Brooklyn group gives new meaning to 'hacker'

Brooklyn Currents | 2/27/2015 | 0 comments

Brooklyn Currents Associate Editor

Whenever you see news images of the Barclay Center and its environs in downtown Brooklyn, you probably think of basketball and concerts. But only a few blocks away from Barclay's is the NYC Resistor Hacker Collective at 87 Third Ave

Originally home to the Federal Brewery Company of Germany, from 1850 to 1907, today the building's fourth floor is a workspace for computer programmers, designers, developers, artists and other computer enthusiasts.

Contrary to the media's use of the term "hacker" as an evil genius breaking into computers, a hacker is simply someone who turns a device or program into something other than it was designed to be.

"We're just people who like to tinker with things and make them do things they weren't meant to do," says Justin, a member of NYC Resistor.

A more technical definition of a hacker from Wikipedia is, "someone who modifies software or hardware of their own private computer system," including "building, rebuilding, modifying, and creating software either to make it better, faster, or give it added features."

a laser-cut wood carving
Hackerspaces began in Europe, Justin says.  "We're modeled after them," he said

The first hackerspaces are thought to have started in Berlin around 1995. But in 2007, a group of American hackers visited Europe and brought the concept back. And some of them created NYC Resistor the same year; since then hackerspaces have sprung up all over the world.

Walking into the Collective, you feel as if you've walked on the set of a science-fiction film. There are paintings, photographs, maps, speakers, with miniature lights flickering in different sequences. In a corner is an '80s video game called Asteroids, similar to the famous PAC-Man.

A painting of the '70s electronic band Devo hangs on a wall. They're wearing their "Energy Dome" hats, shaped like a cylindrical pyramid, and look like futuristic computer geeks standing in line as if they're on a conveyer belt about to be picked up by a robot hand and screwed into a machine.

In front of the painting is a long, rectangular wooden table where everyone gathers to share ideas. Next to the table is the entrance to the back space where the equipment and spare computer parts are stored. If it wasn't so organized it would look like your typical junkyard.

There are rows and rows of plastic draws containing electronic and other mechanical spare parts , including LCD lights, keyboards, speakers, and circuitry boards of seemingly every gadget ever created. Above this are shelves with different monitors of every size. There's no place left to store donated parts -- the hackerspace has to turn people away.

'Blue Spaceship ' from 3D printing
A cold evening in February is one of NYC Resistor's "Open Nights" – the space is open to the public and anyone can come and ask advice, share ideas, or work with others on a project. Open Nights are usually Mondays from 7:30 until "you get tired" and Thursdays from 6:30 to 9:30.  Visitors must be 18 years of age or older.

This evening a young man with a beard walks over to the table and drops his backpack on it with a loud thud. It looks like he's carrying weights; he then pulls out two small motors -- they're wheelchair motors. He wants to create a robot that can fight other robots on a reality show. His name is Chris, but his friend's call him Widget – referring to the modern-day definition of the word as a computer application.

"Do you remember BattleBox? They're rebooting the show and my dream is to enter into that competition," Widget says.

Next to Widget is Rhanji Bhatganar, an instructor at NYC Resistor. He is a sound artist who has had art installations in galleries worldwide and has also taught at Parsons New School of Design in Manhattan.

He stands next to the Makerbot Printer, one of the new inventions and businesses created by combining talents and changing the use of different devices. The Makerbot combines a printer with a 3D computer file making it possible to create 3D objects without hiring a large manufacturing company.

NYC Resistor also has a laser cutter that visitors and class participants can use for a fee. They also teach classes on how to use these machines. Classes are open to anyone and cost about $75 for four hours.  

You can only become a member if you're invited to be part of the group. Members must teach classes and workshops; in exchange they get 24-hour access to the workspace and equipment. All the fees from the workshops and the equipment go to pay for the space. Bhatganar believes it's a good deal for everyone. The members can use the space and visitors can learn and share knowledge with others, and class participants pay low fees.

He says most visitors on Open Night are looking for advice on how to repair simple things like their plug pump or cables. But other times visitors will seek more intricate advice. One night two French jewelry students used the Makerot laser cutter to practice new jewelry designs. Most people don't question the industrial aspects of technology – they just consume products without understanding how they're made, Bhatnagar said

"Society just drops this in our laps. If you want to learn about programming and graphic design and just be a person that buys stuff, that's fine, but you can also be a person that creates stuff," he said.

Some visitors want to recreate project ideas they found on the Internet. One project entailed creating a light that blinks on your desk every time your name is mentioned on Twitter.

Bhatganar has attended Hackerrspaces in Europe and says many outside the U.S. concentrate mainly on computers.

He says the people at NYC Resistor don't only work on computers, but also on painting, books, photography, fashion or anything else that could expand technological limits; their members aren't only engineers and graphic designers, but also book publishers, musicians, fashion designers and much more. One of their members did props for the Blue Man Group, the worldwide musical entertainers who paint themselves Blue and use all sorts of lights and electronics in their stage shows, and another publishes children's books. Visitors include designers from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Upcoming workshops include learning how to make Pop-Up books, and making robots that play musical instruments
For a complete listing of the dates, times and prices of the workshops visit


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