Monday, April 11, 2016

Building with Makey Makey

In light of last week's reading, New Opportunities for Interest-Driven Arts Learning in a Digital Age, this week we explored a tool that allows us to combine the arts with the digital: Makey Makey. This is a board that you hook up to your computer, and then you hook various conductive objects (e.g., metal items, food, water, even graphite patches drawn on paper) to the board with alligator clips, and these objects become keys for your keyboard or replacement mouse buttons. Since the hooked-up items work just like buttons on your keyboard or mouse, they work with anything on your computer, but we were encouraged to use them to interact with Scratch projects. I think this allowed us to strengthen the connection to our interests.

Since I'd used a Makey Makey with Play-Doh, food items like bananas, copper tape, and graphite before, I decided to look around the MILL during make time at the end of class last week to find other potentially conductive items. I noticed a jar full of metal bobbins and had an idea--why not hook up several sewing-related metal items? After all, sewing is something I'm interested in these days! Beside the bobbin, I found a needle, needle threader, and pin, and now I had enough items for all four arrow keys. I temporarily lamented the fact that the MILL doesn't have any pincushions to hold the needle and pin, but I found an alternative: a sponge paintbrush. Here are all four items, with the needle and pin lodged in the paintbrush, each one in an appropriate position for the arrow key I planned to hook it up to:

Hooking them up to the Makey Makey ended up considerably messier:
I then thought it would be clever to find a sewing-related Scratch project with which I could interact using these sewing-related metal objects that were now arrow keys. I searched the Scratch website until I found the Rainbow Sewing project, which features a needle that, when you put the "pen" down and control it with arrow keys, "sews" a line of rainbow "thread" onto the fabric-like background.
I found that the Makey Makey had trouble detecting when I was touching the pin and needle, and I had to squeeze them rather hard for the computer to react as if a key was pressed. They might have been too small to make an adequate connection to the circuit, or perhaps they were made of impure metal and were not conductive enough. Nevertheless, I managed to "sew" the following word on my screen (almost) entirely by using the sewing-related arrow keys:
I made a few mistakes because touching pins and bobbins is a little less precise than pressing arrow keys! But ultimately this experiment worked out, and I'm quite pleased.
I'm grateful this class and my lab's research in general has encouraged me to document my projects, such as through the photos and descriptions I post on this blog. The reading this week emphasized how important it is for youth to do the same with their art projects, and how we need to work together with youth to develop platforms to make it easier for them to do so. Scratch is nice because it is open to the "publication" of "draft" projects and works in progress, but it could be even better. It could have space for youth to journal the sources of their ideas, their design decisions, etc. One thing we have to keep in mind is that currently, online "success" is measured by the number of views/ likes/ shares a post gets. A work in progress is not likely to get as many of these as a completed project, so we need to find some other way to motivate the posting of works in progress.
While it did not turn out being relevant to my project this week (though it certainly was in other weeks!), I was glad to see that the reading emphasized the extent to which media properties inspire young people to make art, whether it's fanfic, fanart, or fan videos like machinima. Since I've been deeply embedded in online fandom for many years, I know this is true. A favorite movie, TV show, or anime can motivate deep dedication and tons of creative and critical work. My only concern--and this concern is shared in the reading--is that this kind of work tends not to be acknowledged in society. My favorite fan writers, translators, and artists do this entirely as a hobby. They need to seek income elsewhere. This is partially because copyright issues prevent them from making money off of a media property they do not own, but also because there's this unproductive attitude that fan work is not "serious" and that media posted online should be free to consume. I think we're missing out on a significant contributor to our economy by not properly acknowledging and paying for the real work these fan writers and artists do. In addition, a financial incentive would encourage more people to express themselves through digital art and share online.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Electronics Plus Textiles

I've been working with e-textiles--electronics embedded into textiles--for all four years I've been here at IU. I've made many projects of my own and facilitated more e-textile workshops for youth and adults than I can count. Some of my work can be found at this blog maintained by researchers interested in e-textiles. Therefore, I'm very familiar with sewing e-textile circuits, and making another one would not have been very educationally meaningful for me. I was relieved when Kylie gave me the go-ahead to explore making something else in the School of Education's MILL Makerspace.

Keeping in mind the Buchholz et al. reading about "rupturing traditional gender scripts" around electronics, I wanted to find a way to use electronic parts in unexpected ways. But before I found the parts I wanted to work with, I had no idea how I was going to do this. Without intra-action with the materials, agency to create had not yet emerged. I didn't just "have" this agency before I was inspired by the materials. This really helped me to appreciate the new material feminism perspective introduced in Taylor & Ivinson and explained for the first time in a way I could understand and buy into in Anna's presentation (let me know, though, if any lingering misconceptions about it show up in this post!).

I looked through the bins of various electronic and mechanical parts that had been donated to the MILL space. There were lots of hard plastics and metals, sharp edges and wires--in other words, materials with masculine gendered histories. I settled on a turbine-looking thing attached to a motor (it actually reminded me a bit of a hair curler), and a heavy black plastic disc that also had a motor. I had no idea where these parts had come from originally or what they were used for. Without those preconceived notions, I was free to use the materials in a way that was based solely on emergent properties as I tinkered with them. Here are those two motorized parts:

I used wire strippers to strip the plastic coating from the turbine's wires. That done, I tested whether the turbine worked by holding two 3V coin cell batteries to the wires. The turbine indeed spun! What could I do with this that somehow incorporated textiles? As the turbine spun around, I had a vision of fabric attached to the top of it, draped around it like a skirt, which would hide the metal parts most of the time, but spin when the batteries were activated, like a dancer's skirt. As I was exploring these materials, I also found out that the turbine could be propped up on the black disc piece, by leaning against the disc's motor. That settled the mystery of the disc's role: it would be a platform.

I then ventured back out into the space to find non-electronic materials to incorporate into my project. The felt fabric everyone was using for their e-textile projects seemed too stiff to me to have the spinning effect I was looking for. So I settled on ribbons and sequin tape. I also found some electric tape in blue, my favorite color, to use to attach things together. Here's a picture of almost all the materials I used, which followed the material phenomenon of "magnetizing" to my workspace (a phenomenon that Anna has discovered in her Early Inquiry Project):

I used the blue tape to prop the turbine upright against the disc's motor, and taped the negative lead of the turbine's motor to the negative side of the batteries. The positive lead has to be held in place on the positive side of the batteries in order for the device to spin. I also cut strips of ribbon and sequin tape. I did not end up using the white tape.

Next I tried attaching the ribbons to the top of the turbine with clear Scotch-like tape, but it didn't work. So I used hot glue instead. Here's a photo of the final product next to the hot glue guns:

When I was done, I was quite vocal about how I had made a project that "ruptured gender scripts" around technology because it repurposed mechanical, practical, masculine-coded pieces into a beautiful, playful spinning toy that incorporated feminine-coded materials like ribbons and sequins. Here's a video of the device in action:

Don't ask me to explain what this thing is supposed to be! It kind of reminds me of a merry-go-round or one of those spinning swing rides at carnivals. The important point is I tinkered with materials, let their properties rather than their original intended uses speak for themselves, and disrupted gender scripts by combining traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine materials. The agency to create such a thing was only possible in the free and open context of the MILL, with its assemblage of materials that cover a wide range of high-tech, low-tech, masculine, feminine, electronics, and craft, all working in intra-action.