MMXXII: Berlin

Last February, I moved to Berlin, Germany to connect with the global art world and explore new ideas in technology and art. It has been challenging, surprising, and fulfilling.

The move was inspired by a failed California Arts Council grant application. I had planned to use that grant to visit Berlin during some key art festivals. While I was waiting to hear about the application, I spent a lot of time researching Berlin and to make best use of the time that grant would enable.

I didn’t get that grant. The feedback I got from the review was conflicting and confusing, but I didn’t dwell on it. Instead, I made plans to drive across the United States as an art making expedition. That turned out well and I returned to my San Jose art studio to work through multiple bodies of work generated out on the road.

The owner of the house I lived in decided to sell his house and I was looking at options for where to live the next year. Post-Covid Silicon Valley didn’t look very appealing and all my options were very expensive. It dawned on me that I might be able to move to Berlin instead. I had done a lot of research already so I knew where to explore that option. Within a week, I decided to take the gamble.

I started applying for jobs in Berlin and 3 months later, I had one. A month after that, I arrived at Brandenberg airport with a backpack, a laptop, and some clothes. A year has passed since then and the experience has been intense and inspiring.

Impressions

Berlin is a very modern large city. It has a strong public transportation network and diverse civic infrastructure. It has been able to absorb many class and culture imports and offers a strong social support network. Culturally, it has the most active and engaged art audience I ever seen in a city. More than New York.

It is not a skyscraper city, but more spread out into neighborhoods defined by rows and rows of 6 story apartment buildings. Much of the architecture is relatively new. Berlin was heavily bombed in WWII. But, there are integrations of historic places everywhere. The past is not forgotten here.

The late 80s East/West culture and re-integration is still a dominant influence on cultural history. The art scene is steeped in stories of an explosion of culture in the early 90s. But, recent shifts include immigration from Arabic and Global South culture. Also, the internet has diffused many of the cultural silos that defined European regionalism. Many books have been written about all these topics. It’s fascinating to be in the middle of it all.

Berlin Art Sites

One of the first things I did when I arrived was look for art events. There are so many here, it was hard to sift through them all. Specifically, finding galleries showing work I was interested in was a chore. There are over 300 galleries here. Then you have regional institutions on top of that. Going through their websites turned out to be a big hassle. Many weren’t made well and it was a slow process.

I wanted a quick way to look at all of the sites without all the pop-ups and GDPR notices. So, I created a web script that made screenshots of all of them and put the images in a folder. That turned out to be pretty useful and I though others would be interested in the results.

So, I built Berlin Art Websites (berlinartgalleries.de). It uses a tool called Puppeteer to make screenshots of all the websites, each Sunday morning. The results are always up to date and show the latest work on their front pages. It just runs on its own, quietly grabbing the latest from all the galleries around Berlin.

Screenshot of the top of the Berlin Art Websites main landing page

I posted a link to it on Reddit and the response was huge. People seemed to really want something like this.

Artwork

In the past year, I have gone to 1-5 art events a week. I’ve seen the best and worst of what Berlin’s art scene offers. I now have a collection of hundreds of postcards and brochures from the shows. Not sure how I’m going to get them all back to the U.S., actually.

Here is a slideshow of some of the highlights.

190 images in a 15 minute video slideshow, with background music

Art takeaways

Berlin has a strong set of art institutions that are well-funded and staffed. It also attracts legions of fresh art school graduates from around the world. There is a good variety of art in the middle as well.

NFTs were very popular when I arrived and had multiple galleries dedicated to only that kind of work. By the end of Summer, many of them were gone or in decline. The legacy of that is screen based art is everywhere. Even if they don’t show NFTs, many galleries went all-in with video screens. Whole rooms with nothing but screens.

Nostalgia for 1992 is still popular, from the re-unification of East and West Berlin. There were a lot of middle-aged artists doing work that first began then. It was hit and miss though. All nostalgia is like that. It’s an optimized memory and not a real connection. Art needs something more real to survive.

Diaspora art was prominent. There were shows dedicated to the Global South, the Middle East, and Ukraine. It felt like every other independent show had the word “de-colonize” in a curatorial statement. In Kassel, east of Berlin, the spectacular failure of Documenta 15 (organized by a Jakarta art collective) was in all the art media.

Projects

Laser

Finding a useful workspace in Berlin turned out to be more difficult than I thought. Most of art spaces take connections to get in or lots of money. There aren’t as many maker spaces, either. I could only find 3 that were public.

I settled on a smaller lab in north Berlin that was close to a subway stop and hardware store. It’s called Happylab and is focused on hobbyists and some electronic makers. It has a small storage space that ended up being really useful for someone getting around by subway all the time.

Typical of modern maker spaces, they have a laser cutter. I never used one for art and wasn’t sure what I would do with it. But, I ended up exploring a few different directions for lighting and as a drawing tool.

