Tokyo Interactions: a pre-collaboration

A key part of my research trip to Japan is to check out the feasibility of collaborating with artist Megumi Ishibashi. We’ve know each other for several years – having first met when I did an exchange visit with the university she was working at – and I really like her style of re-imagining urban landscapes when we’ve walked around Tokyo together. I’m not very familiar with her working processes and her aims for her sculptural work, however, so we arranged to spend some time together doing some experiments and generally figuring out how a working relationship might shape up.

Unfortunately our time working together was reduced by illness and a few work commitments that came up however, over the course of five days we were able to explore combining interactive and sculptural elements of both our practices.

We based ourselves at Tokyo Gakugei university, where Megumi has been working part time for a few years. After getting a bit tangled up in trying to get started we decided to go for a walk around campus to look for sites where we might locate artworks.

I liked the look of this islanded set of steps surrounded by long grass:

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We also explored down little paths (this one involved ducking under lots of big spider’s webs and swatting at lots of hungry mosquitos) and had a wander around a little allotment where there seemed to be some experiemts going on with growing different varieties of rice.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The campus has quite a lot of trees and green space, so we were constantly surrounded by the sound of the insects in the trees. I finally got to see a semi/cicada up close. Boy are these things loud!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The pivot point came when Megumi suggested we visited the exhibition room of a building next to campus; she had walked past it, but didn’t really understand what they did there and was curious to find out more.

We weren’t disappointed!

The place turned out to be the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), a National Research and Development Agency, and the exhibition hall was full of things that made us go “wow!”.

The first thing we learned was that NICT is responsible for time in Japan: they do lots of work with caesium atomic clocks and calibrating the length of a second. They also determine Japan Standard Time and broadcast it across the country.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The two ladies on duty did a really good job of explaining everything to me in English and we essentially had a personal guided tour of most of the exhibition. This included microwave imagery from planes; a haptic stylus; a funky smell squirting thing that involved activated carbon, an app and me having to guess some aromas; and live visualisations of internet attacks.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We left a few hours later, a little overwhelmed but very excited by what we had learned. The tower and the big clock made a lot more sense now, too!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

I felt there were some interesting resonances between the semi and the caesium clock – vibrations, being dormant for long periods then all of the action happening in a short space of time (read more about the semi here), those amazing cooling fins…

This kind of stuck and combined with Megumi’s preference for mechanised animation (rather than electronic) in the style of Pythagoras Switch.

Pythagora Switch from cereal griego on Vimeo.

So we sketched and dripped and carved and then spent hours days trying to refine a way of popping water balloons filled with paint over a model of a semi.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Alongside this, we were also trying to find ways of triggering sounds at intervals. We’d bought a radio controlled car, hoping that that would introduce a kind of clock function and visual interest as it circled around the semi. We got this working quite well as a trigger for audio via a Bare Conductive touch board, but alas it stopped working so well once we’d ‘waterproofed’ the sensor mat with some tape.

I also made a few noisemakers that used an arduino to count the number of times a microswitch got hit by the passing car. This gave us better control over the intervals between sounds, but we didn’t quite have the set up to be able to get it mounted securely.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We also had concerns about the splashiness of the paint, so Megumi learned how to make DIY slime, which we then added colour to.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Getting the slime into the water balloons also took a certain amount of experimentation!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We’d done some really long days, so on our last day we set ourselves the deadline of 4pm and said we’d run with whatever we had working by then.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

After a few test runs with water, we were ready to add some colour to semi-san.
It (mostly) worked!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We decided to go for broke and try the slime…

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

A lot of cleaning up to do afterwards, but quite a pleasing result!

Megumi usually works intuitively from her imagination, but I think we both struggled with the lack of a context for our experiments – the sorts of information that would shape size, construction and portability decisions. We didn’t have time or the resources to make a refined, finished piece of work, but at times it felt like that’s what we were trying to achieve. We made something interesting at the end of i but, as ever with me, it was the process that I was most interested in. Megumi and I are still friends (as far as I can tell!), so that’s a positive sign given the sorts of hours we were doing in the heat and mosquitos trying to get mechanical and electrical systems to work! I’ve learned more about the way she works and that will help shape any future proposals.

