One Thousand Birds

An interactive mural for a Brooklyn-based sound design studio

Project Details

Done for

One Thousand Birds

Time

Winter 2015 – Spring 2016

Main Collaborators

  • Sound design, technical work, creative input: Andrew & Laura {One Thousand Birds}
  • Wiring and programming for sound: Jake Zacharia, Matt Lau, Jonathan Evans, Torin Geller

Process video made in conjunction with One Thousand Birds and Adam Gundersheimer

One Thousand Birds is committed to fostering a creative community and helping others to find their voices. They have a beautiful space in an industrial building in East Williamsburg where they produce sound and host shows. In this loft, they've made several "sound experiments" as art installations. For one of these, we collaborated to create a large, interactive mural. Each piece of the letters in the mural is made from a conductive paint and wired to a sound board. When touched, each piece of this mural makes its own sound, making this a sort of 14-foot wide synthesizer keyboard.

This project is the result of many ideas and iterations. You can read about the project below, and see more process sketches on my blog.

One Thousand Birds is a commercial art and sound studio based out of Brooklyn, NY, run by Andrew Tracy and Laura Dopp. Their main focus is creating soundtracks for commercials and films, but they are also building a growing community of local artists, creatives, and musicians. They help shoot music videos and live-stream concerts, they give painters space to create and display work, and they host a monthly Sunday-evening concert in their East Williamsburg loft. These shows are called “OTB Live,” and showcase three musical acts each time across a wide array of genres. The setting, the musicians, and the concert-goers have made this one of my favorite recurring events in NYC. In addition to all of these creative efforts, OTB has started to create “sound experiments,” such as a laser harp and conductive water bowls. Natually, when I suggested collaborating on a mural, a quick brainstorming session revealed a unique idea: we could make an interactive mural, utilizing conductive paint that would enable the letters to actually make sound when touched.

It took diligence to come to a design that could both fit their brand and work well as an interactive piece of art, but the final result is all the better for it. Here’s how it came together, and how it turned out:

Phase One: “Listen”

The name “One Thousand Birds” originally came from a poem by the Persian poet Hafiz. The poem is about being more open and attentive to the world, and it starts with the lines, “Listen / Listen more carefully to what is around you / Right now.” It seemed like a natural fit to give a sound design studio a mural about listening, especially when the word is a refrain from their namesake poem. This starting point launched me into trying out many different ways to render “listen” to create the best possible interactive mural.

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Phase Two: “Make Sound”

Once I showed Laura and Andrew my first-round sketches for the word “Listen,” they were enthusiastic about the directions I was exploring, but seeing the effort this mural would require, they realized that what they really wanted was to create a mural that said, “Make Sound.” They’ve been using this phrase as somewhat of a studio motto, and have previously printed up beautiful posters with these words. It only seemed natural to them, then, that a mural in their studio would reinforce that idea. As a bonus, we agreed, a mural that makes sound as you touch makes even more sense if its message is “Make Sound” than “Listen.”

The redirection made sense, but the technical challenge this presented to me was fairly serious. The dirty secret with custom lettering is that extra letters can sometimes increase the design difficulty exponentially, and this was certainly the case here. Several of my initial concepts for “Listen” relied heavily on splitting the word into 13 pieces, to provide users with a full 13-note octave (e.g. C to C on a piano keyboard). This splitting made the letters pretty abstract, and some of the strategies I was using to render “listen” were failing when used on the new letters of “make sound” – they simply became too hard to read. What’s more, because I wanted each part of this mural to be touchable, the two words in this new phrase seemed to pin me between two choices: making this mural one line that was wide and short, or stacking the words into a much smaller composition.

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One of the “listen” compositions – a “monoline” script – was promising as a composition. However, it’s major flaw is that with all its overlaps, it simply wouldn’t work very well for a conductive mural. If the areas of conductive paint were to touch one another, it would stop working. So, I went back to the drawing books. I turned back to the original “Listen” poem by Hafiz, and started to explore whether Persian calligraphy or Arabic patterns might help give the mural a unique flavor.

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Ultimately, the Persian influences weren’t quite getting me to a solution that felt right. They looked cool, but were hard to read, and didn’t quite tie into the room the mural would be in.

It took some experimentation and some false starts, but eventually, we came to a route we all loved. It held back on the patterns and complexity that I had explored in favor of a more traditional lockup that references the classic ghost signs that can be seen on old brick buildings throughout New York, and still works well as a stencil.

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With a route we were all excited about, I was able to start on creating vector artwork in Glyphs. It’s a program typically used for type design, but I also happen to love its vector editing for lettering work.

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Each time I make a significant change to a vector drawing in Glyphs, I duplicate my composition to a new layer. This allows me to backtrack if a change isn’t good, and as a side benefit, it allows me to capture the process of creating a piece. Here’s a quick look at how this composition evolved from a sketch to its final vectors.

Phase Three: Implementation

With a good idea of the lettering that would work, I wanted a background that could really make this a unique and exciting mural. I tried out a lot of possibilities, and finally found that it might be possible to create a flock of painted, gestural birds.

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Birds may not be a groundbreaking, challenging, or particularly clever decorative motif for a studio called “One Thousand Birds.” Sometimes, though, the obvious design is the best solution, and I believe that this mural is a particularly strong example of that.

With the design ideas solidified and alignment between all of us on the concept, I was ready to paint this mural. Using a projector, I traced out my letters from Glyphs to the wall.

Next, Andrew (of OTB) helped mix 1 part graphite powder with 1 part black acrylic paint to create the conductive paint. With Touch Boards from Bare Conductive, we knew we could hook up this paint to make it touch-sensitive, as planned. Our homemade conductive paint didn’t make it easy, but some experimentation showed us it was possible by using copper wire. On a blizzarding Saturday, we were able to paint the letters, and start wiring them up to the boards to make sound.

With the letters painted, it was time to paint on the birds.

At last, we had completed the mural! At the next OTB event, I had the amazing experience of seeing friends and strangers having fun making sound, and playing music by interacting with letters in a totally new way.

We’re not quite done – we’re putting a video together to show the process and the result, and we’re working on a few extra pieces of print collateral for the studio.

If you want to see more of the sketches that went into this project, you can see more on my blog.