Golan Levin: And we’re back. Welcome back, every­one. I’m Golan Levin, direc­tor of the Art && Code fes­ti­val and pro­fes­sor of art here at Carnegie Mellon. And it’s my dis­tinct plea­sure to intro­duce to you our next speak­er, Kelly Heaton, who is a Virginia-based mixed media artist work­ing at the inter­sec­tion of visu­al art and elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing. Heaton’s sculp­tures and print­ed cir­cuit boards depict famil­iar scenes of nature inter­sect­ed with blink­ing, chirp­ing elec­tron­ics that seem odd­ly alive. Kelly Heaton also cre­ates arti­sanal per­fume. It’s my plea­sure to intro­duce Kelly Heaton. 

Kelly Heaton: Hi every­body. Thank you so much for hav­ing me. It’s great to be here. I’m going to get start­ed— Well so, what I want to do for the thread of my talk is to help you under­stand how I make my cir­cuit boards that gen­er­ate bird­song and also look like birds. But before I jump direct­ly to that, I’m going to give you a lit­tle back­ground on why I’m doing this in the first place. 

I came to elec­tron­ics in my late twen­ties at the Media Lab. And my back­ground was in fine arts and I iden­ti­fied with being a painter. But did­n’t have any expe­ri­ence with elec­tron­ics so it was like whoa, you know, how do I work with elec­tric­i­ty? This medi­um is so cool. I real­ly want to be a part of it. But in look­ing at electricity…how do you do that, right? You can’t real­ly see it, so what is the form of it? So com­ing in ini­tial­ly, I had to col­lab­o­rate with peo­ple because I did­n’t know how to do it myself. 

So I start­ed by ask­ing myself how could I give elec­tric­i­ty form. So instead of hav­ing a mon­i­tor, like could I make sys­tems of pix­els that were you know three-dimensional and recon­fig­urable. And then could I have for exam­ple an artist’s palette that instead of mix­ing paint mix­es col­ors of light. And I worked with an engi­neer named Steven Gray on this and that was great. But still, as an artist I felt like I’m not real­ly touch­ing the elec­tric­i­ty, I’m not get­ting into what it real­ly is. 

So, that led me to look­ing at how can I learn elec­tron­ics. And so you know you’ve prob­a­bly many of you seen these famil­iar dia­grams of schemat­ics and cir­cuit boards. And…they meant noth­ing to me, right, because I did­n’t speak elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing, ini­tial­ly. And I could­n’t help but to see when I would look at those dia­grams, I would see things like this. This is an acupunc­ture dia­gram. And I’d be like wow you know, it seems kind of like it’s the same thing. 

So, that led me to look­ing at oth­er types of elec­tron­ic devices such as the Furby. He’s look­ing kind of sad, sor­ry. But I for exam­ple would remove the brain and put it in anoth­er loca­tion. And I turned bunch­es of Furbys into a large sculp­ture that mir­rors your body in Furby. 

So, that was cool. And as I was doing it, I spent a lot of time like a nat­u­ral­ist, look­ing into the cir­cuit­ry of the Furby and ana­lyz­ing it as though it were an ani­mal because in my mind it seem to be. And I could­n’t get around this idea that you know, the elec­tric­i­ty that flows through com­put­ers is like the elec­tric­i­ty that flows through bod­ies, and it brings com­put­ers to life, it brings ani­mals, it brings me to life. Like…that’s fas­ci­nat­ing to me. 

This is a dia­gram that I made lat­er on actu­al­ly when I was work­ing with per­fume where I indi­cat­ed the chakras in bod­ies, with all this ener­gy flow­ing around. And to me things like that look like circuits. 

So. Anyway so that’s where I came from. But as I began to deep­en my prac­tice of elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing and get a lit­tle bit bet­ter at mak­ing things, I want­ed to be able to make my own devices not just mod­i­fy Furbys or Elmos or what­ev­er but make my own devices that were lifelike. 

