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The remarkable life of the 'Robot Man'
Machines set us free. Until they break. Then we are helpless, at the mercy of the Repair Man, that godly figure who knows the mysteries of the inside of every box. The contents of our machines are mostly unknown to us. On our path to enlightenment or success we have decided that ignorance is graceful, technical knowledge the greatest barrier to true inspiration. Regardless of our education or background, these matters are better left to "the expert."
Why does a painter conjure up romantic ideas, but not an electrical engineer? Both have dirty hands, a box of tools, and a secret or two about the human heart; maybe it's because art schools don't have degrees in Robot Building.
It's June 6, six o'clock. Silvia has finished her final thesis for Conceptual Art at AVU. Her project, a bicycle, built by Stanley Povoda, "The Robot Man", takes the rider on a different journey. As the wheels turn they power an 8mm movie projector and tape player, giving the rider a cinematic ride with sound, speeding up or slowing down, depending on the energy of the rider.
This bicycle is the latest of The Robot Man's long history of machine creations. Since the age of 14 he has built robots that do, well, anything that someone, somewhere, wanted him to build: robots that play music (and flip the record over), pour drinks from their fingers, light cigarettes upon command; he has made underwater robots, a production line of robots for children; a perverted robot that lifts woman's skirts; a dancing robot that now lives in a Nuremburg disco; synthesizers shaped like telephones - anything that can theoretically be built from circuits and transistors, he can do it - it is only a matter of time and money. Now 60, Stanley has a phone book-sized photo album with Polaroids from every corner of the United States - of Robots of every shape, size, and function.
Stanley's machines could be described as having the "classical" style: no injection-molding - just good old-fashioned spare parts - TV case, fire alarm switch, computer keys, the guts of a photocopier; boxy legs and arms, flashing lights. These machines belong to a future that didn't happen, that future we have seen in old sci-fi films where cars fly and computers fill rooms and every man's best friend is a boxy metal human-shaped machine.
Meeting the 'Robot Man'
I get off tram 15 with Silvia Siminiatti, my frantic, smokey voiced Croatian friend. I've heard all about this "Robot Man", and I simply must meet him (and maybe he can even fix one of my strange batteries I've had problems with.) She rings the buzzer and after a few moments a small round bearded man opens the door. "Hello! My nightmare!". His "nightmare" introduces us. His eyes sparkle.
We squeeze into his tiny hallway, between closets that can't close completely, stacked with metal boxes and a barrel, old printers and televisions. He leads us to the kitchen, which is one-quarter kitchen and three-quarters workshop, with an antique bicycle on a metal frame taking up what Stanley's girlfriend hoped would still be a kitchen. There is a television shaped like a giant helmet (he'll remove the insides and put something more interesting there instead.) The walls are lined with four robots of varying sizes, two with legs and two without. (I learn later that the male robots have two legs, the female robots have one - like bathroom signs.) Cigarette in mouth, Stanley mops up a puddle of spilled oil. There is a mess of wires coming out of the projector on the front of the bicycle. I realize that this is the kitchen of the mad scientist after he's been almost domesticated.
Stanley offers us coffee and some kind of "Hungarian" food from the fridge, meat and gelatin. "I like to eat it when I'm drunk," he adds. I decline. Silvia is very happy with the progress of her bicycle. Still, the projector and tape player must be synchronized, and the speed must be variable, so the movie and sound will play faster or slower. "Soon it will be done," he assures her. She tells Stanley to show me the photo album. "No, no." "YES! YES!" "Oh, alright."
Leafing through Stanley's photo album (it never leaves his side since he lost the first one to car thieves) one needs no explanation - whatever goes untold can be filled by the imagination. Between clipped articles from anonymous yellowed newspapers, strange business licenses from Ohio or Texas ("Occupation: Other: 'builds robots'") there are Polaroids, lots of them, from every corner of the United States. The age of the photos can be discerned by the faded colors and the size of Stanley's moustache. There is the record-playing robot on Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, 1973, making vibes under the bellbottom sun. Another one, square arms and square head, in front of a used-car dealership in New Mexico. An article from Truckers Weekly shows Stanley, long hair, long beard, you might call him a hippie - in his "Space Shuttle" - a converted American school bus, surrounded by wires, unknown parts, destined for arms, heads, or synthesizers.
From Příbram to the Caribbean
Born in Příbram at the end of World War II, Stanley was imprisoned twice for trying to escape Czechoslovakia. The day after his 19th birthday, with a goodbye carton of Marlboros from his father, he finally succeeded, via Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy, to america. In Nebraska he befriended Czech descendents, who were so intrigued by this real live young Czech man. An encounter with a sheriff led the immigration authorities to his door, who put him on an airplane to Canada. Stopping for fuel in New York City, he stepped off the plane and continued with his life.
He hitchhiked to Alaska, fixing a few TVs along the way. Eventually his love for the sea led him to the Caribbean. "The wind is free," he reminds me. "Why should you pay to move?" When in port, he simply hung his sign, "MARINE ELECTRONICS," and waited for his fellow sailors with broken radars.
In Belize (then British Honduras) he found a job with the US State Department, keeping their communications gear in order. He aroused the suspicion of the British government, who arrested him on the grounds of being a spy. (He wasn't.)
