The artist residency at Autodesk’s Pier-9 Workshop is hard to leave at night. It is easy to be workaholic when you love what you are doing and have the priviledge to work in such a space, where so much thought and so many resources have been invested to remove every possible obstacle to progressing from concepts to designs to physical realities. It is hard to be confronted with both such immense opportunity, and the finiteness of time. And so leaving becomes difficult, but last night I had a really good excuse:
My friend Shanee posted on social media a link to a news article describing a dead sperm whale washing ashore:
guys!! guys!! a sperm whale washed up in pacifica!! who knows what beach this is (you can see more in the video)?!! who wants to go check it out with me before those pesky scientists get to it?!
And so, in the midst of very earnest hard work, I found myself recognizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of an even more ephemeral sort than this four-month residency, and yielding to the call of adventure. Vehicles were coordinated, and it was agreed that Shanee, Elle, Erika, and Sunny – coincidentally, and delightfully, all extremely brilliant, interesting, and attractive women – would converge on my location at Pier 9 from all over the bay, and progress from there together in Shanee’s car to Pacifica.
For the briefest moment, I almost gave in to fatigue, inertia, and the overwhelming awareness of how much work I have to do to achieve my goals of this artist residency. It was midnight, after all, and on a tuesday where, that friday, I had my first formal critique of my residency. Then I remembered that the most magical evenings of my life have consistently resulted from stepping up in such moments, and going farther. I even have a letter my grandfather wrote, attesting to how he was almost ready to go home and get to sleep when, instead, “I chose music”. The rest of that letter, to his mother, described the series of events that led him falling in love with the young soloist of the night, who I and all his descendants get to call Grandma. Staying in rarely opens new chapters.
We parked as near as we could and walked on trails the rest of the way, and the stars were brilliant overhead on a cloudless clear night. I reflected on the providence that this morning, for the first time in a month, I had thought to bring my SLR camera to work with me, and had my tripod under my desk.
I’ve been home for but a week, and tomorrow I set out on a grand adventure of driving crosscountry in wintertime for a yet grander adventure as an artist in residence at the incomparable Autodesk Pier-9 workshop. Before I go though, I wanted to upload a few of the digital test shots I made while in hawaii this last month, shooting “Electrified Flowers (and leaves) of Hawaii“.
These were off the cuff test shots – throw-aways – done to check my exposure, check the electrical apparatus, and visualize the pattern of branching lightning that I might be about to record onto expensive 20-square-inch large sheets of silver halide and color film. These are not the final products of my project, rather mere teasers of work-in-progress. (I have yet to develop that film, which I’ll do once I can settle into San Francisco.) However, I’m pretty ecstatic with the results, sofar!
One of the most exciting learning discoveries for me during this work is that I can significantly control whether lightning issues radially from the leaf, or tangentially skirting around it, or some mix between the two. I’m looking forward to making an excellent explanation of how this works, both practically and in detailed physical terms. It will probably be a chapter of the book I’m working on, “Theory and Practice of High Voltage Photography”.
The “Electrified Flowers of Hawaii” project succeeded in raising more than twice it’s initial funding goal! Consequently I am now in Hawaii where, for the next month, I will be studying the floral biodiversity of the Big Island using a large format film camera and apparatus I built myself, including a lightning machine (a Marx generator) capable of producing intense pulses of electricity at up to a quarter million volts.
“Giddy” cannot begin to describe my feelings upon learning, on Thanksgiving, that I have been selected to be an Artist In Residence at Autodesk’s Pier-9 dream-lab in San-Francisco.
The concentration of brains, initiative, creativity, and capability in that space is stunning. In close approximation to Tony Stark’s workshop (from the movie Iron-Man) — a dream-shop with some of the most capable robotic fabrication equipment and tooling in existence including 3D printers, water-jets, lasers engravers powerful enough to work with metal, multi-axis milling machines, and more — it goes far beyond simple awesome tooling to be, from what I gather, a collegiate atmosphere where everyone is extraordinarily motivated to learn, make, and do things that push the limits of creativity, and in a context where the expected norm is to share and disseminate knowledge through the Instructables knowledge sharing website platform. Buzz Aldrin (Astronaut of Apollo XI moon-landing fame and the second person to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong) was hanging out there testing a functioning magnetic repulsion hoverboard a few weeks ago, for instance. To be included in the cohort of selected artists for 2015 is a huge honor and inspires me to the grandest ambitions. Thank you, universe. Thank you, Noah. Thank you, Vanessa. Thank you, Mary. Thank you, Karen.
I’m fascinated with ephemeral phenomena, and the most recent manifestation of this has led me to invent some elaborate technical apparatus to make photographs of huge bubbles doing interesting things. Here are two videos of it working for the first time- the first with a series of close-up views of different components, the second as a wide-view of the whole system in operation.