10X

Using a technique I stumbled onto during my cross-country drive, I’ve continued to make layered abstract photographs. These were made at the Botanischer Garten, Museum für Naturkunde, and Park am Gleisdreieck.

Geist

Germany has a difficult history and has gone to great lengths to incorporate its past into the present, using lessons learned from decades of accountability and scholarship. The Zitadelle is a museum in West Berlin that houses a unique exhibit for this purpose. Throughout the region monuments to problematic past leaders were built from 1849 to 1986. Many of the men they memorialize that had terrible legacies. It includes religious leaders, Prussian military leaders, businessmen, and mythical representations of men in power at the time.

These memorials were getting destroyed and vandalized after re-unification. Archivists and historians were left with a dilemma, how to preserve these artifacts without perpetuating the cultural impact they were intended for. They decided to move them all to a central location at a side gallery at the Zitadelle. There they are presented without pedestals or plaques, living on in anonymity and stripped of iconography.

Due to the political upheavals in the 20th century, monuments that represented problematic or even threatening reminders or appreciation of the old ways were removed from public spaces by the new governments. The museum offers an opportunity to come to terms with the great symbols of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism and the GDR, which were supposed to be buried and forgotten – and now serve a new function as testimonies to German history. Instead of commanding reverence, they make historical events tangible in the truest sense of the word.

Unveiled – Zitadelle Museum
“Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments” – Zitadelle Museum

I think that’s a fascinating and powerful solution that can be explored in the United States for our monumental legacy throughout the South.

I photographed the faces and decided to re-contextualize their appearances. In the past decade social media has resurrected some of the worst ideologies in history. They were dying out until anonymous politics became a thing and rekindled their popularity. My idea is to use these statues to build illustrations of these old dying ideas that are empowered by online culture.

Different steps to create a vector mask

Video

I brought an archive of multimedia files I have created over the years. I thought it would be useful, in the absence of a proper fabrication space, to have some computer based art projects to work on. I also shot some new video footage and got certified to fly my drone in the E.U.

Here is a piece I made using time-lapse footage at a famous subway stop called Alexanderplatz:

This abstract video is made from drone footage over Nevada salt flats:

The most recent work combines drone footage from a decommissioned airport with a generative computer art tool called Primitive:

NachtBox

Finished assembly connected to recorder

Back in the U.S. I go to thrift stores fairly regularly. I look for small obsolete electronics I can repurpose and dated hardware to build sculptures around. I tried the same here, but most of the thrift stores are focused on clothing. Buying 2nd hand clothing in Europe and reselling it online is a huge underground business.

I did find a place run buy the recycling agency, called NochMall. It’s grossly overpriced but is a source of occasional treasure for electronic art making.

There I found a micro cassette recorder that a German man had used to record himself playing guitar with TV shows in the background. That tape was the real gold. I decided to use it as the core of a music machine that played the tape through a variety of effects. It turned out to be a long-term complex project.

I chose a Teensy 4.1 micro-controller as the main engine for processing the audio. Besides being fast and having decent memory, the manufacturer has an excellent audio library to make use of. It allowed me to prototype very quickly and get to the noise making steps fast. I’m pretty stoked on how this turned out and look forward to performing with it soon.

Next year

I plan on staying in Berlin for at least another 2 years. I have been paying rent on my San Jose art studio, hoping to return to it when I finish my experience here. Unfortunately, problems with the landlord are forcing me to let go of that work space and move everything into storage. It has been a difficult and expensive conclusion to that place.

However, I feel like I am just getting to know this city. This first year has been interesting, but it feels like I’ve just seen the surface. I’m looking forward to getting to know more artists and gallery folks, as well as the creative coding community. After all, it’s the people that define a community, not just the place.

MMXXI: art in the age of COVID

Making art in the pandemic age requires new perspectives on context, value, and presentation. I had to deal with these challenges just like every other artist this year. I was already producing work that occupied a hybrid online and physical space. But, the new context relied much heavier on virtual space. I handled that for a while but got burned out with online life.

So, I spent a month driving across the country while we were still on lockdown in March. I deleted or suspended most of my social media and headed east from the California coast. I brought a wide variety of multimedia recording tools and came back with a harvest of imagery, sounds, and experiences. The rest of the year was heavily influenced by that trip.

I did find exhibition opportunities despite so many institutions being shutdown. It was important to me to keep momentum going when it came to in-person art exhibitions. It was very difficult though, because attendance was low even when I managed to carve out a space. COVID-19 was a tough adversary.

I made it through this year healthy and am very grateful for that. It has given me a new appreciation for what I do while still stomping around on the planet. My life is fully focused on making art now and I hope to sustain that through the years to come.

Camel

The first release of the year was a noise tape made with a synthesizer I built. I’m happy with the recording and the tape, but the promo for it might be more interesting than the thing itself. I guess that’s the age we live in.

