March 16, 2012
Building a Better Apocalypse
By ALAN FEUER
ON Chris Hackett’s personal periodic table, the world’s most interesting, and
abundant, substance is an element he calls obtainium. Things classified as
obtainium might include the discarded teapot that he once turned into a
propane burner, or the broken beer bottle he used to make a razor, or the
9-millimeter shell casings he acquired some time ago, melted in a backyard
foundry (also made of obtainium) and cast into brass knuckles for a
If you ask Mr. Hackett — or Hackett, as he is uniformly known in the Brooklyn
bohemia that skips south, from the G station at Greenpoint Avenue to the
Gowanus Canal — where he got the components for his homemade still or the
numerous jet engines he has built from scratch, he will likely shrug, smile
and say, “Around.”
Last month, Mr. Hackett, 39, was working in his Gowanus workshop, a
ground-floor space on Butler Street, near the head of the canal. The workshop
is a veritable obtainium mine. In one corner sat an upright piano transformed
into a cabinet for fasteners. In another was a rack of reclaimed two-inch
metal tubing. There were doctored band saws, jury-rigged drill presses,
repurposed metal barrels. A shop cat, Shop Cat, napped in front of a plastic
chest of drawers marked with labels reading, “ball bearings,” “flange
bearings,” “regulators,” “pulleys,” “rivets,” “channel locks,” “drills” and
“more drills.” The backyard was heaped with obtainium: half of a car’s rear
axle, bolted I-beams, a yellow boat built from scrap.
As he often does, Mr. Hackett was procrastinating, trying to overcome his
easily inspired distractedness and get to work on one of the many projects he
juggles at any given time. Not long ago, he was hired by Ben Cohen, of Ben &
Jerry’s ice cream, to help construct an art van for the Occupy Wall Street
movement, a sort of mobile media center with a crank-lift-mounted video
projector and rooftop speakers like those heard during Latin American
elections. He is also working on an installation for the Honey Space Gallery
in Manhattan, in which an old bicycle pump will run a pneumatic engine, which
will in turn run the tiny television screens he rescued from the viewfinders
of junked video cameras.
First among equals in a madcap group of Brooklyn builders called the
Madagascar Institute, Mr. Hackett has won a following in the borough’s
underground society of painters, performers, sewer explorers, journeymen
carpenters and creators of flame-powered carnival rides. He is something like
a fabricator in chief for the Kings County D.I.Y. arts set, always willing to
lend his plasma cutter to a friend or teach MIG welding to an amateur. If an
aesthetic can be said to emerge from the question, “How will this work?” Mr.
Hackett has an answer: How hard could it be? The artistic principle that
guides him is awesomeness, he says. (“I make pulse jets because they’re
His most ambitious current project is probably the book he is writing, with a
proposed companion television show, about how to survive the apocalypse, in
style, using the debris: an apotheosis of his obtainium obsession.
“When I read ‘The Road,’ ” he said, referring to Cormac McCarthy’s
post-apocalyptic novel, “it got me thinking: ‘O.K., so there’s all this stuff
lying around. How do you recreate civilization?’ I did some research and
figured out the two most important things you’d need are car batteries and
Nathaniel Grouille, a television producer who produced Mr. Hackett’s most
recent show, “Stuck With Hackett,” for the Science Channel and is helping him
pitch the new show, said, “There’s an elegant, design way to make things, and
then there’s a Dunkirk, let’s-get-it-done-with-baling-wire-and-string way —
that’s Hackett’s way.”
“He’s the master improviser,” Mr. Grouille added. “It’s almost like he thinks
with his hands.”
Those hands — large and scarred, like the rest of him — finally got busy at a
milling machine, shaving squiggles from a cylinder of plain-carbon steel. Mr.
Hackett, perhaps illegally, was fashioning a makeshift key to a subway grate
he had been drawn to, in a trespassing way, while out for a walk on Super
Bowl Sunday . He had photographed the lock (“While all the cops were watching
the game”), measured it to scale and was now trying to reverse-engineer a
female device to open the male bolt. This was not a paid or a planned job; it
was a whimsical distraction. He wanted to test his skills — and, of course,
break into the station.
As he worked, someone banged at his door. Walking over, he discovered it was
two friends in a truck with an unannounced obtainium delivery — a dozen
castoff wooden palettes.
