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Dirty Electronics: radical chips for a feral camp

Since 2003, John Richards (aka Dirty Electronics) has been exploring the idea of “dirty electronics” through the creation of self-made instruments and interactive environments for composition. At PIFcamp 2019, he shares his views on camps, hacking and participatory projects.

PIFcamp is a 7-day hacker-base set in the Slovenian alps where art, technology and knowledge meet. The participants of the camp take the leading part in holding workshops, practical field trips, theoretical lectures and on-sight briefings and actively participate in the development of various DIY projects, while collaborating together in a creative working environment.

Listen to the podcast of the interview with Dirty Electronics (directed by Mona Jamois from PING), or read a short version here below.


Can you introduce yourself and your work as Dirty Electronics?

John Richards: I’m John Richards, known as Dirty Electronics. Sometimes people ask me where I’m from and it just becomes a harder and harder question to answer, because I was born in the United Kingdom but I lived in lots of different places… Maybe I should say I’m European, perhaps, that would be good given the political climate in the UK!

I make participatory workshop installation projects or perform through making DIY stuff. People usually invite me to work with a group of people, design an object or some kind of performance. So I’ve become a specialist in doing DIY electronic music with large groups of people. And I’ve been doing that for quite a long time now!

Dirty Electronics at PIFcamp 2019 in Soca Valley, Slovenia. © Katja Goljat

Why did you decide to join PIFcamp this summer?

John Richards: This is my first PIFcamp. I’ve been invited by Tina Malina from Projekt Atol whom I’ve worked with before, back in 2017 when I came to Ljubljana to take part in the MENT festival. That was very exciting because actually some of the people I met there are also here at PIFcamp, so it’s great to reunite with some of these people.

What do you plan working on this week during the camp?

John Richards: It’s funny you should say that because I had some plans, but Tina did tip me off and told me: “It’s gonna be very open, it’s an opportunity to work with lots of different people, there’s no format as such.” So even though I planned some stuff, I’m actually doing some different things, which isn’t a disappointment, it’s more a pleasure actually to do that.

So I originally set out to look at a project I did previously when I was here in Ljubljana which is exploring text and sound. It’s like a messed up Kindle, it’s a small handheld object that looks like a synthesizer but it’s actually a book where text scrolls across a small LCD screen. I’m writing some text for it: nonsense, poetry, silly instructions. I’m looking forward to carrying on with this. All of the text gets stored on a separate chip: so instead of buying a book, you buy a micro-chip which has stories and text on it.

DIY PIFbook © Katja Goljat

I’m also working with a couple of people here on something I call the radical chip. This was a project I originally started as a collaboration with MUTE records. I’ve made 3 synthetizers for the record company MUTE. The idea behind the latest synth called the MUTE 4.0 Synth was to make again another chip you could swap in and out with different sounds on it.

Presenting the MUTE 4.0 Synth:

The synth when you bought it had kind of standard sounds on the chip, but I collaborated with a Swedish artist called Max Wainwright where we decided to mess it all up and create a very noisy sound road, and we called it the radical chip! It’s just a tiny little chip that you can swap in and out to make noise music.

“Radical Chip” Video:

But we also thought it would be good to make a simple DIY on a piece of stripboard, so we called that the simple and radical! Small layout, big sound!

As this DIY project stands, we were interested in taking this into a Eurorack format. So they are designing a nice panel based on some of the landscape, based on the plant names found here. It’s gonna be a special PIFcamp Eurorack synth modjo based on the radical chip and I’m excited for it!

I have also brought with me my blow-up synth, which is a cool collaboration with a Japanese artist called Kanta Horio.

© Katja Goljat
© Katja Goljat

How would you explain PIFcamp in a few simple words to your grandma or your little cousin?

John Richards: I already texted a little cousin of mine and said some of the things I’ve been doing here and he said “You’ve gone wild!” So maybe that’s it, PIFcamp is the chance to find nature, find yourself, find that sound or find that idea…

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