Postmortem: Hanging textile for Interactive Portraits by Anne Smithies

In the post about Festival of the Mind Futurecade, I mentioned this collaboration with Anne Smithies on a gorgeous, huge textile to accompany my interactive portraits. I first approached Anne about this because of a chat I had in Tokyo with Zep, the maker of the Pico-8 platform that I’ve been working with to make these small software pieces – we were chatting about how a particular graphics feature he’d introduced to the platform a few months earlier was giving works a textile-like quality to them, as you could now build landscapes out of 4×4 repeating pixel patterns. When the Crossover Labs people asked me if I could think of some way to blow up the works to something large-scale that could take up more space in the room, the first thing I thought of was textile arts like crosstitch, knitting, or patchwork. I brought this to Anne, an artist who does a lot of work with textiles, has a giant quilting machine, and does a lot of mixed-media art depicting animals – an important theme, since most of the portraits take animal form. Anne suggested applique, which allowed her to combine repeating patterns with large circle shapes, which is a pretty faithful reproduction of how I’ve coded the portraits’ appearance.

The image I gave Anne to work with is the design for the portrait of Iriya. Iriya’s portrait is the first one I made that wasn’t based on an animal – I generally try to choose an animal that matches something related to a person’s story or a name they use online, but I couldn’t find anything in my interview with Iriya or in their online persona that corresponded to any kind of animal. Then I saw the Georgia O’Keefe painting shown above in an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, and something clicked. I was really moved by the image of this small being with a huge aura, nestled in an imposing landscape. A lot of things changed when I translated this image into the circle-and-pattern-based system I’m using for the portraits, and I still wanted Iriya to have facial expressions like everyone else, so I made the little glowing being a bit bigger. Anne took this image, and re-inserted colour in the applique process, which ended up bringing it to a good middle spot between the stark black environment of that one portrait, and the very colourful appearance of some of the others.

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Photograph by Festival of the Mind

There are so many surprising little details that Anne incorporated into this piece that I won’t be able to remember them all. She took a load of old computer keycaps that I’ve been collecting and made them into buttons for the text panels, which are detachable – this way, as the interactive portraits tour spaces with different dimensions, the textile can adapt to fill the space differently. We had a whole conversation about which keys on the keyboard are a good fit for the theme, and which are too on-the-nose (we decided that the “shift” and “alt” keys were good, but “m” “t” and “f” were not). The character’s shadow is made of reflective fabric, so that when the textile is photographed with flash it seems to light up. Anne even made sure that her giant quilting machine would follow a route that resembled a circuit board, so that when seen from the back the piece still has interesting visual features that reference its digital origins. One of the most striking features is a result of Anne using vinyl printing to create a very rigid overlay with digital accuracy on the soft fabrics – I think that’s what really makes this piece look like a hybrid between pixel art and patchwork, and makes it into something that I never would have imagined.

I was attracted to the idea of a textile piece because I thought the traditional features of weaving textiles had an intrinsic similarity to the features of coding patterns in Pico-8 (a connection that was certainly inspired by Emilie Reed’s article on the historical link between weaving and coding) so to be honest, the idea of using vinyl printing made me slightly uncomfortable at first. I had this prejudice in my mind about it, like maybe printing is a bit contrived or inauthentic? But nothing Anne does is either of those things, so I trusted that she was onto something, and I am so glad I did.

One of the greatest joys in my life is letting go of my preconceived ideas, so that my eyes are open to something beautiful and fresh, that I could never have seen through my old conceptual goggles. The precision and flatness of the vinyl ended up being very important to this work, and made it into much more than a piece of textile art inspired by a piece of digital art. It’s actually something new, that clearly has a place in both mediums.

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Mozilla Festival

My work is being displayed at Mozilla festival, for the Art + Data exhibition.

The Art+Data experience — part of the Mozilla Artists Open Web project — engages artists, designers, technologists, and researchers in an artistic exploration of a healthy web. With an online gallery (https://foundation.mozilla.org/opportunity/artists-open-web) and an exhibition during MozFest, Art+Data will also feature artists in residencies (on site and online) and creative, interactive sessions. Thirty-six art projects will be showcased, and all (including digital and analogue processes) will focus on data knowledge and usage. They also link to the five festival issues of privacy & security, digital inclusion, web-literacy, open innovation, and decentralisation.

They’ll be showing three of my interactive portraits of trans people in Japan – lo-fi experiences made in 8-bit fantasy console Pico-8 that represent real interviews that I carried out during a residency earlier this year. They were also displayed at Festival of the Mind recently, so to learn more you should check out my blog post about that. Also relevant to my interests is the Queering Mozfest experience, which brings together a number of pieces related to the queer internet.

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You can check out all of the exhibited pieces in person at Ravensbourne University London, near the O2 arena, 26 – 28 Oct 2018. Or, check them out online, along with the gorgeous exhibition catalogue, right here: https://foundation.mozilla.org/en/opportunity/artists-open-web/

 

Festival of the Mind

Last month, the first five of my interactive portraits were included in Futurecade in the Sheffield Millennium Gallery, as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. These are kind of like a cross between Tamagotchi and an RPG dialogue system, and they present dialogue taken verbatim from interviews I carried out with transgender people in Japan as part of the Creator Ikusei residency. I’m going to make 13 in total, six of which are supported by Arts Council funding via the Making Ways project.

An estimated 10,000 people attended Futurecade over the course of a week (I’ll get final attendance figures soon), and it was really a thrill to see so many people encounter this work. It’s a difficult time for the public conversation about trans rights in the UK, so it seems more important than ever to put trans people’s stories into public spaces. One person remarked, “this is incredible! There are so many people I want to show this to … emotive and enjoyable and thought provoking.”

