Build-A-Bot | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 21.12.2001
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Robotwars - the world famous tv-show - can now be seen in Germany. But why is watching two machines bashing themselves to bits so fascinating?


The stars of the show are made of metal

They are called Robochicken, Pussycat and Firestorm 2. Fancy names for even more fancy machines: These metal contraptions all belong to a new species of robots, curious contraptions made for an all-time favourite British tv-series, now on show in Germany – robotwars.

Robotwars is watched in 17 countries all over the world, including Korea, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, New Zealand – and now, in Germany too. The game is simple: two, remote-controlled robots fight eachother until all that is left is a heap of junk.

But there is more to the show than just mad machines: The hand-made robots, dangerous-looking contraptions with chain saws, flame throwers and other decorative weaponry are more than just machines – they are like characters, each with their very own personality.

And while the bashing goes on, smoke filling the arena and the audience screaming with delight, it is hard to ignore the tension and excitement that takes hold of young and old spectators alike.

Robotwars is fast, loud, dangerous – and a seller.

A hoover with a difference

Mark Thorpe, inventer of Robotwars, had the idea for a battle between two remote-controlled machines while he was designing a remote-controlled hoover. He stuck the hoover onto a model army tank. The hoover didn’t work particularly well, but why not plant some other machinery onto a remote-controlled toy-model and have a bit of fun?

Since then, bored husbands, enthusiastic teenagers and technology freaks have produced a whole zoo of weird and wonderful machines for Thorpe’s game – machines with names the likes of Bodyhammer, Blue Bolt and Dead Metal.

In less than 45 minutes, these machines destroy themselves to such an extent that what is usually left is a heap of smouldering metal. If a robot manages to "survive", the winner then has to fight off the so-called "House"-Robots Sergeant Bash, Matilda, and Sir Killalot, which are let out into the arena at the end of a match to finish off the left-overs.

Hours in the Hobby Room

Robotwars, a mixture of mad machinery, puddles of motor oil and flying scraps of metal, was first shown in British television in 1998. Since then it has become increasingly popular all over the world.

But why do people in Italy, Taiwan and Germany enjoy watching two machines bashing themselves to pieces? And why do adults spend hours in drafty garages working on complicated inventions, only to see them destroyed within a matter of minutes?

The winners do not even receive any prize-money, let alone an award. And some of the machines cost thousands of Dollars, but are worth only a few cents after the fight.

The show is regarded as a mixture between an exciting wrestling match and a scientific experiment. Muderous machines serve as a way of confronting people with robot technology – an aspect which is emphasized by the fact that the show was first shown on the BBC.

Here, the makers discussed their various robot inventions betwenn fights. But in Germany, Robotwars on Sunday nights is reduced to mere bashing.

It is difficult to say why the show is so popular. Some say it has something to do with the joy of destruction. Frustrated with broken down washing-machines, cars and toasters, people can let off steam and express their resentment againt household machinery ina game where the more sparks fly, the better.

According to the official "Robotwars" website, the Robotwars "House"-Robots were sent back in time from a robotic dictatorship in the distant future "to sabotage the symbiotic relationship between man and machine."

Others have argued that Sergeant Bash, Matilda, and Sir Killalot were developed as part of an aborted military experiment. And some pacifists insist that the House Robots are in fact prototypes, created to bring to an end human suffering on the battlefield by replacing soldiers with war machines.

But some simply say they were in fact built by the Visual Effects department of the channel they were first shown on, the BBC.

Scrap music

However, building dangerous robots for fun is no new hobby. The performance group Survival Research Laboratories, SRL, shocked its audiences with dangerous looking machines in the 1980s, and machine heros have always played important roles in world-famous films such as "Terminator" or "Robocop". And bashing bits of rusty machinery together played a leading role in the music by bands such as the "Einstürzende Neubauten" and "Front Line Assembly".

It was no coincidence that the role of machinery grew with the decline of industrial society.

These kinds of "Industrial" arts formed their own genre of 1980s pop culture. But the role of industry in post war art was reflected earlier: In 1969 the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed an exhibition called "The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age".

The exhibited art works proved to be prototypes for those mechanical wonders on show in Robotwars. Both shows have something in common: the machines taking part are not used for production increase or factory work , but are used only for entertainment.

Robotwars in Germany is shown on a tv channel which is not known to be particularly high-brow. Funnily enough, this channel has made a topic, which until recently was only up for discussion in the art scene, interesting to a mass audience: Recycling technology to art at the end of the industrial era.

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