Dorkbot - people doing strange things with electricity
Dorkbot (www.dorkbot.org) is a loose, global organisation that runs regular "show and tell" events for geeky grown-ups.
Many cities have a Dorkbot chapter, and more start up every month. The format is simple- a cheap venue is selected, and several featured speakers will demonstrate or describe an invention, program, art-tech happening or similar. I normally shudder at the very thought of mingling art and science, but very often the items showcased at Dorkbot give the same sort of aesthetic reward or thought-provoking feeling that a day in a gallery does.
The first Dorkbot event was in New York, New York in December 2000. It demonstrated some music software for the Palm Pilot and Gameboy; a Java system for programming music and sound events; and pongserver, an object-tracking sound and video system. The fascination with music and sound programs and devices has been retained ever since- beeps, bloops and machines that go PING seem to be a permanent feature.
Nowadays there are regular Dorkbot events in about 50 cities on every continent. I understand that each one has its own atmosphere, but the principle remains the same: pitch up and show the throng what geekery you've been up to. I thoroughly enjoy Dorkbot- and maybe you would too.
Dorkbot London has been going since November 2001; and had their 70th session in August 2010. It alternates between three venues; the Westbourne Studios, Boxing Club at Limehouse Town Hall, and the "State51" premises at the top of Brick Lane.
Limehouse Town Hall is no longer used for civic functions, but pays for its upkeep (just about) by hosting groups like Dorkbot, the University of Openness, and various Prince's Trust groups. It has a sort of civic grandeur, just visible through the grime and disrepair. In places.
State51 is a weird software company that specialises in products to help artists make and sell music. They're based in a disused foam rubber factory, which is really scuzzy but enlivened by various inspiring bits of graffiti-like art. The damp, crumbly, exposed brickwork is slung with twee fairy lights. Squeeze through the corrugated iron gates and you're there, with perhaps 100 others.
Westbourne Studios is a collection of swish artists workshops, clustered around an echoey whitewashed treble-height atrium; all tucked under the canalside stretch of the mighty Westway viaduct.
Dorkbot London meets every other month on Wednesday.
The organised presentations go on according to a schedule, each one inviting questions from the floor. Then it's time for OpenDork, a kind of open mic for anyone with something to share. And, emboldened by the cheap beer on offer, they often do.
Dorkbot London also run occasional special events. This year they had a weekend camp in the woods at... erm.. Dorking, just outside the city. Here they ran workshops for aspirant dorks, or those whose soldering skills needed a brush-up.
Dorkbots's Greatest Hits
I've been attending Dorkbot irregularly for several years. Here's a summary of some of my favourite presentations:
- Lektrolab- A married couple showed off some of their projects, including Teletext-image production software, and a gallery of contributed images that were actually broadcast on NOS in the Netherlands. They also pitched a new Cassette Jockey World Championship. Aspiring CJs will be invited to bring along pre-recorded commercial audio cassettes, and up to seven tape decks which they can mod or circuit bend to their hearts' content.
- James Larson- A Dorkbot favourite, Larson's contributions are spectacular. I saw his device for helping young women on dinner dates make an important decision. He'd constructed a device from a Wacom tablet that she could conceal under her companion's side of the table-cloth. Connected to a computer, it could detect the size of his fingers. By applying an old wives' tale it could then work out the size of his erm... equipment. A volunteer from the audience found himself ranked on a Space Invaders-type Hall of Fame. Larson's previous efforts have included a timepiece that worked by measuring the capacitance, resistance and inductance of the different components of a prawn sandwich as it starts to decay.
- Z-Labs have made several exhibitions, including the cod part of a Filet-O-Fish, sealed in a ziploc bag with an propeller, and a photovoltaic cell. Now the reanimated fish swims along during the day and rests at night. A short film of it being released into the wild was shown.
- Tom Carden showed a remarkable tube map that reshapes itself. Click on a station, and the shape will deform so that point-to-point lengths on the map show how long it will take to get to anywhere else, while preserving accurate physical directions, line information and interchanges.
- Christian Nold showed a system made out of a GPS receiver and a polygraph test set. People could then build up maps showing their level of stress or excitement along their journey. Over time, he's managed to produce a map of London, with the most thrilling areas picked out in red. He's also shown a cunning hack that counts people using a CCTV camera, and spoke eloquently about how the difficulty in estimating crowd sizes influences the effectiveness of political protest.
Noders at Dorkbot
Eventually, I felt moved to present one of my own pet projects- a revised tube map that shows a warped grid representing the real-world distances and directions between stations. A real boon to the urban perambulist. The audience was enthusiastic, and after some tinkering with the contrast on the projector, they could even see what I was talking about. One of their questions was "Can I print it off for my handbag?"
I know that Heisenberg, and TenMinJoe have attended Dorkbot, and ReiToei came to one of their Christmas parties. Oolong has presented his Resonata project at Dorkbot Scotland. And Tom Carden, tube map hacker extraordinaire nodes as Just_Tom.
- Dorkbot - http://www.dorkbot.org
- The State51 Conspiracy - http://www.state51.co.uk/
- Lektroblab - http://www.lektrolab.com/
- 2004 BEIGE Cassette Jockey World Championship - http://www.post-data.org/cassette/
- Photos here:
- Dorkbot London: http://flickr.com/search/?q=dorkbotlondon&m=text
- Dorkbot Generally: http://flickr.com/search/?q=dorkbot
- My own presentation (photographer unknown): http://flickr.com/photos/b_a_s/199637653/
- And the Tube map thing: http://www.kenkil.plus.com/map/