Electric Wonderland, Croatia’s bucolic maker camp

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Croatian makerspace Radiona’s inaugural Electric Wonderland summer camp took place on September 1-7. Our Feral Labs chronicler in residence, Jean-Jacques Valette, folded up his bicycle and jumped on a train for this special report, between ecology and hacking, electronic music and paper shadows.

Jean-Jacques Valette, special envoy,

In a scout camp perched in the mountains between two lakes and a forest, a little wooden bridge extends across the creek to usher you into a clearing dotted with a dozen mini-cabins surrounding a central flagpole and a large common house. It’s in this scout camp, located in the small village of Fužine, near Rijeka in northwestern Croatia, that the first successful Electric Wonderland maker camp was organized by the Radiona makerspace from Zagreb. And it was in this idyllic setting that some 30 makers and artists gathered during the first week of September 2019.

To get there, I tried to reduce my carbon footprint as much as possible. According to Goodplanet’s carbon calculator, my journey from Paris to Zagreb would generate an estimated 0.43 tons of CO2 emissions by airplane, versus 0.23 by bus and only 0.03 by train. It was a no-brainer: I decided to take a folding bicycle on the train and try to produce enough electricity to power my devices using recycled solar panels.

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What to bring on a maker adventure ? I tried to go both lightweight and self reliant. My goal was to have a 35L and 10kg backpack, with enough gear to camp. But with a computer and some electronic components, it quickly grew to 45L and 15kg ! A bit cumbersome and heavy when you climb a hill 😉 — Que prendre avec soi pour une aventure maker ? J'ai préparé mon sac pour qu'il soit le plus léger tout en me rendant autonome. Mon but était d'emporter un sac de 35L et 10kg mais avec l'ordinateur et les composants électroniques, il fait plutôt 45L et 15kg ! Un peu encombrant et lourd dans les montées 😉 — #electricwonderland #makercamp #bikepacking #flygskam #croatia #ultralight #ultralightbackpacking #foldingbike #gatewoodcape #seatosummit

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Beyond survival mode

20 hours later by train, one hour by bus and another by bike, I finally arrive at my destination, a bit exhausted by the nighttime passport checks at each of the four national border crossings along the way. I am greeted in the big outdoor kitchen with a big plate of sea bream and vegetables, along with a tall glass of craft beer!

At Electric Wonderland, food quality is a priority and an essential element of this event co-created by the participants. “It’s actually our second attempt at a camp, after an initial failure five years ago,” says Deborah Hustić, cofounder of Radiona. “It was 8°C in August, it was raining, and we didn’t have any food or shelter because our partner ditched us at the last minute. It was really a survival situation!”

This time, logistics were well covered, as the organizers recognized the importance of holding such an event in nature to facilitate focus, encounters and innovation. As American naturalist Henry David Thoreau is quoted on the poster: “Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”

Drone mapping and smart birdhouses

“We found this scout camp, which usually hosts children. It has all the infrastructure and is just a few steps away from the ocean,” Deborah explains. “And as many of us were once scouts, it goes back to our DIY ideal.” For her, the first motivation for the event was community: “In the past five years, we have grown stronger as a community of competent people. This is what gave us the confidence to launch such an event.”

Indeed, Electric Wonderland hosts many talents. One of the first people I meet is Jonathan Hefter, an ex-startupper from the U.S. currently on a world tour of maker camps (Digital Naturalism Conference, Chaos Communication Camp, Hacker Trip To China…) and a whiz at photogrammetry. With a simple smartphone, he can create a 3D model of you or any other object. With a low-tech drone, he can map a terrain better than Google Earth. Good for helping to protect forests and endangered species, adds Mate Zec, sitting next to him at the table, a Croatian biologist and ornithologist from Biom Association who has come to build connected birdhouses.

Hacking single lens reflexes

After lunch, photographer Andrej Hromin leads a workshop entitled “Hacking DSLR”. He explains how to get the most out of a digital single lens reflex camera, especially by modifying its firmware in order to unblock its capacities: “Manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon put the same components in their whole camera series because it’s cheaper, but they restrain them to justify the difference in price. With a software like Magic Lantern that you install on the SD card, you can break this lock!”

In the evening, we enjoy an improvised jam session around the fireplace in the common house. Electro-acoustic melodies waft out from homemade instruments spread on the table. Someone rubs a car spring, another person whispers into a telephone or tickles an electric calimba, with one foot on the pedal.

Experimental music

Most of these instruments were made with Yuri Landman, one of the artists in residence at Electric Wonderland. The 40-something Dutchman has acquired an almost legendary status for his experimental guitars of up to 24 strings or measuring several meters in length. With no formal training in music theory, he has written several books on music theory and mathematics.

He is currently exploring his limits, for example by “playing” ropes stretched between trees using small electric motors. He repeated the performance at Electric Wonderland.

“What launched my career was when I managed to give a model to the guitarist of Sonic Youth. I make a reference to it on their Wikipedia page, then I wrote another long page about myself… which isn’t very good,” he laughs. “From then on people were calling me for interviews and orders!” Over the past decade he has produced no less than 4,000 “Home Swinger” guitars during group workshops.

DIY music is at the core of this maker camp and the subject of many workshops. Roko Pečarić and his partner Franciska Gluhak, Croatian musicians and makers, teach us the basics of Makey Makey—a small printed circuit board that allows you to make music with plants or any other conductive object.

Igor Brkić shows us how to solder various components to make a mini-synthesizer. As a bonus, we add another “joule-stealing” circuit to make the battery last much longer.

Low-tech arts and neuroscience

But Electric Wonderland also hosts more analogue arts, such as building mobile sculptures with Damir Prizmić or paper dioramas and shadow boxes with Paula Bučar. I try to make a copy of a little-known balancing game, as well as a paper throat backlit by red LEDs.

Our only regret from this camp was that Guima San’s workshop was cancelled. The Brazilian researcher from GypsyLab8 had come to introduce us to neuroscience, or how to control a motor or diodes with our thoughts. His suitcase was lost at the airport!

“I was still able to present my other projects, like the open source sensors to monitor water quality, in order to protect indigenous communities from industrial waste,” says the young man. “It’s my first time in Europe and I’m very happy to come here, directly into the back-country and in contact with people, rather than in a capital city.”

As for me, I’m off again to cover Schmiede, another maker camp in the Feral Labs Network that will take place three days later in Austria, 400km north. As it’s a bit difficult to climb the Alpes by bicycle in such a short time frame, I fold it up and take it with me on a bus bound for Ljubljana. I’m also travelling with Jonathan the photogrammetrist, who has just been accepted at Schmiede and has nothing to do before he leaves for Hong Kong!

Electric Wonderland is an event organized by Radiona as part of the Feral Labs Network series.

The Feral Labs Network is co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union and led by Projekt Atol in Ljubljana (Slovenia). The other #ferallabs partners are Bioart Society (Helsinki, Finland), Catch (Helsingor, Denmark), Radiona (Zagreb, Croatia), Schmiede (Hallein, Austria) and Art2M/Makery (France).