Electrical Box

Electrical Box first presents you with a silent room ordained with over 1000’ of instrument cables hanging from the rigging grid. Small, white LED’s flicker at the ends of the cables. After your eyes adjust to the space, you notice several pairs of headphones hanging on the walls in the far corners of the gallery. You push cables out of your way as you walk through the  exhibit to a pair of headphones. Now at the far end of the gallery, you see that the headphones are plugged into the sides of round metal tins resting on clear glass corner shelves. You put on the headphones and pick up one of the attached metal tins but only hear faint static, so you decide to investigate one of the particularly bright LEDs in the middle of the space. Walking back into the hanging cables you hear music in your headphones. You stop and hold the metal tin up to one of the suspended cables and the music gets louder. You realize that the sound is being emitted from the cables themselves, empowered with your new knowledge you sonically explore the exhibit by holding the tin to different cables; tuning into different radio stations. After some time, you take your headphones off, place them back where you found them and walk back though the again silent space before leaving the gallery.

Christina Kubisch’s Electrical Walks

Electrical Box (EB) is a spiritual and technological extension of Christina Kubisch’s electromagnetic installations as well as a direct extension of my own electromagnetic (EM) research art. In 2004, Kubisch officially began exhibiting works under the umbrella name of Electrical Walks. The Electrical Walks, although closely related to her previous installations, featured different source material: instead of planting electromagnetic signals in wiring that people were tasked with listening to via her devices, she decided to focus on found EMFs. She embarked in, usually urban, environments with her listening gear donned and maps the magnetic activity. The maps show areas of sonic interest and suggest tours of the locations magnetic features. Copies are made and handed out to the public along with her custom built magnetic field listeners. Christina used the term ‘electrical walk’ to describe the action of exploring a space’s EM properties by means of EM listening; just as one might go on a nature walk. For her, the Electrical Walks are not only for other people to enjoy, but are also an activity she enjoys personally.


The EavesDropper listening system is the technological heart of EB. When turned on, the EavesDropper emits a magnetic field. It then leverages the properties of EM inductance to sense any changes in the intensity of the magnetic field it is emitting. If the field is effected by an external force, such as a magnet or a current flow, the EavesDropper will sense a voltage difference that causes a a small current to flow. The current is amplified before being sent to a pair of headphones where it is converted into acoustic energy as sound. The EavesDropper design priorities were cost effectiveness, simplicity, and reliability. Each system consists of a small metal tin with a pair of Telex headphones plugged into the side. Inside each of the tins, there is a single-coil guitar pickup, a stereo amplifier, a ¼” headphone jack, and a lithium ion battery. The amplifiers are small 1.85 x 2.11 cm breakout boards that house PAM8403 ICs. The boards provided a few caps and resistors for power conditioning, as well as a through-hole interface to the PAM84403: which is a surface mount component. Though inexpensive, the PAM8403 suited the project nicely. It has a filter-less architecture allowing the chip to drive a speaker load directly; without the need of any additional gain stages, filtering, or components. They are relatively efficient Class-D amplifiers; consuming less power than comparable Class AB or Class A amplifiers. They operate off of a supply voltage between 2.5 and 5.5 volts, allowing them to be powered directly with a Lithium-ion battery. The batteries are rechargeable 3.7V 4000mAh lithium ion batteries. To save space, and money, I abstained from the use of battery cases in favor of soldering male JST RC battery plugs directly to the terminals of the batteries. (a technique I can’t officially recommend) I wrapped the bodies of the batteries in electrical tape and coated the ends with liquid electrical tape. This insulated the batteries from the metallic case, saved space, all while providing a mechanism for hot-swapping the batteries. In the WaveCave control room, I kept three PowerBoost 500c’s to charge my batteries as they were depleted. A depleted batterie charged in about two hours while a fully charged cell powers an EavesDroppers for a minimum of 46 consecutive hours. The PowerBoost line of breakout boards from Adafruit have been my go-to power solution for embedded projects in need of 5V for a few years now. These handy little boards boost the usable voltage from a lithium-ion battery to 5v while also providing a way to charge the battery via USB. The 500c model handles 500mA of current, while other boards in the line can handle larger loads.