Promo video for Camel
cassette tape
Official 60 minute cassette

The full recording can be heard and purchased on Bandcamp.

music synthesizer
Made with this DIY synth

Jojo Crawdad

In March, I embarked on an epic trip across the country. It was expensive, dangerous, cold, and isolating. I’m so glad I did it.

map of the United States with route
6704 miles in 28 days

It all started with a need to visit a library in Slidell, Louisiana. I used to work for a newspaper there and it went out of business without leaving a digital archive behind. One of the few records of the work I did there is on microfiche at the local library. It is only accessible in person. I needed to get copies of one particular story I did and began thinking of a way to get there.

Driving there offered a chance to make art along the way. But, it’s a loooong drive and if I’m going that far, why not all the way across? So, a trip across the country was born.

March was still cold and once I got into the mountains, even colder. The roads were empty in long stretches and even more in the country backroads I took. I rarely got above 65mph or took the mega interstates.

I brought a drone for aerial shots, dSLR, GoPro, car mounted cameras, and an audio recorder. My intent was to harvest a wide variety of media for use in post-production over the next year. There wasn’t much of a preconceived concept or aesthetic I tried to realize. It was just to be present, over and over, far from home.

The title JoJo Crawdad comes from combining words I picked up once I crossed the Mississippi. A jojo is a small potato wedge that gas stations served fried. Crawdad is a familiar version of crayfish, which are tiny lobster shaped crustaceans that folks eat by the bushel in Louisiana.

I was on the road for a full 28 days.

empty gambling hall
Callahan, FL
abstract image
Huntsville, AL
skateboard park from above
Charleston, SC

The abstract images that look blended are not made with Photoshop or on a computer. They are the result of 10 multiple exposures made on the same frame inside the camera. They got made while on-site and once they were shot, there was fixing or changing them. I got to the point where it was a little dance movement to get a variety of viewpoints in each frame.

Some of the photography ended up in my solo show at Art Ark in August. A video piece, Vulture, was recently in a film festival. There is still so much to work with. I feel like this trip will be paying dividends for many years.

Wolves

The Wolves project I started last year was chosen by the Palo Alto Public Art Program for a 5 night performance in May. Each night I rode around a pre-chosen area near downtown Palo Alto, projecting the animation onto houses and businesses.

Of all the public art projects I’ve done, this one got the most press coverage by far. A large profile in the local section of the San Jose Mercury News was a highlight. It was followed by coverage from ABC 7, Palo Alto Online, Hoodline, Content Magazine, and some online aggregators. It also got shared a lot from those outlets and I spotted it on social media a few times.

newspaper clipping

For this event, I created a Wolf Tracker web app for people to find my location when I was going through their neighborhoods. At first I tried to use the location sharing feature of my phone, but that was too limited. So I bought a GPS module for the projection cart and wrote some Python scripts to get that data to my server. It was well intentioned and worked fine in testing but I had issues out in the wild. It turned out that certain locations around Palo Alto actually blocked the GPS signals. I have no idea how to explain it, but was able to verify the block multiple times. Weird.

A friend from Haiti came by one of the nights and put together this cool video.

Refactor

A local gallery, Kaleid, had recently cleared out an extra room and was offering it as an installation space. I had a variety of tech art and video I had finished the previous year. Although it was a small show, it got some foot traffic and was a good size for the smaller interactive work. It ended up being a retrospective of the past 5 years in multimedia.

Bad Liar
Closer
Delphi
Embers
Spanner player
Tintype

Beacon

In August, I had a large solo show of recent work at Art Ark in downtown San Jose, California. It’s a beautiful space and has hosted many top notch shows. I was offered the Summer residency and used that to put together 62 artworks for display.

entrance to art gallery
Entrance

Logistically, the biggest challenge was framing. Only a handful of the pieces were framed. To save money, I decided to frame them myself. I thought it was a good idea at the time, but it ended up being a massive effort.

I cut down around 2700ft of oak strips into 192 pieces with rabbets and angled ends. Then I assembled and stapled the frames by hand. The work was in different sizes, so the frames were made in sized batched. The acrylic came at a discount from Tap Plastics (thanks guys!). The window mats were also cut by hand and that was time consuming.

table with cut wood
Fresh cut oak

The work paid off though because the presentation was really nice. Consistent and clean. Also, I now have a lot of framed work for distribution and exhibition. I sent some of them to national shows I explain later in the post.

newspaper clipping
Pick of the week in San Jose Metro

Going National

This year, I made a real effort to exhibit across the country and in other contexts as well. I made use of CaFE (Calls for Entry) and FilmFreeway for film festivals. There is so much competition for just a handful of exhibitions now. The internet makes more available to people like me, but can also overwhelm organizers with thousands of entries. A small cottage industry has sprouted up around the whole enterprise and there are a lot of sketchy “pay-to-play” shows. That means I’m supposed to pay for the privilege of showing my work. I’m not doing that.

