Alternative Inputs

UK artist Ryan Jordan led a workshop earlier this summer in Montréal, building musical instruments out of geological circuit boards, an experiment in terrestrial instrumentation he calls "Derelict Electronics."

[Image: From "Derelict Electronics" by Ryan Jordan; photo by Lauren Franklin].

The sputtering and noisy results use "a mesh of point contacts connecting to chalcopyrite and iron pyrite to make crude amplifiers out of rocks."

"When an electric current is sent through the rocks," Jordan explains, "sporadic noise bursts from the speakers. With some fine tuning these rocks begin to behave like microphones, amplifying howling feedback and detecting subtle scratches and disturbances in their surrounding environment."

[Image: From "Derelict Electronics" by Ryan Jordan].

The extraction of sound from or by way of minerals is less bizarre than it might at first sound, considering that, as Jordan points out, his experiment is actually "based on the Adams Crystal Amplifier (1933), a precursor to the modern transistor, one of the fundamental building blocks of today's electronic and digital world." In a sense, then, these are just a hipster rediscovery of crystal radio.

The resulting instruments, though visually crude, are Frankenstein-like webs of copper wire and rocks affixed to, in these photographs, a wooden base. The potential for aestheticizing these beyond the workshop stage seems both obvious and highly promising.

[Images: From "Derelict Electronics" by Ryan Jordan].

In fact, I'm reminded of the amplified lettuce circuits of artist Leonardo Amico or the recently very widely publicized work of photographer Caleb Charland—in particular, Charland's "Orange Battery"—which literally taps fruit and vegetables as unexpected electrical inputs for lamps and other lighting rigs.

[Image: Caleb Charland, "Orange Battery" (2012), which took a 14-hour exposure time].

Charland takes stereotypical still-life arrangements, using, for instance, apples and potatoes as an electrical source for the lamp that illuminates the resulting photograph—

[Images: Photos by Caleb Charland].

—or he simply plugs directly into crops while they're still growing in the field, as if we might someday set up lamps in the middle of nowhere and build outdoor interiors shining at all hours of the day. Redefining architecture as electrical effects without walls.

[Image: Photo by Caleb Charland].

Combining Charland's and Jordan's work to stage elaborate, fully functioning rock-radios built from nothing but wired-up pieces of crystal and stone could make for some incredible photographs (not to mention unearthly soundscapes: podcasts of pure geology, amplified).

But, continuing this brief riff on alternative geo- and biological sources of power, there was a short article in The Economist a long while back that looked at the possibility of what they called "wooden batteries." These botanical power sources would be "grid scale," we read, and would rely on "waste from paper mills" in order to function.

The implication here that we would plug our cities not just into giant slurries of wood pulp, like thick soups of electricity, but also directly into the forests around us, drawing light from the energy of trunks and branches, is yet another extraordinary possibility that designers would do well to take on, imagining what such a scenario literally might look like and how it would technically function, not solely for its cool aesthetic possibilities but for the opportunity to help push our culture of gadgets toward renewable sources of power. Where forests become literal power plants and our everyday farms and back gardens become sites for growing nearly unlimited reserves of electricity.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Electric Landscapes).

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Anonymous Raph said...

Fascinating. Even better, imagine combining both the sonic and electrical output into a single device: a fridge, running solely on the electrolytic power of the very foodstuff it contains. Aural feedback, again generated by the food and the strength of the current it generates, indicates its own freshness immediately to the user.
In something like an energy saving feedback loop, the fresher the food, and therefore the more current it generates, the more it will keep itself cold. Nothing in the fridge, or it has all spoiled? Then it won't run, and nor does it need to.

P.S. Love your blog, Geoff. This has been my favourite site on the internet for a years.

July 11, 2013 11:15 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Thanks, Raph! There's some speculation on the audio future of refrigeration over at the "lettuce circuits" link on Edible Geography, as well.

Glad you like the blog.

July 12, 2013 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Jamie O'Shea said...

Hi Geoff

I'm also a huge fan of your blog, your writing is unflaggingly interesting. I've worked in the aesthetic of this post in my project Immaculate Telegraphy, an experiment to build electronics without modern tools or materials. I'd be flattered if you looked at it.

The classic vegetable battery is an unfortunately misleading demonstration though- the voltage comes from the metal electrodes, not the fruit. Beautiful pictures anyway.

July 14, 2013 7:41 AM  
Anonymous Sandra said...

Wow! if someone gets it right this might the solution that people need in order to live green. Imagine cutting back 50% of the damage being done to the earth just by using things that we're going to throw away anyway. Now this is definitely a green source of energy. Great post! Really gets you thinking.

July 16, 2013 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Ralph, nice idea about fridge feedbackloop, however, the fruits are inedible afterwards as they will contain a dissolved solution of metals. That may be harmful.

July 23, 2013 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Where forests become literal power plants and our everyday farms and back gardens become sites for growing nearly unlimited reserves of electricity."

But would the electrolyte passage already killed the living plant once it's plugged-in? (Since the electrolyte process generates metal fragments inside the acid of the plant, which also make it inedible.)

further further speculation, "Where trees evolved to include metal scraps inside their annual rings and produce slightly reinforced timber material after electro-cultivation. Our everyday farm harvests need an extra procedure of de-metalizing and our post-humans have more metals in their bloodtest, some might fail to clear security to the moon-landing...."

July 23, 2013 3:26 PM  

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