For most of my installations, the first instinct is to design laser cut cases out of clear acrylic to house my circuitry. For EB, this approach would have conflicted with the installations aesthetics. Radio technology and the era in which radio use was ubiquitous with family time and recreation, was a time of metal, fake wood grain: not the smooth, polished acrylic I am usually drawn to.  The flat metal tins used are apropos, simple, and were timelessly generic: they would not have looked out of place in 1910, 1950, 1980 or even today. Knowing that the devices would be heavily used in the coming weeks, I wanted to ensure the circuitry remain intact and in a static position. To avoid stress breaks on the wires, I hot-glued all the solder points going to and from the headphone jack and amplifier breakout board. Additionally, I wrapped the amplifier board in electrical tape to prevent any shorting with other components and/or the metal case. The pickup was particularly troublesome as it has a large fixed bar magnet on the bottom. This magnet pulls the pickup away from the front of the case to the back of the unit. If allowed to happen, the effective listening distance of the EavesDropper dramatically decreases. Lastly, whenever the pickup moves by even the smallest amount it produces a huge amount of highly dissonant disturbing noise. An unfortunate byproduct of the metal cases is that the case noises are abundant and are amplified by the EavesDroppers circuitry. After some troubleshooting and experimentation, multiple layers of foam poster tape were used to secure the pickup, as well as the battery, to the front of the EavesDropper units. This provided maximum listening distance, secured all of the heavy components, and allowed me to balance the weight distribution within the tin.


My first instinct, as a studio engineer, was to get the highest quality headphones I could afford for the EavesDroppers. I looked at SONY, Sennheizer, AKG and other manufacturers of quality audiophile headphones. However, buying something new and manufactured in 2016 would violate the aesthetic and the artistic integrity of the installation. The installation is trying to present radio technology in a technological zeitgeist that is most representative of its rein in the 50’s. I settled on Telex 520-01 headphones. The headphones ended up having the perfect cable lengths: at 59 inches, they were long enough to comfortably extend out your arms with the EavesDroppers without it tugging on your head but not so long that you were at risk of tripping on the cables while exploring the space. Their styling is a throwback to switchboard telephone operators and the associated technology, helping to set a timeframe for the installation. In alignment with their retro aesthetic they had a matching sound. They were a bit tinny, with a weak bass response and had little presence. Luckily, EB by design is a low fidelity system. Radio is famously lo-fi with very little information in the extreme ends of the audible sonic spectrum. Not only would hi-fi headphones be underutilized, they would also be detrimental to the experience; both tactilely and visually.

No Control

I had the option of adding various types of user control to the EavesDroppers. For instance, it would have been easy to incorporate a potentiometer or rotary knob into the design that gave the participant agency over the devices gain or pitch but I decided against creating any of those modalities. I wanted them to be magical black boxes: I did not necessarily want people to know the technical mechanisms inside the shiny tin enclosures. As soon as someone is given a degree of control over an object, a relational shift occurs: no longer do the two exhibit a neutral relationship. Once the person is granted agency over the object, a dominant relationship emerges. The object become subservient to the user: the object is controlled by its user. This destroys the sensation of wonder; we now control the device, have power over it and it is no longer as magical, operating beyond our control and understanding. To avoid giving the interactee any mechanism for controlling the EavesDropper circuitry, I designed the devices to have a fixed gain set by a static resistor: the only way to turn them off is to unscrew the top, and unplug the battery. The absence of user control over the EavesDroppers also helps guide participants to pick up the devices and walk around the gallery. I feared that someone would misread the interaction element of the installation as the fiddling with dials and knobs on the EavesDroppers, instead of using the EavesDroppers for their intended purpose. The lack of an interface had the added benefit of removing any frustration related to learning/adjusting a set of parameters, while also greatly reducing the number of things that can be broken or damaged. Ideally, the EavesDropper functions as an extension of the body; a task easier to achieve with a simple, intuitive interface.

