What if trees stopped existing? Epitaph is an interactive art installation that represents the accelerated impact human activities is having on the earth's ecosystem.
Showcased at the SVA Gallery as a part of the exhibit called Murmurs From The Planet Earth.
//PHYSICAL COMPUTING, ART INSTALLATION
A three week long project in collaboration with Alex Frankel, Azucena Roma and Kinjal Shah. While there were a few overlaps, I was responsible for coding and fabrication of the product in the woodshop.
We imagine a world that can no longer nurtures trees. One of adaptation, where new technologies have afforded the ability to extract personal histories from natural objects.
This installation serves as a living monument to the memory of trees. Just as humans leave behind an immortal legacy in death, trees leave behind their own set of unique experiences.
With a naturally developed form of communication, expressed via a series of concentric rings, trees store information that serve as chronological records used to analyze past environmental climates and conditions.
Inspired by this study of tree rings, called dendrochronology, we sought to tap into previously inaccessible information, extracting and conserving tree’s experienced soundscapes.
Stimulated by touch, LEDs gradually fill each individual ring and cue a distinct soundtrack representative of one of four life stages. Meant to encourage reflection and thought of human connectedness, reliance, and their participatory role in the natural world these auditory experiences highlight the natural quiet environment, interactions with living beings, threatened experiences, and their eventual extinction.
Sketching and Scoping
After we locked down on an idea, we started to sketch out how it might work. Where would the metal sit? How would we source and process the wood? What types of sounds should the tree make? How would the interactions work?
As we worked through all of these questions, we came up with a set of initial sketches that we thought were feasible to produce in 3 weeks.
Before we dove too deep into the idea, we wanted to do some relatively quick prototypes.
We had seen classmates create capacitive sensors in another project, so we had an idea that is would be feasible to re-create. We did some quick tests with a capacitive sensor and got an understanding of how it worked and how well it would work for our designs.
We then wanted to see how feasible construction was. After a few consultations with the VFL, we used the CNC router with some scrap MDF board and cut out our first “ring” shape. It had two gutters at different depths. In one gutter we’d place the lights, and in the other we’d put the metal ring. The ring would cover the lights and keep the illusion that the metal/tree itself was lighting up. Our cuts were promising and we were able to move forward.
In parallel, we started to play with the addressable LEDs. FastLED is a really friendly and easy to pick up library which made working with the lights quick. We soon had a prototype that used the LEDs and capacitive sensors. This allowed us to start testing the interactions with about 10 days to go.
Now that we knew our general interactions and construction would be possible, we began processing the wood.
- Addressable LEDs -- The lights on our LED strip were too spread out. In a new version, we would make sure these lights are closer together, as it would have a better look in the final piece.
- ⅛” thick sheet metal
- Laser cut semi-transparent acrylic
- Red cedar wood
- Many jumper wires
- Surface Pro (to run audio/processing code)
- Bluetooth speakers/headphones
The last “part” we needed was the piece of wood we would use. We wanted something that looked good with well defined rings. We found a friend who has property in Northern Westchester and a propensity for cutting things with chainsaws. Now that we had our base piece we were ready to start our final construction.
Because the pieces were so big, we had to find a place to plane the wood so it could be cut by the CNC. We went to Heights Woodworking who were quick and helpful. We had a beautifully processed piece of red cedar.
In parallel, we fleshed out the code so that the interaction would work with the four rings that we were planning for. We were mixing sounds with the aid of one Wolfgang Gil and piecing our story together. And we were making calls all over Manhattan to try to get our metal rings cut. This proved to be difficult, but the answer ended up being under our noses at the SVA sculpture gallery. We begged to let us use their plasma cutter and they eventually gave in.
We were finally ready to CNC our piece - which at this point was a terrifying moment. We would only have one shot to get it right. Thankfully, all of our drawings were precise and the CNC cuts went beautifully. The LEDs and metal rings all fit perfectly. It was an amazing moment seeing all the pieces come together for the first time.
Now that the scary parts of construction were done, we were heads down chiseling and coding so that it could all come together. After lots of debugging, x-acto-ing, and patient epoxy-ing we got everything together and had our finished product.
What I learnt
- Working with Arduino, FastLED and Capacitive sensors
- Programming in JavaScipt
- Designing a physical product and the interactions involved
- Working in the woodshop and using tools like power drill, chisel, saw, laser cutter and CNC
- Designing a low fidelity prototype to test and iterate faster