Just Visiting…February in Iowa

An invitation to be a guest artist is my new favorite thing. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but I was just so happy to be spending part of February at Grinnell College, where it is very cold (-5 cold). I have this hope that whenever I feel like I’m not doing enough, or not feeling successful enough or I just feel like I suck, I’m going to think, (to myself only) “Grinnell invited you to be a visiting artist- they flew you to Iowa, let you bring two grad assistants, treated you like rockstars, and entrusted their graduating art students to you.” There have been lots of conferences, papers, workshops, and of course, my own students - but this time at Grinnell was exceptional (The goal of this post is to maybe figure that out why that was the case).

So it was that I flew to Des Moines with Miles & Rianne. We moved in to our own house on the Grinnell campus, a block from the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, where we were given a unused recording studio to use as an electronics lab. We moved in with our 4 boxes of microcontrollers, raspberry pi, and a grand assortment of sensors and actuators, components, and power supplies- we didn’t want to slow down the students’ projects if we were missing a part- so we brought everything along, including soldering irons, PiCams and pico projectors.

Electronics unpacked in our temporary lab

The goal was 13 site-specific nighttime installations, which would be installed for an organized group walking tour 5 days later. Our host, Associate Professor Lee Running, was an incredible advocate for the work we were doing. (I met Lee while she was doing a residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute this fall, when we came in to do an intro to electronics workshop, and soon after that a plan was hatched. I am so grateful to have met her and for the enormous amount of effort she put in to bring not one, but 3 guests to campus).
If you just want to read about the installations (and not the the process, with commentary) scroll way down.

We arrived at Grinnell on Sunday afternoon, and promptly headed to the studio to meet with as many of the students as we could, to get a head start on the electronic aspects of the projects. The students ( 14 total) were excited and articulate, and were able to talk about the intention of their installations and the experience/response they hoped to evoke for/from the viewer. In most cases, using responsive electronics was completely new to them, so we gave them some ideas and demonstrated some sensor/actuator possibilities. The only team of two (everyone else worked solo), Ezra & Cal, had an idea to use a flip book they had made as part of a video projection. We suggested instead that they make a microcontroller-controlled motorized flip book (They bought in and the project turned out beautifully — but more on that later).

Did I mention it was cold? It was cold! We settled in to a routine of morning coffee at the Saint’s Rest Coffeehouse (2 blocks from our house in the other direction) before bundling back in to our coats and hats and heading to our lab.

Class met for 3 hours on Monday, during which time everyone wired & uploaded their first Arduino code, wrote pseudo code, and gathered their actual work for their pieces- which ranged from transparencies, to carved wood sculpture, components of a fort, and lots of video/audio. (later on Monday I gave a public talk on campus titled “Do Your Work in Public”).

By Tuesday afternoon, project concepts were being finalized, and we had begun mapping out the circuit components for each installation. There would be several projection projects with input from IR Sharps & PiNGs for motion and distance sensing, capacitive touch sensors, Kinect hotspots, photoresistors and creative switches. Actuators included video projection using Processing(2 & 3), LEDs & NeoPixels, servo, vibration & DC motors, arduinos with mp3 & wavshields, powerswitch tails for triggering 120 v lighting.

Wednesday in class, students presented their projects as redesigned for electronics & responsiveness. Many had prototypes to demo for the class, including Doyi’s hand-marbled balloons with interior LED illumination . The plan was to inflate 40 of them and attach them to the bare branches of trees in an interior courtyard.

Things started working! We were pretty optimistic as we headed to the dining hall on Wednesday night for the Mardi Gras dinner (complete with a brass band marching through- really great!). We continued working with students on their circuits & getting them comfortable with their code, installation requirements, and how to work with their chosen tech.

Christine listening to her audio ( mp3 shield for arduino uno, triggered by IR Sharp.)

On Thursday, we met with each student for an hour between 10 am-11 pm. They came by and got instruction on their sensors, code and wiring. They learned to solder, and got demonstrations of serial communication, Processing, video compression and analog/digital I/O for the Arduino. We set up a piCam/Raspberry Pi video stream, and used the Processing 3 library to control video playback.

Still feeling good! But we are experienced enough to know that there would be problems that arose on Friday, the day of the night of the tour, as installations were in their final stages. One thing we suspected, but hadn’t tested, was the effect of very cold weather on battery life, wire conductivity, and sensor function.

Jackie & Mies working with the wavShield & IR Sharp

I’m going to jump ahead to 7 pm on Friday, when we assembled in the rotunda of the arts building to start on our tour. Lee & Abby (a recent grad) had made a map, which was handed out to everyone. But we mostly moved en masse, as the group grew to about 50–60, which was impressive because there were other events going on that night that didn’t involve spending 2 hours walking around in 2 degree weather.

Gathering for the tour in our warmest gear

The Installations & How They Worked

In order (more or less) of the tour. All of these began with proposals describing the concept behind the installation, but I’m going to describe the piece objectively. I have a few pictures, but not enough- my phone was pretty much dead by then. Hopefully the students will send some my way. Most names link to the student’s personal blogs & their documentation.

Jenson- two webcam video feeds through Processing 3, projected on the concrete floor in a tunnel under the loading dock. The cameras switched every 10 seconds, creating an effect of looking down on yourself from different angles. The challenges were mostly rigging the projector & cameras to a grate above the tunnel, Rianne wrote nice switching code and the full-screen function in P3 made everything easier.

