Interview with Sabrina Basten & Audrey Samson, part 1: Hackin’ some coils into wearables

by deborah on 08/9/2011

My next interview from the Make Me! Festival frame includes artists / hackers Audrey Samson a.k.a. ideacritic (on the behalf of the Genderchangers project) and Sabrina Basten, who both led the workshop titled Electromagnetic Cityscapes – Roger 10-4.

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Audrey Samson & Sabrina Basten @Make Me! Festival in Belgrade
Photo: body pixel (cc)


You are both artists, Sabrina, you have studied installation art, actually sculpture, but you are interested in spatial and monumental… Audrey, you are a new media artist interested in narratives and stories an object can tell …

 SB: Yes, I studied monumental art. I make installations which do not involve electronics, like we use for the project Roger10-4.

My research is of the behavior of material and the visitor in it, it’s about experiencing the space. It’s about disorientation and how you move through. No story telling.

AS: I suppose you could say I am interested in interfaces, mixing around which stories are told by which objects. This is a means to question/reveal the underpinning systems through recontextualisation. It could be a system such as gender power structures, its about the power structures behind the organisation and classification of data.

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Sabrina Basten, Roger 10-4 (cc)

Could you tell me a story on Roger 10-4?

AS: Roger and 10-4 are both codes of radio communication. Roger comes from the phonetic alphabet (A: Alpha, B: Bravo, C: Charlie) used by air traffic. R is now Romeo but it used to be Roger – and R would typically designate RECEIVED.

That is why the word Roger is still understood as ‘received’, even though it is a myth (propagated through most Hollywood movies) that it is still used in air traffic communication. 10-4 is the same, it means ‘communication received’ but is used in CB radio communication (called Ten-codes). Unfortunately this association is very North American and so far in Europe few people know about the reference.

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Roger 10-4 (cc)

How did you two meet and start to work together on the Roger 10-4 workshop? Do you employ a certain methodology while teaching?

SB: Audrey and me, we know each other for a while now, and she studied at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam and that’s how I got to know her. I think our methodology is more like trying something in a more fun/experimental way, or for me, it is a very different thing next to my main installation work. I don’t have the pressure to get myself known in this field.

It’s really a playful way of working, electronics interest me. To discover more possibilities and to learn. Things in electronics work as they work. Electronics have clear structures, and I like that, it’s different to my own practice.

We just started to fiddle around, we met in her studio, had some old radios there, broke them open and looked how they really are from the inside. It was somehow a playful start. Next to my own work, it’s almost like a timeout, and I always liked to make objects. In my artwork I don’t make objects, it’s more like organizing spaces, organizing material, playing with the possibilities, whether something can or can’t be done.

Roger10-4 turned into a workshop because we thought it’s exactly this playful approach to electronics which we want to share together with the understanding of our daily electronic contact.

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Dismantled old radio @Make.Me Festival in Belgrade
Photo: body pixel (cc)

AS: As Sabrina says, it started with breaking apart old radios. I don’t remember what our intention was or if we had one. I’ve always been very fond of old radios, an object fetishism of mine.

The methodology we employ is playful and non hierarchical. This means that we do not present ourselves as experts that will impart our extensive knowledge to students. We are not experts, we are just playing around and we impart our enthusiasm for discovery. Participants work together, helping each other, figuring it out together.

We like to demystify the complex world of electronics : ) Hopefully participants come out with feeling empowered enough to continue on their own and with others.

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Audrey Samson, Roger 10-4 (cc)

How did you come up to pick wearables combined with sort of vintage technology? Right now this is really an interesting field to explore. How has this fact influenced the participants? Do you have more girls or boys on your Roger 10-4 workshops?

AS: Not surprisingly we have way more girls than boys in the workshops (even at events that are mainly male). Technology is such a gendered domain and wearables have always been the ‘female department of technology’. It’s such a boring stereotype, but the main figures in wearables are all women and most the main figures in hardware hacking for example are not.

Therefore the ‘wearables’ aspect of the workshop attracts women. However we do combine it with hacking old objects (or at the very least dismantling them). I’m not sure how this had affected the participants, we will have to conduct a survey next time :)

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SB: I would love to have more boys involved in the Roger workshops. Roger10-4 is not about fashion, but we use the insides of old appliances to make something beautiful to wear which will be attached to yourself, to your head, shoulder or chest, with the coil, functioning as a microphone, which is the only functional part together with the amplifier.

