10th of September 2018
Electromagnetic Field 2018, the best science, hacking and making festival in the world has just happened. There are a few ways that EMF can be described — my personal favourite is ‘the meeting of the clans’. Every two years, the nerds and geeks gather to discuss, present and bring their A game. We find out what we’ve all been working on and thinking about whilst we’ve been apart. This year, I was honoured to help out my friend Charles Yarnold with the Cybar and NullSector — a themed area that housed a bar, nightclub, art gallery and market space. The idea was to go full-on cyberpunk, making a space similar to Glastonbury’s Block-9.
The Cybar itself is an actual bar selling drinks, with the Null Sector consisting of places to sit, installations to look at and a larger outdoor area where people could dance to DJs playing music.
Charles has a maker and theatre background and did the majority of the work on the physical and planning side. He went with a load of shipping containers as the main frame on which we build everything else. He got hold of many different kinds of lights and smoke machines, driven from power lines going on the roof of each container, and crossing with truss. We attached a rectangle of scaffolding around each container, using clamps on each corner point to hold the scaffold in place. From there, we could attach almost anything we wanted.
One of the containers was stacked on top of another to function as the DJ booth. We had a considerable job of leveling out the lower container as the site for EMF this year is on a bit of a hill. Using twist-locks, the second container is tied to the lower one. It provided a good focal point for the main area.
Polybius Biotech and design documents
My contribution to this project was largely two-fold; admin and design. It was my job to talk to the various artists and makers who wanted to build things for EMF and invite them to take part in the Cybar area. Communicating what we could offer and what they needed was a large part of that. That lead into the second part of the task — the design. Right from the start we were concerned that we needed to keep a consistent theme. We worked up a design document that included a basic story and plot, a colour guide, a fictitious company with logo and style guide and several images that inspired the theme. It’s the first time I’ve written that kind of a guide; it probably shows but it seemed to do the trick. I sent this to all the installs and helpers so they knew what we were going for.
We came up with Polybius Biotech as the antagonist; evil corporation category B, subcategory 5. It’s a very Cyberpunk trope to have an all powerful megacorp “improving life”. Much of the Cybar area took inspiration from Bladerunner, Cyberpunk 2077, Altered Carbon, Ready Player One and other stories where there tends to be an evil corporate villain. I worked on a logo using inkscape, trying to incorporate hexagons which seems to be the current technology favourite. Seriously, I reckon we’ve reached peak hexagon. Anyway, I wanted something that was a bit meaningless, yet evil looking, easy to cut and stencil and reproduce in neon flex.
The name is a little easter-egg for folks; it refers to the Polybius computer game that never existed myth, which I thought was a bit of fun.
The typeface used is, of course, Eurostile with the extended form for the subtitle. I got this idea from the excellent website typesetinthefuture, which is absolutely great, if only for the explanation of the ESPER machine in Bladerunner!.
I came up with the Twitter account and various promotional posters to really add detail to the world building, which I think helped. It was also good fun to needle certain companies who I feel deserve a little needling. I think I did my job right as a few people couldn’t tell if it was real or satire.
Domes, DJs and Lasers
We’d been talked into making a dome to go with the site. This side of the project almost broke us in the end. Never undertake a dome project lightly! This one was made out of 65 lengths of thick steel pipe. Each one needed pressing and drilling at both ends then painting, and it was one hell of a job. We had some excellent helpers who worked very hard to get it done. It almost didn’t make it and I had suggested to Charles that we actually drop it and move on to other things. In the end however, we had some help from the Milliways people who have some experience with this sort of thing, and the dome became a reality.
The DJs were are little easier to sort out as Richard Patterson looked after them all, with Tim Reynolds and Matt Grey taking care of the sound. Nuff said!
We had a considerable array of lasers and flamethrowers at the Cybar this year thanks to Dimitri Modderman. Several were mounted high up on the DJ booth, whereas the flames were housed on two of the smaller containers in the centre of the area. They were quite impressive but so too were the insurance considerations! It’s best not to undertake flamethrowing lightly. It certainly added to the cyberpunk feel of the whole event.
