Polystate 1 is an interactive installation I developed for the “Interface” show at the California College of the Arts in December of 2008. The piece addresses ideas of balance, fragility, harmony, simultaneous states of being and the individual’s relationship to structures of power. The user interface consists of three apothecary balance scales and small weights presented so that the visitor is invited to play with the position of the scales, shifting them in and out of balance by transferring the weights with tweezers. Sensor data reporting the positions of scales are mapped to different audio and video processes in Max/MSP and Jitter.

At the core of the Max/MSP patch is a bank of sine wave oscillators. The frequencies of three of the oscillators are programmed to glissando between pairs of closely tuned intervals in response to the scale positions, creating complex beating patterns and the sense of never quite sounding “in tune.” Additional audio processes include Chebyshev distortion, amplitude modulation, and a bank of 96 resonant filters tuned to just intonation scales. The sound and projected image is constantly shifting in relation to the movement of the scales, creating an immersive audio-visual environment that can be “played” or “tuned” via a simple interface.

The projected video is processed in such a way as to appear quite abstract most of the time, yet certain combinations of scale positions provide brief glimpses of recognizable imagery: a reflection of a stained glass window on the water in a stone fountain, a young woman being repeatedly tear-gassed and assaulted by police. At times these events happen simultaneously, while at other times the image is reduced to a murky blur.

The piece was developed over the course of the 2008 Fall semester with technical and aesthetic guidance from Barney Haynes, Don Day, North Pitney, Chris Brown and Les Stuck. A revised version of Polystate was installed during the Signal Flow festival March 12-15, 2009 at Mills College in Oakland.