Studio – Bent Circuit

Seth Lewis loves the process of creating art from sound.

by Brett Levine        Photo by Jerry Siegel

Seth Lewis

“I would describe myself as an art researcher,” Seth Lewis explains.  “Most of what I do is really research and development rather than making traditional art.”  Lewis is one of a newer breed of creative professionals who are as interested in the technologies and possibilities of the arts process as they are in a finished product.

“I studied sculpture at LSU, and I began to make interactive pieces there,” Lewis says.  “First, I made a hand on a conveyor belt.  It moved along it until its finger created enough pressure to shatter a pane of glass.”  With this work, and a subsequent piece in which pods oscillated across a gallery floor— “I was inspired by an electric football game, if you remember those,” he laughs—Lewis realized that he had begun to focus on works that were about interactivity, but that the interactive experience wasn’t the main idea.

“I began to think a lot about the idea of the machine, about something that was created wholly and solely by an individual,” he says. “In my senior year I read an article on circuit bending, a process that could allow you to create methods for electronics that could do things that weren’t intended.”

Circuit bending became integral to Lewis’ works. “I started learning how to read schematic diagrams, which is a great way for someone with no background in electronics to understand how they work,” he says. This led to his forays into hacking, modifying or “modding,” and circuit bending electronic instruments that he often found in thrift stores.

“There are certain instruments and toys you look for every time you go out,” Lewis explains. “Some, like the ‘Speak and Spell’ or the ‘Talking Teacher’ weren’t designed as musical instruments, but as you explore their capabilities they can be transformed into something else entirely.” The process itself hinges on access to older toys.  “Circuit bending is, in part, the process of the technologies of the time,” Lewis says. “Now, newer toys simply don’t lend themselves as much to the process. It’s as if newer toys are made with fewer ways they can be altered.

“These days, I’m much more interested in creating interactive instruments from the ground up, building them from scratch,” he says.  This approach provides Lewis with a degree of autonomy, distancing him from a reliance on other manufacturers or sound designers. “I see it as a way to liberate myself from the market,” he says. “I’m not reliant on how I can customize it,  or what I can build from it. My creativity is only limited by the electronic components that are available on the market.”

One of the biggest challenges Lewis experiences is the lack of a shared space in Birmingham in which circuit benders, instrument hackers and equipment modifiers can work. “In cities like New York and Los Angeles, there are spaces, often with shared equipment, where builders, programmers and creators can get together to share ideas, objects and projects,” he says. Lewis would like to see such a space become a reality.

For now, Lewis is content to explore the modding and bending possibilities of the unique and unusual toys and instruments he finds, and to continue designing and developing his own interactive instrument and controller designs.  “I’m moving towards realizing a project that is multifaceted,” he says. “In a gallery space it will be able to be both a musical instrument, with the capability of being played, and a sound installation when it isn’t experiencing interactions.” In the end, it is the creativity of the process that Lewis enjoys the most. “I want my process to be one of full customization so that you can make an instrument your own,” he says.

5 Responses to “Studio – Bent Circuit”

  1. jason says:

    how do i get in touch with seth lewis? or the author?

    we’ve actually tried to start a maker space.

  2. Amanda Westfall says:

    Very cool Seth!

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