Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bee Homes - linocut bees interactive audiovisual multimedia piece

For a long time, I've had some version of this in my head. This week I finally managed to complete my multi-bee interactive audiovisual multimedia piece... just in time for the Bees (& the Birds) show at Graven Feather. You may recall that a few years ago, I made a linocut bee in electrically conductive in (specifically Bare Paint, which I mixed with some block printing extender to get a better viscosity for making a linocut). I combined this with an Arduino microcontroller so the bee itself could act as a capacitative sensor. In simplest terms a capacitor is made of two electrically conductive - usually metal - plates with a gap between them. The gap can be nothing but air, or a variety of electrolytes.  If there was a wire between the plates, charge would flow freely. Because of the gap, charge builds up on one plate a dissipates at a certain rate to the other. The rate at which this happens depends on the capacitance, which in turn depends on things like the physical properties of the plates, electrolyte and the size of the gap. So, a capacitative sensor takes advantage of the latter to sense proximity, or, measure capacitance to tell you the gap between two "plates". In my case the "plates" are bees printed in electrically conductive paint and my hand. This is the principle behind the theremin (though, they are of course, a great deal more sophisticated, but the idea is the same)*. Here's an example of an earlier prototype from 2012:

buzzing bumblebee print prototype

So, I can use my linocut on paper connected to an Arduino microcontroller as a sensor, and use the Arduino then to trigger a audio response when someone approaches the linocut. A very simple speaker can be made from a current-carrying wire in a spiral, affixed to a membrane, next to a strong magnet.** So, above I made a speaker with a piece of paper, copper tape as wire and a magnet. The next step was to carve a spiral lino block and block print a speaker on paper with electrically conductive paint, which I did. Thus an actual print, a sheet of paper, becomes both sensor and speaker. I had planned to then make a piece which had multiple bees as multiple sensors which would trigger different reponses. I created the artwork in time for my show about bees in 2013.

The Bees, Ele Willoughby, linocut on various Japanese washi, 18" x 24", 2013.
I had planned to add sound to this piece, but didn't have the opportunity.

I had two issues. First, my prototype used only an Arduino. I was able to play back sound by keeping the recording length quite short and the sampling rate low. There's only so much on-board RAM. I could make multiple sensors each play the same recording, but I simply ran out of memory using only an Arduino.

Secondly, I got pregnant and chose to put electronics aside for a while. I couldn't find any reliable medical guidance about soldering electronics while pregnant or in the proximity of babies (as if there aren't in fact large numbers of engineers, scientists, artists and hobbiests who are women of child-bearing age, ahem!), but jewellers were warned to avoid lead solder, and I opted to err on the side of caution. Lead and developping nervous systems struck me as a bad combination.

So, now that my son is one and a half, I've had an opportunity to return to the idea. The obvious way to add more sound to a project is the off-the-shelf solution of adding a Wave Shield to the Arduino. This is a second circuit board which plugs into the first to let you control and play files from an SD card to a speaker. (Bare Paint has recently released their own microcontroller, the Touch board based on the Arduino, but specifically with their applications for their paint, such as capacitative sensors, in mind. This might have been an easier way to go... but I had an Arduino, so I chose to add a Wave Shield).

