Hello, Solari: Art, Specs, and Communication

Image of large bright red three-line Solari split-flap board. Above the top row is an open panel, displaying the electronics and mechanics of the board.We had a lovely back-and-forth with another Solari owner and operator, Lynn Shade, a US designer currently living in Japan who found us through the Atlas Obscura article. She’s got a handsome cherry-red three-line 81-cartridge Italian departures board, which she’s rigged up with a couple of technically-minded pals to display people’s messages that they send via Twitter and that are fed back online via webcam. You can check out these messages on the board’s twitter feed, @hellosolari. We know a few of you following along at home are keen to hear more about the tech information of these boards, and so we thought we could share a bit of our email exchange, which also includes some details on the artistic development of the project.

Lynn started off by telling us how she bought her board and how they’re currently troubleshooting the connection to Twitter:

“[F]rom our side we can tell you how we hooked it up to Twitter plus webcam so anyone in the world could write to the board. Unfortunately as I write the board’s Twitter connection is temporarily down. Originally it was connected to a Raspberry Pi & Pi camera and now an Intel Compute Stick + webcam. The Intel is super buggy and keeps flaking out…thinking about going back to Raspberry Pi but a more powerful one.

I’m interested in figuring out how to change my board from line-by-line flipping in sequential order, to randomized full board simultaneous flipping.

I bought my board from Solari 10 years ago. It was decommissioned from Milano Malpensa airport baggage claim. Solari re-configured the board, a collaborative project that took 2 years. The re-configuring included enabling it for ethernet. I can send the specs, such as they are, if that’ll help you guys.”

Closeup of inside of Solari board, the artist Lynn Shade's hand is on the left, and she is holding a metal part with a bundle of twisting wires inside.

We wrote back eagerly about Arduino and our future plans for a GUI:

“We’re working on two stages: currently our friend Mark from Spikenzie Labs is doing the heavy lifting (in the complete absence of schematics) of building the Arduino boards we need to get them working again. As you might have seen from our website solaris.concordia.ca each of the two signs has an array of eight units; the first six are all the same (alphanumeric); the last two are to display the 24-hr clock in 15-minute increments. Right now we can control all the units in one of the signs by sending commands from a laptop running the Arduino software. I believe ours are ‘simultaneous’ but strictly speaking sequential – just very fast, one after the other. Mark might be able to explain that better.

Stage two will be to use a Raspberry or similar (thanks for the tip re Intels) to build a GUI/control interface that we can feed data (or we might even just upload them to the Arduino). Definitely curious to find out how you made yours internet-enabled, which will be something we do down the line after our public installation on forced migration.”

Lynn sent us some more curious details about connecting to an IP and how they used Filemaker to program the frontend, and some of the limitations of that. She also shared a bit about how the project came together through a collaborative process, bolstered through friendship and enthusiasm and shared ideas:

Everyone I’ve worked with found the specs useless. The “Ethernet Kit” they refer to is 20-year old CPU with a Disk on Module (photo enclosed) which Solari connected before I bought it. That ethernet cable is simply plugged it into a wireless router. There was some confusion before figuring out my modem subnet range needed to be reconfigured since Solari had hardwired the web address to the board…but you won’t have that problem as you’re building your own.

The Solari board would be nowhere without smart friends. Riccardo at Solari who’d championed the project and told me stories about how several Solari employees were stationed full-time at Grand Central Terminal in New York just to take care of the big board, but despite his stories when the Solari arrived I hadn’t realized the weight of owning industrial machinery. Eric Hixon had helped with tech in other art projects and took charge of getting the board running. As you can relate there are times you don’t know if the board is ever going to flip. The night he got it working, he and his new girlfriend (now wife) had actually left for the night, but were suddenly back: Eric had one last idea in the car, the idea about the modem subnet. A few years later Kevin Tieskoetter wrote a cool FileMaker front-end to send data to the board continually. When I wanted to put the board online Eric wired up a Raspberry Pi & camera. Wilson Chan and Jon Christman got inspired during their holiday to Japan and stayed up nights making the board tweetable. Essentially, the board continually requires a specialist on call. During stretches when help wasn’t available I felt the pain of knowing there are just a tiny handful of people in the world with the talent, interest, and availability to work on the board—I think you can understand!”

