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Behind the Curtain with Zoe Sandoval

Hi all, Elburz here for a quick intro. I had the pleasure of meeting Zoe years ago in Los Angeles and Zoe gave me a wonderful tour of the UCLA REMAP facilities. Since then, we’ve kept in touch over the years. Zoe has been really delivering some amazing projects and creating a lot of really great writing about immersive design, interactive tech, and TouchDesigner. I thought it would be really cool to share some of that with you in this post Zoe made especially for our eyes that goes over the many different aspects of a project named { remnants } of a { ritual }. So without further delay, I present Zoe Sandoval:


{ remnants } of a { ritual }

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke
{ remnants } of a { ritual } 2019 – Photograph courtesy of David Pace

What a whirlwind! With the wrap of my master’s project, { remnants } of a { ritual }, I’ve been consumed with writing my thesis paper and gathering the energy to share documentation. These past two years I’ve been working nonstop, making all manner of immersive experiences. And finally we’ve made it to the end! For this post, I’m going to sneak behind the curtain to share the technical pieces that created my thesis installation.

{ remnants } of a { ritual } was shown at the “Receivership” MFA exhibition at UC Santa Cruz from April 26 – May 12, 2019. It’s an immersive, participatory installation that explores the crossroads of memory, love and longing. An emergent personal reflection of Venezuelan diaspora and memory crystallization, { remnants } of a { ritual } invites participants to write love letters to the future and other unknowns.

SYSTEM DESIGN

{ remnants } of a { ritual } was comprised of four-channel video projection, two-channel audio, a single DMX lighting instrument, and four smart RGB lights (Figure 1). The computational load for driving the installation was divided across two servers, one primarily dedicated to audio and another dedicated to projection, lighting, and operating control devices. The synchronization of the experience was facilitated by a networking layer, “ALCHEMY”, and acted as the communications backbone for the technology.

Figure 1. System Diagram for { remnants } of a { ritual }

MEDIA DESIGN

{ remnants } of a { ritual } emerged as a collection of objects spanning physical, material, digital and ephemeral forms. The curation was informed by my nostalgia for Venezuela; a glimmering memory that stands in stark contrast to the present state of the country. The Venezuela I remember is ethereal, crystalline, and abundant with resources. Designing an installation that reflected these fleeting imaginations required a personal alchemy and interrogation of an expansive family archive. The production of this project started with a series of experiments that culminated in the installation presented for my thesis.

The projection was divided into two sections — the walls and floor — and were each blended to create the illusion of seamless images. The walls showcased the panorama photography from my grandfather’s archive as well as my style transfer experiments. This archive consisted of images of landscapes, city-life, the beaches, mountains, and agricultural fields. Projected on the floor were segmented stanzas from my great-grandfather’s poetry in both English and Spanish. The sound was selected from an open-source library that was recorded in Venezuela. Thanks Freesound! The lighting design emphasized the central sculpture, and layout of the four pedestals to ensure readability of the prompts. The choice of color for the lights was selected to match the color pallet of the projected photographs, and changed dynamically over time to create a cohesive visual experience (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Projection and lighting in { remnants } of a { ritual } – Photograph courtesy of David Pace

Over the course of an hour, the space cycled through a series of curated scenes. Each comprised of a stanza from the “A Guayana” poem, a photograph that related to the poetry, two style transferred images, and diegetic sound. The scenes would change every sixty seconds with individual parameters for the color of the lighting, placement of the DMX fixture, and choice of projection and sound (Figure 3). Matthew Ragan helped create a preset-builder that orchestrated these detailed cues. They wrote an exciting post explaining the process if you want to learn more: TouchDesigner | Case Study | Custom Parameters and Cues.

These invisible technical elements are worth noting as it was my intention to create a gallery-ready installation. { remnants } of a { ritual } ran as an automated, reliable, and self-contained application. While there was significant time spent ensuring the smooth operation of the installation, the technology was not intended to be the epicenter of the participants experience. More than just individual parts, as a whole the experience was designed to transport visitors into a refraction of my dream-like memories of Venezuela, which exists in a sacred place outside of time. { remnants } of a { ritual } is a love letter to a Venezuela I can no longer return too, to my family, to my anxieties about the future, to communities in diaspora.

Figure 3: A snippet of changing scenes in { remnants } of a { ritual }

TOUCHDESIGNER

Oh the magic of TouchDesigner! I’ve had the pleasure of working with this incredible software for the past few years, and have been leveraging it as a prototyping and application building environment. Honestly what I love most about TouchDesigner is its visual programming interface and juicy, realtime feedback. As someone with a background in film production, and NOT software development, TouchDesigner has helped me understand concepts in computer graphics and object-oriented programming. I’ve used it for experimentation and development in several of my MFA projects:

reflected | refracted

{ wish u were queer }

in [ cantation ] in [ translation ]

[ divinación en migración ]

I’ve also used TouchDesigner for R&D with UCLA REMAP and cheLA, to create immersive experiences at the intersection of arts, technology, and experimental theater. A residency in Argentina last year, Corporal Interactivo, gave an exciting opportunity to explore integrations with style transfer, markerless sensing, and image recognition. TouchDesigner’s ability to connect with external devices and protocols makes it extremely versatile to work with. Our initial experiments in Argentina  led to some reusable, templatized pieces that I used in my thesis: hueControl and saveExternal. The latter is essential for creating reusable toxes, and simplifies the process for externalizing modules, so that you can use source control more effectively (thanks Matthew!)

Creating reusable templates in TouchDesigner is not only a timesaver, but allows you to share, build, and iterate with ease. Tools like the Palette, and emerging marketplaces like ChopChopChop and nVoid Component Cloud provide speedy libraries for beginners and experts alike. I know my thesis wouldn’t be complete without the help of Matthew Ragan, and components like KantanMapper and Stoner. TouchDesigner, is in itself powerful, but its community is what makes it truly amazing.

If you’re curious about learning more, check out Elburz’ Learning TouchDesigner HQ. Better yet – come hang out at the TouchDesigner Summit in Montreal this summer! There’s three days of workshops, talks and networking. I’ll be co-teaching a couple workshops with Matthew Ragan, and Elburz will be giving a talk on how to make a living with TouchDesigner. Hope to see you there!

Oh, and if you want to learn more about my creative adventures, thesis project, etc. check out my blog, @the# for more!

(ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

Wrap up (from Elburz)

I want to thank Zoe again for such an awesome write up of { remnants } of a { ritual }. It’s easy to find write ups about TouchDesigner projects that talk about all their inspiration and process, but it’s really rare to find ones like Zoe’s that also branch out and provide you with so many links to sources and other inspirations. I think that’s a special characteristic (I mean compared to my posts which almost never have links cause I’m just typing as fast as I can on a weekly basis!). I’d highly recommend checking out Zoe’s works and writings for more really great content.

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