Betascape 2012: Art, technology, and magic in Baltimore

27 Sep

This past weekend, I helped to facilitate a relational art workshop in Betascape’s physical computing lab with Kawandeep Virdee.  Betascape is an annual weekend long Art & Technology Exploratorium in Baltimore, MD.  This year betascape was held at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) which was a nice deviation from the technology oriented venues that often host collaborative hands-on explorations in Boston.

Betascape’s keynote speakers included Nathalie MiebachHod LipsonMarco Perry, and Nervous System; talks covered Nathalie’s incredibly complex data-based sculptures, a fascinating look into the future of 3d printing, the DIWire bender for rapid prototyping, and Nervous System’s beautiful nature-inspired computer-generated digitally-fabricated designs.  The labs hosted live 3D printing and scanning demonstrations, workshops in data visualization, and many opportunities for participants to build, program, and make art.

Check out my betascape flickr set for photos.

What is relational art?

Relational Art is an emerging movement in art identified by Nicolas Bourriaud, a French philosopher, who recognized a growing number of contemporary artists used performative and interactive techniques that rely on the responses of others: pedestrians, shoppers, browsers—the casual observer-turned-participant.”

Kawan and I discussed physical computing, which explores how humans and environments engage with computers via sound, heat, motion, light, and other inputs, as a playground to build highly interactive and collectively experienced relational art.  In collaborating with Kawan, I realized that the goals of relational art align closely with the goals of exhibit design in museums; both relational art pieces and museums exhibits seek to provoke dialogue, questions, and ways to collectively interact with ideas.  At a science museum, cultivating skepticism and discussion about research is an important component of the scientific perspective.  It is easy to fall into a one-visitor-per kiosk model when you want to deliver a clear content message in a science museum, but a more social experience can better deliver content with curiosity.

Read more at relational art and complex systems.

ofxTessellationBuilder, a relational art sketch for betascape

For the workshop, I shared an open source relational art piece called ofxTessellationBuilder that allows up to 7 people to interact through touch.  The physical interface was a MaKey MaKey attached to 7 rings which are each grabbed by one person.  One person holds the special earth ring to literally serve as ground in the circuit and the other (up to 6) participants can touch this grounded person to add a specifically colored ring to a dynamic tessellation called the flower of life.

ofxTessellationBuilder screenshot showing colored rings forming a dynamic tessellation

ofxTessellationBuilder screenshot showing colored rings forming a dynamic tessellation

The MaKey MaKey detects touch, but works like a keyboard encoder under the hood, so you can test the software by using the keys ‘a’, ‘s’, ‘d’, left arrow, down arrow, and right arrow (each mapped to a different color).

Things get more interesting when you start to count how many participants are grounded at once; what happens if two or three people connect to ground at the same time (either directly or through one another as a proxy)?  I programmed special behaviors for these situations from 2-6 people grounding at once.  Two people causes colors to merge into one ring, three causes the tessellation to break apart and reform, 4 is a more aggressive explosion, 5 shows participants through a webcam view, etc.  The additional behaviors help encourage participants to physically connect in different ways. ofxTessellation builder came together rather quickly due to some simple magic that helped to make it more interactive.

Simple magic for relational art

  1. Try doubling your sensors:  Detecting heartrate?  How does the experience change when two people can compare heart rate directly?
  2. Leverage emergence through simulation: ofxTessellationBuilder uses a 2D physics engine to simulate forces, collisions, and complex behavior.  I was delighted to see one ring orbiting a larger mass of rings as I had not planned for anything like this.
  3. Use multiple inputs in combination: Having the software respond to different combinations of the 6 keystrokes allows for very complex interactions
  4. Use bright colors: this came up throughout the betascape conference; bright colors are magical and people enjoy interacting with colorful experiences
  5. Simplify technology: the MaKey MaKey’s keystroke behavior made it very fast to test software and handle input (I used keyPressed events rather than parsing arduino serial data).  Museums routinely use keyboard encoders in kiosks and interactives because they are easy to maintain, troubleshoot, and simulate w/ a regular computer keyboard for software testing.

The arduino orchestra

The first day of our workshop was exploratory with demos, discussions, and brainstorming around relational art ideas.  We tinkered with sensors, discussed inputs and outputs, and visioned ways to make experiences more collective.

For the second day, we wanted to focus and build something collaboratively based on our explorations.  The resulting vision was to create an arduino-theramin orchestra using range finders and piezo speakers.  Here’s a time-lapse video of day two showing the physical computing lab jamming on soldering speakers, programming arduinos, and playing custom microcontroller-based musical instruments.

Kawan posted the rangefinder code for the arduino theramin which was tweaked for our workshop by Amy Lee (thanks!). Check out our collaborative notes for the workshop here:

Arduino based theramin with range finder by @not_rollergirl

Arduino based theramin with range finder by @not_rollergirl

Thanks a million to everyone who made Betascape possible and totally magical (especially Matt Forr and Heather Sarkissian)!


One Response to “Betascape 2012: Art, technology, and magic in Baltimore”

  1. bonnie 20121026 at 13:23 #

    Hi there. I’ve been meaning to read this since I heard you and Kawandeep mention it at the Maker Faire and just got around to it.

    Too much for one comment, but sometime I would love to have a conversation with you about all this and the Fluxus movement. In college, I took a classes on Fluxus and artistic processes. They wrote scores for projects, opened Flux-shops to make distribution and creative tools available to other artists and their art ideals overlapped with architecture, city planning and everyday life. This was a big part of how I conceptually think about my own process as an artist. At the time, the closest comparison was the production of zines that came out of various punk scenes, I’ve recently been thinking about the Maker Faires as extensions of the same ideas, so the relational art is incredibly exciting to me. Haven’t quite figured out how I could/should be learning about this, as someone who’s been drawing, painting and printing using (mostly) traditional tools and techniques for 15 years, but we’ll see. 🙂

    More about Fluxus:

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