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Work In Progress: Di Mainstone And Louis McCallum's Hydrocordion

Mainstone’s lastest wearable, water instrument is now on view at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in NYC.

by Kathleen Flood
25 June 2012, 10:33pm

You know that old saying, it’s not the destination but the journey that matters most? The same can be said about the creative process. Some of the most revealing aspects of any project occur during the act of making it. So we say, forget your final version—we want to get into the nitty gritty of your piece in its rawest form. We want to get to know the Work In Progress. For previous Work In Progress columns, click here.

Artist and designer Di Mainstone creates wearable sculptures and instruments that playfully mod the body. When we previously interviewed her for our Tech Q&A column, she told us that her favorite piece of technology from her childhood was the village water pump in her mother’s backyard. “There is something satisfying about a mechanical device that invites us to spend energy in an expressive way in order to make something happen,” she says. Coincidentally enough, it’s also this machinery that’s the inspiration behind her lastest work Hydrocordion, made in collaboration with Louis McCallum.

The project went through several different iterations as she rushed to develop it in time for the Dublin Science Gallery’s “Surface Tension” exhibition last year, so we asked Mainstone to share some of her sketches and prototypes that ultimately became the Hydrocordion. You can see the piece currently on view at Eyebeam through August 11th.

How It Started

On July 15, 2011 I made a very last minute decision to respond to the call for an upcoming exhibition at the Dublin Science Gallery called “Surface Tension.” The forthcoming show caught my eye because I had previously imagined a series of wearable water devices, with my good friend and architect Kate Cheyne, that had never quite left the drawing board. Together, we had envisioned an ensemble of mechanisms that harvested and redistributed rainwater in playful and innovative ways.

Municipal Instrument

Municipal Instrument aims to highlight the need for water conservation in our daily routine through a collection of man and water powered musical devices. The installation is based around a water reservoir that is designed to harvest rainwater. Municipal Instrument, invites us to spend energy collectively in order to harvest and reuse this water as we in the developed world might have done before the luxury of home plumbing. The reward for our hard work is the actuation of water-propelled sound. By making the user (or movician) part of the mechanics of water delivery, we hope to highlight a process that one can easily take for granted.

Combining hydraulics, mechanical engineering, body-centric sculpture and collective interaction, Municipal Instrument also hopes to inspire participants (movicians) to move their bodies in expressive ways to create water-induced sound. Each of these contraptions will be crafted from combinations of durable architectural materials and squishy, water-resistant textiles, thus creating an aesthetic that is part shelter and part fashion. It is our aim that each device should be 'wearable' in order to encourage the hands-on participation of those who visit and take part in the event, asking our audience to become part of the physical process of musically redistributing water.

Reality Check + Panic

Following the excitement of being accepted [into the exhibition], the reality of the steep learning curve needed to fulfill this task began to sink in. I would need to make a fully-functioning musical water installation capable of withstanding consistent use and abuse over the three-month exhibition. I needed to do a crash course in hydraulics. I had to learn about rubber, fast. I must investigate ways that water could be used to manipulate sound. I realized that couldn't do it alone and that I had to find myself a team.

My first move was to speak to Mark Plumbley, head of the Centre of Digital Music at Queen Mary University where I am artist-in-residence. Mark was very encouraging, and helped me to apply for extra funding from Queen Mary to make the piece happen on time. He suggested that I contact some of the PhD students at Queen Mary's new Media Arts and Technology course and subsequently hooked me up with PhD student Louis McCallum. As well as being a competent engineer, Louis has a background in sound and has made several of his own instruments in the past.

Prior to Louis' arrival, I had slightly lost my bottle imagining that it might be impossible to create a resilient instrument that allowed you to compose sound through wearable water bellies in the time given. So I decided to put forward a slightly different concept…


The concept was called Liquiphone and involved a collection of modular wearable instruments that inspired movicians to connect to their bodies and play. As they moved with these components, the sound would be released in a speaker at the bottom of a central reservoir. The soundwaves would then be visualised on the surface of the water. Ralph Borland [one of the curators of “Surface Tension”] got back to me very quickly saying that this detracted from the very analogue appeal of my earlier proposal, so the concept was scrapped.

On a mission to understand how we might use water in our installation, I tracked down Dr. Peter Wormleaton, Senior Lecturer of Environmental Engineering and Flooding in the department of Mechanical Engineering at Queen Mary University, who kindly gave me a basic lesson on hydraulics systems. Next, Louis and I visited James Busfield, Head of the Rubber Research Group at Queen Mary, to learn what we could about rubber moulding and to understand the different ways that we might be able to fabricate the piece. James told us that it was unlikely that we would be able to create moulds for our piece with only six weeks until our deadline, and suggested that we hack existing rubber devices to create our wearable water units.

Fast Prototyping

Photo by Heather Shimmin.

Louis and I decided to dedicate the first full week on the job to hands-on prototyping at my studio on the roof of the Village Underground, an artist space made of refurnished tube trains balanced on top of a Victorian warehouse in Shoreditch.

We had an eclectic week playing with marbles in water, floating xylophones, creating a hydraulic water-pumping unit inside of a basketball. We had so many ideas we were not quite sure what to do with them all. Following James Busfield's advice we found everyday objects like rugby balls and bathroom plungers that we could then modify for our experiments. This was not as easy as we first imagined. We crafted a basketball water-belly hooked up to tubing, which we used to propel marbles under water.

Louis McCallum: We quickly realised was that it was really hard to prototype anything watertight in a hurry! Roof access to Village Underground's outside sink was invaluable as it meant we could splash around and test our inventions as we went along.

