Virginia Francia is an Italian artist working on an intriguing maker-tech-art fusion project; empowering elderly Argentinians to overcome their fear and frustration with technology by embracing the cathartic power of punk music. Using plants as instruments... Dave Barton found out more.
Elderly people? Playing punk music? On plants? Please explain!
I got tired of seeing socially-based art projects where artists assume the role of ‘savers’ while the subjects -- those directly involved -- get bored to death doing ‘therapeutic’ tasks such as making pasta necklaces (!). I also noticed that more playful interactive workshops are mainly directed at younger audiences rather than the elderly; who tend to have a lot more free time, even though they’re often lonely.
So, my response was to give them an opportunity to express themselves freely. And what’s the best way of doing that? By forming an experimental punk band, of course! From an artistic point of view, my main objective was to demystify the preconceived ideas imposed by society around how elderly people should behave. This included overcoming a fear of technology. I wanted to invite them to interact with it in a more playful way, and give non-musicians the chance to make music and see what younger generations take for granted as everyday elements with new eyes.
My vision is that a group of frustrated pensionados would cathartically scream their thoughts into voice-distorting microphones and perform songs titled something like: Nephew, I'll never buy you PlayStation 5! using accessible interactive instruments -- maybe aubergines, pumpkins, mushrooms; or perhaps even their favourite flowers.
SHUT. THE. FRONT. DOOR! Someone’s actually letting you do this!? How did this all come about??
I first came up with the idea when I was in Buenos Aires for a few months and I proposed it to La Paternal Espacio Proyecto (LPEP) -- a cultural centre that offers several artist residencies each year and has an inclination toward technology and socially-engaged art. They offered me a studio to work on it and I developed some introductory workshops at a senior citizens’ activity centre two blocks away. This helped me test some initial ideas and shape the project.
But it wasn’t easy. The ‘convincing process’ meant I had to attend the senior citizens’ disco every Saturday night, in order to gain their trust. I danced with them and eventually introduced myself on the PA system. They stared at me as if I was some sort of blasphemous alien, or simply a liar.
On reflection, perhaps my opening gambit, stating I was a non-musician who wanted to work with them to play punk music on plants, was a step too far...
It worked! Who’ve you got working with you?
I had a great team of talented artists working with me who really dedicated their time and energy to the project: Lucia Ananda Fernandez documented the workshops, while Juan Rodriguez (who goes by the artist name, Sleepy Caju) and Barbara Salazar curated the musical aspects. Lucia and Barbara were friends of mine, but Sleepy Caju was a total stranger; someone I met him at a concert, who I told about my idea. He’s a young and talented musician, so he’s a great addition to the project; which is basically about generational exchanges.
Moving forward, the project will take shape in a couple of different ways. Firstly, in partnership with LPEP and the senior citizen’s center in Buenos Aires, and secondly, at another site in Cazon, a very small rural village about 200 km from the city. I’m taking up another artist-in-residence position there, Trans Acciones Utopica at the Centro Rural De Arte, during the first half of November and will head back to Buenos Aires after that.
How do you see the whole thing -- well, both mini-projects -- taking shape?
In Cazon, I'm planning to use plants as the village has a vast plant nursery and I imagine the inhabitants there have a strong connection with nature and the outdoors. In Buenos Aires, as I'll have much more time to get to know the participants, so I'd like the instruments to be related to each participant’s personal stories and dreams.
I won't impose any preconceived creative ideas on the senior citizens, so this will keep momentum free flowing, meaning the project might shift in new and unpredictable ways. I might also consider developing the same project in different countries in the future.
I’d like to see some crossover between the two projects, but I also want them to grow organically. Even if the main structure and objectives of each project stay the same, I’m keen for them to constantly take different directions. I also aim to collaborate with musicians and artists from a number of different disciplines.
Once a band’s formed I'd like ‘the grannies’ perform in different venues -- to create a real exchange with various generations and to give them an opportunity to express their thoughts to an actual audience.
What led you to Makey Makey? Did you investigate other technology too?
I first thought about using Ototo, created by Dentaku studio (Yuri Suzuki and Mark McKeague) but this isn’t in production anymore and is quite expensive. But I decided against it for this specific project mainly because it has a very limited variety of sounds. I also looked at the CocoMake7, created by the Hackteria collective, which I discovered while visiting a friend at the Solitude Schools residency in Stuttgart, Germany. We ended up playing a mushroom which I'd picked in the forest! However, it involves some basic building and programming.
I finally decided to opt for Makey Makey as I think it’s one of the most straightforward and accessible pieces of kit available; particularly for this project, given the participants’ unfamiliarity with technology. In fact, for an elderly person who’s had little or no interaction with technology, every extra step -- such turning on a computer or launching an application -- is a huge achievement. What's so great about Makey Makey is that you just have to plug it in and it just works. It’s extremely user-friendly.
