Digital alchemy on Power Street

Welcome To the Machine
By PHILIP EIL  |  May 14, 2013


Brown University's Multimedia and Electronic Music Experiments (MEME) program sits on the second floor of a brick building on Power Street in Providence. Downstairs, you'll hear pianos trilling, mournful cellos, and other sounds that traditionally float from conservatory practice rooms. Upstairs, it's zaps, zips, warbles, pings, and electronic groans that early-edition synthesizers emit.

"It sounds like tortured whales," says Chris Novello, sitting in the MEME grad lounge on a recent afternoon. We're in a room crammed with a mini-fridge, computer screens, glue guns, open bags of pretzels, and a pantry-like closet filled with overflowing plastic bins marked "VIDEO ACCESSORIES," "1/8" CABLES & ADAPTERS." Novello — a student in Brown's electronic writing MFA program and an honorary MEME member thanks to his electronic tinkering prowess — has brought me to meet Jordan Bartee and his new invention: Ming Mecca.

The contraption sits on a nearby table, wired to a boxy old television and two first-generation Nintendo controllers. It looks like an open suitcase filled with plastic boards on which all kinds of buttons, dials, and blinking lights have been installed. "If a Nintendo Entertainment System and a recording studio mixing board had a baby," one video game blog wrote when the machine debuted two weeks ago, "it would look a lot like Ming Mecca."

Bartee — a fourth-year MEME PhD student who created the instrument for his dissertation — describes it as a "reality synthesizer" capable of diving into old-school Mario or Zelda-esque game worlds and molding them like clay. Here in the lounge, he shows what that means. When he twists dials or plugs and un-plugs yellow wires from jacks on Ming Mecca, the glowing red bricks on the screen change from a maze to a checkerboard pattern, then continue to morph into countless other configurations. More flicks of buttons and switches make the humanoid icon on the screen — "DigiMan," Bartee calls him — change to a flower, then a snake, which zooms around at different speeds.

Ming Mecca's reception in the blogosphere was mostly positive, Bartee says. Sure, some readers spouted off the usual digital snark. ("Everything that sucked about any and all systems/video game pasts, now in one convenient block of crap for you to control!?" reads one comment on the game blog Kotaku.) Others, like the nearly 60 people who have expressed interest in pre-ordering one, were pleasantly intrigued.

Novello has an invention of his own that he is preparing to launch this month as well: a bible-sized metal box covered in knobs, buttons, jacks, and switches that plugs into laptops like an external hard drive. It's called "illucia."

"It's this way of patching game worlds together," he says, taking the machine from his backpack and plugging it in to his computer. Classic games that look like Pong and Tetris appear on the screen, then begin to bend and speed up, with balls and blocks spinning off in neon cascades according to Novello's control. (Last summer, he exhibited illucia at the RISD Museum, where he projected images onto a screen in a process he calls "using a video game to remix paintings.")

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