Polymythic

Collaboration: An Art and a Science

by on Apr.16, 2011, under technoPHILE

In my day job, I manage an engineering team and have always valued usability in the products we craft. Usability is a broad term. I use it to encompass the ease of use but also the approachability of a product. The design of a thing really can make an experience pleasant or frustrating.

As engineers we can create the function, shuttle bits and bytes down the wires in an orchestra of logic, model the forces at play, but often create a product cold to the touch and to the eye. Artists and designers, by contrast, can create something that calls out to be interacted with, that evokes an emotional response, and a lasting connection to a product. However, artists are not always trained in microcontrollers and physics.

In recent travels to North Carolina and Lexington Kentucky, I was amazed at some of the kinetic sculptures and ceiling fans designed in their airports. Many engineers could create the motion, but could not easily create the experience that caused me to smile, to ponder, to stop and admire the work. That is what an artist did, and this is why the world needs collaborations of artists and engineers.


(Courtesy Jeremy Stern: www.jeremysternart.com)

Our Collaboration

I was contacted by artist Jeremy Stern who had seen my motion-feedback instructables.com project towards the end of last year. He was planning an installation for his Masters in Fine Arts that would, if possible, incorporate an element I had used in my project. He reached out for assistance, and I was thrilled to help.

Products such as ioBridge and Arduino make technology available to everyone as a language in which to voice their creativity. It just takes a little time from someone who has done it before. It helps when there are engineers who can show that the concepts are not intimidating, just the words may be. It’s not “analog and digital”, think of it as a light switch vs. a dimmer. It’s not binary 0 and 1 and how many bits, its how many combinations of heads and tails you can have with a couple pennies. By the end of the project a soldering, wiring artist had been let loose.

“Response to the project was extremely positive, and many agreed that the water and traffic portions were the most noticeable in terms of how their movements corresponded with playback. Thanks again for all your help, Steve, working with you was definitely one of the highlights of the entire project for me.”

Jeremy and I worked several times via email and over video chat and put together a design that would function for a portion of the audio elements for his project. I would like to congratulate him on his successful project “Following”, and subsequent award of Outstanding Graduating Graduate Student from UNR. Perhaps some time he’ll encounter an tinkerer/engineer who really needs help bringing her metal and plastic construction to creative life in a way that will ignite a users imagination. Perhaps he will use his considerable eye and creativity to make that happen in a future collaboration. We engineers need help from artists like Jeremy.

“Following”

“Video documentation of different visitors to the Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery, at the University of Nevada, Reno, interacting with an artwork entitled “In Concert,” as part of Jeremy Stern’s MFA thesis exhibition, “Following,” on view March 7 – 11, 2011. This exhibition explored the reconciliation of personal experience with mapped information by using the gallery’s own systems (cameras, 4-channel ceiling-mounted speakers, ceramic tile floor, hidden door, and lights) to transform the place of the gallery into an impression of the space of Reno/Sparks through a sampling and live mixing of site-specific sounds.

“In Concert” utilized two systems to measure visitor movement through the entire gallery space and play back sounds of the larger Reno/Sparks environment in which the gallery also sits. One system, co-developed with Steve Struebing of www.polymythic.com, used 3 PIR sensors per device to trigger changes in environmental sounds through an Arduino controlled mp3 player. Two devices were active in this system: one that controlled water flow of the Truckee River where normally loud sound diminished with increased movement along the sensors’ range; and another that increased the normally diminished sounds of auto traffic with increased movement along the sensors.

The second system, Eyecon, used 4 computers, each with a webcam pointed at the gallery’s 8-channel security monitor, whose cameras were angled at the grid of the gallery’s ceramic tile floor. The 8 x 12 square grid was transposed onto a Rand McNally road map of Reno/Sparks, and site specific sounds were gathered from locations on that map, within that grid. Using Eyecon, these site-specific recordings were programmed to drop down over top of anyone entering the view of the security cameras through the gallery’s 4-channel, 8-speaker sound system. The result was that visitors walking across the gallery became literal giants in the Reno/Sparks landscape, and based on how slow or fast they moved through a tile/mapped space, one might hear a brief clip or a lengthy environmental recording identifying that abstract sound as a specific location.

This work was collaboratively made with Anthony Alston, Joseph DeLappe and the Digital Media Department of UNR, Greg Gartella, Shelly Goodin, Audrey Love, Jean-Paul Perrotte, Clint Sleeper and Frieder Weiss.”

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