Scrapyard Challenge

Click any of the images to see the slide show

On September 26, the Architectural League presented the Scrapyard Challenge, a one-day intensive workshop with artists Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki in which participants hack found or discarded “junk” (old electronics, outdated computer equipment, appliances, turntables, monitors, gadgets) to build simple electronic music controllers (with both digital and analog inputs) and drawing robots. Organized in conjunction with the League’s current exhibition, Toward the Sentient City, the event brought together architects, artists, and other design professionals to consider what happens when otherwise inanimate objects become imbued with digital intelligence. League staffer Sarah Snider shares her thoughts on the day.

Here is the garbage we are stuck with.

Reid and I stared at it, picked about. Two computers, a fan, plastic garden shelving units, a printer, a stroller, metal, plastic: none of it recognizable. Reid was late for a show. We called the building manager for dumpster permissions and threw away only what he could ethically let pass through his hands. The rest—recyclable, hackable, beautiful, dirty—we packed up in the back of Reid’s Jeep. We drove away, first east, then south, then back west again. Finally we stopped in front of a house with an empty dumpster and, a shamed but relieved, got rid of it all

IMG_6900Here is the mess we have made.

I remember thinking as I drove along the streets of Park Slope four days earlier, with Scrapyard Challenge founders Jonah and Katherine, that we could save it all: stacks and piles of houseware, hardware, foam, books and toys. We would gather it and use it to create lasting musical gadgets and gizmos that never broke or got old and that everybody loved. We were going to turn garbage into gold, and be renegade heroes forever and ever, and start a band. There is so much garbage, so much gold.

But “You can’t take it with you,” seems to be the constant refrain with objects. Katherine instituted a “no foam, no wood” rule a few years ago due to a fear of bedbugs. Some things were too big. Some things were too dirty. Some things we already had. Some things are not garbage, and people come back for them once they’ve unlocked the front door and put their groceries on the counter. You have to be careful. This is illegal. They are watching you. Put that down, it’s wet.

There was a lot of garbage. We could have been selective, but in the end we took all that we could fit. Given the neighborhood we found strollers, kids’ toys, a pair of PCs from the 90s and, to hold all of the above, shelving units. Fans that no longer worked, were no longer needed. A toaster that, surprisingly, no one would end up turning into an instrument. I found a book in French, a record player. Something blue. Katherine and Jonah did most of the digging while I idled in the car. We emptied the contents of the hatchback into their foyer, planned for the weekend, and I returned the Zipcar full of excitement, ready to invite all of my friends to take the stuff apart and see what we could make.

IMG_6884On Saturday we had an enthusiastic crowd. Very focused. No coffee, no pastries – just garbage to get everyone going. We started by making drawbots out of two biodegradable cups put end to end, with magic markers for legs and a motor powered by a 5V battery pack and just a bit of a counterweight to make the whole thing hobble across the paper, vibrating and spiraling like PacMan on ice. (A sample of the outcome is hanging in the Architectural League’s offices—come visit us to check it out!)

After Katherine explained the idea of a switch, a sort of physical binary code that at its least complex can determine “On” and Off”, the hackers got crafty. They got creative—not surprising, given the context of The Old American Can Factory, which is home to over 200 artisans, fabricators, artists, designers, filmmakers, publishers and non-profits. People chose objects to pull apart, put together moving bits—things that spun, tapped, opened and closed—and created conductive connections to make and modify notes. A bit of design, a bit of aesthetics (red fuzzy turntables!), and a lot of duct tape, and at the end of the day, everyone had an instrument to play. Anyone can make a switch, out of almost anything. And that switch proffers to the person and the object an agency in a larger network of people and things. They are not called micro-“controllers” for nothing. The Scrapyard Challenge, Katherine says, is an important introduction of people to electronics, through the introduction of electronics into everyday things – computing truly becomes ubiquitous.


P1000428People were excited about the opportunity to pull objects apart and see their mysterious inner workings. The Scrapyard Challenge is in this sense a direct counterattack on the blackboxing of modernity. I thought it was all about garbage (and LEDs), and a lot of the projects in Toward the Sentient City do, in fact, have something to say about trash (and LEDs). But they are also delivering contemporary (and future!) thinking about technology through their projects, and the Scrapyard Challenge is thinking specifically about the experiential aspects of the city, the soft architecture, the spaces in between, the objects that fill them, and how people interact with all of this. What does pulling apart electronics have to do with architecture? It is material cultural study: if garbage or electronics are resources, how can they be put to use? It is an introduction to electronics: architects have to know a little bit about everything, after all. It is in fact both polymath and philomath: knowing how many things work and seeking new ways for things to function. It is spatial: currents moving through space until interruption. A building as interruption. It is about alternative performance, retrofitting, redesign, underdesign, addition and subtraction. Architecture has always been and still is a hands-on process. This is nothing if not a hands-on research, testing and performance workshop. Just as architecture experienced a moral panic surrounding the introduction of CAD, so too will people question the methods or materials used in the Scrapyard Challenge—especially the garbage.

I have tried the freegan thing before. The deal with garbage, though, is that most of it is indeed useless. We can save certain consumables, but the rest of the garbage we see around us is going to take as much energy to turn into something else as it would to dispose of it. Grabbing a bag of bagels at the end of the day to feed your roommates, or a stack of old papers to even the carbon-nitrogen balance in your compost bin, requires a lot less thought and effort than constructing a bed frame out of found wood. Just as landfills and the removals systems that keep them growing are unsustainable for a large society, so too is freeganism. It is fringe; it works for certain communities at certain times; one can live off it, but it cannot save the world. We need to be better than that.

P1000414In a conversation at the Scrapyard Challenge, Mark Shepard, the curator of Toward the Sentient City, listed off the tenets of early DIY forms of green thinking: “Recycle, reuse, and…what’s the last one?” He, like a lot of us, gets stuck. People are obsessed with trash, and it gets a lot of press, and people write books about it, and do techie projects and even craft lifestyles around it. As they should: we need to collectively take individual responsibility for the entire life cycle of objects. We need to worry about where things go as much as we worry about their free-range, organic, corn-fed, fair trade, local origins. And this counts as much for objects we get for free as for those we buy—hence Reid and my feelings of shame about dumping garbage that we found in the street back into the street. Our garbage was lucky: we gave it another, albeit temporary, life; some garbage doesn’t even get that. Maybe it will have more. Or maybe it will idle. This is why we need to drastically rethink that final r-word in the big three: REDUCE. This way of thinking doesn’t get a lot press—it almost disappears without a trace, one might say. But this way of thinking is a design problem, it is a consumer problem—it is a BIG problem and it is all of our problem. In the mean time, people like Jonah, Katherine, and all the Scrapyard Challenge participants and freegans out there, will have plenty of things to keep them occupied.

Scrapyard Challenge from Architectural League of New York on Vimeo.