In 3 Movements: Paranoia, Chimeras, An Ironic Dream
Composition, Engineering, Programming
The Cyborg Fencing Project began as an assignment for TECH 350: Hybrid Bodies, Cyborg Worlds, a TIMARA seminar I took in my 2nd year at Oberlin College and Conservatory. I had recently read through Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, a document concerning the “myth of the cyborg” and its relevance to a capitalist, male dominated, technologically addicted society.
The overall goal of the project was to bring together 3 of my greatest loves: Max/MSP, Fencing (specifically sabre fencing), and cyborgs! I have always been drawn to the inherent beauty in motion that is fencing. When imagining the modern cyborg, a fencer in electric gear represents many of the dualisms reflected in the manifesto. An ancient sport revolutionized by the addition of electric circuits, and the resulting electric clothing worn by fencers with wires running out of various holes creates the perfect base upon which to build this project.
The first step in constructing this project was to capture the motions of the sabres in a way that Max/MSP could interpret. To that end, 2 AdaFruit BN0055 Absolute Orientation IMUs were obtained. These sensors allowed for smooth 3 dimensional orientation tracking of each sabre in space. The sensors were mounted in the bellguards of the blade and soldered to long wires running through the lame jackets worn by sabre fencers. Once at the back of the head, the wires were soldered to a PCB to which an Arduino Micro was mounted on. These PCBs were then mounted to the forks on the back of each fencing mask, creating a closed loop.
Arduino IDE/Max Coding
The Arduinos were programmed using Arduino IDE, which requires the AdaFruit libraries for their unified sensor driver: Github and their bn0055 driver: Github. At this point, I could begin to work on the Max patch, the heart of the entire project.
The max patch is comprised of several sections. The two inputs read data from the serial ports of whatever computer the patch is running on and transform the data into a usable format. This is done by means of a MAXuino-esque SerialTranslator subpatch. After being transmuted to a usable form and visualized on several displays, the data is then routed to two different sound modules: BladeChurch and MellowTron. BladeChurch uses additive synthesis and reverb/delay to create an ethereal shrieking sound reminiscent of church organ in the high register. MellowTron is the heart of previously developed software I designed for use in musical theatre, which allows for quick read/assign/playback of audio files. Several abstractions were utilized in order to smooth performance, including fadein and fadeout, automation tools that utilize the pattr system inside of Max.
Beyond the Code – Performance Design
In addition to the technological side of things, the motion parts of the performance also needed to be planned rather meticulously. I selected Sara Hedberg and Zoe Heuser from the Oberlin College Fencing Team in order to “pilot” the sabre rigs. As fencers and conservatory performance majors, I believed they had the necessary sense of musical timing and fencing skills to make this performance come alive. After finishing the interface, we held several rehearsals in the TIMARA gallery at Oberlin Conservatory, the venue selected for the final performance. In rehearsal, the entire three movement piece was run from top to bottom and additional data management and safety/efficiency redundancies were added to both the code and the rigs themselves.
The First Performance – 05/9/2018
Check back after May 9th for video and notes on the first performance of Cyborg Fencing!