Last year, Motherboard went to Bent Festival, the world’s premiere meeting of circuit benders, music hackers, and broken Speak n’ Spells. We spent a day at 81 Front St. in Dumbo, where hackers young and old, expert and amateur, came to break electronics in order to put them back together again, in the DIY spirit of groups like NYC Resistor and musicians like Reed Ghazala and Morton Subotnick. At night, a healthy roster of chiptune musicians and others made music with their homemade gear.
See more coverage from last year’s festival and an introduction to circuit bending before this year’s events start. Bent Festival 2011 starts June 23rd and runs until June 25th. Check out the schedule on the Bent Festival website for more information.
It was an average Saturday at the DUMBO, Brooklyn outlet of Mikey’s Hook Up, an Apple retailer and repair specialist. Well-groomed arty-types came in, alone, in couples, with lattes in hand, all there to admire the shiny wares or bring in their dead laptop for repair. The air was quiet, calm, tinged with some nail biting concern about lost files, perhaps, but mainly confident. In other words, no sign of the kind of melee happening in the art space just across the street, where the Bent Festival, the annual circus of the art of “circuit bending,” was happening.
There, scattered impromptu groups of hardware hackers were tearing their gadgets apart, literally, in an attempt to do their own kind of fixing. Their only assistance came from men in worn t-shirts and beards whose advice consisted mainly of how to solder circuits together and the best way to break open plastic cases. To open one piece of electronics, someone resorted to simply throwing it at the floor, again and again, until its tiny tinny speaker started making death groans. (Later, he would add a new, louder speaker, and make it make stranger sounds.) Steve Jobs would have been scandalized.
The gadgets in question weren’t the sleek new phones and laptops being serviced across the street, but mainly plastic kids’ toys from the 1980s, built in China cheaply and at breakneck speed. Just as quickly had they been forgotten and trashed, which partly explained their presence, in various states of disassembly, on the workbenches. But apart from being cheap and easy to hack (the smaller and sleeker gadgets have become, the harder they have become to break apart), these all had another thing going for them: they made beeping sounds. If you’re really lucky, some of them, like the Speak ‘n’ Spell, even talk.
Crack open a toy walkie talkie or a generic mini keyboard, rip off the coverings (sometimes there’s even scotch tape inside!), press a button, and simply lick a finger and touch a circuit: a short will cause the beep to become a bleeooooop, or a danger to become a dddddreeerrrrrrrrr. Wire an output to the speaker wire, plug in an amp, and you’ve got an outer-space music box fit for an intense audio-visual extravaganza.
While beginners and more expert circuit benders tinkered in workshops, small bands of musicians were huddled in the corners, preparing their homemade instruments for an all-out exposition of exploded instruments. At one point near the end of the night, a musician called Computer at Sea (and introduced as “the handsomer Dan Deacon,” though that would only barely approximate his sound), began his set by excitedly rallying the audience the only way that would have made sense: inviting them up to play his instruments. My hand shot up before he was finished asking, and soon it was on a keyboard, on a Simon Says knockoff, and there were all the other hands surrounding the table’s electronic feast, bathing in the torrent of sound and light and energy of our own creation. It wasn’t just the most fun I’d had at a concert in a while; it was the best kind of fun.
Like the toys we were all playing, the music came in all shapes and sizes, in bright colors and from another world. The best part: the musicians, like everyone else, weren’t just pressing buttons to get them to play music. They were making the buttons themselves.