The aim of the 10 day program was to encourage new thinking, relationships, and ideas around the theme of a Playable City. It involved a number of creative people living Lagos as well as a few of us from Britain, and we spent the first few days getting to know each other and exploring the conceptual basis for this theme. What does it mean for a city to be “playable”? Why is it important? Can residents of a city like Lagos afford the time to play, when the legendary traffic jams force people out of bed at 5am?
The group discussions and personal conversations that came out of these first few days were fascinating. It was such a privilege to be able to dig deep into the identity of the city, hearing about day-to-day experiences as well as larger generalisations and patterns.
We eventually split into groups in order to develop ideas that we could put into practice and test in the city. I ended up working with Desiree Craig, Inua Ellams, and Jeremiah Ikongio, a fantastic group – our only problem was that we had too many ideas.
Eventually, however, we decided to try and make something that focused on Danfos. These are the yellow minibuses that operate as one part of a multi-layered public transport system within Lagos. They are publicly regulated but privately run – putting them somewhere in between the informal motorbikes and the big fancy BRT buses which wouldn’t look out of place in any European city. Incidentally, the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh has done some really great work about the sound of Lagos in general and danfos in particular.
You can’t go very far in Lagos without seeing a danfo, typically crammed full of people and in varying states of disrepair. They are cheap, easy to use, and very democratic – several locals told me that in any danfo you’ll get a nearly perfect cross section of Lagosian society.
I found this fascinating, which shouldn’t be a big surprise because I keep finding myself doing projects about public transport. There is something very interesting to me about how at given moment in Lagos thousands of people are having something of a shared experience: sitting in a danfo, surrounded by strangers, on their way somewhere (and probably stuck in traffic).
As a group we started thinking about how we could play with this idea, and we came up with the idea of connecting random people in random danfos. What would happen if you could start up a conversation with someone you had never met who is in the same situation as you, but in a different place? What would you talk about? What kind of serendipitous interactions could be created?
And so we created the Danfone.
The concept behind this is that a number of buses would be fitted with Danfones, which have only a phone receiver and some non-linguistic instructions. Picking up the phone would make a phone in some other random bus ring. If someone in that bus picked it up, you’d be connected and you could have a chat. If you hang up and try again, you would be connected to a different bus. That’s it! It’s an idea that I found pretty freeing in its simplicity. The lack of structure opens up a bunch of questions and unknowns, which I really liked.
We didn’t have enough time to build a fully functional version of this, so we made a sort of proof-of-concept. We focused a lot on the design, making it fun and engaging (with some flashing LEDs of course), and making sure the interaction made sense. To that end we hacked an old fashioned telephone handset into a mobile phone, since we liked the idea of a really tangible interface with very little control.
To test out our creation we brought it out to one of the main bus stops in the centre of the city, right next to Tafawa Balewa Square, and pitched it to the danfo drivers. The people at the bus stop (and on the way there) were remarkably responsive to the idea, with some really interesting conversations starting up about how it would work and how it would be used in practice. Several people mentioned how it fit well with the Nigerian traditions of group discussion and gossip (ofofo).
In practice the way we used our prototype was hilariously low-tech: we dialled the number of a mobile phone hidden in the Danfone, answered that phone and then put it all back together so you could only speak through the handset. Then we put the whole thing in a danfo and waited for people to interact. The incredibly patient Desiree waited for anyone to pick up the phone and have a discussion. We did this twice, once with Inua and Jere in the bus engaging with people who were interested, and once with Jere hiding in the back to see if anyone would pick it up.
It was only really half of a test, but I would say that it was very successful. A few people spoke to Inua and Jere and tried it out, and on the second test a very curious person built up the courage to pick up the phone – only for the mobile to drop the signal! That was a bit frustrating, but by showing the limit of our prototype we also saw the potential for what it could be.
As a part of our work we also thought about what future possibilities could be explored. For example, we considered a future radio show, “Danfo Diaries”, which could be built out of conversations between strangers on danfo buses. This could make for some pretty compelling listening, and encourage future conversations.
I’m super proud of this project. I think it embodies the idea of playfulness really well – it does not get in the way or require extra time and energy, and it does not pretend to be creating extrinsic value. It is open and free and potentially magical (or funny or sad).
It’s really hard to sum up my time in Lagos in a blog post. To say it was an “incredible time” really doesn’t seem to do it justice. I learned so much and I’m only beginning to process it all. Whilst I definitely think that the Danfone is a powerful idea that can be developed further in a number of directions, for me it was only a part of the whole experience. Many thanks to everyone involved!
