The nerdy playhouse 

Here's a crew of creatives — in the truest sense of the word — rising from hackerspace ground zero

When a gaggle of builders and mechanics crafted their "Banana Car" last year for a contest at the Henry Ford, they wanted it to be loud. They built a rideable toy car with a hyperbolic sound system: four subwoofers, four 6-inch-by-9-inch speakers, and a pair of 3-inch tweeters. When its creators drove it out of their warehouse in Eastern Market and cranked up the volume in the parking lot, they swear you could hear the music downtown clear across the freeway. They put a grass skirt over the wheels and a smoothie-maker on board, painted it mustard yellow and stuck a confetti-shooting cannon on the back. ("To spray in the faces of our opponents!") 

After the car debuted at the Maker Faire, an event held to showcase do-it-yourself innovation, a new diktat was declared: No future car should exceed the decibel level of the Banana Car. 

Its makers are members of OmniCorpDetroit, a self-described hackerspace located in the heart of Eastern Market. Pushing past the completely tired "computer-hacking" connotation, the term refers to a cooperative where members pool financial and material resources as well as ideas. From tool-sharing and public workshops to collaborative installations, OmniCorpDetroit (OCD) harnesses the innovation that this rattled metropolis runs on. It's about creating, rebuilding, experimenting and inventing together — a notion that members refer to as "hacking." 

And it's about hard work, be it bizarre and cerebral inventions or the more visceral act of building an engine. "This is in our blood," affirms OCD member Brandon Richards. "Hard work, innovation and working together." 

What gives credence to operations at OCD is the same notion that has recently propelled Detroit into the limelight of international media: It's a city for the assiduous and the inventive, where empty spaces and anarchic settings create a crucible of invention. And somehow, it works. 

 

 

Back in summer 2010, a dozen or so artists, builders, engineers and one fencing teacher began to renovate a busted-up building near I-75 that OmniCorpDetroit now calls home. A fire had left the floor in questionable condition. "There were holes in the floor that we had to patch," one member recalls. "We used to get yelled at by our downstairs neighbor for dripping beer and other liquids through the holes onto her things." 

OCD guy and moped mechanic AJ Manoulian remembers millions of extension cords running everywhere because there was originally only one plug for the airy, 8,000-square-foot space. At least junk removal was easy, as garbage was thrown out a second-story window into a garbage bin below. And plenty of junk there was — Manoulian found strands of someone's discarded dreadlocks lying in what is now the machine shop.

One of the founding members, Jeff Sturges, (who also runs the likeminded Mount Elliott Makerspace), secured finances and the lease on the building, which was once a cold storage warehouse. The initial funds were gathered from all co-founders, each of whom contributed between $200 and $2,000 for a start-up pot of about $5,000. There was no grant funding, total DIY from day one. They rent from the folks at Rocky Produce, who've been "really supportive."  

A year and a half after OCD opened its doors, every corner of the cavernous warehouse is occupied and in-process. The first-floor workshop houses a bunch of dusty mopeds and myriad old machines — a table saw, welder and lathe being the easiest to identify. There's even a prodigious 1930s Gorton vertical mill, a beastly anachronism that can "take a piece of metal and make anything."

Upstairs, computer geeks and artists are lost in their respective programming and painting. There is a full sewing station, a 3-D printer, and neat rows of desks cluttered with computer screens, oscilloscopes and other electronics. A well-stocked DJ booth sits behind a wall of speakers made from hacked-up radio components from an abandoned music school; tonight Latin music alternates with an obscure techno beat. Most of these tools and machines have been donated or are shared between members, with a few larger purchases having been voted on as a group and purchased from communal OCD funds.

