Electronic oddities from an English eccentric (images)
In his off hours, David Cranmer relaxes by stuffing badgers full of musical instruments and conjuring strange noises from the innards of a pig. A look at his idiosyncratic oeuvre.
In his spare time, David Cranmer makes weird gadgets. Gadgets which, more often than not, make weird noises.
A graduate in product design who's since gone on to day jobs at various workshops--producing special effects, sets for TV and stage shows, components for museum exhibitions, and so on--the U.K.-based Cranmer also creates work that might lead one to label him an artist. Specifically a sound artist or sculptor. But our man mischievously sidesteps such lofty designations.
"I think it's funny--if you make a robotic penguin, for example, then people label you as an 'artist,' when you could in fact just be making it for practical purposes," he deadpans, adding "I've always enjoyed making things."
One of the latest of those things is the Badgermin. It takes a theremin--the storied electronic instrument used in various classic sci-fi and horror films, as well as the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations"--and houses it inside a (dead, we think) badger.
The first flash of inspiration for the Badgermin "came about during a conversation with a friend at the 2010 Ether Festival," Cranmer says, referring to the cutting-edge music fest put on by London's artsy Southbank Centre. "We were looking after a collection of 16 theremins the public could interact with, and my friend asked what casing I would use if I were to build a theremin. I said probably a traditional wooden casing, or maybe a taxidermy badger. My friend replied, 'A Badgermin--that's a great idea!'"
The, um, instrument was finally realized earlier this year.
Cranmer not only babysat theremins at the Ether festival, he also had a piece or two in the show. This one, created with friend Patrick Furness, is an ingenious interactive affair that let attendees produce an ever-changing soundscape by driving radio-controlled cars around on a specially prepared surface. The table has strips of recorded tape pasted on top, and the cars have tape heads on their undersides. The video below shows the labor intensive pasting process in time-lapse. Jump ahead to 2:07 to see the cars racing about.
Brian the Penguin is a robotic noisemaker featuring drums, drumsticks, horns, and, as you can see, headlights. Cranmer performs in a band of sorts, Nine Owls in a Baquette ("really just a collection of friends who enjoy strange sounds, surrealism, and making people laugh"), and Brian is powered by a chainsaw left over from an Owls performance at the Sonic Arts festival in Brighton.
"Guessing that a lot of other musicians would be using laptops in their sets, we made two fake wooden ones sprayed silver with glowing apple logos," Cranmer says. "And then we used a chainsaw to chop them up at the end of the performance. We got in a lot of trouble, due to safety regulations, but it was good fun. The chainsaw was smuggled into the venue in a guitar case."
Cranmer describes the Programmable Musical Pig as "a robust steel pig with 56 arcade buttons that trigger interchangeable banks of audio samples." Made from a cast-off compressor tank and the types of buttons found on old-school Pac-Man and Mario machines (and partially assembled on Cranmer's kitchen table), this entranced-looking fellow has graced the stage with Nine Owls in a Baquette.
Crafting gizmos like these seems simply to be how Cranmer relaxes during his time off. He describes his motivation for the self-initiated projects as "learning new manufacturing techniques, and entertaining people. Or sometimes even just confusing people, for my own entertainment." And though his creations have wound up on display at more than one intriguingly named art exhibition or another, that's not necessarily the goal, he says. It's "more like, 'Oh, I've got a load of sculptures hanging around, maybe I could take them to Kinetica.'"
There's a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Programmable Musical Pig on this page of Cranmer's nervoussquirrel.com Web site.
As you may have already guessed, Cranmer is a multitalented individual.
"I studied product design at university, but only because it seemed to contain a wide range of subjects, from life drawing to maths, etc.," he says. "Since then I've always worked in workshops, as well as making stuff at home--picking things up along the way from project to project."
Here we see a Christmas card created by Cranmer, in which Santa Claus meets Space Invaders. Those are little presents raining down. The inset shows a vector drawing of a turntable, done by Cranmer in Adobe Illustrator.
As Cranmer says, he's spent a lot of time freelancing and working for various workshops and studios--forever adding more knowledge and ideas to the cabinet of curiosities inside his brainpan.
This LED sculpture of a giant water drop gives one idea of the sorts of projects to which he's lent a hand (the video is a must see--jump to 1:19 for the undulations). Cranmer clarifies his role in the making of this particular piece on his Web site:
"This was made for Roca's stand at the 2008 100% Design exhibition in Earls Court.
A large team of very talented engineers worked hard to make this--I played a small part by making a few components and helping with the general assembly. The sculpture was constructed at the workshop of 2D3D Ltd. in Park Royal."
Another example of the stuff of Cranmer's day jobs. He helped construct this fiberglass locomotive, which was the centerpiece of the backdrop for an AC/DC concert tour. (A detailed making-of is here). The inset shows game pieces machined for a children's discovery center in France.
"At the moment I'm working for a fantastic special-effects company called Machine Shop," Cranmer says. They make robot animals, spaceships, explosions, horror-film gore, jet packs, etc. I feel glad not to be letting down the 8-year-old version of myself who really aspired to this job."
This Cranmer nonsculpture--the Calculator Orrery--marries the nonartist's fascination with 18th century models of the solar system to his enthusiasm for vintage calculators. "The 1970s ones with glowing screens seem particularly space-aged," he says, "so it seemed to be a good idea to combine the two sources of inspiration." It's perhaps his favorite creation so far--because it's so mechanically involved but he managed to pull it off.
As mentioned, during his evening and weekend mad-scientist sessions, Cranmer sometimes uses his kitchen table as a work space. He also taps the equipment at work: "a great range of machines, from milling machines to a 3D printer." And his back garden gets enlisted as well--he has a small shed with a lathe and "a few other bits and pieces."
What do the neighbors think of the strange goings-on? "I've never had more understanding neighbors than at the moment," Cranmer says. "In fact, that's Rachel from next door playing the Badgermin in the video" displayed in the story accompanying this gallery.
These cam-driven gnomes and bananas are two of four similarly configured, and amusingly functionless, gizmos.
"I can't remember exactly why I made those machines," Cranmer says.
Though not explicitly designed to produce sound--like Brian the Penguin or the Programmable Musical Pig--the gnome gadget sends forth the sort of wonderfully repetitive and hypnotic sound that would make legendarily odd composer Erik Satie and his "Vexations" quite happy.
Commissioned by a band called Mucky Sailor, the Musical Ship's Wheel is a seaworthy sound maker that can be manipulated in various ways.
At the moment Cranmer is working on a steam-engine restoration, a tesla coil, a robot ostrich for an advertisment, and a modular synthesiser. As for a damn-the-budget-full-steam-ahead fantasy project?
"I'd love to make an enormous robotic duck and walk it around blocking traffic in central London," he says, "just to baffle the police and create a series of hilarious local newspaper reports. It would perhaps even be worth going to jail for a little while, because it would be an amusing event to look back on in later years."