Laser and Water Text

A few days after the piece was installed, the gallery called and asked if I had a more readable version of the text on the base of the piece. I didn’t, but I agreed to convert the Illustrator file to an 8.5 x 11 inch version and put it in the comment book. People actually read it all as evidenced by the list of spelling corrections entered in the comment book! I also included the following introduction.

Some people have asked to see the text for the Laser and Water piece that’s in a format more convenient to read. I’m happy to oblige and glad there’s some interest in reading it all. It’s attached on the next six pages. It’s worth noting however that I never intended the text be easy to read even though I think there are some interesting things in it. I intended it to provide a visual, textured background for the laser and water set up much like the stream of consciousness narrative provides a texture or background for the issues I faced in constructing the piece. Wherever you glance it provides part of the story but it’s very hard to follow in a strictly linear way.

Text on the Base of Laser and Water

One day I walked by the kitchen counter and noticed that sunlight was reflecting off of the surface of a bottle of water and making a pattern on the ceiling. I also noticed that the pattern was changing for some reason. After watching for a while I came to the conclusion that the trucks that were going by caused ripples on the water and changed the reflection. When the trucks weren’t passing, there were no ripples. I stomped on the floor but that only made a few ripples as I recall. Interesting how we think things are solid and they really aren’t, I thought. Interesting how something 100 yards away can make the whole house vibrate. Interesting how a 200-pound person can make a house move. An average house weighs 30 tons. Must be a metaphor for life in there somewhere I thought? I jotted the ideas down and put them in my possible art piece-box. The idea kept resurfacing as often happens after I jot things down so I won’t forget them. I had a bunch of cheap laser pointers I bought on EBay for about $2 each. Maybe I could use those as a substitute for the sun. I got off on another project that involved reconditioning about 100 laptop computers. I was getting them ready for a show in March of 2001. That show was abruptly cancelled. Then the opportunity for the Art School show came up. I was a little burned out on the laptop piece after working on it for a year or so and the Art School gallery wasn’t quite big enough. So I decided to pursue some other ideas and maybe put some older pieces in the Art School show in case the new ideas didn’t pan out, as they sometimes don’t. When I started on this piece I essentially recreated the kitchen counter scene. I went to my studio shop and took an empty one-liter Pepsi bottle and filled it with water. I shined a laser point on the surface and sure enough some of the light reflected off the surface onto the wall just like the sunlight. Cool! Fire, sun, laser, water. So far so good. Then I stomped on the floor. Nothing. I went upstairs and repeated the scene. Still nothing. What the hell, I thought. I know I wasn’t imagining things. I went back downstairs and cut the Pepsi bottle in half thinking that maybe the laser was affected by the plastic bottle. Nothing. I’ll try a smaller bottle, I thought. So I cut a 20-ounce Diet Dr. Pepper bottle in half. Still nothing. I pounded on the bench. Some ripples but not many. This experimentation went on for several hours. All the while I was getting more frustrated that I couldn’t replicate my former kitchen experience. I set it aside for the night. I don’t remember why but for some reason the next day I tried an old laboratory funnel that I used for refilling my turpentine bottles. I plugged the end with a dowel about a foot and a half long, filled it with water, and clamped the dowel in the vise. Voila, it worked. The laser reflection changed when I stomped on the floor even though the floor is one-foot thick concrete--my studio is in the basement right next to the furnace and the water heater. Ugly funnel, I thought. So I went in search of a prettier one. It was black and about 6 inches in diameter. I plugged the end with a thicker dowel since bigger funnels have bigger openings, filled it with water, and clamped the dowel in the vise. Then I stomped. Nothing. Well shit! What the hell is happening here? Is it the funnel size or maybe the dowel is dampening the vibrations? So I rigged it up so that the big funnel hole was plugged with the same size dowel as the little funnel that worked. Nothing. Must be the funnel size I thought. So the next day I went to Home Depot to buy some funnels. They only had funnel sets and they were very big. Pretty ugly colors too but I bought one set anyway for $5.95. Then I went to Rosauers since I recalled seeing some smaller funnels in the cooking gadget section. You can only buy sets of funnels it seems, unless you buy one of the expensive stainless steel ones. I’ll wait and get one on those fancy stainless ones for the final piece I thought. It turns out having to buy an entire set of funnels for $3.95 was a one of those happy accidents. Serendipitous, as they say. I tried the various large funnels and there did indeed seem to be an inverse relationship between funnel size and the vibrations from stomping: the smaller the funnel, the more the ripples. In the set was a very small funnel, so I tried it. To my surprise it produced the best reflections—most sensitive to stomping at least. Then it struck me. Maybe there’s a resonance thing going on here. Maybe it’s the ratio of dowel length to funnel size opening or funnel diameter? If I increase the length of the dowel that plugs the funnel maybe I can get all the funnels to work as well by clamping them in the vise at different places? Maybe there’s an optimal length and thickness of dowel for each size funnel? So I repeated many of my