The Listener is an interactive art piece our arts group, Skylark Collective, debuted at Burning Man 2019. This post is a background story by Rob on the art’s origin.
The Listener was originally inspired as an idea to create a piece that people would touch and would result in some kind of light show or performance.
I was watching animatronics videos made by Aaron Fechter, who is kind of this god of musical animal animatronics. I had this concept of building a giant animatronic rabbit that would raise out of a cylinder and play electric guitar.
That idea withered after I tried to build some animatronic eyes with an Arduino in early October of 2018 and realized how hard DIY animatronics actually was.
Around this time, the Burning Man arts organization was opening the call for participants to submit a Letter of Intent. I began discussing the ideas with Miller, who had never been to the burn but was a good friend and electrician by trade.
I’m not sure how I got to Simon exactly. But one day I started thinking about and researching the playback of the game Simon from the 1980s. I was so set on the idea I bought an original, vintage copy of the game off eBay.
I searched the web and found tinkerer and experimenter Simon Inns (coincidentally also “Simon”) who had reverse-engineered the original game Simon and published his results.
His deep investigation of the game, From the microprocessors used to frequency of tones played back by the machine the wealth of information he had online gave me more confidence to think we too could recreate it.
From Big to Small
At first I had an idea for the center column to be absolutely massive. Inspired by a structure I saw walking in SE Portland, I thought a giant umbrella or mushroom-shaped center structure would be awesome.
It wasn’t long before I started thinking about how hard it would be to build something that size. I also realized that something shaped like this could easily topple without serious support cables and possibly crush a participant!
And talking with Miller in the living room we got it down to being something small. Something the size of an industrial cable spool.
The First Electronics
Photon, (who would go on to become Skylark Collective’s Master of Hardware and Software) visited Portland and we assembled an Arduino-based prototype of Simon with tiny buttons over a long weekend.
We made a video of this working and included it with both our Letter of Intent and Proposal.
This was the keystone for moving the project forward. Miller acquired a large wooden industrial wire spool. It would serve as the foundation of our art.
The story continues from here, but I wanted to record the earliest aspects of our first interactive art to show how vulnerable and open to change the idea was at first.