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Tinker and Tweak! Challenging networks


Scrapyard Challenge

— ​Artists Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki have their hands full: in addition to working on their many art projects and workshops, they’re also completing their PhDs.

​Artists Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki have their hands full: in addition to working on their many art projects and workshops, they’re also completing their PhDs. Though their methodologies vary, they’re both concerned with highlighting normally invisible aspects of various kinds of networks.

Katherine Moriwaki investigates clothes and accessories as a way of creating network relationships in public space; these "socially fashioned" networks rely on a combination of wearable technologies, network infrastructure and social behavior. Jonah Brucker-Cohen’s work focuses more on deconstructing networks, with projects that critically challenge and subvert accepted perceptions of network interaction and experience.

They frequently collaborate, for example on the Scrapyard Challenge, a one-day workshop whose participants make simple electronic controllers using found materials like computer parts, household appliances, turntables, monitors, gadgets and clothing. Each of the objects designed during the workshop is linked to a MIDI device that generates either audio or visual output, and at the end of the workshop the participants present their new creations to the rest of the group.

This kind of hands-on prototyping is increasingly being employed in design processes to integrate user feedback in the development process. The Scrapyard Challenge also shows how easy it is to re-use technology to serve a new purpose. Participants in the workshop not only experience what it’s like to tinker with electronics, but are also encouraged to think about the design of open systems, platforms, and the tools that let the user put all of these to a new use. Hacking and DIY culture are two of the key sources of inspiration. Brucker-Cohen and Moriwaki recently organized a Scrapyard Challenge at Steim in Amsterdam, and discussed some of their other projects the evening before at Montevideo.

DH: You’ve organized quite a few Scrapyard Challenges by this point. How have you noticed them varying from city to city?

KM: It’s always a local response to the city we hold the workshop in. And we don’t see that as being inconsistent with what we’re trying to do, because it’s about using whatever’s available within the environment. Like in Amsterdam, there was lots of second-hand junk, or stuff we found on the street, or in an electronics shop. And that’s consistent with the profile of the city and what the city offers. We were recently in Athens, Ohio, a very small college town, and we had a hard time finding junk because it was so clean there. It was the same in Gothenburg. And finding junk on the streets was also harder because the whole refuse and recycling systems were really well-managed, so it required a lot of other ways of acquiring things. Like raiding people’s closets.

JBC: I think this one was actually one of the smoothest ones we’ve had yet, because we just have the system down so well now.

KM: If anything we’ve just become more organized in terms of having better equipment. Like now, at least we have a setup that we’re very comfortable with. It’s basic, but we know it works, and it’s well-tested and travels easily, so that’s really a big help. We’ve managed to make small improvements along the way to assist in the packing and transportation of our materials, and that actually helps a lot because it takes care of all those tiny frustrations along the way.

DH: You’ve said that people with the least technical experience frequently wind up being the most creative participants in the workshops.

JBC: Yeah, that always happens.

KM: If there’s a wide range of different kinds of people in the workshop, that works better. This one in Amsterdam was really exciting because you had people from a wide variety of age groups coming from very different backgrounds, with different degrees of technological experience and different types of professions. That actually makes for a really nice mix within the group, since people collaborate with each other. The ones that are a bit more homogenous don’t really offer as much interpersonal enrichment. So I prefer the ones that are way more diverse. Like at the Amsterdam workshop, there was a graphic designer who didn’t know any technology. She spent most of her time going around and learning from every person. She did eventually wind up building an instrument, but she spent most of her time just sitting with different people and talking with them about what they know. I think occasionally people who know less about electronics will perhaps feels insecure, but the environment doesn't really encourage a kind of elitist approach to technology.

JBC: It’s totally democratic.

KM: There’s a pretty flat distribution: everybody has the same materials, the same amount of time. And we encourage people to share information and work in groups as we go around and assist people. With people who feel technically comfortable, we let them just go on and work, and people who need more handholding or support end up getting that.

DH: Do you hope the Scrapyard Challenges will spur people on to become more involved with things like electronics and ubiquitous computing, or is the goal more to encourage creativity in a group context?