So. That start­ed me on a path— It was very long. Twenty-plus years of explor­ing how you make life­like cir­cuits. And I had my first suc­cess­es with insects. So, this is lead­ing to birds, right, but chirp­ing insects are sim­pler. And then from there I increased the com­plex­i­ty and was able to get some sounds that sound you know, kind of like birdsong. 

So I’m gonna show you how I do that at my elec­tron­ics bench and then mov­ing on to my screen­print­ing stu­dio, which is where I add the visu­al ele­ment of the cir­cuit boards. But on my way to my elec­tron­ics bench I want to do a demon­stra­tion for you of my sound cir­cuits. Initially I was just gonna demon­strate them one by one but then I thought what the heck, let’s just plug them all in. And so that’s what I did. So, I apol­o­gize in advance as I’m walk­ing and car­ry­ing my lap­top if it’s a lit­tle bit…not such great video. But here we go. 

So over here first I’m going to turn on my insects. And then I will turn on the birds and I’m gonna walk you through the soundscape. 

Now as I’m walk­ing around this side here…these are my per­fume bot­tles. Yes, I make per­fume and I’m sor­ry that I can’t real­ly get into that today. It’s not enough time for that. But, to say that I expe­ri­ence elec­tric­i­ty and the flow of elec­tric­i­ty through cir­cuits as vibra­tion. And that same vibra­tion is also some­thing that we can smell. A dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence of it. So I love how all togeth­er they sound like a jungle. 

Alright, so I’m going to bring you over to my elec­tron­ics bench now. Turn off these guys. Kinda sad to turn them off, but any­way it’s a lit­tle distracting. 

Alright. So how do I do that? Obviously I have audio ampli­fi­er cir­cuits. But that’s not real­ly where the excit­ing stuff is hap­pen­ing. The excit­ing stuff is hap­pen­ing in my cre­ation of vibra­tion. And I do that by mak­ing ana­log elec­tron­ic oscil­la­tors. So I built a real­ly sim­ple one to show you what an oscil­la­tor is on a very basic lev­el. And then I’m gonna move on and show you how that builds com­plex­i­ty. So. 

So. Here we’ve got some lights blink­ing back and forth. They’re oscil­lat­ing, right? And if I change the resis­tance in the cir­cuit, it changes the blink pat­tern, right. So, it’s pret­ty sim­ple. And that’s how I do it. I make a bunch of oscil­la­tors and I cou­ple them togeth­er in dif­fer­ent ways, and based on those cou­plings, I can cre­ate patterns. 

So now I’m gonna plug in anoth­er real­ly sim­ple cir­cuit, and it’s one that you actu­al­ly just heard. One of many. But this is a crick­et. So, the pat­tern of the light that you see there is show­ing you the oscil­la­tion that’s hap­pen­ing in the cir­cuit using the same com­po­nents that I used in the sim­ple blink­ing light before. The only dif­fer­ence here is that I have the audio out, and I also have a sec­ond oscil­la­tor that’s con­trol­ling the tim­bre of the chirp. So instead of just a bor­ing kind of fire alarm beep, beep sine wave sound, I’m adding vibra­tion to the qual­i­ty of the sound and that’s what it sound more of that nice chirp tone. 

There’s one oth­er thing I want­ed to point out here since this is a con­fer­ence about home­made. So, that yel­low cir­cuit board here and my piezo disc which I have in a lit­tle sty­ro­foam egg cup because it works real­ly well to ampli­fy sounds, that is some­thing that I built by myself, not because I’m crazy about mak­ing my own speak­ers but because Radio Shack used to make these won­der­ful piezo­elec­tric buzzers and then they stopped. And sud­den­ly my insects did­n’t chirp like I want­ed them to. So, I made my own. And, by the way, I put the schemat­ics on Hackaday so that you can make one too, if you have a need to make crick­ets and don’t have the right piezo­elec­tric device. 

Okay. So sim­ple oscil­la­tors, mov­ing on to insects. From there I start­ed bread­board­ing all dif­fer­ent kinds of cir­cuits. And it’s not like I just did this, right. It took me a real­ly long time to do this, so don’t be intim­i­dat­ed, it’s just real­ly about fail­ing bet­ter and being real­ly stubborn. 

