Critical Work shopping: The Contact Microphone
Ellen K. Foster
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
About this Kit
The content of this project is based on workshops and experimental skill-sharing that the author has participated in and helped to lead in the spring of 2014 with Lindsay Karty and in fall of 2015 with the help of the FemHack group and a makerspace in downtown Troy. Through these workshops, my colleagues and I hoped to develop a critical stance while learning by doing — to talk through themes of possible empowerment and issues of power associated with particular skills, technologies, and knowledges. The skill of soldering is the main focus of the workshops, both through critical discussion and through learning to solder via the project of making a contact microphone. There is more than one way to solder a circuit, especially as conductive thread, conductive ink and different styles of soldering have made their way into mainstream maker culture. Behind maker culture there is a long history of tinkerers, fixers, and fabricators in basements and factories who take on soldering as their craft. But questions of who typically solders, who sees it as useful/skillful knowledge, and what it means in different contexts come to light in these discussions and skill-shares: particularly when considering gender, race, and class.
The contact microphone itself inhabits an interesting place in experimental and DIY music culture. It is a cheap, quick, and easy way to pick up an objects resonant frequency and make just about anything into an instrument. The fascination, excitement, and curiosity of "what sound will this make?" adds to the narrative of personal creativity and style that comes into play with different soldering techniques. The contact microphone also brings into question: what is trash and what is useable? Pushing against planned obsolescence norms in a throw-away culture, the contact microphone gives voice to various objects, enacting a move towards creative reuse and creative combinations.