DIY Seminar @ Braunschweig HBK

A seminar about creativity and DIY culture wrapped up on Saturday at Braunschweig’s HBK. Over the course of three weeks, students learned about many open tools and processes, focusing on realizing their creativity both on and offline. They learned how to program an Arduino, how to be a Wikipedian, and how to license their work to enable sharing and remixing.

The wonderful organizers (Björn Bischof and Julia Schreiber) invited a diverse group of guests to join the last class. There were quite a number of speakers, and we had a long but interesting day ahead. The biggest take-away for me was seeing the students’ final projects — all very impressive accomplishments for people with little or no background in the topic. The teachers were excellent as well, and you could tell their passions and interests had infected the whole classroom.

During the show & tell, the students introduced their final projects, most of them executed with the knowledge they gained during the seminar. There was a homemade multi-touch screen, inspired by the infamous c-base ping pong board, made out of an old shoebox. One student harvests honey, and rather than walking up to 30km to regularly check on the combs, he created an Arduino-driven update system, which sends him an SMS if the hives change weight. Another project attached a chip to a ballpoint pen, which would make sounds as you drew. The further away from the starting point, the higher the audio’s pitch. Using this technique, the student could play a hand-drawn piano. There was also a Lilypad-powered game sewn into a glove. The player would press her fingers together in a given sequence to score points.

The last project we were shown was actually a six-month labor of love: an mega controller for manipulating and synthesizing tracks fed through a laptop. The clear plastic box housed a nest of cables and inputs, all wired through Arudino to create an impressive array of sounds. There was even a live performance that left the room grooving to the beat. (Hopefully video soon…).

Then the floor was handed over to the guest speakers. As we shifted to set up our presentations, it struck me how hardware, especially Apple’s, is in desperate need of standardization. I know they make a killing by selling final-inch adapters (I just bought one for 24EUR, thanks). But it’s not like one cable will do. Each laptop model has a different configuration, it seems, and nothing ever hooks up well to the projector. At one point, we were standing with — no joke — four unique Apple adapters, and none of them connected to the first speaker’s computer. Appreciate the exploitative biz model, Mr. Jobs!

Apart from that, the presentations went smoothly. Mey Lean Kronemann demoed her “shy lights” (Schüchterne Lichter), green dots on a dance floor that react to party-goers’ movement. Mey also built light-sensitive swarm robots for her thesis, and if you want to create your own, you can grab the design from her.

Felix Hardmood Beck scored some laughs with “My Little Soundbombs“, a beloved bundle of chips and wires that can be programmed to produce sounds, and tossed, for example, into mailboxes or up in trees, shouting expletives until the batteries die. He also designed the Geocane, which I had coincidentally seen three years ago at a UdK opening house. As a soon-to-be Santiago pilgrim, the cane had caught my eye, but with Felix’s piece, you don’t have to travel to Compostela for some adventure. The cane loads up data from geocaching (you can decide if you want to go to a social place or a quiet place, aka “Go Community!” or “Go Religious!”), and then head outdoors. The cane is equipped with GPS, and it vibrates to show you the way to go. I also had seen Felix’s latest piece, the Eyelight Dot Me, at the DMY in 2009. He shared a great tip for getting good coverage on designs: prepare print & blog-ready flyers that explain your product in an accessible and cool way. This makes it easier for people to pick up on your designs and pass them around, which is ultimately good for you. ^_^

Later on, M3nd3l wowed us with the bleeding edge of 3D printing and scanning. No stranger to tinkering, M3nd3l showed us how to scan a 3D object using a web cam, a container, and a lot of milk. There is also the Splinescan, NXT 3D scanner, and the David laserscanner (the latter can map a 3D object by simply swiping a laser beam across something placed in a corner). We also learned about the growing possibilities in 3D printing, not only Reprap and MakerBot, but did you know that people are already printing structures out of concrete and glass‽ M3nd3l also told us about some work to develop biodegradable printer goop — that’s great news, considering how much people are and will use these things.

As M3nd3l and others noted, it’s important in this field to share designs and improve on prototypes. That’s why free software and free content are corner stones to much of modern tinkering. There are of course many sites and good apps, but definitely don’t forget Blender, the 3D animation software, and Thingiverse, a very cool platform for sharing 3D designs.

Olaf had us reflect a bit on the roots of DIY. He noted that when he was a kid, back in the 70’s, the ideal was buying a toy that was complete. Why on earth would you want the hassle of making it yourself? Now, Olaf notes, we’re living in a de-culture, where even Fendi tries to ride the DIY hype by selling a customization kit for an 800EUR(‽) beige bag. He asks: what are we buying with such kits? Where is the value? (A great question for the Free Culture Incubator in two weeks, actually).

Olaf introduced a lovely quotation from Andy Warhol: “Wasted space is any space that has art in it.” If so, how does that resolve itself with Joseph Beuys’s famous line, “Everybody is an artist.” If we are all making things, and we even have (ironic) kits that help us realize our inner artist, what is the role then of The Artist, if any. What is the role of art?

While all the philosophy is hashed out, at least we can have fun with the clever, creative outputs of DIY artists like Aram Bartholl. Download a pair of his first person shooter glasses (above), for example, and see what all the fuss is about. You can also revel in IKEA hacking, as these manga artists demonstrated with their build-your-own-sarcophagus kit, “DIY, or How to Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $300“.

Hopefully neither you nor I will be needing one of those anytime soon. In the meantime, a huge thank you to the seminar organizers, the students, and the fellow speakers for an inspiring day in Braunschweig. As I mentioned in my talk, there are lots of things in Berlin that will continue to riff on these themes. If you’ve got time, be sure to check out the Open Design Workshop at the Social Media Week and the Free Culture Incubator at the transmediale. There be many-a tinkering to come!

Images: “First Person Shooter Glasses” by Aram Bartholl / CC BY NC SA. “DIY, or How to Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $300” by Joe Scanlan / CC BY NC SA.

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