The installation looked more striking than anything I’ve done so far, and that’s because I got talented people to help me with it. Brendan Vance improved the UI, and overhauled the code for me so that the pieces wouldn’t crash in unpleasant or boring ways (mysterious glitches I can live with quite happily, and we left plenty of those in there). Jack Lyus built the plinths for me, out of e-waste sourced from local social enterprise Bitfixit, who also gave me three out of the five computers running the pieces. Making use of computers that would otherwise go into landfill is increasingly important to me lately, and Bitfixit were incredibly generous with the machines they’ve gradually accrued over the years that they haven’t been able to find new homes for. Jack is incredibly practical and creative, and did a great job giving the plinths a sculptural quality with a gallery-ready finish.

That incredible hanging piece you can see in the photos is a quilt made by Anne Smithies. I commissioned Anne to make a giant version of one of the characters, in part inspired by a conversation I’d had in Tokyo earlier this year with Zep, who makes Pico-8, the platform on which the interactive portraits are built. We were talking about how as it reaches its final release, Pico-8 is taking on almost textile-like qualities, because of the way it handles patterns. I’ve been playing up those qualities a lot in my design of the portraits, so I wanted to emphasise that even more by having the banner be a textile piece, rather than just a big digital print. Anne took that idea and ran with it in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and she ended up blending pixel art and traditional quiltmaking into something new that I’ve never seen before. Also, the character is made of reflective material, so if you photograph it with flash it lights up!

There are still many more portraits to finish, and more things that I want to finesse as they find new places to tour and be exhibited. Although I’ve set them up to use NES controllers, the simplest game controllers you can get hold of, these still require some knowledge of basic videogame design conventions to be used properly – people who have never played a videogame before are inclined to press the “start” button to start playing, and press the “select” button to select options on screen, both of which bring up a console menu that I don’t want them playing with. Having volunteers minding the exhibition helped, because the volunteers were trained in how to instruct people to use the pieces – and also, incidentally, in how to calm the pieces down when they start glitching out in ways that are expected behaviour, but still not ideal for usability. I like that aspect of the pieces needing minders, but it’s not always going to be realistic when in every situation they might be installed in.

There also weirder things that I want to do with this – in particular, building on the design style Anne has established with this quilt, and working together on more textile elements of the installation. I’m hoping to get funding to do something cuddly, that also solves the game controller issue, and provides an alternative to the big plinths and old desktop computers, which I won’t be able to transport very far!

 

Work in progress on the Open Theremin

Open Theremin is an Arduino shield that produces, at relatively low cost, a great quality Theremin with lots of room for digital play as well as a nice analog sound if you want it. I’ve been messing around with it since October, though I wasn’t practising as much while I was in Japan. Here’s me playing something just with an unmodified analog signal back in the Winter:

So, a fairly charming instrument on its own without doing anything fancy to it. However, one of the exciting things about Open Theremin is its hackability. It should be fairly modifiable – you can easily program in new wavetables for example to get a custom timbre, and a fantastic MIDI version of the firmware has been created. But also, it seems to me that you should be able to get the Arduino to send a very simple serial signal to another Arduino-type thing, without needing to worry about all of the specificities of MIDI, which is built on the assumption that every musical instrument can be conceptualised as in some way like a piano and really takes a lot of cajoling to handle a Theremin’s fluidity. However, all I get when I try to do that is this:

Never mind, eh? Another thing I’ve learned to do on this journey is use the Teensy 3.6 with its audio shield as an effects box for the Theremin’s analog signal, which is pretty satisfying:

Recently the MIDI capabilities of the Open Theremin, which were already excellent, have been expanded significantly by Vincent Dhamelincourt, requiring me to add some precision to my control of the bottom two knobs, which can now modify a total of eight different parameters:

This huge progress made on the Open Theremin’s MIDI capabilities make it no longer quite as interesting to attempt to interact with the Arduino directly, and much more interesting to see how it might work in combination with another toy I’ve been playing with – the music live-coding software TidalCycles and Supercollider. So far I’m still working on writing a program for Supercollider so that it interprets the MIDI signal in a Theremin-friendly way:

Interactive Portraits updates from February-May

Replicast Studios Facebook page

This year my studio building Replicast is participating in OpenUp Sheffield, the largest open art studios event outside of London. We had our big launch party this weekend, attracting around 200 people over the course of the weekend. As part of our promotion for the event, I wrote a series of artist bios for the Facebook page – I’m going to try to keep up content in this vein, combining lots of images with short write-ups that are grounded in the critical and historical context of artists’practice. Check them out, and consider “Liking” the page if you’re a Facebook user.

https://www.facebook.com/replicaststudios/

Here are a couple of examples:

I’m bringing a virtual petting zoo to Orchard Square!

I’m excited to announce that I’ve been granted a four-week residency in the Orchard Square shopping centre in the centre of Sheffield, which has been organised as a collaboration between the Making Ways project and the retail property investment firm London and Associated Partners.

The project is what you might call a “virtual petting zoo”. From 5th August, I will be taking my fleet of recycled computers to a small retail space on the first floor of Orchard Square, and showing some little virtual pet programs. You can come and pet them and see what they’re up to. They will start out very simple, but over time will become more complex as I develop them to resemble the people who come to visit.

I will also be hosting a virtual pet-themed game jam on 19th August, and a mini-conference on animals and games on 26th. If you’d like to be involved in either of those I would be delighted to hear from you!

After I’m done, three other exciting residencies from other artists will follow, everyone doing something rare and unusual with the retail space.

More details coming over the next couple of weeks – subscribe to my email list to get the latest information every week.

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