But, I did find some interesting opportunities out there. It was mostly regional group shows. I didn’t get to attend, but I thought it would be good to know the process of getting work to them from beginning to end. Shipping anything fragile is incredibly expensive now. I wasn’t anticipating that.

I had a piece in a virtual show at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Modern Art. A pianist named Ting Luo saw that and reached out for some collaboration. She founded an organization call New Arts Collaboration and wanted to know if I wanted to contribute some video. It took some time going back and forth, but we put together a collaborative multimedia piece she performed recently in San Francisco. Brett Austin composed the music, titled How Deep is the Valley, and I made a custom video piece for it. She played the piece live a few months later.

Ting Luo, New Arts Collaboration, San Francisco, CA
How Deep is the Valley
Main Street Arts, Clifton, NY
Gray Loft Gallery, Oakland, CA
Another Hole in the Head film festival, San Francisco, CA
Decode Gallery, Tucson, AZ

Alviso Aviary

A nearby nature preserve is one my favorite day hikes. It’s very open and clear and has a rich variety of birds. I took some footage of lost seagulls one day and was inspired to make some animation assets. This is a minor project that will eventually get folded into some other context.

Original footage
illustration of bird wing movements
Conversion process
Final animation

Bric-a-brac

I found a gold frame in a trash can that had upholstery fabric inside. It was probably a mount for a Virgin of Guadalupe statue, which is common around here. I brought it back to my studio and was inspired to make use of this Pirelli tank car graphic I had been digitizing. After some cleanup work in Inkscape, I sent the outline to my vinyl cutter with some black vinyl material. The result was pretty sweet.

graphic of car on fabric inside a frame

Fresh from the success of my trash collage, I decided to do a whole series. I scoured some local thrift stores and a few yard sales for frames. My art studio neighbor had a bunch he donated. I ended up with 12 cheapo gold frames of various sizes.

My grandfather used to work re-upholstering furniture and I thought there might be a supply store for that kind of work. San Jose didn’t have any furniture specific shops, but there are a lot of fabric stores. One of the best was actually close to my house, Fabrics R Us. They had a bunch of inexpensive, but ornate and metallic, upholstery fabric. I came back with a nice variety that I added some donated wallpaper to.

A trip to home depot got me some MDF that I cut up and wrapped in fabric. I took some photos of the results and began to lay out designs in Inkscape. I had done a lot of vector drawing for the Wolves project, so I had a workflow ready.

I spent many months collecting imagery and designs to convert to graphic outlines. I avoided the internet and made use of the local library and even some old Playboys I bought at a record shop. I have plenty to work with now, but the digitizing and plotting has been time consuming.

[ dogs ]

After 4 years of experimenting, fabrication, and sound design, I premiered [ dogs ] at Anno Domini Gallery in December. It’s an interactive sound art experience that involves 9 people carrying around autonomous speakers with computers inside them. The speakers bark, snarl, or squeal if near one group and resonate within a tone chord if near another group.

Each speaker can detect the distance and disposition of all the other speakers. Some are friends and others enemies. Participants discover which is which by walking around and getting real-time audio feedback from those around them.

The project began with the purchase of 10 cheap sub-woofers from the now defunct Weird Stuff Warehouse. They were unpowered and basically empty. I decided to adopt them and figure out what to do later. At first, I thought I might build an independent 10 channel synthesizer. That would require some kind of communication between them so I bought a bunch of Raspberry Pi Zeros and got to work.

After many different approaches and some new inspiration from Norcal Noisefest, I decided to make them loud and antagonistic. This came at a time when social media conflict was off the charts, for reasons I’m sure everyone knows. The noise and anger level got so high, it was hard to tell who was saying what and why.

A chance encounter at Streetlight Records brought a CD full of animal sounds into my studio. I used many of those clips as the basis for layering and pitching individual sounds for each speaker. The result is a tiered collection of distorted and loud samples of animals in distress. The psychological effect of working on those sounds for hours and hours was pretty intense.

In the end, the experience is heavily influenced by the people participating. 2 rounds of experiences with different groups yielded very different results. It achieved the status of social experiment above whatever artistic intent I wielded. The conversations after each experience were really interesting and lasted a while.

Next year

On my trip across the country I had a lot of time to think. I wondered about the distribution and reception of this art work. I thought about what I really wanted to accomplish. I managed to carve an art life out of this crazy year and I’m proud of that. It was exhausting, though.

A couple of months ago, I got some consequential personal news. I had to decide where I was going to live in 2022 because the space I am renting is being sold. So, I decided to take the leap on a move I have been considering for a while.

I’m moving to Berlin, Germany. I hope to connect with the art community there and globally. So, next year my annual art year recap will come from Berlin.

MMXIX: time, noise, light

This year saw the completion of new sound sculptures and large installation work. It offered up new performance contexts and an expansion of exhibition options. The projects have grown in scale and scope, but the internal journey continues.