Lauren- used her car as the installation site, parked behind a concrete wall at the loading dock where it was dark. Using two pico projectors on the backs of the driver & passenger seats, her front windshield had projections of monoprints she had made of her family. She masked the projection to fit the windshield contours (a translucent material covered the windshield and reduced glare). Viewers sat in the car, saw the projections while audio played of conversations with her family, and the scent of “home” (cinnamon and other scents) surrounded them.

Hannah- carved & painted two life-size entwined bodies from plywood, and cut 6 small doors that opened on to lightboxes with her drawings. One was a pen drawing of tiny ants, mounted on a 180 servo motor. The doors were switches, when opened they illuminated the lightboxes and activated the motors.

Sarah- insisted that she didn’t want anything too “digital” in her snowflake fort. She hand-cut paper snowflakes to hang inside of her blanket fort, installed outside in a courtyard. She hung individual pale yellow, gently pulsing LEDs (firefly effect) to cast snowflake shadows on the fort walls. She loved it (yay!)

Cal & Ezra- worked with Lee in the wood shop to craft a wheel which held the screen-printed flip book panels (below). We had rotated the prototype with a 6V DC motor, but the wood structure proved too heavy without a geared pulley & belt (the one thing we didn’t think to bring). For the tour, they attached it to a power drill and had it rotating for the flip book effect.

Prototype for Cal and Ezra’s mechanical flipbook

Josh- ended up not using responsive tech but made a beautifully thoughtful sculpture that visualized a night’s sleep. (not objective, but I didn’t have anything to do with his, so it’s okay!)

Christine- used a bench outside the arts building as her site. She mounted an IR Sharp on the armrest, pointing into the path. As you approach the bench, a powerswitch tail triggers a blue light pointed up in to the trees, and the mp3/arduino shield plays one of two audio files. The cycle ends in 15 seconds, and remains quiet until the next passerby.

Installing Christine’s light and sound piece on a campus bench

Jack- made a hand-drawn animation of the ruins at Chaco Canyon. Projected on a concrete wedge under the library walkway, the animation was white on a black background. He used an IR Sharp connected to a museduino satellite board with Cat5 cable. The sharp was mounted on a handrail on the stairs that ran about 15 feet away. As viewers broke the beam, the animation advanced a few frames at a time (Processing 3 video library). With a constant stream of people walking by during the tour, it had a beautiful stop-motion effect.

Elle- Had shot several short videos of physical response to night-triggered anxiety; a close of of nervously picking nails, swallowing, biting lips. She installed in a theater with a huge screen. Metal plates on the wood floor marked the Kinect hot-spots that controlled the play/pause on the video clips, which were arranged in a grid (Processing 2 video library, Kinect)

The tour triggering the IR sharp for Jack’s Chaco animation

Doyi — 40 hand-marbled balloons with LEDs & watch batteries inside, attached to branches of trees & shrubs in an interior courtyard. The biggest issue here was timing, as the cold weather really shortened the life-span of the 3.7 V batteries.

Cheng- By the time we arrived at Grinnell, Cheng had made something like 12 small fuzzy sheep (see below). She moved her friend’s bed out into a dark field. As we approached, a cluster of super-bright LEDs flooded the bed for 10 seconds, and then faded out, then black in. The sheep had violet LEDs with watch batteries embedded in their “wool” for a ethereal glow.

Cheng’s insomniac sheep out in the snow

Jackie- installed at her house just off campus. From her living room, two people at a time descended her basement stairs with a flashlight. Breaking IR beams triggered audio from a wavshield. Winding your way through the rooms, you end up in a “party room” where a photoresistor on a red solo cup triggers a servo motor, which unblocks the lens of a projector (which plays a video of beer pong). Sort of an electro-mechanical rube goldberg sequence, that one.

Notes on Working in the Cold

About half the installations were outside, and the temperature was below 10 degrees. We had concerns about which components would function at that temp. The Arduino is rated well below 0, so that wasn’t a concern. However, because several locations could not get wall power, we were dependent on batteries. 9V batteries were dying in 35 minutes. 3.7 V in about an hour (not exactly timed on those). If we get to do this again, I’ll wrap the 9V batteries in those chemical handwarmers. The 22 g wire we use with the arduino became brittle, difficult to strip (also our fingers were numb). Duct tape adhesive stops sticking at low temps, which was another important lesson for working in the cold. IR Sharps needed a capacitor between 5V & gnd when installed outside, but that’s good practice anyway to smooth out the values. Still, all the installations worked as designed and the students were very pleased with what they accomplished.

A final note: I am well aware (even hyper aware) of the privilege inherent at a small, private, liberal arts college like Grinnell, and the relative ease of creating this experience there, versus so many other places, including my home institution- small, rural, public, chronically under-resourced…etc. For those of you who’ve read this far, the students at Grinnell were different from my students, but in a way I have found to be consistent with similar schools. They are far more verbally confident and articulate about the value of their ideas and context for their work, but in terms of devotion to their work and their interest in learning new skills, they are pretty much on par with my students in NM. I think they’d like working together.

So many thanks to Lee Running, Miles Tokunow, Rianne Trujillo, all the students who worked so hard & everyone who joined that fantastic and freeeezing tour! Also, today our box of stuff arrived and inside was a stack of incredibly sweet thank you notes from the students. There is nothing ever like a hand-written thank you note!
(PS, I know this is TL;DR for pretty much everyone but those mentioned above, but if you did read any of it, hope it was enjoyable). 
From back home in NM, Miriam

Andy Goldsworthy cairn on the Grinnell prairie
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