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Friendly Ghost in the Machine

Casper Land brings circuit-bending’s spirit of experimentation to downtown Troy

By Josh Potter

When Peter Edwards, proprietor of Casper Electronics, first heard someone perform music on a modified Speak & Spell, he enthusiastically asked the guy how he’d gotten the kids’ toy to produce such strange sounds. It was the late ’90s, and the concept of “circuit bending” hadn’t much infiltrated the cultural consciousness. In response, the guy offered Edwards the first rule of circuit bending, a practice, art form, business and philosophy on which Edwards has supported himself for the past 10 years. With a shrug, he told Edwards to “screw around and see what happens.”

This spring, Edwards and his fiancée, Kate Sweater, uprooted from Brooklyn and moved to the Collar City, where Sweater has enrolled at RPI’s Lighting Research Center. Together, they bought a small storefront—a former hair salon—on Fulton Street that they have dubbed Casper Land. An expanded workshop, and physical extension of the process Edwards tackles day in and day out in his custom electronics business, the repurposed space is one that Sweater confesses they jumped into somewhat blindly, but that they hope will serve a variety of purposes, from studio to gallery, workshop, performance space and forum for a lecture series “on the things that people nerd out on.”

The unassuming storefront shares a block with a Jamaican restaurant, a taxi dispatcher and a corner bodega, and, if the name alone doesn’t conjure an air of mystery for the place, the diorama in the front window certainly will. In it, a disembodied bald, red head surveys a small planet, upon which a toy astronaut casually strolls. The scene inside is equally confounding.

Edwards apologizes for the clutter in the front “anteroom,” the space used for performances during Troy Night Out, and leads the way into his equally cluttered workshop. The room is full of brightly colored plastic and assorted metal parts. Toys lie about in various states of disassembly. Wires protrude from baby dolls and soldering irons sit poised at the ready. In the corner, there’s a huge analog modular synthesizer with a nest of colorful cables connecting the rows of jacks. Behind his bench is a rack full of Barbie karaoke machines.

“A lot of people come to me with abstract concepts of what they want me to do, and others just say they want something ‘childlike,’ ” Edwards says, reaching for a Speak & Spell on the top shelf of a cabinet. It’s an instrument he’s working on for a jazz pianist in the Midwest who contacted Edwards through his Web site (casperelectronics.com) to commission something unique that he could use to inject noise into his music. Part inventor, part musician, Edwards has worked on projects for such high-profile musicians as composer Danny Elfman (a Speak & Spell with mounted keyboard keys) and Mr. Bungle/Faith No More frontman Mike Patton (a joystick-operated voice- modulating toy megaphone), and custom commissions have come to make up the bulk of his business. He says it makes for an interesting process, whereby the dialogue between the musician and builder shapes the end product.

“There always have been, and will be, musicians who want the X factor,” he says. “They know [the gear] is an investment. They’re going on stage with a toy megaphone or a baby doll and people recognize that. It helps their image.”

Despite the novelty of what Edwards does and the image it creates, he’s careful to point out that this is not weirdness for weirdness’ sake. In fact, long before he ever got the notion that he could support himself on this stuff, it was simply an artistic outlet that married his training in sculpture to his hobby of music.

“Circuit bending’s a really interesting art form because it’s basically a creative approach to electronics where you’re messing with electronics in the same physical manner as painting or drawing.” The concept is actually very simple. Cracking open obsolete electronic devices (mostly older toys from the ’80s and ’90s), the circuit bender manipulates the circuit board by wiring new connections, which the factory never intended for use, to unlock hidden sounds. With simple tools like alligator clips, Edwards says, “You’re going in, feeling it out, and finding these chance functionalities that you can utilize as a musician.” By “screwing around,” the circuit bender finds choice effects and then mounts potentiometers (external controls) to the chassis to access those effects. With this formula, the possibilities for what a device can do are virtually endless.

When Edwards got into circuit bending, after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2000, there were few resources available to circuit benders. The idea had been around since at least the mid-’60s, when Reed Ghazala discovered unusual sounds in a shorted-out amplifier, coined the term, and sparked a very small movement. But as recently as the early part of this decade, the online community was just becoming aware of the practice.

