Q&A with Micah Elizabeth Scott, CODAME Featured Artist
As part of the CODAME "Adopt an Artist" series of interviews.

We spoke with CODAME Featured Artist Micah Elizabeth Scott to learn more about her installation, “Ecstatic Epiphany,” and in the process discussed her thoughts on the direction of San Francisco’s art/tech movement, her encyclopedic knowledge of hardware/software, and her infamous tutorial, “How to Hack Your Vagina”.

By Lauryn Porte on April 30, 2014

A sheet of warm-white, concave tiles radiate ambient patterns as they hang innocuously between an aerial hoop and long curtains (or to the knowledgeable: lyra and silks, which are used for acrobatic performances) in a spacious loft above a SoMa Mexican restaurant. Welcome to the studio of Micah Elizabeth Scott – an open, light-saturated place full of project leftovers, eclectic interests and micro controllers of all shapes and sizes.

Micah Elizabeth Scott is a San Francisco-based, Colorado-raised, artist and engineer to be reckoned with.  The ambitious Scott has developed the LED interface board Fadecandy, award-winning raytracer Zen Photon Garden, and given talks at Autodesk and GAFFTA.  She is currently one of CODAME’s Featured Artists up for Adoption along with many others with a similarly electric palette. Scott’s engineering background is visible in her varied projects, mixing technology’s practicality and artwork’s ingenuity.  Her upcoming installation for CODAME’s ART+TECH Playground incorporates the contemplative hues of the best cyber-sunset you’ve never seen, with all of the mental stimulation of a mathematical concept come to life.

Tell me about your upcoming light installation “Ecstatic Epiphany”

To me it’s a visual metaphor for this ‘Ah ha’ moment of creation – a process for the inspiration for making art, which seems appropriate.

Read more about Micah’s personal process and reflections while considering her installation, ‘Ecstatic Epiphany’.

Absolutely.  What is it made out of and how does it work?

The structure is all made of out mat board– it’s the same stuff you would use for framing photos.  I ended up using something that is just very slightly warm-white so it evens out the color temperature of the LEDs. It diffuses the light really nicely.  I laser-cut the mat board into small boxes that have a concave interior that traps the light– those boxes all have strips of addressable LEDs and they’re all wired together by hand, in complex way so that the wiring is hidden in the creases of the boxes, and it seems like this uniform hanging sheet.  The LED controller is the Fadecandy board that I designed. The algorithmic software I’m writing and the computer vision software runs on a small embedded Linux board.

Fadecandy is for sale, right?

Yeah!  Now it’s an open hardware project that you can buy from Adafruit and from distributors like SparkFun electronics.  They’re pretty easy to use.  What I wanted to do is take some of the algorithms that I happened upon, the temporal dithering for increasing the color-depth of the LEDs, the interpolation for smoothing out frames– I had originally made these so that I could make art that had smoother LED effects but I wanted to bring those techniques to a wider audience.  So Fadecandy was my attempt at, concurrently with making the art myself, making tools that other people could use to make art.  So with Fadecandy, that was my first attempt at making a product that you could buy on the Internet.

What tools do you normally use for your projects?

I’ve used a lot of different tools over the years.  I guess I feel like I’m really picky about tools.  So I end up getting attached to some tools. There are microcontrollers that I have an unreasonable fondness for, like the Parallax Propeller– it’s cute and adorable in this strange way. It has a really weird architecture that makes it really annoying to program in some ways, because the toolchain is very nonstandard, but makes it capable of some really beautiful things, because you can write programs that are actually eight different programs that run completely concurrently in hardware, real-time on eight separate processors. There are some tools where I just think they’re delightfully quirky like a cult-classic movie or something.

With the LED-stuff I’ve been working on now, I don’t really have a software tool chain that I’ve been using that is anyone else’s– I’ve ended up just building my own thing from the ground up in C++.  I’ve tried other things, other languages, trying to make a higher-level thing like with Javascript, I’ve tried Processing. Those are good for different things, but the stuff I’m doing right now uses just a lot of CPU power and it’s convenient to have it running on something that’s small and embedded, and easy to run off of a small embedded Linux image on a micro-SD card.  So yeah, I guess my software toolchain has been pretty minimal lately. For hardware I’ve been using whatever small embedded Linux board that I can, and the latest one that I’ve been using is almost like if you took a Raspberry Pi but built it around a really modern cell phone processor, quad-core and 1.7 GHz– so I’ve been using that board plus the Fadecandy LED controllers that I’ve designed.

Can you talk about where you see this art/tech movement in SF going, and how you perceive its impact the city?