KM: We’re not offering it as some kind of complete interaction-design educational solution, and we never claim to try to teach people electronics in one day. But if this were part of an educational program, the Scrapyard Challenge could be the kind of experience that would take place at the beginning, just to sort of break the ice for people who don’t know what they’re doing, or who feel uncomfortable. And for people who are experienced, it’s like a breakout creativity experience: if they’ve been moving along a certain educational trajectory, and they're beginning to become too hard-coded into their own best practices and preconceptions of right or wrong, it’s a nice way to break out of that and gain a bit of perspective. It also gets people thinking about the reconfigurable nature of hardware and software. If you’re at the level of building it, you see that many objects are not that way out of destiny; there’s a certain degree of design and intentionality that goes into it. So for people who are learning about the design of electronic things, the workshops help give an understanding of the fact that the electronic can be as malleable and as manipulable as physical objects can be. And yes, there’s a learning curve associated with that. But that kind of attitude — using technology and approaching electronics as this sort of material to be manipulated and altered — is the right one to cultivate, or at least an empowering one to cultivate. Lots of famous scientists got their first taste of science by doing relatively dangerous experiments as young children in their backyards.

DH: And the one-day format helps discourage procrastination and feature-creep.

KM: We’ve found that one day works the best, because it does provide these constraints that people have to work within, and they don’t feel like they have to make the perfect project or do some type of formal presentation — they can just get to work and start building things. And usually we find the most creative moments come from within this time constraint, because you can’t say, “Maybe I’ll try this, or I’ll do it tomorrow.??? They actually have to make it work, or not make it work, so they learn right away. If they can’t find the right part, or the perfect piece, then they have to change their idea, or otherwise glue something together and make it work that way.

DH: Do you try to keep that attitude alive even after the workshop is finished?

KM: At the end of the workshop, reality kicks back in: some people can go back to their educational environment, and a lot of these projects can be developed further. But not everyone can, and that’s where this confluence of DIY and inexpensive tools becomes really exciting, because that sets the groundwork for people, once they do get their feet wet, to keep going. And we try as much as possible after the workshops to provide links — to sources of microcontrollers, to places where they can learn more about physical computing, to online resources, and places where they buy equipment. Then anyone who’s so inclined and doesn't already have that kind of support in place can at least have somewhere to start.

JBC: And some of the stuff we’ve done in the Scrapyard Challenge has been spun off elsewhere, like the Drawbot, which is a system that automatically draws pictures. It was one of my projects earlier, but I adapted it to work with the Scrapyard Challenge, and now it’s actually kind of spawned into its own workshop. It’s good for any age, from little kids to high school students. I’ve given it a couple of times, in Ireland and New York. And now there’s also a government-sponsored community-arts type of place that’s started running these workshops. I have a creative commons license on the project now, and it’s kind of catching on.

DH: In a sense, a lot of this harkens back to the 1950s, when model-rocket building or magazines like Popular Mechanics were very popular. But now you’re seeing a new wave of interest, for example in magazines like Make or ReadyMade. Do you see the borders between professional and amateur dissolving for good?

KM: I certainly hope so, and I think it’s happened already to a large extent. At the time we started doing these workshops, the only references we had were the Scrapheap Challenge and the Junkyard Wars, or MacGyver and the A-Team…

JBC: Or the model railroad club.

KM: And today it’s a really interesting contrast to the Home Brewed Computing Club, which was another inspiration of these geeky people, who were really just driven by enthusiasm and the desire to find others like them. I think Make really has that kind of energy also, and I think it’s great that they’ve managed to take loosely connected, or in some ways totally unconnected communities, and find ways to bring them together and make them aware of each other. How great is it that a lot of these people who would be tinkering away in their basements, and who would maybe show their work to six friends who live nearby, can now have an international audience for whatever it is they’re doing?

DH: Do you think this newfound interest stems from the recent availability of new technologies, or more from a dissatisfaction with the types of products that are currently available?