We’ll be meeting up again next week to think more about art that happens outside.
Photos and videos of splatty paint are gradually going up on Flickr as internet connectivity allows…

Pod evolution

As I iterate through different designs for the pods that will be used for the Where the Sky Widens workshops, I’m gradually becoming surrounded by more and more prototypes and I thought it might be useful to chart their evolution so far…

Here’s where it started, two years ago:

Wax pod: difficult to photograph, but very touchable

Wax shells cast in plaster of Paris moulds. Wonderfully fragile, lovely translucency, warm to the touch and, well, utterly impractical for housing battery-operated electronics.

Cutting the wax pods in half proved to be somewhat tricky

Different blends of wax were tried, but this was going to be a fundamental challenge…

[time passes…]

After deciding to use the pods in a new guise as part of a workshop series, I had to find corresponding new construction method and materials. The design brief is now to design something that can be assembled from (flat) kit form by a participant over the course of a couple of hours. The pods need to be in two halves to allow access for placing the electronics inside them …and also strong enough to carry the weight of those electronics. Ideally they’d also retain something of the fragility and the translucency.

Time to learn 3D CAD.

The original plan was to design a (curved) two-part clam armature. Participants would then fill in the gaps in the lattice work. Unfortunately a series of delays meant I had to shift the game plan again.

Plan C: folded and glued paper nets:

Working first in Rhino and then the papercraft software Pepakura Designer I (with a lot of help!) modelled a sort of crystalline version of the pod and then converted this into an opened-out net.


Here’s the first test print done onto several sheets of A4 copier paper:

First test printout of paper pod

… and a laser-cut version out of heavier stock:

The double wall gives it a nice thickness and also increases the strength

I really liked the double wall, however it was taking far too long to glue it together, so I had to revert back to a single wall. I kept the edge around the parting line, though, and that gave enough strength for it to do what it had to do.

The single-walled version

I increased the size a little too, to give more room for the circuitry. Shame I couldn’t get my brain around the software and three dimensions though – nice design, just the two halves didn’t match each other at the seam!

That’s better!

Phew! The next version was large enough, strong enough and both halves fitted together! Some tactical paperclips also did a nice job of keeping both halves together…

Putting a few LEDs underneath the top part also suggests it’s going to work well with internal illumination, too.

Two white LEDs, one red LED and the blue power LED on the Arduino

Here are all the versions together:

Next I have to refine the assembly process: focussing on construction instructions for the participants and how I’m going to present the pod in kit form. Fortunately no allen keys required…

Igloo brainstorming with The Bone Ensemble

I spent this morning with The Bone Ensemble and Kim Wall brainstorming ideas and interactions for new work in development Igloo.

I’ll be working more with The Bone Ensemble later as part of an AHRC-funded CATH project that teams up academics, artists and creative technologist types, but for now Kim and I were in to bounce around some ideas and possibilities right at the early stages of the work’s development.

Igloo is intended to respond to themes of nomadic Inuit culture and some of the vocal traditions such as throat singing and playful contests.

The Bone Ensemble work a lot with performances to small audiences, particularly in settings away from the theatre. For example they are currently touring one that takes place in a caravan… The focal point for Igloo is therefore a domed structure that will turn up at festivals and be assembled in situ.

The temporary structure currently being used in place of the igloo for this R&D week at mac Birmingham

They’re interested in integrating digital technologies into the performance and structure, so my task today was to introduce them to some of the possibilities of working with sensors and interactive systems.

To aid this process I’d prepared a few Arduino-based demos that linked inputs such as sound volume, proximity and touch to outputs such as sound files and lights.

Singing to some volume-reactive LEDs

After working through some of the demos on a table-top we decided to move them into the temporary structure the performers are working with this week in order to get a feel for how they behaved in a much more spatial context.