prior experiments with different size funnels but varied the length between the end of the funnel and where it was clamped in the vise. Another theory dashed. Still none of the large funnels vibrated as well even with a dowel that was five feet long. In fact, a three-inch length dowel length turned out to be best regardless of funnel size. Maybe it’s the source of the vibrations I thought? I came to value the previously annoying furnace because the vibrations produced by the Becket burner gave me a constant source of vibrations to test my theories as opposed to the foot stomping and bench thumping I had frequently resorted to. But I still wasn’t getting the kind of results I had hoped for. So I bought more funnels at Safeway. The sides were rounded, not straight like you see in most funnels. Why, I don’t know. But the small ones produce the best vibrations so far. The big ones still didn’t do much. So after about a month of fooling around I had a funnel that was producing decent results even though it was nothing at all like my original kitchen experience. Throughout my experiments with different funnels I had been using up the batteries of the cheap laser pointers I had so I took them apart and connected them to a regulated, variable D.C. power supply that I use as a bench supply. After a short time the lasers got dimmer and dimmer. So maybe it wasn’t just the batteries? Now what, I thought? I went to the Internet and did a Google search for lasers. Wow. More than I wanted to know. And some are so expensive. I wonder why? I discovered that lasers come in different power rating and in different wavelengths measured in nanometers or billionths of a meter. And they are designed to last different lengths of time from just a few hours to years. Cheap lasers use the resistance of the batteries in the circuit so you need to take that into account when using a bench supply. You get what you pay for when it comes to lasers I concluded. So I went to EBay again and ended up getting some lasers that were suppose to last a 1,000 hours. Long enough for a four-week art show I calculated. Cheap laser pointer lasers, the kind I had been using, are only designed to last a few hours. The 1,000-hour ones are about $20 each just for the laser module itself—no batteries, no case. They came and I immediately hooked one up. Zap, I burned it out. There goes $20. I tried another and it began to dim after about 4 hours. So back to Google. Couldn’t find anything obvious I was doing wrong so I called my EBay supplier. I’ve had very good luck on EBay. Sometimes there are problems he said. He’d replace them or I could get my money back. I do both: replace some and get some money back. After telling him what I was using the lasers for he recommended a supplier he knew. Now this new guy knows lasers. He steered me finally to the type I needed. They’re designed to last 10,000 hours but most last for more. He said he’d never actually heard of one burning out. Plus, he said I must use the lowest possible voltage and a regulated power source to control power spikes that frequently burn out or decrease the life of any laser module. I told him that the lasers I have really aren’t as bright as I’d like for daylight use. Try some 635 nanometer ones he says. They are red like the 650 nanometer ones but they appear to the human eye to be about twice as bright. Interesting. They cost twice as much too: $45 vs. $24. Apparently cost and perceived brightness are directly related. I order one 635 nanometer laser and two 650s because of my track record of burning these things out. But before he would ship I have to send him a CYA letter to insure that I will follow FTC rules should anything I design end up being commercially produced. Is making one art piece commercial production I wondered? Who would buy this thing anyway? I’m safe on that score I concluded. Then it’s back to Google to look for cheap regulated power supplies. A surplus electronics store has some wall bug regulated supplies, as they call them. I like that term. Descriptive and when you use it you feel like one of the surplus electronics guys from New Jersey! So I get some for $12.95 each plus shipping. Iffy I think but the price is right. While I’m at it I stock up on some other components I may need for another piece I’m thinking of doing for the show. So now I have my funnels and I have lasers that seem to work. But I note that the vibrations produce pretty small impacts on the laser beam. But if the beam is projected onto a wall some distance away the effect is bigger because the small variations are multiplied by the distance. I think back to high school trigonometry. There must be some sine or cosine thing here that I could use to figure this out exactly but maybe I’ll do that later just out of interest. Ya right. Trigonometry just for the fun of it. Well, I’ve been accused of weirder things. I decide I do need to find a way to get the laser to travel farther to make the effect more dramatic. But, I can’t have the beam bouncing around the gallery because people will block it or look into it when they shouldn’t. I check into the danger of these low powered lasers (3 milliwatts or 3 one thousandths of a watt) and find that they are very safe. One study I found used people who were about to have their eyes removed because of some disease I have never heard of. They volunteered to stare straight into a laser for 15 minutes. After their eyes were surgically taken out the tissues was found to be undamaged. I spend some time thinking about these people and am grateful for what they have done for us despite their unfortunate circumstance. It would be easy for them to not give a shit, but they did. I bet it never crossed their minds that some person in Spokane would be doing an art piece with lasers and that their participation in the study would come into play. They probably had a more noble cause in mind but I bet they would be glad to know they helped regardless. I decide mirrors are the answer to