Tech Know: Hacking the everyday

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Media caption,
Ellie Gibson meets hip-gyrating and chain-smoking robots when she visits technology artists.

In our regular series talking to makers and hackers, Tech Know takes time to get to know artists who hack everyday objects in their work.

When the history of maker culture is written, the Mutoid Waste Company (MWC) will have a volume all to itself.

Back in the 1980s, this group of artists toured the country and when they hit a town, found the scrapyard, built a huge sculpture from what they could salvage and then moved on.

It started many of its members on a lifetime of tinkering, hacking and making.

One such is Giles Walker who was part of the MWC for years.

"I had just left college, they were squatting the factory next to where I was living," he said, explaining how he hooked up with them. "It's where I learned welding, discovered windscreen wiper motors and how to trigger them with doorbells."

Now he has become a scrap artist who uses found materials, and those skills, to comment on the society that has discarded them.

Two of his most successful creations are robotic pole-dancers that are very life-like despite being made from cut-up shop mannequins, wiper motors, table legs, old CCTV cameras and castors. Together the two dancers form a piece called Peep Show.

Image caption,
In Andrew Back's hands a song becomes a stream of numbers

"It's a quiet protest against CCTV cameras and the British obsession with surveillance," said Mr Walker. "I read in the paper about this guy who was monitoring CCTVs in a police station had been caught following women around the city centre using the CCTV cameras."

"That's what gave me the idea to link it with voyeurism and peep shows," he said.

For years the pole-dancers have been Mr Walker's bread-and-butter as they have been hired out for parties, weddings and corporate events. They have toured the world and even been on stage at the NME Awards with Lily Allen.

The pole-dancers and other pieces by Mr Walker also demonstrate how the ordinary and everyday can be transformed into something much greater than a simple parts list would imply.

'Disgusting work'

The same is true of the work of design student Katrin Baumgarten who has been playing about with light switches.

"They every day objects people interact with," she said, explaining her choice of light switch as a medium. "It's familiar so people know what to do when they see it."

Instead of simply trying to improve on the light switch, she used them as a way to investigate the relationship between humans and everyday objects. She did it by making the light switches disgusting.

"Disgust is usually discarded as an emotion in design because it concentrates on good emotions," she said. However, she said, the repellent can also be eerily fascinating and it was that tension she wanted to explore with the switches.

Image caption,
These light switches are scary when seen up close

"I'm very much interested in interaction which has consequences," she said, "I'm not that interested in light switches."

One of Ms Baumgarten's switches has hairs that become erect when a finger approaches. Another secretes goo, one is made of fingernails and another of chewing gum. The most playful creation refuses to be switched at all and hides when a finger approaches.

The switches are monitored by an Arduino circuit board which records which was pressed, when and for how long.

"I do not know if people do not like it or think disgust is the wrong approach," she said. "At least they will discuss it."

Craft art

Mr Walker and Ms Baumgarten are not alone as artists that are deconstructing the everyday and turning it into something else. There are many others too.

In a work currently on display at the Watermans Gallery, hacker Andrew Back has turned John Foxx's slice of 1980's electronica Dr No into a sequence of numbers. Gallery visitors are encouraged to write down the numbers on a paper pad thus transforming the work from one form to another.

At the same gallery Matthew Applegate, aka Pixelh8, is showing off some children's musical toys that he has hacked to turn them into beatboxes and interactive instruments.

There are many, many more. And what all of them demonstrate is that being a maker is as much about point of view as it is about craft, hard work and knowing the right mix for your welding torch.

That view changes the world in the sense that objects subject to it can become something greater than they ever were. And it also has a profound effect on anyone that takes the step of viewing the world in the same way.

Objects, the everyday clutter that surround us, are no longer seen for what they are, but for what they become. They are appreciated for their possibilities not their current state of being. Take that step, employ that view and you will realise that nothing is ever the same again.

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