A brief list (in no particular order) of things I have been up to over the past six months since the One Pig Scotland tour:
So, it’s been quite an amazing first half of the year. Writing this post has been an interesting exercise for me in terms of looking back on what I’ve done. More soon!
My involvement was in the last part of that, since the festival was timed to coincide with a meteor shower – the Perseid Shower, to be precise. I designed an audio/musical performance for the Mills Observatory which would react the the visible meteors. A camera pointed at the sky would see the meteors, triggering different sounds.
Unfortunately, it was cloudy (in Scotland?!) and no meteors were visible at all on the evening! It was too bad, but the sold-out audience did not let that get in the way of having a brilliant time, enjoying a dance performance by Small Petit Klein, a “guerrilla rainbow” installation by Alistair McClymont, and a lecture on the Perseids by astronomer Brian Kelly, before my performance.
Despite the missing meteors I was still able to perform my piece, which I did in two parts (I was in the observatory itself, in the photo above, with the speakers and the the audience). The first section is entitled “Strange and Wonderfull Apparitions” after a beautiful broadside poster that you can see on the National Library of Scotland website, which describes a meteor shower in the 18th century that was witnessed around Scotland and Europe.
In the leadup to the show I got people from around DCA and Mills Observatory to read sections of the broadsheet out loud, which I then edited together, mixing it along with recordings I made of the previous events (the dance piece, the rainbow machine, the sound of the observatory structure, the crowd mingling, chatting and applauding…).
The second section, “Good, occasionally poor” was constructed out of the shipping forecast from BBC Radio 4. I find the rhythms, vocal melodies, and structure of the shipping forecast fascinating, and it certainly seemed to match well with the theme of the night!
I’ve now finally gotten around to rendering a shortened version of this piece, which you can listen to now. Enjoy! I’d like to thank Clive Gillman at DCA for inviting me to do this performance, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and of course the whole team (Annette Davison, Kristina Johansen, and many others) who worked so hard to make Blue Skies such a success.
As I write this, I’m listening to some sounds that I’m rendering for my performance tomorrow night at the Mills Observatory in Dundee. I’m really excited to be a part of the wonderful Blue Skies Festival, an event led by DCA which started last night with a brilliant Zoë Irvine piece in the Olympia Pool last night and continues today and tomorrow.
My performance is called Perseid Nocturne, and is inspired by the Perseid meteor shower, which is happening this weekend. If the weather complies, I’ll be pointing a camera at the sky to look for meteors, which will trigger and control my sound performance – the majority of the audio will be recorded on the day, using the sounds of the observatory, the crowd, and the other events happening for Blue Skies.
Hopefully the clouds will stay away! In any case, I’m really looking forward to using the Observatory as a stage, it’s an amazing place for a performance. The event is sold out, I’m afraid, but I’ll be posting documentation here of course. Maybe see you there…details can be found on the Blue Skies website.
Droplets is a water-reactive art installation which I recently installed in the Travelling Gallery as part of the Alt-w Shortcuts show.
The Travelling Gallery is an amazing project run by the City Art Centre here in Edinburgh, which aims to bring contemporary art to far flung destinations all around Scotland. It does so with a very impressive specially designed gallery bus, which brings the art to you! I’m very flattered to be involved in the current show, which is comprised of artists who have been supported by New Media Scotland with an Alt-w award in the past, as I was with the Secret Sounds of Spores.
For this show I took certain elements of my Weather Gage piece and modified them to work in the Travelling Gallery, this time using water rather than wind. Pieces of hand cut Maryland cherry wood are spread along the wall, each fitted with a custom built solenoid and LED circuit. These are triggered by a watering can which is placed at the base of the installation, allowing visitors to bring the work to life themselves.
I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out, and I’d like to thank Alison Chisholm and Mark Daniels for supporting this project. If you are in Edinburgh today or tomorrow please go and see it down at the City Arts Centre on Market Street, or on Thursday at Waverley Court. Otherwise, check the tour dates to see when it will come to you!
A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at Mediamatic in Amsterdam as part of their Ignite series of presentations. It was Ignite #15 and I had a great time! Many thanks to everyone involved for having me over. Many thanks as well to my friend and sound artist Nanny Roed Lauridsen, who recorded my talk and posted it on her website (a site which is, incidentally, full of great recordings like the sound of ice skaters on a canal in Amsterdam recorded from underneath using a hydrophone).
Here’s the mp3, it’s a very quick 5 minute presentation where I go through the whole story behind the Secret Sounds of Spores and talk about why I did it!
Yann Seznec – Spores, Ignite
The installation is looking great, too, here are a few more photos for you…
Over the last few weeks, in addition to doing some exciting things at Lucky Frame, I’ve been on the road with Matthew Herbert for his One Pig tour. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve built an interactive musical pig sty for his show, and I’m performing it onstage with him (and an incredible band made up of Sam Beste, Tom Skinner, and Hugh Jones).