my distance multiplying scheme but find that the ones used in laser experiments that reflect most of the light they receive are way too expensive. I also discover that there are first surface mirrors and second surface mirrors that aren’t too expensive--$3.95 for one about 1.25 inches in diameter. In first surface mirrors the mirror coating is the first thing the light hits. In second surface mirrors the light travels through some glass first and the coating is the second thing the light hits. I buy some of each from Edmund Scientifics. Not really that much difference between the two for my purposes as it turns out. I decide plain old inspection mirrors will work since I have the brighter 635-nanometer laser now and can afford to lose some brightness. And they have this neat, simple adjustor mechanism on them that is lacking on the fancy Edmund’s mirrors. Always liked those. Now I have an excuse to get a bunch of them. I discover they are $2 cheaper at Lowe’s than at Home Depot. Even though I really dislike Lowe’s now that it’s not Eagle anymore, I buy them there anyway. I return the ones I bought at Home Depot. I put threads on the end of the mirrors so they adjust up and down. Now I can bounce the lasers around at odd angles and keep them out of people’s eyes even though the article said it isn’t dangerous. Maybe I can do that on the ceiling of the gallery and bring the beam down along the wall and project it into a frame so it looks like wall art. Pretty hokey I think. I mention my piece to a friend on the phone and he says maybe this funnel thing has something to do with standing waves that he recalls from a physics class he had in college. I got a D in high school physics. Mostly because of the teacher I like to think. Didn’t take any physics in college. So, it’s back to Google. There are some amazing science web sites, many with very nice animation. Calculus sites too. I wish they had these when I was in school. I was in my 40s before I realized it was O.K. to want pictures of stuff rather than just equations. I find some nice visuals on standing waves, as well as plenty of equations that also explain why my microwave has hot spots. You can find hot spots with a tray of marshmallows. I’ll do that later I think. Ya, right. I’ll let the marsh mellows brown while I’m doing that recreational trigonometry. Then I began to think some more about the aesthetics of the setup. After all, this is supposed to be art I thought? At first I wanted it to look tacked together like the early Nam June Paik pieces. But I found that I was forcing that look. Aren’t installation pieces supposed to look thrown together and impermanent? Ultimately I decided that would be nothing but a kind of phony mannerism and it’s not usually the way I build anything. I had an old camera tripod that I thought was neat looking and had a knuckle so I decided to use that. But I wanted another one so I went in search of one at a pawnshop. No luck. Then another shop. None. Then to Huppins to price out a new one. Not made any more they said and recommended a pawnshop I hadn’t tried. The guy there actually has one but he doesn’t even know what it is because it’s in its folded up state. He wants $10 for it even though he doesn’t know what it is! I offer $5. He counters with $7. I say O.K. We do the deal in about 15 seconds. There are some kids watching who apparently have been negotiating for a long time and get a big kick out of our expedience. I think to myself, they don’t realize that just by continuing to hang around they are telegraphing that they really want whatever they are looking at. These pawn guys are real professionals. Seldom gotten the better of would be my guess. Then I go to Miller’s Hardware to get something that will work to hold the laser modules and will attach to the tripods. I find some small-galvanized pipe I can work with and these neat bolts with a curved head. Perfect I think. After fooling around with the configuration for several hours I settle on one I like. Makes the lasers look like they are out of Star Wars or Jurassic Park I think. Then I search for some wire to match the color scheme. I decide to stick with black, red and silver and not use the great purple blasting wire I pinched from a construction site about 10 years ago. But now I have to paint the power supplies I bought. They are blue. Then I go in search of some switches and luckily have some black and red ones. I build a round holder and I’m then ready to wire. After finishing that I mount everything and do some final testing. Things work as planned but I need a more consistent mounting set up to make sure I can duplicate things in the Art School gallery. I also worry that maybe the floor of the gallery is 3 feet thick concrete and won’t vibrate at all. Before I permanently mount everything I should go to the gallery and test things there I decide. So several days later I stop by and test things out on some tables in the gallery. Holy shit! The gallery floor is partially wood and the lasers jump all over the place. So my worries about that were unfounded. But now I have new worries. Will there be too much movement? Is the effect too obvious in the Art School building? I cancel all my plans to use a construction technique that I think will maximize the transfer of vibrations. At least that part will now be easier. And maybe I can locate the entire piece in the same place. Shouldn’t be any need to have a mirror all the way across the gallery in order to use distance to make the vibrations visible. I go up to the third floor and select a pedestal that will work given this new information and I get some measurements: 23.75 inches by 23.75 inches. Then I go to Windsor Plywood to buy some 1-inch medium density board since that’s what I have been using for the round bases. I cut the base and some new circles. Now that I’m not worried about the transfer of the vibrations I decide to make the circles smaller. But my band saw blade won’t allow for a smaller radius so I stick