Distracted from his distraction, Mr. Hackett hauled the palettes through his
shop and into the backyard, where he tossed them in a pile for future use. He
has no heat in his apartment (he lives upstairs), and burns palettes in his
Naturally, he made the stove himself.
TALL, hulking, dreadlocked, perpetually dressed in a black shirt, black
pants, black boots and a black jacket, Mr. Hackett has a distinctive physical
presence. His nose is scarred (a spring-loaded automobile shock once ripped
off one of his nostrils), and so is his jaw. (A “confetti gun” he made
exploded in his face eight years ago, the start of an ordeal that ultimately
involved the emergency room, the Police Department’s bomb squad and 65 days
on Rikers Island.)
Never far from a pack of Marlboro Reds (he no longer drinks or snorts
cocaine, but remains “binge-y,” he says, on nicotine and coffee), Mr. Hackett
looks a little like a Marxist guerrilla on leave from military operations
working as a roadie in a reggae band. In fact, he is the product of a
quintessentially New York marriage: his mother, Raymonde, came from an
educated Haitian family and emigrated during the reign of Francois Duvalier,
while his father, James, came from an Irish family of long standing in
Manhattan. (“Famine Irish,” Mr. Hackett says, “not Troubles Irish.”)
Both his parents were schoolteachers, which may begin to account for his
autodidactic nature. Raised in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, and then
in Westchester County, Mr. Hackett once brewed his own batch of napalm as a
boy and later applied himself to the study of what he called “Reagan
administration hardcore,” picking up his D.I.Y. ethic and one of his favorite
maxims, “Don’t rage against the machine; build a better machine,” from punk
bands like the Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front.
In December 1998 , his parents died when a kerosene heater caught fire in
their home in Jefferson Valley, N.Y. Mr. Hackett was living at the time on
the Lower East Side of Manhattan, working in the city’s then-thriving, but
soon-to-wilt, technology sector, at a well-paying job he didn’t care for. “It
was the dot-com boom,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘You’re going to pay
me how much to go to meetings?’ ”
With his share of his parents’ estate — he has two sisters: one lives on Long
Island, the other in Manhattan — Mr. Hackett bought the building he now lives
and works in. A few years earlier, he had gone to the Burning Man festival in
the Nevada desert, and is still astonished by the gunplay he had seen, the
bacchanalian fireworks and the flame-spewing robots manufactured by groups
like Survival Research Laboratories, a machine art collective based in San
“I’d been looking for the same kind of people in New York,” he said, “but I
couldn’t find them. So” — build a better machine — “I decided to become
His Gowanus workshop soon turned into the atelier and lair for the artists of
the Madagascar Institute. With Mr. Hackett as their host (their motto: “Fear
is never boring”), the members of the group — out-of-work tech geeks, writers
bored with their laptops, graphic designers, a disaffected law school student
or two — taught themselves the rudiments of welding and metal fabrication,
and began to fashion street junk into pranksterish electrical and pyrotechnic
devices: mechanized bulls built out of salvaged AC motors or a hilariously
dangerous carousel with jet-powered ponies.
The group’s esteem for improvised technology was matched by a kind of
Situationist love of public spectacle. Several years ago, it staged a
reenactment of the Hindenburg disaster, in which a crowd of hundreds towed
two 15-foot dirigibles through the streets near Union Square — that is, until
they exploded. (Mr. Hackett described the event last year to an interviewer:
“The crashing, the burning, the confused and terrified N.Y.P.D., the cheering
crowds, the glorious fire.”)
In 2009, for the Madagascar Institute’s 10th anniversary, Mr. Hackett and his
co-conspirators decided it would be appropriate to send a 350-pound opera
singer across the Gowanus Canal on a zipline.
This taste for showmanship, boyish danger and extreme art has not always been
easy on those closest to Mr. Hackett. Bonnie Downing, a freelance writer who
dated him on and off for a decade, said that he was “a careful explainer of
things and a patient teacher of skills,” but that he “tends to live in a
state of wreckage.”
“By and large he’s a 12-year-old boy,” Ms. Downing said, “living in a zombie
movie and playing in the garage all day with leftover chemicals.”
Friends say Mr. Hackett is fiercely loyal to his family, although he himself
said of his younger sister, an accountant, “Our relationship is basically
running into one another on the F train.” (His sisters declined to be
interviewed.) He is unmarried, and in place of domestic ties has surrounded
himself with an extended family cobbled together out of like-minded makers
and seekers — a kind of relational obtainium.
