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When Electronics Become Art

Beauty: When Hacking Occurs

  • 20 GOTO 10
    679 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94102 (Map)
    415.335.2053

Some of the most fascinating works of art come as a result of experimentation and endeavors in non-fine-arts related fields. Electrical engineer and “hardware hacker” Joe Grand has been dabbling with electronics for years, tweaking archaic computer systems and breathing new life into obsolete equipment. Though he’s been commissioned to create badges for computer security conventions, invents and designs consumer electronics and video gaming accessories, Grand has never thought of exhibiting his pieces as art. Now for the first time he’s displaying his work as an installation aptly named “When Electronics Become Art” at 20 goto 10.

The simultaneous simplicity and complexity of Grand’s creations are striking. Eye-catching badges splashed neatly on the left-hand side of the narrow gallery appear clean and uncomplicated, bearing labels such as “speaker”, “vendor”, “goon” and “über” with animated scrolling lights. Commissioned for the 2007 DEFCON -- in Grand’s words, “the largest and oldest continuously running hacker and computer security convention in the world” -- these badges were constructed out of modified circuit boards with open circuitry so conference attendees could customize vertically-scrolling text messages displayed on a matrix of 95 LEDs.

If the design aesthetic of the 2007 badges is more sophisticated elegance, the 2006 badge is more apt to take you back to your raver or hippie days. The circular badge uses a different microprocessor and two 10mm jumbo blue LEDs serve as eyes of a smiley face over crossbones. Both years, conference attendees were encouraged to hack the open circuitry, bringing in some creative modifications that included using the LEDs to display audio signal levels and morphing the badge into an event generator for an analog synthesizer.

Opposite the badge wall larger works offer more visual stimulation. Grand’s favorite is the interactive fractal generator. For this piece he supplied 60 RFID (radio-frequency identification) cards, each emitting a unique radio frequency. An RFID reader module takes the identifier from one card at a time and transmutes a fractal displayed on a laptop. Take special note of the “Solder Stencil End Table” holding the laptop. Designed and crafted by Grand, this table was created with recycled surface mount solder stencils used for previous electronics projects and copper corrugated water heater connectors.

In tribute to his first personal computer, the Atari K-9 is a charming digitally rendered pooch hooked up to an Atari 400 8-bit computer. Grand programmed the dog in the BASIC programming language circa 1983 and after recently rediscovered the program on a 5.25” floppy disk, made some updates so a floppy would no longer be needed. It may not sound like the most fascinating phenomenon, but the pixilated character sustained by a vintage Atari is something to behold.

Visiting the gallery between dusk and dark is most advantageous for viewing the Kingpin marquee sign posted in the gallery window. Completed just two days prior to the gallery opening, the marquee was assembled with circuit boards and an Omax water jet cutter. A diffused black light completes gives the sign an inviting blue glow. Grand has been known in the hacking world as “Kingpin” since the early 90s and though he labels his more recent professional work by Joe Grand, he’s now experimenting with bridging the two.

Schematics for several of Grand’s works are displayed at the rear of the gallery for a glimpse into the programming behind his deceptively simple works of beauty. Also not to be missed is the Lichtenberg Lightning Frame. Make sure to read about the process of creation, which includes “dielectric breakdown”. When Electronics Become Art provides an accessible look at an appealing marriage between hacking and design -- sure to appeal to thinkers and aesthetes alike.

When Electronics Become Art
ar 20 GOTO 10 Gallery
Installation runs through November 9th