with making the same size circles as I had before—about 3 inches. I sand everything and give it a coat of shellac before varnishing because the board is very porous and doesn’t finish well. I let stuff dry for a few days and then assemble it on the 23.75-inch by 23.75-inch board. After some adjustments I discover that the water and laser make some wonderful circles patterns on the wall. They look electronic and 3-D. More interesting than I could have imagined. I even videotape the patterns. But then I get another real surprise. When I test out the larger funnels in order to show how they differ from smaller ones, I can’t replicate the result I got before! The larger funnels make patterns very similar to the smaller ones. My first reaction is to believe that the piece is ruined after having worked on it off and on for over five months. Then I think, wait, this is still interesting. It’s not what I thought but it’s still interesting in the same way I thought the bottle on the kitchen counter was interesting. A 200-pound person can make a 30-ton building vibrate. Maybe nothing is really still in that sense? The metaphor still works even though my theories about resonance, standing waves, funnel size, dowel lengths, etc. is now in some doubt. Replication is the foundation of science. But this is presumably art not science. Do things have to be replicated in art? What if you can’t do the same piece again? Does that make the first piece just due to chance? Statistically insignificant, so to speak? Come to think of it, what is the real truth in art? Despite all attempts at convincing myself that this failure is still pretty interesting I’m still disappointed that my funnel size theory needs more work. I really wanted this to turn out perfect. I wanted a nice and tidy ending. But the deadline for the show is approaching and I have eight more pieces to work on. I know what! I’ll go back later and find out what went wrong. I’ll do more testing while I microwave marshmallows and when I need a break from all that recreational trigonometry I’ll be doing. So I continue assembling. I decide that the base is kind of boring and it needs something. How about a diagram showing how the laser bounces off the water and the mirrors? I reject that because the Art School gallery set up may not look that way. How about some mathematical equations that describe the laser reflectance, standing waves, etc? Maybe a little pretentious and mannerist as well. Then I think about just hand writing a narrative about how this piece came together. Yuk, all that handwriting and most of it will be illegible given I can’t even read my own writing a lot of the time. I’ll type it, I decide. But how to get it on the base? Silkscreen it on. That would be cool and very arty. I run up to the computer and in white heat bang out a 6-page narrative about how this piece came together. I go with the silk screening idea for a few days until I decide that would be overkill. I’ll pay to have it printed out on a large format printer. They can do up to 4 feet by 4 feet I think. Then I’ll just glue it on and put some acrylic matte over it for some painterly texture. Arty enough I decide. I cut the base down a half an inch on each side so I can put a shadow box type frame around it to help conceal any ragged edges and also to make it sort of look like a wall piece laying flat. I can format the narrative with Adobe Illustrator. I get a recommend on a shop that can do the printing and go there to check them out. A little shaky. So I decide to go with Western. Color will cost $10 per square foot so a 2 by 2 foot will be $40 and they will go to 720 or more dpi. So now I can tone the background and use colored fonts. At first I decide to just let the mirror bases and such just obscure the narrative but then decide to use Illustrator’s wrap feature to make the words go around the bases. Now I’m ready for the final mounting. I do several set ups to make sure I can replicate the effect and carefully mark the locations of the funnel and mirrors and also mark the water level on the funnel which is crucial to get the effect I like the most. Water will have to be added every day. Can I really count on someone to do that? I’ll have to unless I want to stop by the gallery every day for 30 days. Maybe I can find something to slow the evaporation? A cover? A liquid to add to the water? Maybe I’ll call Bill. He’s a chemist and he might know of something. I do numerous test runs with 11 by 17-inch paper aftert taping them together. On one of the runs I try the different size funnels again. They are sitting on the bench full of water as I try different combinations. Then the furnace kicks on. My friend the furnace that was providing the constant source of vibrations hasn’t run for a long time because it’s been summer and warm. Now it’s fall again and cold at night. I realize I’ve been working on this piece since last winter! At least six months. I check to see what kind of vibrations it produces in the water. I’ll be! The biggest funnel has hardly any ripples and the smallest has a huge number. Then I look over at the jar of water I’ve been using to fill the funnels. No ripples. None. Nada. I feel a wave of relief. So I can replicate this thing after all! The effect is specific to the type of vibration. Stomping and foot tapping are not the same as Becket burners and trucks going by. So I went back and revised this narrative. I had ended it with a failure to replicate. Now I can end it with an explanation of why I couldn’t replicate and, better yet, why I now can. Exactly what will happen at the Art School gallery I’m not sure. It will depend on the type of vibrations emanating from there. Sounds very 70's. For a moment I consider going back to the two-funnel idea: one small, one large. But the one funnel idea is working just fine and now it doesn’t seem like just a compromise. I’ll stick with it and see what happens. A happy ending after all.     back to the Laser, Water, and Vibrations page