Sonic Glimpses Art Installation

Created for the grand opening of our new building at TAMU, built by students, and covered in World Architecture magazine.

Sonic Glimpses is a site specific interactive art installation to celebrate the grand opening of the five-story Liberal Arts: Arts and Humanities building on the prestigious East Quad on the main campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, The building was designed by Brown Reynolds Watford Architects to meet the criteria of the Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design (LEED) silver rating. The opening gala was held April 19, 2013, and the installation remained on display through July 15, 2013.

The art installation was designed to turn a trip up the grand staircase into an audio tour of the research and creative work being done in the building. Sound clips are triggered by traffic on the staircase, sounding near the location of each passerby. Faculty and students in the building contributed clips of their own creative work or the literature they study. Students in the Department of Performance Studies recorded the sound clips, performed some of the voice-acting work, installed the hardware, assisted in calibrating the software settings, and created the video documentation of the project. Creators Jeff Morris and Autum Casey worked with the building proctor, Environmental Health and Safety department, and the Audiovisual Surveillance Technology committee to ensure the installation satisfied concerns of all stakeholders.

The heart of the installation is a secure rack with Apple Mac Mini computer inside, along with multichannel audio interface, amplifier, and rack-mounted keyboard, trackpad, and video display. The computer runs a custom software program created by Jeff Morris in the Max graphic programming environment (by Cycling74). The rack is connected to two analog video cameras for control input (connected to digitizers inside the rack) and six bare speaker cones for audio output.

For aesthetic reasons and also to satisfy Environmental Health and Safety officials, especially since the grand staircase is the primary emergency exit route for most building occupants, we took efforts to keep the hardware minimally invasive. Most notably, we used only two video cameras for motion detection, mounted overhead, instead of sensors mounted on the stairs, such as pressure sensors, infrared tripwires, or infrared or ultrasonic proximity sensors.

The cameras provide vastly more data than such local sensors. This allowed for complex variations in the control data, resulting in the appearance that the artwork responds with a human-like whimsical character, with varying moods. The software turns cameras into motion detectors through frame differencing: calculating the absolute difference between each frame and the next, pixel by pixel, and summing the absolute difference of each pixel to yield a single number corresponding to motion. Since the staircase runs along a large windowed wall, natural light, changing throughout the day and affected by weather, influenced the artwork’s responsiveness over time, and differently so for each color. Further, the color contrasts and patterns of visitors’ clothing, skin, and hair and the ways in which they move each trigger the sounds in unique ways.

Designed by: Jeff Morris and Autum Casey

On the occasion of the Liberal Arts: Arts and Humanities building grand opening April 19, 2013 through July 15, 2013

Content contributors: Jayson Beaster-Jones, Michael Collins, Jeffrey Davis, Rayna Dexter, Mariana Gariazzo, Amy Guerin, Emily McManus’s Music in World Cultures class, Britt Mize, Rohan Sinha, Nancy Warren, Jennifer Wollock, Jaeeun Yi, Costume shop student workers

Content recorded by: Marco Pisterzi, Trent Tate, Casey Gilbert, Priscilla Lopez, Katharine Hinson Installed by Jeff Morris’s Intermedia Performance class and Autum Casey’s New Technology for Designers

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