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

Nina Lutz
10 min readOct 10, 2022

June through August of this year, I spent a ton of time prepping for an arts festival called The Paseo in Taos, NM that happened on September 16th and 17th. I was originally supposed to present in 2020 but then…well, you know. And then in 2021, well…you know.

But this year thousands of people descended into the center of Taos to look at art by amazing artists from all over the world.

And me. I was also there.

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.

So how did this happen, what did I make, what did I learn, and why was this a super hard and also super rewarding experience for me?

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.

The festival accepts me! Awesome! I am going to find a way to use this data in my thesis. AND have some fun presenting in the American Southwest! What a great deal. I have MIT’s full support.

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.

In 2021 July, I move across the country to Seattle, WA to start a job at Redfin because girlie needs to make rent and pay off some grad school credit card debt. But along with all of my things, I also bring matierals for my project. My friend Simon and his partner are going to come to New Mexico with me in September 2021 to help me put the exhibit on. It’s perfect! What a fun trip!

2021, Delta surges and Paseo cancels again.

We still go to New Mexico, since the festival lets the artists keep the initial deposits and we have flights + hotels booked. Honestly? It was an amazing trip and one of the funnest of my life. I cannot recommend New Mexico enough for a trip.

Adjustments

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

But — gas prices have gone up, inflation is insane, and I no longer have the benefit of MIT behind me. I can’t logistically make my original piece and its transporation from Seattle to New Mexico work. All of my friends have way too much happening — no one can come with me this time. There are weddings and lack of PTOs and covering for coworkers and teaching and Real Adult things.

Growing up sucks.

I meet with the organizers. We agree on doing a new piece — still projection, but something that requires way less hardware (think 2 suitcases instead of a moving truck). I get to work that summer starting to design what I need to do.

My piece is called “How have you transformed since 2020?” | A Generative Video Portrait.

I suck at naming things.

It’s a play off of the fact that I was supposed to present in 2020. But so much has changed that even my exhibit is different. I’m a totally different person. And so is the audience.

The project is a recording booth where a participant records themselves answering the prompt “How have you transformed since 2020?” and these responses, turned into abstract mouths, are projected on a wall.

This piece speaks to this transformation, but as a participatory artwork that is built throughout the festival.

This was a participatory piece that changed throughout the festival. It really only had these components:

  1. A physical booth that could hold my laptop, a web cam, a mic, power, and a button for people to record
  2. Code to register the button
  3. Code to detect peoples’ mouths and store the geometries of these mouths AND add overlays to them.
  4. Code to record people’s video and audio AND play it back

All of this was done with off shelf solutions and opensource software. The actual code is here and all in p5.js. It just runs locally on a laptop.

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 rest of the shelves were just covered by a black maxi skirt that I’ve had for years.

The assembled booth at the fesitval (left) and the booth in my apartment in Seattle (right).

The box was drilled into a premade shelf that I bought from Amazon. Overall, the booth was about 70" tall and 15x15" wide. Perfect for my use case.

Now that we have the booth — it’s important to note that I used my personal laptop which PERFECTLY fit into this shelf as both the computer but also the display for the booth’s instructions.

I used a webcam with a built in LED ring (very important for low light festivals) which I already owned. And then, since my laptop mic isn’t amazing and the festival is loud — a Microphone from Amazon. The most important things with this mic was: 1) some background noise removal 2) good at a little bit of distance 3) $50 or less. The guy I was dating at the time convinced me to buy this one, which honestly was the best of all the ones I tried and returned from Amazon. I’m sure a lot of other mics would have worked but I know 0% about microphones.

As well as a single key from Amazon.

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.

It defintely was worth the $20. I got this one because it lit up. It fit perfectly in the booth, plugged into my computer directly, and looked and felt amazing.

It worked as a ‘2’ (they’re all different) and I just used the native p5.js keyboard code.

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.

Landmarks are key points in computer vision. In this project, mediapipe’s landmark mesh is utilized. Mediapipe is the library incorporated with p5.js for the vision portion of this work.

Facemesh used by mediapipe.

After the code gets the landmarks, these points can be used to draw cool effects:

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.

There is a second sketch that loads in a desired amount of video and audio files and plays them in a loop by randomly selecting an index.

In order to not be recording during playback and to add new files to the playback loop, this code utilizes the server library for p5.js to tell the playback code that a new video and audio are being recorded AND when they are downloaded and ready to be added.

New videos and audios are loaded in via an async promise when the sketch recieves a keyword from the record.js sketch. The loop goes indefinitely, just selecting random video/audio pairs from the arrays.

This playback was just mirrored to the projector which was on a huge building in the Taos Plaza (festival site).

Further explanation about the code (and the code itself!) is at the Github repo.

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.

Learning materials are here if you are curious. Inventory is here.

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. The art festival crew and organizers will save you. Literally save you. They will get you through the entire thing. TRUST THEM.
  2. Start early. I am so glad I did. Wow. Even with this the last two weeks were lots of debugging crunch.
  3. 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.
  4. Sunscreen and hydrate. Please. I also definitely was having an allergy attack/head cold during this which was less than ideal.
  5. 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.
  6. PACK EXTRA THINGS. Extra screws, batteries, etc. You never know what you might need.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Make sure to make time to see the other art!
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Document it. I am still going through video files and compiling them together because, well, life.
  13. 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.
  14. 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. You have a buddy to go with you
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

We’ll see what future Nina brain says.

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.

Thank you so much to everyone who supported me!

Most of all the AMAZING Paseo organizers and staff and crew — you all made this possible and it was so insanely inspiring.

People from my world:

Dan and Chia for finding this festival! Simon and Dana for being willing to go in 2021 with the original piece. Daniel for helping with async promises — your debugging SAVED me. Kate, Manny, Christine, and Kevin 1 for being the best hype people. And Kevin 2 for helping with mics and audio things.

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Nina Lutz

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