How the tables have turned – on each other

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Excitement and anticipation filled Rhode Island School of Design’s intimate Tap Room Tuesday night. Members of the Providence community joined RISD students and faculty on the top floor of RISD’s Memorial Hall for an unexpected purpose – to watch four tables. The crowd surrounded wooden barriers delineating a fighting ring, eager to witness Brass Knuckles, Crazy Susan, C-Section and the Kraken vie to become the first-ever RISD Table Fights Champion.

The competition was the culmination of a six-week RISD Wintersession course led by instructors Shaun Bullens, Ann Adams and Caleb Larson. Fourteen students, split into four groups, designed and built four remote-controlled, battle-ready tables.

Tuesday night’s showdown served as the class’ official critique – the evaluation of student work that is a component of many RISD classes. The event also provided a light-hearted avenue for students to show off the products of a winter’s worth of hard work, Bullens said.

“It’s more of a performance piece than a tournament,” he said, adding that the project incorporated many aspects of design, from building furniture to engineering the tables’ combative capabilities – a variety of projectiles and swinging limbs designed to batter the opposing table into submission.

If the concept sounds a lot like Comedy Central’s one-time hit robot fighting show BattleBots, well, it is.

After six long weeks in the workroom, the four tables were ready for battle – and to captivate the crowd with their entertaining fighting tactics.

The “Battle Royale” began as the tables raced to determine their seeds in the fighting matches that followed. The race results pitted the Kraken against C-Section and Brass Knuckles against Crazy Susan.

Each match consisted of two three-minute rounds during which the tables fought their opponents and knocked down smaller, collapsible tables set up in the ring. A table won a round if it knocked out its opponent. Otherwise, a group of judges determined the rounds’ winners by awarding them points based on how successfully they fought their competitors.

Brass Knuckles and Crazy Susan faced off in the ring to begin the first match. Crazy Susan, which struck its opponents with a spinning array of protruding tea cups, emerged victorious by a final score of 46-15. (Brass Knuckles was a black box that “punched” its foes with a clenched fist painted on one side.)

“We did everything we could,” said RISD sophomore Nicole Mercer, a member of the Brass Knuckles team. “Everything that could go wrong did, but it was awesome anyway. I’m still really happy.”

The armaments in the second matchup were even more unusual. C-Section’s remote-controlled babies emerged from under it to attack opponents while the table sprayed “placenta” made of pink soapy liquid, but they proved no match for the jellyfish-inspired Kraken, which used long, flailing foam tentacles to take on its competitors. The Kraken sent its placenta-squirting opponent crashing to the floor in the next match for a knock-out, securing it a spot in the championship match against Crazy Susan.

But before the top two tables battled for the title of Table Fights Champion, Brass Knuckles and C-Section faced each other in the consolation match. One of C-Section’s remote-controlled babies made a futile attempt to knock down a small table in the ring, but before it could succeed, Brass Knuckles’ painted fist knocked out what remained of its opponent – a “placenta-soaked” tablecloth surrounded by motionless toy babies that had fallen off their remote controls.

Though by that point the crowd had dwindled, the Kraken and Crazy Susan were poised to battle for the crown. The Kraken claimed victory by a final score of 202-161, to the elation of the team that had labored for so long to create it.

“We’re the best,” said first-year Khalil Custis, who shared the victory with three fellow RISD students: senior Eunice Kim and sophomores Louis Martinez and Tim Oshida. The Kraken’s conquest was complete – the team also won the “People’s Choice Award” for receiving the loudest audience applause.

But RISD junior Dory Little, a spectator who said C-Section was his favorite competitor, disagreed with that verdict. “It did nothing but spew amniotic fluid everywhere,” he said with admiration.

Tuesday night’s event may have been the debut of Table Fights on College Hill, but the event is not a new phenomenon. Last year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair featured 16 tables in the first annual national Table Fights competition, an event founded by Bullens and Adams, who instructed the RISD course. .

All four RISD tables will travel to Chelsea, N.Y., to compete in the second annual national competition this spring. Since most of the tables were damaged during Tuesday night’s fights, the students plan to build duplicates of their gladiators for the second competition.

“Table Fights is a blast, and it’s never happened before at RISD,” said senior Nick Kole, one of the showdown’s announcers. “It’s very much in the true spirit of RISD.”

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