Create_Space New Media Lab :: Somaya Langley

2005, Melbourne, Australia

Wearable LED Fabric Swatches, Somaya Langley

Wearable LED Fabric Swatches, Somaya Langley

Arriving in Melbourne directly from the hive of activity at Newcastle’s annual Electrofringe festival, I met with the Create_Space New Media Lab facilitators (Katherine Moriwaki, Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Adam Nash) at the front door of the UniLodge accommodation on Swanston Street, Melbourne. It was Sunday night and I was loaded down with a 20kilogram backpack of cables and other equipment, a microcontroller in one hand and a MOTU (multichannel audio device) grasped in the other. This scarcely set the stage for what was to be a fortnight of new connections, discussion of concepts, exchange of ideas and techniques, collaborating, learning, workshopping, warchalking, coding, recording, filming, sewing, blogging, folding, interpreting, eating and laughing – always accompanied by an ongoing dialogue concerning notions of space.

Monday morning began with the majority of the “out-of-towners” (Alexandra Gillespie, Tim Plaisted, Andrew Burrell and myself) piling into a taxi to be driven a matter of kilometres to the North Melbourne Meat Market; the venue for the duration of the new media lab. Taking the first few steps inside the door, the smells of the meat market still lingered in the air which I found slightly jarring. The first session took the form of fluorescent post-it notes stuck up around the office-like workshop environment, adding squares of artificial colour. On each post-it note we wrote responses to a variety of spaces – many of these being emotional responses. It quickly emerged that my own responses were often flavoured by apprehension – and one facilitator in particular, Adam Nash, promptly seized this, wanting to know more about my “apprehensive spaces”.

Conductive Fabric, Somaya Langley and Alex Gillespie

Conductive Fabric, Somaya Langley and Alex Gillespie

Exercise number two: warchalking. Out on the street in the surround area of North Melbourne, we modified the concept of warchalking into a pastel mark-up of the streetscape. Drawing on the pavement, walls, front steps, around corners to highlight often passed by views/objects/sights – the shadows of a tree emerging, witty remarks (“Warhol’s lunch” – pointing to a banana skin and an empty beer can), and a sheep on the side of a building beside the long grass. By the end of this exercise, we were starting to get to know one another and each other’s visual and conceptual styles. The group consisted of ten new media artists from around Australia: Tim Plaisted, Matt Gardiner, Troy Innocent, Alexandra Gillespie, Sarah Neville, Trish Adams, Tim Barrass, Andrew Burrell, Shiralee Saul coming from a range of artistic backgrounds including: visual arts, installation, choreography, video, animation, sound, composition, origami and computer programming.

The initial exercises lead into two weeks containing many different workshops including: 3D games environments, applications for mobile phones, soft switches and a midi scrap yard challenge amongst other discussions and sessions. One particular workshop focussed on learning basic electronics and tested our soldering (and gluing) skills, where we created drawbots; small motor driven plastic-cup and texta creations (with a range of other random objects attached).

“Peace and War bot” drawbot
All the while, Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Katherine Moriwaki managed to produce a continuous stream of updates to the ANAT Create_Space blog [1]. The most valuable and relevant workshop related to my current artistic practice was on soft-switches. Katherine Moriwaki’s new media projects have involved a number of wearables utilising conductive fabric (material that can conduct electricity. We experimented with the materials, creating small electronic circuits using soft-switches (on/off switches using two pieces of conductive fabric which were the substitute for on/off buttons). My first prototype was a wearable armband, lighting up small LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) when the switches were pressed.

Wearable armband with soft switches using conductive fabric
It felt odd to attend a new media workshop and learn to use a sewing machine. However, I find that these types of skills are increasingly necessary in constructing my new media works, as I’m beginning to incorporating a variety of different materials and require an equal range of skills to match.

Alex Gillespie and I continued working with conductive fabric throughout the duration of the workshop. On the final day – the Open Day – we exhibited a touch-sensitive curtain (rather like a shower curtain) that incorporated conductive fabric that triggered audio samples when users interacted with the material. Video (shot and edited by Alex) was projected upon the curtain’s surface.

MaxMSP patch driving the sound for the touch-sensitive curtain.
Conductive fabric segments of the curtain were interfaced to my laptop running the MaxMSP patch via a bread-boarded daughter-board and my miniCV microcontroller. Alex and I are continuing development of an interactive audiovisual work incorporating sound, video and fabric (including conductive fabric to drive the interactive component). The conceptual component of the work is still being formed; however the work is loosely based around the concept of clothing as additional layers of skin and their place within contemporary society. We intend to present the work as a suspended installation where fabrics are able to brush against each other affecting the audiovisuals.

During the first week, I presented an introduction to MaxMSP session for a number of the New Media Lab participants. This included explaining the basic concepts and principles of the software and discussing a number of particular problems I have encountered (and the solutions I chose to use) in my own new media works.

Introduction to MaxMSP session
While I use MaxMSP on a regular basis, and to a fairly advanced level, I rarely get the chance to pass on this information to others. The two hour session was a good opportunity for me to consolidate my knowledge and skills in this area.

Alongside the many practical workshops, we continued to discuss notions of space. There was a great deal of dialogue surrounding history of spaces, memories of spaces and memory residues, the layering of memories over time (in relation to specific locations) and associations between particular spaces and emotional responses. As part of the first collaborative exercise (working with Trish Adams and Tim Plaisted) we brainstormed a number of concepts based around themes of: waiting spaces (such as tram stops and places in between transit spaces that people often find uncomfortable or boring), lost spaces, inaccessible spaces (at times access to rooms in the Meat Market building gave us this sense, as the door handles were difficult to locate), “on display” or stage spaces (performance spaces) and dead spaces (where spaces aren’t utilised). The central region of the UniLodge accommodation has a spectacular “dead zone”; and entirely empty space between the roof, all the way down approximately fourteen floors of the building to the ground level concrete slab with fragments of garbage lying around. The group used this as the basis for our first project prototype and presented it to the rest of the New Media Lab participants in the form of a semi-performance/installation.

A project that I had recently begun to conceive prior to the workshop; -the “suspect backpack” – was refined over the duration of the new media lab. Ideas were initially inspired after the London Underground bombings in July 2005, when an image (of a sign warning commuters wearing backpacks not to run) was distributed around the globe as an email attachment. The notice, said to have been posted at London Underground stations, was apparently a photoshopped hoax.

Notice reported posted at selected London Underground stations
This image sparked the preliminary ideas for a work addressing perceptions of “backpack wearing” individuals in public and commuting (transitory) spaces, in today’s society and relationships to the current political and media environments. I discussed this with a number of workshop participants, forming a clearer concept, and possible technical implementations to be investigated in the future. Since attending the Create_Space new media lab, I have continued refining the concept and will develop the wearable interactive project in 2006. I have recently applied to undertake an honours year, in a Bachelor of Communication in Creative Communication at Canberra University, where I have been awarded an Honours Scholarship. This work will now be developed as my honours project.

While exploring the UniLodge accommodation, a number of us discovered that the security camera monitoring the main entrance was broadcast on one of the television channels. This seemed like a great opportunity to create a performance work based around the security camera media broadcast space. Surprisingly, the idea gained momentum (particularly driven by Sarah Neville), and in the second week, suddenly we were participating in a “one night only” show. The performance consisted of brief lines of text which we held up to the security camera, with messages such as “We’re bored”, “I’m tired, can someone please bring me a pillow” and “Souki, where are you? I miss you”.

Still from video recording of Sanctioned Performance, with the sign “We’re bored”
The performance managed to last for approximately seven minutes until a small electronic dog (I’d made during the drawbots workshop) created from a tiny electric motor, texta lids, sticky tape and a whirring origami tail, was held up to the security camera. At this point a UniLodge staff member rushed towards the group, shouting that the electronic dog looked like a bomb.

Still from video recording of Sanctioned Performance, featuring the “dog bomb”
I find the staff member’s overreaction to the situation quite indicative of the direction that contemporary society is headed. Any slightly “abnormal” behaviour is to be regarded with extreme suspicion (and seems to often carry suggestive terrorist undertones). This event added to my growing interest in changing social behaviours as a response to the shifting international political climate surrounding this issue – and how this can be explored within a new media arts context. (The “dog bomb” was donated to RMIT University and resides with Adam Nash.)

My initial project for the New Media Lab was to continue development of ID-i/o, a live wearable sensor driven performance experience. I had recently purchased a miniCV microcontroller, built by Australian instrument builder, Angelo Fraietta and spent some time configuring and bread-boarding additional daughter-boards to plug-in flex sensors, accelerometers and soft-switches to the device.

Microcontroller with breadboard
Alongside developing the technology, I had the opportunity to work with Sarah Neville, an Adelaide-based choreographer. Sarah and I spent a number of hours in one of the more expansive Meat Market spaces workshopping some improvised movement. Sarah proposed scenarios, and I had to respond to these – as emotional responses and physical navigation of the scenario space using improvised movement. We focussed on physical expansion and contraction of the space I created and then occupied within the improvised movement exercise. I found this particularly challenging and engaging to enlist the rest of my body in the performance communication (other than just the hands and facial expressions which I most often rely on). In early December, I undertook my first solo live performance using accelerometer technology. I discovered the ideas Sarah raised (regarding physical performance presence and use of space) at the New Media Lab which I have begun to integrate into my live performances (with alternative Human Computer Interfaces) greatly enhanced the experience.

Since attending the Create_Space New Media Lab, I have continued contact with a number of the New Media Lab participants, in particular: Andrew Burrell, Tim Plaisted and Alexandra Gillespie. Andrew and I have discussed further excursions into live electroacoustic laptop performance. As a longer term project, in conjunction with another Canberra-based musician, Govinda Lange, Tim Plaisted and I have held preliminary discussions about a possible networked audiovisual installation for the Cube 37 Glass Studio at the Frankston Arts Centre. This was inspired by an event that took place in Frankston directly after amendments to the Australian counter-terrorism laws in 2002. The work will be based nature of surveillance, networking and Australia’s increasingly restrictive terror laws.

Other events occurred during the course of the two-week new media lab, however the range of skills and experiences and collaborations addressed here were the most significant. It was fantastic to collaborate with a new group of artists, all of whom are highly skilled in their own specific areas that fall into the overarching “new media” umbrella. Particularly rewarding was the opportunity to discuss ideas and new concepts at a superior level, and I am confident of the fact that the other participant’s input has greatly contributed to my current projects. The Create_Space 2005 New Media Lab has genuinely been the most rewarding event I’ve attended this year.

[1] http://anatlab.blogspot.com

http://www.anat.org.au/2010/06/create_space-new-media-lab/

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