Project management and build out
This was the really difficult side. I think we could have been sponsored by Trello given how much we used it! It’s a very useful tool. If I do a project like this in the future, I’ll make sure that I have a large screen with Trello loaded so we can do full-on kanban. Email and surprisingly, Twitter were very useful for contacting the various folks doing installs. IRC found it’s place too, along with a little WhatsApp for direct messaging. The DECT phones proved useful when the festival started too as radios were thin on the ground and not so good when you need a direct connection.
I can safely say it’s been a very long time since I’d moved so much gear from one place to another. We carted tools, paints, saws, drills and stacks of wood from London to Eastnor… twice! It was quite the effort. While EMF lasts about 3 days for a visitor, it’s more like 10 on-site, in a tent, for us (longer if you are one of the organisation team). I’m sure it was at least a few tonnes we shifted there and back.
Things I learned.
It seems like the Cybar was a great success. Like many new projects, we underestimated how long it would take to get everything in place. We were somewhat hampered by the lack of volunteers; initially we had around 12 to 14 helpers lined up but only 6 or so turned up. In many ways, I felt we were overstretched and trying to do a great many things. However, what we did manage to get really seemed to impress folks.
The little details really help. Thanks to amx109 and his little team, we had all the revolutionary, fight the power style artwork around the place, mixed in with my corporate posters, and the ambient lighting. Working with other folks and giving them enough direction to go on really helped the place grow. It began to feel Cyberpunk. Had we not had all the rebel artwork, the site would not have felt right. Martin Raynesford — our on-site chop shop — got quite into building many of the props we had around the site, including all the signs for the installs. Without the help of all these folks, we’d have not had all the little details and the site wouldn’t have worked.
We held a night-market on the first night and it was a great success but I’m glad we handed it off to Dominic Morrow in order to run it. Delegation is very important and I’m glad I could trust everyone we worked with.
If you build a bar with a metal cage inside a shipping container make sure you put a wireless access point behind the bar, otherwise your card machines don’t work! :P
A lot of people will come at you with suggestions and it’s important to remember when to hold your ground. The biggest of these were folks saying “why did you not tell us? Why did you keep it a secret? We could have gotten involved”. At first I almost agreed with this but as time went on, I saw the wisdom and I was glad we kept it an open secret. Firstly, it builds mystique and surprise. We don’t get enough of either these days I think. Build the magic and people will like it more, even if they say they wont. Secondly, if we’d setup expectations and not met them, people would be unhappy. Better to not do that. Finally, having enough people work on the project is important. Too few and it can’t happen but too many will lead to problems. I think we struck the absolute right balance.
Keeping in contact with the people bringing their work to the party was very important. Sometimes, I couldn’t provide the answers they needed when I felt I should. Liaising with all the various teams to make things happen is a tricky skill and one that managers must have to deal with all the time. It’s a job I certainly won’t underestimate in the future. Sometimes, you get messages and requests that should be ignored or at least dealt with locally rather than passing them along. Spotting and acting on these, or pushing back is also important. In some ways, I felt I was a shield for Charles — taking on the things I could so he can focus on the bits only he can do.
In the end though, folks who came along had a pretty good time! :) Move over Block-9 and Secret Cinema! There’s a new kid in town! :D
I’d like to thank…
There’s loads of folks I need to thank on this project. Firstly, all the people who made installs for us. Wouldn’t have worked without you.
All the folks who helped out with the setup. I hope I’ve managed to get you all in the list!
- amx109 and his art buddies too!
- Mark Phelan
- Julie Freeman for help with the style guide
- Mike Chislett
- The Weedinator crew for their help with the dome as well as their install
If you’ve never been to Electromagnetic Field, I highly recommend it. I’ve volunteered and made things for each one, starting in 2012 and it’s gone from strength to strength. This year I saw a lot of families and folks from overseas. Unlike DEFCON or Toorcamp or similar, EMF has a wider focus with more science and craft which I feel is a much better mix.
However, things are changing with the organising committee starting something called Electromagnetic Pulse; a way for local communities to get together and hold mini events that will have a say in how EMF is organised, what it does and all the rest. So if you are interested in getting involved, now is the time!