Category Archives: “I light this candle in a transaction”

Mechatronic Art 473 Final Project

Final Documentation – “I light this candle in a transaction”

Project Description

“I light this candle in a transaction” is an interactive installation that explores ideas surrounding the mechanization of religious and monetary transactions. Partially inspired by Douglas Adams’ “Electric Monk”, a labour-saving device found in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, “I light a candle in this transaction” takes the form of a credit card-operated, electric votive candle stand that automatically generates and prints personal prayers for each user. At its core, the piece tries to identify what ways our modern consumerist society can expedite a spiritual process and where it fails altogether.

Processing is used to analyze and generate the credit card and prayer information while the physical parts are run via an Arduino Mega.


Historial Background

Historical and Artistic Context:

The following will try to give some more historical and artistic context to the piece I will be creating. I will be continually updating this post as I find further relevant artists and information dealing with similar topics as I.


Votive Candles

As the name implies, votive candles are essentially offerings made with the intention of some sort of spiritual return. Votives are common across many cultures and religious practices and take many different forms from swords and spearheads in Bronze Age Europe to precious metal and sculptures in Ancient Greece. In regards to the votive candle, specifically in the Christian community, is still in use today and probably the most recognizable (and accepted) form of votive offering in western culture.

The idea of ‘light’ (and in effect use of candles) is a very important signifier in Christianity as it is often used to signify the presence of God. This idea of ‘divine presence’ embodied by light and candles can also be found in Judaism and Roman Pagan religions which from Christians probably adapted it from. This communion with light and flame is even more pronounced within the Catholic religion because of its strong ties with Christ himself, often being synonymous with and not limited to his faith, truth, wisdom, virtue, and grace.

Moving back to its current usage, votive candles generally symbolize a prayer offered in the light of God as well as a desire to remain present to the lord in prayer even after we vacate the physical space. Some even go as far as to note a deeper metaphor toward Christ; beeswax symbolizing his purity, the wick his human soul, and the light his divinity.

In some Catholic churches, there are small votive candle alters where one can light a candle in prayer for another person. In some churches a donation is a mandatory exchange for the candle, but in light of newer ‘electric’ votive candle stands, this donation switches from defraying the candle cost to something else. Does the continual inclusion of the donation box despite lack of candle cost imply that God demands monetary exchange for answering prayers? Also, with the ‘electric’ candles, is the sacrifice aspect of the votive still apparent? Or does it just up the energy bill?

Christian Boltanski’s Monument: Children of Dijon is a piece that is set heavily in a religious context and shares a few of the same elements that I foresee being part my piece. Its exhibitions not limited to inside Chapelle de la Salpetriere, Paris 1986 and Palazzo delle Prigion, Venice 1986, the piece usually consists of small, framed portraits of children arranged about the walls of the installation space/church. Each picture is lit independently by at least three small lights whose wires are left uncovered and sprawling across the wall in an almost grid like arrangement. Even when not installed inside a church, the warm candle-like glow each light emits and their arrangement gives the piece a successful religious tone and turns each lit picture frame almost into a votive or vigil for those forgotten.

While not directly using votive candles in his piece, Boltanski is still able to tap into their power and connotation by his expert arrangement and color scheme of each light. This I feel is particularly powerful when the exhibit is present in a chapel. If Boltanski used actual candles (or even electric ones) the viewer might have mistaken parts of the piece for the actual church and vice versa. Being able to see the bare bulbs and wires connecting each help define the experience while their triptych-like arrangement and color tone expertly merge it into the religious context.

In regards to my piece, I plan on ‘carrying’ the church with me. That is to say, my piece would be different from Boltanski’s use of the church context by re-locating something commonly found in a church rather than locating my piece in a church. By using (or building) a real votive candle stand, I hope to create an immediate reaction from the viewer when seen in combination with the coin slot, instructions, batteries, and telescope. Finally, Boltanski’s lit portraits form a more passive relationship with the viewers than the votive candles in mine. The passive relationship for his piece works because it only compounds a vigil’s passive nature, to stand watch or remember rather than seek spiritual favor (such as in a votive). My piece will also reinforce its relationship to the viewer by requiring user interaction/sacrifice in order to keep the piece running (or gain spiritual favor).


Coin-Operated Machines

With the inclusion of ‘coin operation’ to my piece, a little background into vending machines and amusement arcades is necessary. The first vending machine was of religious purpose and dispensed holy water to those who entered coin. Its creator was the so called ‘Hero of Alexandria’, a first century mathematician and engineer living in Alexandria, Roman Egypt. Ahead of his time, the next machines of note did not crop up until 19th century. In the 1880s, coin-operated post-card dispensers could be found in London, and a few years later in 1888, the Thomas Adams Gum Company installed gum vending machines on New York City train platforms. Also of note was the addition of small moving figures to Pulver Manufacturing Company’s vending machines in 1897 which opened up the possibility of coin operated amusements and the advent of the penny arcades of the 1900s.

Penny arcades were essentially venues for entertainment focused coin-operated machines, such as early pinball and fortune-telling devices of the 1930’s. These soon evolved to include other curiosities such as peep shows, slot machines, and love testers  but ultimately gave way to arcade games by the 1950’s. Even though short lived, the penny arcade seemed to foster an interesting movement, dividing the world of coin-operated machines into two major trades, one of vending and the other of entraining.