Member and go-to guy Ken Wolcott acts as an impromptu tour guide. A gangly linguist with fine features, big glasses and a mess of hair, Wolcott weaves through the building's vast intestinal apparatus, pointing out a darkroom, an antiquated freight elevator painted luminous gold inside, and a homemade Tesla coil that "shoots out electricity" in the style of old sci-fi flicks. This place is Pee Wee's Playhouse meets science museum: Outside the bathroom door, a massive stoplight flashes red when occupied; in the kitchen, a little lamp lodged in a houseplant dims and brightens when the leaves are stroked. These arcane little hacks, lodged in the bowels of the warehouse, are what make OCD so dammed fun. 

Wolcott is in constant motion, fiddling with things as he raps cogently about 10 different projects, including the guitar molds he's building and his lock-picking club, Detroit Locksport. Wolcott coordinated an informational lock-picking session at OCD last summer and more than 50 people showed up; it turned out to be the largest workshop of the season. As the workshop's flier heralds, lock-picking is "an educational activity centered around nondestructively defeating or bypassing physical (and sometimes digital) security mechanisms." Right.

OCD offers public workshops of all sorts, where folks can learn to install a boom box in a vintage suitcase, hollow out books, or use an LED circuit to put light-up eyes in hand-sewn puppets. In addition, at "Open Hack Nights" held twice monthly, OCD opens its doors to anyone who'd like to check out the space, nerd out on a project, or meet other likeminded hackers and builders. Achille Bianchi, a glib photojournalist who runs a bookbinding and papermaking workshop at OCD, says of Open Hack Nights, "There have been some really neat things that have gone down on these nights. ...We've had up to 50 people in the space, and sometimes they erupt into huge bike polo games." 

Wolcott completes his tour and begins roasting raw coffee beans in preparation for an all-nighter; he's building shelves to house OCD's future library. Meanwhile, a group of hip-hop musicians — the only people who don't seem to be deep in a project — lounge on beat-up couches rescued from the nearby Atlas building. As Wolcott pours coffee for the crowd, the strong and bitter cup spurs discussion about another member's plans to brew glow-in-the-dark beer. The warehouse's floor-to-ceiling windows are streaked with condensation, revealing a desolate, snow-covered lot outside.

 

 

OCD has grown to be just shy of 30 members, implementing a system of flat dues for all members rather than the tiered membership that some hackerspaces use to honor those more generous or involved. Dues go toward the lease, bills and an elaborate savings system that allows for potential machine purchases, outreach efforts and rainy days. 

The group is also open to new members, who must receive unanimous acceptance in order to join. "It's like renting out a room in a shared apartment," Bianchi explains, emphasizing the importance of finding a good fit. Because the collective showcases various talents (including woodworkers, programmers and electrical engineers) OCD prides itself on offering "just about everything" in terms of both resources and skills. That being said, one member reminisces about OCD's early days, noting, "We were a super tight-knit group ... [things] were much simpler back then." 

Now, a few dozen self-described "weirdos who make stuff" run an autonomous and very open collective in the middle of Detroit. ... Sound romantic? When asked if any trouble has ensued, Manoulian shifts his weight to give this a think. "Yeah. One time, we hosted a party here and someone [not a member] lit a cigarette inside." Er, a violation of the no-smoking policy — that's it? 

 

 

On a snowy Monday night, 20 or so dudes from as far as Port Huron and Ann Arbor have shown up to OCD for a biweekly moped get-together. Detroit's merciless winter months are prime time for fixing bikes, and tonight the place teams with moped freaks and fixer-uppers. Tools and engine parts this writer can't discern are strewn around, and there are Solexes, Hondas and Peugots in various stages of being eviscerated and rebuilt.

Dubbed "Moped Mondays," the idea for the night was born last summer when Manoulian and a few other amateur moped riders from OCD joined forces with Motor City Riot, an unofficial branch of the Moped Army. Since then, the first-floor workshop of OCD has doubled as a headquarters for the Riot. (When asked if the gang plans to officially join the Moped Army, a grizzled rider jokes, "Sure — if we can muscle them into having us.") 