It’s interesting too to hear Lynn talk about how the Solari board functions as a work of art. Lynn notes that the act of people writing to the board from afar works best when they are friends. Strangers had a different relationship with the board:

“The twitter thing is currently a lightweight proof of concept. I wanted a way to experiment with distant people writing to the board. Impressions so far: really cool to have friends write, not so great with and for strangers, even though they get a video back. If you guys are considering an interactive component it might be interesting to have a way to let people “talk” to the board only if they’re physically in the same location as the board. Your artwork on migration could incorporate a Papers Please kind of painful process, people would have to write on paper then get the message stamped approval etc. to *maybe* get their voice heard.”

It seems particularly important to draw from her experiences with programming the board with “meaningful” content in contrast to programming it with the kinds of data it would have traditionally held and having the viewer interpret that for themselves:

“No content I’ve tried on the board has moved me as much as staring at the boards at Frankfurt Airport. I wasn’t lost, this was organized Germany   : )   but I was so lost internally. Standing in the Departures hall staring up at the giant board, the sound of flipping and changes to the flights, all the destinations, there’s an aspect of looking to the board for literal direction and emotional direction. It’s exactly as you say in the description of Cheryl’s project: you’re in between arrival and departure in every sense. In Frankfurt as you go deeper into the airport the signs get smaller until at the gates they’re finally at eye level. It’s the most mesmerizing thing and reminded me of childhood flights from Haneda Airport. The art series I was working on at that time was about love & travel how both can be so incredibly inspiring and so destructively draining. When I’ve tried putting ‘meaningful’ content on the board, messages etc., the board somehow loses its power. My current thinking on my project is somehow, the board is meant to inexorably flip, and the meaning found in it needs to be interpreted by the viewer rather than have meaning given.”

Finally, she shared a bit of trivia with us! We knew that The Terminal was shot at Mirabel, but hadn’t heard about the title credits by Yu & Co.:

“Bit of trivia: the Spielberg film The Terminal was shot in Montréal-Mirabel airport. Garson Yu of LA special effects company Yu & Co. did the title credits that show the board. He said Spielberg brought in and installed another, larger board from Germany. The special effects crew sat up all night spray-painting umlauts out of the flaps. In the end, though, the title credits were re-created in CG. Garson said it took them over a month to analyse and recreate the physics of the board so the flaps would do that infinitesimal bounce at the end. http://www.yuco.com/projects/the-terminal.”

Write to Lynn’s board on Twitter by sending a tweet to @hellosolari! Within 5 minutes, you’ll get a tweet back with video and audio of your message. The 3-line board’s capacity is 27 characters per line. For line breaks, type “space / space”—for example:  “first line / second line / third line”—if the message doesn’t indicate line breaks, the board won’t flip. Like our board, in addition to the alphabet from A-Z and numbers from 0-9, @hellosolari can also display a period, a hyphen, a space, and a slash.

For anyone who’s interested, here are a few of the technical documents Lynn mentions:

Technical Information: Solari di Udine Flap Displays

Solari Software Specs

Solari Diagram: Final Dimensions


Solari – virtuoso demo from Matt Soar on Vimeo.

It’s been an exhilarating week: Mark Demers from SpikenzieLabs was in on Wednesday to finalize some work on our #48 board, and had a wonderful surprise for us – a program made in the difficult-to-search-for-but-easy-to-use automation software Processing.

Drawing from a TextEdit file, Processing allows us to create sequences of commands to send to the panel in our Solari board. Mark wrote a sequence that allows us to demonstrate the capacity of the program to change speeds, to turn the light on and off, to set the display and clock at the same time and independently, and to activate individual units one by one. This ability to program in advance will be instrumental in thinking about the possibilities for the signs’ use in a public art installation.

The software allows us not only to set the speed of the flapping, but also how long the program waits before sending the next command. Thinking about programming in this way feels a bit more like a composition or a choreography of sound and movement and symbols. Given these commands to run through instead of entering them manually changes the call-and-response dialogue of entering data and listening and looking for a result. Instead, the program allows the sign to perform. Listening to the Solari run the course of its automation, you begin to notice the nuance of the sounds of each unit. Its second display unit rumbles, lower-pitched, while its first has a higher voice. The clock units have a more lispy whisper on account of their large, thin size. And the light turns on with a slight upper ping, as its taught spring switches and the filament flushes red at the sudden rush of electricity.