Ars Electronica 2011 – Pixelspaces – The One-Handed Musical Instrument (OHMI)

Carsten Nicolai’s (DE) Modell Zur Visualisierung - a device that makes a beam of electrons audible.
Carsten Nicolai’s (DE) Modell Zur Visualisierung – a device that makes a beam of electrons audible.

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend one of the world’s leading Media Art Festivals, The Ars Electronica Festival. I had been invited by new collaborators, The One-Handed Musical Instrument (OHMI) Trust to speak at the launch of their competition at the prestigious establishment in Linz, Austria.The OHMI-Trust was formed by Stephen Hetherington and Martin Dyke in 2011 in response to Stephen’s attempts to find an instrument his hemiplegic daughter could play at school. As a former Trumpet player with symphony orchestras, Stephen was alarmed to find that after much research there is currently no orchestral instrument that can be played with one hand – and as such has launched a competition to invent new instruments which allow for full and undifferentiated participation in musical life. Horst Hörtner, the Director of the Ars Electronica FutureLab offered OHMI a space at their Pixelspaces Conferences to bring the challenge to their talented transdisciplinary research and development team.

I arrived on the Saturday which allowed enough time to catch a tantalising glimpse of the incredible and inspirational exhibits on display at the festival, before the OHMI Conference started on the Sunday afternoon. It was clear from the outset that my expectations of encountering technologies and art of the highest level were not misplaced. I was particularly impressed with Apostolos Loufopoulos’ intense sound installation ‘Bee’, the delightfully malevolent ‘Newstweek’, and Mark Shepard’s subversive‘Sentient City Survival Kit’, all of which were found in the OK CyberArts exhibition. After a late night meeting with Horst and fellow panellist Peter Purgathofer (Associate Professor, Vienna University of Technology) and a cycle-by sighting of Joe Paradiso (Director of the Responsive Environments, MIT Media Lab) I was all the more agog to see what the following afternoon’s discussions would yield.

Before I knew it the time had come for my curiosities to be satisfied, and an eager crowd had gathered in the Sky Media Loft at the top of the Ars Electronica Centre. Over the last 10 years, Pixelspaces has established itself as the dynamic hub of a community of artists and scientists that enables conference participants to present their work and to discuss socially relevant issues associated with it – and it did not disappoint! After Stephen had set the scene, and issued the challenge to the room it was over to Joe, Peter & myself to elucidate the matter discussing existing technologies and offer general advice to potential competitors about instrument design.

Wim Janssen's (BE) Continuization Loop
Wim Janssen’s (BE) Continuization Loop

I was pleased to convey the current state of assistive music technologies, their potential pitfalls and the invaluable benefits they can offer when properly applied – not to mention giving more international exposure to our Drake Music Young Ambassador, Charlotte White. Joe Paradiso took us on a whirlwind tour of delightfully obscure electronic contraptions, both commercial and from his esteemed research group at MIT. Meanwhile Peter Purkathofer got to the core of what drives us to learn a musical instrument, enthralling with his considered and insightful discussion of requisite features of any new musical instrument.

Whilst the current assistive music technologies are well developed, my experiences at Ars Electronica highlighted the fact that there is a gulf between them and technologies at the cutting edge. It is clear to see the reasons for this, particularly reflecting on my own experiences of bespoke instrument building – whilst there is clearly a demand for it, the process is decidedly time consuming and expensive and the resulting instruments often require regular upkeep and expert operators. Only time will tell what wonderful contraptions the entrants of the OHMI competition will develop, but if they reflect the design flare, knowledge base and considered application of technology that Ars Electronica is famous for – I can’t wait to start experimenting with them!


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