Following the success of using Makey Makeys to introduce everyday-tech hacking / customisation / re-purposing as part of my Digital Performance Practice module at Plymouth University, I was invited by the head of Dance at Falmouth to create a 2 day workshop introducing the Makey Makey to dance & choreography students as part of their Enhancement Week offering.
- making DIY jumper cables
- making re-useable foot controls / dance mat elements
What I am really drawn to with the Makey Makey is the way in which its intuitive format invites you to jump straight in and learn by doing. For this workshop, I decided to experiment with a hackerspace type set up, where I lay out all of the available kit, played a short introduction video and divided the group into smaller groups (3 students per Makey Makey seems to work best) to get started.
Participants then started feeling their way through how to set up and use the Makey Makeys while I facilitated – answering questions, pointing participants in the direction what they could do next to build on what they were learning…
(there is a lot of excitement as students realise that they themselves are conducting electricity)
(students start to experiment with wiring up different parts of their bodies and clothing)
In addition to the basic set-up, using the default drum-machine and experimenting with the interface between bodies and different conductive items (we found out that wet clothes give quite interesting effects, which was handy as Cornwall was in the midst of a mega-storm and most of us were a little drenched getting to the workshop!), I set up a task using Soundplant (free/shareware Mac & PC software) to map found and/or recorded samples to particular keys on the keyboard. Here’s the video that inspired this part…
Participants found the software really straightforward – drag and drop interface, easy to crop samples and drop to another key, easy and intuitive ways to set up loops/fade/etc. They also found pretty quickly that a SHIFT key would be very useful in their new setups as Soundplant requires you to press KEY + SHIFT to cancel/stop a track playing. This meant that they needed to download Arduino and the Makey Makey add-on to re-programme specific keys. This proved quite difficult and frustrating for the majority of participants (following the sparkfun setup instructions) as it involves setting up accurate file paths, lots of restarting of the application and a need to be very methodical in following the instructions given. I had already installed the application on my computer (as a failsafe) but wanted participants to follow setups that they could easily replicate it themselves outside of the workshop environment.
This ethos of using consumer-level kit (and students bringing their own laptops and devices) is informed by observations on how access to technology is often highly controlled (consciously or unconsciously) in institutional and educational settings, either through its potential unfamiliarity (need to learn specific nomenclature or specialist tuition from a ‘master’), restricted access to expensive single-use equipment (and little access to this outside of the institution or post-graduation), or the presumption that there is a ‘right way’ to use technology of any kind. In my approach, I feel I am always on the lookout for hardware and software that is, in the words of Brian Lamb, ‘fast, cheap and out of control’. In The Digital Scholar, learning technologist and educator Martin Weller (2011) cites Brian Lamb (2010) who talks about the technology he sees as most useful in education as:
fast – easy to learn and quick to set up (no need for training courses and allows for quick experimentation)
cheap – free or freemium (no need to secure funding / ask permission; no need to get bogged down in return on investment)
out of control – outside of formal institutional control (more personal, flexible; also accessible to students in the same form)
These qualities are also familiar to me as an artist, and observable through the lineage of areas like video art, performance, net.art etc. where artists readily re-purpose consumer items (e.g. cameras, TVs, html code) and put them to use in unconventional ways. Using the Makey Makey encourages this type of disruptive activity and the kind of tinkering and free-form/improvised experimentation encouraged by books like The Art Of Tinkering (2014), which I’ve been reading this weekend. This approach allowed participants to explore and experiment freely, develop and apply new knowledges very quickly and start problem-solving and troubleshooting from the very start of the workshop. However, this hack-space type setup up may need a little more framing at the start of the session and in the introduction of tasks/challenges, as participants noted that they would prefer some more direction or more incorporated discipline-specific input to help with devising work with the Makey Makeys.
This reminded me of something quite implicit to the workshop scenario that I probably haven’t identified explicitly before…
WORKSHOPS NEED TASKS THAT GUARANTEE SUCCESS
Rather than time and space to experiment with given stimuli (maybe ‘lab’ is a better term for this? – a space to try out an idea, to prototype, to understand how something works through doing), participants are expecting to follow a series of exercises that lead to more guided outcomes. Something I intend to work on further are ways to balance these factors by preparing some more ready-made elements (larger ‘dance mat’ type kit) that allow participants to spend more time during the workshop experimenting with improvised movements rather than on spending time making the setups from scratch themselves.
Create re-useable / durable ‘dance mats’ and conductive ‘strips’ that are plug and play / modular with easy access to earth via one body part (keeping the wired parts on the floor to avoid regular ‘tangling’)
Write exercises that focus on developing movement within the confines of the mats (using these as creative limitations) – experiment with bodily contact between dancers and the floor
Research bluetooth expansions for the Makey Makey and moves towards DIY wearable tech.