all of them. Not perfectly mimicking the human body, like some of the most expensive sex robots, but mimicking the individual imperfections that distinguish us from one another. 

Walker and his robots.

Walker and his robots.

Perhaps the greatest example of this distinctive approach to humanity through the excessively artificial is Walker’s most complex installation — The Last Supper. It’s almost like a miniature theatre piece featuring about 15 robots loosely organised around Leonardo da Vinci’s famous work. 

“My mum died as I was building it,” he explains. “It was kind of where I put all my grief, I think, and so it turned out to be quite a dark piece. Mainly it was about questioning whether religion is a healthy education for young children. But I wanted this sort of flowing feel of threat and violence underneath it all.” 

It’s works of art like The Last Supper that Walker is eager to be remembered and applauded for – not the robot strippers everyone is asking him to make more of. And in that sense, he is finding himself in a complicated power dynamic with his sculptures. 

Once a dedicated scrap artist taking the forgotten and giving it a second lease of life, Walker is now forced to reckon with the fact he may have become dependent on the incredible success and interpretation of his robot strippers. And that in his attempt to mimic human spontaneity through metal, he’s found himself in a closed loop of unabashed demand for robots that can be sexualised. 

But Walker’s approach to art has always been to reflect what’s wrong with society with a sense of humour. This culminated in his latest robot stripper, which is much, much more overt than its predecessors. It talks dirty, twerks and can even mimic orgasms. But despite the fact it will talk dirty and maybe even twerk for you, it’s the inescapable centrality of its CCTV head gazing right at you, almost seeing through you, that adds a crucial sense of self-awareness — and ultimately makes the larger message about where we’re headed stick.

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