Last week, huddled round the large bench at Leon Bankside, technology consultant Alex Zivanovic took us through a short journey of his impressive career in electronics, mechanics, a combo of the two (mechatronics) and his current work now in physical computing and design. In particular, Alex lingered over a project that particularly fascinates him: the Senster. An enormous hydraulic robot created in the early ’70s, it sounds misleadingly menacing. The giant, kinetic sculpture resembled a curious giraffe (or herbivore dinosaur.)
Towering above its visitors, the sculpture was ahead of its time: a combination of microphones, sensors, and a computer-implemented behavioral system gave life to the Senster, whose head would follow those around it, attracted to their sounds. Forty years later—eons in dork years—we’re still tinkering with sensors and simple mechanics in art, attempting to give life-like qualities to otherwise indifferent objects.
Conversation turned towards hacker spaces–what would make the ideal hacker space? How do you build a vibrant, useful community for DIY projects, tinkering, and learning? I myself returned to university, itching with anticipation, to once again have the resources, technology, and equipment that I couldn’t afford on my own to be readily available with a swipe of that coveted student ID, but I was quickly disappointed. There’s often lots of heavy, expensive equipment dispersed in labs throughout the campus—but it’s either limited to students in particular programs or there is no one readily available to teach those interested in how to use it (a certain, dusty stereoscopic screen comes to mind.)
We did have the luck, though, of visiting public artist Andrew Shoben’s workshop for Greyworld, and were delighted to be bestowed a shopping list for the beginner’s workshop: a multimeter, soldering irons and solder wire, basic stamps, arduinos, empty boxes and cases, electronic kits for circuit making, screwdriver set, wire
cutters, lots of power strips, a basic electronics manual, and a Wii fit (somewhat facetiously added.) We built on that wish list, pretty ambitiously, with the idea that our ideal studio space would have a collection of tools we already know how to use, plus new items we could tinker with and explore.
Unlike university studios, hacker spaces and similar endeavors suggest a more informal, eclectic (and less expensive) atmosphere. Those in existence now often require a small joining or membership fee, and are stuffed with work tables with soldering irons, shelves stocked with a mix of electronics, bits, bobs, and gutted appliances to recycle, funky admirable projects underway littered about (think Doc Brown’s garage in Back To The Future meets a grad student office.)
A quick google search produced a long list of current spaces available, as well as wikis set up for the express purpose of founding future spaces and providing links to local known hacker spaces and meet ups. The London-based hacker spaces have an adorable proclivity for tea and biscuits.
There also appears to be a wide range in what folks expect of a hacker space in terms of who is there, and who can join. At one of our Unplugged sessions, one friend mentioned that in their ideal hacker space, ex’s would be forbidden—ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-colleagues, ex-spouses, etc. Another lamented the less-tech-y visitors distract the pros with constant questions and pleas for help on their own projects.
Earlier in April, Ruth Catlow of net art collective Furtherfield.org and HTTP gallery talked about her earlier days experimenting in net art at Backspace in London. Based in a building set against the Thames, Backspace was started in the ’90s by a group of new media artists interested in emerging technologies and providing a central space where fellow artists, tinkerers, and makers could drop by and work on projects or learn (collaboratively or independently.) Ruth chatted a bit about her days there, learning HTML, and borrowing broadband from surrounding companies.
Their web site—endearingly frozen in the ’90s with animated gifs running amok and pixellated graphics—doesn’t come with many pictures that I could find, but shows the space is a stone’s throw from the Thames and had a kitchen available to visitors.
We’ve been discussing quite a bit about what sort of workspace we would want for MzTEK, and [ Space ] will provide us with their aptly spacious front space for workshops—equipped with lovely new Macs loaded with software and a projector. One of our goals is to provide participants on the U-TEK course with that coveted hacker space—a room with just enough equipment for both tinkering and programming, that allows artists to come and go as they need, build on and house their projects safely and lean on the community of artists and makers about.
Here’s a couple of hacker and maker spaces I can think of off the top of my head, plus some useful links: