The Electromagnetic Fountain

Posts Tagged ‘automated fountain

An EMF presentation

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Here are my notes and slides of a presentation of the Electromagnetic Fountain that I gave at the National Academy of the Arts in Bergen on Jan 12th 2009. It is a bit of a new approach to presenting this project, and revolves around some autobiographical reflections and associative imagery that has emerged through the process of working with the fountain. With only 20 minutes for my presentation, I try to show more and talk less!


[ Slide: I heard Erkki Huhtamo give this advice at the end of one of his
lectures. Though available on the net, I cannot locate the link.
]

During the mid 1990’s I became involved in exploring the potentials of the net, or the information super highway as it was often referred to then …..


[ Slide: image from The New Wizard from the West,
Pearson’s Magazine, May 1899
]

……  as a creative platform for artistic exchange.

I collaborated remotely with artists from several continents via the new audio/video transmission and tele-conferencing systems to create performances, installations and social, live art happenings.

One of the rituals of participating in this telematic space was to perform a compulsory “good bye” wave of the hand into the webcam to each other when closing a performance.


[ Slide: MIRAGE. Motherboard, Galleri F15, Moss, Norway and the net, 2000.
Realvideo feedback installation, looping around the globe
]

This created a simple form of non-verbal communication that could generally be recognised despite the low bandwidth crackly audio and pixelating video transmission.

Today I am interested in exploring the potential of another kind of wave as a source of artistic material, namely the electromagnetic waves and pulses that are emitted from our numerous electric, wireless and mobile communications devices. They pass through our streets, homes and bodies and increasingly carry the raw signals of our wireless communications, and yet they are, generally speaking, imperceptible to humans without some kind of technological intervention.

I am attempting to reveal them and give them a physical presence in the form a fountain whose water jets and coloured lights dance to the electromagnetic activity detected in its near vicinity.

The fountain was conceived as a portable fountain with performance value, designed to appear in urban spaces where there are “hot spots” of electromagnetic activity for a short period of time before moving on to a new destination.

Its bowl is a recycled, redundant parabola antenna dish acquired from the 120 m high television transmission tower on the hills of Oslo (from which Stockholm can be seen with the bare eye from an observation tower when the weather permits).

It has become redundant because analog TV transmissions have recently been terminated in favor of digital signals, and the previously designated bandwidths are being sold off to the highest bidder.

The electromagnetic spectrum, in its entirety, has increasingly become “a hotly fought over political, commercial and private territory” (E. Berger and M. Howse, 2007).


[ Slide: image from: http://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/ElectroMag.html ]

“The spectrum is treated as a `commons´, belonging to every person. It is controlled and administered by governments who, in turn, license the various radio frequencies to commercial and other institutions for broadcast. In other words, in every country the electromagnetic system is owned by the government on behalf of the people.”
[Jeremy Rifkin, 2001]

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the air that we breathe has become colonised by the wild-fire of WI-FI, and the environmental and health risks involved are not yet fully understood. This is reflected by the attempts of corporate network providers to hide their transmission and reception devices from public view with the aim of reducing the fear that the lack of adequate information surrounding these issues inspires.

Take this palm tree for example. I spotted it while driving to the airport in Rome in 2007.

And yet fear is an issue that I deal with each time my cell phone runs out of power, or I forget it. I just don’t feel safe without it. I seldom switch it off, though I often want to. As I feel my ear starting to get warmer, I can’t help wondering whether my brain is getting cooked as well.

Perhaps I should get a pair of these ……


[ Slide: image from Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s website]

…. placebo underwear with silver lining to protect your nether regions from electromagnetic radiation, created by the dynamic duo, Dunne and Raby (UK).

Science is a social activity that we perform in our everyday lives – winning on the roundabouts and losing on the swings. It is a risky business. The question arises as to how much (and with what) we are prepared to pay in the pursuit of high speed, physical and telematic mobility that are a part of modern day life.


[ Slide: image from http://www.fototime.com/24784734E056C6A/standard.jpg ]

Life seems so fast these days. There is a pressure to always be available at different places at the same time, yet in different time zones – or going somewhere without actually moving from the spot.

Sometimes I wish to slow down time for a while, and experience the world from the earth up, rather than the sky down  (as I do when I pear down onto my keyboard and into the deep space of my horizon-less screen).

I want to know how things work, under the veil, so to speak. I want to look beyond the ease of the slick point-and-click interface to explore the raw signals of telematic communications – to catch them before they pop out of a screen or speaker. Before they become a cell phone conversation or an sms, a surveillance image on a video screen, an email, a bank transaction, a death match in Unreal Tournament 3 or a new avatar in Second Life. I want to give them a body that can only be experienced locally, yet is made up of a myriad of local and global gestures and utterances, and a multitude of physical bodies. Big aims for a little person!

