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The Playhaus Project: mobius strip, playful monome and soldering party

Last Thursday, I went to my first soldering party! The concept is simple: gather friends, friends of friends and anyone who wants to help, bring soldering irons and boards, LEDs, switchers that need to be solder. You add some music and beer (but not much if you don’t want to end at the hospital), and BAM, soldering party!

The goal was to help Tim Jones (@tones) and friends on their Playhaus Project, an art installation that will be presented at Figment in Jackson, MS, in a few weeks.

Tim is working on this project since January. I let him explain here how Playhaus Project was born, what are the main influences and what is Figment Jackson. Pretty exciting!

Where does the Playhaus Project come from?

Tim Jones: “For me, the idea that eventually became this project started a few years ago when I bought a Monome. (Monome.org) This was a fascinating and important device — it radically changed the way DJs and producers interact with music. Now almost every major computer-audio controller has a light-up grid of unlabeled buttons, but when the Monome was released in 2006 it was unheard of. It looked insane, bizzare.

I always thought a big part of the beauty of having this big grid of unlabeled lightbuttons is the ambiguity. Nobody’s really sure what the lights or buttons DO. So there can be room for abstract patterns and surprises to occur. Devices like this have usually been called music “controllers” (or “MIDI controllers,”) with emphasis on the CONTROL, which to me sometimes sounds like every detail must be proactively directed and restrained. But I think giving up some control is fun, maybe even important. The Monome felt like it gave computer musicians some room to breath, space for experimentation and games.

But not enough room! The Monome still confined all these little tiny buttons to a little tiny box in front of a single tiny performer. I always wanted to find a way to free the buttons from the box, spread them around a space, to make them three-dimensional, something many people could play a game together on, like an Easter-egg hunt or a Twister board.

I was sure this could be done, because of the amazing “Arduinome” project, which is a large community of hobbyists who spend their time building customized Monome-like devices and sharing their work with each other online. As a result of their effort, there’s a ton of pre-existing resources — hardware, software and howto-guides — which I knew would radically cut down on the amount of time and expertise required to build this thing.”

What people and/or events were the driving force behind this project?

Tim Jones: “I had all these ideas but no place to do anything with them. So, it was exciting to learn last January that a friend, Melvin Priester, had been thinking similar thoughts. Melvin’s living in Jackson Mississipi, and has been working hard to help launch a giant art festival there called Figment. It’ll be held in an abandoned Coca Cola factory-complex that’s being turned into a community art space. Jackson is a town that doesn’t ordinarily see much cutting-edge art, and Melvin wanted to show the folks there something really special. He contacted me and some mutual friends and asked if we’d be willing to build what he described as a giant climbable collaborative APC40. The Akai APC40 is a very similar to device to the Monome, so right away I knew some of the ideas I’d been considering could be put to work.

Melvin also enlisted a great team of designers, engineers and organizers. We decided that the lighter electronic components should be built here and then shipped to Jackson, but that the heavier structural parts should be constructed on-site in Jackson. Someone here in SF came up with the idea of building the skeleton as a giant mobius-strip-shaped jungle-gym. Melvin found a great local builder and artist named Austin Richardson — he loved the idea and threw himself into figuring out how to make it happen.

So, now it’s a few months later and we’ve got just a few weeks left to pull it all together! I am thinking of the May version of this as just the first draft of many. Hopefully the project will have a longer life at other festivals and art-events over the course of the year, and hopefully we can make it grow and improve every time.”

No one has seen yet how it will look like because all the software and electronics part (with the light buttons we were soldering that night) are in San Francisco with Tim and friends, and the sculpture is in Jackson, Mississippi!

Really interesting to see how the team used the Internet to work all together: weekly meetings on Skype, Google Group and documentation website to archive and work on all sketches and proposals. They just launched the official website of the Playhaus Project, you shoud check it out!

Tim Jones:

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1 Comment

  • […] week, just after our Soldering Party, Mathilde Berchon from Making Society, wrote a really nice article on our project and some of the things we are trying to achieve with it.   In general, she is in town from Paris, […]

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