circuit-bending and the diy culture

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The present article aims to inscribe Circuit-Bending in Do it Yourself (DIY) Culture and analyzethe anti-consumerist, rebellious, and creativity aspects which make up the culture. The main goalis to show the subversive status of DIY culture, using the specific case of circuit-bending, which,seen through this prism, can subvert the hegemonic “distribution of the sensible,” achieving whatJacques Attali, in the late 1970s, called the “age of composition,” in which creators are enticed toproduce their own aesthetics.


Circuit-Bending and DIY CultureAlexandre Marino Fernandez and Fernando Iazzetta Universidade de So Paulo - Brasil

Abstract The present article aims to inscribe Circuit-Bending in Do it Yourself (DIY) Culture and analyze the anti-consumerist, rebellious, and creativity aspects which make up the culture. The main goal is to show the subversive status of DIY culture, using the specific case of circuit-bending, which, seen through this prism, can subvert the hegemonic distribution of the sensible, achieving what Jacques Attali, in the late 1970s, called the age of composition, in which creators are enticed to produce their own aesthetics.

Introduction Circuit-bending consists of opening up low voltage (battery powered) electronic devices (musical toys, radio apparatuses, electronic keyboards, synthesizers, cd and dvd players, etc.), change (bend) the way electricity flows through their circuits until achieving an interesting sound. One typically practices circuit-bending by removing and/or adding electronic components, connecting different circuits, or even adding organic elements to the circuit (such as the circuit-benders hand, or even fruits and vegetables). Upon obtaining the desired result, the next step usually calls for soldering the component into the circuit or marking the specific places to be touched. At the end of the process, some choose to design a nice case for accommodating this newly created instrument - an infra-instrument, in the words of John Bowers and Phil Archer in the article Not Hyper, Not Meta, Not Cyber but Infra-Instruments (Bowers & Archer: 2005).

In 1992, Qubais Reed Ghazala named the technique in a series of articles he wrote for Experimental Music Instrument magazine. He describes how he discovered this method of creating instruments, when, in 1967, he accidentally let a screwdriver come into contact with the circuitry of a battery powered amplifier, producing a short circuit that sounded rather interesting. As he puts it: If this can happen to an amp, not supposed to make a sound on its own, what might happen if one were to short out circuits that already make a sound, such as keyboards and radios and toys? (Ghazala: 2004, 97)

As part of the experimental music tradition, circuit-bending follows the paths of such innovators as Alvin Lucier, David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, John Cage, among others, who advanced the limits and frontiers of musical creation. As Ghazala puts it, over the last several years, experimentalism has taken flight and can be heard within many popular genres. Currently, for instance, several popular music groups, such as Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, Mike Patton, and Bjork, use bent instruments in their setups (sometimes instruments not bent by themselves). Ghazala argues that circuit-benders are at the very forefront of this experience of new experimentalism, constantly pushing music forward with original discoveries. (Ghazala: 2005, 23)

At first, one sees a rebellious characteristic in circuit-bending as part of an experimental attitude. Circuit-bending creates a rupture in the consumerist society, since experimentalism is based on the need for free time, time to waste on making mistakes (a trial-and-error attitude). The goal is the unexpected, neither perfection nor efficacy. Benders seek, within this

unexpectedness, a learning experience, creation, discovery. When practicing circuit-bending, the principal aim is not to play the latest hi-tech tool, working only with inputs and outputs in a simplistic way, but rather to create something unique. Experimentalism manifests as a discipline of the ego, and therefore the artist must accept outside contributions and even displeasing things, freed from personal preferences and open for new experiences (Campos: 1998, 135).

Lo-fi aesthetics display another key aspect of circuit-bending. At the end of the 20th century, the error, the flaw, and the glitch are the stimulants that feed music: musical sonic material are the noises that electronic devices generate (Iazzetta: 2009, 189). Following this logic, circuit-bending proposes an art that is not intended for specialist musicians. It approaches other artistic models, connecting those who create, perform, and listen, breaking the barriers between them, allowing for niches to open where the ordinary person can (re)approach the musical creation.