“It was all trial and error,” he says of having to teach himself basic electronics, “and it’s been a really slow, painful, stubborn process. I made one or two Speak & Spells, and then I sold one and realized I could pay my rent. Then I was hooked.”

Hundreds of projects later, public interest in circuit-bent gadgets has allowed Edwards to work full time at Casper Land with his assistant, recent RPI grad Chris Scully. By dividing the labor according to aesthetic and technical considerations, the two are able to create objects that look as good as they sound. “Building these instruments has way more to do with manipulating materials than it does with engineering,” says Edwards. “Chris is making a lot of circuit boards in back, and I’m doing a lot of drilling plastics and mounting special hardware. Now, it’s getting to a point where the functionality is getting more sophisticated, but there’s still a strong focus on making beautiful, substantial objects.”

However, to attribute the name Edwards has made for himself to Casper Electronics’ commercial success would be a gross misrepresentation of the underlying philosophy of circuit bending.

“It’s kind of a counter-profit approach, in one respect,” he says, of the fact that he makes all of the design schematics for his work available on his Web site. Beyond hawking his wares, the site is a comprehensive guide for the amateur circuit bender, and offers a service that Edwards would have been grateful for when he first started out. The leftover, unbent Barbie karaoke machines are evidence of what happens when Edwards misreads Internet interest as product demand, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. “The majority of the name recognition I have right now is because I make stuff available for other people. No one had information when I started, and I was confused and frustrated, so sometimes I spend four hours a day writing e-mails [to inquiring individuals] because it’s really important. A lot of what I’m trying to do now is see how I can take what I do to a global scale, and that isn’t just through selling product.”

Just as the act of circuit bending and performance on circuit-bent gear can be read as defiance of a default aesthetic function, the culture of circuit bending similarly challenges the commercial landscape in which material goods are created, used, and then cast aside due to obsolescence. In fact, Edwards considers circuit bending a culturally empowering movement.

“You don’t need to buy the latest thing that someone put out, or be a victim of the disempowering marketing techniques of these companies that discourage your knowing how something works. You can fix things, modify things, blend things together, make things from scratch, and question your idea of what obsolescence is. The open-source thing is really exciting and I love being a part of it.”

Edwards points to blog culture, Wikipedia, Make magazine, and Instructables.com as other facets of this same movement, which offers information to the unspecialized individual so that they can take it upon themselves to do things as far- reaching as carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and auto mechanics. “By looking at all these different devices and systems, you get a good understanding of the greater and sub systems that exist in everything.”

Casper Land, it seems, is a natural extension of the philosophy Edwards brings to his work. He and Sweater had considered finding a warehouse space for Casper Electronics, but, when considering the advantages of living in Troy, they decided a storefront would open a host of new possibilities.

“I was in Brooklyn,” Edwards says, “and kind of got the ‘Brooklyn effect,’ where it feels like the center of the universe and the place you need to be to achieve a degree of anything in life. But it’s a little crazy, and definitely not the center of the universe.” Despite (and because of) the sheer surplus of events happening and circuit benders working in Brooklyn, he found collaboration surprisingly hard and the prospect of owning a storefront cost-prohibitive. “I’d heard rumors about the experimental music/tech-arts scene going on here, and what I’m finding in Troy that’s really refreshing is that people are willing to get excited and aren’t totally jaded.”

Sweater says that they feel like they fit right into the community, and with this comes a sense of social responsibility that might not have been present in Brooklyn. Casper Land’s performance series (last month they hosted synthesizer designers Dewanatron, and this month it’s 8-bit Nintendo-dance-beat programmers Emar and Mr. Eggz), is an effort to present new ideas to a new audience. “What we’re doing, at its core, is meant to be accessible. I like that people come with their grandparents and their kids. This stuff isn’t just for hip 25-year-old electronic musicians or intellectual adults.”

Additionally, Edwards will be teaching circuit-bending classes at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in November and January, and Sweater hopes to supplement her diorama project and lecture series with periodic film screenings.

“There’s a re-empowering movement happening in this highly-fluid communication era we live in, where people are sharing more,” says Edwards, “and we’re absolutely, totally thrilled to be here. There are tons of incredibly smart people here who are into doing something new and interesting. And they make the time to do it.”