Radio Receivers

Building radios from scratch was the first thing I worked on after the EavesDroppers were designed. I bought an assortment of AM and FM receiver breakout boards, namely the AR1010 and Si4703. I found it difficult to prototype using the tiny IC packages that the receivers were manufactured as and soon realized the complexity of designing a descent radio receiver. The research concluded that building custom radio receivers would be far too costly in time and dollars to justify for this project. My research proved that I had no aesthetic, technical or financial advantages to building my own radio receivers.  I had a few things to consider: price, portability, sustainability and accessibility. I needed at least 8 radios so they could not be too expensive. Also because of the number needed I did not find it feasible to go thrift store shopping for them. Ultimately, I settled on a cheap radio because it was about $12.00, is USB powered, tuned into both AM and FM bands, had a 1/8th inch output, was small and had good reviews. The fact that the radios were powered by USB allowed me to have less overhead in terms of power strips and cable mass. I was able to use a USB charging block to power all of the radios for the 10 days EB was active.

Guiding Interaction

All of my works are explorations in one or two concepts. The concepts can take the form of a specific technology, an emotional state, a chord progression, the use of a specific tool, etc. Electrical Box for me was primarily an exploration in guiding gallery interaction. Electrical Box, and its interaction goals are directly contrary to the typical role of the gallery goer. In the MOMA or in the LACMA there is a general understanding that one does not touch, breath on, or linger any of the pieces. After all, everything in the room must be preserved. It has all been meticulously angled, positioned and lighted according to the curator’s expert opinions. Unlike my other installations that address guided interaction, EB exhibits a linear interaction schema. There is a singular interaction rail that I am attempting to guide viewers though. People can deviate from the rail, but if they are unable to skip a step and if they do not follow the rail to the end, they miss a significant aspect of the installation. Thus, when conceptualizing Electrical Box, considerable effort had to be made to construct situations that did not directly tell people what to do, but instead guided them down the rail.

First Exposure

There are three different ways that people were first exposed to Electrical Box.
  1. Walk-in: They walked by the gallery space and noticed that the doors were covered with black construction paper and that there was a piece of paper hanging next to the doors.
  2. E-mail: They saw the blurb in the daily announcement that the Herb Albert School of Music emails to all students each morning at 9:00
  3. Word of Mouth: They heard about the installation by word of mouth.
I did not want the first exposure to the installation to be an explanation of the gallery space or any sort of hint to what form the interaction takes. Instead, both the email announcement as well as the sign read simply and was a single sentence long. The important points were:
  1. The installation is in the WaveCave gallery.
  2. The installation is interactive.
  3. The installation involves electromagnetism.
In the case of the sign outside of the gallery itself, there was no need to mention the location so it simply read “an interactive electro-magnetic installation by Nathan Villicaña-Shaw”.


In many ways, I approached signage for Electrical Box as clues to a mystery. The installation ran under the radar so to speak. I only provided the announcements and signs as minimally required by CalArts convention and did little to advertise the installation. The simple sign outside of the gallery is shown above. If read, the visitor will only know that the name of the installation is Electrical Box, the name of the artist is Nathan Villicaña-Shaw, the installation is electromagnetic in nature and it is interactive.

Creating Space

EB consists of over 1000’ feet of cable, 16 LED’s, and four electromagnetic listening devices. However, the WaveCave is quite a large space and once all of the equipment was loaded into the gallery I knew I would be unable to completely saturate the space with cables as I had initially envisioned: I simply did not have enough cables. If I attempted to fill each square foot of the gallery with what I had, the space would have felt bare as there would have been a great deal of space in-between each cable run. I wanted the installation to have the experience of being completely surrounded by cables in almost a claustrophobic sense. My only option was to revision the installation as having negative space in addition to occupied space. Ironically, in order to fill the gallery, I needed to create and organize empty space. I went about accomplishing this in two manners. The first was to spatially frame the installation by leaving the entire outside rows and columns of the grid void of cables. This changed the installation quite significantly, as the entire exhibit was no longer occupied by cables, but instead, the cables were framed in the gallery by empty space physically surrounding them. The frame functioned as a walkway around the installation; you were able to walk around the cables and were no longer forced to navigate through them. While at first I was distressed about this change in the spacial dynamics, the framing of the space ended up helping guide people though the interaction rail by softening the transition into the gallery and by allowing intermediate commitment to the interaction. While the border helped the installation feel fuller, it also reduced the area cables had to cover by 20%, from 90 to 72 drops. An obstacle in the rigging grid was the six florescent lights that were built into the ceiling. These subsections were completely consumed by lights housing  leaving no option to route the cable through these sections the same way as everywhere else. While it was possible to weave the cabling in and out of the grid in adjacent subsections, giving the appearance that the subsection was routed the same as the others, I ultimately decided on leaving the squares absent of the cables. As these spots were specifically picked by the rooms designers, or electricians, to provide even lighting throughout the room, each of the six lights were in the relative center of the room. When left void of cables, they provided perfect vantage points from within the installation making it easy to stand inside of the cabling without the cables actually touching your body.