I first bought one as a Christmas present for my brother a few years ago and soon realized that I’d bought it for myself really :). I used it during a two week residency workshop at Fondazione Spinola Banna in Italy, working with a chef who secretly wanted to be a drummer. We created a performance in the residency kitchen in which he played a bossa nova drum kit made of fruit, built with Makey Makey, and connected to a MAXMSP.
I see the punk grannies piece coming together in a similar way.
What do you think will be the most challenging part of the project?
The most challenging part will definitely be changing the routines of elderly people. I think will be worth insisting they keep at it, and I hope they’ll love the experience once they trust the project enough to try something new.
Thanks Virginia! We look forward to hearing more very soon :)
By Ariam Mogos, Founder of the Nairobi Play Project
In 2015, images of three year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, washed up on the beaches of Bodrum, Turkey stirred an international outcry and galvanized communities across the world to advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants. Only a year later, protests have been held in France, Greece, Bulgaria, Italy and other European countries by citizens draped in their national flags, to prevent their reception. Regardless of the countless tragedies covered by the media, there is a serious empathy deficit and disconnect between refugee and host communities. International organizations have agreed that this a critical time to ensure that refugees and migrants are able to rebuild their lives and successfully integrate into their countries of final destination. However, this requires an integration process which values the cultures and rights of refugees and migrants, rather than champion’s assimilation. Part of what’s contributing to this struggle is the lack of quality education initiatives which support intercultural dialogue and competence. There are few actors in the humanitarian aid space who are facilitating this dialogue between refugee and host communities in playful, productive and meaningful ways. The Nairobi Play Project attempts to address this issue through the art of making, and specifically making games. “Making” is a powerful process which not only gives youth agency to express themselves and solve problems, but build unlikely bridges between themselves and others.
I’m passionate about this model because I believe it has the power to transform and diversify the way practitioners in the humanitarian aid and global development fields build bridges between communities in conflict. “Making” is a strong foundation for creating community, and it’s the foundation of the Nairobi Play Project. So how does this model facilitate intercultural dialogue? Through a scaffolded process which touches on four different areas: 21st century skill development, design-based learning, computational thinking and social activism.
21st Century Skill development is critical to this model and a core focus. If our youth aren’t building skills around communication, collaboration and empathy, then we’re not preparing them for the complex and diverse environments we’re advocating for them to work, live and participate in. Moreover, to successfully develop intercultural competence, youth must be provided with opportunities to engage in constructive dialogue with individuals from other cultures. The Nairobi Play Project is built upon intercultural settings which support knowledge exchange, foster empathy and break down assumptions and barriers to developing relationships. Makey Makey and 21 Toys have been fantastic tools for designing hands-on and interactive experiences for these environments.
Within the framework of design-based learning, games-based learning is ideal because of how critical narrative is to games and to intercultural dialogue. To jumpstart the process, the Nairobi Play Project provides youth with challenges like remixing Mancala, an ancient East African game. When remixing Mancala, youth are guided through an iterative design process which helps them learn the value of brainstorming, creating, testing and changing a game. They apply this same process to the final collaborative games they create addressing issues in Kenya which have a great impact on their lives, such as gender equality, health, quality education, corruption and youth unemployment. Similar to sports, the game design process incorporates values such as teamwork and individual and collective responsibilities, which can help youth to develop the values and skills necessary to prevent and resolve conflict in their lives. What’s unique about the game design process to the Nairobi Play Project is that it’s not just a shared experience like a sports game, but it results in an artifact which young people create together, an artifact that communicates a narrative, which everyone contributes to through dialogue and debate. In the first iteration of the program, participants who were hesitant or even skeptical on day one, were empowered by the diversity in the room by day five.
To make their games, youth are engaged in a number of computational thinking concepts, practices and perspectives, which are also significant in strengthening their intercultural competence. While working with Scratch and Makey Makey, they practice experimenting and iterating, testing and debugging, reusing and remixing throughout the program. These are valuable practices than can be applied to a number of fields like architecture, interior design, teaching and engineering. Coding is only one expression of computational thinking and practice.
One youth produced game, “Journey to the Hospital”, challenges players to avoid contracting malaria from mosquitoes and to collect coins on the road to the hospital.
Most important to the Nairobi Play Project is the computational perspective of connecting: recognizing the power of creating with others and valuing them. Youth who participate in the program are not only proud of the games they make, but the relationships they develop throughout the process. Their gratitude, appreciation and respect for each other are the building blocks of a world which can truly represent and serve everyone.
