August 14, 2016

Fermynwoods residency: lines of flow, lines of obstruction

The path between Fermynwoods Country Park and Lyveden New Bield

In the last blog post I mentioned the field I like which has a footpath burnished across the earth. Yesterday I went looking for more traces of movement in the landscape.

Footbridge over the A6116

The route I chose was largely prompted by noticing that there was a footbridge over the busy A-road that I’ve been very wary of using other than by car. Being able to cross this line opened up a new patch of territory to me as someone travelling by bike.

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I’m very glad of that footbridge, as I enjoyed the ride a lot more than the one I did a few days ago. Most of the time there was a strong sense of being up high and being aware of how the ground lies as it spreads out around you. The gorgeous sunshine probably helped too.

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In an echo of the path near the Lodge, coming out of Cranford St John I found this footpath cutting across a field. Looking at the map now, the path intriguingly looks like it’s a continuation of what is now the road. Perhaps long ago there was a fork there, rather than a bend, and for some reason one tine gained precedence?

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Wind turbines are a feature of the landscape around here, in that way that wind turbines are: clustered on hill-tops, kind of blending in, but also their slow, steady circles having an insistent, powerful presence. I usually encounter them at a distance, so when I see one close up, their size often takes me by surprise. Something something forces of nature something.

The wind seems to be ever present here, with so little to obstruct it. I only recently realised that the hedges and trees I begrudged for blocking the view from the Lodge were probably there as necessary protection. Even so, finding a spot to sit in the garden is a careful balancing act between sun, shade and wind chill factor.

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In addition to the turbines, there are other signs of the wind being harnessed. There’s a gliding club airfield very close to where I’m staying, and windsocks dotted around the place. The most prolific users are probably the red kites though, and it’s fascinating to watch them as they perpetually switch allegiance between thermals and crosswinds, scouring the fields for prey.

 

Here’s a line that made me stop:

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There was a similar one to it that I had passed over moments earlier, as I entered the village, but seeing another on the way out made me realise the significance of it being a boundary line. (Probably?)

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I wonder if they are there as rural rumble strips to remind drivers to Please Drive Slowly, or whether they are performative in some way, with identities and jurisdictions given a hard edge? Has there always been a line there?

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Further on in my journey I met with more assertive boundary lines, as my route took me through the Drayton House estate.

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I’d seen from the map that there was a public right of way through the park, and from the satellite view it looked well surfaced, but it was marked up as a footpath and so I was still unsure as to whether I’d be able to cycle through the park when I got there.

That doubt didn’t last long.

Only if you have to

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Again I’m left wondering about the heritage of the footpath and the right of way …and how begrudgingly the estate observes it nowadays. The white signs above do quite a good job of obscuring the unassuming footpath sign behind them, and where walkers were directed to use gates, those gates were in turn obstructed by posts that would likely prevent wheelchairs or pushchairs from passing through. Handlebars took a bit of weaving but, as I pushed my bike through the park, I enjoyed the change of pace and the chance to look around me a bit more.

 

Drayton House desire line

This appeared to be some sort of desire line path to a side gate. It seemed very transgressive given all the electric fences and authoritative signage surrounding it.

 

Back on my bike again, the last stage of my journey took me along the bridleway through the woods back to the Lodge. These tracks have me very focused on the ground in front of my tyres, picking my way between ruts, pot holes and branches, alternating between sides or sometime deciding it would be more prudent to bump up into the middle bit.

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I’m starting to get my eye in to reading the road ahead a bit; spotting the overhanging briars and nettles ahead of time and, as here, recognising a corner with a lower side that gets the water and is therefore more worn.

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Back at the Lodge I spent time in the (somewhat wind-sheltered) garden watching the red kites rastering across the freshly mown fields. I counted about 15 of them and was wondering how territories worked out, if they have their own patch of the field that they work, or if there’s a consensual distance apart that they respect.

Fermynwoods residency: notes from a dark field

As part of the current residency with Fermynwoods Contemporary Arts, I thought I would like to use the opportunity of being in the middle of nowhere to really engage with darkness: there must surely be as little light pollution here as I’m likely to encounter anywhere else and, through chance and careful planning, my 10 days span the peak of the annual Perseids meteor shower.

Last night was supposed to be the night to be out gazing up at the heavens, so needless to say that was when we had cloud cover all night. Yes, I did keep getting up to check.

It’s the most gorgeously blue-skyed sunny day today though, so maybe I’ll have better luck tonight.

