Last year, Artomatic was in the office building next door to where I worked, so I went over nearly every day during lunch to poke around and admire things. I decided at that point that, being a non-juried show that anybody could enter, I wanted to give it a try. I poked around for several months, playing with oddments and ideas, but not really making much progress. Then I got the email for this year's show and realized I only had a few weeks to assemble some pieces if I was going to do it.
I had decided early on that I wanted to have interactive art, stuff people could play with which would react to them, as I wanted to do something different than the "it's too deep for you to understand, too expensive for you to touch" mindset. I had two main ideas, one would be a bustling assemblage of knobs, dials, meters, and lights, that would just sit there if nothing happened, but react jubilantly when people played with it. I considered a microphone or motion detector to kick-start the process. That piece proved to be a little ambitious, and ended up with a big analogue meter as the centerpiece, waving around according to its whims, and the meter illumination fading in and out. There was also a blinking light and a multi-segment fluorescent readout poking out the top. The controls ended up being a knob to turn and a button to push.
My other idea came from the confluence of finding an old microwave oven control panel in the back yard (complete with VFD clock readout) and Andrea's idea of a clock that kept blinking 12:00. I figured it could have a few buttons, and would react like a VCR clock, but with even less logic, and people could try to "set" it, but would be greeted with displays like ==:== or an upside-down 12:00 or "HELP". I did a lot of building on that one, but was thwarted by the complexity of driving a multiplexed VFD and it didn't make it.
As a last-minute addition, I bashed together a dekatron tube (a weird little gas tube that implements an entire 0-10 counter in a single part, quite useful until integrated circuits offered the same functionality in a smaller and cheaper package), along with a pair of buttons that controlled how fast it would spin, and in what direction. I had the idea at 10:30PM a few days before the show, and had it running and in an enclosure in about 90 minutes, a real quickie project.
I also pulled down some neon tubing I'd bent a while back for a map of the DC metro system. I didn't have the time to mount them all for a complete map, so I bashed out some enclosures and just mounted the blue, orange, and red lines. I figured the cheerful glowing neon would attract people to come look.
First, the things I think I got right. I had been sort of expecting space carved up into little offices like the 6th floor last year, but this show was in a brand spanking new building with nothing but big open spaces. I decided that since I had illuminated pieces, I wanted to be away from the windows. This worked out well, as there were little inset alcoves in the building core and I was able to get one as my space. As a lot of foot traffic just orbited the core, I got a lot of exposure. The bright neon also stood out nicely (a bunch of neon artists grouped together on another floor, but I think being separate helped me stand out). Choosing interactive pieces was popular, several people commented on liking that aspect. The comment book (a last minute addition so I could have some sort of feedback) worked out nicely. I even got a comment on the pencil holder (actually a green slime mug belonging to fizzygeek). The arcade-quality pushbuttons, designed for heavy use and abuse, stood up like champs. The Artomatic people also realized at the last minute that their power budget was strained, and instituted a 200-watt limit per space. Fortunately, I didn't have any high-wattage equipment (the electronic pieces were all running off tiny EnergyStar 5-watt power supplies).
Now for things I should have done differently. I should have had business cards printed with contact information. I had designed some, with a little mad scientist and circuitry logo, but didn't get them to a print shop in time. I should have made time to check up on things more often, to replenish the pencil supply, clean up loose papers (someone saw fit to tear out a bunch of pages in my comment book), and fix electronics. It turns out while the majority of people are reasonable and non-abusive, some people really felt the need to wrench the knobs around, unscrewing the control and twisting up the wires, yanking the knob off the shaft, and even breaking the knob. I'm planning on redesigning that control, replacing it with an endlessly-rotating encoder with no stops to push against. That way, there won't be a way to accumulate torque to loosen things.
I also needed to be clearer on what to expect. Many people seemed annoyed by the fact that it wasn't apparent to them what was going on. A lot of people assumed the controls would affect the neon in some way. I plan to have some simple writeups explaining that the pieces get "bored" and enjoy being stimulated. People who want to figure it out for themselves can just skip reading those signs. I also tried for a bit of subtlety by titling the neon Metro lines "red line", "orange line", so people could decide for themselves whether it was just some orange scrawl or representative of the Vienna-New Carrollton line. Apparently people prefer to be told this sort of thing.
I should also make the reactions of the pieces more dramatic. The usual setup was that if you poked the button several times, the pieces would get "excited" and flash more lights and higher readings. Then they'd slowly drift back down over a couple of minutes. But I need to make the reactions more immediate to just a little tweak. I may add sound too, for more immediate feedback.
The pieces were also a little too small and light to be pawed by lots of people. I found power connectors unscrewed, pieces shoved all over. I think next time I'll bolt the pieces directly to the shelves and run the power cords in from underneath. I had considered weighting the pieces, but ran out of time. Bolting them down will make the controls easier to operate and avoid letting people move the pieces or yank at the power connections.