Stanley Povoda – the Czech Republic’s number one robot-maker

Stanley ‘Robotman’ Povoda is the father of Czech robotics. After over half a century of bringing people’s old colanders, chandeliers and vacuum cleaners to life, Stanley has just become the subject of his first own retrospective in Prague’s Trafačka Gallery. Stanley (real name Marián) Povoda has been back in the Czech Republic for five years now, after spending most of his life in exile in North America. On a recent tour of his new show, Stanley told me where his passion for robots began:

Robot Emil
“I started building my first robot when I was 14 or maybe 15 years old. At that time I was reading RUR by Karel Čapek, and at the same time, there was a programme on TV for the kids with a robot in it – he was called Robot Emil. And actually, Robot Emil looked exactly like this robot here. So, I don’t know why, but when I saw the robot on the TV and I read this book, I just went down to the basement, got some plywood, cut the plywood and created myself the first robot in my life, which looked just like Robot Emil.”

Have your robots become more imaginative over the years then?

“I am involved in making several different types of robots. Some of the robots - made for recreation or just to pass time - they are actually made from garbage, from whatever people throw away. So, those robots that are over there, you can see they are from a pile of junk, different vacuum cleaners, you know, whatever is there. So, that is what they are made out of, but actually, when the robot is finished, you don’t know what kind of material I used. Of course, the electronics inside the robot is not from the garbage, I have to buy it and put all the circuitry together.

“But that is the only thing I’m buying new. I recycle materials, because for me, it would be hard to build a robot and give him some shape – and this way I find things where the shapes are already made. I just use my fantasy to put it together so that it looks good.”

“Yes, but that was in Key West, Florida. I just made a robot there, actually it was a mascot of Key West, and there was some newspaper guy who came over with a photographer, they were doing an interview with me. And there was some young girl passing by, and she stopped for a little bit, and when I saw her stopping and her nice skirt, I said to myself; ‘hey, that’s a good idea’. And I just told the robot to lift her skirt, which he did. And the photographer right away took a picture of this which was in some different newspapers, but that was a long time ago.”

Do you take orders from clients who want you to make them robots for different purposes, or is this just a hobby – something that you do for yourself?

“No, of course I take orders. Probably I have built over 1,000 robots. Some of them are bought by companies. I’ve made some robots for some movies, for the film industry. They have been working underwater, taking photos and other things. I’ve been involved in some industrial robotics. Right now I have been in the Czech Republic for four or five years, and actually, when I am here, I have to do something. And because I am around mostly musicians and artists…

“I also make electronic instruments. You see this old yellow telephone? Actually, it is a synthesizer. There are around 20 or 30 of these models around. And guys are actually playing these phones as a musical instrument.”

Could you give me a demonstration, can I hear how it sounds?

“I will try to tune it, but we have to wait a few minutes.”

[A few minutes and some odd sounds later…]

Did you find that Canadians and Americans reacted to you robots in a different way to Czechs, or does everybody, when faced with a piece of technology such as this, react in the same way, in your opinion?

“Actually, I think that people in Canada, or especially in the US, loved my robots. I’ve been on a whole bunch of programmes, and many, many times in magazines. I did better with robots in the US than here. And actually, the word ‘robot’ is from this country! The funniest thing is that the word robot is about 60 years old, and we are in the country where Karel Čapek created the robot. And my exhibition is the first in this country dedicated to robots! In this country, in the Czech Republic, in the whole of Prague, nobody ever saw more robots all together.

“I think that when I was in exile, by making these robots, I was actually putting Czechoslovakia on the map. Because I always explained to people, and I was of course proud of it, that I came from the country where the word ‘robot’ was coined.”

Now, it has been asked before whether what you are doing is more artistic or scientific, what do you think?

“No, no, no. When I’m in the States, it is more for technical things, I make totally different kinds of robots. But here, in this country, the robots are more associated with art, I would say. But the only reason why is because I use scrap, or I use things that people throw away to create my creations.”

Recently in the press there has been discussion about robots being used for warfare. Are you someone who is making things like that – robots to be used in the Swat Valley and Afghanistan – and do you believe that this is an area of research which should be further developed?

“I won’t judge that. Robots are used in every field. They are used in space, they are used in military operations, they are used in civilian life. They are used in various places where men cannot go, or in some dangerous areas, like with toxic waste.

“If you look at this robot, this was a very hi-tech robot actually made for a nuclear power plant. This was the type of robot I was making in the US.”

While Stanley’s most popular robot here in the Czech Republic is called Wédéčko: a blue and yellow barrel with a salad-bowl for a head, which plays disco songs and is modeled on a can of WD40. Wédéčko regularly tours with Czech band The Prostitutes and recently MC-ed, in his own evening suit, Fresh Film Fest in Karlovy Vary. This is only the beginning of Stanley’s plans for robot stardom:

“Right now, I am putting together a robot band. I am going to have six or seven robots which actually will play instruments, and with the robots, there will be three guys playing live – maybe a drummer, a bass guitar or something – and I hope before the winter, I will have my first concert with the robot band here in Prague.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 27, 2009.