"Theo Kamecke was for many years a filmmaker of award-winning documentaries whose subjects ranged from astronauts to coal miners, rodeo cowboys to nuclear scientists.  He was in NASA's Mission Control during the first moonwalk and has been attacked by wasps in the heart of the Amazon.  In the course of making films he often encountered physical objects and materials that fascinated him.  While perusing some stacks of discarded electronic circuit boards one day, his life changed course.

During the nearly 30 years of working with the circuitry he has collected, Kamecke's creations have found their way into numerous private collections, selected museums, and even a spot just outside James Cameron's office.  Reclamation Nation recently caught up with Theo Kamecke and got to hear first hand about the evolution of his unique art form...

RN:   Theo, we want to thank you for taking the time to offer some insights  into your work here today.  Works like yours have the power to inspire people in lasting and transformative ways.

TK:   Thank you, and by the way I think what you and your organization are doing is beautifully sending minds in the right direction.

RN:   We do hope so.  First off, where is your current studio?  Manhattan?


TK:   No, no, I'm a little more than two hours north of the City.  I have cows for neighbors.

We've read that you've amassed many tons of vintage circuit boards that you now house in your studio.  Where did you get all of it?  Or perhaps first I should ask, why did you collect it?

TK:   For me, inspiration doesn't come gradually - it happens in a flash.  The instant I saw them, using the beautiful graphics of the circuit boards as art material struck me as a totally original idea with unlimited possibilities.  I wasn't interested in the boards after they were covered with components - which would hide their circuitry - so in the early eighties I looked for factories that manufactured the circuit boards.  When they saw what I was doing with them, most of those companies were very supportive and let me take their over-runs, obsolete stock or rejects that didn't pass electrical testing.  When the boards had gold on them I sometimes paid them for the scrap value of the gold or in a couple of cases traded a piece of artwork.  Some of these companies I went back to time and time again over the years.

And as for the "why", at some point I could see that fabrication methods were rapidly changing and before too long I wouldn't be able to get what I liked or could use. The window was closing.  For a brief moment we could see these "fossils" of the Tech Era before the evolution of technology was going to make it invisible to our eyes.  Do you think anybody 500 years from now will really understand technology except that it's a thing in itself -- you know, like a newly emerging kingdom of life in the universe?

RN:   Reclamation Nation is focused on constructively diverting useful materials from the present-day waste stream, which is why your work resonates so strongly here with us.  What was the climate of "reuse" like when you got started?

TK:   When I first started working with the circuitry in the 80's, it occurred to me that the world was full of similar opportunities for the "second use" of manufacturing byproducts.  I was amazed that other people didn't see what I saw and could just toss all this beautiful circuitry into a scrap heap without a second thought.  I found in it the same form-for-function purity of design, the same natural beauty we see in a seashell, the veins of a leaf, the grain in wood or marble, or a trilobite fossil.  I felt like a paleontologist rescuing these tech fossils before they were gone forever.

RN:   Were there others working in the same way as you?

TK:   At first I was glancing over my shoulder worried that somebody was going to copy my idea before I was known, but after a time I realized that nobody was going to copy me because it was too difficult, too complicated even if they had the talent.  To this day I'm the only one on the planet doing anything like this.  The Internet being what it is, if there was somebody else, I certainly would have heard about it.

RN:   How do you deal with the sheer volume of the tons of circuitry you have collected?

TK:   Well, they stack like books on rows and rows of shelving in my studio or in large filing cabinets, but I have to be able to find what I am looking for, so early on I decided on a strategy of separating them by my perception of their aesthetics.  I have categories like serpentine, zoo, geometric, candelabra, glyph, mechanical, formal, aboriginal, oriental, Chatres, and on and on.  This way I can find what I need, just as a painter might reach for a color or a mood.  It's my palette.

RN:   Can you talk us through your fabrication process?

TK:   When I start, most of the circuit boards have that pale green translucent substrate that's the color of the walls in an insane asylum.  I dye the substrate a permanent black for a nice contrast with the metal circuitry, polish and cut them to create the designs, and affix them them to hardwood forms that have been created for each individual work - somewhat in the fashion of fine 18th century marquetry. In many cases the works were almost completely designed before the wood forms were constructed so the circuitry pieces would precisely fit the forms.  Sometimes the forms were made first to a shape and size I liked.  In either case I let the circuitry tell me what to do, and if the finished work turns out to look vaguely reminiscent of some period in history or some culture, I name it accordingly.

:  What about the about the name JUKE?  How did that piece come about?

TK:   I was sitting in a bar in the mid-80's and was looking at the jukebox thinking that its era had passed and soon they would disappear from everywhere but antique shops.  It was the center of everyone's attention for decades.  I grabbed a paper napkin and began to sketch my version of a sculptural jukebox icon that would be wrapped with circuitry as if bands of cloth wrapping a mummy.  I built it nine feet tall so it wouldn't be mistaken for anything but a monument.  I rigged the interior with a sound system including a giant woofer and had some old familiar jukebox favorites like boggie-woggie recorded for me with a bass guitar, the fragments gently fading in and away again.  When played very, very softly it could be heard throughout a large room and was like listening to the distant sound from a tavern gently wafting across a lake.  Very nostalgic, a bit sad and ghostly.

RN:   Have you shown it?

TK:   JUKE is a monster to move around.  I had it in a solo show in New York City years ago and Tommy Mottola, the CEO of Sony Music, seemed interested, but negotiations were through a third party and it all fell apart in confusion.  So it's still taking up space at my studio.


TK:   Sometimes I've made things that satisfied an inspiration but weren't very practical for selling.  SARCOPHAGUS for C3PO is one of those.  I don't know what possessed me to build it except for the monumental feeling it would have.  After I designed it and made a maquette, I liked the form so much I couldn't resist building it.  Now who would want a sarcophagus unless they were going to use it?

RN:   Would it come with a warranty?

TK:   Only for a few centuries.

RN:   Ha!  That oughta do it.  So those two works ARE currently for sale?

TK:   Sure, they're available.

RN:   Something we find fascinating about your work is that for forms that are so graphically and geometrically based, they seem to defy categorization.  They are very nostalgic and yet it is also as though they were sent here from the future or dropped here by some alien culture.  Do you consider yourself a furniture-maker?  A sculptor?  A painter?

TK:   Two or three years after I started with the circuitry I was having shows in New York City, but although people liked my circuitry sculpture it was met with puzzlement by most of the galleries and the art establishment as a whole.  It certainly wasn't mainstream and you're right, there was no category they could think to put it in, no peg to hang it upon.  Didn't even fit with their idea of "crafts."  I guess its time hadn't yet come.
TK: (cont.)  At first I created just sculptures that did nothing but sit there and stare back at you.  I became attracted to the idea of so-called "functional" works like a cabinet or a box because such things (despite the strangeness of the tech material) inspire familiar, comfortable human feelings that nicely reinforced my intention that the  circuitry sculpture be seen as having nothing at all to do with tech.  The circuitry was treated not with any particular reverence for its origin, but with the same respect that a fine furniture maker might have for the grain in the wood.

RN:  The reverence you've paid to your reclaimed material of choice over the years seems to be resonating of late within blogs related to the contemporary Green Movement.  In fact you seem to be emerging as one of its unofficial heroes. Does that role fit?

TK:   What I've done may not help much in saving the planet, but maybe it will inspire others to take a second look at what's hiding in plain sight and could in that way serve an unintended purpose.  Perhaps "waste" itself could become obsolete.

RN:   WE certainly believe that is the direction to head in.  We indeed DO find your work inspiring and thank you so very much for sharing your time with us.

TK:   My pleasure.  Thank you.