Moped Mondays respond to both a burgeoning moped culture and the ingenuity that Detroiters wear like a second skin. As with everything else at OCD, it's about fixing and building while sharing knowledge and swapping parts. And while moped gangs are notorious for being biker elitists, humility's evident here. "Detroit's too small to be exclusive," one rider says.

Emphasizing that Moped Monday is actually open to anything with wheels (cyclists are welcome), Detroiter Brad Potts adds, "Everyone should feel comfortable here, if you just want to learn about mopeds, or ask advice before buying one ... even if you have never touched a wrench." 

Several OCDers say hosting Moped Mondays has brought more diversity to the space, both professionally and demographically. A motley crew is present, including a bevy of engineers and a seemingly incongruous prosecuting attorney. There are a few dudes with shiny shoes and thick-rimmed glasses, as well as older riders in flannels and work boots. 

"We just have these stinky 30-year-old bikes in common," says Port Huron resident Ben Krenke with a laugh. Krenke says he doesn't know much about what else goes on at OCD, but his love for wrenching on mopeds brings him out here once a month or so ("whenever my wife lets me.") Someone offers him a dirty martini mixed in a polystyrene cup. 

Tonight Krenke is making a gasket to restore his Puch motor, a piece that the company stopped manufacturing ages ago. The unspoken adage here goes like this: If a part doesn't exist anymore, make it yourself. Likely for this reason, funds don't seem to come between riders and their bikes. Someone talks about purchasing three vintage Vespas for $250; Potts tells of rebuilding an engine he got from a junkyard for $30. "It was trashed," he adds.

Manoulian and fellow OCD member Ted Sliwinski know a thing or two about mopeds. Manoulian is an affable guy with an easy grin and a thing for combustible engines; he's also into bikes and electronics. He puts down a blowtorch to display what is likely the fastest moped in this city: his mint green '78 Puch Maxi Sport MKII with a souped-up 75-cc cylinder kit. (This is a man who built the engine for his Honda Civic in a former meat locker of the building before that was torn down.)

Sliwinski, a certified welder and a machinist, has worked in the bike industry for about 15 years. He moved to Detroit from New York City a few years ago to work at Mount Elliott Makerspace. Much thanks to his efforts, OCD was officially certified by the League for American Bicyclists, apparently becoming the first official "bike friendly" hackerspace in the world. 

What Manoulian achieves with speed, Sliwinski realizes in originality. He recently built a moped "basically from scratch," demonstrating the fruits of hacker travail. The Velosolex frame is combined with a friend's old Puch engine, and a clothing rack salvaged from the Atlas building makes for a slick rear frame. The gas tank is a converted fire extinguisher. "Critics call it a deathtrap," Sliwinski says, laughing. These are not bikes for the faint of heart; Sliwinski also reminisces about getting literally thrown off a moped by a man who hopped on the bike and sped away with it, just a few blocks from OCD. 

Sliniwnski, who doesn't own a car and relies solely on two-wheeled transport, is an archetype of DIY ethics. Motivated by what he calls "fabrication challenges," he seeks to push his skills by building new things. One such creation is the monstrous "Frankentrike," a 15-foot-long, 5-foot-high trike for two. Sliwinski crafted it from a trio of bike frames that he welded together with parts from an office chair and conduit electrical tubing he recovered from the building's old elevator hookup. He built it in two days, and later took it to the Cass Corridor's rollicking Nain Rouge Parade. You may have seen the Frankentrike barreling down Cass Avenue pulling a little trailer with Sliwinski's hand-wired stereo system and a built-in beer cooler. 

 

 

Upstairs is a large black room that's empty, save for a laptop and a host of speakers poised at all angles that pipe in sounds unremittingly. These are the early stages of one of OCD's more abstruse projects now under way: a cavern where sensory perception will be confounded such that light and sound, and vegetation will feel like foreign entities to those inside. Fittingly dubbed the "Cave," the multimedia installation will incorporate plants and humans while sonically surpassing the traditional notion of surround sound. 

