Monday, May 25, 2009

The Yin and Yang of Broken Boob Tubes: Junk, Art and Serendipity in Applied Science.

Junk, Art and Serendipity in Applied Science.

A pencil thin, scrubby Philadelphian with frizzy hair and archetypically crooked glasses frame stands before me rubbing against a gigantic panel of wires and tin foil arranged in the shape of a lion’s head, glowing red eyes and all. Thirty assorted geeks look in wonderment as the scrap metal feline growls an ear busting square wave, somehow modulated by the caresses of the frizzy hair guy – Maximillian Lawrence. This is a demonstration of Lawrence’s tactile synthesizer, which he has brought to Montreal for a conference dedicated to such esoteric baubles. I have come to the conference looking for answers that I suspect Maximillian Lawrence can provide me about what might be a burgeoning subcultural phenomenon in the world of applied science. It started, as many things do, with a television.

The burden of ingenious camaraderie

Did you know that you can make a fully functioning oscilloscope with one of those old, turn-knob CRT beige box televisions just by crossing a few of the wires connecting the electromagnetic coils to the circuit board and connecting them to an audio signal? Did you know that if you cross the wrong wires you can drop dead from the 27,000 volt charge that any old screen’s capacitor carries?

I know these things. I know them not because I want to, but because I have an inexplicable penchant for meeting eccentric physicists and engineers. And these people I meet have an irrational desire to tear apart trash technology they find in alleyways or decommissioned university stockpiles or my apartment, and turn it into functioning – well, sort of functioning – devices of all manner of perplexing description. They spend their Sunday afternoons discombobulating scummy, dented electronic children’s toys and video game systems and turning them into synthesizers or motion sensors or a motor for my disco ball or whatever’s in those three big boxes they left on my kitchen table a few nights ago. I haven’t had the stomach to rout around in there yet.

They call it circuit bending. And as it turns out, there are a lot of people doing these things for reasons you and I will likely never understand.

The television tube oscilloscope gimmick is what is known as a ‘standard bend,’ in that it’s an established experiment you can run at home with simple schematics and expect a reasonable degree of success. To give you an idea, this might mean a few days of tinkering to get a functioning device that won’t put you into cardiac arrest when you switch it on. But, as I have come to begrudgingly discover, even the standards are frequently unstable in this errant, whimsical branch of scientific inquiry. That damn oscilloscope should have stayed a television if you ask me. My friend the R&D physicist thoughtfully brought it to my apartment as a conversation piece for a dinner party. ‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘That’s amazing.’ Depending on the way he hooked up the bread board – the circuit board prototyping equivalent of a blank slate – the swiveling green lines of light would dance in circles or lines or figure eights or any number of other patterns. All he had to do was hook it up to my computer’s soundcard so that everyone at the party could enjoy the patterns bubbling along to whatever was playing on my iTunes. Great.

After the thing blew, the soundcard and power supply didn’t cost me all that much to replace, but the motherboard was pretty much toast, and those things aren’t cheap. There were other circuit bending enthusiasts at the dinner party, who were enthralled by the intriguing problem as to how an audio output signal could be reversed by the oscilloscope and bake the inside of my computer. Fascinating! Astounding! I just wanted to know what the hell I was going use to meet my editor’s Monday morning deadline. Sigh.

Chiptunes: Circuit Bending's sonic department

“Oh! Somebody bought 24 SIDs!” exclaimed Phil Karneef in a tone that would normally accompany a phrase like “Oh! Kovy makes Chara look like a pylon!”

He then explained, from behind a tangled spread of dulling grey plastic and patch cables, that the SID is the synthesizer chip that was in the Commodore computer series. Someone had acquired 1000 of the dated chips in working condition from an old storage warehouse and begun selling them online via a website for retro audio circuitry enthusiasts. Karneef’s enthusiasm about one person owning two dozen of them came slightly into focus as he peered away from the screen and declared, “So they’re gonna make an orchestra or something like that.”

The SID, a clunky mono sound chip from the early eighties, was retrofitted by a German designer to be accessed via MIDI from an open source hardware platform. So it’s a new way to frig around with old junk that conjures waves of indelible nostalgia for Activision fanatics and old school computer geeks like Phil, an electroacoustics graduate.

While we chatted, he began fiddling with a 16 year-old Toshiba Satellite laptop which contains the same chip as the classic Soundblaster 16, the sound card that powered video games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. He prodded with pincers and switched wiring patterns. As the growling bass and plinking notes sprang forth from the speakers like Pixy Stix for the ears, I asked why he prefers the venerable gear.

“I’m into not abusing,” Karneef began, then paused, “– well, I do that too. I’m not into getting carried away with using really complex stuff that you have to pay for and is designed to no end. This shit is anyway,” he referred to the dusty gear on his desk. “But a lot of people are taking advantage of new hardware and software that’s coming out and really not paying them dues.”

“It’s one thing to talk about integrated circuits. But it’s fuckin’ 2008. Nanotechnology is coming up. They’re making gates out of three atoms. Something that makes a decision with three atoms. Let alone all

this high voltage AC stuff. Everything is going down – the requirements for power and usage. Efficiency is going up. I have software here that mimics rooms full of synthesizers. Buildings full. You can design everything you’ve ever dreamed of.” His brow lifted and his eyes burned with the limitless ambition of a young politician. “You just need to spend the time to learn how to do it,” he concluded in a tone that told me all the technology Phil will ever need is already just laying around in dusty closets, waiting to be reawakened and screwed with in the right – or wrong – way.

He then took me into another room to show me his SIDs. He had two of them, not 24, but with that he could achieve stereo sound, something previously impossible with this particular chip. The care with which he treated the gear was as telling as his convictions about its usage.

“The coolest part about this stuff that I’m working on now is that it’s open source,” he concluded. “Everybody’s working on it together and helping each other out. When there’s a breakthrough, it’s not coveted. They want to share it. They’re patent busters these guys. They really don’t give a fuck. Design and development is paramount.”

Ends with Unorthodox Means

It’s hard to argue with results. What circuit bending doesn’t have is peer review, funding, educational foundation, formal institutions or even the basic feasibility of isolated variables. Indeed, each machine these vigorous young people experiment on is old, complicated, ornery and often uniquely quirky. Each experiment can only go seriously wrong once – at which point it is often destroyed – and replicating these experiments is next to impossible in many cases. But what circuit bending does have is a score of interesting developments and singular devices that have been aggregated from the infinity of wasted technology the human race produces.

Canadian cyber culture pioneer William Gibson says that technology only gains cultural capital once people use it for things it was not originally intended. He postulates that that’s when things gain real meaning outside consumer patterns and marketing. If this is the case, this gaggle of young scientists, engineers and musicians is contributing massively to the meaning of so many junked baubles. They’re also, according to Maximillian Lawrence, emulating the father of such monumental advances AC and radio signals, Nikolai Tesla.

Lawrence explains to the crowd that Tesla’s intuitive, unusual methodology saw many brand him as mad. But, he tells the circuit bending seminar at the Mile End Cultural Centre, Tesla represents an unexplored arm of science – serendipity. Standing in front of the lion synthesizer, he states that circuit benders are just screwing around with things and hoping that their gut will guide them to real development. Even if it’s largely a pastime, and something done by as many artists as actual scientists. The crowd attending the meeting listens to him and his buzzing sound device as they drink beer and fiddle with diodes and soldering irons. But I have a feeling they’re not contemplating their historic deviation from the monolithic cannon of scientific orthodoxy. They just seem to be having a good weekend. And blowing up a lot of motherboards.