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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Urban DIY Tech Event at Robotspeak

TGIF met DIY a little over a week ago, on September 19, at the music-tech store/salon Robotspeak in the Lower Haight district of San Francisco. Donald Bell (aka Chachi Jones) and other Robotspeak friends and staff hooked up a little project that was part lo-tech experimentation, part audio-video mashup, and part urban prank.

Bell announced the impending event earlier that day on his Twitter account (twitter.com/donald), where a post read “Stop by Robotspeak at sundown tonight if you want to check out our Max/MSP video installation. One night only.”

At around 7pm, the Robotspeak front gate was locked, and the front window, which usually sports objects like Ableton boxes, antique oscillators, and Bell’s own circuit-bent Speak & Spells, was covered with a curtain. But by sunset, 7:20pm, the gate was unlocked and the Robotspeak Irregulars were at their stations.

The set-up was simple: inside the store sat a primed projector looping moving goofy, sometimes distorted, images (of Gary Coleman, seen below, as well as Flavio), while a PA was set to squawk noisy bits of sound.

Both audio and video were tied to an ultrasonic sensor set into a circuit board, seen below, which fed into a MacBook running a homegrown software patch, written in the popular Max/MSP toolkit.

The sensor served as a proximity monitor, so each time people walked by — headed toward a good sausage at Rosamunde, or a beer at the Toronado — they momentarily triggered the system, which shot onto the screen the current status of the video, and simultaneously turned on the sound. The contraption required some tweaking, like moving the circuit board to the outside of the store, because it wasn’t working through the plate-glass window. Also complicating matters a little was that a light drizzle began to fall, for the first time in what seemed like months. Still, busy Haight Street did its part, offering a steady stream of unwitting participants.

More on the excellent Robotspeak store at robotspeak.com. (And for future reference, my own Twitter account is twitter.com/disquiet.)

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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