This was a guest blog post written by Ariam Mogos, founder of the Nairobi Play Project Ariam Mogos is a learning technologist, designer, educator and Eritrean. She currently leads digital learning programs for Global Kids in New York. She has also led the implementation of mobile and web based technologies for problem-based learning across Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa, the State Department’s TechGirls MENA program, and the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Science Literacy, Education and Technology. She is a 92Y Women inPower fellow and Coaching fellow. She received her M.A. from Columbia University in Human Rights and Global Development and her B.S. from Cornell University in Industrial and Labor Relations with a focus on International and Comparative Labor.
Boston-based mechanical engineering student, Alexandra Thaon, fused her love of live music with her passion for product design and computer science creativity; using Makey Makey to put some of the MBTA’s most prominent musicians firmly on ‘the map’...
Too much choice can be overwhelming, especially when you’re choosing what to major in at college and your heart is split between two subjects.
After a semester in Australia flirting with the idea of switching to computer science, Northeastern University freshman, Alexandra Thaon decided to stick with her original degree choice -- mechanical engineering -- after taking a class in design process; which kick-started her maker talents.
“I’ve always put a lot of effort into making projects creative and visually appealing,” she says. “But I wanted to be able to blend something digital with something more physical, which I was able to do in the design process class.”
The class gave her a chance to create a personal project piece, and after exploring student use of the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) -- or the “T” as it’s more commonly known -- Alex came up with the idea of creating an interactive musical map, to showcase Boston’s multicultural subterranean music scene.
The final piece is a map of the T’s central section mounted on a large foam core board. Each station is represented by a button. Attached to each button is a thin strip of aluminum foil, which is connected to a Makey Makey via an alligator clip. By holding down the ‘Earth’ button, and pressing a station button, the user plays music recorded at that particular subway station.
“Although my tutor showed me a range of different technologies, like Arduinos, I found that Makey Makey was the most cost efficient and easy to use,” she explains. “Liam from JoyLabz was able to help me bridge the gap between Makey Makey and playing the songs; he suggested using Scratch as a medium through which I could connect different keys to playing different songs.”
During her underground musical adventure, Alex experienced a rich tapestry of music, including: hip-hop, country, jazz, Spanish, pop, and alternative.
“It was interesting to see the interactions that went on between the performers and the public. For example there’s a trombone player at the Back Bay station; an old man approached him suggesting he play a certain jazz song, and was thrilled to hear him play it. The hip-hop scene at Downtown Crossing, on the other hand, attracts many young people, some even join the circle and add their freestyle.”
Although she’s now planning for her second year of study, and another semester overseas, Alex has a few ideas on how her project could to evolve.
“I’d like to develop a screen that would sit above the map; to visually show subway performances,” she says. “It would also be interesting to implement some sort of app or Twitter account that could update which stations have live performers; in order to connect the musicians and provide more of a community.
“The overall response to the project was very positive and interested. A lot of my peers, after telling them about plans to take the project further were keen to give me advice and positive feedback.”
Thanks Alex! We’re really keen to see what else you come up with on your travels.
The new UK video game show Go 8 Bit premiered this week and included a brief cameo from Jay and Eric as they introduce the Makey Makey used on the show. The producers brought in a cast of real-life video game characters (and Cher) to be a part of the video interactive-human game controller. The two teams played a brief game of Puzzle Bobble before team Susan & Steve busted the last bubble for the win.
If you're in the UK you can stream the full episode here.
We look forward to seeing what other kinds of controllers the Go 8 Bit team makes!
We are super excited to partner with Google igniteCS supporting groups of college and university students to make a difference in their local communities through CS mentorship! Learn more about igniteCS.
Art and design student, Giovanni Gonzo was part of a task force that helped renovate a public park in Bolzano, Italy. However, rather than just ‘create’ something nice to look at, he and his team decided to make something innovative and interactive that everyone could enjoy.
Bolzano: the beating heart of Italy’s South Tyrol region. A picturesque town nestled up against the Alps, on the western fringes of the spectacular Dolomite Road. Home to Ötzi the Iceman, Castel Roncolo, and... Soundgarden.
No, not the Seattle-based grunge sensation (!). On the surface, this Soundgarden is a wooden, rectangular planter containing different edible plants -- including basil, coriander, and tomatoes. However, hidden beneath the soil is a small box containing a Makey Makey, a Raspberry Pi 3, and a power bank which transform this deceptively simple park garden feature into an interactive electronic keyboard.
The project was developed by University of Bolzano design students Giovanni Gonzo, Francesca Sannia, and Chiara Perrone, in response to a brief the local government put together to renovate a park -- Parco Pompei -- in the city. The design students were tasked with coming up with something that would encourage local people of all ages to visit the park more often and take better care of it.
