Frontend webdesign for New Atlantis sculpture

I’m making an interactive sculpture for the Enlightenment Café’s New Atlantis immersive theatre show, running at The Crystal in London on the 19th-25th January. The sculpture explores how our awareness of ecological problems might impact on our survival as a species.

In previous posts you’ll be able to see how the electronics and mould-making for the sculpture have progressed. I’m now seeing in the New Year by doing some frontend design for the screen that will show data from Twitter and a countdown to the next deluge of water, which will happen after a set amount of time, if a Twitter target is not met for a number of tweets with a certain hashtag. To delay the deluge, and the consequent faster melting of the icebergs underneath the tap, the audience can tweet at the sculpture so that the discussion hashtag reaches its target before the deadline.

My paper designs gave rise to the following:

I settled on the design in the bottom left hand corner
I settled on the design in the bottom left hand corner

And now I’m half way through making it digital. I’m using as the bootstrap template, the Bootbundle “Counter” Template from Blacktie. This is just the static page with the counter. Now I need to add in the dynamic stuff from Node Red and to play about with transparency for the Twitter feed at the bottom.

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 19.42.58
And here it is in digital form half way through the creation process

I still need to name this sculpture..! Answers on postcards please…

How I learned to stop hating and love old electronics – or, making a servo work with a Raspberry Pi by cannibalising ancient motherboards and creative use of the CRT monitors that have been cluttering up the studio

I’m going all guns preparing my sculpture for the New Atlantis theatre show by The Enlightenment Cafe. It’s opening on 19th January at The Crystal in London, UK. Having made iceberg moulds and delivered them to the UCL ice physics laboratory, the next step is to create a hot water boiler that responds to water-related activity on Twitter.

This involves some playing with electronics…

I unwrapped my “christmas presents” from myself gleefully yesterday morning. Electronics to play with! A Raspberry Pi! Cables! A servo!!

Except not everything was there… In fact, there were no jumper cables, and there was no Raspberry Pi B+. And to make matters worse, the 7 inch screen I ordered arrived broken – crucial wires having been sliced through before it was bunged in a package and sent over to me.

cable cutter... not impressed with the ebay service
This is not a serviceable screen.

 

Woe. Woe is me.

Having fortified myself with tea, I decided to see how far we could get with an old RPi (Model A, rev 2) and the cables we already had.

Thus, I made command central. All systems go.

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Using one age old CRT monitor as a workbench, I used the other – normally used for video editing – as a makeshift screen. I literally lost track of how long we spent looking for cables to hook up these bad boys. Finally, hanging onto these hulking brutes of useless electronics through international relocations has paid off. Jun (my incredibly helpful other half without whom I’d not have got so far yesterday) – and his vast stores of seemingly irrelevant and outdated gear – has been vindicated.

But it’s not just Jun who hangs onto old electronics – I have been lugging old bits of redundant crap around the globe too. Including this old motherboard.

motherboard
HOW OLD? I got this baby from a skip outside my department at the University of Cambridge in 2006.

This old motherboard which was the source of the final component we needed – female adapters for my cables so we could link them up to the RPi.

Ancient tech on a shiny new RPi
Ancient tech on a shiny new RPi

Et voila!

All that remained was for me to hook everything up

IMG_5456

Rigging up the servo
Rigging up the servo

Do a bit of programming – you can find some details of how Jun and I got it working on my New Atlantis hackpad – and suddenly you have a servo getting its groove on to the tune of Twitter.

New Atlantis Sculpture – Servo dances to Twitter beats from Kat Austen on Vimeo.

“This video shows two steps in getting a servo to respond to Twitter. First, we’re rigging it up and testing its response by varying the PWM-MS values. Then we hook it up to a Node Red script that scrapes Twitter for #water and #fail at the limits of the PWM-MS values – and it’s grooving to Twitter’s beats.”

The Node Red json files for this can be found on my github repository for New Atlantis.

Finally, I’m struggling with a name for the sculpture. In a wanton fit of sentimentality and punnage I went for Melting Hearts – but I hate it. Suggestions gratefully appreciated.