Along the lines of coin operated machines, Trimpin, a Seattle-based composer and artist, created a piece named Klompen in which a key element was coin operation. While it would not exactly fit within a penny arcade, it definitely plays with elements of coin-operation and special experience only gained by such usage. On its own, it said to be an interesting sculpture in its own right (composed of 120 hanging wooden clogs) but the experience is completed when a quarter is inserted into a nearby machine and wooden mallets housed in each clog unleash their motions.

Similar to Trimpin’s piece, I hope mine to be as similarly, sculpturally interesting and enticing even prior to coin being inserted. With the combination of the fluttering electric candles, instruction panel, batteries, and telescope it will already be a small wonder to behold without specific interaction. However, my piece will probably look and feel more along the lines of a penny arcade fortune teller in comparison to Trimpin’s piece. Klompen (a bunch of hanging clogs) is more spread out with numerous separate and seemingly unconnected parts, while mine will be more or less all contained to one unit. Personally, I find Trimpin’s set up effective for his specific piece, for only when a coin is inserted does the relationship between all the clogs materialize through the collective rhythms they pound out. As for mine, I would really like to push the ‘penny arcade’ connotation by making it one discrete unit.


Outer Space

One artist who often deals with extreme scale in his work, from microscopic symphonies to beaming information into outer space, is Joe Davis. While not a direct influence to my piece, his work does fundamentally share ideas of ‘looking up’ and referencing the great expanse of space. Despite such lofty contexts and actions, Davis usually finds a way to root his pieces in the human condition by asking questions like “How do the specific ways we project ourselves into space generate more information about ourselves rather than what we are looking at?”. For example, in his piece, Poetica Vaginal, Davis attempts to counter the ‘perfect’ human images (no body hair and women with no external genitilia) sent out with the Pioneer space probes by transmitting vaginal contractions to two nearby star systems.

While not directly related, my system will attempt to light the votive candles by batteries charged off of star-light via telescope. Similar to Davis, I am not necessarily interested in what the telescope itself will see, or the scientific usability of the ‘star’ energy, but rather the relationship it generates with the viewers of my piece. Does the origin of the energy affect the value of the prayer? Or does the amount of money inserted into the machine?

Project Timeline

Week 1: Concept (done)
-Create blog.
-Write abstract and timeline.
-Think about inspirations and other artists working with similar ideas/materials.
-Look into material acquisition. Are used votive candle stands and telescopes an option?

Week 2 & 3: Foundation/Design
-Historical/contextual research.
-Telescope battery charging tests. Can it be done? Have a back up plan ready.
-If I can find used votive candle stand, start re-wiring. If not, start building.
-Depending on votive candle stand, buy electric votive candles.
-Look into receipt printers and LCDs. Which is more cost effective?

Week 4 & 5: Creation
-By 4/23 have all materials.
-Complete electric votive stand prototype (coin activated, central battery power allocation, timer).
-Implement prayer generation and display (modified version of my electric monk).
-Final telescope decision and implementation.

Week 6 & 7:  Prototype 
-By 5/7 prototype complete.
-Present prototype for initial feedback.
-Start designing final electronics and refine outwards appearance.
-Clean up software side.

Week 8 & 9: Final Touches
-Decide final location and let it run (see if the system generates enough power to keep candles lit over an extended period of time and if telescope and batteries can withstand extended use).
-Troubleshoot any existing problems.

Week 10:

Project Abstract

Recently I have been taken by the fluidity of meaning and truth, and more specifically in regards to scientific and spiritual contexts in a rapidly mechanized world. My past few projects have explored different aspects of this, the “Electric Monk” mechanizing the process of prayer and its second iteration adding in concepts of importance of personal experience vs recorded history. Keeping in the similar vein of science and spirituality, I am interested in exploring re-allocation of meaning and importance in my next piece.

As of now, my piece will take the form of a coin-operated, electric votive candle stand. A telescope will be attached to the back and, if all goes to plan, will be charging a central battery via starlight. When the viewer donates a quarter, an empty votive candle will be ‘lit’ using ‘star’ energy stored in the central battery. Further, I may incorporate a small LCD in front of each candle to display a unique mantra/prayer given to the donator for the duration of each candle ‘life’. Conversely, such as coin-operated fortune tellers, the machine could print out the unique prayer for the donator to take with them.

With this setup, the ‘re-allocation of meaning and importance’ can be found on a few different levels. One is within the viewer interaction of trading an object of pre-defined worth (a quarter) for a personal experience. This is strengthened by the gathering of the ‘star’ energy and transferring it to power an electronic votive candle light; the use of a scientific instrument such as a telescope to power a prayer generates an interesting question of immanence and meaning. What is more important in this system? Where the energy that lights the candle comes from? Or the metaphysical prayer that it represents? Also, how is it that importance and meaning can be so easily traded between the physical and metaphysical? Finally, the piece acts as a loose metaphor for our beginnings in the stars and the re-allocation of atoms from dead stars as the building blocks of human life…