The nerdy playhouse
Here's a crew of creatives — in the truest sense of the word — rising from hackerspace ground zero
Published: March 7, 2012
Manoulian and fellow OCD member Ted Sliwinski know a thing or two about mopeds. Manoulian is an affable guy with an easy grin and a thing for combustible engines; he's also into bikes and electronics. He puts down a blowtorch to display what is likely the fastest moped in this city: his mint green '78 Puch Maxi Sport MKII with a souped-up 75-cc cylinder kit. (This is a man who built the engine for his Honda Civic in a former meat locker of the building before that was torn down.)
Sliwinski, a certified welder and a machinist, has worked in the bike industry for about 15 years. He moved to Detroit from New York City a few years ago to work at Mount Elliott Makerspace. Much thanks to his efforts, OCD was officially certified by the League for American Bicyclists, apparently becoming the first official "bike friendly" hackerspace in the world.
What Manoulian achieves with speed, Sliwinski realizes in originality. He recently built a moped "basically from scratch," demonstrating the fruits of hacker travail. The Velosolex frame is combined with a friend's old Puch engine, and a clothing rack salvaged from the Atlas building makes for a slick rear frame. The gas tank is a converted fire extinguisher. "Critics call it a deathtrap," Sliwinski says, laughing. These are not bikes for the faint of heart; Sliwinski also reminisces about getting literally thrown off a moped by a man who hopped on the bike and sped away with it, just a few blocks from OCD.
Sliniwnski, who doesn't own a car and relies solely on two-wheeled transport, is an archetype of DIY ethics. Motivated by what he calls "fabrication challenges," he seeks to push his skills by building new things. One such creation is the monstrous "Frankentrike," a 15-foot-long, 5-foot-high trike for two. Sliwinski crafted it from a trio of bike frames that he welded together with parts from an office chair and conduit electrical tubing he recovered from the building's old elevator hookup. He built it in two days, and later took it to the Cass Corridor's rollicking Nain Rouge Parade. You may have seen the Frankentrike barreling down Cass Avenue pulling a little trailer with Sliwinski's hand-wired stereo system and a built-in beer cooler.
Upstairs is a large black room that's empty, save for a laptop and a host of speakers poised at all angles that pipe in sounds unremittingly. These are the early stages of one of OCD's more abstruse projects now under way: a cavern where sensory perception will be confounded such that light and sound, and vegetation will feel like foreign entities to those inside. Fittingly dubbed the "Cave," the multimedia installation will incorporate plants and humans while sonically surpassing the traditional notion of surround sound.
The space was envisioned months ago, when several members met up to discuss a mélange of their own projects. Designer and educator Nina Bianchi had been toying with indoor gardens and ideas of how to manipulate living surfaces. Another member expressed interest in adding multiple video projections that could be triggered with motion. Brandon Richards, a senior processing engineer with a propensity for sound, was seeking to create a 3-D sound system. Richards explains, "After each of us got more and more excited about each other's ideas, someone pointed out [that] we should just put it all together in one place."
The discussions continued, and a small cadre of members moved forward with plans for a long-term, multi-part installation. Ultimately, human interaction in the Cave will trigger shifts in visuals and noise: like the plant lamp in the OCD kitchen, fingering a leaf on the wall, for instance, would dim the lights. Movement inside, or even smell, could also signal changes in the lights or sound.
For the moment, plans for the visuals have taken a back seat to the creation of an intricate sound system. Instead of panning noise from front-to-back, or side-to-side, the Cave will operate with an additional dimension such that sound will be emitted from top-to-bottom, or from the upper right corner to the bottom left corner (or to and from any other direction). The speakers have been installed and a basic software program built. Even in these stages — and despite the still-bare walls — the result is gripping; as Richards moves his fingers along the laptop's touchpad, a pendulous sound sweeps through the room, much like the oscillating path of an insect. Down the line, live input (such as a DJ performances) will be introduced.
Even as Richards and collaborator Aaron Blendowski fiddle with the system and talk about their plans for the Cave, new ideas arise and kinks are resolved, a testament to the organic nature of a project that at times seems to baffle even those involved. At this point, Krenke has taken a break from his moped and come upstairs to check out the impromptu meeting that has converged in the Cave. As Krenke marvels at the plans scrawled on walls, a sort of symbiotic respect is apparent between the bike mechanics and the musicians, artists and inventors concurrently toiling away.
There are interminable plans for the Cave's future, with vegetation a likely focal point. Nina and fellow member Martha Obringer are exploring the use of plants as interfaces, while drawing from the human body's capacitance (meaning its capacity to store energy) through touch. "My vision is to create a modular architectural element ... that can be used to build structures, like a cave," Nina explains. These modular elements, which she loosely describes as large-scale Legos, or "living bricks," will house the plants, whose energy could then be harnessed by microcontrollers for the purpose of altering the output of the Cave.
Ideally, the system will also be controlled remotely, so that the stroke of an iPhone could turn the lights on or off, feed a sample through the speakers, or even water the plants.
Richards also envisions connecting the Cave to a network of other (future or already existing) analogous spaces, such that hackers in a sister Cave could communicate and control aspects of each other's spaces. "We want it to grow as a project that other people and groups can get involved in," he says. "We are really excited to blend all sorts of expertise and experience for a very open, interdisciplinary, and synergistic process."
Richards sees the Cave as an experimental platform for future endeavors, and he feels the objective is not for the installation to be "completed." He and Nina both emphasize that the Cave will continue to evolve over time. In the meantime, Open Hack Nights offer an opportunity to track the Cave's progress.
Nights at OCD are long, and it's time for a beer. The OCD pop machine dispenses Pabst and strange treasures. Like a bizarre twist on the secret prize of an arcade game, if you press the machine's mystery button and feed it a buck, you may win a something most unexpected, like a bottle filled with colored tinsel. And it's not the prize that matters; it's that some grown-up hacked this thing to dispense hilarious junk that other grown-ups made, probably just to make each other laugh. This is the credo steeped through OCD: hilarious, whimsical, handmade genius. It's stuff that both confuses and illuminates, that incites discussion, and calls us to wonder how it is that things are made.
Open Hack Nights happen 8-10 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of each month, open to all. OmniCorpDetroit is at 1501 E. Division in Detroit's Eastern Market. For more information, or to find out what synergy means, see omnicorpdetroit.com/blog.
> Email Laurie Smolenski