Creating Electrical Space

When you refuse to directly tell people what to do, you run the risk of them diverging from your intended experience (the rail) at any moment. For example, in EB, it is essential that once someone listens to their first cable that they listen to another cable and begin to explore the space. The signals that reside in each drop thus needed to be arranged in a pattern that ensures as much variety in adjacent drops as possible. If two or more cables next to each other are carrying the same signal it is possible someone will only listen to those cables and assume every cable ‘contains’ the same signal. Each cable consisted of between 2 and 4 loops as well as the terminating LED, for a total of between 3 and 5 drops from the grid. Each radios output was being sent through two cables. If two of the longer cables are connected to the same radio, the same signal could be sent through up to 10 loops/terminals. If all ten of these drop points were found next to one of the corners housing an EavesDropper station, a visitor would most likely listen to the first two or three cables, hear the same station, and conclude that all cables contain the same station: never completing the rail, getting stuck on step 4.


“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.”  — Leonardo da Vinci

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.” — Og Mandino

From the beginning, I knew I wanted the installation space to be dimly lit, a blank canvas. There is a certain intimacy about the darkness. Like the flickering of the fireplace in the cave 10,000 years ago, there is something comforting about a dimly lit space: it allows us to let our guard down. Absolute, complete darkness, on the other hand, is unnerving in its own right. When I was a teenager my parents would take me spelunking. When you are hundreds of feet underground the earth in a cave and you turn off your lights, the darkness is no longer a novelty: it resembles the feeling one gets while holding their breath underwater and thinking about downing. In EB light is approached as Mandino foreshadows, as a tool to show people the way, to guide viewers along the rail.


The LED’s that light the gallery function as level indicators for the output of eight radios hidden in the galleries rigging grid. Meant to be the primary visual draw, the LED’s were simple 5mm white through-hole LED’s bought in bulk. They were coated in plastic dip along with the ‘phantom-load’ resistor three times (allowed to dry in-between). I then carefully cut the plastic coating off of the lens of the LED’s leaving the leads, resistors and cable tips covered in the plastic coating. In application, the brightness of the LED’s did not exhibit much variety and the average luminance was the result of the reception quality for the particular station and the stations overall loudness (e.g. music is brighter than talking). What did vary was whether or not the LED was on or not. It takes a great deal of gain to drive an LED off of the signal that should be driving a speaker. Seven LEDs were concentrated in the rear of the installation space: each grid segment in the back row had its own LED. This row of LED’s were vertically arranged in a V formation so that the light in the center of the room was closest to the floor while the LED’s on the ends were closest to the ceiling. The remaining nine LED’s were distributed in an even manner in the front 7 rows, leaving a single row buffer between the formation in the rear and the random scattering in the foreground. This created a focal point in the rear of the room that encouraged folks to enter into the space: it gave importance to the rear of the room. As the EavesDroppers were in the back of the room and were an essential component to interacting with the space, I wanted to immediately draw their attention to that area. Although they looked beautiful and provided visual ambiance for the piece, the primary function of the LEDs is to be guides to the visitors: they helped folks stay on the rail.

Door Light

There were two forms of light originating from the WaveCave doors that proved impactful to the installation: frame leakage and open door. Frame leaking, from in-between, under and above the entrance doors, was unfortunately unavoidable due to the construction of the doors themselves. Each of the two French doors are single pieces of ¼” glass; with at least a ¼” gap on all four sides to ensure that they do not come into contact with any other surface: I could stick a pinky finger between the two doors. I covered the doors with black construction paper to prevent the outside light from shining through, but was unable to prevent the leakage that framed the doors themselves. With no real way to completely eliminate the boarder leakage, I looked for ways I could leverage it; I decided to add ‘peep’ holes on the doors. While there was light coming from above, below, and in-between the two glass doors luckily the WaveCave doors are inside of a small alcove that prevented the bright natural outside light from shining inside as well as the majority of the direct beams from the overhead lights. All of the light that was able to seep into the gallery was in the form of indirect reflections and not direct beams from light sources. The second source of door light was far more dramatic and impactful to the user experience. When the doors themselves opened they flooded the gallery space with a great deal of lighting. The large glass doors also take a very long time to close. All of this was very beneficial to the individual that enters into the gallery space but ended up being quite disruptive to gallery viewers already interacting with the space.

