In a small, dimly lit auditorium, a twenty-something music artist known as Igloo Martian stands behind a table on a blackened stage. Projected on the backscreen are staticky images from a camera focused on his hands and his instruments: children’s audio toys modified with bizarre-looking switches and a tangle of wires. Igloo Martian is a circuit bender, and the noise issuing forth from his machines is reminiscent of a modem dialing up over incendiary house music.
Circuit bending is an emerging sound art in which battery-operated toys, keyboards, and other electronics are creatively short-circuited to reveal new, unexpected sounds. The sounds range from high-pitched wails to bass-drum kicks and everything in between. When layered, the various noises create an electronic, sonic cornucopia.
Earlier this spring, acts from all over the world gathered in Los Angeles, New York, and Minneapolis for the fifth annual Bent Festival, two days (at each location) of concerts and workshops aimed at promoting circuit bending, inviting newcomers into the growing community. Sponsored by The Tank, a New York-based nonprofit arts organization, the festival brought in artists from three continents and at least 10 countries.
Circuit bending falls somewhere in between mad science and performance art, and it can be as complex or as basic as you make it. The bent duo Beatrix*JAR (Bianca Pettis and Jacob Roske) have been instrumental in promoting circuit bending by teaching beginner workshops in libraries and galleries all over the country.
“One of the reasons we started the workshops was because people didn’t know what we were doing,” Pettis says.
She’s absolutely right. Though the performances are interactive (audiences are encouraged to come down to the stage before and after sets to check out an artist’s equipment), it is confusing to see a Speak & Spell spout out an alien-sounding melody over an ’80s Casio keyboard pounding out drum patterns.
The spontaneity of circuit bending is one of the art form’s major draws, explains Igloo Martian (Robert Clark), who likens circuit bending to beachcombing when he was a child. “I remember collecting tons of sharks’ teeth,” he says.
The exploration of seemingly nonmusical electronics is a romantic pursuit for the bent community. “It’s not so much about the sound, but how you find it,” says Roske. “Ten people with the same toy get ten different results.”
Along with exploration, circuit bending is attractive because of its DIY appeal. Old kids’ toys (some of the most popular are Speak & Spell, Speak & Math, and even Furbys) can be picked up at local thrift shops for peanuts and bent for just as cheap. The process is similar to DJs digging through crates looking for promising records and hot samples. The bending process is simple and can be learned in an afternoon.
Circuit bending’s future looks bright, and many of its supporters have high expectations for the nascent genre. Some popular artists like Beck and Björk have already incorporated bent techniques into their music, and the members of Beatrix*JAR, who consider their work a fusion of bent and pop music, hope to be “ambassadors to bring circuit bending to the mainstream.”