Friday, December 10, 2010

Maker's Mark: Portland nerdcrafters turn old ideas into new items

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Galen Richmond may work in the best tradition of Maine craft artisans, forging functional creations out of everyday materials most might consider junk, but there the comparison stops. Richmond is very much a craftsman for the 21st century, perhaps something of a refugee from one of those far, far away galaxies that populate the Star Wars saga.
He creates new musical instruments out of old electronics, such as a Casio SK-1 synthesizer keyboard that looks quite normal until your gaze expands to encompass the matrix of toggle switches attached to its right end and the Atari joystick (complete with button) on the left. The switches and joystick are so seamlessly integrated, so tightly put together, that for a moment it becomes hard to envision the keyboard without those add-ons, all wired into the keyboard's internal circuitry, allowing the instrument to produce music far beyond what its manufacturers intended. Sure, the keys and pre-recorded drum rhythms are still there, but flipping switches and playing with the joystick morph the sound into new realms, warping standard keyboard tones into warbles, groans, creaks, and screeches. (If you still haven't gotten the picture, go check out the setup — and its music — at one of Richmond's numerous local club gigs; he performs as Computer At Sea.)

The term "nerd-crafting" has emerged in the popular culture to apply to work like Richmond's, which goes beyond traditional crafting (think the knit hats and handmade jewelry that are also so popular in Portland) into something related to geek- or nerd-dom, like electronics, comics, or video games. Richmond says his work is part of "the increasingly visible maker culture." It's more than traditional crafting (think knit hats and handmade jewelry), also popular in Portland.

Another of his devices is an OmniChord, an '80s-era electronic instrument with a touch-sensitive strip of metal a player can use to "strum" it. Not satisfied with that capability in a machine made a couple decades ago, Richmond pierced the case with several dozen furniture tacks and then opened it up and wired each tack to a different area of the internal sound-creation or -modification electronics. Now, pretty much wherever you touch the device, the sound it is making changes. (Richmond does wire those and other instruments into an un-modified MPC 2000 drum-machine/sampler/sequencer, in an effort to create music from these sounds, rather than simply making different noises.)

He started this sort of work, called circuit-bending, in 2007, modifying existing — often obsolete — electronic devices to create new sounds. Inspired by a circuit-bent Speak & Spell he spotted on eBay but could not afford (it was selling for hundreds of dollars), he decided to figure out how to make his own and discover what he calls "unheard sounds in the universe."

 
"The idea is that there's these other sounds just lurking in the hardware that weren't designed by anyone and weren't made to be heard," he says. As recently as a few years ago, it was possible to discover entirely new sounds. As more people have gotten involved — and as an online community has gathered to share techniques and recordings — it's rarer to make a new discovery totally outside an existing "family" of sounds (made from similar modifications to particular devices).
But it's still tantalizing, Richmond says: "There's always the chance that you could uncover a totally never-before-heard sound."

The craft comes not only in the workmanship of his customized devices (which also include an oversized circuit-board on display at the Children's Museum of Maine, and old books hollowed out and reconfigured with knobs and audio jacks to modify whatever sound signals are sent through it), but in the artistic repurposing of concepts, characters, items — saving them from the literal and figurative dustbin. Richmond puts it more humbly: "Salvaging this sort of useless-to-everyone-else technology and making something compelling out of it."

Finding niches
There's definitely an element of play in this kind of pursuit. Christian Matzke of Brunswick likes the idea of "taking something extremely adult in material and making a child's toy out of it." It helps him — and others — to hang on (or perhaps rediscover) the childlike wonder and fantastical ideas of youth, which adults so easily lose as they grow up.

For example, he has built a "NosferatView," a vampire-spotting device that is based on established techniques for spotting vampires (perhaps it's not such a toy: "you have it on the shelf in case someone comes to your house who is pal and has sharp teeth," Matzke says). And he created a life-size time machine, complete with valves, dials, tubes, gauges, and everything else you might imagine such equipment requires.

