About the project

This was an assignment for the MFA thesis-prep class to design an interactive experience that engages the body somehow. The only requirement was that we incorporate a cardboard box we were given.

I wrote a poem about a little boy who keeps losing body parts until he's just a head. After each body part is lost the audience is invited to reach their hands into a numbered hole on the box and feel the missing part. The first is an eye (a peeled kumquat), then mashed up fingers (various chicken bits and bones), then a head of hair.

The surprise is that the hair actually belongs to a real boy who's been hiding inside the box. He pops out to say the last line of the poem. You can see the audience's reaction in the video clip below.

The Remains of Isadore McMurtlemumsy
There never was a boy as clumsy
As Isadore McMurtlemumsy.
Poor Izzy was a little dumb
And sadly born completely numb.
So when he often bashed his thumb
Or cracked his ribs or gashed his tongue
He never cried, he never whined, 
He only said "I'M FINE. I'M FINE."

And mostly what he said was true
Although he broke a bone or two
His injuries were not so bad, 
And little boys have always had
A knack for healing parts they crack
That grown-ups sadly tend to lack.

His luck gave out one night at dinner
When the fork slipped from his finger
And instead of poking trout
It struck his eye and plucked it out.
He never cried, he never whined, 
He only said "I'M FINE. I'M FINE."
His parents salvaged what they could
And put it in this box of wood

The covering over hole #1 is removed.

The last he ever saw his aunt
Was when she took him to a sausage plant.
(A bad place for a boy who fidgets)
He lost an elbow, wrist and digits.
He never cried, he never whined, 
He only said "I'M FINE. I'M FINE."
His thoughtful parents filled a jar
With all the pieces, here they are.

The covering over hole #2 is removed.

Perhaps the uncle wished him ill
Who took him to a lumber mill.
The most that we can say for sure
Is that they got a lovely a tour
Which ended as I think you'll guess
With quite an awful bloody mess.
He had a nice head on his shoulders. Now he doesn't.
The saw was sharp and Izzy wasn't.
His head rolled off and hit the floor
And now you'd think there's not much more
But listen close to what's in store.
See as the lumbermen were weeping
The severed head it started speaking!

The box top that was covering hole #3 is removed,
revealing Izzy's head.

Now Isadore is just a head
And since that day he's only said
The same thing in the same old way
When asked "how do you feel today?"
He never cries, he never whines, 
He only says...

Izzy pops his head out of the box and says: 


Izzy in the box


Diagram of Izzy in the box

About the performance

The project was presented on March 11th, 2009 and came off beautifully thanks in large part to the help of my 10-year-old cousin, Isadore Frankel. The whole experience relied on audience members not realizing the head was a real boy's, so Izzy had to keep absolutely silent and not move around too much as the audience members poked him.

I structured the poem so he wouldn't have to keep this up for very long but I hadn't taken into account that the jurors were going to be Interactive Media faculty, who are obsessed with figuring out how things work. When they pushed the head down and saw it slowly bob back up again they were entranced. Reading of the poem came to a standstill as they manhandled Izzy and debated with each other how such a strange device might have been implemented. A set of springs? A floating basketball? Mercifully they finally gave up and continued reading.

For me, the piece is a reminder of one the most crucial design lessons I've gotten from the program: the easiest way to knock together an interactive prototype is to stick a human inside it. It works for chess playing automatons, simulating enemy AI, or any other complex system that can be puppeteered. For example, on my Being Steve Anderson project I wanted to use camera tracking to give the whole class a chance to vote on what they wanted Steve to do. But camera tracking is difficult and temperamental, so I told them I was using a camera but instead I just watched their reactions and manually posted the results. As long as the audience isn't aware of the subterfuge they're going to behave exactly the same as if you'd poured hundreds of hours into getting the tech working on its own. Which is a terrific shortcut for early development when all you really want to test is audience reaction anyway.

For anyone who's curious, the hole marked "4" was just there as a mislead so the audience wouldn't be too focused on the actual final hole, #3. It's funny how much of an overlap there is between interactive media and the techniques of 18th century stage magic. I think it's because they both deal in fantastical experiences that don't hold up well under careful scrutiny so directing and manipulating attention and expectations are key concerns.