Wheel of Misfortune

A few years ago I noticed neighborhood kids putting empty water bottle into spokes of the back wheels of their bikes. They got a cool motorcycle sound out of it. One of them had two bottles offset and that produced a rhythmic but offbeat cycle that sounded interesting.

It gave me the idea to use a bicycle wheel for repeating patterns the way drum machines an sequencers do. I also thought it would be an interesting object to build from a visual standpoint.

It took a while, but having the workspace to lay out larger electronics assemblies was helpful. I settled on five sensors in a bladed array reading magnets attached to the spokes.

A first performance at local gallery Anno Domini with Cellista was fun, but the sounds I had associated with the triggers lacked bite. I reworked the Raspberry Pi running Fluidsynth and built 14 new instruments using a glitched noise sound pack I released a few years ago.

To switch between the instruments I came up with a contact mic trigger using a chopstick and an Arduino. It has a satisfying crack when tapped and cycles the noise patches effectively.

The Wheel got a loud and powerful public test at Norcal Noisefest. People responded not only to novelty of the bicycle wheel, but the badass sound it could make.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B0XYC6hjkVq/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Oracle

I get asked to do sound performances more often these days and it can be challenging because I don’t have much outboard musical gear. So, I have a general effort to create more gear to use live. A common need is to have an interesting way of triggering longform loops I created in my studio.

Taking a cue from the grid controllers used by Ableton Live, I had the idea to build a player that keyed off objects placed under a camera. Reading location and size, it could arrange loops in a similar way.

Computer vision test for Oracle

The project kicked off with an analog video stand I found that was used for projecting documents in a business presentation. I connected that to a primitive but very effective computer vision board for Arduino called the Video Experimenter.

After months of testing with different objects I settled on small white rocks that brought inherent contrast. At a library sale I picked up a catalog of pictograms from Chinese oracle bones that had fascinating icons to predict the future with.

Oracle stones

That clinched the theme of an “oracle” divining the future of a musical performance rather than a musician executing a planned performance.

It has turned out to be really flexible for performances and is a crowd favorite, especially when I let people place the stones themselves.

Oracle at First Friday

Delphi

Smashed tv screen for Oracle
Looks cool, huh? I wish I could say it was intentional. I smashed the screen while loading the equipment for SubZERO this year. meh, I just went with it.

People give me things, usually broken things. I don’t collect junk though. I learned the hard way that some things take a lot of work to get going for very little payoff. Also, a lot of modern tech is mostly plastic with melted rivets and tabs instead of screws or bolts. They weren’t meant to be altered or repaired.

Big screen TVs are a good example. One of the ways they got so cheap is the modular way they get made with parts that weren’t meant to last. I got a fairly large one from Brian Eder at Anno Domini and was interested in getting it back up.

Unfortunately, a smashed HDMI board required some eBay parts and it took more time than expected. Once it was lit up again and taking signal I started running all kinds of content through the connector boards.

When hung vertical, it resembled one of those Point-of-Purchase displays you see in cell phone stores. I though about all the imagery they use to sell things and it gave me the idea of showing something more human and real.

In society that fetishizes youth culture and consumption, we tend to fear aging. I decided to find someone at a late stage of of life to celebrate and display four feet high.

That person turned out to be Frank Fiscalini. At 96 years old he has led a full rich life and is still in good health and spirits. It took more than a few conversations to explain why I wanted to film a closeup of his eyes and face, but he came around.

I set the TV up in my studio with his face looping for hours, slowly blinking. I had no real goal or idea of the end. I just lived with Mr. Fiscalini’s face for a while.

I thought a lot about time and how we elevate specific times of our lives over others. In the end, time just keeps coming like waves in the ocean. I happen to have a fair amount of ocean footage I shot with a waterproof camera.

With the waves projected behind his face, my studio was transformed into a quiet meditation on time and humanity.

Other contributions of building scaffolding and P.A. speakers formed the basis of a large-scale installation. Around this time, I had also been reading a strange history of the Oracle of Delphi.

At first the “oracle” was actually a woman whose insane rants were likely the result of hallucinations from living over gas events. A group of men interpreted what she said and ended up manipulating powerful leaders for miles.

Thus Delphi was formed conceptually. The parallels to modern politics seemed plain, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the futility of trying to control or predict the future. This felt like a good time for this particular project.

Balloon synth

The annual SubZERO Festival here in San Jose has been an anchor point for the past few years. One challenge I’ve faced is the strong breeze that blows through in the hour before sunset. For delicate structures and electronics on stands, it’s a problem. Instead of fighting it this year, I decided to make use of it.

I had an idea to put contact mics on balloons so when the wind blew, the balloons would bounce against each other. I thought they might be like bass bumping wind chimes.

