Sean Clark's Blog
At this time of year I tend to have a sort through the photographs I've taken over the past 12 months. Totting them up I see that I've been quite busy - taking over 1,500 (all on my iPhone). If you're interested in some of the things I've been involved with in 2015 then I've selected 100 of the most representative ones and posted them in an album here on Flickr. It's quite a diverse mix.
You may have noticed that I've been getting quite in to computer drawing recently! Over the past few weeks we've had the Computer Drawing: DP Henry and Beyond exhibition running at Phoenix and LCB Depot Lightbox and I've been running a number of related workshops and events.
It's helped reignite my interest in drawing machines and generating machine drawable images and it's led to me building up quite an interesting collection of drawing devices. I've had the WaterColorBot and my own Etch-a-pi Raspberry Pi controlled Etch-a-sketch for a while and these have recently been joined by a high-quality Makeblock XY Plotter (pictured) and a homemade mini-plotter based on the Tiny CNC design.
The thing that all of these machines have in common is that they are digital. A computer of some sort controls X and Y motors that in turn control the pen, or mark making device. Drawing machines need not be digital like this. Both DP Henry and Jack Tait's work (featured in the exhibition) are created by analogue devices based around pre-existing machines (in Henry's case) or made with custom components (as in Tait's case). The pen is controlled not by a program as such, but instead by combinations of gears and cogs.
I can't see myself heading down the analogue route yet, but it has made me wonder if hybrid analogue/digital drawing machines might be an interesting thing to explore. Perhaps with an Arduino being used to alter the configuration of a mechanical device? Or maybe even the creation of a machine that allows a drawing expert to drive a machine through a connected pen?
It's definitely something I need to think about in more detail. I'm not in a rush to build something, but one thing is sure though, you can expect to see at least the occasional use of a drawing machine in my future work.
Tonight was the third annual Light The Night event at Orton Square in Leicester's Cultural Quarter. Arts events group Inspirate put together another great event with a range of activities, including Gavin Morris' Digital Funfair, Creative Manifesto's MegaGamer joystick running Audiosurf 2 and OMAI's Tag Tool running through a giant projector pointed at the Athena building.
As per usual, the event followed the switching on of Leicester's Xmas lights. Unlike the previous years, though, there wasn't a procession from the switch-on to the Cultural Quarter. However, this didn't seem to affect the attendance too much. Many hundreds, or even thousands, of people came to Orton Square and they seemed to have fun playing on the attractions and enjoy the food and drink available in local cafés and bars.
I thought the fair-like format of the event worked really well. I particularly liked Gavin's big LED wall in the funfair - and was very impressed with Tag Tool. The projection on the outside of the Athena building was huge!
As part of my preparation for workshops that will accompany the Computer Drawing: DP Henry and Beyond exhibition in December I've been building a number of drawing machines.
The latest to roll off of my 3D printer is a small Arduino powered "Tiny CNC" machine. This device, designed by MakerBlock, is effectively an XY plotter that you can construct yourself using an Arduino, two motors and six 3D printed parts. I built the 0.18 version, which you can find described in detail on the creator's website here. The 3D printed parts can be found on Thingiverse.
Once I'd printed the parts (they took my 3D printer about 3 hours) it was simply a case of attaching the motors, snapping the bits together and attaching a pen. To control the machine I used a pack of Dagu DC motors and a Dagu Arduino Mini Driver MkII that I purchased from Dawn Robotics in their closing down sale for around £12. Almost any type of Arduino and servo/motor combination can be used.
I then had to write a bit of software to drive the machine. As a test I programmed it to draw concentric squares. Despite the drawing area being small (about the size of a mobile phone screen), the machine is surprisingly good! It whirs away following your instructions just like a full-size plotter, albeit less accurately due to the slack in the gears and motors and generates quite pleasing results. I've put a short video of the machine in action here on YouTube.
My next job is to build the updated version of the project (version 0.29) that uses a third motor to allow you to move the pen up and down. Both machines (together with my computer controlled Etch-a-sketch and full-size MakeBlock XY Plotter) will be on show during the workshops on the 5th and 12th December at the LCB Depot. Feel free to come along and have a play.
This year I created a new - much enhanced - version of my Painting with Light software for show at Leicester's Diwali celebrations in Cossington Park. The installation was organised by Inspirate, who had arranged for a giant inflatable projection screen and high power video projector to be used with the software.
It looked great and many hundreds of members of the public got to play with and make giant drawings that appeared on the screen as they waved "digital sparkers" (LED torches with diffusers on them) in front of a video camera, which in turn allowed a computer to track their movements and generate the brush strokes.
You can see plenty of pictures from the event here on the Interact Digital Arts website. I hope to make a version of the software available for free download before to long.
This weekend I was helping to install Esther Rolinson's "Flown" artwork in York. The piece is part of the Illuminating York festival that is running in the city all this week. I've worked with Esther before on the Melt, Splinter and Thread installations at Phoenix last year. This new artwork builds on the technology developed for these pieces and takes the form of a cloud-like structure that is illuminated with with flowing light patterns.
My main contribution to the project has been in developing an Arduino-powered hardware module that takes light sequences (produced in Processing and saved as a data file) and plays them through a DMX lighting system from an SD card. This technology means that, unlike the previous artworks, the installation can run without the need for a dedicated desktop computer.
The systems works well. Under Esther's guidance, over 25 patterns were produced and saved to the SD card and the artwork runs through them autonomously. The artwork itself looks beautiful, with subtle light patterns that sometimes resemble lightening, then moonlight, or even a swarm of fireflies.
