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Geeky Electronics Provide an Excuse for Creative Comraderie Through Dorkbot

Columbia alumnus Tristan Perich prepares his "cube screen" for a dorkbot presentation.

Sooner or later, someone appearing on an advanced trivia game is going to be asked: "Where did the legendary ‘dorkbot' originate?" Let's hope that they have read this article.

The phenomenon known as dorkbot -- and its tagline, "people doing strange things with electricity" -- originated five years ago at Columbia. It was the brainchild of Douglas Repetto, who came up with the idea when he first arrived at Columbia's Computer Music Center (CMC).

Repetto is CMC's director of research, teaching courses on sound art and electronic sculpture, but back in 1999, when he was new to the city and looking to meet others with similarly quirky interests, he had to be resourceful to find them.

To be sure, a city like New York can yield plenty of other techies with an interest in music or art. But as a busy CMC employee, he needed to find a shortcut to ferret them out. That was when the dorkbot idea was hatched. "I thought, why not issue a call to gather other geeks together at an appointed time and place, and share our latest thoughts?" he explains.

It helped that CMC's director, Bradford Garton, and his associate, Terry Pender, were enthusiastic about the concept. "CMC has always had a culture of openness," Repetto reflects. "It's a place driven by what students are interested in, by what they want to put their energies into. Though it's called the ‘computer music center,' we have people involved in all sorts of things: dance, video and software development," he says.

Columbia composer Jeff Snyder demos his automated flute.

With Columbia's nod, the first-ever dorkbot meeting was called on Dec. 7, 2000. Seven people showed up at CMC's Prentis building, on 125 th Street.

In the five years since these humble beginnings, dorkbot has become an established presence in the city, with monthly meetings usually held in a SoHo venue (as the group has outgrown its original Columbia space). Meanwhile, other dorkbot chapters have sprung up in nearly 30 cities, including Berlin, Budapest, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Rio, Seattle, Sofia, Tokyo, Toronto and Zurich.

Repetto attributes the group's remarkable success to the simplicity of the idea: bringing people together who do strange things with electricity. "You needn't be an artist or a famous scientist," he stresses, "just enthusiastic about the work you do."

The "electricity" angle was an attempt at being inclusive. "I didn't want to say art, or science, or engineering, or design," he says, "because all those things are interesting and meld into one another. And when you add them together, that's when the really neat stuff comes out."

At a typical meeting, three people deliver short presentations of their work and take questions from the audience -- a format intended to serve as an informal peer review. Presenters range from software engineers who have developed useless but funny programs, to artists who try to make robots dream.

Repetto notes that there is great regional variation in the contents of the meetings, reflecting the interests of local groups. "In New York," he says, "we get people who create things involving the Web, design, blinking lights. We also get weirdo hardware people. Whereas in San Francisco, every other person is designing a flame-throwing vacuum. In London, they've got granddad in the back shed hooking up a lobster to a toaster, or the cranky old man with a strange tinfoil hat."

But we still haven't answered the obvious question: why "dorkbot"? As Repetto tells it, a friend had invented the word out of the words "dork" -- slang for a clumsy but brilliant nerd -- and "robot," using it to describe anything zany in the electronic world. When it came time to name the monthly gatherings, "dorkbot" seemed appropriate.

"It keeps people honest," Repetto says, "in that if you're doing something labeled ‘dorkbot,' you can't take yourself too seriously."

It's not that the projects people present at the monthly meetings aren't serious -- they are, and people have invested a lot to make the projects work. But the gatherings are about "casual sharing," he says, "not about creating pressure for people."

In Manhattan, meetings take place the first Wednesday of every month (except in summer) at Location One, a non-profit gallery that supports new art involving technology. For more information, go to http://dorkbot.org/dorkbotnyc/01.feb.2006/.

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Published: Feb 27, 2006
Last modified: Feb 24, 2006