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A few months ago I was given an art award to create an exhibition this October. The award was for a cross-disciplinary artistic project around community development and the social sciences.
The project I developed is called the Museum the Shared Now. It consists of a set of playful experiments - using social media, crowd-sourcing and other interactive tools - to enhance a sense of community in the local area. Each experiment seeks small ways to reinforce feelings of belonging, connectedness and recognition. The experiments also aim to reclaim some of our online activity into the physical world, transforming the ephemeral and virtual into something more tangible.
I wanted the Museum to be a fun and interactive experience, both for people who visit in person or just visit virtually. Creating the interactive exhibits required much more complex engineering than anything I’ve worked with before as an artist. Luckily I had an experienced friend who was able to realise my plans for me. By far the most technically complex exhibit in the show is the Decision machine.
As part of the community development aspect of the show, I wanted to ask people for their opinions on various issues. The questions will be asked over Twitter, but I wanted people’s answers to trigger some kind of physical activity within the actual show space. Initially I imagined some kind of dispenser that would release marbles into a receptacle depending on people’s answers. Then I thought the whole thing would be more fun if the marbles went down a marble track into the receptacles.
The final architecture we settled on is driven by two Raspbery Pi’s and two Ardiunos. There are 2 3D printed dispensers that hold the marbles and release them into the marble track. One of the Raspberry Pi’s receives a JSON feed via the Twitter API telling it when someone has answered the question and what their answer is. The Pi controls the two Arduinos, one for each dispenser. Each Arduino drives two servo motors which rotate the dispenser cartridge and release a single marble when triggered. The Arduino also drives a dot matrix LCD which provides a counter of the number of answers.
The second Raspberry Pi uses a Picamera to provide a live streaming web feed. This means that people can answer the question remotely but still watch the machine record their answer.
The hardware for the Decision machine was generously supplied by RS Components.
One of the biggest challenges in building the machine was the design of the dispensers. Initially we had planned a simple tubular holder for the marbles with a mechanism to open and close a hole at the bottom to allow a marble to fall though. However, initial testing showed that the marbles were hard to control like this and also tended to get stuck. Instead, my friend came up with a more controllable mechanism, whereby the marbles were held in a cartridge which channelled them and rotated to release each marble individually.
This was my first experience of 3D printing, and I was fascinated by the power it gives you to just imagine any component shape you need, and then create it. As a non-engineer I was also struck by just how much work goes into prototyping something like this: testing and refining/reprinting it, until it’s fit for purpose. The machine will be fully assembled and soldered when we install the show.
The Museum of the Shared Now will be live between 20-24 October, in Holloway Road, North London. I will be present for the whole week, curating and adding new content. Please do come along if you happen to be in the area. But even if you’re not, it would be great if you’d like to answer one of our daily questions, and watch the Decision machine in action.
Follow us on Twitter @musofsharednow
Read more about the projects featured.