Circuit-bending, then, is an interdisciplinary practice, a mixture of electric engineering and music, but also a small amount of design, sound art, and performance. Emphasis lies in its procedural character and its focus on the concept. As John Cage says: the utility of the useless is good news for the artists. For art does not have a material objective. Has to do with changing of minds and spirits. (Cage apud Campos: 1998, 130) Transforming the useless and the expendable into raw material for creation and production is the tonic note of circuit-bending.

In short, the immediacy and singularity of the instruments created represent two intentional aspects of circuit-bending, as seen in Ghazalas book Circuit-Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments: My aim, more than a decade ago when I began to write about the DIY of circuit-bending, was to launch new, unique instruments by means of explaining only the general discovery process of circuit-bending instead of using the more standard this wire goes here dialogue a dialogue that usually results in exact duplications of a target instrument. (Ghazala: 2005, XIII)

Circuit-Bending and DIY culture In the above quotation, Ghazala clearly inscribes circuit-bending in DIY culture. It is compelling, then, to explore and conceptualize DIY culture and its relationship to circuitbending.

Eric Paulos and Stacey Kuznetsov, in Rise of the Expert Amateur: DIY Projects, Communities, and Cultures, pose a concise and pertinent definition for DIY: any creation, modification or repair of objects without the aid of paid professionals. We use the term amateur not as a reflection on a hobbyists skills, which are often quite advanced, but rather, to emphasize that most of DIY culture is not motivated by commercial purposes. (Kuznetsov & Paulos: 2010, 01)

Thus, the DIY phenomenon is clearly nothing new. It dates back to the practices in which a craft and the unskilled amateurs stage were opposed to professional practice and industrial

mass production. Historically speaking, DIY was the production method used to develop, create, and/or build throughout most of history. However, modern societies changed this principle by the gradual valorization and establishment of mass-production which led to the consumerist society in which we currently find ourselves. According to this way of thinking, professionals and specialists can be hired to build, create, decorate, and/or make repairs, as well as any product, for any necessity, can be bought at a nearby mega-store.

It is noteworthy to see how this movement manifests during the modern era. Mass production becomes established in the 18th century as part of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. Together with the ideals of liberals such as Adam Smith, this new mode of production spread throughout western society. The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, (as well as the flourishing appeal of science and technology) led to a boom in inventors and hobbyist activities. Model building, photography, high-fidelity audio, all created a vast multitude of technical hobbyists who gathered around specific interests. The fragmentation of the production chain and the alienation of the individual brought about by mass production sparked a new interest in manual and craft activities. Hobbyists activities played an important social role because they allowed laymen to tackle complex science and technology topics which were shaping the very idea of modernity. Such activities were organized through magazines, books, clubs, and suppliers. They also entailed connecting hobbyists to a specific social network that helped define their identification with an increasingly homogenized, massive social condition. A remarkable case in which audio technology attracted the attention of hobbyists was the radio that was sold in kits for home assembly in the 1920s and 30s.

The Second World War and the globalized consumerist model, however, weakened the hobbyist and amateurist movement for a period of time, imposing a mass consumption mentality throughout most of the western world. An initial reaction to such standardizing appears in the Free Jazz movement of the 1960s, with its focus on unrestrained improvisation and the production of records outside of the industrial chain, by such associations as AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and Candid Records. In the 1970s, the Punk movement also emerged as a rebellion against this hegemonic order, bringing DIY to the scene. For these artists, ineptitude was seen as virtue, as Paul Hegarty argues, the creativity that comes from a lack of preconceptions and willingness to try out anything, even if badly (Hegarty: 2008, 89). Similar to Free Jazz, punk artists such as Crass, for example, also joined forces to release their records, bypassing the record industry, and criticizing the musical marketplace from a DIY perspective. In the 1990s, the DIY movement became stronger due to rave culture and the beginning of the netlabel movement, both focusing on independent production (of events and records). In the 21st century, with the Internet becoming a vast network of information exchange, the DIY movement expanded, increasing the amount of adherents in several fields: from growing herbs indoors, producing textiles, knitting, and crocheting, to working on all kinds of electronic projects.

In the above mentioned article, Kuznetsov and Paulos present some rather significant data from surveys taken

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