Of sweat and shops: a project in Longbridge

I’m just getting started on a commission from E-C Arts as one of the cohort of artists contributing to their public art project in response to the regeneration in Longbridge, Birmingham.

This area has begun to see regenerational changes in the wake of the collapse of MG Rover and the demolition of most of the car manufacturing plant that previously dominated the landscape.

Map of a small section of Longbridge – the brown bits are mostly that colour in real life as former factory land waits to be built on

My brief is to investigate movement in and around the area so naturally I started off by going for a walk…

I mostly only have prior experience of the area from driving through it on the A38 (the big green road in the map above) so I took the opportunity to explore off to the East and experience different types of landscapes.

After being involved in the BMW Guggenheim Lab project in New York a few years ago, I’ve become increasingly interested in aspects of urbanism and, in particular, the ways in which design and planning decisions impact back on our experience of a place.

So the following day I returned wearing this:

A simple skin conductance meter, with GPS and logging modules

This is a device that measures Galvanic Skin Response:

A change in the ability of the skin to conduct electricity, caused by an emotional stimulus, such as fright.

If you experience a strong emotion such as fear, pain, curiosity or joy, this has an effect on micro amounts of sweat your skin produces and this can be measured by its effect on conductivity.

Those two velcro straps around my fingers are holding tin-foil electrodes against my skin. When I feel, for example, pain, this increases the amount of sweat on my skin and this means that electricity can move more easily between the two contacts. This difference can be detected by the small circuit and this in turn is logged by a small computer chip (an Arduino).

I’m interested in how this effect varies as a move around a place, so I also added in a GPS module so I can log my position. I’ve never done this myself before, but I once took part in a bio-mapping workshop led by Christian Nold where he did much the same thing, so I thought it might give some interesting results.

On Sunday I walked for a couple of hours, seeking different types of space: the residential area of Austin Village and the tower blocks; busy roads and junctions, road crossings, car parks and a small section of cycle path.

As I walked I tried to pay attention to being wherever I was. You know how, quite often we filter out a lot of what’s going on around us as we move between A and B? Well I tried not to do that.

When I got home I mapped the data according to the GPS co-ordinates and colour-coded it according to the Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) data. Lighter colours relate to greater skin conductance. Triangles show the direction of movement.

There’s a lot of ‘noise’ because of the nature of the equipment and also because my hand wasn’t being held entirely still, but here’s the bit where I was walking around Austin Village and decided to explore down an alleyway (the spur to the right). Halfway down the alleyway a man came out of a side gate to unload his car, causing me to startle.

Walking from the top of the image, feeling quite relaxed, then turning left (right as you look at the image) down an unknown alleyway

Here is an overview of all of the data:

Galvanic Skin Response and GPS data combined into a map

Can you guess at what types of space I was walking through at each point, and how I was feeling in response to my immediate environment?