Icebergs hit London

After a fantastic 2 weeks working with prop maker and mould guru Ben Palmer at his Berlin workshop, I took the three iceberg moulds via plane and train to London, to UCL’s Ice Physics lab. Here they’re growing and freezing under the stewardship of the un-frosty Ben Lishman.

Ben is researching friction in ice, which should help engineers and climate modellers work out where ice will flow and how it will behave. It’s a tricky topic, he tells me, because the properties vary depending no only on the temperature of the ice but also on what’s in the water. I’m hoping the next month of iceberg production will help inform his research by providing new data on friction between ice and silicone in strange shapes!

You’ll also notice that there’s a water boiler lurking in these photos. A vital part of the forthcoming sculpture for New Atlantis, I had a delightful hour in Nisbett’s catering supplies in Shoreditch working out flow rate from the water boiler, and its tap stability, with a very amused, helpful staff member (who asked not to be named).

Representing resource use at UCL

The sculpture I made with Andrea Sella, Rae Harbrid and Stephen Hailes is on display in the UCL North Cloisters this week.

It’s called Elements, because I love cheese.

Here’s a blog post for UCL MAPS (where I am Writer in Residence) where I explain what the concept of the sculpture is – including a short video of of parts of it working. Image credit: UCL.

ElementsUCL

Superseded Muse

She’s not the one you write for any more
Perhaps she hasn’t been for years
She gave that privilege away
It died when you dried your tears

If she exists in your head, what happens to her when she no longer inspires you?
If she exists in your head, what happens to her when she no longer inspires you?

Fear not golden girl
As you creep into your decrepitude
Your favours blossom still

 

Mixing disciplines is clear necessity, but do we need art?

Alfred Nobel was a man of many talents – poetry, science, languages; and no formal education. And as I mentioned in my last post, he would have struggled to qualify for the Lindau meeting where every year winners of his prize gather together.

There are changes afoot with respect to how we determine authority and legitimacy, as I also mentioned in my last post. There is also an accompanying trend when it comes to expertise and specialisation, and it takes two forms: interdisciplinarity and cross disciplinary migration.

As Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith told me earlier this week, “I’ve always felt that you should change your area of research every 12-15 years because you stagnate in a certain area after a while. Not always, but you need to move on. And if you move into another area you can bring new insights into that area.”

That such changes can be successful is attested to not only by Smith’s career. There are numerous other examples; this month journalist Shane Snow launched his book Smartcuts, in which he argues that some of the world’s most successful people – such as the most popular US Presidents – rise up in one discipline, and then hop over to an equivalent height in a completely new field.

64th Lindau NobelLaureate Meeting Lindau, Copyright: DAAD/Nicole Maskus-Trippel
Rolf Zinkernagel at Lindau 2014. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Nicole Maskus-Trippel*

But aside from discipline hopping, there’s also a good deal of collaboration. Rolf Zinkernagel was a surgeon working with vet Peter C Doherty when they discovered how the immune system recognises foreign cells, which led to their 1996 Nobel Prize. According to Zinkernagel, it was important that they came from different fields looking at life, and that they were working with no preconcieved ideas. A similar attitude is taken by the younger scientists at Lindau. Over dinner I spoke to a fascinating psychiatrist who was also working on model brain cell systems to study bipolar disorder and ADD. She told me that in her lab it was of utmost necessity that she work with psychologists, neurologists, imaging specialists, and a bioinformatician, in order to understand the wealth of varied data they’re accruing about the workings of the brain.

But as Angela Michel* of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory told me, interdisciplinary collaboration is pretty much a necessity when you’re working on complex problems – such as their project on the structure and geography of the human gut microbiome. The organisation was designed in the 70s, and run nowadays, to promote conversation and collaboration.

