Chernobylizer - designed by Lisa McKendrick and Tim Drage © 2020
The drawings for the Chernobylizer were based around the shape of the exclusion zone and the decontamination zone. The descriptions by those involved in the Chernobyl clean up, of radiation causing electrical equipment to fail causing them to stop working seemed very interesting to me - That an invisible source of energy could cause a machine to stop working. It only makes you wonder what effect it has on the human body. As we know there are radiation burns and more obvious signs but there are also more invisible things that happen later. As radiation can affect DNA which leads to mutations I was interested in what these mutations might look like and explored these further in my drawings. The touch pads are something like mutated forms, and as they are central to the playability of the synth I wanted them to have a voice. What message do they have for us? This can only be experienced by the player’s own human contact with the device. Both at that time when human contact with the radiation was highly dangerous, but also during the current crisis where we have become transmitters and spreaders of disease, our human touch has become something to be feared. The touch pads welcome you back into the touchy feel of your own body interacting with another and here it is not something to be feared. Rather the capacitance of your own body and its ability to be a conductor of electricity allow an interaction to take place between human and machine.
When trying to picture radiation I imagined that radiation had teeth, invisible and sharp eating away at the very fabric of a victims genetic make up, changing them, transforming their genetic lineage. It seems ironic that the method that we use to create energy would come back and bite us with these invisible teeth reminding us that we are flesh, blood and circuitry subject to the laws of physics. That radioactive waste, as impossible as it is to neutralise, is the result of the very energy that we employ everyday. We employ its creative and destructive mathematics and chemistry, its splitting of atoms. I am no nuclear physicist and I do not have the language to describe the process accurately, but I have imagined, through my drawing, the shapes of this transformation and the resulting energy that powers the device. I think of our sun and the many other suns caught up in a nuclear process of creating and maintaining energy and I think of stars that die when they finally burn out. Perhaps for a moment while feeling the full force of radiation there is the Mystical feeling of pure energy beyond the fragility of the human body.
As with most noise and experimental devices that I’ve played, it has always been the interaction with pure unclassically trained energy which I find most interesting and the unpredictability of the sound, oscillating in shapes as it passes through filters, is held within capacitors then released through a gate. With the added human interaction as energy conductor the player can be part of the circuit, a component of its unpredictability. It is a reminder that we are part of something bigger and complex, that we are always part of a system and held by laws of the universe at times Berserk.
I hope when playing the Chernobylizer that some of these ideas are transmitted and reinterpreted by the player in their own idiosyncratic way.
Drawings: Lisa McKendrick
The placement of the components was something that we wanted to kind of resemble the Chernobyl plant. The large capacitors reference the four nuclear reactors. These capacitors are central to the draining sound that can be heard in the instrument as they store current and then slowly drain power from the main oscillators when the switch is turned off. The five knobs at the top are like controllers overseeing the whole site/circuit and bring attention to the human actions that controlled the blast of reactor 4 from the control room. The touchpads naturally work well at the outer edges of the PCB for easy access, and serendipitously there turned out to be the exact number of them to fill the triangles around the fortification layout we used for the PCB shape.
We have been playing around with the prototype now for a couple of weeks both to see if it works and how functional it is as an instrument. We are making a few modifications to correct some of the circuit problems that were encountered but are happy to say that the touch pads work very well as does the power starve function. The filter section of the circuit isn't working as it did on the breadboard so we will be correcting this for the final version.
Here is a video of progress so far on the Chernobylizer protoypes:
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