stephalfish

MUfeat

MINICORN UNIPLAZA

Minicorn Uniplaza is a tabletop interactive sculpture. It is meant to offer the viewer/user complete control over the lighting, sound and set order for a private show by my performance group, Total Unicorn. Looking over the crowd, straight at the three band members, projection-mapped into the sculpture, one is immersed in a live simulation, with an idealized audience, venue and specifications usually reserved for a higher profile group with a limitless budget. For small, local performance groups with ambitious production, reality sets in quickly. Your art is often limited by the imaginations and enthusiasm level of the venue staff, install time, and a variety of other considerations. Minicorn Uniplaza is a fantasy come true, in miniature. And, inviting others to experience our show in this way communicates my vision of our artistic output with more fidelity, like an architectural pre-visualization. It’s beyond reality, and, to be brutally honest, it’s more than Austin deserves at this moment in its history. The venue landscape is shrinking, making acceptable performance circumstances harder to find and far more competitive. The remaining venues are often controlled by booking conglomerates, subject to ridiculous noise restrictions, desperate to sell enough alcohol to cover rent and fend off eviction. Live music and theater are not as much a part of Austin’s DNA as they once were and, with the improvement of technologies like augmented reality, perhaps we are entering an era of highly subjective, personalized virtual performance experiences. The future of live music in Austin may be experienced in goggles, or on tabletops.

 

 

The stage design for Minicorn Uniplaza is composed of a large paper maiche cave that evokes some monuments and stages of the ancient world that are carved out of rock, or utilize natural formations like caves, and outcroppings. Setting a performance or installation in a cave has always been a fantasy of mine, but I would be just as satisfied as constructing a similar organic form. Other aspects of this piece are continuations of this fantastic way of thinking. I wanted an audience composed of those who would typically be excluded from a concert setting: animals, people who appear threatening in appearance (but ultimately harmless), people wearing costumes that might obscure the view of the audience, and I always love eccentric spaces that feel personal, populated with objects that feel familiar.

 

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As a connoisseur of external MIDI controllers, I wanted to create a unique one for this project. I wanted something organically shaped, with controls arrayed evenly over a lumpy mound. The rectilinear approach to most such controllers doesn’t always feel intuitive to me. When a human grabs or feels something, our sense of touch enables us to visualize its shape and texture in our minds. When I use a keyboard or a typical giant ‘bank of buttons’ style controller, it leaves me cold. I want a more visceral response to my controller. I want the tactile experience of interacting with technology to merge the natural and the synthetic worlds, if possible. The sleek sterility of most interface design (whether virtual or physical) is a real disappointment and I wanted to remedy this. This controller is a perfect complement to my piece, and is, what I hope to be, the first of many such controllers that I design.

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My friend and collaborator, Noah Wight,  helped me with many of the technical aspects of this piece. I had originally built a working version of the piece for the Art of the Brew using Resolume Arena, but I wanted to add some functionality and Noah and I were both beginning to use Touch Designer (although he far more adept, than I). It was Noah’s idea to suggest adding animated LED’s to the piece, after he saw it Art of the Brew. Having seen some of his other lighting work, I agreed. I always wanted this to feel like a proper club performance, with high-end production, but in miniature. We added some strips behind the screen and foliage inside the cave. The way it illuminates the interior of the mouth without washing out the projections is a really nice feature. Noah designed several procedural lighting animations in Touch that he mapped to the LEDs using off-the-shelf micro-controllers. He was able to rebuild my video control system from Resolume inside touch and map it to the six arcade buttons on the controller. He was also the one who printed my controller design and wired all of the buttons and knobs.

 

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After some experimentation, Noah figured out how to control the servos used to activate the crowd using Arduino and Touch. I had to drill into the crowd area to mount the motors. I glued the notched fittings onto the bottom of the crowd figurines so that they could attach to the servos. We’re still figuring out a more randomized movement for the crowd. Currently, they all turn in unison, which, although not as natural as we were hoping, is still better than nothing. Touch was generating too much data for the serially-controlled micro-controllers to handle and we were getting jerky, intermittent motion. Ultimately, we’ll have to use multiple micro-controllers each with their own USB connection and set of data to make the crowd move in a more random motion.

 

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