My bee lino blocks and spiral lino speaker block, along with the Arduino and Wave Shield. You can talk to the Arduino via serial port. I combined the open source code wavehc_play6.pde (which plays different 6 audio files when 6 different buttons are pushed) with ArduCapSenseBlinky.ino which employs a collection of capacitative sensors to trigger a collection of LEDs to flash.
To make an electrical connection from my 6 bees (honeybee, bumblebee, leafcutter bee, long-horned bee, blue orchard mason bee and sweat bee), which I block printed in Bare Paint with block printing extender on Japanese kozo paper, I sewed through the paper with electrically conductive thread. I wanted the speaker, magnet and electronics to be behind the sheet, so I needed to pass through it. 
I also printed each bee block on a variety of Japanese washi papers, to get the colour and texture of the bees and wings. This also hides the stitching/electrical connections. The story I'm telling with the piece is about how bees live here. We all know the honeybee, with its hexagonal cells in its hives, but it's not native to North America. Most of our native bees live in holes and burrows. They also come in a wide range of colours. So the other collaged, handmade papers, represent how the bees live, from the hexagons with the honey bee at the top in yellows, to the circles in blues and greens at the bottom. In this shot you can also see the spiral speaker printed on the reverse. The sheet is on kozo paper which is very strong, but not at all stiff. So I backed it with book board to have something on which to mount the electronics. My trusty multimeter is there so I can check that each bee does have good connectivity through to the digital I/O pin on the Arduino.
This is what's hiding behind the piece. I affixed a small box to hold the Arduino. There are six DIO pins at the top of the Wave Shield board connected to wires in purple, green, yellow, orange, red and brown. These in turn are connected using copper tape to each of the 6 conductive threads coming from the 6 bees. The threads from either end of the speak spiral are likewise connected to the speaker output and ground.
I made a short recording for each bee. I tried to find audio recordings of each different species. Back in 2012, Sarah Peebles directed me to some of her audio recordings on Reasonating Bodies. I also simply searched YouTube for videos of each type of bee. I combined these (using Audacity... which is pretty awesome freeware for simple sound applications) with my spoken words about the bees and save these as .WAV files which can be played by the Arduino Wave Shield. So I was able to say how though the honeybee might be our idea of the canonical bee, our "default" bee, it is in fact not native to North America, and many of out native bees are quite different; many are solitary, producing neither hives nor honey, and coming in all sorts of colours. You can see and hear my piece at the Graven Feather show the Bees (& the Birds), which runs June 4 through 27. I'll post a video of the piece in action later. You can find each of my bees prints separately here (and learn a little bit about each species too).

*In fact, this is how the gravimeter I used for my doctorate worked too. Picture a mass suspended on a spring such that the spring force upward is balanced by gravity downward. Should the force of gravity change as you move the sensor (due to a large buried mass below, for instance) the mass on a spring will no longer be in equilibrium. The sensor was the most extraordinary, delicate, tiny, spun quartz spring terminated with a tiny piece of quartz coated in gold between capacitative plates. When the mass moved, an electrical restoring force was applied to the plates which returned the sensor to equilibrium. This restoring force could tell you the change in gravity, or, in my case acceleration (since I kept the gravimeter still, it was the seafloor which moved up and down).

**A good source of strong magnets: old hard drives

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

SciArt meet-up

Austin Monthly for October 2014 included my linocut of
Florence Nightingale in their write-up of the 'X Marks the Spot' show
at Art.Science.Gallery
Today I got to meet-up with a group of scientists/artists: Hayley Gillespie (ecologist, artist and founder of Art.Science.Gallery), Peggy Muddles (aka the Vexed Muddler, who works on the genetics of bacteria in lungs of CF patients by day, and amazing SciArt ceramics by night) and Rovena Tey (cancer researcher on mat leave and science-inspired cardmaking genius behind Handmade By Rovena)* and have a tour behind the scenes at the Royal Ontario Museum! The ROM is a rightfully famous museum, which boasts not only a world class archeological (especially Egyptian) collection, but a proper natural history museum, which has always meant that it was a research institution as well as a public museum. One of Hayley's friends from grad school is the curator of freshwater fish, and he was kind enough to give us a tour of the freshwater fish, and mammals and enlist his colleague to show us the invertebrate collection. Sadly, photographs were not allowed for security reasons (as it's best not to publicize the inner workings of a museum which houses some very valuable artifacts).

As token physical scientist, when the conversation turned to finer details of genetics and mapping family trees (if you will) of huge datasets of species, I felt like saying, "Oh! Bayesian regression! I know what that means!" with a little wink. The physical specimen themselves and the tour was fascinating. I could certainly relate to the problems of data archiving and preserving physical specimen, as these are serious problems for earth scientists too (especially the marine ones, as some ocean bottom cores need to be frozen and pressurized to avoid essentially melting or exploding, or both). I wouldn't have guessed that most of the ROM's collection of fishes is housed outside of the city, because that many tens of thousands of alcohol filled jars is deemed too great a fire risk downtown! It really is an incredible feat for these scientists to have even gathered all these species, let alone all the work of detailing and studying them, tracing their evolution, afterwards - and an invaluable resource.

We saw a few thousand sample jars of fishes, as well as some mammals (like bats) which are stored in alcohol. We saw their large collection of mammal pelts, which sort of takes your breathe away. The ROM is a museum of a certain age; at some time in the past they were gifted a large collection of mounted mammal heads (presumably from the estate of a hunter). I saw the head of a black rhino, now on the brink of extinction. It was staggering in size, even compared to the other rhino head. There were more heads of assorted quadrupeds than I knew how to identify.