JBC: It kind of stems from the open source movement, where people now have access to all the code that was once never available to them. Now they can customize things, and it’s spawned this whole idea that everything should be customizable: why don’t we open up the hardware, so that if people invest this much time into it, it’s going to be that much more valuable. That’s why lots of computer companies are going into that as well. They figure if they can open up some of their stuff to people, then it’ll allow people to get really engaged.

KM: I think it’s a bunch of these influences that happen to resonate with each other at the same time.

DH: But parallel to the rise of DIY design and the increasing accessibility of tools like 3D prototyping is the realization that designing things isn’t always as easy as it looks.

KM: It’s like that with everything. People have to start somewhere. And if the tools are so sophisticated and the knowledge is so specialized that people don’t know where to start, that becomes a problem. So sometimes it’s good to say it doesn’t really matter where you begin, as long as you actually start somewhere.

JBC: That’s what we try to emphasize in our workshop, that you shouldn’t feel intimidated by anything, you should just kind of jump into it. That’s when all the preconceptions of what might not work break down.

KM: People’s conceptual models of how objects are supposed to behave, and should behave, need to change. Oftentimes the general public’s understanding of the everyday systems and networks that drive their experience of reality lags behind what is actually there. And a lot of times people flat-out just don’t care. You could step out of this little building here and find plenty of people who really just don’t care whether or not stocks are rising or falling, or who have no real use for a mobile device that says whether or not the weather is going to change. If they have an umbrella then great, and if they don’t then they’ll just go and buy one. And that works for them so there’s no real impetus to change. But I think that everyday life and culture is a little bit bigger than our ability to just continually churn out new services. Some of them may stick. Like, no one really expected text messaging to take off: it started out as a special function for engineers to test whether or not the network was functioning. It was never intended as a commercial service, and yet that’s been one of the biggest things about mobile phone service. And maybe when Bluetooth first came out, people just weren’t prepared, and didn’t have the devices in large enough numbers.

JBC: It’s going to take a long time before a lot of this goes mainstream. There are still enough people who can’t even get their network working at home. It was the same with DVDs: when I was in grad school, there were suddenly DVD players everywhere, but there weren’t DVDs available to purchase or rent, and you couldn’t even make one.

KM: A Bluetooth phone is useless unless you’ve got other people who’ve got Bluetooth devices that you can connect to. A single person alone with a DVD player is nothing compared to a community of people who have DVD players and movies to share. That begins to work a device and its operation into the real fabric of a person’s everyday life, otherwise it’s just junk, it’s meaningless. It’s like when fax machines came out: if one person has a fax machine then it’s utterly useless, but if two people have a fax machine, they can actually send faxes back and forth. The same goes for any kind of communication technology.

DH: The Scrapyard Challenges are only part of what you both do, yet they also reflect your shared interest in networks.

KM: We do these workshops, but we also do our own projects. And it’s kind of funny for us, because we’re both trying to finish our PhDs, and then we have these workshops. While we don’t treat them like a hobby or a pastime, they are kind of a sideline activity. And maybe the Scrapyard workshops and our own projects seem radically different, but in terms of the perspective they take on the world, and the objects within the world and how these objects relate to each other, you can see a lot of definite and clear resonances in terms of methodology. So when it comes to Jonah deconstructing networks, or even myself looking at network infrastructures, a lot of what we’re really interested in is examining relationships, and how those relations are established and reconfigured based on changes that are made within a system. Even within the Scrapyard Challenge, it’s the same kind of process that takes place: you take things that are seemingly part of a system, that seemingly have a cohesive whole, but then they’re ripped apart and re-mashed together. And that process itself is a reinterpretation and an assertion of an ability, and a right, to reconstruct what exists around us. And I think of the work that we do in our own projects to be coming from the same kind of place. Within a lot of communication networks, the way we relate to technology or the way we understand ourselves as part of a network or social body, there are always sets of relationships that are presented to us. That can happen through either the way that objects are designed, or the way they’re marketed, or the way they’re situated within our cultural context. And to go and tweak some of those relationships, to alter them, to change one little thing, or to imbue certain characteristics into objects that have a ready and apparent function — again you see that desire to break things apart and mash them back together.

