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The Internet of Art Things / IoAT / IoT Art

The Internet of Art Things (IoAT) represents a coming together of a number of elements of my creative practice. Firstly, there is my long-standing interest in "connectedness" in the natural and human-made worlds. Next, my algorithmically generated "art systems" (such as the A Cybernetic Ecology exhibition). And finally there is my practical interest in "digital making" and the belief that digital art can be a handmade practice, just as much as other art forms, such as painting or sculpture.

The underlying enablers of the The Internet of Art Things concept are the rapid development of low-cost but powerful Internet of Things (IoT) technologies such as WiFi-enabled microcontrollers, environment sensors, LED/LCD displays and back-end servers. In particular $2 connected microcontrollers such as the ESP8266 and ESP32 are making it possible to connect almost anything to the Internet and the Mosquitto open-source MQTT server allows you to create your own IoT message broker both easily and cheaply.

But what do I mean by The Internet of Art Things? When explaining the general Internet of Things concept to people I start by saying something like, "Imagine if everything that could be connected to the Internet was connected to the Internet". Or, "What if the cost of adding internet to an object was effectively zero?".

Since I often have these conversions over a cup of coffee ideas such as a connected coffee cup that tells the waiter when you need a refill often pop up, or a menu with an epaper display that automatically updates to show the special of the day, or even a chair that tells you if you are putting on weight, and so on. In fact, when you think about it it's quite easy to come up with a string of ideas for things that might one day be connected to the internet.

Connected Art -> IoAT

For me though, the conversation gets really interesting when you ask, "What if artworks were connected to the Internet - and consequently, each other". What are the creative opportunities this enables? Will we start to develop an "aesthetics of connectedness"? How do you make sense of a world in which there is more data flying around you than currently flows through your laptop in a year?

This has been something I have been interested in for over 10 years. Of course other artists have asked the same question, and Internet-connected artworks are as old as the Internet itself, but I think we are entering a world when it will no longer be the exception but the rule - digital art will soon be synonymous with connected art.

As an artist one of the big challenges in exploring this is in getting the technology together to allow you to explore this world without being totally overloaded by it. While I enjoy developing new technologies, I don't just want to build technology. Therefore I need to create a technological toolkit that will enable me to make considered artworks. Likewise, I don't want to keep recreating the same functionality in new technology just to keep up with the latest innovation.

Hence, I have been working on my own Internet of Art Things infrastructure using open standards and modular technologies that I think will be around for a while. What's more, when it's ready I plan to share it with other artists, so that our artworks can communicate and respond to each other.

cybecol/env/all/hello

At the heart of my new Internet of Art Things infrastructure is an MQTT message broker that passes messages between things, artworks and software processes. Messages are exchanged via "publish and subscribe" and can be directed at groups of systems right down to individual components of an artwork. I use a systems model for the message hierarchy, where "ecosystems" are comprised of "systems" which are in turn comprised of "components". Because a publish-and-subscribe approach is used, connected things can come and go without breaking connections or causing the server to hang waiting for messages to get through.

A note on MQTT, or Message Queue Telemetry Transport. While people often cite the NCSA Mosaic web browser as the trigger for the growth of the World Wide Web, you could quite reasonably argue that Apache - the back-end web server technology - was equally responsible. To me MQTT is to the Internet of Things what Apache was to the World Wide Web.

Connected to the MQTT is a node.js server that takes incoming messages from sensors and artworks and turns them in to outgoing messages that other artworks can subscribe to. This allows complex message passing and generation logic to be implemented so that connected artworks do not simply have to subscribe to fixed messages from connected sensors.

The Things

The great thing about MQTT is that it is "lightweight" to run on microcontrollers, as well as in the browser and on servers. Using the ESP8266 I have already created an environment sensor that can send humidity, temperature and light level messages to the server, plus a distance sensor that can report back when someone approaches an artwork (be it a print or digital piece). I've also built Raspberry Pi and Microcontroller cameras that can monitor movement in a space and transmit images for use in an artwork. On the cards are microphones that an listen for changes in sound levels and a heat sensor that can see in infrared. All these things need is a WiFi connection and they can send data to the server that can then be used to trigger changes in connected artworks. In keeping with the "digital maker" idea all of these things are made in the studio and feature my own software and 3D printed housings.

For the artworks themselves, I have reengineered by Transformations artworks to use the infrastructure, and been working with Ernest Edmonds (who pioneered the idea of the connected artwork) to integrate his Open Systems pieces. Similarly, I expect any future collaborations with Esther Rolinson to use this infrastructure when the artworks want communicate with each other or the outside world. The next thing to be connected will be my Pollock drawing robot, so that my artworks can have a physical, moving presence in their environments.

Get In Touch

This project is a work in progress, but is developing rapidly. If you are interested in discussing it with me further then please get in touch, or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

I will be demonstrating parts of the Internet of Art Things project at Creat-A-Con at DMU in Leicester on 21st October 2017 and will be showing work-in-progress artworks at Rolinson+Clark: Collaborative and Solo Work at the LCB Depot in December 2017 (tbc). I am also planning a Gallery Without Walls digital exhibition early in the new year.

Sean Clark
seanc@cuttlefish.com
September 2017

Photographs