Thanks to a generous donation by Balloonatics, I had 15 beautiful green balloons for the night of the festival. Hooked up to mics and an amplifier, they made cool sounds. But, it took a bit more force than the breeze to move them forcefully enough.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BycRPL2jQn-/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Kids figured out they could bump and play with the balloons and they would make cool noises. Sure enough, it drew a huge crowd quickly. People came up to the balloons all night and punched and poked them to get them to make noise.

On the second night, though, the balloons were beat. Some rowdy crowds got too aggro and popped a bunch of them. Anyway, they were a big hit and it was fun to have something like that around.

Belle Foundation grant

An early surprise of the year was getting an envelope from the Belle Foundation with an award for one the year’s grants. I was stoked to be included in this group.

My application was simple and I talked a lot about SubZERO projects and working with older technology. In other words, what I actually do. To get chosen while being real about the art I make was refreshing.

Content Magazine profile

Before I moved back to California in 2012, I worked at an alt-weekly newspaper in Charleston, SC. I photographed all kinds of cultural events and wrote profiles of artists and musicians. But, I was always on the other side of the interview, as the interviewer.

Daniel Garcia from local magazine Content reached out in the beginning of this year and said they were interested in profiling of me and my work. The tables had turned.

Content Magazine spread
Opening portrait and write-up in Content

Writer Johanna Hickle came by my Citadel art studio and spent a generous amount of time listening to me ramble about tech and such. Her write-up was solid and she did a good job distilling a lot of info.

Content Magazine spread
Collage and write-up in Content magazine

It was nerve-wracking for me, though. I knew the power they had to shape the story in different directions. I was relieved when it came out fine and had fun showing it to people.

Norcal Noisefest

In 2017, I went to the Norcal Noisefest in Sacramento. It had a huge impact on my music and approach to anything live. I came back feeling simultaneously assaulted and enlightened.

Over the past two years, I’ve built a variety of live sound sculptures and performed with most of them. This year the focus was on the new Wheel of Misfortune. I reached out to Lob Instagon, who runs the festival, and signed up for a slot as a performer at Norcal Noisefest in October.

Coincidentally, I met Rent Romus at an Outsound show in San Francisco and told him about performing at Noisefest. Rent puts on all kinds of experimental shows in SF and he suggested a preview show at the Luggage Store.

So I ended up with a busy weekend with those shows and an installation at First Friday.

Norcal Noisefest was a blast and I got see a bunch of rad performances. My set sounded like I wanted, but I have a ways to go when it comes to stage presence. Other people were going off. I have to step things up if I going to keep doing noise shows

Flicker glitch

I have been making short-form abstract videos for the past few years. Most have a custom soundtrack or loop I make. This year I collected the best 87 out of over 250 and built a nice gallery for them on this site.

Every once in a while I get requests from other groups and musicians to collaborate or make finished visuals for them. Most people don’t realize how much time goes into these videos and I’m generally reluctant to collaborate in such an unbalanced way.

I was curious about making some longer edited clips though. I responded to two people who reached out and made “music videos” for their pre-existing music. It wasn’t really collaborative, but I was ok with that because email art direction can be tricky.

The first, Sinnen, gave me complete freedom and was releasing an album around the same time. His video was a milestone in my production flow. It was made entirely on my iPhone 7, including original effects, editing and titles. I even exported at 1080p, which is a working resolution unthinkable for a small device just five years ago. They could shoot at that fidelity, but not manipulate or do complex editing like that.

The next video was much more involved. It was for a song by UK metal band Damim. The singer saw my videos on Instagram and reached out for permission to use some of them. I offered to to just make a custom video instead.

All the visuals were done on my iPhone, with multiple generations and layers going through multiple apps. I filled up my storage on a regular basis and was backing it up nightly. Really time consuming. Also, that project required the horsepower and flexibility of Final Cut Pro to edit the final results.

I spent six months in all, probably 50 hours for so. I was ok with that because it was a real world test of doing commissioned video work for someone else’s music. Now I know what it takes to produce a video like that and charge fairly in the future.

New photography

Yes, I am still a photographer. I get asked about it every once in awhile. This year I came out with two different small bodies of work shooting abstracts and digitizing some older work.

Photographs on exhibit at the Citadel
Grounded series at a Citadel show near downtown San Jose, CA

These monochromatic images are sourced from power wires for the local light rail (VTA) sub-station on Tasman Rd. I drove by this cluster everyday on a tech job commute for about a year. I swore that when the contract was over I was going to return and photograph all the patterns I saw overhead.

I did just that and four got framed and exhibited at Citadel. One was donated to Works gallery as part of their annual fundraiser.

Donated photograph at Works
Importance of being grounded at Works

The Polaroids come from a project I had in mind for many years. Back when Polaroid was still manufacturing SX-70 instant prints, I shot hundreds of them. I always envisioned enlarging them huge to totally blow out the fidelity (or lack of it).

