the <.h> project
an interactive installation
created by Miriam Rainsford and John Littler


the name

the < .h> project was originally conceived of in response to the haiku of Basho - it is a sort of sonic response to the contemplative beauty of haiku, and of its Zen origins.

< .h> began life on the internet during a correspondence between its two composers, both of whom were independently interested in creating sonic haiku; the original design was planned across the internet for its first incarnation at the Computer Music Conference at Goldsmiths College, London, on February 24, 2001.

the rather cryptic title is derived from header files in C programming, which typically end with the suffix .h and are listed within brackets when included at the beginning of a script. this seemed somehow appropriate to convey its technological incarnation as well as its spiritual origins.

sonic haiku

< .h> is not intended to be a literal representation of haiku, or of Zen philosophy. it is very much contained within a western context, but embodies the essence of these ideas, and is intended to bring the listener into an environment which, although not entirely detached from the outside world, introduces an atmosphere of peace and contemplation.

the design has quite an industrial feel - much of the computer equipment is visible in the gaps between the calico screens, and metal bars are suspended from the ceiling with parts attached.

the piece itself involves two data-projecters aimed at calico screens, automated by two computers, running Flash (.swf) files of music set to animated graphics. one computer (John's Mac G3 Powerbook) plays a continous looping wash, a continuum which is built upon by the shorter files played by the PC across the room. these shorter files are triggered by x10 motion sensors attached to the metal bars in the ceiling and in various places around the room.

in this realisation of <.h> we used seven shorter files, which were created as miniatures, rather like haiku but in an abstract form. these were triggered by seven independent motion sensors relaying the information to the PC. the short pieces are unified in their linking of graphics and sound by parallels in the digital processing of the files.

< .h> also features a live fish as its centrepiece, swimming in a fishbowl with a motion sensor below it. although we are not the first to use a live fish in an installation, it seems rare for contemporary artworks to incorporate animal or plant life. much of the work recently exhibited in London's Tate Modern, for example, while not doubting its artistic integrity, seems to concentrate upon automated devices or video if it was to involve motion or interactivity.


Basho cautioned his fellow haiku poets "to rid their minds of superficiality by what he called karumi (lightness). This quality, so important to all arts linked to Zen... is the artistic expression of non-attachment, the result of calm realization of profoundly felt truths."

Lucien Stryk, foreword to his translation "On love and barley - Haiku of Basho". Penguin Classics, 1985.

non-attachment is the Zen practise of detached contemplation. Stryk goes on to discuss other important concepts linked to Basho's work, including sabi, a contented solitariness, and wabi, the spirit of poverty and appreciation of the commonplace, which is perhaps exemplefied in the tea ceremony. in particular the haiku often focus upon a contemplation of the almost overlooked minutae of nature:

Spring air-
woven moon
and plum scent.

the graphics for < .h> were derived entirely from nature photographs: a begonia leaf, a snail, a fish, and some stones. these are deconstructed into abstract shapes.


early in the initial discussions of staging the < .h> project we decided upon x10 controllers as the best means of interfacing motion sensors with a computer.

we are indebted to Mr. Kwong Li of Laser Business Systems for his assistance towards our project, and for his generous provision of motion sensors and computer interfaces. it is true to say that without his help the project would not have been able to go ahead! Mr. Li was also so keen to help us in our designing of the project, and advised us on how to set up the controllers as well as the best means of interfacing with the computers.

an x10 motion sensor transmits information through the electrical mains. each x10 controller has a unique id. in the case of the motion sensors, each id was set to be received by a transceiver module and relayed to the computer, where conditional scripting was set to trigger certain files in association with individual sensors.

we originally came across a Unix interface called Xtend, with which it is possible to write a script allowing the x10 sensors to control any normal Unix command, thus:

if a1 on play mysound.wav

etc. this excited us greatly for its potential applications within a sonic project. As Xtend is a command-line Unix application, it would be possible to use the app both in Linux and in Mac OS X on John's G3 PowerBook.

the problem then arose that the PC that we planned to use had a non-ALSA supported soundcard (a Turtle Beach Pinnacle card) and so it would only be possible to play one sound file at a time under Linux using OSS/Free. we then tested playing multiple soundfiles in Windows, which also produced the same error message: DSP busy. interestingly, we did find that multiple Flash .swf format files could be played under any supported operating system, regardless of whether they contained sound or not, due to its system allowing the coexistance of multiple movie clips, or movie clips within movie clips. this allowed us to proceed with the plan of allowing overlapping soundfiles to be triggered without causing errors or waiting for the system to clear.

further complications then arose: as there is yet no standalone Flash player for Linux, flash files can only be played from within a Netscape browser. this meant that we could not script flash files to be triggered under Xtend. we then decided to explore what the windows platform might be able to offer, as several x10 controlling applications have already been written for windows.

we explored a few options, including one rather buggy app that shall remain nameless which nearly ate the PC! we also spoke again with Kwong Li, who suggested HomeSeer, a windows-based app which allowed conditional scripting and triggering of external applications upon receiving x10 signals. Flash files may be rendered within windows as a standalone executable program, which can then be triggered independently, allowing clear projection of the clips without the interference of menubars and startup screens.