In 1970 a beautiful young woman asked if he could fix the transmitters out on her island. He was surprised, on arrival, that her radio transmitters were working perfectly; the problem was with the transmitters in her heart... One island love triangle later he was faced with one of the great dilemmas of his life: the woman or the boat? She forced him to decide; being only a man, he sold the boat, bought two tickets to San Francisco, and said goodbye to the sea. After having a daughter together, they split up, leaving him without boat or woman. He bought his first school bus, painted it brown, and started his CB repair/robot lab/cross-country adventure.
"I had many buses, eight, 10 of them. I went everywhere, all over America. Every town, every state. Look here, this is my first baby." A Polaroid, faded like a sweet memory; the man with the moustache stands next to a boxy blue robot that reaches his chest. Page after page of Polaroids, I come to realize that this man is not only living in a complete fantasy world, he knows every screw it's made from, and he has the pictures to prove it.
"Whatever you want, I'll make it," proclaims Stanley. This is his standard answer to any question posed by a potential client. There is something distinctly American about him. "Just tell me what you want, no problem!" Before you write him off as simply arrogant, you might discover that behind his confidence is a genuine belief that he really can make whatever he wants. The next day however, his eyes bulge out and he shrieks, "my friends call me a lunatic! How am I supposed to do that? I'm laying in bed, I have an idea, I have to write it down! This is ridiculous!"
The new synthesizer
I'm back in Bulovka with Martin and Christopher, musicians. They have come to pick up their newest Stanley Synthesizer, controlled mainly by an old computer joystick. He gives them a tour of their new machine - turning one dial, it clicks, and the clicks become faster until they make a tone. He rotates the joystick and we hear a sound somewhere between a fart and a scream. Martin and Christopher are entranced. "It's almost as good as the telephone!" exclaims Martin. (The converted telephone will always be his favorite, and for good reason.)
We move down the street to the pivovar and order some třínáctky. Stanley looks like your average older man sitting in a pub at three in the afternoon - graying hair, beard, a few teeth missing, round and cute like the bears children play with. His trousers are completely buttoned - he's out on the town.
"I know the USA better than any American!" He says with a raised finger, eyes sharp as a killer, voice fierce. "Every state, every town. I've been everywhere, I know it! Name a state, any state!"
"Idaho." The American barman, Christopher, dressed like a woman (but not gay) is meeting Stanley for the first time. It's an experience for anyone.
Stanley waves his hand dismissively. "My first son was born in Boise, Idaho." It is one of his great pleasures to meet Americans in Prague, and in the space of a beer show them that he knows more about America than they do. Usually he succeeds - he has probably lived in America longer than most of the American people who now live in Prague.
On the weekend Stanley is the "junk man." Kolbenova flea market is the place on Saturdays. At six in the morning he fills his Citroen combi with things you would never think someone could actually sell - loose motors from the size of a thumb to the size of a foot; chains and belts and gearboxes, cables, hard drives from the Reagan era. He includes a few more conventional items - printers, a fan, a microwave, lights. He has his finger on the pulse of the junk society, and if he remembers to load the right boxes into his car, he might get a few thousand crowns. He'll also buy a few things that seem equally useless. Today he's looking for another joystick.
We pass the morning somewhat uneventfully - too hot for a really busy day. A few old men inspect some motors. A Russian man buys an Ethernet adapter. He leaves me in charge of his table to go browse his colleagues' wares. "How much do I ask for this stuff?" I ask. "Oh, whatever you want," replies Stanley. A few old men pass by and inspect the motors and gearboxes. "Is this motor 12 or 24 volts?" asks one. "Uhh, 12," I reply. (I have no idea.)
Many people with a spark of brilliance seem to have great shortcomings to make up for their gift. There are notable gaps in Stanley's knowledge. Notably, he doesn't know how (or perhaps just doesn't care) to sell himself. He remarks that he could have stayed in Los Angeles and worked in a film studio, making huge machines and lots of money. One suspects also that this kind of "success," so sought after by the masses, holds no importance for people of the fringe. At the same time it is distressing to see that someone like Stanley is worried about paying his rent.
'Indistinguishable from magic'
Stanley's latest work-in-progress is a banjo, wired to produce a different sound for every different note played. (It's also for Martin Alachamp, the musician for whom the telephone has become a real favorite, a beautiful instrument.) After the banjo he will build some pocket-sized FM transmitters, which will be able to broadcast the music from a Walkman to a radio in your house (or anywhere you don't agree with someone's choice of radio station.) When he has more free time he wants to make a robot for his car, one that will sit in the passenger's seat.
Like any accomplished person, The Robot Man loves his work. He loves making someone's fantasy into reality - and the people who cross this man's path are changed in some way. One explanation for this could come from Arthur C. Clarke saying - "a new machine, to the ignorant, should be indistinguishable from magic" - to us, normal folks, all of our machines are magic, because we are ignorant.
One remarkable thing about Stanley is the very fact that he is remarkable: why are there so few of his type? Someone with enough sense to make some use from a broken TV or photocopier, devices full of perfectly good precision parts, that would otherwise end up in a dump? The "junk man" holds no romance for many now - these are disposable times, people buy disposable things, no matter what quality - and usually, when something breaks, it's cheaper to buy a new one than to fix the old one. (Repair men charge a high price for their specialist knowledge.)
This time of plenty in which we live will not last forever; it may be a long while before we save every nail and screw, but there will soon be a time when it makes perfect sense to hold on to the old stuff. The best artist is, and always has been, the one who can take the old things, and put them together in a new way. The more technology we have, the more chances there will be for artists to use our old machines as brushes on their canvas.
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