Polaroids
Enlarged Polaroid prints

This year I began ordering 4 foot test prints on different mounting substrates. To that I ended up scanning a final edit of 14 from hundreds. To see them lined up on the screen ready for output was a fulfilling moment. Having unfinished work in storage was an issue for me for a long time. This was a convergent conclusion of a range of artistic and personal issues.

Passing it on

Now that I have a working art studio, I have a place to show people when visit from out of town. The younger folks are my favorite because they think the place is so weird and like because of that. I share that sentiment.

My French cousins Toullita and Nylane came by for a day and we made zines. Straight up old school xerox zines with glue and stickers and scissors. It was a rad day filled with weird music and messy work.

More locally, I had two younger cousins from San Francisco, Kieran and Jasmina, spend a day with me. They’ve grown up in a world immersed in virtual experiences and “smart” electronics. My choice for them was tinkering with Adafruit Circuit Playground boards.

Tinkering with Circuit Playgrounds
Cousins collaborating on code for apple triggered capacitance synths

They got to mess with Arduino programs designed to make noise and blink lights. At the end they each built capacitive touch synthesizers that we hooked up to apples. Super fun. Later that night we took them to a family dinner and they got to explain what they had made and put on a little demo.

Next up

The wolves are still howling and running. My longtime project to build standalone wolf projections made a lot of progress this year. I had hoped to finish it before the last First Friday of the year, but that wasn’t in the cards.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B4raBM0DS6Z/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Getting something to work in the studio is one thing. Building it so it is autonomous, self-powered, small, and can handle physical bumps, is a whole different game. But, I do have the bike cargo trailer and power assembly ready. The young cousins even got a chance to help test it.

A new instrument I’ve been working on is a Mozzi driven Arduino synth enclosed in an old metal Camel cigarettes tin. It has been an evergreen project this year, offering low stakes programming challenges to tweak the sounds optimize everything for speed.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B5zjHqYDaMi/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

One need I had was a precise drill for specific holes. A hand drill could do it, but I had a cleaner arrangement in mind. As luck would have it, another cousin in San Luis Obispo had an extra drill press to donate. Problem was, it was in rough shape and rusted pretty bad.

I brought it back and doused it in PB B’Laster Penetrating Catalyst. That made quick work of the frozen bolts and a range of grinders and rotary brushes handled the other rust. It looks great and is ready to make holes for the Camel synth.

Finis

It’s been a good year artistically. I had some issues with living situations and money, but it all evened out. I’m grateful to have this kind of life and look forward to another year of building weird shit and making freaky noise.

Embers: a breath powered interactive installation celebrating collaboration

Photo by Jerry Berkstresser

It started with incendiary memories: looking at a fading bonfire with friends at the end of a good day, stoking the fire in a pot belly stove, and watching Haitian women cooking chicken over a bed of coals.

I wanted to build something with modern technology that evoked these visceral feelings and associations. Without using screens or typical presentations, the goal was to create an artwork that a wide variety of people could relate to and connect with. It also had to be driven by their own effort.

The initial work began at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco, during the 2017 Winter Creative Code Immersive. I was learning the mechanics of building interactive art and was looking for a project to bridge my past experience with modern tools.

In January, I travelled to Washington D.C. to photograph the Women’s March and the Presidential Inauguration. They were very different events, but I was struck by the collective effort that went into both. Ideological opposites, they were still the products of powerful collaboration.

When I got back, I heard a lot of fear and anxiety. I had worked in Haiti with an organization called Zanmi Lakay and it had blossomed into effectiveness through group collaboration. I wanted to harness some of that energy and make art that celebrated it.

Embers was born. The first glimpses came from amber hued blinking LEDs in a workroom at Gray Area. 4 months later, the final piece shimmered radiantly in front of thousands of people at the SubZERO art festival in San Jose, CA. In the end, the project itself was a practical testament to collaboration grounded in its conceptual beginnings.

Building the Prototype

For the Gray Area Immersive Showcase, I completed a working study with 100 individually addressable LEDs, 3 Modern Device Wind Sensors (Rev. C), an Arduino Uno, and 100 hand folded rice paper balloons as diffusers. I worked on it alone at my house and didn’t really know how people would respond to it.

When it debuted at the showcase, it was a hit. People were drawn to the fading and evolving light patterns and were delighted when it lit up as they blew on it. I didn’t have to explain much. People seemed to really get it.

The Dare

In early May, I showed a video clip of the study to local gallery owner Cherri Lakay of Anno Domini. She surprised me by daring me to make it for an upcoming art festival called SubZERO. I hesitated, mostly because I thought building the prototype had already been a lot of work. Her fateful words, “you should get all Tom Sawyer on it.”

So, a plan gestated while working on some music for my next album. It was going to be expensive and time consuming and I wasn’t looking forward to folding 1,500 rice paper balloons. A friend reminded me about the concept of the piece itself, “isn’t it about collaboration anyway? Get some people to help.”

