By Robert McMillan
IDG News Service
October 26, 2007
Joe Grand has never really thought of himself as an artist, but on
Saturday night he's having his first gallery opening.
Grand is a hardware hacker: He's at home with a soldering iron in one
hand, the guts of some electronic device opened up in front of him. A
former member of the L0pht Heavy Industries hacker collective, he
designed the programmable conference badges used at this year's Defcon
15 hacker conference and a cheap RFID (radio frequency identification)
reader, soon to be on store shelves at Radio Shack.
His show, called "When Electronics Become Art," is happening at the 20
goto 10 gallery, on the fringe of San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin
district. It's the kind of place where you'd expect to see a hacker art
exhibit: it's populated by junkies, liquor stores and dive bars. Gallery
owner Christopher Abad says the space was filled with old TVs and other
junk hoarded by "dumpster-diving meth heads" before he moved in earlier
Abad, a noted hacker in his own right, says that Grand's work is good
enough that it deserves the kind of attention you get in a fine-art
gallery setting. "A lot of the stuff that I've seen him work on is
pretty interesting, and it's rare for hackers to get any kind of credit
outside of that community or any exposure at all," he said. "At best you
get to see some movie where it's all completely embellished."
Though 20 goto10 also has the typical fine-art exhibits and book
readings you'd expect from a gallery, it's a bit of a hacker experiment.
Abad featured another technology-themed installation in the gallery's
first show this past February: a system that could be used to spoof
caller ID, check other people's voicemail and launch unsuspecting
Abad says he wants 20 goto 10 to be a venue that goes beyond the
standard hacker conference. The gallery environment lets people gather
information at their own pace.
"When Electronics Become Art," includes the Defcon badges Grand has
designed as well as a "Curtain of Shame" of malfunctioning badges, a
Marquee sign with the word Kingpin (Grand's hacker moniker) cut into
Nintendo and Atari circuit boards and a modified searchlight from a US
Army M-60 Patton tank.
There will also be an interactive RFID exhibit and what Grand calls his
Lichtenberg Lighting Frame -- a large acrylic block he picked up at a
Boston flea market with a tiny multi-color LED (Light Emitting Diode)
display in the middle.
But one of Grand's favorite pieces is a hacked up Atari computer called
Atari K-9. While visiting his family, last Thanksgiving, Grand found a
floppy disk containing a program that he'd written for the Atari when he
was eight. He created a custom display for the machine to "make it look
like it was created by Atari in the 80s" and got his old program to run
on the Atari. It's a silly graphic of K-9, the robot dog, from the 1970s
TV series Dr. Who, but Grand sees it as a kind of collaborative project
with his eight year-old self. "It's basically to pay tribute to my past.
I grew up with an Atari 400 computer," he said.
Grand makes his living running his design company, Grand Idea Studio and
he's currently filming an engineering TV show, due to air next year on a
popular science cable channel,
But does he consider himself an artist? Maybe electronics aesthete would
be a better description.
"Engineering and electronics does have this simple, beautiful way about
it. If something is done in a really elegant fashion, then it could be
considered art," he said. "Sometimes I'll open up a product to see how
it's made.... and there's a lot of beautiful design work that goes on."
"It's hard for me to consider myself an artist, because what I do to me
doesn't seem like art," he added. "People can call me an artist. I still
consider myself an engineer and a hardware hacker."
"When Electronics Become Art," runs through Nov. 8 at 20 goto 10, 679
Geary Street, San Francisco. The show opens on Saturday, from 7 p.m. to
11 p.m., and gallery hours are 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday and Friday;
3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.
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