Overhead Lamps

After I finished setting up the installation I soon realized that the EavesDroppers were obscured by darkness and the hundreds of feet of instrument cables in the room. They were not readily apparent and ran the risk of not being noticed. After your eyes adjusted to the dim lighting of the space you are naturally drawn to the flickering LEDs and the hanging cables. There were adjustable spotlights in the gallery, but they immediately dominated the space when turned on as they were far too bright. I improvised with two clip on lamps I had lying around along with some low wattage energy saving bulbs. I created 8” tubes out of the black construction paper that I used to block out the door and some gaff tape to make my own dim spotlights. After some meticulous positioning in the grid, I was able to get my makeshift spotlights shinning down on the corners providing just the right amount of illumination after adjusting the length of the tube.

Secondary Concepts and Themes

While EB was primarily an exploration in complicating interaction modalities between humans and electrical systems, EB touched on the secondary themes of electromagnetic theory, eavesdropping, voyeurism, and radio technology.

Electromagnetism and Radioactivity

EB calls attention to the transmission and reception of audio data through different mediums. Electronic Box explores the radioactive nature of the modern world by shining light on the fact that we are constantly surrounded by radioactive and electrical energy that we are not aware of. It empowers us to eavesdrop in on these electrical activities and contemplate our isolation from the vast majority of energy surrounding us. There has been extensive research investigating possible harmful side effects the omnipresent effects of electromagnetic energy might have on the human body and psyche, but little immediate danger has been found. None the less, EB provokes us to think of the implications of living in a sea of EM radiation.

The Experience of Listening

Listening is inherently a personal experience. No two people hear in the same way. If you go to a concert, for instance, the position you sit in the hall will already grant you a unique acoustic window that no one else in the space has. Additionally, your own unique biology (hearing loss, neurons, synesthesia, etc.) colors the sonic experience to one that is unique to you. Radio, historically, minimalized this effect: it is head simultaneously across wide regions by thousands of people at (on a human perception timeline) the same time. Radio, has an inherent exclusivity to it as well, at any given time that you are ‘tuned into’ a radio station, by definition, you are at the same time ‘tuned out’ of far more stations. This becomes an even stranger thing to ponder, when you consider the fact that this remains true when you don’t even have a radio, the only difference is that you are ignoring all stations.

Radio the Technology

Radio is quite a peculiar technology. Its broadcasters constantly saturate the earth and, in fact, the entire solar system, with electromagnetic waves. These waves of energy are constantly flowing through our bodies at the speed of light. There has been a good deal of research investigating the possibly harmful effects of radio-waves in the past 60 years but there has never been a strong correlation made between radio waves and health for the average person exposed to the standard level of radiation. When I first began research for this project, I was under the impression that radio was antiquated, nearing its eventual death and resignation to internet and TV. And while it is safe to say that the glory days of radio are past the Radio industry in 2016 is still kicking. The average American still spends a large part of their lives listening to radio in one form or another. Terrestrial listening on the AM and FM bands is a part of 91% of Americans weekly routine, mostly in the car to music stations. This is changing as many stations are moving to digital formats such as podcasts, digital radio and other technologies as they are integrated into the technological mainstream. I anticipate that with more cars being built with their own multimedia capabilities, the penetrations numbers of terrestrial radio will increasingly decline, with specialty niche stations especially vulnerable. Even now, the variety of radio stations available has been decreasing with fewer stations of the airwaves. According to a research study conducted by Edison Research, while, monthly online radio listenership has more than doubled by 2010. As an industry online add revenue have been steadily increasing over last few years while spot advertising, the traditional source of income for radio stations has been declining by about 3% each year. All of this being said, the decline of radio is slowing.

