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'What colour is happy, Ray?’

Updated: Apr 1, 2019

I was keen on blue for sad. Happy...?

‘Green, maybe?’

Steve was programming the LED functionality for the Congregation spheres during our micro-residency in Graz, hosted by La Strada Festival and supported by Freedom Festival, Hull, and the In Situ network.

The great thing about a short residency is the intensive focus it brings. Steve and I were only in Graz for five days and our task was to get as much data about how Steve’s GPS locative system was functioning in a radically different environment to the ones where we had been testing in the UK. We walked for miles, updating the system on the fly, challenging each other to see if the spheres could direct us to unknown locations.

In the end we chose flashing green LEDs for ‘happy’, i.e. the sphere is going in the right direction, blue for ‘sad’, going slightly the wrong way, yellow flashing for ‘miserable’, going over 90 degrees off course and flashing red for:

‘Turn around, you’re going the WRONG WAY!!!’.

Graz is Austria’s second city but still a relatively small city and, divided by the river Mur, presents some really interesting challenges for a piece like Congregation. There are no shortages of beautiful plazas, squares and grand parades that could act as great final congregation points and the potential routes for the spheres include journeys through stately parks, along narrow old town streets and broad boulevards. I really like the idea of bringing all the 50-100 sphere carriers together in a public place. Although a park would be lovely there is something about the impact of this spheres carrying procession on the passers-by, the regular users of the space, the general public who are not part of the festival event that really excites me.

Working on and developing Congregation is a constant learning process for myself and Steve. How is the GPS going to behave? This seems to be the question we keep coming back to, almost as if this ring of satellites in permanent orbit above us behave in some way like gods to be appeased. If we’re good will the GPS look favourably down on us? In reality it is, of course, a little more pragmatic than that. Data refresh rates, satellite angles, the effect of tall buildings and narrow streets, archways and trees all create errors that we have to work with and smooth over to ensure a good audience experience.

Part of this residency included the opportunity to test our eight spheres that we had brought with us (carefully dismantled and packed in our hold luggage, hoping the mass of electronics and batteries wouldn’t cause any consternation going through security…) with a group of local students at the Technical University in Graz. Assisted by Kajetan, a Masters student of Sound Engineering, we wandered around the campus before deciding on an open area behind a building which housed the largest Tesla coil I have ever seen. It wasn’t active at the time, sadly, though it may have had an interesting effect on the spheres! After delivering a talk on my work at the Institute for Electronic Music, which is celebrating it’s 50 year history this year, we set off in two groups to some starting locations and let our test volunteers loose with the spheres.

They allowed themselves to be successfully guided to our final location and then we spent a little time getting some feedback from them. This broadly mirrored the kind of feedback we’d had from previous tests: the alarm sounds were too alarming, some more development of the main call sound, the ‘happy’ sound as the spheres approached the final destination would be good, and they also felt that they didn’t need to be given too much in the way of instruction at the beginning. However, as Masters’ students in technology they are not necessarily an average group, so we will think carefully about that idea.

Back at our accommodation (the fourth floor of our apartment building providing some additional exercise for our tired legs…) we worked more on the implementation of the LED signalling system. Our worry had been that if some participants can’t easily determine the difference between the directional sounds, or if the background noise of city is too loud, then maybe we need to give them some more encouragement by way of lights that change in accordance with the direction changes. What these lights signalled was what we were working on.

Steve had wired together and programmed a test version for us to experiment with and I set him a location to find (it’s a great game to play with your friends, by the way). The LEDs functioned as expected and he found the location (at the plaza outside the Music University). However, his feeling was that he became overly distracted by the LEDs and stopped listening to the sounds of the sphere and indeed became less conscious of his immediate environment. This is clearly an issue if the sphere carriers become too distracted by the LEDs and stop listening to the directional sounds. It has the danger of turning the spheres into a kind of screen, like your phone, that you hold in front of you and stop paying attention to your surroundings.

After much discussion we decided that having the LEDs would be very helpful for the sphere stewards as the LEDs can signal the various stages of start-up and searching for GPS. However, once they have located GPS and are good to go then the lights should remain off until the carrier arrives at the final destination and then, the LEDs activating will act as an additional reinforcement of arrival.

Many thanks to our hosts, the La Strada Festival, and to In Situ and Freedom Festival for supporting this really useful period of development for the project.

Congregation is a project by Ray Lee with software and hardware development by Steve Symons.

Congregation has been commissioned by Without Walls, Norwich and Norfolk Festival and the Out There Festival with additional financial support from Oxford Brookes University, OCM (Oxford Contemporary Music) and 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Centre.


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