A new and exciting collaboration has plunged pyka into the world of creative sustainability this Spring. Low cost technologies, unloved objects, and a whole heap of engagement workshops have seen the creation of some of the most quirky and inventive digital instruments that we've ever had the pleasure of laying our hands on - but how did our new pyka_toolkit come to be?
Flash back to October 2018, when we met with the University of Gloucestershire's Media school and sustainability department to begin the formulation of a new digital music project that placed up-cycling and reusability at its core. The aim of this project would be to promote sustainability and challenge people's perceptions of 'broken', 'unloved', or 'irrelevant' objects, re-evaluate their worth, and put those objects and their existing functions to a totally new use. We decided that the most exciting approach to promote this way of thinking would be through the world of interactive sound.
"We wanted to bring a sustainability focus to music making, especially in terms of the growing hacker-culture that surrounds musical instrument building and software programming. By enabling workshop participants to use non-musical resources to make musical instruments, this project was intended to give people a sense that any object can be seen afresh when you change your expectations of it, and that re-using materials is a way to reveal the open-ended nature of everyday products." Dr Matthew Lovett, University of Gloucestershire.
With that, we set off on the design and development of a new prototype sensor toolkit that would provide people with a new way to utilise low cost technologies in order to give unloved objects a new musical lease of life as interactive digital instruments.
Before digging into the development of the sensor toolkit, we decided that it was crucial that it was designed to be very modular and very immediate. Coding and microprocessor projects often take people down quite the digital rabbit hole (which, don't get us wrong, is a wonderful thing once a reliable understanding and love for those processes has been established) however we wanted to ensure that the key themes of this project were being engaged with in an immediate and risk-free fashion - without the barriers that complex coding and development processes can often present. So, we wanted our toolkit to remove those barriers, minimise the possibility of risk, and ultimately ensure that the engagement focus remained squarely on interacting with unloved objects and generating novel ways to repurpose them for musical expression and soundplay.
Along with the careful curation of adequate sensors and microprocessers, and also drawing on previous learning we had made via the development of our new Expression Orchestra, we developed a piece of code that enabled our new sensor toolkit to operate flexibly as a MIDI-driven platform, further increasing it's immediacy as a productive workflow, and most importantly, ensuring the primary focus of the upcoming workshop engagements remained squarely on engaging with and repurposing old and unloved objects that would otherwise be destined for the landfill.
Once we arrived at a prototype version for pyka_toolkit, the creative workshop phase got well and truly underway!
First up were the student volunteers from BA Creative Music Technology, and BA Product Design at UoG. Our volunteer students would undergo the first trial workshop, helping us to test out the very best ways to engage individuals with the toolkit and assist us in the reflective process of improving these workshops for the upcoming public facing engagements. As a result, the first collection of pyka_toolkit instruments were born:
Following on from this, the students then underwent a second round of workshops, this time serving as a 'train the trainers' session. Our facilitation team at pyka introduced them to the required skillsets that would help them independently facilitate the first round of public facing workshops that were set to take place at Gloucester Academy:
Moving on from the success of the first school's workshops, we moved our attention to the next phase of public facing workshops, that were set to take place at Gloucester Library. This time our fully-trained UoG students, now seasoned by their facilitation efforts at Gloucester Academy, were to engage the general public in the pyka_toolkit experience.
At this point the effectiveness of the intended configuration of the sensor toolkit was starting to become very apparent. The project saw individuals of a wide age range and ability level engaging in a shared experience, non-invasively embedding sensors into a variety of world-worn objects, and successfully transforming them into interesting and characterful instruments, with no risks, no technical barriers, and probably most importantly - with no confusion on why this was a valuable process to undergo. These engagements have had a substantial impact on our volunteer UoG students too:
“I’ve loved being a part of the pyka_toolkit project. It's something I would definitely want to do again. It [using an established sensor toolkit] is a much more practical way of developing a useful understanding of this technology. If we had you guys running our tech seminars it would be a hell of a lot easier for us to use these resources within our own projects and to teach others about these approaches as well. Well done for establishing this process, it’s really paid off!” Emily Spiller, Student, BA Product Design.
...and this project has also had a direct and meaningful impact specifically on the CMT students and their recent assessment work for the Platforms & Systems module:
...and the fun is only just beginning. A great deal of learning has been made throughout this first phase of engagements for the pyka_toolkit, and new ideas and applications for this resource are beginning to emerge. As we move forwards, we are aiming to take pyka_toolkit through a more substantial R&D phase, with a view to increase the types of sensors that can be used, as well as improve its flexibility and potential for application across a wider range of contexts. But all in good time. For now, if you are interested and haven't yet joined us for a pyka_toolkit workshop, then we're pleased to announce that we will be extending the Gloucester library sessions into July - more information on the timings and dates of these drop-in activities can be found here at our Facebook page. You will also be able to find us at the Maker Shack at this year's Cheltenham Science Festival. Join us from the 6th until the 9th of June where you can learn more about this project, the pyka_toolkit the undergrad courses at UoG, and even have a go at creating a digital instrument from a selection of old unloved objects that we'll have on display as part of this event. In the name of sustainability - we really hope to see you there!