I really like this piece of video taken as people found spaces in the igloo to house the different demos. There’s a system on the outside of the framework that’s sensing distance (to someone standing in front of it) and then using that measurement to trigger different files that play back notes in a do-re-mi style. I love how the performers start singing back to it as they’re installing the other systems!

The volume-reactive LEDs worked really nicely in the new set-up and we were able to shout, clap and stomp at them from different locations from in and around the igloo. I get the feeling we’ll soon be prototyping something with a lot of LEDs…

We also found the potentials with the MaKey MaKey touch-sensing boards very interesting. Here are a few images as we explore and discover some of them.

Getting to grips with the MaKey Makey and its potential for instigating contact between people

I’ve left the demos with The Bone Ensemble as they spend the rest of the week in residence at mac Birmingham working through some ideas.

I have no idea where they’ll have arrived at by Friday, but it’s looking very exciting so far!

The rest of my photos and videos from the session are in this Flickr set.

Morecambe noisy things

As a follow-on from yesterday’s GPS Orchestra workshop, artist Jen Southern and I today spent some time refining code, dreaming up new devices and generally prodding things with vibrating pager motors to see what interesting noises we could make.

The results were a few quick prototypes taken to Morecambe for some testing along the seafront in a surprise spell of sunny weather. We made a tapping box that indicates when it is being carried at different speeds (we haven’t quite got it right yet) and a tinned assortment of pager motors that responds to what direction you’re moving in (we tried it on foot at Morecambe and also in the car back to Lancaster – nice!).

It was really interesting to see what we could achieve with a handful of components: not only in terms of producing the device and its behaviour, but also thinking about how to effectively communicate changes to the person carrying the noise.

Almost Perfect; almost possible

As I outlined in yesterday’s post, Emergent Game is going great guns at the moment with us going to Japan to do workshops as part of Dislocate08 and alongside project space hanare. These then feed into a weekend of intercontinental play and exploration as part of igfest.

And that’s only the stuff that’s happening next month…

Meanwhile, I’ve been approached by the Banff New Media Institute, Canada to apply for their Almost Perfect co-production residency that runs throughout November.

Apart from the obvious excitement of potentially being able to develop work at the Banff Centre, I’m regarding this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the timing within the evolution of the Emergent Game series being spot-on and the peer advisers guiding the residency being incredibly relevant to my practice.

I’ve submitted a proposal to develop prototype hardware/software that can be placed in the game area that allows your average mobile phone to start interfacing with protocols such as Twitter, Flickr and GPS.

Our experience with Emergent Game so far has shown us a) that it’s a great framework for motivating groups of people to interact creatively but also that b) the extent to which people can use methods of engagement that are technically possible are limited by what features are available with their mobile phone. In the first iteration of Emergent Game we noticed a completely different style of play from a Ludens with an iPhone compared to the majority of participants using older, mid-range phones.

Using GPS and being able to access the internet whilst on the move are towards one end of spectrum that even has something like MMS at the other. Picture messaging may be possible, but cost often makes it prohibitively expensive. We need to overcome some of these hurdles in order to open up the accessibility and make Emergent Game more viable for larger-scale projects.

Before I can get to tackling these projects though, there’s another hurdle to get over: finding the funding to get me to Canada.

Coming so soon after the activities in Japan (I’ll be there for 4 weeks in total) it’s not going to be possible for me to self-fund the trip to Banff. I estimate I need about £3000 to cover airfare, accommodation, food etc.

Arts Council
have generously contributed to the funding of mine and Ana’s work in Japan, so for various, entirely understandable reasons they’re reluctant for me to simply put in another application to them. However, we’ve negotiated that I can put in a second application, but this could really only be for a maximum of half of the total budget and I need to match that with cash contributions from elsewhere (NB cash rather than support in kind).

The timing is incredibly tight, so logistically I need to submit any Arts Council application by the start of next week. That means I also need some ideas of where to get the match funding over the next few days.

So, this is a crowd-sourcing post: has anyone any suggestions for sourcing about £1500?

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