Hack #1: A Musical Canvas

For my first hack, I wanted to incorporate two of my passions into the Makey Makey. Taking inspiration from Company Records, I wanted to create a canvas that plays music only when you draw. I believe that music has the power to influence your emotion and with that, emotion influences your art. My goal for the hack is to use the Makey Makey to make this musical canvas accessible to anybody who has paper and graphite.

I decided to use the Scratch program to implement my idea of having a musical canvas. Scratch makes it easy to build code without necessarily being a programmer. As I began to think of ways to build the code, I realized that I would have to write it in a way where as long as there is a specific button being pushed (as long as graphite was conducting electricity), music would be played (another button triggered by graphite conductivity). I also wanted to implement some choice into my hack, so I thought I could have two different types of music as options before the artist began to work. Much like Company Records’ website, the music being played behind the art you create reacts to where you draw. That means that the artist would have to begin their drawing from predesignated points on the paper in order to select the music they wanted to listen to in order for the current to activate the Makey Makey’s inputs.

The first challenge I faced was finding a pencil that could be held and still conduct electricity. I thought that maybe wrapping a pencil in tin foil and then having the tinfoil touch the graphite would work but I realized that this was not natural nor intuitive. I found a block of graphite to use as a placeholder but this ended up being my final tool.

Futuristic pencil

The next challenge I faced was the coding itself. As mentioned before, I wanted the constant stream of electricity from the artist to the graphite to the Makey Makey to trigger preselected audio. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a way inside of Scratch that would cue audio and then play it as long as another variable was true (graphite conducting electricity). I was only able to figure out how to either:

Play the entire audio track on a key command (thus ruling out my idea of having audio playing only while pencil was touching paper) or…

Continually have the audio track being cued, which led to the track stuttering indefinitely. This method allowed me to have toggleable audio but because the key was continually being pressed, the track would never actually start, instead, just loop the first millisecond of the track.

I found a partial work around where as long as you are pressing one area of the paper, like putting your keys in the car and not turning them, you could select the type of music you want to listen to with a simple tap of graphite. As long as “the keys are in the car”, you could turn the ignition and music would play. The second you take your finger off of the ignition point, the music will stop. This method requires the artist to constantly have a finger on the piece of paper and relies less on the actual graphite contact. Here is an example of what the circuit I designed looks like:

Scratch pad circuit with toggleable music
Scratch code

Because I was unable to implement my full idea in Scratch, I moved into Logic Pro to see if I would be able to cue an audio sample through an input. I found a way to have an input on my keyboard correspond to the audio track. I tried remapping my Makey Makey so that an arrow key would become the “A” key but I was unable to do so. *Edit: I realized that I need to download Arduino in order to remap my Makey Makey. I will update my testing when I do so.* I want to revisit that and if I could make it work so that I can fully flesh out my idea. I decided to simply hover my cursor over the key on my digital keyboard and have the Makey Makey convert a graphite touch to a cursor press. This method is most similar to what I had envisioned. One obstacle however is that the graphite must be thick enough to carry the electrical current to the Makey Makey and also must not break, meaning it has to be a continuous line. I think a way to overcome this would be to have paper that carries electrical current like graphite does and have the paper correspond to the Makey Makey inputs (a la a smart note taking book like Livescribe)

The last but most obvious obstacle facing my hack is the grounding that is required to activate the circuit. Because you need to make your body a circuit to activate the Makey Makey, you always have to be holding the ground wire which interferes with the idea I had in mind. I have not been able to think of a way around this obstacle but I am interested to see if there is a workaround that I do not know about. I think by having the artist having to continually be grounded and holding the wire, they are taken out of the interactive space that I have created.

I believe my musical canvas evokes ideas brought up in Caillois and Huizinga readings because it is a simulated, bounded, play-area where I have created my own rules. My hack only works while inside the piece of paper and the player needs to buy in to the rules I have created for them in order to experience the play I have designed. In terms of the Caillois reading, my hack would fall somewhere in the mimicry classification, likely leaning towards ludus. To explain, I am creating a simulated imaginary, one where drawing on paper produces music. In reality, this is obviously not the case but I wanted to create a way for artists to emotionally experience their process. Additionally, these “players” need to understand that for the simulation to work, they need to use graphite to conduct the electrical current so that the Makey Makey is triggered. My hack requires the player to constantly be creative in order for it to work or as Caillois writes, “mimicry is incessant invention” (137). As long as you are drawing, graphite is connecting electricity to the Makey Makey, you are able to hear the music playing. Additionally, Caillois describes a spectrum of play, one extreme being ludus. He writes that ludus “…relates to the primitive desire to find diversion and amusement in arbitrary, perpetually recurrent obstacles” (145). This also applies to my hack because drawing in itself is primitive, in our nature as human beings. The idea that we can communicate and empathise with each other through art, brought on by the limitations of my hack, is what is at the foundation of my project. The Huizinga reading supports what Caillois says in that play requires a pre-established boundary with pre-established rules. He writes, “all are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” and that “play…creates order” (105). To my hack, the temporary world is the piece of paper containing the art and music and the rule that graphite needs to be touching the paper in order for music to be played is the order. I argue that this hack spurs playful creativity in artists and allows them to experience different emotions than they would if they were practicing within their own “playgrounds”. You want to keep the pencil on the paper so that you are able to be affected by it.