But any­way, so these cir­cuits combine…in this case usu­al­ly it’s like four or five oscil­la­tors with a trans­former out­put that it is from a cir­cuit that’s been around for­ev­er called a door­bell canary. And I put togeth­er these dif­fer­ent cir­cuits to make bird­like pat­terns. So there’s one. Then there’s anoth­er one. And then anoth­er one. I’ll hold this up so you can see it, my super dirty breadboard…wires going everywhere.

I’ll go back to this one for a sec­ond. So I’m gonna just show you that one of the cool things about using a bread­board like this— Oh, actu­al­ly. This is actu­al­ly demon­strat­ing why I want­ed to move on and make cir­cuit boards, because the wires get loose and it’s easy to break stuff. 

But if I just plug and unplug the wires in dif­fer­ent pat­terns I can cre­ate dif­fer­ent songs. So, I love that. I thought well, alright. I’ve got­ta get away from these being… Oh, and by the way. Sorry. Before I move on I want­ed to just point out this lit­tle trans­par­ent guy right here, which you saw in a large bird sculp­ture— I don’t know if you caught that. 

But the cir­cuits that I just demon­strat­ed for you are what I pack up inside of these lit­tle trans­par­ent birds. 

So. Yeah. This is fun, it’s great, but they break so eas­i­ly, it’s dif­fi­cult to reproduce…it’s often very dif­fi­cult for me to even extract a schemat­ic from it just because the com­plex­i­ty of the wires and so forth, it’s real­ly easy to make a mistake. 

So I decid­ed it would behoove me to make it as sim­ple as pos­si­ble so I had ele­ments then that I could brico­lage togeth­er to be able to make my birds and my insects faster. So that led me to this project, Deep Fake Birdsong, where I broke out five dif­fer­ent oscil­la­tors, and then the sound cir­cuit­ry is all inside of the bird. And I did that…again, just real­ly for my own pur­pos­es. But also hope­ful­ly that it makes it eas­i­er for oth­ers to under­stand. So this guy, same idea. There are adjustable resis­tors in here inside of the cir­cuit that will change the qual­i­ty of the birdsong. 

So from there, get­ting that cir­cuit fig­ured out, I was able to come up with a schemat­ic and put it into a cir­cuit board. So this is the same cir­cuit that you just saw. It’s in sort of weird mode. The bird’s mad at me. It’s in some sort of real­ly angry bird mode. Anyway, you get the idea. So by putting into a cir­cuit board for­mat it then enabled me to estab­lish my schemat­ics, have some­thing that’s repro­ducible, and then con­tin­ue to build on that complexity. 

Oh, I did skip some­thing that I want­ed to show your quick­ly before I move on to my screen­print­ing. This piece here, which was back in 2018, and actu­al­ly pri­or to that all the way back—I don’t know. I would say for the last like ten years, real­ly. This was the modal­i­ty that I was work­ing in where I would get a bird-like cir­cuit that worked, and then I would build it into paper. And I love that, don’t get me wrong. I’ll prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to do that as well. 

But mov­ing on to cir­cuit boards, and I’m gonna move on to my screen­print­ing stu­dio so apolo­gies if my video’s bad here as I’m walk­ing. But cir­cuit boards are beau­ti­ful. And I I don’t know why it took me so long to get the idea. I guess because I was just so focused on try­ing to learn the elec­tron­ics in the first place. But once I moved on to the idea of design­ing cir­cuit boards it was like oh my gosh, the traces, they have such won­der­ful geo­met­ric pat­terns. And I love how they ref­er­ence orna­men­tal design from so many dif­fer­ent cul­tures, and chi­nois­erie ele­ments. It’s just beau­ti­ful the pos­si­bil­i­ties aes­thet­i­cal­ly with cir­cuit traces. 

