I did an arts festival as a non-pro artist and here’s how it went

Look! It’s me! A 25 year old gremlin at her first arts festival. I am so tired and so sun burned and so dehydrated.

How did I get here?

Submitting

It’s 2019. It genuinely feels like I can do anything. I’m a first year graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, doing work around identity, projection, lighting, and computer vision. I decide, at the suggestion of a then post doc (now Professor!) Dr Dan Novy to submit part of my thesis work to an arts festival in Taos, New Mexico. A bunch of Burning Man people are going. Lots of cool artists have been before.

Cancellation (times two)

Then well, the Media Lab sort of implodes, my advisor is fired, and I graduate with a totally different thesis and don’t continue to PhD during a pandemic. The festival is of course canceled in 2020 with plans for going in 2021.

Adjustments

2022, the festival is on. For real this time!

  1. Code to register the button
  2. Code to detect peoples’ mouths and store the geometries of these mouths AND add overlays to them.
  3. Code to record people’s video and audio AND play it back

CODE! https://github.com/ninalutz/2022_Paseo

Ok — how does this thing actually work?

Below is a walkthrough of this whole process if you are a nerd who likes that type of thing.

1: Booth construction

Fortunately, I’m part of a maker space here in Seattle. So I designed a simple box that I laser cut for the top of the booth to hold my laptop, recording button, mic, and camera away from prying hands while also giving it air.

Box at the maker space. The sides keep air flowing while making it impossible to reach and grab the laptop or wires. The front has a hole for the laptop screen where people will see themselves recorded, a fit hole for the button, and a spot for the camera. There are holes above for the mic.
The assembled booth at the fesitval (left) and the booth in my apartment in Seattle (right).

2: Code to detect the key

I chose to do a single key solution because I felt it would be more robust and simple than an arduino with a push button. I got the idea because well, the guy I was dating at the time was into custom keyboards and I realized they sold individual keys that plugged into laptops for shortcuts, etc.

3: Code to detect peoples’ mouths and add overlays to them

This was obviously the main part of the project. This project exists as 2 p5.js sketches that run together. The first detects mouths and adds overlays to their landmarks. Then it records the mouth movement and the audio as the user is speaking.

Facemesh used by mediapipe.

4: Code to record people’s video and audio AND play it back

Overall, this code works as a state machine — the button moves the main sketch that is rendering the mouths from showing instructions to the user to recording them to ending that recording when the user hits the button again.

Wait…you ALSO taught a workshop?

I also taught a workshop to the local middle school about RGB LEDs. They really loved it and it was so lovely to be back in the classroom. It was my first day in Taos and I LOVED it. I’m so grateful to them for having me.

The students wiring circuits with me helping out.

What did I learn from all this?

Art festivals are not for the weak of heart. This was very hard. But I learned a lot:

  1. Start early. I am so glad I did. Wow. Even with this the last two weeks were lots of debugging crunch.
  2. Stress. Test. Everything. I ran this code for HOURS in my apartment. I then tested the day of the festival and tested both of my projectors to make sure that they weren’t damaged in the plane.
  3. Sunscreen and hydrate. Please. I also definitely was having an allergy attack/head cold during this which was less than ideal.
  4. Not only do you have to have a piece, but you need one that can be transported and survive the elements and the public. So make sure to keep that in mind. Pack smart. Cushion things.
  5. PACK EXTRA THINGS. Extra screws, batteries, etc. You never know what you might need.
  6. Doing these festivals alone is insane. I showed up to New Mexico alone with two suitcases. I didn’t eat the first night because I didn’t want to leave my piece and didn’t have a dedicated food runner. There were so many times it would have been so nice to have a person there.
  7. Setting up in public events is hard and stressful. This is another reason why you NEED to have a buddy. People were near me when I was setting up the first night and I was having a technial difficulty and I had a panic attack. I just wasn't ready and didn’t realize groups of people were going to be all around me an hour before start asking what I was doing and invading my personal space. It was. A lot. So yes. Have a buddy/body guard person for setup.
  8. Make sure to make time to see the other art!
  9. Projection artists are at the mercy of the sun. You really can’t start your stuff until dusk — which is close to when the festival itself starts up.
  10. No one sees the flaws as much as you do. People actually really liked my piece, even though there were a few things I deemed “wrong” with it.
  11. Document it. I am still going through video files and compiling them together because, well, life.
  12. Balancing art festival prep with a fulltime job is difficult. Exercising creative and logistical muscles after working is hard. Having your living room/office taken over is weird. Explaining that yes you’re on PTO but also you aren’t relaxing really is also weird and rough.
  13. The art festival crew and organizers will save you. Literally save you. They will get you through the entire thing. TRUST THEM.

So — should a non pro artist do a festival?

Yes if…

  1. Your piece isn’t the most complex setup and tear down. If you don’t do this regularly, you need to make sure that you aren’t going too hard.
  2. You find the right festival FOR YOU. Paseo was a great size for me — but it might be too big for others or too small for some. Additionally, my art fit within this festival and the organizers were amazing. So definitely seek FOR YOU and you art.

Nina — are you ever going to do another festival thing solo?

Maybe?

Can we have some videos?

Some videos are being tweeted at my twitter. I want to have the big long video up soon but…life.

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Nina Lutz

Nina Lutz

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Instead of making computers think like people, I want to use them to make us think about other people.