I did also do a little bit of nocturnal venturing forth a few nights ago (Tuesday, I think. Not sure. I’m starting to lose track of time a bit…).The place where I’m staying is reached via a 2 mile long stretch of track that weaves between and around different patches of woodland. Half way between the Lodge and the road there’s a bit that I always find just a little bit glorious as the track breaks out from the tree cover and, for a few hundred metres, has a field on either side and views of rolling hills beyond that. I think I especially like it because a footpath cuts straight across one of the fields, visible in the scrub as two burnished lines of compressed earth.

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Anyway, I digress.

This is the scene I really want to recount:

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Just as the last hues of the sunset were loitering around the horizon, I set off purposefully from the Lodge towards that halfway field. Then I went back in for my camera. Then I set off purposefully again, serenaded by crickets or grasshoppers or somesuch in the grass either side as I approached the entry point onto the woods. It’s probably not quite the word I’m looking for, but I also got strafed by a hare and some moths in this first hundred metres.

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I resisted using a torch for this outward journey, mostly because I think that cone of light does as much to restrict your vision as it does to enhance it. Whilst that first, open, section of track was pretty easy to navigate, I anticipated things getting interesting once the trees closed in. We all know how it goes in the half-light: twigs snap, shadows play tricks on your mind, it’s easy to get disorientated and it all gets a bit scary. We know it. It’s so predictable it’s boring. Even so I was still a little bit surprised to ‘see’ a lion in the ditch to the side of me. Huh. Explains the electric fence back at the Lodge though, I suppose…

Anyway, if anyone asks why I was walking so fast down the track, it’s because I wanted to get to the halfway field before the light faded completely, alright? Heart beating perhaps slightly more rapidly than the fast pace warranted, I decided it was actually quite cold and, having failed to have remembered to pack a wooly hat for an August residency, I reached for my cycling cap, hoping it would at least keep some of the wind chill off. I made that cap and, being a ginger, I made it with a slightly larger than normal peak to try and reduce my chances of sunburn. Turns out that that’s not what you want when you’re walking through the woods at night. *flip*  Probably the only time I’ve worn it with the peak up.

Minutes later a Land Rover comes towards me: headlights on full beam and a hare – all legs and ears – running so fast in front of it down the middle of the track that it didn’t notice me until a brain’s post-processing delay after it had passed, then it skittered sideways for a few paces, ran on some more and then figured out that if it got off the track all would be well.

Waiting until they had both passed, I got back onto the track from the verge, switched off the torch I had flicked on, and continued on my way, grateful that when coming through on my bike earlier I had paused to clear some of the bigger branches strewn around as a result of the Forestry Commission works being carried out. The smaller debris helped me to locate where I was … except I haven’t got much of a sense of distances and directions for that journey even in daylight. It’s more like a series of punctuations and instructions – I don’t know how it all relates in space. In the dark, distances stretched out endlessly and the track contorted in combinations of curves that had previously gone unregistered.

I savoured the moment when the trees eventually came to an end and I paused on the threshold, surprised to see that there was still a trace of sunset orange in the sky.

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I’d bought a camping chair and a sleeping bag with me so I could properly spend some time here now I had reached my destination. I’m so glad I brought that extra cover – the wind was coming over the field unobstructed and it was very chilly.

I set myself up at the corner margins, knowing full well I was also setting myself up for anxious paranoia at every leaf rustle and twig crack coming from the bushes behind me. I soon faced a choice: wrap myself up snugly in the sleeping bag with minimal skin showing, or suffer a bit of cold, but without muffling my sense of hearing. I chose the latter, but I’m wondering if I should have chosen the former, because I frequently found myself turning around expecting something to be behind me. Eventually I figured out it was the bag’s label flapping about in the wind.

It got me wondering about how different the experience was to camping, when a fragile sheet of 20 dernier ripstop nylon is enough to form a protective barrier against all but the most invasive of predators (slugs?) and most fears about the unseen.

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I sat there for what felt like an hour, but was probably nothing like as long. I might have seen a meteor, but then again it might have been a satellite. I saw lots of aeroplanes, and gradually the stars came out. In the distance a dog barked, and all the other clichés too. How can I make an interesting piece of work in response to the night that moves beyond all these tired tropes of fear and the stars?

I sat there for what felt like an hour. I sat there for long enough to see the moon had moved along in its orbit to now be above a different clump of trees, then I packed up and tackled the return journey back to the Lodge. Definitely by torchlight this time. And perhaps even quicker than the outward journey, hoping each corner would be the one to reveal the field near the Lodge.