But mak­ing cir­cuit boards, so yes, you can have them made for you by a man­u­fac­tur­er. But there are lim­i­ta­tions on how large they can make them. There’s lim­i­ta­tions on col­or. And it is fun to work with­in those lim­i­ta­tions to fig­ure out… 

Like this is just the cop­per lay­er that board I just showed you, the angry bird (it’s not always angry but it was tonight) and fig­ur­ing out okay, so going from the cop­per lay­er, know­ing the sol­der mask and the silkscreen col­ors that are avail­able to me, how can I make a rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al image. And that’s a great chal­lenge and I love to do that as well. But it’s also fun to fig­ure out what oth­er types of fine art prac­tice could I bring to cir­cuit boards to make them even more beau­ti­ful and have even rich­er visu­al elements. 

So this is a set of trans­paren­cies that I pro­duce on a film print­er that I have here in my stu­dio. And using these lay­ers, I can add col­ors to—well in this case a print. So the same art that can be used to gen­er­ate a cir­cuit board can also be used to gen­er­ate a print. 

And that opens up all kinds of delight­ful pos­si­bil­i­ties because the more com­plex­i­ty I can add with col­or for exam­ple— This is not a func­tion­al print per se, but you can see that the birds are caged inside of a cir­cuit board, right. And that cir­cuit board actu­al­ly gen­er­ates par­rot songs. But no cir­cuit man­u­fac­tur­er is going to give you all of this col­or, and plus it’s on paper and there’s like a lot of aes­thet­i­cal rich­ness that I real­ly love.

And so from there, what I’m work­ing on now is to fig­ure out how to push the cir­cuit ele­ments even fur­ther both aesthetically—these are traces in a… I’ll explain to you in a minute why the holes are there, but you see this is can­vas on a pan­el where I’ve laser-cut the holes out, and this is why you see there I’m adding cir­cuit ele­ments back in. So… 

Here’s the lit­tle crick­et that you saw before… I can put my cir­cuits back into these holes, and then there’s this whole world of pos­si­bil­i­ty that opens me because at that point I can paint and I can screen­print, and I can incor­po­rate my elec­tron­ics into it. So that’s the direc­tion I’m tak­ing my prac­tice now, and I’m real­ly excit­ed about it.

So I want to show you one oth­er thing over here because you know, if you’re gonna make cir­cuit boards why not make them real­ly big, right? So I’ll show you this guy. 

So yeah. This is where I am now. By the way, I made this all in my stu­dio with a com­bi­na­tion of laser-cutting with screen­print, with foiling. 

For exam­ple, this print here that I recent­ly made for Creative Capital has foiled that I ironed onto it. They use this to make t‑shirts. So, I’ve just been look­ing for ways to find mate­ri­als and media and meth­ods from var­i­ous dif­fer­ent sources that I can then pull togeth­er to achieve this like lush, beau­ti­ful cir­cuit board effect but also have the func­tion­al electronics. 

I do dream of mak­ing giant cir­cuit boards that’re actu­al­ly cir­cuit boards, so etch­ing them, and I’ve been talk­ing to some man­u­fac­tur­ers about that. But… Yeah. As you can imag­ine like, You wan­na do what?” But…I’ll do it. I’ll get there. 

And yeah, so I think that’s pret­ty much the tour that I want­ed to give you here. Don’t know where I am on time. Well…close. So I’m gonna walk back to where my pow­er sup­ply is and take some ques­tions from you guys. Yep, there’s my timer. 

Golan Levin: Thank you Kelly.

Kelly Heaton: You are welcome. 

Levin: Hey. Got tots of fun ques­tions in the chat here over on Discord. That was an excel­lent tour, and it was love­ly see­ing your work both from the real­ly sketchy and raw stuff to the real­ly large and impres­sive stuff that you’re devis­ing entire­ly new tech­nolo­gies and tech­niques for creating. 

Do you do you ever try to imi­tate spe­cif­ic birds, or do you sort of make a cir­cuit and then fig­ure out what it sounds like. What’s your rela­tion­ship to these birds? Are these birds that are sort of in your back­yard in Virginia and you’re sort of like this is your son­ic world; you’re try­ing to recre­ate these spe­cif­ic birds? What species are you using there, Kelly? 

