Q and A with Nathan Bennett

by: L.E. BASKOW, Computer parts and more become pieces of art in the hands of Free Geek’s Nathan Bennett, whose office has become a veritable gallery of recycled creativity.

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to a prominent - or not so prominent - local person.

Don't try to squeeze into Nathan Bennett's office. Can't be done, and the mess is growing bigger every day.

Motherboards and keyboards and old computer housings grow in a pile on the floor like some metallic fungus gone radioactive. The stuff is starting to leak out the doorway into the hall at Free Geek, where Bennett works.

And up above, looming over it all, is a light fixture that looks like a hairy eyeball, made of scavenged bike parts, umbrella spokes and an old plastic globe.

'People like to bring me stuff,' Bennett says, by way of explanation.

They sure do. Free Geek is the Southeast Portland collective that will dispose of your old computer, or fix it up and sell it to someone else if it's salvageable.

Bennett, who started working there four years ago as a volunteer before attaining staff level status two years later, has an additional use for some of the old parts that come in his increasingly unapproachable door - he uses them to make sculptures and light fixtures with what he calls a 'cyber-organic theme.' That hairy eyeball, for example.

Portland Tribune: What exactly do you do here?

Nathan Bennett: My job title is kind of vague. Entropy coordinator is what I like to call myself. Since I don't have a major job description there are a lot of things that come my way that I need to redirect the energy around.

Tribune: A favorite example?

Bennett: A Macaquarium. It's made out of an old Mac Plus by a volunteer here who makes different things out of the electronics that have been gutted.

It has a fish tank that fits inside it, and it's got lighting controls, heat controls - all custom-made - and a pump to control the flow of air, and it's got heat sensors built into it.

He's got fish, and he's got these LED leads that will be controlled with a Web page to control the color of the lighting and how often it pulses. You can check up on your fish through a Web interface. It will be here on display.

Tribune: The controls are on the keyboard?

Bennett: They're on the outside of the computer. He eliminated the keyboard from the whole thing. Do you remember what a Mac Classic looks like?

Tribune: Sort of.

Bennett: They're like a little box. We make a stage out of them for Geek Fair.

Tribune: How many Mac Classics does it take to make a stage?

Bennett: About 144.

Tribune: Wait a minute. If you didn't know, why would you say 'about 144' instead of 'about 150'?

Bennett: Classic geek.

Tribune: And what do you put on the Mac Classic stage?

Bennett: Bands perform on it. You stack them side by side, screw them together and screw plywood sheeting on top of it.

Tribune: Isn't that sacrilege, using Macs for a stage?

Bennett: No. We're a PC shop.

Tribune: Urban myth or not - people use their computer CD trays as cup holders?

Bennett: Not.

Tribune: Well, what stupid things have you seen people do with computers?

Bennett: We've got a PC back there, a dad let his kids take it out and shoot at it in the woods and they filled it full of lead. It's great, you should see it. It's got bullet holes all in it - .357s, 9 mms … You name it, they've shot it.

Tribune: And as a computer geek that doesn't bother you?

Bennett: No. It was a creative use of it. It was already destroyed, and they were frustrated with it.

Tribune: Well, what do you normally recommend if someone calls and says they're frustrated with their computer?

Bennett: Don't shoot it because you might get a ricochet?

- Peter Korn