Research in Germany Press Tour 2014

The awesome architecture of EMBL. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Volker Lannert*

Of course, most of these examples, barring Snow’s Smartcuts, relate to interdisciplinarity within science. What about outside? There are some efforts at EMBL, where artists and humanities experts, such as Martin Kemp, have visited and given seminars. Other examples have been thin on the ground this week, though just like Nobel, quite a few Laureates seem to have artistic flair aside from scientific excellence – mostly in the form of musical talents: taken Smith’s piano playing, or Thomas Sudhof’s conviction that he owes his powers of concentration to bassoon playing. Of course, there’s evidence that playing music can make beneficial changes in the brain, possibly because it helps us to live with uncertainty.

photo 2-1

Then there’s Australia’s Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, whose skills as a vintner supplied libation to the attendees of the Monday International dinner (courtesy of his home country, see above).  Though he says that the Nobel is good for his wine-making, I have yet to discover whether his wine-making activities have augmented his cosmic research.

The question I’m left asking is, would these eminent scientists gain anything from interactions with artists? Was there anything that could have come out of their having, say, an artist in residence in their lab? As always, we come up against the tricky problem of pinpointing in a concrete fashion the effect that mixing together artists and scientists has on the scientists’ work. However, as I remember Prof Rob Kesseler saying, trained artists are better at spotting patterns and phenomena in visual data than scientists, a statement supported by a number of studies in neuroaesthetics, such as Robert Pepperell’s work on ambiguous images which shows that artists are better at noticing visual subtleties. Artistic skills, just as musical skills, may be beneficial to brain development, and transferrable to progressing areas of science.

*My sincere apologies for having an incomplete photo credit on first publishing this blog. The EMBL representative we met was in fact Angela Michel.

Time Slides #Success and Time Slides #Fail

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The plan was to go to over to the gallery to set up at 2:30. At 2:26, after a week of late nights and frantic preparation to make Time Slides record and play back in a responsive loop, I plugged the external battery into the sound card – there was a spark, and it stopped working. A little warning LED started blinking. That was it – the audio card was dead.

Devastating.

I know the whole point about the exhibition – The Ability To Fail in Public – was to embrace the potential of failure and see it in a constructive and creative light, but having put in so much work on the project, to have achieved close to what was wanted at the outset in so short a time, and then to have it break at the last minute… that was quite a blow.

Dejected, I drew black tears on my face – the bitter tears of failure – and packed up to go.

At that point, the cavalry suggested exhibiting the defunct electronics at the show, plugged in so that the visitors could see its pathetic blinking. We decided to check to see if we could power it with the battery pack alone, so it was more portable for display. Having pulled the necessary bits together, we plugged in and lo! it worked.

Thereafter ensued a frantic 5 hours of tree climbing (to install Time Slides #Fail) and cupboard renovating (to create a novel exhibition site for Time Slides), before the first visitors showed up at the Kreuzberg Pavillion and started to engage with the work.

Time Slides and Time Slides #Fail both went down a storm tonight.

Time Slides is an interactive work reminiscent of a spider in form. It records and creates layers of sound from passers by, playing them back to create a vertical slice through time in one place. It is created as a highly intimate experience, and as with the other works in The Ability to Fail in Public, it focusses the visitor on the auditory experience – in this case using sound to create temporal distortions.

Here’s Time Slides in action:

**
Time Slides #Fail is much harder to capture on camera. It superimposes an evening in Brussels when Belgium played in the World Cup onto an evening in Berlin when Germany played, distorting time and space together to reveal the unique and similar elements of national experiences.

Installed in front of the gallery, in a tree on the square at Naunynstraße, the sounds of the busy Brussels streets, recorded just as Belgium won against Algeria in the World Cup last week, were extremely at odds with the visual stimuli of the surroundings. Passers by would look around confusedly, and the disjuncture produced had a particularly strong effect on cyclists, whose sensitivity to traffic noise is very important in addressing their vulnerability on the road.

Here’s the audio for Time Slides #Fail:

You can see some super pics of the exhibition on their facebook page of the event.

Time Slides was a great success, and Time Slides #Fail was deemed “Formidable!” by one visitor. We did, however, fail to fail.

**Edited to include media for Time Slides #Fail

Many thanks go to Claudia Mannigel, who initiated and organised the exhibition, Heiko and Alessandro from Kreuzberg Pavillion, Jun Matsushita and Sam Carlisle.