Feature

‘There are a lot of weird folks’ – Trump tweet burner David Neeval on moving to Amsterdam

What possesses someone to invent a contraption that prints off every one of Trump’s tweets, just to set them on fire? Or to build a machine that draws penises? And what moves such a person to up sticks and relocate half way across the world, from Portland to Amsterdam?

David Neevel has always been a tinkerer. Advertising for him came later in life when he was accepted on to Wieden+Kennedy’s WK12 program (an experimental advertising school housed in its Portland office that has its equivalent in The Kennedys program in Amsterdam). Fittingly, his application consisted of a hacked-together electronic music box that included a bunch of moving parts and lights.

“The director of the program told me that when he got it in the mail he was afraid to turn it on.”

From there he went on to get a job at Wieden proper and produced one of his most famous pieces, the ’Oreo Separator Machine’, as part of the cookie brand’s ’Cookies v Creme’ campaign.

A tangle of wires and motors and aluminum and a hatchet, it splits Oreos in two then removes the offending creme. And it took Neevel “0.04 years” to make, according to the super-sarcastic four-minute ad spot that goes with it. “I had to work some long hours – I didn’t see my girlfriend or my dog for hours at a time.”

It is here, in the funny storytelling that accompanies his inventions, that the physicist and copywriter, contraption builder and content creator, excels. As he explains, if you make something physical then there are only ever going to be so many people who interact with it.

“The content around a device is as important as the device itself.”

Neevel has been into making stuff for a long time. The first thing that crossed over into ’invention’ territory however, was his ’Advice Machine’ that he made for an art show about 15 years ago.

“It used the sound-detecting bits from a clapperboard and consisted of a microphone that you would speak into and ask for advice.

And whenever the microphone detected sound, the sign would light up saying ’Shut up’.”

It was probably his ’Penis Drawing Machine’ however, that gave him his proudest moment. “Conan O’Brien cited it as one of the reasons China is kicking our (the US’s) ass.”

#burned

After eight years as a copywriter in Portland, Neevel moved to Wieden+Kennedy’s Amsterdam office in 2015, where he was a creative technologist. And then, at the beginning of this year, he decided to strike out on his own and became a freelancer.

“I knew a bunch of people who had lived here and they all raved about the city and told me I’d love it. When I got the chance to move I took it, and turns out they were right.”

His process has changed a bit since moving to Amsterdam, he says, but he is still getting some stuff done. “Instead of metal lathes and mills, I’m working more with 3D printers and computers, which is different but still fun. And I’ve found a place where I can do some woodworking. I’d been missing that.”

His latest Rube Goldberg-like machine to get people talking is the ’Burned Your Tweet’ robot.

Despite being 5,000 miles from his home in Portland, Neevel hasn’t been able to insulate himself from what is going on in the US – from Trump and his tweets – and so his natural reaction was to build a Twitter bot that is both digital and physical, and which prints out and then burns each and every one of the US president’s tweets.

The robot checks Twitter every 15 seconds for new tweets and, when Trump does post, prints the tweet immediately. A pair of scissors then close automatically, cutting the tweet loose from a roll of printer paper. A robotic arm grabs it, swings round and holds it over a Zippo that it then ignites, and then the arm pivots and drops the smoldering tweet into a waiting ashtray.

The bot films itself doing all this then uploads the video straight into the responses to the original Trump tweet. Launched in March, the @burnedyourtweet Twitter account took off quickly and had 20,000 followers after only two days. It caused a stir online as media outlets tried to find out who was behind it, before Neevel came clean.

Weird folks

Asked what we can expect from him next, he says there are a couple of little electronic ideas he’s been thinking about. He doesn’t want to ruin any surprises though.

“One of them involves a foul-mouthed telephone, but I can guarantee it won’t be as popular as the tweet burner.”

With most of his inventions and gadgets so far being solo projects, he says we might see some teamwork in the future, and that on the occasions he has worked with others the sense of achievement has been greater, and much bigger things were made possible.

“I’d like to do more collaborating. I find Amsterdam to be very fertile – there are a lot of weird folks doing a lot of weird things. It’s inspiring. Hopefully I’ll find some ways to work with more of them.”

These weird folks may be one reason he doesn’t find Portland and Amsterdam all too dissimilar, despite the distance and the fact they don’t look anything like each other.

“I think it has to do with both cities having a nice pace to them, and an openness.

“Or who knows, maybe it’s just that weed is legal in both? I don’t know.”

This feature is from the Amsterdam installment of The Drum's Creative Cities series, which is sponsored by Amsterdam Inbusiness and published alongside our August issue of the magazine. To find out how you can become a subscriber go to thedrum.com/subscribe

Get the Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest news and insights.

Subscribe

Thomas O'Neill

Thomas O’Neill is The Drum’s managing editor, responsible for enriching the overall experience and consistency of The Drum’s various content platforms.

All by Thomas