Many Hands at Secret Garden Festival

Recently, Many Hands was accepted and installed at another arts festival. The installation underwent a few changes and upgrades for the new location, and the nature of the festival added some new challenges compared to the last installation at BEAMS festival.

The festival

The Secret Garden Festival is a two day arts and music festival that has been held at Brownlow Hill Farm for almost ten years. It features a large contribution from volunteering creatives to transform the farm’s paddocks and forest into an engrossing experience for those who make the journey.

Updating the installation

A major change recognised immediately after the piece was accepted was to remove the physical interaction. At BEAMS, the installation used buttons on elevated and lit stations for people to press. At Secret Garden, the piece would be unsupervised for two days and be surrounded by large crowds that would include intoxicated punters.

The proposed changes were to upgrade the installation to be battery powered, and for the trigger to be motion activated rather than using buttons.

The battery upgrade was desired as we made more work for ourselves during BEAMS by relying on a mains power connection, having to get clearance from nervous site managers that our installation was safe.

The motion sensor addition satisfies the need for a non physical interaction with punters. The artwork is still triggered by the human body, but without physical contact, thus is less likely to be damaged (accidentally, deliberately, or gradually through wear).

Hardware and setup

In addition to the original installations components of the frame and the EL wire, the following items were purchased:

Other minor parts included various wire, a fuse and fuse holder, and a terminal block. All up, this cost roughly AUD100. You can see how these parts fit together to create the system in the photo and conceptual schematic below.

Hardware components used in the Secret Garden installation, in their dri-box.
Conceptual overview of the hardware in the system used to control the Many Hands installation

Software and interactivity

As these installations are developed, it is crucial that their behaviour is sensible and engaging for human interaction. This can vary dramatically, depending on the context of the installation, and for this reason I travelled to site with my laptop so I could change the code and the behaviour if required.

Initially, the code on the Arduino would step to the next light each time the PIR sensor was triggered. However, PIR sensors cannot trigger rapidly if there is movement in front of it. Rather, it is triggered by motion, and will not switch off and back on until motion completely stops and starts again. Code for detecting these events with the Arduino came straight from the Arduino playground.

The code was changed to step through a pattern whenever the PIR sensor was triggered. These patterns became more elaborate and would be selected at random when the trigger occurred. This lead to an unpredictable and engrossing experience, but ultimately did not suit the location of the installation as it drew too much attention to a piece which, to be fair, was not and should not have been the centre of attention in that space. As such, the pattern was simplified to cycling through the lights at each trigger. The project for this code can be viewed at this repository.

I also had some fun creating a little desktop application that would assist in the generation of the code for programming a variety of flashing patterns. The application records inputs on the keyboard corresponding to the lights, and once the recording is complete, prints out Arduino code that can be copied straight into the project, that will cause the lights to flash in the desired manner. This code can be found in this repository. A screenshot is shown below.

Screenshot of the software that records key presses and produces Arduino code that will recreate that pattern on the Many Hands sign

Review of installation

The piece was placed above one of the small bars at the festival. The PIR sensor was concealed off to the side so that when a customer approached the bar, the sensor was triggered and the light sequence played out.

The setting of the installation as seen at day. The piece sits directly above the serving area of the bar. When fully installed, the Dri-Box sits on the ground, to the left, out of shot. Yes, that’s the beginnings of a treehouse in the background. Secret Garden is awesome.

The installation worked well on the first night of the festival, with the triggering working as expected and the lights being clearly visible. However, there were a few issues that are worth mentioning.

On the second night, the group running the bar placed a massive floodlight over the bar area which seriously detracted from the perceived brightness and impact of our piece. There was nothing to be done about this, as it was a safety issue. In future, a quieter area would be more suitable, away from other potential sources of light and away from areas that are under control of a group not involved with the artistic set up.

As well as this, on the second night the sensor stopped triggering. My theory on this was that the significant levels of dust (the large crowd had kicked up from the dirt tracks) had settled on the sensor. As I was checking the electronics, the sensor was triggered by my actions and the lights played out, so they hadn’t malfunctioned completely. This was another issue that was hard to avoid. In future, I will change the code so that if there are no triggers for some time, the controller will start playing the lights sequences intermittently regardless.

The signage component of the installation is still intact, so hopefully we will be getting more use out of this piece in the future!

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