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A Wilderness Most Luminous – The Making of Micah Scott’s Forest

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Toronto’s digiPlaySpace remains a delightful anomaly in Canadian arts and entertainment programming; an offshoot of the Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Kids Film festival, each spring it transforms the HSBC Gallery at the TIFF Lightbox into an interactive playground for children. While we’ve provided an overview of past programs in their entirety here on CAN, this year our attention was caught by a particular project—one that we wanted to delve into in some detail.de

Forest invites kids and adults alike to engage with a giant tactile colour mixer, with ‘spinner’ controls distributed across a 7 x 2 grid of custom-fabricated MDF panels. Elegantly blending hardware and software design, the piece is an evocative luminous forest that enables collaborative interaction and exploration. While the installation is very much a crystallization of San Francisco-based creative technologist Micah Scott’s LED mastery and the interests at play within her practice, focusing this profile squarely on her role in mounting the piece would be disingenuous, as Forest was produced in partnership with a large team of researchers and students from Ryerson University’s New Media Program. In this post, we go behind the scenes to learn about Forest’s development and detail how it was conceived, fabricated, and mounted.

Forest relies on a particle model (build in Cinder) that sloshes a cycling colour palette about by way of fluid dynamics; rendered with LEDs, this system sits ‘within’ the perforated lightboxes and is intended to be felt in every turn of the project’s tactile spinners. Over email, Scott describes the 1:1 correlation between her model and the installation’s assembly. “When I simulated the growth of the shape you see in Forest, these rules in one instantiation became the physical form you see.” The ultimate goal was near-seamlessness: “when you interact with the piece the resulting motion comes from these simple rules as well.”

“It embodies the connectedness, the analogues to tree trunks and plant cells, and the way complexity compounds when many individuals have agency in a system.” – Micah Scott on the organic metaphor at the heart of Forest

Simple rules, finely tuned interactions—more than just the methodology driving the project, these qualities were also formal strategies chosen in response to digiPlaySpace’s 2015 theme of ‘interconnectivity’. “I really wanted it to give a lot of different people who might be looking for different things an inroad to discover the piece and find new ways of interacting from there,” Scott writes of her anticipation of distinct audiences—children, adults, keen explorers, more reticent users—Forest needed to work across scales and engagement levels. “This is why the spinners are all at different height and all have somewhat different interactive abilities even though the basic mechanism behind it all is very simple. I think it facilitates generalization of knowledge: once you start to understand how it works, you can see new ways to interact with it.” digiPlaySpace curator Nick Pagee points out that—beyond interactions—connectivity was ‘baked in’ to the international collaboration. “Forest linked our two countries (over Skype and GitHub, mostly) and the fifty or more individuals involved in its creation,” he summarizes.

↑ As detailed by pages from Scott’s sketchbook, even at its early stages the vision for Forest was clear

The majority of the team that hatched Forest were undergrads enrolled in Ryerson University’s New media Program. Led by Program Director Steven Daniels and Assistant Professor David Bouchard, a whopping 26 students contributed to production. With Scott charged with concept and software design, and crafting rudimentary hardware prototypes from cardboard and electronics from San Francisco studio, she had many hands, the ears of a pair of veteran media artists, a milling machine, and a full workshop dedicated to production in Toronto.

“We wrapped our first meeting up with a survey to find out how students wanted to spend their time: Materials and fabrication? Electronics? Assembly? Quality control and project management? Students knew they would get to focus on their primary interest but they’d also be needed for other tasks.” – Steve Daniels, Director of New Media Ryerson University

Daniels describes how in December the students “gathered around a big screen” and Scott skyped in “to describe the digiPlaySpace concept, share some of her past projects, and answer a tonne of questions.” This relaxed ‘meet n’ greet’ was chased by a more formal pre-production meeting with Nick Pagee and the digiPlaySpace install and exhibition leaders in early January where material refinements, workflow, and expectations were discussed in detail. After building a working prototype (a panel: 1/16th of the project) he and Bouchard confirmed there would be enough labour to split their workforce into separate panel fabrication and electronics assembly teams, and students were grouped according to which tasks they were most interested in.

