Professional Portfolio – Week 01

Thankfully, my MacBook stopped short of this. Image: 9to5Mac

It happens to everyone at some point: your computer will die. Depending on which way you look at it, I have been through this experience before and fortunately now keep a thorough backup of all my work on an external hard drive (I’ve even been considering off-site backup of late).

Unlike my last exploding computer, via God smiting me with a lighting strike (seriously), my MacBook took a more subdued approach and quietly refused to turn on one morning. I knew right away that it wasn’t one of those problems that would sort itself out after a few well directed whacks to the unit, so I booked it in at the Apple store and took it in that same day. It took all of 20 seconds for the tech at the store to inform me that the logic board had failed and they will replace it.

As much it’s never an enjoyable experience when computers go to the big trash dump in the sky, this was actually pretty fortunate in more ways than one: I was talked into extended warranty on my laptop, so repairs are covered, and; it failed just a few days after my Underbelly Arts project which relied on the unit. A couple of days earlier would have been a disaster for that project, whilst a few weeks later would have been hugely frustrating in the middle of my final uni semester.

As things stand now, I’m sitting on a 6 year old desktop PC, and can’t say I’ve missed the Windows experience one bit. Nevertheless, I’m trying to push forward with my university projects…

At the beginning of the year, I was considering how I might present what I already knew would be a large-scale projection mapping work, so that potential employees could see what skill set I have. I threw around plenty of ideas about using After Effects and other programs that make you ‘highly employable’. I basically fell into the trap of wanting to present myself with ‘industry standard’ skills.

Thankfully, I moved away from that idea and began working with more flexible software environments, like Max/MSP, Quartz Composer and Ableton Live. Aside from the research I did in first semester, this work culminated in the Underbelly Arts project, Dusk, during semester break.

I learnt an invaluable amount from putting these ideas into practice at Underbelly Arts. Things went wrong, unexpected problems arose and the audience didn’t engage in the way I expected. It was actually a perfect result. Experiencing all these things is well outside what I have been studying at uni and will serve me well as I put together my final project for exhibition in November.

Something that struck me about Dusk was the number of questions along the lines of “what’s the point? What are you supposed to do?”. Of course, Underbelly Arts is an arts festival after all and there doesn’t need to be a point – at least not a literal one – but it did make me think about how an audience will engage with my final work. For all the research I did around technology in first semester, I haven’t really thought about what my work will actually be.

Now that it’s been announced that our end of year exhibition will be presented at CarriageWorks, I began to think about the ways in which this project could be site specific and actually make sense within its space. The idea of mapping the space came to mind as a way that I can not only present my own ideas, but give an audience (and potential employer) a sense of how these ideas can be applied in a commercial context.

Nicholas Felton’s data visualisation. Image:

Data mapping is something that has always fascinated me. Whilst It often serves as a platform for some really interesting visual expression, it may boil down to the fact that I just like statistics. I’m not alone with this strange fascination with numbers and charts though. One of my favourite artists (yep, artist) working with data visualisation is Nicholas Felton. Also one of the creators of the oddly entertaining Daytum, Felton’s data visualisation work maps out the seemingly mundane and presents it beautifully – making connections between the most insignificant of encounters.

In a sense, many maps slant toward more of a data visualisation focus, rather than literal geographic placement. With mapping in mind (data mapping, projection mapping…), I arrived at the topological mapping style, created by Harry Beck. With our exhibition being presented in the CarriageWorks venue (originally a train yard), referencing the now universal train mapping style seems to make a lot of sense – not to mention it being a fantastic design.

Harry Beck’s 1960 London tube map. Image: A History of the London Tube Maps

This page gives an excellent history of the design of the London Tube maps. Harry Beck’s style, beginning in 1933 and with his final design in 1960, focuses on the connection between data – in this case, tube stations – rather than adhering to scale, geography or distance. Based more on an electronic circuit schematic, than a geographic map, it’s rightly now considered a classic design.

I think it would be interesting to take Beck’s design in the direction of Felton’s more abstract data set, somehow combining them both, but still mapping the CarriageWorks/COFA exhibition space meaningfully. I did start my work in a fairly literal sense though – using the idea of replacing tube station names with those of exhibiting artists…

It didn’t take long to hit my first snag on the PC. First up, Quartz Composer is part of OS X – no chance of working with that until the MacBook is repaired. Then, I found that the DIPS object set for Max/MSP I had been using to control OpenGL visuals, isn’t available for PC. Strange, seeing as OpenGL isn’t platform-specific. And so I returned to the drawing board, in the form of Jitter tutorials.

Jitter is the visual side of Max/MSP and has always appeared a little daunting to my new-to-Max mind. However, for the most part, the tutorials that came with the software made a lot of sense. Possibly because of my experience with Dusk doing things the hard way, it was almost a pleasure to use some of the features in Jitter (not to mention actually being productive on the PC!). The OpenGL objects already built into Jitter have so far been really good on the relatively-lean CPU of my old PC, and my frustrating foray into C-based programming earlier this year even helped me to understand some of the terms used when creating OpenGL shapes.

The beginnings of an OpenGL tube map, created in Jitter

Download above Max/MSP patch.

One of the excellent features of OpenGL is the ability to change camera and lens angle of visuals. This allows for dynamic movement, without having to create complex animation of shapes (next week, I’ll upload some video from my MacBook – the old PC wasn’t having any of it). So whilst the construction of shapes may be relatively simple, the interaction from an audience could be quite exciting, as they move through the map.

What I do need to begin thinking about is just how this interaction will take place. My experience with the motion tracking of Dusk would suggest that I’m looking down the barrel of a whole lot of trouble, should I try to use an infrared camera in CarriageWorks, so perhaps a physical interface will be more appropriate for this project. I also need to think about what surface within CarriageWorks my work will be mapped to, how it will change and interact with this space and what in what form the audience can engage with my work.

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