Bending circuits, subverting consumer culture


Squeaks, squeals, blips, and borps emerged from every corner. Techno music was the soundtrack. Computerized voices, farm animal sounds, and well-known childhood melodies rang out. Conversations reflecting the complexity of a schematic prevailed. The word “nerd,” a self-imposed moniker, flew frequently and freely about as “circuit benders” from all over the world came together to talk about their passion: reorienting the circuitry of electronic toys to make them generate tones and sounds that can be used in the creation of music.

The Bent Festival, which took place from May 1-3 at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, allowed novice and expert circuit benders to learn new techniques. In the evenings, bending musicians put on concerts, demonstrating a wide variety of techniques and styles. Michael Rosenthal, curator of the Bent Festival, said that the trend to tear electronics apart and “repurpose” the components is not new, but has recently gained wider popularity. At a time when “going green” is touted from every direction, bending is a practical way to lessen the amount of plastic and electronic waste that winds up in landfills. It’s also a relatively inexpensive, do-it-yourself craft.

To learn more about circuit bending, visit the Bent Festival Web site. Also, watch a video of a circuit bending workshop with Ben Gladstone.

Any electronic toy can be turned into a musical instrument. Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell, Speak & Read, and Speak & Math are among the most sought-after toys. “[It’s] the classic circuit bending device,” said local bender Mike Simkins. “The vowel sounds and words are useful and can be drawn out.”

Also in the Daily Planet, read Mark Weaver’s preview of the Bent Festival.

In the workshop “Intro to Circuit Bending,” Bianca Pettis and Jacob Roske—of the Twin Cities duo Beatrix*JAR—and Dan Demchuk, veteran benders all, walked participants through the steps of circuit bending. First, you take the casing apart to get to the electronics inside. Next, “you touch around on various places on the circuit board until you find an interesting sound,” Pettis explained. Once you identify those spots on the board, you solder in an electronic component such as a toggle switch, an adjustable resister, or even something as simple as a thumbtack. These enable you to modify the sounds emitted by the toys.

Many participants brought toys with them, but the Bent Festival provided donated toys as well as tools and electronic components to enable everyone to jump right in and bend. I found a toy intended to hang in a crib and play simple words and well-known melodies with flashing lights when the user presses various brightly colored buttons. Looking inside, I found an interesting spot on the toy’s circuit board. Soldering a wire to that spot and hooking up a 100k potentiometer—a knob that turns—I could then speed up the sounds coming out of the toy, raising the pitch by as much as a full octave.

Michael Una’s philosophy of bending reflects a democratic approach to art: “Subvert the manufacturer’s suggested guidelines for usage such that it reflects the circuit bender’s world view.”

The festival also included more advanced workshops that led participants in the use of more complex circuits and machines. Michael Una, a multimedia artist from Chicago, led the “Highly Liquid Workshop” in which participants built MIDI-to-relay kits. The kits enable a bender to sequence a bent device with a MIDI program of audio tones. Una also provided solenoids, which can be sequenced to strike a drum, and demonstrated how to sequence an electric motor to rattle a maraca or strike multiple beats of a drum. In the workshop “Circuit Bending Drum Machines,” Denver resident Ronald J. Schleper showed participants how to find the integrated data circuit (IC chip) in drum machines. Using a wire to cross-connect the pins on the data chip, he demonstrated how a drum machine can produce a wider array of sounds than the manufacturer intended.

The performances in the evenings showed the range of possibility that bending toys affords a musician. Ronald J. Schleper exclusively used bent devices in his performance—mainly, utilizing bent drum machines to create walls of concussive, driving sounds that intermingled and built upon one another through the performance. Memory Selector (Michael Una and Mike Simkins) utilized bent devices as only a part of their total performance, which included electric bass and electric guitar fed through effects processors. Their trippy, atmospheric sound included cascading layers of sampled, looped, and processed sequences from the more conventional electric instruments, interspersed with the sounds of bent toys.

Michael Una’s philosophy of bending reflects a democratic approach to art: “Subvert the manufacturer’s suggested guidelines for usage such that it reflects the circuit bender’s world view.” On a more practical level, Una bends because, “the technology is cheap, it’s widely available, and it’s fun.”

Mark Weaver grew up in Fairborn, Ohio and then embarked on a life journey that has taken him across the U.S. and around the world. He has spent the last ten years teaching linguistics and English as a second language at colleges and universities in Texas, Minnesota, and California. Before that, he worked with a linguistics organization in Ethiopia. He is currently a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.