Circuit bending at VIVO

VIVO began life in 1973 as the Satellite Video Exchange Society (SVES). A small group of avante garde video artists gathered together their young families to live together in a collective where they could make unique art on their own terms. Almost forty years later, their vision of an experimental art society persists, and “has grown into a vibrant artist-run centre with state of the art facilities and educational workshops,” as stated on their website. The centre now provides a means of experimentation, expression and distribution to a new vanguard exploring new media.

An important aspect of VIVO, or Video In Video Out, is their Work Exchange Program, which credits volunteers with 14 “video bucks” good for the rental of equipment and payment of workshop fees. This system allows anyone with enough curiosity to get a lot accomplished just by paying a $50 (associate) or $100 (producer) membership fee and working to help the centre. Cooperating in this way gives all of the members a sense of community that is, according to Operations and Education Coordinator Dinka Pignon, equally important to the technical means VIVO provides.

In an interview with The Courier, Dinka points out that when you "give people open hands and encourage an open minded approach ... people will do magic. Lots of good art has emerged from here coming from young people who haven't had much experience with art." The art to which she refers came out of SLAB (short for Studio Lab). This is a set of workshops and ongoing projects teaching “visual multimedia programming, real-time media manipulation, circuit bending, physical computing, and all you need to know to get your art to move.”

Votes for Sleepwalkers was a SLAB project which was displayed from October 2 to 11, 2008. It featured seven interactive pieces from seven different artists, all with varying themes and employing different techniques. Analogue Detour to Electronic Sound & Video, which ran from May 29 to June 7 in 2009, was the product of a ten-day residency of Swedish sound artists Kent and Wenche Tankred, and featured an immersive light and sound display. Performance artist Emilio Rojas stated in summary of the second project, “I would recommend the SLAB workshops for anyone who wants to mature as an artist, and learn different skills to enhance their media practice.”

The emphasis of this lab is on providing a place to experiment without boundaries and challenge social and artistic convention. "Not that I'm saying that conventions are not to be respected, but they are also there to be broken and stepped over," Dinka says with a smile during our interview.

One of the more impressive rooms in the building is a video archive stretching back to the ‘60s, when video tape was played on reel-to-reel machines just like the ones used for old audio recordings. Christa Dahl, Senior Advisor to the Board of Directors and Archivist at VIVO, gave me a tour of the archives.

“We actually have one of the most important collections of historic video art,” she said, pulling a ½” reel of Nam June Paik’s from the shelf. Paik was an important cultural figure and electronic artist who rubbed elbows with the likes of experimental composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, and the archives are replete with his work. Moving through the shelves of reels, primitive cassettes and beta, we made it past the players for each of these old formats to the artist documentation. This section contains gobs of information on every artist in the archive, and is definitely the place to go if you ever have the passion to write a unique paper for Art History.

From January onward, the archives will be opened to the public, and people will be able to walk in, select a piece of video art, sit down and watch it. If you ask me, that’s just downright nifty. Recently, Willy LeMaitre presented a 3D stereographic video exhibition that was really enjoyable and a lot better than Final Destination. Opening the archives will let more people receive a unique experience of the screen, which, as Martha would say, is a good thing.

Circuit Bending

Myself and three others lean back in our seats around the workshop table now crowded with tools, wire and soldering irons only just switched off. It is time. Time to marvel at our twisted creations. I press the demo button on my two dollar toy piano to run through the songs. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” begins to play, and I look up at my comrades in anticipation. Do I dare? I slowly twist the newly installed knob, not knowing what exactly to expect.

The tune slows and the pitch drops, and suddenly Mary doesn’t have a little lamb anymore – she’s riding some kind of starship made of unicorns through hell! The others power on their bent circuits, and for the next few minutes, the sounds of electronic chaos can be heard bleep-blooping and hissing and doing other unspeakable things while our instructor David Leith looks on in satisfaction. Every few seconds, I catch a snippet of another song from my childhood rise above the din. No, kids, we’re not on acid, we’re just at a VIVO workshop.

Circuit bending is the somewhat esoteric process of manipulating electronic things to get them to do things they were never meant to do. To bend a circuit is similar to breaking one, only you don’t go all the way. The typical subjects are toys that make noise, and the typical end results can be broken down into three categories. A broken toy is the most common and least satisfying eventuality, but getting it to the breaking point can be fun. Most toys are transformed into pretty noisemakers, which are very fun. With a bit of luck and ingenuity, though, a two dollar toy from Value Village can become a sonic portal to another dimension. This is the most fun of the three categories, but it can be unnerving to hear the voice of the beast growling from the two inch speaker on your sky-blue toy piano.

The basic process of bending a circuit is actually fairly simple. First, you pry open the case to expose the vulnerable innards of your device. A pen and paper are needed to create a map for future voyages into the realm. After these preparations, and using whichever finger you wish, you poke at the circuit board (best to do this while the thing is operating, but avoid high voltage). The object is to locate areas and components of the device that cause some strange effect, like altering pitch, making noise or generating a loop – a series of sounds or device functions that repeats itself, sometimes changing with repetitions.

But circuit bending extends far beyond poking at the guts of old toys. In fact, its only limitations are the imagination and expertise of the bender. Slightly altering the design of an old Speak & Spell can cause the speaking portion to glitch and spout off a bunch of alien gibberish. Actually, the Speak & Spell line of toys from Texas Instruments are some of the most popular toys to bend, since the speech synthesizer and low computing power offer up lots of bizarre behaviour with the right treatment. David Leith explains this and Benoit, a sound designer for Ubisoft, says, “I used to have one of those, but in French,” to which David replied “it wouldn’t be after you got done with it!”

Unfortunately, none of us found anything that could speak or spell, but we were all able to make some amazing bends. Among these were an evil laughing keychain that became much more evil after modification, something with a sheep on it that definitely didn’t sound like a sheep, a flashing toy microphone that sang an inter-dimensional version of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” and that sky-blue toy piano mentioned earlier (you may have seen that one around Cap in early December).

It was all very experimental and risky, which is true of many things that happen at VIVO. This is not the place for people who are in love with the status quo, nor is it right for people who don’t enjoy being horrifically confused every now and then. But for those brave boys and girls who aren’t afraid to leave the safety of predictable art, the risk and confusion pay off handsomely with some unforgettable experiences. With the right combination of set, scene and audience, this new media can be as transformative as a master painting or film. VIVO is a unique place, and it deserves your attention if you’ve ever wanted to see what life is like at the forefront of artistic innovation.

To learn more about VIVO, go to www.videoinstudios.com. If you’d like to participate in a circuit bending club, email sky_hester@hotmail.com.

//Sky Hester


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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com