Gay Talese’s Basement
Attention all alpha nerds, male and female alike: If circuit boards, hacking and soldering get your fuses blowing, then you might want to check your local newsstand for the latest do-it-yourself bible for artistic technophiles who like to get their hands dirty. It’s Make, which calls itself “a hybrid magazine/book (known as a mook in Japan).”
With the dimensions of a large paperback, this new quarterly is thick with “recipes” for building everything from cigar-box guitars and espresso-machine temperature regulators to tandem dogcarts and electric marimbas. In refreshing contrast to its nerdy content, the publication’s design is bright and clean. Make is for smarties with good aesthetic sense—and enough disposable income to pay $14.99 per “volume” or $34.95 for a four-issue subscription.
Though do-it-yourself projects may be the mettle of Make, this mook also features profiles of crafty geniuses the likes of Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, an ultra-safe electric scooter for pedestrian areas; reviews of new products; guides to DIY kits for such things as robots, lawn mowers and homemade cheese; and musings on the cultural implications of technologies.
Make is smart but doesn’t take itself too seriously. With a tone that takes cues from the political and artistic movements that reacted to industrialization at the turn of the century, Make starts off with a “Crafter Manifesto.” If Marx worried that technology was separating the artisan from his craft, Make suggests that the artisan should create the technology.
Make is subversive in the way it gets people to repurpose things the high-tech industry has produced. The maker capitalizes on corporate investments in the research and development of low-cost, high-tech products. Because technology keeps getting cheaper, the maker’s components are more accessible than they’ve ever been. So why not take a chance, hack into some electronics, and make them your own?
For example, if you don’t like the way your java tastes, Make tells you how to alter that stock espresso filter to get delicious “crema” on top of your cup. Want more from your Game Boy than sexy graphics? Make can help you turn it into a musical instrument. In short, the crafter uses technology on his or her terms, not on those set by corporate engineers.
Artists tend to be people who question the motives and implications of big business, of politicians and of cultural mores, so it’s not surprising that the people who contribute to Make—and those who edit it—come from arts, rather than engineering, backgrounds. They’re photographers, illustrators, fine artists, welders, carpenters, novelists and “aging punks” with a penchant for technology. The publisher, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, who is known for his books on computers, reveled in the arts while an undergraduate at Harvard; he majored in classics and wrote his thesis on Plato.
Today, it’s easy to cross over from the arts to the sciences and vice versa. Lower barriers to entry—intellectual and economic—have allowed artists to hop the fence from traditional media into previously uncharted territories such as electronics, robotics and biotechnology. Make is symptomatic of this increased cultural awareness of the artistic possibilities of technology.
Personal computers are now cheap and powerful enough that musicians can turn them into instruments. There is no more need for musicians to go to places like the Computer Music Center at Columbia University (birthplace of the Moog synthesizer) to make music with pricey and large equipment. Although the Music Center still exists, its director, artist Douglas Repetto, admits that the researchers don’t use the building much: “Everyone can work on a laptop from home. Why would you want to come to this cold, dirty place to work?” One of two RCA Mark IIs in the world, synthesizers built in the 1950s for $500,000 each, sits in the Center collecting dust, a testament to the death of elitist electronic music. Make will tell you how to build your own “String Thing,” an instrument that sounds like an electric cello and is made of lasers, guitar strings and clothes hangers.
Even the previously necessary knowledge of programming languages to make electronic music is now an archaic notion. The Princeton University Laptop Orchestra, or PLOrk, is an assortment of freshmen with limited knowledge of music and even less of computer programming. Each student is equipped with a laptop and a set of speakers, and together they create music—in real time—by writing code. Made with computer dummies in mind, the operating platform is easy enough for anyone to write decent music with a little practice.
If electronic music isn’t your thing, then maybe building robots is. Make can give you instructions on how to craft several, but be advised that you may have to play catch-up. Artists have been onto robot building for a while. There’s an annual international “Robot Talent Show,” called Artbots, in which anyone who wants to participate—usually people with aesthetic sensibilities and engineering prowess—can display their bots that draw, create rhythms or are automated puppets, among other kinds.
In addition to robotics and electronic music, “bioartists” are now experimenting with genetics, using common lab practices, such as transfection and cloning, to make artworks out of living animals. One of them, Eduardo Kac, collaborated with a French laboratory to procure Alba, a bioluminescent bunny whose DNA is combined with that of a phosphorescent jellyfish, making her glow bright green under a certain blue light. Before she died of natural causes, Alba was photographed incessantly and became the icon of the bioart movement.
More and more, anyone will be able to use technology in interesting new ways, some even useful. People of all sorts of backgrounds will inform the design of our tools, will customize their electronic possessions and will push the boundaries of art. Make is there to lend a helping hand.