Many Hands at BEAMS arts festival

BEAMS arts festival takes over Chippendale, Sydney, for a night in September each year. It brings together an eclectic mix of light, music, food and graffiti. Think a poor man’s Vivid Festival. Sydney loves its light festivals, and BEAMS gives those new to the game a chance on something a bit more low key, with less bureaucracy (and a lot less organisation).

I collaborated with Bel Campbell, an old friend and polymath of creative pursuits who has dabbled in a bunch of stuff (including viral fame).

The only brief was “Spirit”. We wanted to concoct something that forced teamwork between strangers, rewarding cooperation on a physically interactive installation with changes in the display. Translation: work together and pretty lights happen.

Design and Build


The installation consisted of an illuminated structure, mounted across the laneway from stations with buttons on them that users could use to interact with the installation, as shown in the drawing below:

Layout of the components of the installation. Note that 3 buttons were used instead of 5 in the final design. Drawing courtesy of Bel Campbell.

The structure

The display component of the installation was a 1m by 1m steel sign, constructed in Bel’s signature style. The sign featured three different hand symbols, which were covered in EL wire, and illuminated according to the way users were interacting with the installation.
The symbols were two hands coming together, made up of three states:

  1. Red fists
  2. Orange and reaching out
  3. Yellow high five


To achieve the desired behaviour, a system of cascading single pole, double throw switches was designed.

The schematic showing how the sign and stations were activated, depending on the state of the buttons
  1.  No buttons pressed – sign is completely off and first station is lit up
  2. First button pressed – red fists are displayed and second station is lit up, first station is now off
  3. Second button pressed – orange intermediate state is displayed and third station is now lit, second station now off.
  4. Third button pressed – yellow high five is displayed, all stations off.

This is summarised in the truth table:

Button states Station lit Sign lit
1 2 3
0 x x First None
1 0 x Second Red fist
1 1 0 Third Orange reach
1 1 1 None Yellow high five

If the buttons were not pressed in order the display would not work. For example if the second button was not pressed, pressing station 3 did nothing. This confused users and made the display a puzzle, with strangers coming together to work it out.


To keep the installation weather-proof, plenty of effort went into the selection of buttons and enclosures. An IP69K enclosure Eaton enclosure was used to house the button, and the connections that served to power the installation. A simple IP65 button was installed in this enclosure.

Cable glands, heat-shrink and o-rings were used at all applicable points to ensure build quality was the highest possible.


The stations consisted of the mounted buttons and enclosures, and the white EL wire that illuminated to invite a user to push the button. They were simply milk crates stacked 3 high, wrapped in tissue paper and cardboard with the EL wire inside. This is visible in the video below.


Things went smoothly on the day:

As night fell, the lights became far more obvious, and the activating of the sign was great.

On states and overlays of ‘Many Hands’ at BEAMS festival 2016. Photo credit: Tobias Beckmann

The feedback from users was positive. From what we could see on the night it was the most physically interactive installation, with others involving gesture interaction with cameras or sensors, rather than physical buttons such as we had.

Something unexpected was the enjoyment from all users pushing the buttons rapidly. This caused the icons on the sign to flash through randomly and quickly – due to a totally analog system the action was instantaneous. This is demonstrated in the video that Bel put together.

Overall the project was a success, engaging strangers and easily lasting the duration of the festival and being outside.

One thought on “Many Hands at BEAMS arts festival

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