Smithsonian Digital Arts Mash-Up 2016 , 2016    


This year was the third year I co-developed and co-taught, along with Meredith “KC” Cosier our “Digital Arts Mash-Up” new media summer camp in DC for the Smithsonian Associates.

The camp was two weeks this year, rather than the customary single week duration of Smithsonian camps, so we and the campers (5th-8th graders) had a lot of extra time to work with, and were able to take things quite a bit further than usual.

Though many of the projects were experimental explorations developed in response to student interest, and weren’t always in and of themselves thoroughly conceptually and theoretically developed, all of our explorations were grounded in the following theoretical foundations:

Olia Lialina’s notion of the Turing Compler User, users “who have the ability to achieve their goals regardless of the primary purpose of an application or device.” We wanted to encourage a kind of pragmatic eclecticism, where we introduced the students to a variety of (free) digital tools, and then encouraged them to push them in new directions, to use and misuse them in new ways, and to combine their use in unorthodox ways.

Douglas Rushkoff’s ethos of Program or be Programmed, wherein peeling back the opaque outer layers of the digital systems we operate within and make use of to understand better the code that underlies them, grants students agency by allowing them to examine digital systems critically as human-made creative products, and to create their own alternative digital systems.

The experimental, sometime ad-hoc nature of the camp meant that I learned a lot, too. I had never worked with any form of 3D modelling, nor with 3D game design, but over the course of this camp did a lot of learning on my feet and walked away having learned something new myself.

Below is a video summary of the camp projects, and below that, a slightly more in-depth description of some of the projects we did, with links to resources.


Interactive Sound Self-Portraits

Tools: Pixlr, Game Maker, Audacity

Many of the students in this camp had already taken regular and advanced game making camps with us in prior years, and were familiar with Game Maker software. In this project, students used Game Maker to create an interactive artwork, rather than a game. After completing and introductory manipulated self-portrait using Pixlr (a free, web-based Photoshop alternative), we showed students how to record, edit, and generate their own sounds using Audacity, and then load their images and sounds into Game Maker to create a clickable portrait that elicited sounds and expressed other dimensions of themselves.

Download a copy of a Game Maker project file to see how we rigged it all up.

Glitch Art

Tools: Pixlr, Audacity, MS Paint, Windows Movie Maker

Once the students were familiar with audio and image editing, and some of the programs designed for each of those purposes, we showed them how fuzzy the distinctions between the two practices could be when it comes to digital art. Students were shown how both audio and image files could be opened in Notepad to view similarly indecipherable digital code, and then were should how Audacity could be ‘tricked’ into opening an image file, after which audio effects such as echoes and fades could be applied, distorting the image’s code – and the image – in unpredictable ways. This process is typically termed ‘databending’ (which got a kick out of students who were fans of the Avatar cartoon).

Students generated numerous glitch images, combing through them afterwards and curating their favorites. They also saved their images sequentially as they applied more and more distortion to their images, then dumped those images into Windows Movie Maker to create a short looping video of their images’ distortions.

This tutorial served as the starting point for this project, and is a good beginning guide to DataBending.

Creative Coding – ‘Mischievous’ Painting Programs, Sound-Responsive Images, and Interactive 3D Spaces/Models

Tools: Processing

Students learned some basic coding skills and created a few projects outlined in my ‘Creative Code‘ curriculum. These projects included a ‘Mischievous’ Painting Program – a program that lets the user make marks on the screen, but with random or surprising elements included – and a Sound Responsive Face drawn with code that if affected by the volume detected by a microphone.

Later in the camp, after the students learned some basic 3D modelling (see below), students were able to export their models as .obj files, and load them into Processing to create weird interactive works of art using their models. Whereas the prior projects were written from scratch, in this assignment, students were given a barebones Processing file with the code in it for loading in a 3D model, and challenged to decipher the code to load their model in, and add different interactive and visual dimensions to it.



Smithsonian Putt-Putt Courses for the National Mall

Tools: Tinker CAD, Smithsonian X3D, Unity (instructor use), Meshlab (instructor use)

The National Mall was getting torn up this summer, meaning students weren’t able to use it for lunch breaks as they usually could. In discussion of ways the Mall could be put to greater use after renovation, the idea of a Putt-Putt course came up. Students were challenged to create 3D designs of Putt-Putt courses either inspired by Smithsonian exhibits and artifacts, or making direct use of the artifacts, in their design.

Toward this end, we introduced students to the Smithsonian X3D project, wherein researchers are creating 3D scans of a variety of Smithsonian artifacts and making them available for free on the web. We discussed how this free resource is not only useful for researchers and historians but for artists who can now appropriate and remix all manner of historic artifacts in a non-destructive way (something done recently in New Media art by the Vapor Wave movement, for example). Because the Smithsonian models were so detailed, the instructors used a free program called Meshlab to lower the polygon count and make them easier for TinkerCAD to import.

After students designed their courses, I experimented with dropping them into a Unity project (the very basic “Roll A Ball” tutorial project), and managed to make their holes playable in a very basic way, and the students got to experience their 3D models, which they’d looked at from a schematic distance in TinkerCAD, as inhabitable, navigable, 3D spaces.

Later, I made a bit more progress figuring out how Unity worked, and implemented a Wonderputt-style control scheme, as well as an actual ‘victory’ condition when you get the ball in the hole. You can view a brief video of the project below, or download and try them out yourself!

Smithsonian Putt-Putt – Windows

Smithsonian Putt-Putt – Mac

Transportation Concepts

Tools: Tinker CAD, Thingiverse

After visiting the America: On the Move exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, students brainstormed and modeled new forms of transportation, focusing on new energy sources, new potential destinations, and new means of traversing spaces.

A Unicorn-Powered Skateboard for Luke to Ride on Rainbows with

A combination recreational vehicle, and giant, ambulatory potato.

Antler owl2






Observing and Modeling Organic Forms: Chimeras, Flora, and a Virtual Botanical Garden

Tools: SculptGL, Unity (instructor use), Meshlab (instructor use)

Students did observational drawings and took photographic reference during visits to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the U.S. Botanical Gardens (at the latter, a corpse flower was blooming, which let us make an art-world connection to Rick Silva’s 3D-modelled corpse flower GIF).

Students used the free, web-based modelling software SculptGL to create their own organic forms using their visual research as reference. Unlike TinkerCAD, SculptGL is designed to simulated modelling a ball of clay, and had tools for applying texture and color to surfaces, as well as preserving symmetry, making it more conducive to organic forms than TinkerCAD.

In addition to screengrabbing their creations, students also exported 3D .obj files to make interactive Processing artworks (see above), and I managed, through some more Unity experimentation (preserving the colors required some very arcane Meshlab work!) to drop their models into a simple Unity file to make an interactive, navigable Virtual Botanic Garden.

Below is a video of the garden, or you can download and move through it yourself:

Virtual Botanic Garden – Win

Virtual Botanic Garden – Mac