An exploration of puppetry, sculpture and consumerism using a wooden marionette controlled by a repurposed TV remote.
produced by: Owen Planchart
This project began as a response to the age of digital playback, where the user is encouraged to curate their own art experience -whether it’s playlists of songs, picture galleries, or film-lists on streaming platforms, the user has the freedom to switch from one work to the next without hesitation. This raises questions: What are the consequences in terms of the intended purpose of the piece? What does it do to our attention span? How does this feed back to content creators and make them more aggressive in their approach?
I thought it was interesting that the only medium with which you couldn’t do this was sculpture. Due to its fundamentally analogue quality, in the most classic sense, sculpture escapes digitisation. Until 3d-printers become fast and big enough that you can make or replicate a large object in seconds, we will never really enjoy a “playlist” of multiple sculptures. I thought it would be playful to tackle this by making a human figure that could morph from one pose into another: from Rodin’s thinker into Christ the Redemptor, Buddha, etc.
A marionette-like rig seemed like the best approach to achieve variety and subtlety of movement, but as the mechanics of the piece got more and more complex the idea started to feel too static and limiting in its output -namely, not enough interaction.
Where at the point of conception my emphasis was in the preset poses, in the process of making it and by doing user testing, I realised that more attention was being paid to the fact that I had repurporsed a TV remote control to move the individual limbs than the resulting positions of the puppet. It dawned on me that it was more interesting to subvert the input from a symbol of passive consumption to a creative tool than to focus too much on achieving any specific result.
Historically, the TV remote has never given the user any creative control, it merely allows us to select between different channels of information (usually to avoid advertising). The most radical thing that one could do with a remote was fast-forward, rewind or record. What if the remote could be more like a paint brush or a chisel and gave us some agency in the outcome of our experience? A sculptural tool to give the user stewardship of their art in real-time.
In the age of computing, the mouse and the touch screen have all kinds of properties (drawing, selecting, opening, etc.), but in the age of television, all we had was a remote control that used infra-red signals to send codes that our TVs would interpret into a set of simple functions. The technology seems dated yet we still very much use it on a daily basis. In many ways, Television has been the umbilical chord between the individual and society for many decades. A simple but very important valve of information. One of my users graphically remarked that "if society was addicted to consumerism, then TV was like heroine and the remote was the syringe". As a result, I feel that our relationship with the TV remote is one of trauma - years of abuse have hard-wired our brains to engage with it entirely from muscle memory. We know where the buttons are without even looking. This piece encourages the user to explore the remote control as a sculptural tool. To figure out what each button does for the first time and re-engage with it as a primitive instrument of expression.
The project used 13 stepper motors, 13 H-bridges L-298n, 3 rail-slides, one infra red TV Remote, one Arduino Mega, 3 timing-belts and pulleys and 3 digital power supplies. It was by far the most complex thing I have ever attempted. I had never worked with any of the above apart from the H-bridges and relied entirely on www.dronebotworkshops.com to learn about each individual component. The code was done entirely on Arduino.
My two biggest influences were the work of Jordan Wolfson and Bjork's music video All Is Full Of Love.
This piece is only just beginning. Future additions will involve stop switches to prevent steppers from overworking, independent power supplies, belt-clamps, idlers for the pulleys and, most importantly, code that will allow the user to move more that one stepper at a time and record the beginning position and end possition of any limb with the aim of animating between them.
Although the puppet did not work entirely as I intended, I feel that I pushed my understanding of physical computing far beyond my limits. I would have liked to have gotten closer to the full rig before the deadline in order to let the creativity affect the coding side of the piece as much as it did the physical side, but I learnt a lot about time-management and feasibility, and if anything, this work only confirms my belief that the most challenging projects are the ideal learning environment.