Exciting news about Isn'tses forthcoming noise synth, it now has a name - "Chernobylizer" - and the initial prototype PCBs have arrived! Lisa's artwork has come out looking great, we are going to build one soon and test that everything works properly. Once we have it working we will be selling them as a built synth and also as a DIY kit.
We are very happy with the quality from AllPCB, who also manufactured the Fort Processor boards for us. Below is an unboxing video showing the PCBs for the first time:
We are also glad to announce that kits to build our other synth, the Fort Processor, are back in stock at Thonk. You can buy one at https://www.thonk.co.uk/shop/fort-processor/
Chernobyliser ©2020 designed by Lisa McKendrick & Tim Drage
We went out and experimented with reading radiation but I think it’s a not very accurate phone app. It was interesting to get completely random readings. The reading under the pylon was quite low while the reading by the river was very high. This was more of a psychogeographic exploration than a scientific experiment, but the main thing is that even at the highest readings the levels at Chernobyl would have been 1000s of times higher. It would be nice to have an actual Geiger counter but they are quite expensive and we quite like the idea of using an EMF-emitting phone to read EMF radiation.
Extract from Chernobyl Prayer, a book recommended to us in our last post which is a very interesting set of memoirs by people living in or affected by the exclusion zone.
The Shape of the Synth
The interesting thing about Chernobyl is that the story is never quite told. There is missing information about what really took place. This element of mystery gives the whole thing an added layer of intrigue. It's interesting that the May Day celebrations still went ahead despite the high levels of dangerous radiation, and that all footage of the parades has now disappeared from the Ukraine national archives: time.com/4313139/post-chernobyl-parade/
When we built the Fort Processor it was based on Newhaven Fort. Since then we have looked at other fortification layouts and discovered "La fortification démonstrée et réduicte en art", a diagrammatic book, by 16th century mathematician Jean Errard. The drawings in this have helped us form a basis for the shape of the synth. The fortification surrounding Chernobyl took the form of lies, cover ups and untruths that still persist today. Part of the cover up of the true impact included not having a system to track the deaths and labelling deaths as something other than radiation sickness. As we now know the effects of radiation can manifest themselves much later as cancers, deformations, mutations of cells, thyroid illness, stroke, heart failure. As recounted in the videos in our previous post, the Chernobyl liquidators suffered with their health for the rest of their lives. In many ways we have two disasters, one is the explosion itself and he other is the fortification surrounding the truth. It is only because the survivors of this disaster have been so vigilant with telling their stories that we form a realistic picture.
The shape of the decontamination zone would have proved problematic as a PCB and liable to break or awkward to balance when playing. But we wanted to keep both the shape of the decontamination zone and the exclusion zone within the artwork and this will be incorporated into the design and shape.
The shapes seen in Jean Errard's book are reminiscent of sacred geometry. This helps us to expand our esoteric ideas around the concept of a noise synth as an esoteric instrument. Interestingly when asked what it was like on the roof of Reactor 4, photographer Igor Kostin, who went up there to photograph the Bio Robots at work, said "I was struck by the mystical feeling there”. Other people involved also were known to describe the sky as having a beautiful glow.
The 'Bio-robots' at work, photograph by Igor Kostin.
The Circuit Initial Phases
Here we are experimenting on breadboard with finding a distorted clicking noise which sounds like a geiger counter reading high levels. It is reported that the radiation meters available to Chernobyl workers only measured 500 roentgen but that the levels were off the scale, probably in excess of 1000. The initial sounds which we found were ok but we felt it needed something else as this geiger counter sound was not interesting enough on its own.
We decided to try a circuit with power starve and drain. The large capacitors are suitable for this and effective at creating a gradually changing, draining noise similar to the sound we imagine Reactor 4 would make when it was turned off and then turned on again right before the explosion. We also added a switch so that this section could be on or off.
The design we had in mind would have a lot of touch pads around the edges of the PCB. Here we test a mockup of touch-controlled oscillators. These prototype touch pads are made from stripboard. In this photo we are trying the synth out thru a filter pedal in order to decide whether we should add a filter section. This was very effective and added another dimension to the circuit and improved the overall playability of the synth.
An extract from Chernobyl Prayer. It shows how they had the trial on the Chernobyl site. This is very strange.
Further to our investigation into psychogeographic location as a way to inform our Noise synth/circuit and PCB design we are now sharing some of our background research which will form a basis for our new circuit.
Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." It has also been defined as "a total dissolution of boundaries between art and life".
