Karkhana conducted Creative Computing workshop for a group of artists and engineers. It was designed to create interactive projects for Yantra 4.0. Yantra is an annual art-science-tech showcase that brings artists, engineers, educator and researchers to the same platform and creates collaborative working environment among them. The workshop for art-tech collaboration ended with a twitter activity where everyone wrote their feelings about the Creative Computing session. Most engineers were excited to see the process of generating project ideas and the uniqueness of those ideas that evolved throughout the session. Artists, after visualizing the possibilities of technological intervention were excited to implement it in their regular work. Yantra organizers decided to take four projects from the workshop for the annual showcase. This blog is about those four ideas, their evolution, successes, failures and learnings in our three month long journey from Creative Computing workshop to the Yantra 4.0 showcase.
Kabiraj Lama, one of the participating artists, was always irritated with technology, that’s what brought him to the artistic world. He then put forward the concept of an irritating machine. The basic idea was people would come to see the pleasant artwork but then they’d get irritated by technology that was hidden. Art-tech collaborators googled the term “useless machine” and “rube goldberg machine”. The challenge for his team was not to lose the essence of art. Kabiraj being a woodcut print artist, his expertise came in handy here. The idea evolved to have big portraits in a room and as a visitor enters the room, light gets triggered inside the portraits giving it a pleasant effect, but when she goes near to the portrait, the lights get irritating and sound gets added up into that unpleasant feeling. Finally the project came out to be “Sarbadaliya Baithak” (all party meeting). You had the opportunity to be in same room with portraits of thirteen prime ministers of Nepal. While enjoying the artwork, you hear the same pompous speech that you have been hearing since long. That’s more than enough to get people irritated.
Everyone loves to play with water (Maybe not in winter!) but a couple of art-tech collaborators were splashing their minds with water. Water, also being a different medium than what other teams had used in their projects, we focused more on developing this idea. Mahima, a visual and performance artist, put forward her idea of a pond where robotic water creatures would make certain patterns tempting audience to interact with it. It was obvious those creature would blend in as lotuses floating over water. Finally the robotic creatures, turned to be numerous glowing lotuses that reshape themselves in a peace sign after an audience places them in a pond. Awesome idea but there was a big mountain to cross. Creating a pond, inside the gallery space at 3rd floor of Nepal Art Council was not as simple as you think. Technically, amassing more than fifteen lotuses to form a peace sign was another big challenge to achieve. The team experimented various technology to gather creatures in the exact shape. Line tracking in water, magnetic fields and even image processing. Finally, pulleys and motors seemed possible to achieve the goal. At the very last moment, the team realized the difficulties on glueing pulleys on the glass and it needs to be strong enough to hold the tension from the motor. Trying four different things just to paste pulleys in two days also reinforced the importance of iterating and testing. Considering the difficulties and the timeline, the team decided to limit the scope of the project, getting rid of the pulley system but still retaining the spirit of interactivity with lights. When you place a lotus on water it lights up some lotuses at the center, when there are enough lotuses then all lights glow to form a peace sign.
Shadows always follow you. Some participants remember themselves doing different gestures to create various characters with shadows. The first prototype involved a cardboard box, light on one side and a couple of light sensors on the opposite. The team explored various effects that can be sensed with this simple setting. The team found it ineffective to detect minor changes in the shadow. Mekh, one of the artists, was trying to find out the artistic side of it and came up with the idea of “Sarangi”, a Nepalese traditional musical instrument. The idea of using shadow was reversed to the idea of using the light. Here comes the meeting point between the light sensors they were experimenting with and the “Sarangi”. They decided to make a big physical “Sarangi” where you interact electronically. Strings were replaced by wires and bow string acted as electric input, light sensors would detect the movement of your hand to select different notes and play respective digital sounds from a laptop. While researching, Mekh and his team had a hard time to find out authentic music from Sarangi. Also just creating a sound from “Sarangi” needs a lot of effort and practice, which also validated the project, where you don’t need any practice to play music out of this physical-digital Sarangi.
Amrit, an artist from Kathmandu University, was more clear with his idea. Unlike other projects with vague initial idea, his project was specific. He wanted to create a mechanical/electronics “touch me not” plant. Once the machine sensed the presence of humans on its vicinity, the leaves would flap in. When all leaves flap in and there is still presence of humans, the branches would go down and the whole tree would go down at last. Although the idea and essence never changed, the project went through various structural changes. The tree structure turned out to be a lotus like structure, more symmetric, more slickier than earlier plans. The material selection became a hard job for the team. Heavy materials like steel and aluminium were hard to work with but they found it precise to get the required effect. Lighter materials like plastic sheets were easy to work with but it loses its strength when it gets smaller. They chose the harder job which also meant they needed to plan their schedules according to heavy power-cuts to work with lathe, metal cutter and welding. Finally the work paid off, there was a mechanically functional and aesthetically pleasing structure. You could turn the wheel to flap in and flap out the lotus petals, it was mechanically interactive and smooth but the challenge still existed while automating it. Obviously the structure was heavy and they couldn’t find a motor to drive it. The project was about to lack the essence but in the meantime they had small working prototype, which was then placed together with this bigger one so you could get the sense of what the project was about.
The ideas for each projects changed multiple times. Art-tech collaborators encountered and accepted a couple of failures. During fifteen days of showcase, in addition to appreciation, the visitors gave lots of constructive feedback. The three months of collaboration and fifteen days of showcase was all about evolution of ideas, failures and successes that led to valuable learning. Artists learned basic engineering skills and realized the possibilities and limitations of technology. Engineers learned the ways artists think about details to retain the value of art. Hopefully this collaboration between artists and engineers will continue and result in interesting projects in the years to come.