Tech by Day, Art by Night

Photo from Kunal Dovedy's Kickstarter video.

From the start, Kunal Dovedy’s San Francisco story deviated from those of other tech workers who come here to start-up or board the bus for Silicon Valley. In some ways, his story feels more 1960ish, a time when, as the folklore goes, people came here to fight the man, not work for him.

It was, Dovedy’s heart—not a large tech employer—that led him to leave his travels in India two years ago to come to San Francisco.

“People come to San Francisco to have fun,” Dovedy, 27, says, his eyes wide and manner eager. And, in Dovedy’s case, to work in tech and make art.

What he considers his first masterpiece sits in the Oakland Aviation Museum, where it is housed between its travels. It, is a 2,000-pound installation made out of a jet engine that Dovedy has transformed into a musical instrument for the masses. He calls it the Turbinophone. And it will be one of many projects shown this weekend at the Bay Area Maker’s Faire. 

His story is an example of the art coming from a tech mind. In much the same way that other artists and writers have held down day jobs—T.S. Elliot worked as a banker for seven years and the sculptor Richard Serra had a furniture moving business to support his art—there are tech workers like Dovedy who identify first as artists.

“I’m doing two things. I’m showing people who make money, it’s OK to make art, and people who make art, it’s OK to make money,” he says with an optimism that’s beguiling.

Although he and a friend “failed catastrophically” in an IT business they started as soon as Dovedy graduated from UC Santa Barbara in film theory, he remains positive. “You really can do what you want to do in life,” is one of his mottos. Another: “I know the stuff I am doing in my life is going to help the people around me a lot. I don’t know how, but it’s going to help.”

With the Turbinophone, one throws BB gun pellets into the blades of the machine. As the pellets fall down the layers of blades, the resulting sound is something akin to a room full of grandfather clocks all going off at once.

Ian Wright, director of operations for the Oakland Aviation Museum, says cheerfully that on a recent day, hundreds of people came to the museum for an event Dovedy hosted. All day, he said, the sounds of the BB pellets falling through the engine’s blades reverberated through the open rooms of the museum, which also houses old planes and related memorabilia.

For Dovedy, he sees it as “taking things people usually think of as trash and making them into things people can gather around.”

The idea for this massive musical instrument came to him one day while surfing YouTube. He found a video in which a screw was dropped into an old engine, and the resulting sound was “beautiful.” Jay Curry, who posted the original video, gave Dovedy the engine at no cost. Shipping, however, was $2,000 because of its weight.

After acquiring the machine, Dovedy spent nearly five months preparing it for 2013’s Burning Man—where it made its grand debut at the yearly arts festival located in the deserts of northern Nevada.

After that, it went straight to the Oakland Aviation Museum so that the public could engage with it there. It’s far too massive to be kept in Dovedy’s Mission apartment, he explains.

He would next like to see one in every city and right now he currently has some 30 to 40 hardcore fans who want to talk with him about it often.

When I meet him at TechShop, a hacker space in SOMA one Friday evening, it is apparent he is coming straight from his office at Tightrope Interactive—his day job where, he says, hours are normal. “We can have the lives we want to lead outside the company,” he says.

Unlike everyone else, he is not wearing a hoodie, but a teal button-down tucked into dark denim jeans. Dovedy is at ease in the industrial workspace filled with large welding and hydraulic machines as well as worktables and communal computers. These are the people who taught him how to weld metal for his Turbinophone.

The instrument/art installation combines two of the Dovedy’s long-time interests: music and planes. He plays many conventional instruments and used to perform in metal bands. He named one of them ‘Sudo,’ which stands for Super User Do in the computer language Linux. He has also “geeked” out over planes since he was a kid.

He attributes his ease with duality to his upbringing. He was raised in a traditional Indian family in Southern California, always operating between both of those cultures.

The two worlds manifest themselves throughout the conversation. One can see the young man who followed his heart to the Bay Area—a modern-day hippy quality exists in the way he discusses the grandness of life and the meaning of it all. At other times, it seems like he still has to remind himself to live with that inner peace and artistic spirit.

While he likes the industrial spaces and architecture of SOMA, he lives in the Mission, where he stays away from Valencia because he considers it “too hyped-up,” preferring 24th Street. “All of the Mission communities hang out there with no pretenses,” he says. “There are techies and long-time residents.”

These days, he prefers his downtime to be spent at home or with his girlfriend, a student at Ex’Pression College for Digital Arts in Oakland.

During a casual conversation one evening at TechShop, another artist, Jazz, is quick to show off his own work—the work he plans to show at Burning Man this year.

Large wooden structures flash across the iPhone screen, as Jazz chats away and flips himself over an ‘L’-shaped couch. He wants to know more about what Dovedy is doing. Dovedy obliges—he’s there to create promotional materials, like stickers, for the Turbinophone—but lets Jazz conduct most of the conversation, becoming a more careful version of himself. Dovedy will not be showing anything at Burning Man this year.

His next grand adventure with the Turbinphone will be at San Mateo’s Maker Faire.

For the longer term? More Turbinophones. “I want one in every city in the country,” Dovedy says, explaining that they can be used to bring communities together.

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