The artwork is on for a week. My pictures from the installation can be found here on Flickr.
I'm working with Leicester-based artist Ashok Mistry at the moment on a project called Methods for Misunderstanding the Nature of Things. This project involves a number of digital elements, including the need to track the movements of a dancer in real-time. These movements will then be sent to a drawing machine where they will be visualised as an ongoing record of the performance. Working out the best technology to use for this has involved considering a number of important requirements.
Firstly, whatever is used it has to be unobtrusive and wearable, so as not to affect the dancer's performance. Then, it probably needs to be wireless, for the same reason. The battery needs to last at least for 30 minutes. It needs to have a motion sensor (of course), and, finally, the data has to be sent to another device (probably a computer) so that it can be turned in to a drawing visualisation.
After experimenting with standard Arduinos and external components I realised that while I could make such a device, it was clearly going to be a bit bigger than I hoped.
Then I discovered the LightBlue Bean. This little Arduino compatible board runs off of a coin battery, communicates over Bluetooth and has an accelerometer built in. It could have been designed for the project!
I've developed a little bit of code that allows Processing to read the data wirelessly from the Bean and am now experimenting with it to make sure that it meets the other requiremes, to do with battery life and robustness. So far it certainly seems to be.
Keep an eye out for more about the project over the next couple of months.
I've just finished two "making" projects.
The first was the assembly of a RigidBot 3D printer kit from Invent-a-part. This was a Kickstarter that I supported around two years ago and has only just come through! The main attraction of the printer was its size - it's 25cm in the X, Y and Z axis - and the fact that you get to built it yourself so you get to really understand how it works. Despite the delay, I'm really pleased with it and it has been doing some excellent prints.
The second project was an Atlas3D Laser Scanner. This was also from Kickstarter and was a kit of electronics to which you added the 3D printed parts in order to construct the scanner. I haven't fully calibrated it yet, but the scanner itself looks great and when set-up it should be able to scan objects at fraction of a millimetre accuracy.
Both of these project are intended to enable me to create a new set of "Connected Digital Artworks" that I hope to be able to exhibit next year. Stay tuned for details.
I'm really pleased to be on the shortlist for a Talk Talk Digital Heroes 2015 award under the 'skills' category. It's for the 'art-meets-technology' work that I've been doing at Phoenix Interact Labs over the last couple of years.
It's great to be recognised for this work, but the really exciting thing is it provides the opportunity to raise the profile for what Internet Labs has been doing in Leicester and potentially win some funds to support the work further.
If we win (and it's up to you to vote) then we would get £5,000 in cash and consideration for the big prize of £10,000. Imagine what we could go with this in terms of supporting artists who want to get involved with technology, and technologists who want to get involved in the arts! I'm thinking more art and technology workshops, better kit for the Lab, a more formal schools programme and even more artists bursaries. Plus it would provide the funds needed to launch my next project - Computer Art Club.
Computer Art Club would be a free-to-use network and ever-growing set of resources for educations, groups and individuals interested in art and technology. It would provide lesson and workshop plans, deconstruct example digital artworks and show their underlying code, present a history of digital art (that's not just about Photoshop) and provide on-line tools to help like-minded people connect. We could even set up a UK-wide digital art prize!
Whenever I explain the concept to people the response is positive. Even my suggestion that art teachers should teach programming and maths teachers should teach generative art has been known to get a few nods. The programme would work with other initiatives (like the amazing Code Club) and be open to people of all ages (with a bit of a focus on younger people, to help inspire the next generation of tech-inspired-artists and art-inspired-technologists).
I'd love to take what we have learnt at Interact Labs and make it available to more people. Computer Art Club would allow me to do this and you can help make it happen by going to http://digitalheroes.talktalk.co.uk, registering and voting for Sean Clark in the Skills category.
I managed to make my first visit to Bletchly Park today. Bletchly is famous as the location of the second world war code-breakers - that included Alan Turing - who cracked the German Enigma machine. The site is is now a museum dedicated to the work done during the war, as well as the RSGB Radio Museum and the National Museum of Computing.
The site is becoming something of the UK's 'tech museum' hub and it makes you realise how important the work done across the UK was in enabling the 'information age'. From the discovery and development of radio, through the theory and creation of the first computers and ultimately the invention of the web, the UK has been at the forefront of technical innovation.
It was also interesting to see the transformation of Alan Turing from obscure mathematician to national hero. When I was a student he was really only known by computer scientists and mathematicians. "On Computable Numbers" was required reading (even though I didn't really understand it!) and the Turning Machine (more understandable, especially without the maths) and Turing Test (that one made sense) were familiar concepts.
To see him venerated at Bletchly was satisfying. I even got to sit at a (his?) desk in his office in Hut 8! Of course, many others were involved in this work, and people like Gordon Welchman are starting to get the recognition they deserve now that Turing's story has raised interest.
At the National Museum of Computing you could see the start of a collection and narrative explaining the history of computing in the UK. They had a fully working rebuilt 1940s Colossus Mark II machine, they are working on a 1950s EDSAC, they have lots of 60s and 70s machines and all the classic home computers from the 1980s. Scarily, one of their biggest exhibits was an ICL 2966 mainframe - a machine I first programmed when it was state-of-the-art in the late 1980s!
As I their collections grows over time I suspect the full story of the UK's involvement in the development of computing will be told at the site.
See my photos from the visit here on Flickr.