Technology as a Medium of Expression
By Michelle Yeh '19
I was at two-minds when I enrolled into STC 309 at the beginning of the year; partly because I wasn’t sure if the independent project I wanted to pursue would be ‘technology and engineering’ enough for the course and partly because I was intimidated by the prospect of having to work in a field completely out of my comfort zone. Going into this project as a Comparative Literature Major with a certificate in dance, I was very interested in how technology could aid and inform a multi-media storytelling through dance performance. While I don’t think I can say that I’ve married the two fields of technology and storytelling performance through the span of this course, I have learned a lot about how to approach the seemingly daunting entity of technology for the purposes of self expression as someone who doesn’t have a background in the field of science and technology. After this course, I feel a lot more comfortable dipping my toes in the field of science and technology, and intend to continue understanding how technology can be utilized for means other than practicality--a box I once used to place it in. Technology like any kind of artistic medium, like poetry, visual arts and dance, is at heart a means of expression--one through which you can communicate an idea or feeling.
One could say that this independent project originally found root this past summer while I was doing independent research back in Taiwan, where I grew up. Although I consider Taiwan home, I have realized I hardly know anything of its history and culture. Thus, over the summer I collected a lot of audio and visual material from across the island while conducting oral histories from my relatives, in an attempt to understand the Taiwanese narratives that brought me to the United States. I had all this material and wanted to find a way to visually and physically represent the feelings of overwhelment and frustration around trying to reconstruct a narrative that, while is yours, is linguistically elusive.
I had a lot of ideas and interests going into this course, so the the way that I approached designing my project, was first by trying to understand what story I wanted to tell, and then to figure out how technology could help enhance the overall storytelling experience. To this day, I’m still not sure i’d categorize my final project as a concrete ‘story’, rather fragments of multiple stories that in turn hint at at an abstract emotional narrative: the emotional process of trying to capture a narrative that is at once yours but also far away.
The main ‘image,’--I use this word quite liberally--both visually and metaphorically anchored the end piece came from a story my father would often tell me about how he grew up. Education has never been perceived as a given privilege in my family--always as a necessary means of survival. While my father was growing up in rural Taiwan under martial law, his family was so poor that he wasn’t able to study after dark since they didn’t have electricity. It wasn’t until he was in middle school, after a teacher made home visits and realized he didn’t have a light source to study to, that he was given a small lamp to study by. Eventually he used this lamp to read the banned ‘politically dissident’ books in the dead of night--to discovery the stories that he wasn’t supposed to. I imagined a rather childish image of my father’s silhouette under a blanket, trying to read. From this, I decided that I wanted to play around with light associated technologies. Light, would act as somewhat a metaphor for knowledge, narratives and power.
I found a cloth and began playing around with shadows.
After taking THR/STC 210 fall semester I learned a lot about projections and how they enhance the visuals of a performance and knew that projection design would be something that I wanted to continue exploring. This fit very well with the overall image I wanted to make; this was when I started to play around with the idea of using rear projection and shadow work--a visual echo of the image of my father reading under the sheets.
Most of the film footage I collected over the summer were of the Taiwanese countryside, videos through the windows of cars and trains. There was a great sense of movement and directionality to the footage so I decided to play around with that, editing and manipulating the clips so to create a sense of increased confusion and dizziness.
Once I found a song I felt fit the piece, I began working on the soundscape of the overall work, overlaying certain soundbites from the various interviews I conducted. At the same time, I decided that I wanted to include the act of ‘collecting light’, as a way to represent the act of collecting and researching.
Eventually, I was able to perform a ‘beta’ version of the piece, constructing a table rear projection setup that flanked the center of the stage and choreographing movement around the act of collecting ‘Tea Lights’.
After performing the piece and looking back at it, I realized that there was a portion where I choreographed with the idea of “interacting with the lights”. This portion consisted of throwing and pushing the lights, however, since I used very basic tea lights I ordered off of Amazon, the interactive capabilities of what I could do with the lights were limited. I originally also wished to use a more abstract light source--an orb--rather than tea lights as I didn’t want things to be too literal. However, the orbs were not durable and didn’t sustain being thrown around
This was when I decided that I wanted to create a light source, an orb that had interactive abilities, perhaps one that would turn on when flipped, change colors when the object was moved. By taking the orb apart, I realized that I was able to just take the circuit that was already inside and swap it for one of my own. In order to do this, I knew I needed to start to understand the basic concepts of circuits and learn how to programme in Arduino, a maker’s language that I would be using to program my neopixels, a programmable LED.
