Our group project was exhibited as part of The Late Shows at The Star and Shadow Cinema; an event which sees cultural and historical venues across Newcastle open their doors late to the public and is one of my favourite events every year. We made five simple paper mache electronic instruments powered by light, for people to interact with in the daylight and with artificial lights when the sun had gone down.
Inspiration / Making
Our initial ideas centred around hidden, shadowy spaces – the culvert and river running under the cinema and the shadows cast by the different layers of city architecture, the metro bridge, the valley below the cinema.
Our first proposal for a piece was to play a soundscape in one room that was generated by the shadows cast in another room, but we realised that all interaction would not only be passive, but completely un-readable from any part of the piece, the sounds could well have been prerecorded. In that realisation we moved our ideas forward and morphed them into the work as it is, touching on designs that included wall-mounted telescopes, cats eyes in doors and larger scale outdoor sculptures. We showed each other concept sketches and this was the main method of fine tuning our design idea. I put forward that of all our ideas, the telescope would be a way of making a piece that was realistic to build and transport in a short space of time and we began to construct our paper mache cones.
We agreed as a group that we wanted to keep the objects white on the outside and incorporate the circuits without hiding them away (the latter a more practical decision rather than an aesthetic one) but we decided to paint each one with a colour inside and contrasting colour on the rims. They have a strange resemblance to many things due to their shape and simplicity – telescopes, horns, megaphones, ear trumpets, bone flutes, etc, and I think it’s their strength that people can associate them with multiple things.
When testing out the objects that were initially made to be secured to a wall or table, we found that they were much more satisfying objects to handle than to look at so decided to make them into individual instruments playing their own solar powered tone and completely self contained. When playing around with different kinds of solar panels and different sized buzzers, we decided to use a mixture of buzzers and solar panels so each object would have a unique tone. We intended also to create one or two with a chirping sound, using a slightly more complicated circuit, however we couldn’t construct a working circuit in time so decided to keep to the drones.
We tackled the task of making sure people knew they could interact with our instruments by taking inspiration from Open Form and in particular artist Zofia Kulik. She would often photograph herself interacting with sculptural objects (often cones), and we thought this would make an interesting aesthetic statement to photograph ourselves using the cones as telescopes and megaphones as an invitation for the visitors to do the same. We took these images on the grassy area in front of the cinema, printed them onto A1 acetate and hung them in front of the window to let the light through and blend them into the surroundings, as though we were performing there ourselves.
Event and Response
The most exciting thing for me was seeing how the instruments changed throughout the night as the light faded and the crowd changed. Initially they were very loud, emitting a constant drone (apart from when placed panel-down) from the daylight. We had the artificial lights on too, but they didn’t have much impact at all. In fact, in the daytime they just served as more sculptural elements I think, highlighting the objects on the table but not serving much function in terms of sound. Children came and enjoyed playing with them, understanding immediately that they should pick them up and look through, listen through or shout through them. One problem was that because the circuits inside were very exposed, one child put his hand into one and pulled a component out of place, which we didn’t manage to fix. A couple of people remarked that it was nice to be able to see the circuits, but perhaps there is a design that would ensure that the circuits were more protected, and I think we’d work on that more if we did the project again or pushed the idea further. The choices of colours and paper mache / handmade aesthetic I think is one of the things that made them appealing to interact with – people wanted to pick them and were very playful with them. At night the atmosphere changed a lot – people were more willing to take the objects out of the space and use different light sources including another group’s projector to play them with. They became much quieter, intimate objects when the sun went down because they only made noises when held very close to the LED light sources.
People gave positive feedback, remarking that they were interesting and that it was a nice idea to be able to listen to the light. People played with them in surprising ways too, using them in combination with each other, muting them like a trumpet and even taking them over to another group’s work that featured a microphone to use them together which was exciting. There were a couple of points where I felt like people didn’t want to pick up the objects so I picked them up and demonstrated them, chatting about what they do and how they work. I spoke with lots of people who asked questions about them and it was really great to be able to be near the work for most of the night to talk about it with visitors.
In future I think I’d be really keen to develop this idea, perhaps by experimenting with shape and size and even filling a room full of them. It felt like a really good learning experience to work in our group, I’m really proud of what we achieved and pleased I got to push myself to collaborate with new people and make an interactive electronic artwork.