When hypnotizing videos of robot strippers went viral recently, the internet was abuzz. (At least it was in my circles, comprised primarily of current/former sex workers and horny writers who never miss an opportunity to crack a Philip K. Dick joke.) People marveled and hypothesized about the potential implications these gyrating mannequins might have on the strip club landscape: Were these robots here to replace ladies who dance for a living? Were men actually like, into this? Should your friendly neighborhood strippers start worrying about being usurped by rechargeable batteries and knees that will never need replacement? It seemed that everyone who encountered this quirky bit of tech-lore was either mesmerized, amused, or vaguely hostile to the idea; but was anyone actually turned on? (Turns out, the answer to all of these questions is basically: not really.)
An old friend with tech media connections was able to score an invite to an exclusive media-only event being held at Sapphire, a major pillar of the Vegas strip club scene. We were lucky enough to check out the robots up close and personal before they make their debut on the CES Expo floor later this week. I spoke with the robots’ creator, Giles Walker, about their inception and how they came to be the most buzzed-about attraction at the biggest tech event of the year.
Despite all of the jokes and speculation about emotionally-stunted nerds in basements building girlfriends for themselves, Walker doesn’t even come close to the socially-awkward engineer I had envisioned. In fact, he’s a British sculptor with deep roots in the London punk and art scenes. With his spiked ear-gauges and cheeky fedora, Walker looks more like the guy who wants to sell you rare Japanese Sex Pistols b-sides on eBay, not the Dr. Frankenstein of sexy late-stage capitalism. An active member of art collective, The Mutoid Waste Company, which erects guerrilla-art installations all over Europe, Walker first began incorporating motors into his found-object sculptures in the mid-1990s using scavenged parts from junkyards. “When I first started I was just a broke punk, you know? I didn’t have $10 in my pocket, so I had to use whatever I could find on the street.” Today, the robots are constructed using mannequin limbs, windshield-wiper motors, a gate-opening motor, and CCTV cameras.
The dancing fembot concept first began to take shape for Walker after the broadcast of an infamous “sexed up” report on British television convincing the nation to go to war in Iraq.At the time, Walker says, “I started noticing these CCTV surveillance cameras on every single street corner in London, it was nuts. And those things are total garbage! They don’t even protect people, they only protect f*ckin’ property!”
This idea of the state “sexing up” surveillance in order to sell a war was the impetus for Walker’s first prototypes, which all have CCTV cameras in lieu of heads. (“I wanted to build a piece as a reaction against these mechanical Peeping Toms that were appearing on every street corner,” Walker shared with Make magazine in 2013.) In his 2007 piece entitled Peepshow, two robots dance seductively while the audience stares, hypnotized, unaware that they are also being watched via CCTV: “The piece was about watching and being watched, and being seduced into letting your government watch you.”
But, as any artist will confirm, once your work gets released into the world, it typically assumes a life of its own. People interpret, experience, and use art to serve their own agendas, and the robot-dancers were no exception. Rather than becoming a signifier to demonstrate the perils of the surveillance state, the robots began receiving invitations to parties and raves all over the world. When asked what brought him and his creations to Las Vegas, Walker’s answer was simple, “Ha, the money, obviously. I’ve totally sold them out to ravers all over the globe, it’s actually kind of silly. But they provide me with enough funding to continue my other art projects, so that’s the cool part.”
Like any artist struggling with the delicate balance between art and commerce, Walker seems torn. He asks for my input regarding a potential future collaboration with a popular camming site, and we both seem equally perplexed by the idea of anyone actually paying money to watch the fembots dance on cam. But, I tell him, the most truthful nugget of wisdom I’ve sussed from my near-decade in the sex industry is that there’s a market for just about everything, so really, what the hell do I know?
As for the bots themselves, #R2DoubleD and #TripleCPU are indeed a very cool sight to behold but don’t come close to anything ever approaching “arousing.” When I asked some of the attendees what they thought of the bots, the general consensus was that they were, “very cool, but not at all sexy.” When I asked Sapphire employees if they were nervous about losing their jobs to robots they all laughed and rolled their eyes, “Until those things learn how to give lapdances, we’re not worried!” (Fortunately, for now, the bots can only work the pole.)
So, did the working ladies of Sapphire actually mind watching the robots take up the valuable real estate in their club? Not at all, they said. Reiley, one cocktail waitress I spoke with, was particularly enthusiastic, “The robots are really cool and people love them! If they bring more people into the club to check them out, then that’s awesome for us.” Reiley was also sweetly concerned for the welfare of the robots because all night long she’d spotted men touching them on the sly: “Hopefully someone comes over and tells these dudes to take their hands off the robots; that’s just wrong!” (A true sister in solidarity, that Reiley.) I truly didn’t think we’d be delving into complex issues of robotic consent (and the effects of too many greasy man-paws on the sculptures) when I arrived here tonight, but welp, here we are.
Hilariously (and quite unexpectedly, according to club management), the bots earned a not-insignificant amount of crisp dollar-bills for their efforts. (A clear tip-bucket was placed beneath each one, so I don’t really know how unexpected the tips were, but that’s another piece entirely.) Patrons enjoyed making it rain for photos and slipping dollar-bills into garters on the bot’s legs. As a lifelong hustler, I was especially concerned with where exactly these dollars would be going at the end of the evening. I tried asking around, but no one seemed to know where the approximately $100 scattered around the stage would wind up. (When I asked Walker if he knew where the tips would be going, he stated that it had “absolutely nothing to do with me, so I really have no idea.”)
On my way out, I asked Anthony Newcomb, a Sapphire club floor manager, and he informed me that a “post-shift meeting” would be had to discuss it. I kindly requested that the funds be split among the actual, real-life strippers who worked the event, but I have no confirmation whether they’ll actually see that cash. Seeing as how robots can’t spend fiat currency (yet), I pray it finds its way into the pockets of the workers of the club. But even if it doesn’t, fear not gals; our jobs definitely aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
This story originally appeared here.