Maybe it’s the seemingly aesthetic or the wearable part in this workshop that is not so appealing to boys, I don’t know. We will continue with that combination of learning about electronics, making something beautiful of vintage parts, making wearables to explore the body experience in space and of course one of the great things is to hear the radio waves which are always there but you cannot see them; all kinds of facets in one goal. I think it’s a nice combination.

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Saturated by Sabrina Basten (c)
Fragment taken from sabrinabasten.com

Yeah, but you can’t call it low tech… although someone else might use Arduino or Pure data to catch these sounds…

SB: You don’t need to have expert knowledge about electronics and soldering to follow the workshop. I think it’s interesting to keep that approach in the Roger10-4 project. Arduino has its own abilities and offers other opportunities, nevertheless ‘low tech’ can generate wild and complicated experiments.

AS: I agree with Sabrina here and actually do consider it quite low tech. The most ‘complicated’ aspect is the amplifier, and that is really just a few capacitors, resistors and a logic gate chip (a brilliantly simple Nic Collins hack). It’s very basic stuff. We provide a nice ‘pre-designed’ PCB but the components could be soldered together on a development board…

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Metropolis by Fritz Lang

It’s interesting from the ecological point of view, reusing this tech waste that multiplies in large numbers since we belong to the gadget culture, like it or not…

SB: Exactly, there is constantly new stuff being made and you think you have to go with it. Our workshop is about DIY culture and the notion of planned obsolescence, it’s about creating that awareness. Awareness on how companies fool around with us and that we have to take back that power through understanding our world around us and to use our own hands.

AS: Eventually we hope to work with even more and more of the old components. It is crucial to try and develop creative ways to work with the existing landfill rather than contributing to the size of the heap. I think this aspect is particularly interesting for participants because it makes the material very accessible and low/no cost, enabling them to continue working with it after the workshop.

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Confession, performance by Nancy Mauro-Flude & Audrey Samson
Photo taken from networked-performance.eternal.name

Do you see these old and disposable technologies as influential in your own work with sculptures and new media? The way you perceive now space and shapes, codes and lines of numbers?

AS: I often work with re-purposed objects as interfaces so in that sense absolutely yes.

SB:  I’m fond of science, but more like nature science and its structures. Something which seems messy, but looking closer it consists of structure, like mold for example or fractals. It fascinates me how nature actually uses structure to copy paste and to grow, to be efficient. I could imagine myself using sound or other kind of mechanism or interactive machineries I never used till now, but for now I tend more to a real haptic experience, which I directly translate into certain materials and their structures.

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Roger 10-4 Ring by Audrey Samson & Sabrina Basten (cc)
Photo: body pixel (cc)

And you have beautifully dirty hands, manual work…

AS: It’s the best kind :)

SB: … yes, with Roger you really get your hands onto it! It’s purely electronics with soldering and finding your own components and rearranging material, not so much about controlling movement like you can do with Arduino, which you use with computer. So our workshop is in that sense totally manual. For us, it is important that people understand the process of building your own.

But it’s also very nostalgic…

AS: We try to work with ‘the objects of one’s passion’ which is a term I believe Baudrillard coined. Embedding sentimentality into objects of planned obsolescence can give them ‘a reason to live’. More interestingly, the previous function of the re-purposed object can inspire its reincarnation; its placement on the body, the movement of the wearer, the wearable ‘sculpture’ into which it is embedded, etc.

SB: An aspect of this workshop is to bring old appliances which you have at home. They are broken but you don’t want to throw them away because it’s such a nice thing and it reminds you of some other times in your life, some nostalgic value. During our workshop these objects can be re-built and reused for another purpose.

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Roger 10-4 making process (cc)

… and the aesthetics of it…

SB: It’s a combination of things for that particular task. But we still have to develop Roger more, like figuring out how we could use a self-made coil into the wearable or what could flex-pcb mean to us. I really don’t know where it will go from there. But the parts of understanding a bit of electronics, by making the amplifier and seeing what things are like inside of radios and then how can that affect you and your surrounding when you wear these kind of stuff – that is a material to work with for a while.

For example where could you put it on your body, how would you move through the city depending on the coils position. The fact that it’s on your back or hand or on your head is amazing. It’s really fun to go with the whole group and move weirdly through the city in order to catch electromagnetic fields.

and giving a tribute… but you mentioned previously nature and this organic structures in your work, Sabrina… Do you like Theo Janssen? It’s very monumental and also sort of analogue and low-fi…

SB: Yes, I surely like his creatures. The complexity of these huge objects and they can still move, a species we should not miss in nature. I adore his passion for the PVC pipes as a material.

Click here for the second part of the interview with Sabrina Basten & Audrey Samson: On disposable electronics