“We wanted to create something that anyone could use and feel responsible for, to strengthen the idea that everyone should take care of public areas just like a private property,” explains Giovanni.
After a short analysis of the park, the team decided to focus on four core values: interaction, fun, sharing, and responsibility; and developed some ideas around them.
“It took us about month to come up with the final idea and two weeks to build it,” says Giovanni. “We were helped by the guys working in the university’s metal and wood workshops who taught us how to weld -- among other things.”.
Soundgarden can be played like a keyboard as every plant triggers a sound when touched. There are three stools around the planter; the perfect spot for people to sit and use the Soundgarden together.
On two corners of the planter there are two speakers of varying heights (one for children and the other for adults). Each speaker has metal box on top of it that the user pulls close to their ear. These boxes are actually connected to the Makey Makey’s ‘earth’ wire, meaning that touching them and the plants at the same time completes the circuit -- making the sound audible.
The speakers themselves are connected to the Raspberry Pi 3, which loads a Scratch program when it’s switched on.
“The Scratch app plays different sounds when the Makey Makey keys receive the input,” explains Giovanni. “I used Garageband to record the different notes from a minor pentatonic scale. This way every note always sounds good when played after or on top on another one, and there’s no way anyone could play a ‘bad’ melody.”
Giovanni discovered Makey Makey when looking for a way to produce sounds with plants and saw it as a very good alternative to the standard Arduino.
“Makey Makey’s easy to use, cheap, and ready to go as soon as you unbox it,” he says. “There are a lot of amazing things you can do with it; the potential is huge and it’s a technology that requires very basic IT knowledge.”
The project was on display in Parco Pompei in June, but the city’s administration is now considering making Soundgarden a permanent feature.
“Park visitors were very excited about the project and everyone was having fun making music just touching some plants,” Giovanni says. “Both children and adults learned how to play together producing more complex melodies and trying to reproduce famous songs. A group of three guys also started using the stools as a percussion to play a rhythm that sounded very nice together with the noises from each plant.
“Everyone enjoyed it and it was a big success in my opinion. I really enjoyed using Makey Makey and I’ll definitely use it again in future projects.”
Thanks Giovanni! We eagerly await your next efforts :)
Ever played Mario on Play-Doh or Piano on Bananas? Alligator clip the Internet to Your World.
"four-year-old daughter has managed to connect the kit" ~BBC
"by far the coolest Kickstarter project" ~Kotaku
"turns the whole world into a keybaord" ~Engadget
"a lot of enthusiasm and love" ~Wired
"crazy, inventive experiments" ~PC World
"We love a good diy project" ~LIfehacker
"So small, so quirky, so simple, so awesome." ~Contiki
"Mind explosion in progress." ~Indie Cookie
"turns your alphabet soup into a keyboard" ~New Scientist
"Edison meets OK Go" ~Cool Material
Order Your Kit Includes MaKey MaKey, Red USB Cable, 7 Alligator Clips, 6 Connector Wires
Who's Behind This?
Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum have both been working with invention kits for the last decade.
They are the people who brought you Drawdio and Singing Fingers, and they have been on the
Scratch programming language team in the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT.
The kit is based on research at MIT Media Lab, and the circuit was designed in collaboration with Sparkfun. The original funding was Kickstarted.
Eric Rosenbaum is a doctoral student in the Lifelong Kindergarten group, where he creates new technologies at the intersection of
music, improvisation, play and learning. His projects include software for finger painting with sound, painting with light,
improvising with looping sounds, and creating interactive behaviors in 3D virtual worlds. His recent speaking appearances have
included TEDx Pioneer Valley, Economist Tech Frontiers, and Dust or Magic App Camp. His work has been shown at venues including
San Francisco Exploratorium, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, San Jose Tech Museum, and the OFFFmatica and
Eric holds a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and a Master's degree in Technology in Education from Harvard University. He also holds a Master's degree in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT Media Lab, for which he developed Jots, a system to support reflective learning in the Scratch programming environment.
Jay Silver lives in Florida and is Founder/CEO of JoyLabz/MakeyMakey. Before that, he was a PhD student at MIT Media Lab where he won a Lemelson-MIT Award for Invention and Innovation.
He was Intel's first ever Maker Research Scientist. Time named one of his
inventions "Top 15 Toys for Young Geniuses." Jay has given talks at TED, PopTech, VMWorld, etc.
He has exhibited internationally at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Exploratorium, Ars Electronica, etc.
Jay studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech where he was named Engineer of the Year. He was awarded a Gates
Scholarship to earn a master's in Internet Technology from Cambridge University. He also holds a master's in Media
Arts and Sciences from MIT Media Lab where he invented "Camera for the Invisible."