The space was envisioned months ago, when several members met up to discuss a mélange of their own projects. Designer and educator Nina Bianchi had been toying with indoor gardens and ideas of how to manipulate living surfaces. Another member expressed interest in adding multiple video projections that could be triggered with motion. Brandon Richards, a senior processing engineer with a propensity for sound, was seeking to create a 3-D sound system. Richards explains, "After each of us got more and more excited about each other's ideas, someone pointed out [that] we should just put it all together in one place."

The discussions continued, and a small cadre of members moved forward with plans for a long-term, multi-part installation. Ultimately, human interaction in the Cave will trigger shifts in visuals and noise: like the plant lamp in the OCD kitchen, fingering a leaf on the wall, for instance, would dim the lights. Movement inside, or even smell, could also signal changes in the lights or sound.

For the moment, plans for the visuals have taken a back seat to the creation of an intricate sound system. Instead of panning noise from front-to-back, or side-to-side, the Cave will operate with an additional dimension such that sound will be emitted from top-to-bottom, or from the upper right corner to the bottom left corner (or to and from any other direction). The speakers have been installed and a basic software program built. Even in these stages — and despite the still-bare walls — the result is gripping; as Richards moves his fingers along the laptop's touchpad, a pendulous sound sweeps through the room, much like the oscillating path of an insect. Down the line, live input (such as a DJ performances) will be introduced.

Even as Richards and collaborator Aaron Blendowski fiddle with the system and talk about their plans for the Cave, new ideas arise and kinks are resolved, a testament to the organic nature of a project that at times seems to baffle even those involved. At this point, Krenke has taken a break from his moped and come upstairs to check out the impromptu meeting that has converged in the Cave. As Krenke marvels at the plans scrawled on walls, a sort of symbiotic respect is apparent between the bike mechanics and the musicians, artists and inventors concurrently toiling away. 

There are interminable plans for the Cave's future, with vegetation a likely focal point. Nina and fellow member Martha Obringer are exploring the use of plants as interfaces, while drawing from the human body's capacitance (meaning its capacity to store energy) through touch. "My vision is to create a modular architectural element ... that can be used to build structures, like a cave," Nina explains. These modular elements, which she loosely describes as large-scale Legos, or "living bricks," will house the plants, whose energy could then be harnessed by microcontrollers for the purpose of altering the output of the Cave.

Ideally, the system will also be controlled remotely, so that the stroke of an iPhone could turn the lights on or off, feed a sample through the speakers, or even water the plants. 

Richards also envisions connecting the Cave to a network of other (future or already existing) analogous spaces, such that hackers in a sister Cave could communicate and control aspects of each other's spaces. "We want it to grow as a project that other people and groups can get involved in," he says. "We are really excited to blend all sorts of expertise and experience for a very open, interdisciplinary, and synergistic process."

Richards sees the Cave as an experimental platform for future endeavors, and he feels the objective is not for the installation to be "completed." He and Nina both emphasize that the Cave will continue to evolve over time. In the meantime, Open Hack Nights offer an opportunity to track the Cave's progress. 

Nights at OCD are long, and it's time for a beer. The OCD pop machine dispenses Pabst and strange treasures. Like a bizarre twist on the secret prize of an arcade game, if you press the machine's mystery button and feed it a buck, you may win a something most unexpected, like a bottle filled with colored tinsel. And it's not the prize that matters; it's that some grown-up hacked this thing to dispense hilarious junk that other grown-ups made, probably just to make each other laugh. This is the credo steeped through OCD: hilarious, whimsical, handmade genius. It's stuff that both confuses and illuminates, that incites discussion, and calls us to wonder how it is that things are made. 

 

Open Hack Nights happen 8-10 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of each month, open to all. OmniCorpDetroit is at 1501 E. Division in Detroit's Eastern Market. For more information, or to find out what synergy means, see omnicorpdetroit.com/blog.

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