Gun Control (revisited)

My writing (below) was originally printed as part of the Disobedient Electronics project by Garnet Hertz. It is a limited edition publishing project that highlights confrontational work from industrial designers, electronic artists, hackers and makers that disobey conventions. 

 

Gun Control (revisited)

In 2004, I created Gun Control — a set of four electromechanical sculptures, which used stepper motors, servos and cheap cameras that were controlled by AVR code. The distinguishing feature of each unit is a police-issue semi-automatic replica handgun. You can purchase these authentic-looking firearms for less than $100.

The make-believe weapons arrived in the mail a week after I ordered them. That night, I closed the blinds, drank too much whisky and danced around my apartment in my underwear waving my new guns around. The next morning, I packed them in a duffel bag and took the “L” in Chicago to my studio. During the 45-minute commute I felt like a criminal.

Each gun is connected a stepper motor via a direct-drive shaft and flexible couplings. I used a lathe and a milling machine to make custom fittings. I hid unsightly electronics in a custom-sewn leather pouch, resembling some sort of body bag.

As people enter the Gun Control installation space, the cameras track their movement, and the guns follow their motion. Well, at least this is what I had hoped it would do. However, I had committed to using the first gen CMUCam and its blob-tracking software was spotty at best. I was under a deadline. It was too late to spec out new cameras. Plus, these were the right size for the artwork, which was using decentralized embedded hardware. I shifted my focus to building a chaotic system.

I re-coded the installation so the guns would point at different targets. They would  occasionally twirl about playfully and re-home themselves. I programmed the stepper motors to make the armatures shake and rattle when they got confusing target information. The software design embraced unpredictability, which made the whole artwork feel uncertain, embodying the primal emotion of fear.

Gun Control was my heavy-handed response to the post-911 landscape and the onset of the Iraq War. I exhibited it twice, then packed it up. It lacked subtlety and tension. At the time, there was not enough room for the viewer.

Just last month, I pulled the artwork out of deep storage. I brought the pieces to my studio and plugged in one of the units. It functioned perfectly. Upon revisiting this piece after 12 years, my combination of guns and surveillance seems eerily prescient.

Mass shootings have drastically increased in the last several years. Surveillance is everywhere, both with physical cameras and the invisible data-tracking from internet servers. Documentation of police shootings of unarmed African Americans is sadly, commonplace. I no longer recoil from the explicit violence of this old artwork.

I coded this using AVR microcontrollers, just before the Arduino was launched. It was tedious work just to get the various components working. I can no longer understand the lines of C code that I wrote many years ago. The younger me was technically smarter than the current me. My older self can put this historical piece into perspective. I plan to re-exhibit it in the coming years.

GitHub repo: https://github.com/scottkildall/GunControl

Collecting Sacred Fluids

I recently debuted a new art installation called Cybernetic Spirits at the L.A.S.T. Festival. This is an interactive electronic artwork, where participants generate sonic arrangements based on various sacred fluids. These include both historical liquids-of-workshop such as holy water, blood and breast milk and more contemporary ones such as gasoline and coconut water.

My proposal got accepted. Next, I had to actually collect these fluids.

My original list included: blood, holy water, coffee, gasoline, adrenaline, breast milk, corn syrup, wine, coca-cola, coconut water, vaccine (measles), sweat and kombucha

Some of these were easily procured at the local convenience store and a trip to the local gas pump. No problem.

But what about the others? I found holy water on Amazon, which didn’t surprise me, but then again this wasn’t anything I had ever thought about before.

I knew the medical ones would be the hardest: adrenaline and a measles vaccine. After hours scouring the internet and emailing with a doctor friend of mine, I realized I had to abandon these two. They were either prohibitively expensive or would require deceptive techniques that I wasn’t willing to try.

Art is a bag of failures and I expected not to be entirely successful. Corn syrup surprised me however. After my online shipment arrived, I discovered was sticky and too thick. It is syrup after all. Right. My electrical probes got gunky and more to the point, it didn’t conduct any electrical current. No current = no sound.

Meanwhile, I put out feelers for the human bodily fluids: blood, sweat and breast milk. Although it was easy to find animal blood, what I really wanted was human blood (mine). I connected with a friend of a friend, who is a licensed nurse and supporter of the arts. After many emails, we arranged an in-home blood draw. I thought I’d be squeamish about watching my blood go into several vials (I needed 50ml for the installation), but instead was fascinated by the process. We used anti-coagulant to make it less clotty, but it still separated into a viscous section at the bottom.

Since I am unable to produce breast milk, I cautiously inquired with some good friends who are recent moms and found someone willing to help. So grateful! She supplied me with one baby-serving size of breast milk just a couple of days before the exhibition, so that it would preserve better. At this point, along with the human blood in the fridge, I was thankful that I live alone and didn’t have to explain what was going on to skeptical housemates.

I saved the sweat for the last-minute, thinking that there was some easy way I could get sweaty in an exercise class and extract some. Once again a friend helped me, or at least tried, by going to a indoor cycling class and sweating into a cotton t-shirt. However, wringing it out produced maybe a drop or two of sweat, nowhere close to the required 50ml for the vials.

I was sweating over the sweat and really wanted it. I made more inquiries. One colleague suggested tears. Of course, blood, sweat and tears, though admittedly I felt like I was treading into Kik Smith territory at this point.

So, I did a calculation on the amount of tears you would need to collect 50ml and this would mean a crying a river everyday for about 8 months. Not enough time and not enough sadness.

Finally, just before shooting the documentation for the installation, the sweat came through. I friend’s father works for a company that produces artificial sweat and gave me 5 gallons of this mixture. It was a heavy thing to carry on BART, but I made it home without any spillage.

Artificial sweat? Seems gross and weird. The truth is a lot more sensible. A lot of companies need to test human sweat effects on products from wearable devices to steering wheels and it’s more efficient to make synthetic sweat than work with actual humans. Economics carves odd channels.

My artwork often takes me on odd paths of inquiry and this was no exception. Now, I just have to figure out what to do with all the sweat I have stored in my fridge.