Alien Salvation was the result of a recent three week
residency at San Fransisco’s Exploratorium Tinkering Studio. They devise
workshops for people to make things and I help them devise new ones. As a
kid I made things out of sticky tape and cardboard, usually shoe boxes,
and I had been trying to work out some kits for Novelty Automation based
on shoe boxes. One of these kits was a little scene inside the box lit by
LEDs (with a hole cut in one end to view it). I thought this had potential
and the Tinkering studio uses a lot of LEDs so this was my starting point.
I call these boxes peep shows but found that in the US the term means a
sex show, so the Tinkering Studio calls them ‘Dioramas’.
Interior, 6 shoeboxes with LEDs inside
I made a few before I had the idea of combining them
to tell a story. This was partly because I’d also made them a cam timer
(they wanted a more tangible form of control than an Arduino for one of
So I bought a two minute greeting card voice recorder
as the final ingredient. The story was influenced by a great book about
the cold war I was reading at the time called ‘Command and Control’.
In my peep show/dioramas I found that small-scale
figures for model railways gave a scale to the scene. Printed images, like
the map in the generals’ control room, were another good ingredient.
Also part of the fun is finding things that look right on a different
scale – so the satellite at the beginning is actually an adjustable
potentiometer (an electronic component).
I was pleased with the final contraption, both
because it has potential for an arcade machine, but also because it could
make a good collaborative workshop activity, with everyone first making
their own scenes and then working out a story to combine them all.
I tried the shoebox
scenes as a 1 hour workshop. It wasn't long enough but people made some
really nice scenes, particularly discos!