I’ve never been divorced, I was cautious. I lived
with my partner for 25 years before getting married.
The idea for the machine came from researching
old arcade games. I found a sole ‘Tug of War’ game. It was not a
successful machine but it set me thinking.
Gruesome Execution video
I was also amazed by the number of working models
depicting executions. American Executions (electric chair), French
executions (guillotine), English executions (hanging), and even Chinese
executions (beheading). They were mostly made in the first half of the
twentieth century, in living memory of the time when real executions were
public. I asked Nik Costa (the expert on the history of arcade machines)
if they were considered ‘bad taste’, but he said the public’s main
complaint was not offence but that they couldn’t see enough gory detail.
So ‘Divorce’ is a combination of a tug of war and
the bad taste of the executions. My initial idea was to have a child in
the middle being pulled apart. I told quite a few people and they were
mostly horrified. I’m not used to censoring my ideas, but I wanted the
machine to be entertaining, not to ‘shock’, so I settled for a house.
A house also had more potential for entertaining content.
However, making Divorce has made me
generally more conscious of political incorrectness, I never used to think
about it. I simply felt I was celebrating our great irreverent tradition
started by the 18th century cartoonists like Gilray and
Rowlandson. But just as the Victorians reacted against the tastes of the
18th century (regarding them crude and vulgar) we now seem to
be in another more puritanical age, this time maybe a reaction against
hippy culture. My arcade is becoming more retro than I ever imagined.
Initially I was thinking of divorce as a legal
process. The producer of my Secret Life of Machines series went through a
very expensive divorce that absorbed all the profits from the films. But
my wife’s divorce to her previous husband involved no lawyers, though
emotionally just as upsetting. Halfway through making the machine I still
had no idea what it should look like.
One day Graham and I decided the mechanisms were so
decorative they should be left exposed. This resolved my previous dilemma.
I ditched the legal aspect and tried to keep everything simple. This
wasn’t easy because real tugs of war are boring to watch. Usually
nothing moves much until one side gives way (this was why it was never a
popular arcade game). In my mind I had the idea of the house being tugged
from one side to the other. By adding an extra ‘see red’ control I
found that I could produce the effect I wanted, but it inevitably made
everything more complicated.
The prototype only took a week to make. The final
version always takes much longer, but in this case it was only couple of
months. I started by making the heads of the divorcees out of clay. The
popping eyes (button head screws) came from this. I then carved the final
versions from Jelutong. I spent ages fiddling with the husband’s head
and I’m still not sure about him but carving the wife’s head was very
quick and I much prefer her. I really enjoyed carving them. I used to
carve things often but I haven’t done much for a few years. I bought
some Flexcut palm chisels which have very thin blades made of springs
steel – they are lovely to use.
The motors that pull the couple back together at the
end of each go are battery drill motors. They are made in such vast
numbers they only cost about £10 – amazing value. The electromagnetic
clutches that engage the handles came from old photocopiers.
The main technical problem was that both the house
and the couple are top heavy. Getting them to split theatrically but not
so violently that they destroy themselves required lots of modifications
and adjustments. I still feel a bit nervous every time they split. My
grandchildren came to stay after Christmas and spent lots of time testing
it. I invited Paul Spooner to help make the interior of the house. We
spent a very happy week making tiny furniture, lights, pets and children
to fit inside.
I was booked to spend a day at London’s Institute
of making in February so I took the finished machine along. People tested
it enthusiastically and made me realise I’d got the logic wrong. I had
thought that if you divorced quick enough it was a clean divorce, so one
partner should get the whole house – but people who managed to do it
quickly felt cheated because they felt the ‘reward’ of the game was
seeing inside. So now one partner only gets the whole house if they finish
separating when their partner has got less than 70% of the way.
At the beginning quite few people I asked said I
should drop the whole idea because it was bad taste and would disturb
children whose parents were divorcing. The machine has now been in the
arcade for a few weeks and a hundreds people have tried it – so far no
complaints. Unlikely combinations of friends or fathers and sons seem to