They´re back

For the occasion of Festpillene i Bergen 2010, a flock of Wind-up Birds has taken over the mountain side of the Fløien mountain. More specifically along the windy, steep path through the spring-green forest called Fløiensvingene. They will probably stay a few weeks. This has created a lot of buzz among the people using the path, so I will try to spend as much time as possible there to listen to audience reactions.

They might sound similar to previous generations, but there has been a few changes under the hood: The wood blocks have this time been milled instead of glued, making them more robust. Thanks to Ivar Bergseth and his CNC mill!

I use a new set of xbee modules, the xbee 2.4 pro digimesh modules. This gives a more stable network and is much easier to work with than the previous firmware.

I made new more practical circuitboards, which I got manufactured at BatchPCB, making the job of assembling the woody boards much easier. This was my first attempt at working with Eagle PCB circuit design software, but I leaned heavily on Roar Sletteland´s previous PCB layout for the first generation.

The wind-up birds continued

la forêt de Nouzhat Ibn Sima, originally uploaded by hc gilje.

The wind-up birds didn´t settle in the forest of Lillehammer.
Some of them went to the airport in Oslo, some of them to a park in Rabat, Morocco.
Two very different contexts in many ways:

Oslo Airport Gardermoen is celebrating its 10 year anniversary, and I was invited as one of two projects from the UT21 exhibition to be part of this anniversary.
The work was to be placed outside, in a passage between the parking area and the terminal building, a very busy pathway.

It was freezing, windy and wet the weekend it was installed. Of course everything at an airport involves heavy security, so I had a special permission card which I wore to avoid frightening passengers (bearded man climbing trees with electronics,wires and batteries). Actually I got a lot of strange questions, people wondering what these devices were against or for, was it to chase off the woodpeckers? When I explained that they were mechanical woodpeckers I got a lot of blank stares.
More images from the airport.


A week later I was off to Morocco, 25 degrees and sunny in Rabat, the capitol. There is a small art space there called l´appartement 22, run by Abdellah Karroum, which had been invited to present work at the first Brussels biennale. Abdellah decided to invite Anne Szefer Karlsen from HKS in Norway to curate some projects in Morocco, so she again invited Pedro Gomez Enza and myself to do projects in the frame of the Brussels Biennale, but in Morocco. It gets weirder.
Unlike the very organised airport project, things were a bit looser here. First we needed to find a location, and after some scouting I fell in love with a beautiful and strange park, on the outskirts of the center, la forêt de Nouzhat Ibn Sima( also known as le parc sportif), with lots of eucalyptus trees, cute fuzzy pine trees, mint tea houses and people exercising in the strangest ways.
Public art in Morocco isnt common and there had been quite a lot of discussion before my arrival as of what to do with permissions etc.
We ended up doing it without permissions, and therefore without a ladder to not draw attention on ourselves, and it turned into a strange undercover operation trying to set up woodpeckers in trees while pretending to do other things. We even drove around in a car while I was programming in the back seat.

I built a special version of the wind-up birds for this actionist installation. Basically I replaced the radio modems with a parasite brain (a timer and a light sensor), this made the birds more independent and maybe slightly more intelligent.
This actually corresponds quite well with the natural woodpeckers, some enjoy the company of its fellow creatures, while others insist on being alone.

more images from the wind-up birds in morocco, and some other images from morocco as well.

There are several types of natural woodpeckers in Morocco, but I unfortunately didn´t get a chance to see one.

wind-up bird(s)

Introducing a new species, the wind-up birds.
The wind-up birds are a flock of mechanical woodpeckers, having found their first home in a forest in Lillehammer, Norway as part of the UT-21 project.

How will nature treat them, with hostillity or acceptance? How will the wind-up birds adapt to heat/cold wet/dry conditions? Will small insects creep inside the circuitry creating possible short circuits, beetles eat the wood, squirrels use the wood slit as nut storage (or the roof as a slide?), birds use it as a shelter, etc.? Will they be treated as foreign objects or accepted into the local eco-system?
How do real woodpeckers react? Are they threatened, attracted, or not bothered? Will they use the roof as a pecking drum?
Initial tests indicate an attraction: it took 15 minutes for a real woodpecker to join a wind-up bird on the same tree.

Adding a layer to the perceived reality:
The sound of the wind-up birds easily fool humans. The initial reaction is surprise, and then bewilderment, as there seems to be a whole flock of birds communicating. Then the curiosity of trying to track them down, to localize the sound, becoming more aware of the surroundings, sharpening the senses.
This was the initial motivation for me, the movement of sound in a space, and the effort involved in trying to localize the source of the sounds which lead to a stimulation of our perceptive apparatus.
By introducing an element or layer which somehow relates to the environment, but still is a bit off (It is very unlikely to hear a flock of woodpeckers drumming at the same time, and it is usually restricted to the mating season in the spring), you perceive the reality differently. This could be called an animalistic alertness, one of the three listening modes described by Barthes  (Listening).
This project is related to my soundpockets project, and as with that work I feel it is somehow more interesting when people happen upon it by chance, instead of looking for a piece of art in the forest.

The development of the wind-up birds have gone through a lot of phases:
It was important for me that the sound produced was not playback of a recorded sound, but mechanically produced, so I looked at many different ways of creating resonance boxes and ended up with a construction resembling a wood block: a piece of wood with a slit. I ended up using a simple push-magnet solenoid for the mechanical part.
The first prototype was an arduino board, the solenoid and the woodblock, trying to find the right pecking frequency for the solenoid, and testing different woodblock designs.
I decided to add a roof, to protect the wood and circuitry from heavy rain.

Since the wind-up birds are communicating, they needed to be in a wireless network. I decided early to use the xbee radios which are programmable, low-energy, high speed radio modems which can work in a mesh network.
A lot of effort was put into creating and deciphering xbee datapackets to be used in the arduino/processing environment.
Energy consumption was an important factor in the project, since the wind-up birds would be in a forest with no access to electricity and should be active for a month. One strategy was to use low-power components. It´s amazing the difference between two voltage regulators for instance when they have to be on for a month(the difference in consumption was the size of the battery I ended up using for the whole project).
I also decided to use a low power version of the arduino, basically just the microcontroller chip running at half speed (which meant using a AVR programmer to program the chips).
The other important factor in reducing energy consumption was to make use of the xbee and arduino´s capability to go to sleep when inactive. I decided the wind-up birds would be pecking about every 5 minutes, and inbetween they would sleep. Also at night they would be sleeping.
After having decided upon the components to be used, I designed a prototype circuit, which was later made into a proper circuit board making it easier to mass produce the birds.
It took a lot of trial and error to get the wind-up birds alive and pecking in the lab, but I had a pretty reliable setup when I placed them in the forest. The challenge in the forest was to find interesting locations within the range of the network, and to find interesting pecking patterns. I ended up making a system where the pecking pattern is different everytime, so it wouldn´t become a simple playback of movement, but a dynamic system.

More images of the wind-up birds

thanks to Tom Igoe, Jeff Mann, Kristian Skjold and Roar Sletteland for helping me realize this project.

Here is a link to the first technical post related to the project, which covers how to program and hook up a atmega168 as a minimal arduino standalone, using the internal oscillator running at 8mhz and 3.3 volts.