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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Nov 18 1998
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Night Crawler
By Silke Tudor
The Science of the Art of the Political

For a moment, just coming off the 980, this industrial corner of Oakland seems uncharacteristically still: no grumbling truck motors or stuttering forklifts, no keg-shaped men shifting their cargoes throughout the night, just cold, dark pavement and the keen smell of winter clinging to the chain links of surrounding fences. The moment does not last long. Slowly, the purr of a cabless refrigeration truck insinuates itself over the quiet; two semis round the corner, swaying as they descend on three men who suddenly materialize out of the shadow of the loading dock. Hoarse laughter and hellos mingle with the slowing truck engines. Something explodes behind the Sandcrawler warehouse space.

For all the surrounding activity, the Sandcrawler looks relatively peaceful. The windows have that gracious orange glow that seems to imbue electric bulbs during the winter months. All's quiet and inviting -- but for the occasional tiny explosion.

A solid plank walkway leading to an entrance behind the Sandcrawler suggests its dirt lot turns into a mire during the rainy season, but for now the ground is comfortably spongy and covered in a thick shag of dried leaves blown from nearby trees. It is an ideal locale for a Nativity scene. A table bearing several small antiquated motors, a few folding chairs, two ornate household lamps (burning with orangy light bulbs), a rather large flamethrower (burning with orangy flame), and a cardboard flat filled with small grapefruits and plain yogurt greet folks as they line up for the Sandcrawler's first annual Subversive Science Fair. A hint of citrus hangs in the air, giving the breeze a fresh-scrubbed fragrance. Periodically, one of the men sitting in the folding chairs jumps up and shoves a firecracker into a grapefruit, lights it, and hurls it over some neighboring telephone wires.

If the wind's right, drops of freshly discharged grapefruit juice and chunks of pulp fall on the gathering crowd. Produce and lighters are offered to the new ar-rivals. A fresh-faced group of students from UC Berkeley, overheard in the street giving each other partygoing pep talks ("OK, we go in. Check it out. If it's cool, cool. If not, we all meet back here in half an hour"), takes great joy in blowing up grapefruits, until the kids lay eyes on the flamethrower.

"Hey, fire that puppy up," bids Daniel Boyer, a muscular blond lad with a particularly good throwing arm. It is suggested that he check out the science experi-ments inside, then come back for "flamethrowing action."

Inside, 25-year-old Aaron Gach, Sandcrawler co-resident and founder of the Subversive Science Fair, weaves his way through the substantial crowd.

"I'm trying to find a table for Spurt Radio," says Gach from under a well-shaped baseball cap. "People just keep showing up with equipment under their arm, asking if I want them to set up." A relaxed smile says that he doesn't mind in the least. About 150 people are already gathered around the 30 exhibits, drinking wine and eating pies supplied by the Biotic Baking Brigade, a group that a semihysterical local news commentator (read: idiot) recently likened to pre-World War II German National Socialists for their pieing of Willie Brown.

A quick glance through a paper written by Gach -- "Prank the Power: Media Manipulation Through Subversive Art," which cites Abbie Hoffman, Survival Re-search Laboratories, NYC's Billboard Utilizing Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions, Negativland, and the Unabomber -- suggests Brigade members are just the sort of people with whom Gach would like to associate.

"I started out as an engineering student," says Gach in the sanctuary of the upstairs sitting room, "but was told I couldn't have a double major with art and engineering, that the fields of study were not compatible, so I switched to environmental science. Now, I'm working to achieve some sort of fusion of art, science, and politics."

Downstairs, in the gallery, is a good start in that direction. A portable mural called The Biotechnological Zone stretches across one wall. Gach climbs on top of a large sculpture made of monitors, keyboards, plywood, and air ducts. With his logo -- a wrench, paintbrush, and stick of dynamite intersecting -- painted on the wall overhead, Gach announces the first entry from scientist/inventor Mike Kan. It is a software reverse-engineering system that he likes to call the "Computer Mutilator."

"I am an analog man living in a digital world," begins Kan's quixotic description of a highly technical invention that uses an oscilloscope to see inside the "dark and mysterious" place where computer programs function.

"It's like a software vivisection," says Kan, trying to keep it simple. "I can put myself between the computer and the program and alter what the computer would normally do, electrode by electrode."

"He's getting into the psyche of the computer," observes an elder science enthusiast. "Treating it like a different life form, like silicon intelligence."

"I have no idea what he's talking about," says a young woman with a Hello Kitty backpack. "I'd really need to study his paper."

Other exhibits aren't so difficult to grasp: Representatives from the San Francisco collective Cell have brought an electrolysis experiment (notice the pitting caused to a carbon rod after only four hours of exposure). Twenty-two-year-old Josh Churchill has created a "bass-playing robotic bird" that deconstructs verbal information. Torrey Nommesin, 23, has plans for a machine that will reproduce the physiological aspect of being in love, the so-called butterflies in the stomach, so as to do away with the organic compulsion. There is a table of Earth First! subversive products, including the "Eco-Sabotage Starters Kit" and "Little Eco-Warrior Playset." The Unabomber's manifesto is available for perusal as is the "Directory of Transnational Corporations." The Bay Area Billboard Bombing Brigade offers instruction in the "simple subversive science" of transforming any "BIG 4 RENTS" sign into "BIG 4 PENIS" with only a ski mask and a common black Sharpie.

Spurt Radio, the portable, solar-powered pirate radio station that broadcast every Thursday for 51 weeks, until the FCC won its injunction against another pirate, Radio Free Berkeley, demonstrates how it can be done. And Helloise and Chastity report their findings on pregnancy caused by kissing; the sock monster; whether or not ants can live in the freezer; and how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll in the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop. (Guesses from the crowd abound, but a conclusive answer is not given.)

"The fair's pretty cool," says Daniel Boyer after having rushed to the door in time to see the flamethrower in action.

"Art, science, and politics, each community has its own set of hang-ups," says Gach. "They could all benefit from being connected. It's only the contrivances of society that keep them from seeing it."

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor
Published:In the Nov. 18 Night Crawler column ("The Science of the Art of the Political"), Torrey Nommessen's last name was misspelled. SF Weekly regrets the error.

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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