I have to say the prospect of having to do all of this was extremely daunting for me. Making and performing a solo piece didn’t feel scary at all but having to venture and use tools I had hardly any command over proved to be quite a challenge. I made a list of ideas I wanted to explore, and eventually focused on trying to make an orb that was programmable that I could hopefully interact with. However, grossly underestimated the amount of time it would take to learn a new computing language, especially since I had close to no experience in coding. Part of this was probably because I didn’t know what I wanted to do very well, and just how much I’d need to understand before doing anything rudimentary.
I started off by trying to familiarize myself with the Arduino language. I did this by using the sketches available for adafruit neopixels on a soft circuit. After this, I got a bit lost since I wasn’t too sure how the different effects I was able to jumble around could apply to what I wanted to do, especially considering while I felt more familiar with Arduino, I still didn’t have enough knowledge to fully code. Eventually, under the guidance of Sharon and David, I was able to narrow down on the one interaction/ effect I was to make, and effect that would depend on movement.
We planned to use movement as a switch of sorts to signal for a certain effect. Using an adafruit flora, accelerometer and neopixels, we designed first a circuit to include three neopixels and an acclerometer and then to code something that would allow the the adafruit microcontroller to sense when there was movement, and then act accordingly.
The accelerometer is a sensor that is able to quantify the acceleration of an object on three axis. Movement, would be, in terms of how the sensor worked, a difference between two different readings after a period of time. For the adafruit microcontroller to understand/ know when it was moving, it first needed a place to store all the data from the accelerometer. After we programmed this, we had the controller compare the different information to see if the absolute value of the difference between two different data points between time was more than a set threshold. We then used an if function that told the flora what to do in the case of the two outcomes. If the circuit moved, the neopixels would change color. If it didn’t the circuit would remain the same.
After a lot of tries and attempts, we finally got a circuit that worked and fully functioned in response to movement. The loom would turn red whenever it moved and would return to green whenever it was stable. This was very exciting and gave me an idea of what other technologies were possible in terms of creating light that interacted with a body in movement.
Eventually, for the final showing of my project. I performed the piece again, set a few lighting cues, and then showcased the soft circuit (as pictured above), to allow the audience to understand the direction and intention of the project I was working on over the semester. While the original idea was to have all of this circuitry fit into the mold of the orb, I wasn’t able to do that considering the time I had to prepare, and showcased the loom instead.
Looking back, while I am very happy with the performance piece I was able to create through the course of this semester, I know there is a lot more to be learned and developed on the technological front--many more things I could have explored and learned. Within the realm of the ‘orb’ that I planned on making, I am very pleased and frankly shocked I was able to even construct a circuit that could react based off of movement. However, I was simultaneously disappointed by the fact that I wasn’t able to create the orb as intended--to do more than I had.
Throughout this semester, I worked on this project rather sporadically, spending a lot of time on it when it was in a comfortable medium and spending less time approaching aspects of the projects that were a little more difficult when it really should’ve been the opposite. I knew that I would be able to choreograph--I am a dance certificate student afterall--, to edit the audiovisuals and to work on projections. Thus, I did. However, when it came to learning how to make circuits, part of me was extremely hesitant and I would often find myself telling myself ‘This is impossible. I don’t even know how to code let alone create an object I could program and then program the object to my desired effect’. In hindsight this inner dialogue really stunted the progress of my project and prevented me from putting the effort I knew I was capable of putting into it to learn something new.
One big lesson I learned from this project is that even though I am a Comparative Literature major and don’t come from a science technology background, that shouldn’t prevent me from trying to incorporate and exploring the technological aids that I know could greatly enhance the artistic work I am interested in pursuing. I spent such a long time doubting my abilities to venture into the world of technology, that it was the doubt rather than my actual abilities that prevented me from fully exploring my potential.
While I don’t think the final project I made through this course has truly reached a place where I am happy with it, I feel extremely lucky that STC 309, provided me the space to not only explore my technological abilities, but most importantly believe that I actually can if I put in the time and effort. As a begin to think about my creative theses his summer, I know that technology will no doubt be an option in terms of the mediums I have to tell the stories that I want to tell.
This project merely explored one aspect of one story and I am excited to see what other technologies i’ll be able to design to tell the stories I wish to tell.