DH: And a lot of your work, Jonah, is also about breaking things apart, in your case networks, for example with 'Alerting Infrastructure!' which is a website hit counter that literally destroys a building with a drill whenever a user clicks on the site.

JBC: That was to show how there’s still a physical connection associated with most Internet addresses and websites, and to look at the materiality of what those addresses mean, and how you can actually translate those to a physical space rather than just a virtual one. I was really interested in how when you visit something like a website, you’re seeing something that maybe thousands of people are viewing at the exact same time. But that doesn’t translate the same way as if you were visiting someplace in the physical world, where thousands of people at once would basically destroy it. A lot of my work has to do with transposing the idea of physical existence into a virtual one, or changing virtual things into physical things, or even breaking down the whole metaphor of what the Internet is. I did another one called SearchEngine, where I built a physical engine that basically pulled up search terms, so that’s another theme in what I do.

DH: It also challenges the idea of the Internet as weightless and harmless.

KM: It’s apparent to people when they see a big sports utility vehicle going thought the streets that the thing is in some way contributing to pollution in the environment, but that's not so much the case with the virtual. That whole dialogue that took place in the early 90s about placelessness and the elimination of identity was just ridiculous.

DH: Katherine’s project 'Oscillating Windows', in which an ad-hoc network connection is either made or broken based on the physical presence of mobile devices worn by people who enter a room, also shows how networks are becoming more and more physical.

KM: We’ve worked with engineers, so we often see up front what concerns they have, and a lot of it has to do with maintaining the integrity of the signal. And people who work with mobile ad-hoc networking think a lot about how they can use people’s selfishness and self-interest to propagate the network. But it’s always with the aim of creating a robust communications infrastructure. But “Oscillating Windows??? wasn’t just about trying to get people to make a nice clean communications line for the two windows to oscillate; it was also about what happens when there isn’t a pathway for the data, and what happens when you actually allow people to manipulate or alter the data as it’s passing through. What happens to the degradation of the images if you allow people to do that? Or are you left with a perpetually incomplete image because people have either walked away, or traded places, or somehow swindled parts of the installation away?

DH: And if you allow the users to do that, then you have to live with the results, even if they’re not what you might have expected or hoped for. Like with the SimpleTEXT performances that Jonah has organized over the past few years, where the audience decides what appears on the screen based on what they type into their phones or PDAs. Does that openness ever cause things to devolve to a lowest common denominator level?

JBC: We get it sometimes, it really just depends on where it is, what language it’s in, on a lot of different factors. We also have a function where if you text in a certain word, it turns the family filter on. So that avoided some of the images that would show up.

KM: But I’ve been to most of those performances, and the only one where I thought the behavior was juvenile was in New York. There were a lot of young college kids, and that was the only one that I thought went in that direction.

JBC: The first couple of times we had it in England, there was totally none of that.

KM: And the one in Italy was hilarious, because it was a small group of people who all knew each other, all artists of varying age groups. And they used it to talk about each other, with in-jokes and gossiping, revealing a lot of personal information without using names, but everyone knew who was being talked about anyway. And that was so much more playful, like a real conversation. My work is always trying to ask questions about what conditions are necessary for a network to propagate, and when can moments of serendipity exist. With “Oscillating Windows,??? it’s more a question of how people understand their relation to each other. If anything, we have a much more subversive interest, because we noticed the engineers who are building these networks don’t give a single thought to whether or not a person might want to manipulate or alter an incoming message.

JBC: The name of a former group we worked with was the Disruptive Design Team, because it totally breaks down what status-quo networking really is. When you think of a network now, like in a mobile phone or even wireless networks, you have all of these clients connecting to one tower or one base station, so it places a total reliance on the telecom to provide that base station. Whereas the ad-hoc network is disruptive because everyone becomes a mobile base station, because the packets are routed through you, so it gets rid of all of the telecoms. So if you imagine everyone’s device becoming like a kind of mobile tower that re-routes all these messages, it’s a really interesting way of thinking about communications.



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