Signal Flow

The signal eventually heard by the interactee through their EavesDropper headphones went though many manifestations before existing in the visitors mind as electrical impulses. Lets take the example of a DJ introducing the next song in his radio set. The DJ thinks of what she is going to say, her thoughts are transmitted to muscles in her neck and mouth, which mechanically oscillate her vocal cords to produce acoustic compressions and rarefactions in the atmospheric pressure creating what is commonly referred to sound waves. These sound waves travel a few feet across the studio where they vibrate the diaphragm of a microphone. The microphone converts the diaphragm’s acoustic vibrations into analog electrical energy, meaning that the signal has a continuous voltage. The analog signal is then converted into a digital one consisting of 1’s and 0’s before being converted back into an analogue signal which is amplified by several orders of magnitude before being converted into a EM wave that is broadcast throughout the world. The waves are decoded be a terrestrial radio, often hundreds of miles away, back into a relatively accurate approximation of the electronic data that left the broadcasting studio a fraction a second in the past. The signal is amplified and converted into sound waves by the radio’s speaker(s), which travel through the room until it comes into contact with someone’s eardrum. The eardrum is a thin membrane that vibrates in reaction to changes in the atmospheric pressure. Its vibrations are amplified mechanically by bones in our inner ear that, in turn, are attached to other membranes which are set into motion. These membranes cause liquid in the cochlea to move back and forth causing tiny hairs to become agitated. The agitated hairs send electrical signals to the auditory lobe of our brain which decodes the information into what we perceive as sound. EB complicates this already complex order of transmission, transduction and perception by adding another abstraction (magnetic inductance), into the signal chain. In EB, the radios tune into and decode radio waves pulsating through the gallery into analog electric signals. The signals are amplified before being sent through the unbalanced instrument cables hanging in the gallery. The cables each have 16ohm resistors at their ends which bridge the positive and negative leads: this provides what I call a “specter load”. Spector load implies the resistors are placeholders for something more tangible: the absent speakers. The specter resistor allows the system to get electronic work done and is essential to creating a strong enough magnetic field to be sensed with the electromagnetic transducer residing in the EavesDroppers. Once the pickups inside of the EavesDroppers detect the field, they produce an electronic current which is amplified before being sent to a pair of headphones worn by a gallery interactee. The EavesDroppers, in practice, function as a second receiver: they pull energy out of the air and decode the music hidden inside just like the radios do. The EavesDroppers, however, have a much shorter range and are limited to detecting changes in its magnetic field: they operate entirely off of magnetism. Still to this day, most people tend to think of magnetism and electricity as separate entities. I will even go out onto a limb to say that more people are comfortable with the nature of light being both a wave and a particle than with the inherent linkage between electricity and magnetism.

Relationship with Electricity

EB addresses our relationship with electronics and electricity, a commonality throughout my work as an installation artist. Our societal and personal relationships with electricity are complex, strange, ever changing and a constant source of inspiration for me. In 2016 we are very removed from electricity and circuitry in its raw ‘natural’ form. In our daily lives, we generally press a button or interact with another form of abstraction that then operates on the circuitry that is always hidden from view. It is rare that we find ourselves in a situation where we are directly interacting with circuitry or electricity. This has been the case since the introduction of electrical systems. This is with good reason; electrical energy has the capacity to harm us physically.  Since the War of the Currents starting in the late 1890’s between Tesla and Edison, where public electrocutions of animals and pets were performed in the streets, electricity has been associated with danger and death to a large portion of the population. We are, obviously, concerned with the result of electronic work instead of the electricity itself in nearly all cases. For example, the computer I am typing my thesis on right now, which uses electrical energy to conduct its computations, is more useful than the electrical arcs bursting out of a Tesla Coil: even though the Coil consumes orders of magnitude more electricity than my laptop.  To give another example, the lightbulb that is hanging above me right now is functional as a result of the light produced by the electrical work done on the filament: the electricity itself is not directly providing us with light, instead, the light is a byproduct of heat produced by current flowing inside the bulb. As an installation artist, I am both interested in complicating as well as simplifying our most common electronic interaction modalities. The majority of my installations and research prior to EB explored simplifying our relationship with electricity by removing abstractions and presenting more direct interaction with circuitry. Electrical Box, instead, complicates our relationship with the radio by inserting additional steps into the signal chain, forcing us to navigate additional abstraction layers.