Part of me really wants to nail the geography of these woods and the ways through them; another part of me is already sick of following the prescribed paths and wants to keep at least a semblance of mystery or serendipity about moving around the place. I started off the week frequently looking at the map on the screen of my Garmin to locate myself in relation to the cardinal directions and the boundaries of the wood, but I quickly learned that lines on the map don’t necessarily correlate with lines on the ground. As I type this, I’m looking longingly at the fields around the lodge and wanting to go off piste, however the fields are currently being mown so it would probably be prudent to leave that a while. Maybe tonight…

Fermynwoods residency: changing gear

I’ve just started a 10 day residency at Sudborough Green LodgeFermynwoods Contemporary Art‘s rural outpost surrounded by forest and fields.

The residency is part of their associate artists programme rather than linked in to a particular commission, so I’m in the fortunate position of not having to work to a specified outcome. This is time I can use to feed my practice, and that doesn’t come along very often.

So I’m here with a handful of questions that I probably wouldn’t get much opportunity to engage with in amongst the usual hectic to-and-fro of my working week. I have questions about how the making of field notes might relate to my practice; I have questions about moving around at night; I have questions about how far my ailing knees and feet will carry me nowadays; I have questions about whether I can still draw; but mostly I get to find out what happens when I have time and space in which to follow my curiosity.

Coming after several months of flirting with burn-out, this has all required something of a change of gear. …and giving myself permission to not to anything in particular in these first few days. There have been lie-ins and reading of good books and exploring.

When I was here last – 4 years ago – I was making the Landscape-reactive Sashes ready for deployment as part of the Corby Walking Festival. I remember spending a lot of time hunched over sewing machine and soldering iron, and I remember a lot of rain: this meant I missed out on the chance to explore my surroundings, so basic orientation has been top of my to-do list.

I started off by getting a bit lost.

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I got on my bike and I started off by turning left at the junctions in the track where up until now I’ve only ever gone right.

I had my Garmin with me, showing the line of my journey thus far as an aid to figuring out where I was in relation to where I’d been …and where I needed to get back to. Fun was had relating the dotted line on the small screen to the rapidly deteriorating surface of the bridleway in front of me. No really – it was fun! I like not knowing what’s around the corner and if you’re going to have to turn back or not; that internal debate between being gung-ho and the bit that tells you enough is enough.

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Gung-ho held out just long enough along a grass-covered, deep-rutted, what used-to-be-a-gravel-track for me to find myself at a high seat. No questions about what needed to be done next.

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I pushed a bit further along what might optimistically be called the path, hoping to be able to link up with one of the dotted lines on my screen, but a combination of disorientation, brambles and mud made me call time on that avenue of exploration and I turned back to rejoin terra more firmer.

Rinse and repeat for about 10 miles in total.

high seat

I had half an eye on looking for suitable places to come back to at night. There were a couple of more promising looking high seats, but they were padlocked and not for public use in quite a definite manner.

Other than some purpose-built shelters, it looks like some field margins might be my best bet. Mostly however, we’re in the traditional Forestry Commission configuration of track>ditch>fence. I shall have to keep my eyes open for opportunities for getting beyond that.

Alongside my beating of the bounds, I’ve also started reading Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways” and am loving it. It seemed like it was going to be a relevant read to hold back until I was here, and early indications are that it’s not going to disappoint.

As I progress with my explorations – mostly by bike, so far – I keep getting trapped between busy A-roads and byways that are probably best left to the ramblers and the horse riders. There’s not a lot in the middle, either in terms of volume/speed of traffic or of routes that link up.

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I managed a 20 mile circuit yesterday that had minimal A-roads, and with my Macfarlane-primed eyes was very tuned in to noticing all the footpaths criss-crossing the landscape. I’d like to explore these more, but not sure if I’m currently rated for more than a couple of miles on foot.

I also noticed lots of churches (that or my route twisted and turned enough that I just saw the same few steeples from an array of different angles). It got me thinking about the size of a parish; about communities and the walking distances between them.

Building the Orrery

For the last 10 months or so I’ve been building the Orrery – an electromechanical device that, ultimately, is powered by someone making a journey by bike. And by someone left at home wondering how they’re getting on.

At the core of the Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity project, the Orrery is intended as a way in to talking about themes of effort, landscape, weather, bodies, home and connectedness that perhaps get tidied away when we use tools such as online map-based trackers to follow someone’s progress.

As I embark on the phase of the project where I’m meeting up with various people to discuss the potentials wrapped up in the Orrery, I wanted to look back and retrace the journey of its making. There’s been a lot of making. In keeping with the theme of making the effort visible, here’s an overview of how the Orrery came into being…

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Most of the development work was done through a residency at Wolverhampton School of Art. This gave me access to tools, knowhow and a bit of space in which to work – things you learn to value when typically you’re making stuff in your front room!

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The pilot project from a few years ago had taken the form of a person-sized box with a sort of porthole at chest height that you peered through to see the components levering, spinning and glowing inside. This time around I wanted to keep the act of peering in order to look inside, but shift to a smaller form that was more reminiscent of a locket.

