A little after 7 p.m. last night, in the back room of an empty gallery on a quiet stretch of Wooster Street in SoHo, some 40 people had just removed their coats and taken their seats. A constant din of familiar, anticipatory chit-chat filled the room. In one corner, a small table had been set up with a coffee dispenser and a few bags of Cracker Jacks someone had brought. To outsiders, the gathering probably looked and felt like an A.A. meeting. It wasn’t. They had come, as most of them do on every first Wednesday of the month, for dorkbot.
Douglas Repetto, an artist and professor at Columbia, started the group, whose motto is “People doing strange things with electricity,” exactly seven years ago at the university. Since then, the original dorkbot in New York has spawned over 90 chapters all over the world. From Medellín to Helsinki to the latest addition, in Sarnia, Ontario, proud geeks, artists and the curious use dorkbot to show off and talk about zany inventions, high-voltage art projects and you-name-its.
“I think of it kind of like a dinner party where you’d like to go and sit next to some strange, interesting person and hear what they’re excited about,” said Mr. Repetto. At 37 years old, he wore a red dorkbot t-shirt under an open, wrinkled Oxford. And though his pate is not yet entirely bald, he shaves it anyway, drawing attention to a silver bar in the pinna of his ear. “Everybody’s meant to come up and talk about what they’re doing.”
Three people normally sign up in advance to present before the group. Last night, after Mr. Repetto had welcomed everyone, a music professor at Parsons came to the front of the room. He wasn’t one of the three main presenters (a self-proclaimed dorkbot enthusiast, his lapdog Sampson is apparently a familiar feature at the meetings), but he wanted to play a video of a project his students are currently working on. People in the front row—mostly regulars according to Randy, a middle-aged software developer who went to N.Y.U. film school with Todd Solondz—clapped enthusiastically at the sight of undergrads making music by tickling unusually-shaped instruments attached to computers.
First up was Ted, “a tech dude,” who had made his own digital camera. Using a receipt printer he had found in a dumpster somewhere, he printed self-portraits comprised of tiny scattered black shapes that, admittedly, looked nothing like Ted, a portly fellow with a fair complexion. He had also brought with him “a spinning light sign.” A bit like one of those clocks at Sharper Image that wave back and forth quickly enough to create an image of the time, his spun a full 360-degrees, baring blocks of vivid color. “Please don’t touch it while it’s spinning,” he warned. “You might get your blood on it.”
“In an ideal world, it’d be natural to ask yourself how your iPod works,” said the next presenter, Fiona, a young woman from Dublin in town to complete an internship at the Guggenheim. Fiona became interested in computers, she said, when she was a young girl living in a suburb of Cork, Ireland. Having met a local man in a chat room, primitive as the Internet was all those years ago, he agreed to leave her something in town. After finding his gift, a stuffed hippopotamus wearing a wedding gown, she resolved to dedicate herself to “making technology less cold.”
Device-less—except for a Mac PowerBook—Fiona had only brought pictures with her. Projected on a large wall at the front of the room, the photos showed a large room filled with computer monitors, spray-painted fake mice, Christmas lights, $500-worth of beads, coin collections and innumerable other flashing doo-dads. The concept of the project—her final thesis at university, it was called PlaySkip—was to remind people of an “exploded computer inside of your head.” (Apparently, Fiona had at the time been obsessed with the designer Bruce Mau, whose theories on complicated systems, of which people are unaware, fascinated her. “It’s like cities carrying on beneath you when you’re riding in a plane,” she said.) The crowd really started to stir and whisper when she showed them a cage housing two birds. The canaries would chirp into a microphone, causing a kaleidoscope to move. Anything that moved and had a system was fair game for the project. A video of a fly landing on something was perfect, she said, because “he knows what he’s doing there.”
Andrew, a handsome, amiable performance artist in his mid-20s, had brought with him a few of his niftiest inventions. One of the crowd’s obvious favorites was a helmet rigged with a Polaroid camera. The chunky camera faced the wearer, dangling a foot or so from his face on two rods. When Andrew blinked, the wires attached to his eyelashes would fire, triggering the camera to take a picture of him—with his eyes closed, of course. The idea came to him, he said, because he was horrified to find out how much of the average person’s life is spent blinking.