“When his parents died, he took the money he got and created a place where
the group around him could grow into what it became,” said Ryan O’Connor, a
founding member of the Madagascar Institute who has known Mr. Hackett since
the 1990s. “At the end of day, it’s what he wanted: an environment where all
these crazy, interesting people are around him all the time.”
ONE day late in February, Mr. Hackett lay on his back, on the floor of Serett
Metal Works in Brooklyn, his torso wedged beneath the undercarriage of a used
van picked up cheap on Staten Island. He was trying to free the van’s spare
battery from its casing in order to connect some electrical wires to its
The van, soon to be christened the Illuminator, was the brainchild of Mark
Read, an activist and artist, who said the idea emerged from a conversation
he had recently had with Mr. Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s, at an Occupy Wall
Street strategy session. He recalled: “Ben said: ‘You know what we should do?
We should build a Batmobile for the movement.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we should.’ ”
Who better to build a Batmobile than Mr. Hackett?
With a budget of $25,000, it was not a project based on pure obtainium,
although it was obtainium-ish. Mr. Hackett and his crew from the Madagascar
Institute connected the van’s battery to a reserve power source, an AGM
deep-cycle battery, which was itself connected to a 1,500-watt pure sine wave
DC/AC power inverter. The inverter was connected to a huge Sanyo video
projector, which was bolted to a hand-cranked platform, which could then be
raised or lowered through a hole cut in the van’s roof.
Mr. Read described the Illuminator as “a movement art tool,” able to travel
the country showing films and serving hot cocoa. While Mr. Hackett happily
agreed to be the project’s foreman, he claims to be no fan of political art.
“People think they’re painting ‘Guernica,’ ” he said. “They’re not.”
Then again, he is no fan of politics, either. (He describes his own as
“quietly disgusted.”) Art van project aside, he has largely stayed on the
outskirts of the Occupy phenomenon. The Illuminator was a challenging,
remunerative job, but that’s all it was: a job.
The apocalypse project seems closer to his heart. While obviously meant as
entertainment, it is essentially political, at least in the sense that an
inherent social critique resides in any endeavor that takes as its premise
the catastrophic ruin of the nation.
These days, there are those on the left — Occupiers, say — and also on the
right — ammo-hoarding, gold-burying believers in peak oil — who harbor the
suspicion that America is more or less an interlocking network of
overburdened, unsustainable systems, from energy to transportation, finance
to food production. The question is: once they reach that conclusion, then
Mr. Hackett has a what. He recently looked over a 1918 arc welding patent
filed by a Wisconsin inventor, and determined that all an amateur, stranded
by calamity, needs to make his own welding rods are coat hangers, some silica
gel, some lye and a newspaper. “If civilization and supply chains collapse,”
he wrote in Make magazine about this process, “the anti-zombie fences will
still get built.”
Mr. Hackett likes to joke about anti-zombie fences, but the truth is he has
thought about how to reassemble modernity in a serious way. Electric power?
“Any motor cranked in reverse is a generator.” Tanned hides? “Drano works
great.” Weapons? “Primer is the hard part. I’m working on it.”
“He’s a history geek — it interests him to know where things come from, how
they work,” said Julia Solis, a longtime friend and collaborator. “But I
think what really interests him is self-reliance.”
This makes sense at a moment when most Americans don’t know how to change
their spark plugs, let alone tan their own hides. When Mr. Hackett talks
earnestly about growing hydroponic crops or mischievously about making
explosives with oxygen, acetylene and bong water, he is really speaking of a
fabricator’s self-reliant pride.
The day before the Illuminator was due to be finished, two of his crewmates,
Ben Mortimer and Boris Klompus, dropped by the workshop. They had to make a
ladder for the van, and started slicing his two-inch tubing with a cold saw.
The van would be making its debut the next night at a live-streamed art party
at Zuccotti Park, where it would project Occupy slogans — “99 %,” “The New
World Is Possible” — on the side of one of the buildings surrounding the
square. Was Mr. Hackett going? He was not.
Didn’t he want to see his labor celebrated?
He smiled; he shared a look with his colleagues. The look seemed to say: The
celebration had already occurred. The joy was in the making.
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