Di and Louis prototyping.

Creating A Monster

Mainstone: After a week of wild experiments we attempted to draw up our creation, which combined all of our ideas. We realised that we had created a monster, which we ourselves no longer understood. We were trying to input many personal ideas into the piece rather than looking at the essence of the brief. Water + movement = sound.

It was at that point that Nanda Karpon, another PhD student from Queen Mary's Media Arts and Technology group, joined forces with us. She reminded us that simplicity was a beautiful thing, and urged us to explore the basic properties of water. So we started to ask ourselves how could we use water to affect sound in the simplest way?

We had a set of bath time aqua flutes in the studio where the amount of water controlled the pitch of the note. In response to this, we created a wooden water flute prototype, which we attached to rubber tubing and a honey pot filled with water. As we blew into the whistle and squashed the honey pot, the water level changed along with the pitch of the note. This was a breakthrough. Louis started to investigate organ pipes and found some old-school technical drawings of how they were made. After this we managed to find a simple workshop designed for how to make whistles for six-year-olds using drainpipes, doweling, and inner tubes.


The finished prototype.

McCallum: As the prototypes were working sporadically, we thought it was important to find out how the organ pipe worked in detail, so when building our own we made sure we got the most control over the sound. This involved looking at physics sites, hobby websites, and YouTube. It is amazing what you can find out if you look hard enough!

Mainstone: Once we had mastered making our own whistling organ pipes, Nanda and I set about making the first full prototype of the Hydrocoridon. We had to ask ourselves many questions at this point. How many people would participate? Would that mean one flute per person? How would we generate air to make sound? How would we propel water into the flute towers to change the pitch? We made friends with the local plumbing shop and set about hacking it out using a gutter and other plumbing materials.

It was during this phase that we were joined by Richard Shed, a product and interaction designer based in Shoreditch, with a wizard-like understanding of materials. Richard helped us address many of the details of interaction and fabrication. With Richard on board, we brainstormed ways to make the water bellies and continued experiments with balloons, rugby balls, and master plungers. We soon realised the benefit of using master plungers was that you could use it to hold and propel water.

Richard standing in the project’s base.

Engineer David Gauthier, of Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, then joined the team along with ex-students of the college to assist us with some final quandaries. We brainstormed ways to transfer air into the pipes using air bed pumps and thus the “air slippers” were born. A final sketch was made of the aesthetic and materials were agreed upon. Richard then made technical drawings which we used for laser cutting the various elements.

With all the bits together, we packed up and piled everything into a van. Louis and I then made our way to Dublin with only 24 hours until the show. Having missed our ferry and stayed up all night, we arrived in the gallery to install, still with no idea of whether the piece was watertight and whether it would make any sound at all!

Installation view at Dublin Science Gallery.

The opening of “Surface Tension” at Dublin Science Gallery was great a success. We managed to get all the Hydrocordion elements together in the nick of time—and it worked. We could see that people engaged with it in playful ways that we had never anticipated, and this was exactly what we had hoped for. It has since made its way to Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York as part of the World Science Fair, where it currently resides for the next three months.

After playing with the Hydrocordion in person, we had a few more questions for Mainstone and McCallum…

The Creators Project: At first I didn’t realize how the Hydrocordion was wearable… especially since some of your earlier pieces like Vi-Regalia or Sharewear are more obviously so. How important is wearability when you’re dreaming up and designing a new project?
The body is the inspiration for all of my experiments. All the devices that I make either connect to the body in isolation or link us to the surrounding architecture or structures (as with Hydrocordion). These body-centric artefacts are designed around the moving frames of dancers, creating modular systems that hope to inspire experimental movement and unleash hidden narratives. The narrative is usually written first and used to define the shape and behaviour of each piece.

Louis, could you speak a bit more to how you worked to calibrate the notes?
As a programmer, the initial instinct was to stick a computer inside and process, harvest, and augment the audio in some complex system. However, for every layer of algorithm you add on top, you decouple the players’ action from the sound they hear. Maintaining this instinctive feeling by merely embellishing the sound through simple hardware effects allowed us to create a novel and interesting voice for each pipe. It also allowed for experimentation with the timbral possibilities afforded by digital effects, whilst keeping the acoustic expressiveness of the instrument.

Do you see Hydrocordion being played or performed outside of a gallery setting? If so, what would that performance be like?
Mainstone: Yes, it would be fun to see how the piece is explored in different urban settings. Louis and I are keen to develop a performance with the piece in which dancers' movements inspire new sounds. We will explore how their body contortions might be repeated to retrieve particular melodies. We also plan to make a Hydrocordion film (set in an alluring, murky dell somewhere in East London) to illustrate the potential of the piece both as a tool for composition and choreography.

McCallum: I think any musical piece would intrinsically have to take into account the bodily movements of the performers, so it would always sit on a line between composition and choreography. Whilst you could try and score in a more conventional way and force performers to use discrete notes, perhaps by introducing markings on the tubes, it seems a shame. It’s always important to exploit the novel sonic capabilities of an instrument, rather than trying to enforce existing methods that may not fit.

Artwork Credits: Hydrocordion by Di Mainstone & Louis McCallum. Design Consultancy: Richard Shed, Kate Cheyne, Nanda Karpong, David Gauthier, Ulrik Hogrebe, and Jacek Barcikowski. Commissioned by: Dublin Science Gallery and Professor Mark Plumbley, Queen Mary University of London. Funded by: Queen Mary University of London, Media Arts and Technology, EPSRC.