Advice for the Villainess

For the past many years, I’ve been one of the people that make CONvergence happen.

I – with a varied group of friends, artists, geeks, and a lot of other fantastic volunteers- run a room called the Space Lounge. It’s a smoothie bar with music, comfy chairs and pillows, games, video, a lot of black lights and glowing stuff, and often has installations or interactive projects for con-goers to play with. The multi-channel audio project the sensorium debuted there, and over the years it’s also featured a photo booth, live experimental music and cabaret variety shows, a black light mini-golf course, 3D Twister, Space-Invader Connect Four (the pieces as big as frisbees and requiring a ladder to play), and inflatable pods to lounge in. It’s also served as a space for workshops on how to make circuit bent instruments, LED throwies, bristlebots, or anything else we think is fun. I feel lucky that we are given a lot of autonomy, it’s made the space and the event a really great experimental lab and relatively low-pressure venue for us to throw out ideas and see if they work. I believe strongly that those kinds of environments are necessary for creativity. They also tend to be really fun.

The theme of the convention this year was women in science fiction and fantasy. One of the nights we declared the lounge would be a haven for morally ambiguous or straight up villainous female characters- and set upon brainstorming projects and appropriate decor. Inspired by the Evil Queen of Snow White, we created our own interactive magic mirror to dispense villainess advice.

The final piece was a 2-way mirror mounted in front of a monitor, lit in front by a small spotlight. The light and the video clips were triggered by a motion sensor. When someone checked their reflection in the mirror, the light would switch off and a random video clip would play, revealing itself in the mirror in place of the person’s reflection. We managed to startle some people, which was a lot of fun.

A sample of the video:


This was my first project incorporating video, so it had a few new challenges for me. I wish I’d kept more documentation of the process- or the final product! It’s a surprisingly easy thing for me to forget when I’m working on something. I’ll update with photos if/when any of them surface. (If you have any, or if you have questions about what else went into making this, please drop me an email or a comment!)

I’d also like to thank everyone at CON and the Space Lounge crew, especially my primary collaborators on this project: Lauren DeSteno, Cali Mastny, and Matt Perkins.



I haven’t posted for a few weeks. It took me a bit to get back to my version of normal post-Northern Spark, and there was some traveling to visit family.

A friend of mine who came by to help troubleshoot during installation, was, unbeknownst to me, filming as I puzzled through some difficult issues with speaker assignments. When he is nearby, it is always as a soft spoken presence with a camera. I’d expected stills, but not video:

Observation Tape Deck – a process glimpse from strange puppy on Vimeo.

He also took some of what are now my favorite shots of the setup and the maintenance room.

It’s rare I find myself without a project, so, this weekend I’m hoping my first tentative steps into an interactive video for my favorite annual geek fest are a success. I’ll let you know!

Thanks to everyone involved in Northern Spark -organizers and volunteers and other artists alike- but especially the crew of people who helped me with my project and the staff of the W Hotel. I couldn’t have done it without you. I’d liked to have seen more of the festival, but it is a worthy tradeoff to be a participant. And, there is so much that it’s impossible to see everything, even when you have the whole night! Observation Tape Deck is the most complex thing I’ve ever made, and while it took longer and had more technical difficulties than expected, all in all it went quite well. I love this photo by Amy Gee. I rarely see the sky that color:

Sharon took this photo of me as the sun was coming up.

I am quite out of practice when it comes to staying up all night these days, and this photo does quite a good job not betraying how exhausted I am.




Getting close

Almost all the wiring is up today, enough for preliminary audio and light checks. Still some bugs to find and squash, but going quite well. Tired. Huge thanks to all my helpers!

Cables from above

Big Red Buttons!

Rainy weekends are good for soldering. Making the light box recording stations has involved more logistical challenges and taken a lot more time than I expected, but they’re looking shiny.

While it does, a bit unsettlingly, remind me of HAL:

I will say it is very satisfying to push.

On top of Minneapolis

This weekend found me back on top of the building. Friday was arguably the first uncomfortably hot day we’ve had this year, so while it was pretty lovely to be outside atop a breezy skyscraper, it was also really stuffy and hot in the elevator maintenance room where I’ll be staging everything. My tasks this time were double checking measurements- that my cable runs are long enough, and that the frames I had to make light boxes would fit.

Hi, downtown!

I really love having permission to hang about in non-public spaces in such an interesting historic building.

This is on a pillar in the maintenance room. I know it’s dated 08, but it reminds me of my grandfather’s workshop.

And this is the big steel structure supporting the building’s iconic point.

The days are counting down now. I’ll be spending most the rest of my work time on modifying the software, which is perhaps less picturesque.

Lots of cables

I am almost done creating the cable runs for the Foshay installation. (Big ups to Starfive, who was a big help!) All the lights and speakers are wired- those that remain are the microphone cables and the wiring for the record buttons. The shortest cables are about 30 feet, and the longest are over 100. All together, it will use around 4000 feet of different kinds of cable.

I’m surprised that it took me until now to solder together my own audio cables from scratch – here’s a photo getting started with my first homemade XLR. This was a test. The wiring worked fine, but I ended up snapping the plastic cable clamp. Good thing I have spares!

Making cables from scratch is a bit time consuming, but it lets you choose your materials and your lengths, and it’s significantly more cost effective. (And making stuff is fun.)

The equipment I needed for this project, like I’m certain is true with a lot of artists’ projects, is pretty antithetical to what’s most readily available. Consumer multi-channel amplifier and speaker systems are made for surround-sound home theater setups with 5-7 channels that will support as high fidelity and as wide a frequency response you can get (and probably as much volume as your neighbors will tolerate.) Professional multi-channel amps are made for super high quality studio applications, or movie theater or stage sound systems. For my purposes, I needed 24 discrete channels of audio, and only enough amplification to push low volume, low-fidelity, mid-frequency audio through speakers slightly larger than a silver dollar. Unsurprisingly, an amp for that doesn’t really exist.

I considered using small speakers with built-in amplifiers, basically something like a portable speaker you’d use to plug into an ipod, but all of those are powered with batteries and tend to be of dubious quality. Relying on battery power is a big problem for a long-term installation (Status Update was up for six weeks.) I actually first tried to use multi channel amplifiers built for car stereos. They still provided a lot more power than I needed, but otherwise they seemed perfect! Small, inexpensive, multi-channel, and readily available. But then I realized that it took a crazy hack job in order to make them run on standard power instead of what’s used in a car.

I ended up using an array of 12 small stereo amplifiers. Their most normal use would probably be powering a pair of bookshelf speakers in a non-audiophile’s bedroom. Maybe one day I’ll learn how to make my own amplifiers, but, that’s a whole different project.



These articles were posted online, back to back, by friends of mine who have never met and are quite different from one another in terms of age and background and geography. It is fun to me how much they can relate. What makes art “good” or “bad”, and what can happen contextually when it mashes up with a movement? Punk rock and “new media” are similarly paradoxical in ways I haven’t considered.

This is interesting food for thought as someone interested in both Sterling’s sci-fi literature and the trajectories of “New Media”. I’ll be chewing on that one for a while.

And I find this interesting as a look back. While I shared the author’s fear of alcohol and drugs in my teens, and I’ll still enjoy some hardcore punk, it was never much part of a larger community or movement for me. I never thought of myself as straightedge. (And, well, I’d always, and still, take the Dead Kennedys over Minor Threat or 7 Seconds in a heartbeat.)

I’ve now reached my limit for scare quotes. Until next week…