The idea of making interactive art didn’t occur to me until rather recently. I got into electronics via audio – amplifiers and the like – and then started getting interested in music synthesis. Later I got into measurements, digital control, and computers.
During my Sea Org years I realized that not many people knew about basic electricity and electronics, yet Hubbard was using examples from those subjects in his books and lectures. So that gave me the idea of a learning lab centered around electronics. The Exploratorium in San Francisco is an example of an interactive learning environment. I wanted to do something like that at home.
It was not until 2009, when I had a lot of time on my hands but not much cash, that I started buying used gadgets at Goodwill and re-purposing them at my workbench. It was at this point that I started working on interactive “art” designs – possibly inspired by Halloween.
Making interactive art installations using electronics is certainly not an original idea with me. There are lots of examples out there, from merely cute to ponderously imposing. I was thinking in terms of something someone might have in a room at home, that would sort of “wake up” and start doing things when people came in. The development of such a system, though, was a lot more involved than I originally imagined. I still don’t have a fully interactive “dream” system up and running. But I have lots of pieces of one, and I needed a way to tie them all together.
The numbers of inputs and outputs that would probably be needed to develop such a system was difficult for me to confront. I imagined something like the old MOOG synthesizers – a mass of patch cables. But nothing seemed to come together until I purchased a used Extron video switching system for the aluminum enclosure, and found out what the back panel looked like. More signal connectors on one panel than I’d ever seen before! Finally I started working on a couple such panels to modify them to do what I thought I would need. It was not the easiest project I’ve ever attempted, but it’s beginning to be actually usable.
I have chosen the 19-inch rack-mount form factor for my work. It is the most widely-used mounting system for professional equipment. The average rack cabinet, however, is designed for enclosures that are rather deep (more than a foot), while the things I am making are quite shallow (less than 1/2 a foot). But moving beyond the 19-inch equipment rack is another project.
Let’s go through the equipment in the top photo:
1) A row of four voltage-controlled fans, inspired by a TED Talk I saw of a guy who did some amazing things with remote-controlled fans.
2) Example of a piece of used equipment, not yet re-purposed.
3) A system for developing Arduino projects, made from a used enclosure, of course.
4) My matrix of connectors, used to route various control signals to displays or similar devices. You can see that this isn’t finished yet; none of the controls have knobs!
So far I only have a few displays and sensors to experiment with. But several others are just waiting to be finished.
Audio in or audio out?
In another part of the room, my audio rack has been newly re-assembled.
While my interactive art focuses on sound and motion as inputs and light patterns as outputs, on this rack the output is sound. That means it includes two speakers and a stereo amp, effects to be applied to sound inputs, and the beginnings of a synthesizer. Also included is my latest version of my “LED oscilloscope” and tone generator.
Everything is made from used gear re-purposed for what I want it to do. And all these projects are in a constant state of re-development. I keep older gear until I find or make something better to replace it with. The older stuff gets trashed or re-used inside newer projects.
Organize or perish!
The decision to organize better did not come easily. Organizing and rebuilding old equipment takes time, so I can only do so much of it. But it is a rock-solid basic ingredient to making any activity viable. So I’ve been pushing it forward, and wanted to document the current scene.