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Error State

By skot deeming

A couple of months ago I was invited to a “barn dance.” My urban Ontario background had me expecting a night of rural culture that, quite frankly, I didn’t think I was going to appreciate. What I found instead was something I had never considered; a thriving community, and a bunch of people I can only describe as rural hackers. They aren’t modding video game systems, rather they go into their workshops to whip up some of the craziest and most amazing tech I’ve ever seen in person.

We travelled about an hour north of Winnipeg to find hundreds of people partaking in the largest potluck I have ever seen. Shortly after the potluck the dance started on the second floor of the red barn. A 20-plus person ensemble of elderly folk played music of all genres while people line danced and, of course, did the famous two-step. Though I was taken by the grassroots communal spirit, the best was yet to come.

I had heard that one of the people throwing this party was a “homemade fireworks” enthusiast and that, once the sun had set, there would be a fireworks display. Outside the barn I found all manners of machinery, PVC pipe contraptions and five propane tanks, each with a long copper tube jutting out the top, it’s peak covered in steel wool. From the tanks ran wires connected to an ad hoc control panel.

The dancing took a pause and people started filing out of the barn and onto the lawn near the strange homemade contraptions. Moments later, six men dressed in red and white clown suits came out. Some began plunking away on the strange pipe configurations, one started playing an old air organ that had been repaired with odds and ends like old coffee cans, and another took position near the switches connected to the propane tanks. Turns out those propane tanks were essentially homemade fireball canons! Pauses in the “songs” were punctuated by the bassy THWUMP of one of the tanks emitting a giant fireball. It was the kind of thing I’d expect to see at some mad art festival, not in the middle of rural Manitoba. When asked, the band said they were called: “The Danger Band.”

Then came those homemade fireworks. This was an incredible display of light, sound and colour. It turns out the man responsible spent years researching everything about fireworks, including their chemical compositions and how different combinations create different types of fireworks. After their performances I spoke with these folks and one of the band members even showed me his Ruben’s tube (a flame organ that’s reactive to sound) that he had made in his workshop. It was sitting right next to his own moonshine still (for the mixing of homemade alcohol). The whole affair left me a little awestruck, and made me want to explore the countryside to see what other madness lurks in the workshops of rural Manitoba. Certainly it’s all more mechanical and lo-tech than what people traditionally consider “hacking,” but through their spirit of play, their ingenuity and their love of tinkering, they too are hackers all.

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