That question has been on my mind a lot lately.  And I can’t say I have any idea about where exactly it’s going at this point.  You know, there’s a pretty good chance that the prices are just going to get so high that no one is going to be able to afford to live here, and there’s also a chance that maybe the tech people are putting more money into art.  And I know right now a lot of the funding that art projects that I do, and that friends do, comes indirectly from tech, either from people that have been in tech and have money to spend on art, or people who end up working with tech companies for art projects.  A lot of it is going to depend on how much that actually happens relative to how much the cost of living keeps going up.  I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I feel like artists– even if we’re not in a position to influence the direction that much, we can certainly call attention to what’s happening and try to spark discussions– and this is one reason why I’m excited to do a public piece in an area the city is actively trying to change. I think it’ll be really interesting to try to do something that creates a positive change and use it as a discussion point.

Do you have any other projects happening right now?

I have a really hard time multi-tasking projects. I tend to really want to put all of my creative energy in one place and then do that one thing, and switch gears completely. I’ve been experimenting with this way of collaborative drawing with my friend Eden. She’s a really talented illustrator– she’s designed her own Tarot deck, and very realistic/abstract illustrations. And we wanted to try this technique where we both start a new drawing and occasionally just swap and just try to complete each other’s sentences effectively.

Ah – it’s like exquisite corpse!

Yeah!  It’s taught us both a lot about the nature of collaboration. We’ve been trying to figure out how to integrate that project in with more of our work. I think it has some really interesting things to say about explicitly making room for collaboration in your work, and I think this is a message that is especially lost in tech communities. I know a lot of people in tech come from this background where things are more competitive, and it’s more about making the best widget than collaborating in the smoothest way. There are movements I’ve seen that are working against that, back towards healthy collaboration, things like pair programming. I’ve often found it challenging to integrate real collaboration into heavily tech-oriented art, because tech skill and implementation is for so many people not a process that really works especially well with collaboration.  People tend to want to get a task to do, and then do the task and check in their code and both be working at the same time– so I think this drawing collaboration with Eden has really helped explore, by switching medium, taking those same problems and framing them in a way that’s not tech-specific. She’s not from a tech background and I am, and that’s let us meet in the middle and explore how collaboration works.

That sounds like a pretty big departure from your current projects – what drives your inspiration from project to project?

I tend to like doing one thing at a time.  Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time working.  When I’m not working, I like traveling, I like drawing in parks, I like going on walks. Mostly, I like being in motion. I feel like keeping moving is what keeps me inspired, and when I’m not really deep in my work I want to be gathering inspiration.

Speaking of inspiration, I feel like issues of gender identity have been a lot more visible in the mainstream media lately. There’s Janet Mock, we’ve got Laverne Cox, there are many people speaking out about their lives and experiences. What do you think about the role gender identity plays in your work?  Has it manifested itself at all, or is it a non-factor?

Gender identity does not play a role in my current work, but it is something that I want my future work to explore. I’m not 100% sure how I want to do that yet, but I have some ideas. It’s not just specifically the process that people have to go through during transition, like figuring out self discovery and how to sort of reconnect with society and all the physical and emotional hardship that involved in transition– it’s also really about trying to come to terms with things about the past that can’t be changed. Things that are lost. Like the idea that if my childhood had been different maybe I wouldn’t feel that in some ways it was lost time or in some ways it was scarring. It’s something where I can reframe it as being a necessary catalyst for ways of inspiring other people that I can repurpose for generative use, and not just something that’s going to stick around and just be this depressing vortex.

(Admittedly, at this point, I am not doing a good job of communicating how I think being extremely candid with me, a stranger, about using one’s self-acceptance as a platform to inspire others is admirable, and pretty brave.  So I will mention it here.) I don’t think it’s depressing [to harness your own experience]!  But I had some definite reservations about bridging the subject, because I also realize that people don’t want to be labeled a certain way regarding their work and have that be a looming suffix to what’s seen in their practice.

Yeah, it’s not something that I really want to hide, but I also don’t think that should be the first thing people find out about me. It just feels like: would you introduce somebody with their hometown, or their race, or whatever? It just seems like one of those things that just feels like an unnecessary spotlight. It is something that I don’t feel like my art has addressed yet– I intend for that to be something I want to highlight.  A lot of what I do is taking things that I found difficult and turning those around into these inspirational objects or experiences I can make for other people.

Changing gears, so while browsing your blog, I came upon a very interesting tutorial I really wanted to ask you about.  Tell me about how you hacked your vagina – what was the impetus for that?

It was one of those things where it seemed like a worthwhile project: it was something I wanted, it was something I could document, and it was something I could use to get people interested in having more control over their own personal objects. Especially if I can put plans out there for anyone to make it easy for people to get control over their own sex toys, I think that’s a good thing. I dunno, it was a good combination of something that I wanted to do anyway that was relatively easy to do and was fun to document, and use as an education tool.

What are you up to right now?  Are you working full time anywhere?

Right now I’m dedicating my time to developing my practice. I was working full-time at a start up, Sifteo making a new game console, and then early last year did some consulting work, but lately I’ve just been living off of savings from previous jobs and my goal with that is if I can actually focus on producing some work that is really representative of what I want to do, then I’ll be able to attract more jobs and commissions. Sort of taking a chance on myself.

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