Heaton: [laughs] Well, the easy answer is a mock­ing­bird, right, because they make any sounds. Yeah. So I do have a spe­cial place in my heart for mockingbirds. 

The truth is that to date my skills as an elec­tri­cal engi­neer or haven’t been good enough to say There’s a sound. I know exact­ly how to repro­duce it.” But to be fair to myself, I also think it’s actu­al­ly a real­ly hard prob­lem when you’re com­ing at it from ana­log elec­tron­ics because many of the effects that I get, the inter­ac­tions that I get between my oscil­la­tors, are total­ly sur­pris­ing and noth­ing I could have ever expect­ed. Because I’m not sit­ting down and you know, being extreme­ly deter­min­is­tic about— Like I don’t do the math. I mean, yes I draw schemat­ics and so forth. But I don’t sit down and ana­lyze like okay, this capac­i­tor and blah blah. I don’t put my stuff into SPICE.

So it’s def­i­nite­ly exper­i­men­ta­tion. But you can be sure if I hit on some­thing that sounds familiar,…like my Pretty Bird cir­cuit which I did­n’t demon­strate to you but you can see on my Vimeo page sounds kind of like a Carolina wren. It sort of goes pret­ty bird.” 

Levin: I’m not sure if you’re famil­iar with Garnet Hertz’ work in cock­roach robots, but he has made robots that are con­trolled by live cock­roach­es. And the ques­tion from the chat is have you ever worked on or want­ed to make cyborg sys­tems with insects that involve actu­al liv­ing things kind of col­lab­o­rat­ing with oth­er kind of elec­tron­ic components? 

Heaton: The answer is absolute­ly not. [chuck­les] There’s a rea­son for that. I almost— Well actu­al­ly I was accept­ed to vet­eri­nary school when I was work­ing on my PhD in immunol­o­gy. And the rea­son I dropped out, and prob­a­bly I should’ve always known from the begin­ning that I was going to be an artist. But I did not like the lab­o­ra­to­ry exper­i­men­ta­tion with ani­mals, at all. So…mm yeah, no I like wilder­ness and I like to get along with my ani­mal friends. I don’t want to… I’m not say­ing that all of it’s hurt­ing them, but yeah. I’m an ani­mal lover.

Levin: One per­son asked, they were like wait wait, you make per­fume? And you’re just casu­al­ly drop­ping bombs like Oh, I dropped out of vet­eri­nary school and oh I make per­fumes.” But maybe could you talk about the rela­tion­ship of your per­fume prac­tice to the rest of your mak­ing prac­tices? Or is there a rela­tion­ship? Like how does that relate?

Heaton: Well, you and I talked about this recent­ly. I guess I’m real­ly an ener­gy artist. So I’m just super inter­est­ed in the flow of ener­gy through all things. I’m also a tarot card read­er, and I like mag­ic. I find that when you look at it in terms of ener­gy, and you think about per­fume and the expe­ri­ence of per­fume and how you con­struct it as ener­gy, as fre­quen­cy. Same as the fre­quen­cy of the col­or fields in a paint­ing. Same as the ener­gy and the fre­quen­cies that hap­pen in a sound cir­cuit. Ultimately it’s all about the ener­gy and the vibra­tion, and I think that’s real­ly the crux of where I focus my creativity. 

Levin: I think this is excel­lent for now. We’re basi­cal­ly at time, so I want to thank you so much Kelly for giv­ing us this incred­i­ble view onto your cre­ative prac­tice and your stu­dio. It’s love­ly. This term ener­gy artist” is some­thing peo­ple are mulling over. It’s just a delight to also vis­it your space and to get this kind of inti­mate tour. Thank you so much. I hope you get to enjoy the rest of the fes­ti­val now as you’ve tak­en— [inaudi­ble]

Heaton: Yeah, thank you so much for hav­ing me. Thank you!

Further Reference

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