PATH

For the first fifteen years of my passion for this project, I worked to convey a certain set of ideas in writing.  In 2001, I published one particular essay that contains the core ideas my later work would seek to explore.  It is available here.   I worked on a variety of successor essays but became less and less convinced that the things I was interested in were well-suited to a didactic written format.  It felt better to “show” the concepts than it did to write about them.  I give a lot of speeches and I began to see in my own speeches and in the speeches of others, ways to show rather than tell.  To enact rather than instruct and let the audience see (or in this case hear).  Knowing a bit about Sol Lewitt’s work and the similarity of his project to the topics that were of interest to me, I set out to re-create in sound what I felt I could not make in words (and which Lewitt tried to make in sculpture).

Having the idea that it would be clearer to illustrate form in sound, I set out to develop a design.  My first thought was to “piggyback” on familiar designs for making sound.  I thought I could map sounds to a limited keyboard and make sequences of sounds that “worked” and that “didn’t work” for one reason or the other.  Again, the overall goal was to show the lived structure of expectation.  Here’s what my musings looked like at this point:

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First page  -

At first, I wanted to map a set of “right” and “wrong” tonal values onto keys and get the user to explore his or her phenomenology of “right-ness” or “wrong-ness.”  What made on right and the other wrong.  I worked quickly away from tones because I think the argument gets a little less clear when the mathematics of tone become involved.  I moved instead to other sampled sounds.  Words, phrases, sound effects.  I didn’t know anything about electronics so the first thing I needed to learn was how sounds could be triggered by buttons.  I went to the toy section of the local thrift shop and purchased this rather garish exemplar:

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guitar1

Which, once it was chopped apart, looked like this:

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guitar2

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This told me what I needed to learn — how to map the buttons to a processor and the processor to a speaker and everything together to a power source.  I did some research online and discovered Arduino (which looked like it was going to be a little bit easier to learn than Raspberry Pi) so I went out and bought an R3 and a book on basic Arduino circuitry.  After a bit of trial and error, this led to:

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arduino

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which successfully made sounds upon demand.  Success :)  This was most of the technical work involved.  From here on out, everything else has mostly been craft (which is hard, but its the kind of hard I like — the kind where you know that “x” thousand hours are going to bring you success.  No mystery.  No unknowns (though things can always surprise you).

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About this time I discovered the waveshield from Adafruit Industries.  This was a quick and very forgiving kit that gave me the capability I needed, and since I already knew where I wanted to go, the hardest (but one of the most enjoyable things) was learning to solder.  I went through a number of tester boards and continued to upgrade my equipment — better soldering irons, a workstation for electronics with a fume extractor.  I learned basic electronics — what the various components did and how they needed to be connected to work every time.  I decided to use lead-free solder.  I’ve been told about a thousand times since then that this was a mistake — that leaded solder is much easier and (in an odd bit of partisanship from within the electronic hobbyist community) existentially better than lead-free.  Their reasons make some degree of sense, but I never got used to leaded so the odd behavior of the lead-free and the higher temperatures required (I have the iron at about 750 degrees, these days) were all I ever knew.  Plus, I like the idea that I’m keeping a little bit of led out of the environment and that my works contain as little dangerous material as possible.

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I found an old doorbell panel at an antique mall and broke it down for the first UI element.  That led to this prototype:

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What I was looking to do here was to hear the “shape” of semantic sound.  The buttons on the left were the “equation.”  Any one of the buttons on the right were the “solution.”  The equation could be “resolved” by any of the buttons on the right.  These equations weren’t logical or mathematical in nature.  They were conventional.  From this point of departure I knew I was going to head in different directions than Kosuth or Lewitt.  From the prototype, I knew how to embed and sequence sounds as the user directed and I had a theory of form to generate works.

I spent a long while experimenting with enclosures.  I wanted something that stayed out of the way — something that housed the electronics and the sensors but where the sounds remained the key elements of the work.  I spend a couple of months having cabinets made for different projects but I couldn’t get them right.  Then I discovered a cradled box I could buy at the local art supply store that met my needs.  I spend a couple of months using the simple wooden boxes, and the wiring on them looked like this:

Wiring

That’s a temporary speaker in the picture and a 9 volt power source.  At first I was working with mostly text as the “image.”  The two video examples are both very early works.  I would have this text burnt directly onto the surface of the panel with a laser engraver.  The lines were clean and the image stayed out of the way.  I tried many different sensor combinations — proximity, motion-detection, piezo-electric sensors.  They all do different things and its nice to think about them as a line of future exploration but I also learned something about buttons.  Buttons are surprisingly sophisticated sensors.  They measure something very hard to measure in any other way — the user’s intention.  This, plus some reading was the genesis for the first work, Intentional.

In hearing the voices (made mostly with a text-to-speech engine, though I was already moving toward voice actors at that point), something surprising happened.  I couldn’t help but notice the stark phenomenological difference between the spoken and the written word.  This fit well with my ideas of form but I needed some time to explore some of the consequences (I’m still exploring them).  This question, though, led to the second piece, a work called Spoken-Written.

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