Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Made a breakthrough realization today. The solenoids were louder than the gongs, so I thought the solution was quieting the solenoids. Forgot that you could also make the gongs louder. And how do you do that? With MASS. There's a reason the traditional mallets are so heavy: it's because heavy sounds good. Moral of the story: Respect vernacular technology. If they've been doing/building it that way for a couple of hundred/thousand years, it's because there are sound physical reasons to build them that way. Jesus.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! But any day you realize how stupid you've been is a day you've gotten a little smarter, so I suppose that it's a good day in that sense.

The image shows the solenoids and the mallets. On the left is a denuded tennis ball on a stick. This was modeled on/inspired by the padded balls they traditionally use on the gongs. On the right is the new beater I kludged together after the light came on. String wrapped around a good SLAB of wood (from the wood stash of Yeye Calderon, a painter/old Mowelfund comrade now residing in SG. Salamat, Ye!). Mass made all the difference.

Another interesting detail. When the tennis ball mallet hit the gong the first time, it made a nice, loud sound. If it hit the gong again, before the gong had come to rest, sometimes it would make a loud sound, sometimes it wouldn't. Sometimes it would even damp the gong. Eventually realized that it was a matter of phasing. If the mallet hit the gong out of phase, the waves it generated in the metal would cancel out the waves already there. Apparently, the solution is just to use really heavy mallets, so that they pack enough punch to damp the existing vibrations AND generate a whole bunch of new ones. Like I said, duh.

I bow in the direction of all the long-dead creators of gamelan instruments, and their acoustic/engineering/physical solutions. I follow in the footsteps of giants.

PS ISEA has its own dedicated blogger (nice idea). He's Joel Ong, whose job it is to write up and photograph the festival and process. His stuff can be found here.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

ISEA Update

ISEA update. Raining like 3.67 motherfuckers here so I can blog without feeling guilty. Didn't realize I had such a protestant/confucian work ethic. This is a video of the prototype mechanism I built for Quartet- the intallation I'm building for ISEA 2008. Photosensor on the screen registers the white block on the end of the image's drumstick and activates a solenoid that strikes a lever and hits the Javanese xylophone. Hope to be building 15 more of these. But quieter! The damn solenoid must be 5 times louder than the xylophone!

Gave a talk the other day at the I2R (the research center that's facilitating my work, also known as "I squared R" and the Institute for Infocomm Research ) to a roomful of engineers and progammers, including Corey Manders, my chief collaborator for the computer vision and conducting interface, and my host Dr. Farzam Farbiz of I2R's Signal Processing group. Must have been over 20 people in there if stage fright hasn't magnified the crowd in memory. Great reception, nice feedback. Presented my work as a history of investigating/seeking non-cinematic ways to use moving images. So I mentioned Volume Control, /mutation and Spinning Jimmy. Forgot to mention Shift Register, Damn!

Dr. Farbiz asked a classic question: what is the engineering significance of the work? (I2R is an honest-to-god research center that invents stuff to sell, so every research initiative has to be justified in terms of technological significance and business model). I said that there was no engineering rationale I could currently think 0f that would justify using images to control machinery. It is much less efficient than using computer programs . Thus, I said, to a pure engineering intelligence, the work was meaningless, or at least redundant. However, I said, it means something to humans, who conceive images as powerless ghosts, to see that idea violated in physical space. (Of course, I didn't put it this succinctly during the question-and-answer period). The artwork revises, and makes visible, our preconceptions, at a visceral level. This opened up a nice little discussion among the programmers and engineers about the uses and meaning of art.

Of course, the pure engineering intelligence does not exist on this earth. A pure engineering intelligence would find it illogical to wear clothes on a hot day, and find swimming trunks and underwear indistinguishable. A human engineer, on the other hand, finds the idea of going to work naked, or of wearing underwear to the beach, unthinkable.

This capacity for finding things unthinkable is a symptom of culture, and therefore of humanity, that which is immersed and defined by cultural ideas. This is the side of us that art speaks to. Art makes the overlooked and unthought visible, thinkable, palpable.

Possible definition: Artworks are multivalent and unfinished signifiers. They invite us to speculate about their significance. Thus the viewer builds the finished work in his mind, for himself, by augmenting the signifier with his own signifieds.

PS the page describing my stuff on the ISEA website can be found here.