↑ The Ryerson team prepping, collecting, assembling, and wiring internal LED strips for Circle Forest’s sixteen custom perforated panels

Once production was underway it was fast and furious. Each panel had custom face elements with organic perforation patterning that had to be milled. These faceplates were produced in batches and then set aside for painting, and once dry they were connected with framing elements. When a panel was framed its internal edges were lined with pre-assembled LED strips. Throughout the fabrication and electronics assembly process the team worked with tight tolerances and had to meticulously test each panel. “It took our team five weeks, working flat out, to develop the workflows, test ideas, paint, CNC cut … assemble, solder, and test hundreds of electrical connections and then pack the sixteen panels,” Daniels confides.

One of the most interesting details of Scott’s design is the spinner. Speaking at a lecture at the TIFF Lightbox the week of digiPlaySpace’s opening, Scott outlined her decision to pass on using an expensive off-the-shelf absolution position sensor to detect interactions. “Well, Adafruit already sells these circuitboards that have a colour sensor on them in just the right form factor, maybe we can sense colour instead of a binary pattern.” A simple RGB spectrum sticker was applied to the back of each spinner and then a sensor measures the colour of the portion of the sticker being scanned and used that data to cycle through locations in an RGB colour cube affecting the underlying particle system. The results: “A durable and inexpensive position sensor that you can just kind of add to anything.”

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↑ photo: Geoffrey Gunn (Courtesy of TIFF)

While it took five weeks of round-the-clock production Forest was installed and mounted with style for the opening of digiPlaySpace on March 7th. Built into a wall that serves as the ‘portal’ to enter the gallery, it is a shimmering beacon that welcomes visitors as they arrive at the exhibition. Unsurprisingly, the piece has drawn large and inquisitive crowds, been a hit on Instagram, and been widely noted by local media here in Toronto—The National Post playfully described it as a “James Turrell-like, pinball light installation.”

“As an experimental model for creative collaboration (institution leads commission, artist leads vision and technical guidance, major school leads fabrication), Forest set an exciting precedent for us at TIFF” – Nick Pagee, digiPlaySpace Curator

“It was a very very smooth collaboration,” Scott writes, when asked to summarize her thoughts on working with such a huge team. “I really chalk that up to having excellent collaborators. Nick and Suzan at TIFF did so much organizing that I never would have been able to handle, and Steve is both a master builder and a master inspirer of students.” And it turns out working with Ryerson inspired Scott: she’s left the project wanting to keep her “loner tendencies” in check and do more team-based projects, and seek out more teaching opportunities. Daniels is similarly chuffed about what Forest has meant for New Media at Ryerson and succinctly concludes “I honestly feel that our program and our students are richer for this experience.”

Micah Scott | DigiPlay Space 2015 | Ryerson New Media
Ryerson Production Leads: Steve Daniels, David Bouchard
Ryerson Production Manager: Ashley Lewis
Ryerson Production Assistants: Sabreea Ahmed, Madeleine Amestoy, Meera Balendran, Alexander Basso, Zachary Botvinnik, Erin Brooker, Melissa Chan, Lindsay Cooper, Erica Cristobal, Ngawang Datok, Joelle Dell’Erede, Chelsea Dodd, Alejandro Flores, Amanda Huang, Tiffani Hui, Hilary Julien, Natali Lasky, Kadrah Mensah, Karina Nicole, Victoria Pietsch, Tess Sutherland, Justice Walz, Julia Wice, Mackenzie Willis, Charmaine Yu, McAlister Zeller-Newman
Work-in-progress photography courtesy of Nick Pagee and Meera Balendran

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  • Andreas Gysin

    The color encoder is a nice idea!