Marshal McLuhan once noted that electricity is itself a medium with a message. With my current work I suggest that, more specifically, it is the electromagnetic spectrum that is a medium worth paying attention to today. But how can you pay attention to parts of the spectrum that humans cannot see, hear, feel, taste or smell?

In the case of the fountain, it is equipped with an electromagnetic detector, or “sniffer”.

Like a dog with a sharp nose,


[ Slide: image from Epica Awards 2007 ]

…. it picks electromagnetic transmissions and transforms them into audible signals, drawing them down to one point on earth and grasping the feeling of the analog waves and digital pulses as they pass by.

Let me give you an example – the sound of a a laptop with a wireless router performing a bit torrent download, recorded by Martin Howse using a sniffer he made for the fountain.

It is the qualities of the screaming, popping and crackling sounds that the fountain uses to control its water pumps, valves and lights.

In other words, it functions like a musical fountain – a famous example of which is the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas.


[ Slide: image from: http://govegas.about.com/od/phototours/ss/Belsbs.htm ]

Fountains generally perform aesthetic functions. When placed in urban spaces the intention is often to bring an oasis – an experience of nature, into the city. The Bellagio fountain, though easier to describe in terms of entertainment than nature, fits naturally into the virtual reality of Vegas. Yet it contributes to sucking dry a valuable natural resource – water. On the surface, what is natural in one sense seems unnatural in another, and yet the twain are unfathomably intertwined.

I do not wish for the Electromagnetic Fountain to fit naturally in with its environment, but I do wish it to establish a playful, aesthetic identity wherever it pops up.

I wish it to misbehave a bit, to become an eye catcher, to create an emotive space, a gathering place, a form of information display – a data stream, wet to the hand and babbling with life – and perhaps even an electromagnetic barometer for those who encounter it.

The Electromagnetic Fountain is “location sensitive” in more ways than one. It is not connected to a water supply and therefore has to filled up with it, which it then recycles. Being placed outside and exposed to the elements has its consequences. A strong gust of wind sends the water flying out onto the street. Calling on the fire brigade to fill it up becomes a spectacle in itself – as was the case when it took part in the Article Biannual Exhibition of Electronic and Unstable Art in Stavanger last November.

Getting them to rescue it when the temperature unexpectedly dropped below freezing point became another!

Here’s a 5 minute video of the fountain as it appeared on the town square in Stavanger.

There are a few technological hurdles I wish to overcome before I’m through with the fountain. Shielding the sniffers from the fountain’s own electromagnetic emission is one thing I haven’t adequately achieved yet. It should be done to avoid creating a feedback loop that undermines its ability to detect and respond to other signals. Our physical bodies also emit a certain amount of natural, or bio electromagnetic radiation, but when we communicate wirelessly we emit more, and often unwittingly give up rights to bits and bytes of our ‘selves’ and our world in the process. This is my main concern – though it is the potential health risks that the press has focused on in their coverage of the fountain.

Next time the fountain goes out into the world I intend to give it a speaker so that the noisy, crackly sounds of the electromagnetic detectors can be heard – though they might become too invasive to be tolerated in public space for long. I think troubled times demand a strong voice. By actively addressing both the positive and negative aspects of the coin, it may be possible to negotiate a radiant future in positive terms. That is, for what it is worth, my personal vision.

Thank you. And goodbye.


[ Slide: image from The New Wizard from the West,
Pearson’s Magazine, May 1899
]

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Day 3 at Frank’s place

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The lovely weather has broken. It’s damp and dreary here in Skien today. What a pity.

Arrived at Frank’s workshop to find the mechanical installation of the EM Fountain almost complete. The base shown here is now the right way up.

DAY 3

Frank and Atle place the bowl on top of it.

Lifting the bowl Bowl in place

Atle and I go to shop for needed parts, while Frank and Marius continue to work. The sniffers have arrived from Martin in Berlin. Four very sweet and mystical silver boxes, all carefully labeled:

4 sniffers

The VLF (very low frequency) sniffer has two alternative coil antennas. One is shown here:

Coil antenna

The other 3 sniffers have 2 alternative board antennas:

Board antennas

I go back to my hotel (functions as office/studio) to check them out but find that the power adapters are not included in the package from Martin. The shops are closed, so I’ll have to wait till tomorrow to test them. (Wish I’d noticed this earlier.) One thing that is apparent is that it is going to be a real challenge to find out how, and where to mount these on the fountain, and how to protect them from the elements …….

The electrical installation should be complete (or as least as much as it can be before the dmx switch box arrives), so I hope to start testing everything with Marius tomorrow. Hopefully there’s time to get adapters for the sniffers too.