We’ve only done three shows in the past few weeks, but they have all been brilliant. The first was in Bolzano, Italy, for Transart. We played in a giant abandoned aluminium factory on the outskirts of town. It was a packed show, and the chef on stage (fittingly named Hannes Pignater) made some amazing bacon with leek and apple. The venue also provided us with a recently butchered pig’s head, which was…um…interesting…
After a quick stop back in Scotland, where I spent the day working on the Man High Mixer project that you can read about over on the Lucky Frame website, I headed off to Japan with the band for two shows in Tokyo. It was an incredible trip (despite the giant typhoon that hit the day we arrived). The crowds were great, the staff at Liquid Room was brilliant, and the food was delicious.
We have a few more gigs scheduled, and more are being booked all of the time. For the moment it looks like the next three gigs will be:
17 November, Berlin
18 November, Eindhoven (STRP Festival)
25 November, Brussels
And there are more to come!
A few months ago I was very lucky to meet musician/producer extraordinaire Matthew Herbert in person and learn about his exciting One Pig project. For this album Matthew recorded a single pig’s life “from birth to plate” and constructed an album out of the resultant sounds.
The Independent recently published an article about the album, read it here to learn all about the concept and motivation behind it all.
I’m extremely excited to now be a part of the live show for this album. Over the next few months I’ll be touring with Matthew as part of a five-piece band, playing a brand new controller/instrument built especially for the show – the StyHarp!
As the name suggests, the StyHarp is designed to mimic a pig sty, and is used in the show to trigger, control, and effect sounds in real time by pulling, plucking, and twisting the strings. It’s a very physical thing to play, which is part of the fun. I don’t have any great video footage of it in action, so you’ll have to make do with this hilarious video of me jamming with the band during rehearsals:
Our first show is this Friday September 2nd in London, at the Royal Opera House as part of the Deloitte Ignite Festival. As of this writing there are about 30 tickets remaining, so if you’d like to come you should book quickly! Otherwise we’ll be playing shows in the following weeks and months in Bolzano Italy, Tokyo, Eindhoven, Brussels, possibly Germany and Poland, and maybe more. I will post when I get more details, of course.
If you’re interested in the background and building of the StyHarp, keep on reading! Some technical details ahead…
When Matthew and I first started thinking about what we wanted to make for his show, we were certain that we wanted something physical, something with resistance and response, something that looked strange, perhaps even frightening, and evoked the themes present in the One Pig album. We wanted to be able to have direct control over sound, but also wanted something with a life of its own. The musicality and the theatrics had to be on equal footing. All of these things led me to want to make something with strings, something big and something that would take effort to play.
The main component of the StyHarp is the string sensors, which are ripped from Gametrak controllers. These gadgets are a sort of proto-Kinect, designed for PCs and game consoles. They were marketed as 3D motion trackers, and packaged mostly with golf games (with comical miniature golf clubs) and sold only in the UK from 2000-2006 or so. To use a Gametrak the player wears a pair of gloves which are connected to a base station with some wire (which looks suspiciously like orange fishing line). Inside the base station these two lines each go into a spool, which is connected by a few gears to a standard potentiometer. The potentiometer thus turns as the wire is pulled in and out. The wire is also fed through an X-Y joystick-style potentiometer. The result is that the distance and location relative to the base station can be tracked with startling accuracy, all using technology that has been around for over a hundred years. Pretty great, huh? It’s a wonder no one thought of designing a controller like this for the Atari or the Binatone TV Master.
Many thanks to Jung In Jung and Martin Parker for introducing me to the Gametrak and for helping me track down a few extra for this project!
So the design we settled on for the StyHarp called for 12 Gametrak strings (four per side, three sides), thus six Gametraks. Each Gametrak has a USB output, but it turns out that only the XBox and PC versions of the Gametrak can be used as a HI Device (and the XBox version requires a little hacking even to do that), so it quickly became apparent that I would not be able to just plug them all into my computer. However, Jon (aka Lucky Frame partner in crime) suggested I tap into the outputs directly from the potentiometers, and plug them into an Arduino, thus bypassing the Gametrak’s USB circuitry altogether. That worked great! However….each Gametrak has six parameters (x, y, and distance for each), which means I needed 36 analog inputs, and the Arduino only supports 6. Even the Arduino Mega only supports 16! So I decided to use the Arduino Mux Shield from Mayhew Labs. This lets me have up to 48 analog inputs, which are multiplexed through the digital pins in some way that I don’t understand.