But while those appeal to the growing number of vampire/steampunk aficionados, he has also begun developing another small niche based, perhaps, more on nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood: making Lego scenes for bands. It started with a model he made of Laibach, a Slovenian band, of the band on stage (he customized the Lego figures' faces based on famous incidents, like the time the band's singer was hit in the face by a bottle thrown onstage, and bled while singing the rest of the show). "The band is buying it from me," Matzke says with surprise and pride.
Now he's at work on Lego dioramas of other bands, including Romanian electronic group NSK. While he prefers to create his own work and not derive it from others, Matzke admits that having a "built-in audience" can be an advantage when it comes to finding people who appreciate the effort.

It helps, too, when trying to make some money. Tristan Gallagher runs Fun Box Monster Emporium on Congress Street, selling action figures, games, accessories, and all sorts of nerdish ephemera, selling to those who share these types of interests. "It's about referencing stuff that you love," Gallagher says. He also makes T-shirts based on the Star Wars series, Nintendo videogames, and the occasional comic-book character (though he is careful to stay away from DC Comics characters, for fear of incurring the wrath of the phalanx of lawyers employed by DC parent Warner Bros.).

"Lucasfilm is very cool about making T-shirts, making artwork," he says. In fact, they almost use fans like Gallagher as product research. "If they like it, they'll take it," Gallagher laughs, describing how Lucasfilm will find a design and, rather than sending an attorney's nastygram, the company's staff do the design themselves and start selling it directly.

For fun or profit?Uniqueness, it turns out, is crucial to this kind of work. Ben Bishop, a local creator of custom action figures, bases his decision on whether to make a custom toy in part on whether he thinks the companies that actually own the characters he builds would issue their own versions. If something is already on the market, or is about to be, Bishop will skip it. For him, it's not just the creative process — "I guess I just wanted toys that didn't exist," he says with a grin.

He bought lots of toys, mixed and matched the parts, sculpted headgear and accessories, and meticulously repainted each part to create, for example, Lion-O from Thundercats out of a Skeletor figure from He-Man.
He even goes so far as to make box labels and design the packaging — reusing other action figures' plastic boxes — "to make them look like they're from the store."

Now, after roughly a year, he has finally settled on a kind of paint that both looks right and sticks to the plastic figures, and is getting requests for specific characters from fans around the world.

Bishop sells some of his custom-made figures to help fund his hobby; he recently took an order for 100 Sgt. Slaughter figures, combining the GI Joe figure with aspects of the '80s-era professional wrestler by the same name. (A tip for others who might be interested in starting this kind of work: "People are dying for Thundercats," Bishop says.)

Often Bishop comes up with ideas of what figures to make and then sorts out how to do it, with what parts from what original figures. But sometimes new techniques or even new toys open other opportunities, as recently happened with a Jack Knight Modern Starman figure, which has pants on and makes it much easier to create other figures that have pants (as opposed to shorts or bare legs).

Bishop has a love-hate relationship of sorts with this hobby. It takes a lot of time and creative energy from other work, like comics (yes, he made an action figure of Nathan the Caveman, the star of his graphic novel). But then again, "this is really fun."

Which is why he and Ben Asselin, a friend and fellow character-builder (who does more sculpting than repurposing existing toy parts), are considering partnering with a couple of other friends to form a concept-art business capable of designing and prototyping characters and figures, laying out storyboards, handling Web comics, cartoons, and even packaging materials. "We're all sort of doing all the stuff that would be required," Bishop says.

But then the conversation shifts back to fun. Bishop and Asselin are planning on making a fa├žade of Castle Grayskull scaled to fit the 3.75-inch-high action figures. And Asselin, a huge GI Joe fan, is busy creating all the characters from a specific scene in the 1987 animated film GI Joe: The Movie — which means getting or making the more generic figures of each character and then adding clothing and accessories to match the movie.

Bishop says a lot of the appeal for him is "having something that you've created — and something that no one else has." He laughs: "I want to be able to stop doing it, but it's too fun."

Where can I find it?
COMPUTER AT SEA will be releasing an album in early 2011, downloadable online (myspace.com/computeratseamusic) or you can buy the 12-inch white-vinyl record.
BEN BISHOP's work can be seen at bishart.net. BEN ASSELIN's work can be seen at benasselin.blogspot.com. They will have a joint display at Fun Box Monster Emporium (656 Congress Street, Portland) during a First Friday Art Walk in early 2011.
CHRISTIAN MATZKE's work is harder to find, but is sometimes featured in short films shown around the area.