Red Echo

September 26, 2011

Way back in June, Ava and I started building an L-shaped couch for our living room. We built the frame, glued on a layer of memory foam, wrapped the whole thing in cotton batting, started sewing the upholstery, and then – ran out of fabric. Since it was some fancy stuff we’d ordered on eBay, we couldn’t just run out and buy more… and by the time the new order arrived, the summer art project season had gotten under way and the couch project landed on the back burner.

Yesterday we both had a day free, so we decided it was time to get this piece of furniture done. We finished cutting out the upholstery pieces, then I got to work sewing them together while Ava turned a piece of plywood into an elliptical, notched backboard and covered it in foam. Once the upholstery was done we wrapped the bench and stapled the fabric down – hundreds of staples, very sore wrists.

We ran out of steam before finishing the back piece, but the chair is done enough to sit on now, and it looks as nice as we’d hoped it would. Ava picked out the fabric, and while I raised an eyebrow at the idea of buying $35/yard upholstery fabric sight-unseen over the Internet, I’m really glad she stuck with the idea because the result looks great.


September 21, 2011

Seattle City Light wants to install some art projects at two of their facilities:

The Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, in partnership with Seattle City Light, seeks two artists to create semi-permanent, site-specific installations for City Light’s North and South Service Centers, hubs for City Light’s work. Each selected artist will create up to two artworks that may be two- or three-dimensional to hang on walls. The artworks should capture the “electricity” of City Light’s activities.

Right, well, I’ve never been particularly interested in getting permission to make things, and interacting with a public agency seems really strange and awkward, but this also seems like exactly the right environment for the kind of algorithmic animated light sculpture project I like to build. I mean, it’s the power company, and their name is “City Light” – whether they know it or not, they really, really want something that incorporates a whole lot of LEDs. They have budget, too: $23,500 for each building. That’s enough to do something really very cool indeed.

The first thing that comes to mind echoes a piece I saw in the San Jose airport: thousands of panes of LCD shutter glass, switching between transparent and translucent states. It’s a subtle thing; it is animated and lively, but it doesn’t reach out and grab you with the force of its brightness. Instead you just get this constant motion and shimmering reflectivity.

It strikes me that a power company is fundamentally all about intervening in natural processes. It’s all driven by the Sun, of course; we capture energy directly from the sun using photovoltaic cells, but primarily we capture energy from the hydrological cycle using dams, and energy from temperature differentials using wind turbines. And fossil fuels are of course nothing but chemical storage for millions of years of ancient sunlight… The point of a power company is to extract a uniform, controllable source of energy from the wild, chaotic environment around us.

So I’m imagining an art piece which puts that wild, chaotic environment in a bottle. An array of glass jars, all shapes and sizes, all clear, frosted inside, hanging from the ceiling, in a hexagonal grid, at varying heights. Each one has a light – a high-power LED, of course – and together they render the output of an evolving wave algorithm. The algorithm would of course be the one I developed for the Cuttlefish project, oh so many years ago… but monochrome, I think. Just light. Or perhaps a very subtle, muted tint, even more muted than what I did with the Shame Project lights. It’d look like waves, like clouds, like the wind running across the grass; it would ripple and sway and move, and it would never, ever repeat itself.

ALTSpace has been operating at close to peak capacity all summer, hosting a lot of work for the Shame Project and the Groovik’s Cube as well as many smaller projects. We’ve decided to expand into the unit next door, doubling our floor space: the current tenants will be out at the end of the month, and there’s a door we can unlock on the common wall which will connect the two units, so we will have one big happy 2400-square-foot makerspace.

We will be able to set up more work tables and more storage lockers, which means we can bring in more members. We will also have room to expand our machine shop to triple or quadruple its current size – a partition wall and a new drop ceiling should give us enough soundproofing to run power tools. If all goes well we will be able to move in a mill, a lathe, and a 2D CNC router table! Very exciting – this will greatly expand the range of projects it will be possible to build there.

Sometimes a new project idea grips my brain with sudden, sticky determination. I came back from Burning Man thinking almost nonstop about a couple of small electric vehicles I’d like to build for next year. The first is a jumbo-size electric skateboard. I brought a normal electric skateboard to the playa in 2007, but the playa beat it hard, and after only a couple of rides the suspension was destroyed. It was also geared too high for the dusty, rutted condition of BRC roads after the first day or two. Of course you can buy larger, burlier “off road” skateboards, but they get expensive very quickly, and don’t have the kind of range I’d want at Burning Man. So I bought a four-wheeled electric mobility scooter at a garage sale ($150!) and took off all the bodywork. It has a 1-HP, 3400 RPM motor with differential, four pneumatic tires, a steering linkage, and two 12V batteries – perfect! Next I’ll replace the motor controller with something more appropriate for a skateboard, then add a deck and set it up for tilt steering. Add on some obnoxious LEDs and it’ll be done.

The next vehicle I have in mind is something like the Atomic Zombie Streetfox: a recumbent-style reverse trike, with two steering wheels in front and a drive wheel in the back. I plan to build it out of mountain bike components, so each wheel will be independently suspended, and an array of deep-cycle batteries under the driver’s knees should power it up to about 20-25 mph. That’s fast enough I could conceivably use it to ride to work and back – and Google already has electric-vehicle charging stations in the parking garage…

Oh well, who knows if I’ll actually finish it all, but it’s certainly interesting to think about. I’ve been learning about Ackermann angles and freewheels and high-current PWM driver MOSFETs…

September 14, 2011

This is a key reason I keep coming back to Burning Man:
Burning Man is for amateurs.

It’s Burning Man’s rank amateur status that keeps it alive and interesting and challenging to the culture at large in a way that raves never were and TV can only dream of. After all, the mechanism of appropriation is to bring professionals in and have them do things to spec. Amateurs are unpredictable. They’re in it for the passion, not the money, and they’ll follow their passion way past spec: amateurs can’t be co-opted as long as they stay amateurs. Burning Man can’t be co-opted as long as amateurs are the one’s really driving the culture.

And they are: Burning Man’s “no spectators” ethos turns everyone at the event into an amateur impresario. If you can’t sit back and watch then you have to do something, and if you’re not getting paid for it you might as well do something you’re passionate about.

September 11, 2011

I’m back. I’m alive. It was a great burn, probably the best one I’ve had. The project worked well, the group functioned smoothly and without drama, the weather was perfect (no whiteouts!). There were lots of interesting art pieces to look at, and I’ve come home with a couple of new projects rattling around in my head…

I’m wiped out today, after driving down to Bend and back yesterday to pick up the BMW. Its water pump seized on the way home, so we had it towed and then drove home in a rental Mustang. The trip was about 660 miles; I’ve driven more than that in a day before, but for some reason today I’m just exhausted.