I decided to ask 10 people to get 10 more people together for folding parties, with the goal of coming up with 150 balloons at each party. I would give a brief speech and demo the folding. The scheme was simple enough, but became a complex web of logistics I hadn’t counted on.

In the end, it turned out to be an inspiring and fun experience. 78 people helped out in all, with a wide range of ages and backgrounds.

Building Embers

The prototype worked well enough that I thought scaling it up would just be a matter of quantity. But, issues arose that I hadn’t dealt with in the quick paced immersive workshop. Voltage stabilization and distribution, memory limitations, cost escalation, and platform design were all new challenges.

The core of the piece was an Arduino Mega 2560, followed by 25 strands of 50-count WS2811 LEDs, 16 improved Modern Device wind sensors (Rev. P), and 300 ft. of calligraphy grade rice paper. Plenty of trips to Fry’s Electronics yielded spools of wire in many gauges, CAT6 cabling for the data squids, breadboards, and much more.

My living room was transformed into a mad scientist lab for the next month.

Installation

Just a few days before SubZERO, my house lit up in an amber glow. The LED arrays were dutifully glittering and waning in response to wavering breaths. The power and data squids had been laid out and the Arduino script was close to being finished.

I was confident it would work and was only worried about ambient wind at that point. A friend had built a solid platform table for the project and came over the day of the festival to pick up the project. We took it downtown and found my spot on First St. After unloading and setting up the display tent, I began connecting the electronics.

After a series of resource compromises, I had ended up with 1,250 LEDs and around 1,400 paper balloons. The balloons had to be attached to each LED by hand and that took a while. I tested the power and and data connections and laid out the sensors.

Winding the LED strands in small mounds on the platform took a long time and I was careful not to crush the paper balloons. It was good to have friends and a cousin from San Luis Obispo for help.

Lighting the Fire

I flipped the switches for the Arduino assembly, the LED power brick, and then the sensor array. My friends watched expectantly as precisely nothing happened. After a half hour of panicked debugging, it started to light up but with all the wrong colors and behavior. It wasn’t working.

I spent the first night of the two day festival with the tent flap closed, trying to get the table full of wires and paper to do what I had intended. It was pretty damn stressful. Mostly, I was thinking about all the people who had helped and what I’d tell them. I had to get it lit.

Around 10 minutes before midnight (when the festival closed for the night), it finally began to glow amber and red and respond to wind and breath. Around 10 people got to see it before things shut down. But, it was working. I was so relieved.

It turns out that a $6.45 breakout board had failed. It’s a tiny chip assembly that ramps up the voltage for the data line. I can’t recommend the SparkFun TXB0104 bi-directional voltage level translator as a result. The rest of what I have to say about that chip is pretty NSFW.

I went home and slept like a rock.

The next day was a completely different. I showed up a bit early and turned everything on. It worked perfectly throughout the rest of the festival.

People really responded to it and I spent hours watching people laugh and smile at the effect. They wanted to know how it worked, but also why I had made it. I had some great conversations about where it came from and how people felt interacting with it.

It was an amazing experience and absolutely a community effort.

Photo by Jerry Berkstresser

Photo by Joshua Curry

Thanks to all the people and organizations that helped make this a reality:

Grey Area Art Foundation for the Arts, Anno Domini, SubZERO, Diane Sherman, Tim, Brooklyn Barnard, Anonymous, Chris Carson, Leila Carson-Sealy, Cristen Carson, Jonny Williams, Michael Loo, Elizabeth Loo, Kieran Vahle, Jasmina Vahle, Peter Vahle, Kilty Belt-Vahle, Sara Vargas, Sydney Twyman, Annie Sablosky, Martha Gorman, Nancy Scotton, Melody Traylor, Morgan Wysling, Bianca Smith, Susan Bradley, Jen Pantaleon, Guy Pantaleon, Carloyn Miller, Paolo Vescia, Amelia Hansen, Maddie Vescia, Natalie Vescia, Cathi Brogden, Evelyn Lay Snyder, Alice Adams, Lisa Sadler-Marshall, Gena Doty Sager, Mack Doty, Mary Doty, James W. Murray, Greg Cummings, Vernon Brock, Jerry Berkstresser, Lindsey Cummings, Kyle Knight, Liz Hamm, Rebecca Kohn, Shannon Knepper, John Truong, DIane Soloman, Stephanie Patterson, Robertina Ragazza, Sarah Bernard, Jarid Duran, Deb Barba, Astrogirl, Tara Fukuda, CHristina Smith, Yumi Smith, NN8 Medal Medal, Gary Aquilina, Pamela Aquilina, Dan Blue, Chris Blue, Judi Shade, Dave Shade, Margaret Magill, Jim Magill, Brody Klein, Chip Curry, Jim Camp, Liz Patrick, Diana Roberts, Connie Curry, Tom Lawrence, Maria Vahle Klein, Susan Volmer, Jana Levic

 

Joshua Curry is on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as @lucidbeaming