I was pleased to happen to see a giraffe weevil along with a fabulous, large bronze sculpture of a giraffe weevil, on a plinth in the hallway between offices for scientists. I had only seen photos when I made my linocut. The invertebrates curator was an expert on leeches (which yes, are gathered the hard way... as any Canadian who has portaged a canoe through swampy water will be familiar). There were marvellous and/or scary arthropods including a mantis shrimp the size of my forearm, a roughly metre long South American earthworm, delicate and beautiful shell of a paper nautilus (or argonaut), adorable slipper lobster, and all sorts of other crustaceans... as well and swapped tales of fieldwork and labwork (mis)adventure.

Afterwards we were joined by Hayley's husband Cole (a psychiatrist) for a lovely lunch and discussion about that inspiring intersection of art and science. It was a real treat!

Hayley also brought me a copy of the Austin Monthly from October 2014. They included (part of) my portrait of Florence Nightingale in their write-up of the 'X Marks the Spot' exhibit at Art.Science.Gallery. It's always great to see my artwork in print, but I especially like that they've selected the perhaps unexpected. People will know her name, but as a nursing pioneer, rather than a statistician and data visualization pioneer, but she was both. She also brought me Ada Lovelace bookmarks from the 'Go Ahead and Do It' women in STEM show. Gabriel promptly ate one when I got home.

*We missed Glendon Mellow (aka the Flying Trilobite), scientific illustrator, SciArtist and Scientific American blogger, who couldn't make it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Surveyors, an all-female crew in the American west in 1918

The Surveyors, linocut with vintage topographical map, 14" x 11", edition of 10 each unique, 2015 by Ele Willoughby

All female survey crew working on the Minidoka Project, Idaho, 1918.
I love when people approach me about doing a fascinating custom order. An artist, Krista Caballero who has been collaborating with many others on a project called Mapping Meaning which brought together "artists, scientists and scholars to explore questions of social, mental, and environmental ecology. Inspired by a photograph from 1918 depicting an all-female survey crew, the project is rooted in a five-day experimental workshop that takes place biennially on the Colorado Plateau." She wanted to thank her collaborators with the gift of a print and wanted to know if I could make an edition inspired by this very 1918 photo. Since one of the things I do is communicate science through art with portraits of scientists (with a special focus on women in the history of science) and I have also done a variety of earth science surveys and mapping, this is very much my thing. In fact, I worry sometimes about hagiography... about only present heroes and heroines, or perpetuating the myth that science is a series the story of a series of lone geniuses. Plus, those survey rods with their odd symbols are so graphic and tempting to one who makes relief prints.

I proposed portraying these women and incorporating vintage geological, topographic and seismicity maps of the western North America, so that each print would be unique. All of the vintage maps came from the Geological Survey of Canada and were actually used in the field - as a tip of the hat to these women. I felt that any marking on the maps actually made them more app. The maps are also from western North America, and are decades old - a little further west and north, and later than these women worked... but they can be tied to similar pioneering surveying work. These hard-working women would have produced the sorts of data fundamental to producing the maps like these geological, topographic and seismicity (or earthquake) maps. The history of science is not only a series of exploits of well-known genius experimentalists, famous for their eureka moments; nor is it simply a tale of paradigm shifts brought about by wiser theorists who suddenly saw the need to shift the entire underpinnings of a given field of science. The history of science is also a tale of hard work by countless unknowns; an all-female survey crew from the early twentieth century seem especially unknown. We have no record of their names and they do not fit our preconceived notions of who explored and mapped the west, or who did fundamental scientific grunt work. I think Idaho in 1918 would still feel like the wild west and imagine these women to be quite fearless.

There are a few extra available here.

The Surveyors, linocut with vintage topographical map, 14" x 11", edition of 10 each unique, 2015 by Ele Willoughby

The Surveyors, linocut with vintage topographical map, 14" x 11", edition of 10 each unique, 2015 by Ele Willoughby
The Surveyors, linocut with vintage geological map, 14" x 11", edition of 10 each unique, 2015 by Ele Willoughby

The Surveyors, linocut with vintage geological map, 14" x 11", edition of 10 each unique, 2015 by Ele Willoughby

The Surveyors, linocut with vintage topographical map, 14" x 11", edition of 10 each unique, 2015 by Ele Willoughby

The Surveyors, linocut with vintage geological map, 14" x 11", edition of 10 each unique, 2015 by Ele Willoughby

The Surveyors, linocut with vintage seismicity map, 14" x 11", edition of 10 each unique, 2015 by Ele Willoughby

And do check out Mapping Meaning - there's some very interesting stuff there!