Giant bubbles are uniquely able to engage and delight people of all types. Who can resist feeling wonder and awe at giant, floating, opalescent, undulating transparent orbs and the salience they give to normally invisible 3-dimensional flows? After my first experience blowing bubbles from a moving bicycle (the wind past the bicycle removes any requirement to blow or move the wand, you just adjust your speed to get the right wind), I was hooked.
I’ve organized a number of bubble blowing events, especially the “Bubbles on Bikes Jamboree Ride” for Bike Pittsburgh’s Bikefest and the first ever “Giant Bubbles Flash Mob”. For the latter, I manufactured 45 giant bubble wands, and about 25 gallons of giant bubble juice, and coordinated a synchronized release of ridiculously many insanely huge giant bubbles. Beyond the pre-arranged 45 bubble blowers, we had the fully invested attention and participation of somewhere between 300 and 500 people for several solid hours. All for about two days prep and maybe $200 in materials (including the pizza for the wand-making party). See the nicely polished video made by Ben Saks of Float Pictures here, or the great single-take cellphone video clip from Jason Kirin here.
For some things I’d like to do, I required a highly repeatable way of producing bubbles, and controlling aspects like timing and size and speed and direction. I also love a good engineering challenge, and so I invented a cable iris aperture mechanism and set out to use it to make a uniquely flexible and useful bubble machine. A CNC bubble machine.
There’s a few very sophisticated things I’d like to do with this which I’ll write about later, but for the first project I’m looking forward to making playful occupational portraits of some friends, mentors, and elders I feel lucky to know and learn from. I’m fortunate to have a few such in my life, in their sixties, seventies and eighties, and who in addition to great technical accomplishments, embody wonderful spirits of playfulness and creativity in their golden years that it’d be my pleasure to honor and record with such portraits.
Today I got the cables laced with a new, more robust-seeming cable than the cotton yarn I’d been using. I also plumbed up the fluid delivery needle valve and solenoid, so it’s ready to go.
I let the system cycle open and closed a few thousand times while I worked, once every second or two.
A hiccup occurred when the stepper motor was accidentally overdriven due to a mis-setting of the “run current” on the Vexta stepper driver. This overheated the motor and caused a motor fault, most likely a shorted coil. Thankfully I’ve got a bin of stepper motors from various past projects and all that’s required to fix it is to 3D print a new adapter cog, which links the new motors 0.233″ diameter shaft, to the existing bicycle sprocket gear. The old adapter was a 0.25″ diameter shaft. Thankfully, modifying the CAD file, exporting a new STL model, and 3-D printing a new pulley adapter requires only about 15 minutes of my time (with the print then occurring in the background for maybe 30 minutes). Wiring in the new motor (identifying the color code of the stepper’s wires and soldering it to the cable connector) will take perhaps 45 minutes.
The Human Scale is a gorgeous film about the ways in which the organization of our infrastructure shapes our lives. Much of the last 50 years has seen cities organized around cars, with tragic consequences for common spaces and face-to-face human interaction. The human scale documents some of the best efforts at bringing cities back to life as places for human, not automotive, interaction.
I am honored to get to introduce the film and, following the showing, moderate a panel discussion with notable figures from the mayor’s office of community development, the mayor’s office Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator, and Bike Pittsburgh.
The Human Scale shows at the Harris Theater downtown, 809 Liberty Avenue, on Thursday November 13th at 7:00 pm. Panel Discussion to follow. Tickets are $9, and can be bought online or in person.
Can you fathom what it must feel like to be one of the astronomers who, 45 years ago, discovered a comet, and is here today watching as we as a species are rendezvousing with that comet, gently landing a 200 pound Philae probe onto the surface, while we watch from the orbiting Rosetta spacecraft 19 miles above?
This is so humbling and inspiring to witness. Congratulations to everyone involved, especially the engineers which, by the various slingshot maneuvers, accelerated this spacecraft so deep into space on such a perfectly accurate trajectory to hit a bullseye hundreds of millions of miles away!!
Watch this amazing animation of the incredible 12 year long, half-a-billion-mile, bullseye we will see stick it’s landing here in less than one hour!!
A tale of how I learned to weld
I frequently describe learning to weld as one of the most empowering breakthroughs in my growth as a designer. All new fabrication skills open new opportunities to dream a little (or a lot) bigger, and welding suddenly let me see much more of the sorts of things around me as achievable by my own hand.
In general, I like to work on a principle that if I can find a way to enjoy the practice, the result will be both better and more authentic. (This is key not only to welding, but any skill). So I set out to find fun little excercises to practice welding on.
One of these excercises was making rings from square and round tubing. If you have a saw that can cut accurate angles repeatably, it’s easy to turn out a set of parts that will fit into a nice ring, with lots of seams to practice welding together. Below are the first such rings I undertook, when practicing TIG-brazing mild steel rings with silicon bronze filler metal. Along the way, I realized with delight that here was a great excuse to destructively test something, too. Thus, the video at the bottom, which shows one frame per hydraulic-pump-stroke, as I crushed the first ring and observed its failure modes.