Day 2 at Frank’s place

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This post is more of a memory aid for me to remember what goes where in the fountain base as the bottom plates will shortly be put on. It is also the last chance to take a look at the open base and its design on the inside, and from above. We are still waiting for the sniffers to arrive from Berlin, and the dmx switch box to arrive from England.

Here’s 2 photos of the fountain base at the start of day 2:

Inspection 2 pumps
The 2 pumps have been bolted in place in their chamber on the top of the base (which is still upside down).

Wiring Bars in place
L: Marius threads the electric cables through holes from chamber to chamber.
R: Frank has soldered the metal bars on the bottom of the base in place.

Top view Water Power

L: The last view of the base construction before the bottom panels are put in place.
R: In the break Frank demonstrates how to get power out of electromagnetically charged water.

Central water tube hole Water tube holes

L: Hole for the central pump/jet water tube.
R: 5 holes for the 5 solenoid valve/jet water tubes

Power in Light holes

L: The hole for the electric power supply to the central jet pump.
R: 8 holes for the electric cables that lead from the rgb control boxes to the 8 underwater led lights.

Pump cables 01 Valve cable holes

L: Pump cables.
R: Solenoid valve cable holes.

Tubes in Tube fixture Tube fitting detail

L: Frank installs the water tubes that will carry water from the pumps to the 5 solenoid valves and central nozzle.
C: Water tube/pump fixture.
R: Water tube fitting.

Panel Atle, Frank and solenoid valves

L & R: The first base bottom panel is in place on the bottom of the fountain base, covering the computer/dimmer/rgb controller/ sound interface chamber. Atle Barcley (on the left) writing down the things he has to buy for tomorrow.

Chamber Pump and valves

L. The chamber for the electrical components with base and lid. The parts are being screwed in place, and electric cabling drawn threw holes from chamber to chamber.
R: The water tubes run from the solenoid valves the central hexagon chamber. They will be drawn out of corresponding holes on the bottom of the fountain bowl and feed the 5 pentagon nozzles.

Dismantled LAN box Father and Son

L: I am a bit distraught when I see Marius has dismantled my LAN box, but I’m sure he has a good reason.
R: At the end of the day Frank’s son, David, arrives to check out his dad’s work.

I think that we will be running a bit behind our schedule. The aim was to get the fountain construction finished by Thursday and transport it to an old warehouse at Klosterøya to test it with water in it. However, the fact that the dmx switch box is still sitting in the care of the customs officers in Oslo has put a damper on things ……. I’m a bit concerned about time running down the drain, but have decided not to panic and to keep relaed and confident about it all ….. hmmmm.

Patching with Mattias

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Yesterday I brainstormed my ideas for controlling the EMFountian with Mattias, an MA student at the Academy of Fine Art in Bergen, Norway. The aim of the session was to make a plan for developing a simple control system for the fountain that can be developed over time. We ruminated together over using parts of existing max/msp/jitter patches which we have each developed for 2 different projects that used similar/related soft- and hardware elements. I put my patch for the Emotion Organ (made with the help of, amongst others, Piotr Pajchel) on the table, and Mattias brought out a patch he made for When You Hunger Number One, a sound/light installation by Asbjørn Hollerud.

This is what we ended up with.

1. Start by sending the sound from each sniffer through fiddle~ objects
(text taken from documentation file):

“The fiddle~ object estimates the pitch and amplitude of an incoming sound, both continuously and as a streem of discrete \”note\” events. Fiddle~ optionally outputs a list of detected sinusoidal peaks used to make the pitch determination. Fiddle~ is described theoretically in the 1998 ICMC proceedings, reprinted on http://www.crca.ucsd.edu/~msp.

Fiddle’s creation arguments specify an analysis window size, the maximum polyphony (i.e., the number of simultaneous “pitches” to try the find), the number of peaks in the spectrum to consider, and the number of peaks, if any, to output “raw”. The outlets give discrete pitch (a number), detected attacks in the amplitude envelope (a bang), one or more voices of continuous pitch and amplitude, overall amplitude, and optionally a sequence of messages with the peaks.”

2. Let Fiddle find three groups of frequency ranges HIGH, MEDIUM, LOW, and scale them to DMX values.

3. Use the full range of values to control the manifold water pump.

4. Use the full range of values to control the central jet pump, but when passing from one range group to another, the output signal should be set to zero to create a water drop before it rises agian.

5. Asign HIGH range values to R, MEDIUM to G and LOW to B values to control the RGB LED lights.

6. Use the ATTACK signals to open and close the water jet solenoid valves.

Written by ajsteggell

September 21, 2008 at 4:44 pm