These Old School Hackers Used Dead Tech To Make Arcade Game Art

PrintCade turns e-waste into Space Invader-inspired creativity.

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Feb 10 2014, 5:12pm

If Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Michael Ang had their way, they'd probably tear everything apart. Dissection and deconstruction is their modus operandi when it comes to any technology, but especially discarded tech legacy systems. This is twice as true when light and joysticks are involved, as is the case with PrintCade--their art installation that uses 80s-era gaming tech to control dead printers and generate sound.

Really, it's an old school hacker mentality at work: the idea of making a system function in a way that was never intended. And that was the challenge at Berlin's Art Hack Day, where Ang and Brucker-Cohen worked 48 hours straight to bring PrintCade out on the exhibition floor.

What visitors were met with was a joystick rigged to a recycled computer fan, a printer motor, speaker, LED lights, and a circuit board. At the press of a button, and toggle of the joystick, PrintCade lit up, with the printer motor moving left and right, blasting light at Space Invaders fixed to the wall above.

Yesterday, I had a chance to speak with Ang and Brucker-Cohen about the project; where they found the discarded tech, the challenges of hacking a printer motor, and why it's vital to repurpose and resurrect e-waste (old tech). The two hacker artists also rattled off some of their favorite arcade games.

The Creators Project: Was this idea purely a product of your time at Berlin's Art Hack Day?
Michael Ang: This project was 100% conceived at Art Hack Day. I was just helping the crew, so I hadn't been thinking of any projects per se. But, Jonah, who had been my professor back at New York University, had this joystick. People love joysticks—they're really tactile and bring back memories of their childhood. And then this other artist had actually brought some e-waste, like physical and dead computers and printers from Nigeria, because their performance was about bringing this stuff back to life. So, we saw an old printer and asked, “Oh, can we have this piece?” And they said, “Sure.”

So, literally starting from the joystick and the printer that had some motors on it, we wondered what we could do. At first we thought we could just make it move, but then it turned into us making a game. And the side-to-side motion of the printer suggested Galaga or Space Invaders. [laughs]

Speaking of arcade games, what are your favorites?
Jonah Brucker-Cohen: I grew up playing Tempest the most, but I also liked Centipede, Choplifter, Dig Dug, Ms. Pacman, and Berzerk.

Ang: Galaga, Double Dragon, R-Type, Ninja Gaiden, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and lots of Pinball. I loved the mechanical stuff.

What was the reaction to PrintCade at Art Hack Day?
Brucker-Cohen: Overall, it was positive. Many people found the old school joysticks as an inviting way to participate and engage with the project, in general. There was no “learning curve,” meaning that people understand what to do with a joystick, and they were pleasantly surprised that it ended up controlling the printer head moving back and forth. And the buttons were also self explanatory in that pressing them would trigger something as well. In our case, that would be the recycled computer fan with a broken blade.

What was the source of that light blasting the space invaders?
Ang: I had these programmable light strips. Jonah likes joysticks, I like light, so we put the two things together. The lights were attached to our Arduino micro-controller. That's the programmable part that drives the motors but also controls the lights. We wanted to have a really nice reaction when you would push the button. The left and right movement was really obvious, but then we wanted to make it create noise. But, if it's going to be a game, it has to do something, so I had the light shoot out of the printer head.

From start to finish, how long did PrintCade take to put together?
Ang: We pretty much used the entire 48 hours.

What's great about PrintCade, versus a number of the other Art Hack Day projects, is that the emphasis is on old technology and its resurrection. The other projects really attacked the privacy, big data, and surveillance themes. Was the main idea with PrintCade to produce something functional from waste?
Ang: One thing that shows up in my work is that I tend to want to use technology to give positive examples of it. The idea of reusing things that are lying around, deconstructing them as a way of understanding them, and then to build something back up again is very important to what I do. There is more of a playful aspect to our work, and then the hacker mentality that there is all of this stuff that's just there, that could be waste, which you can use.

Brucker-Cohen: The main idea was to create a new interface for discarded or abandoned electronics; in our case an old and dysfunctional printer. In the end we got a great combination of old electronics with the game controllers that felt great to interact with, and we built the project out further. 

This is like the original hacker ethos with the MIT Model Train Club. Do you see yourselves as a throwback to the old school hackers?
Ang: I would say so. I still think it's really relevant today. Part of the reason that these problems with surveillance exist is because people don't really understand how the computer systems work, right? Early computer hackers were really driven by this curiosity about the system. To understand the system, first you break it apart and then you put together something new.

Brucker-Cohen: I see the aesthetic of PrintCade as a throwback to old school hackers, but my own work doesn’t always follow this trend. However, I grew up listening to a lot of punk rock and was involved in the DIY movement (zine culture, 7-inch records, etc) in the US in the 1990s. So, I feel as if those approaches definitely inspired my work as well as Scrapyard Challenge, a series of workshops I've been running with Katherine Moriwaki for the past 10 years around the world.

Scrapyard Challenge is where we work with artists, designers, students, kids, and the public to create new digital or analog interfaces out of recycled objects and junk. The aesthetic of the workshop is to utilize hacks and hacked electronics to come up with new uses for these devices and re-imagine what their original creators initially intended to do with them.

So PrintCade is an amalgam of the approach we take with those workshops, coupled with myself and Michael’s love for old school arcade games, and the interfaces that enable them such as joysticks and buttons.

What was the biggest challenge in creating the piece?
Brucker-Cohen: Probably trying to resurrect the printer to get it to do what we wanted. Luckily, I had brought a motor controller (Adafruit Motorshield) with me that works with the microcontroller (Arduino) we were using. So that helped. But, whenever you are working with old hardware, there is always a chance for things to break or other mechanical problems that could surface, etc. Other than that, it was just a matter of putting everything together for the final presentation of the piece, which worked out nicely.

Do you think there should be more and wider efforts to repurpose old tech?
Brucker-Cohen: Yes! There is a lot of waste that is perfectly suitable to be used and reused for new purposes. This is especially true in the production of artwork where recycling old electronics can add authenticity to the overall aesthetic of the piece. There is a lot of room for artists to experiment with recycled objects and old technology, which is being thrown out faster than the new versions can even replace it. I am interested in pursuing projects that reexamine the importance of legacy systems and give them new life in an increasingly automated world.

Images courtesy of Jonah Brucker-Cohen

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