During the early stages of development (i.e., three weeks ago) I was planning on using the Gametraks in a fairly un-hacked form. This was because the models that I had bought did not seem all that conducive to hacking – the gearing was more or less separated from the wire spools, and it seemed like a headache. Some people have done it (including this guy, who used it to build a Gametrak-based Ondes Martenot), but it didn’t seem worth it to me. However, I ended up finding a few later model Gametraks, apparently released in 2006, which use a slightly different construction which lends itself to hacking – in fact, the whole reel, gearing, and potentiometer setup is tightly packaged into individual and completely separate little boxes! It’s amazing. So I found a bunch of these and ripped them apart, and I had all the sensors I needed. I was even able to hack out the little connector wires that they use. If this interests you, be sure to find the ones that have rounded ends like this.
To connect everything to the Arduino I’m using 1/4″ stereo jack cables. This is partially because I had a loom kicking about my studio, but also because it is an affordable and robust connector, and venues are generally guaranteed to have a bunch of them just in case. I therefore attached two female connectors to each set of wires which connect to the Gametrak sensors, and I built a patchbay box for my Arduino.
On the software end, the Arduino is communicating through USB using a serial data system built by Jon in Processing. This is much more robust than the software provided by Mayhew Labs, which kept on crashing because of the load of data coming through…Jon implemented a brilliant call-response system which eliminated all crashing. Go go Lucky Frame! So Jon’s utility is sending all the data via OSC into Max/MSP, where I’ve built a flexible patch for sending MIDI notes and controls to Ableton Live, where all of the sound processing and triggering is going on. The sounds are all original recordings from the One Pig album, and they are triggered by pulling or plucking the strings. Twisting and pulling the strings then control other effects like delays, filters, and so on.
The Gametraks are all connected to stands using plumbing fixtures, and the strings are pulled out to connect across and create the fence. I’ll be inside the sty for much of the show, playing the strings, and I’ll be joined at one point by the rest of the band…but I won’t give away the ending.
It’s loads of fun to play, and I’m really looking forward to the shows. Come by if you can, and as usual get in touch if you have any questions.
A few weeks ago I had some involvement in a residency at Dance Base in Edinburgh with dancer and choreographer Skye Reynolds. She has been collaborating for a long time with sound designer Jung In Jung (whose awesome work includes the SonicBella) in order to develop performances and systems that use different types of technology to allow dancers to generate and control sound and music in real time through their movements.
For this residency I helped Skye and Jung In start using Wiimotes strapped to the dancers’ limbs, much in the same way I did for Exercise Magic!!. Jung In was then able to use some the data to trigger sounds developed by herself and composer Pippa Murphy.
During my short involvement in the residency I worked with one of the dancers, David Aing, to make a special performance tailored to his crazy amazing robot breakdance routine. I made a set of custom software to let him control two different types of synthesizers, as well as a pulsing drum machine. I was super happy with how it turned out, I felt it really matched his style. We got to show this at a (very well attended) presentation at the end of the residency. Check out the video!
Thanks to everyone who came by! I thought the whole thing went really well. If all goes well I hope to work with David and Skye more in the future to develop the work a bit further.
Jung In has many more pictures and videos of the other performances from that presentation up on her blog, in addition to loads of information about the development of the whole project.
In about an hour I will be jumping on a train to beautiful North Wales, where I am delighted to be creating a new installation on the Garth Pier in Bangor. This project is being done as part of Bangor Sound City, with the support of Datrys and northern bloc.
The Weather Gage will be comprised of a series of small propellors mounted on the pier which will turn in the wind. The speed of the wind will control the playing of a series of little glockenspiel notes hanging in one of the alcoves on the pier. The press release at northern bloc describes it much better than I do:
This installation harnesses the power of the wind to play a glockenspiel. A form of digital Aeolian harp, small propellors will generate tiny amounts of electricity, which will activate glockenspiel notes, creating polyphonic and polyrhythmic textures.
Here are a few photos from the preparation stages…
The wood for the glockenspiel notes is cherry from Mennonites in western Maryland, but that’s another story!
The name is derived from an older nautical term which refers to your position relative to the wind and your enemy. If you were upwind from the person you were trying to attack, you could bear down at will. Possibly the geekiest name for a sound installation ever?
Also on the pier will be an interactive installation by Adam Cooke and Elizabeth Edwards, which will involve a gigantic tea set. Fun stuff! Come on down anytime and say hello if you’re in the area. I will be installing it tomorrow starting bright and early, and it will be open to the public all week from 8:30am to 5:30pm. It closes on Sunday the 20th at noon.
I will also be playing a gig in Conwy on Friday night – I will post more about that later on in the week, right now I have to go catch my train!