The Chernobyl Decontamination Zone, and the wider Exclusion Zone, is to this day unfit for human habitation, although a few people returned to live there despite the dangers of radiation. Below are maps of the decontamination zone at Chernobyl, with some of the initial designs for the PCB artwork
The people who were required to work within the decontamination zone were known as "liquidators" and "bio-robots". It is their stories and the impact on their lives that we find to be at the core of this research as well as the land itself. Below are two videos with individual stories of some of the people most closely involved with the decontamination of this land. They also show some of the background information on the potentially disastrous effect on Europe which was was narrowly escaped, footage of the 'bio-robots' at work on the roof of reactor 3, and the extremities of radiation exposure to those working on the cleanup including the miners who tunnelled under the reactor.
We wanted to create a synth that explores this area both politically and emotionally. Neither of us have visited this site so we are using remote psychogeography by looking at maps, stories, documentaries and TV series made about Chernobyl to inform this project.
We want the noise synth to reflect some of the sounds associated with the reactor, the disaster and cleanup. Noises such as the draining of power to reactor 4 as it was switched off - followed by the explosion - are a key idea for us. The synth will also evoke the sound of Gieger counters, warning sirens and malfunctioning electronic systems. These crucial moments and those following are something we focused on when finding the kinds of sounds that the synth will create. The noisy dissonance of disaster, cover up and exploitation. How does something sound when it is about to change history for the lives of many, a decision made, mistakes, negligence by officials, a cover up of the true effects of the disaster.
We hope we can with this synth contribute to the dialogue surrounding this disaster, even if it is only a form of a dedication to those affected. The drawings which will be etched onto the PCB are ideas of mutations, currents and the spreading of the invisible radiation that was only felt as a metallic taste in the mouth.
Now contained within the Sarcophagus, Reactor 4 is for the time being under control, yet the decontamination and exclusion zones remain, accessible only by official tour, and have been inhabited by nature and wildlife.
Would anybody feel comfortable playing this instrument? Yes, because it is only an instrument, it is not supposed to make you feel comfortable but it prompts the history of its psychogeographical references. The voice of radiation amplified. The radiation was never supposed to escape but in the hands of the wrong people it did. It was a mistake but it was very preventable, it was devastating and is a warning of what corporate and government negligence is capable of. Just one of many examples. The land itself is wounded yet continues to be a beautiful landscape containing within it the discarded remnants of those left behind. Many people have explored this disaster in art and music, for example Pink Floyd have made this video showing locations within the exclusion zone, and the empty houses and remnants of those who once lived there. The interrupted lives and the loss of trust in the government are relevant today as we witness the negligence of various countries' responses to Covid 19.
At this stage we are sharing our initial research, designs, thoughts and ideas about this new circuit design which we have been working on for several months now. This is to be able to document the whole process as best we can for future reference and to share our process.
Published by Isn'tses - Lisa McKendrick and Tim Drage
We have opened an Etsy store where we are selling a limited number of fully-built Fort Processor synths, as well as unpopulated PBCs: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/isntses
I like the idea that the Fort Processor is a mutation like those described in this quote.
Stanislaw Lem - Solaris
How this ties in with the Fort Processor may seem fairly obvious. The disruption of signals and fragmented frequencies was something that we hoped we could achieve with this synth.
Here is a screen shot of KiCad and shows the connections between the chips and other parts of the circuit. An asymmetriad is forming.
We had to abandon the radio chip. The interference and noise that was being generated by the chip was not the "right kind" of noise. However the other sounds we were getting from the synth were better than expected, and we decided to use an audio input instead, making it possible to use an external radio via the input. This also opened up the possibility of connecting a range of devices though the audio input. While our initial idea was to have a synth that was a radio, we decided that it was best left for another project, and it was nevertheless instrumental in helping us to achieve the result we ended up with. The development process was eye opening and we have a much better idea on how certain elements work and do not work in this setting. Also influencing this decision was that the components required would mean that the space would start to get cramped on such a small PCB. We decided that it is okay to give up on the part of the circuit that initially inspired the idea. Problem solving can end up going around in circles and we had to eliminate the part that was not working, so that we could move forward. One of the advantages of having a deadline to work towards is that there is no option to let things drag on forever. So what we now have is four CMOS chips: 4040, 4093, 4066, 4049. We have a very interesting circuit that will take a signal and cut up or process the sound with oscillation, delay, pitch shifting and speed control. A Fort Processor emerged!