Not being entirely sure if this would work, I started on some maquettes out of paper and masking tape.

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This showed enough promise that I decided to develop this approach further however, after some time contemplating curvy bottoms, I decided that rather than having a shape like this that would then also need a plinth with a matching curve in which to stand, I would amalgamate both aspects into the bottom half of the Orrery.

More cardboard required!

 

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Here’s the new strategy for an all-in-one rectangular base taking shape.

By now I’ve also switched to building up the form from a series of flat sheets. This was for some very practical reasons relating to what I would actually be able to build with the resources available …but also the echo of contour lines was rather nice too.

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I needed to figure out how I was going to join the layers. I couldn’t glue them because I would need access in order to instal, remove and tweak the various electrical and mechanical components that would be going inside the Orrery.

I still didn’t know exactly what these components would be, and I was struggling to visualise the layout working with this model which was about of a quarter of the size of the final thing.

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More cardboard?

No. I decided to bite the bullet and make a full-size model out of MDF. I knew the final version would be made out of plywood, but couldn’t afford to pay for two lots of that if I messed up, however I figured that making a model out of cheaper MDF, would pay for itself in time saved staring at cardboard and trying to scale things up in my mind’s eye.

I wouldn’t be cutting layers of MDF with a craft knife though. This was a job for the CNC router, and that meant drawing digital outlines of every layer so that the machine had some cutting files to work from.

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A bit of jiggery pokery to get from open source software to the file format required by the router, and we were ready to start cutting.

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STOP!

NOT THERE!

WHY IS IT CUTTING THERE?!

Oh dear, the router was having all sorts of problems trying to cut out the sheets. Bits were snapping off and jamming, then, just when we thought we’d got on top of that, it started cutting things out in random places, ruining the sheets that it overlapped with. ARGH!

I didn’t get much out of the whole endeavour other than the shapes shown below. And the realisation that I’d have to reduce the thickness of all the layers by about half.

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A trip to the sawmill to do some touching, feeling, squinting, imagining the future and costing up of materials:

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Having confirmed what thickness the plywood came in, I tried a different approach for making the model – foamboard. The School of Art was about to close down for the holidays – Easter by this stage, I think – so I needed something I could work with at home.

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With a bit of large format printing and a substantial amount of the foamboard stock from the art school’s shop (conveniently about the same thickness as the plywood), I spent some quality time with sharps and my biggest cutting mat.

 

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Ooh! Nice! I like these moments when the tangibility of the project you’re working on takes a leap forward. I was kind of commited to it from a production point of view, but this model totally sold me on the layered approach from an aesthetic point of view – those forms just kept on giving as the light in my front room changed throughout the day.

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I also got to play with it in the dark and with internal lighting. Sort of.

…And then, many photos later, it was time to start hacking into the layers and figuring out where all the other bits of stuff would go. Now I was working to full scale, I had the major advantage of being able to use the actual components.

This was particularly useful for the lid, which was to house several stepper motors. Without 3D CAD skills, the only way to figure out clearances behind the panel they would be mounted through was to try it.

Several times.

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Back at the art school, I also started making some of the mechanisms that would go into the Orrery. Here’s a quick return mechanism that was particularly satisfying to make with a combination of mallet, chisel and geometry.

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Quick return 2

Sweet.

With application of a few more tools of the trade, the location for the quick return mechanism was decided:

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With application of lasers, I added this to the collection too:

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I spent some time trying to make a few components out of metal, but with access to workshops getting increasingly less straightforward (assessments approaching) I had to give up on that. Here are a few things that didn’t quite make it into the build:

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Bits of the chain (from my touring bike) may or may not make it into the Orrery – I’m still pondering that one.

Meanwhile, back to the wood…

Time to bite the bullet, buy a lot of plywood, and get cutting!

Nope, wait! Measure twice, cut once…

Let’s look at those cutting files really closely before sending them to the router.

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Printing out the layers helped me to catch a few snags, which were dealt with and then, then, it was time to send them to the router.

This time around I was using the FabLab facilities at Enginuity in Coalbrookdale. Phil the manager there knows his onions (and his cutting tools) so we got all the bits cut out without incident (and with only one mistake that had slipped through the net earlier).

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The CNC routing leaves these little tabs to hold the parts in place until cutting on the machine has finished. Then you need to have at them with a Stanley knife to pop the cut parts out of the big sheet.

And then….

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… a not insignificant amount of dremmeling to get rid of the tabs.

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The layers looked good stacked up on top of each other, and the cunning plan for fixing them together worked effectively too.

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There was still the question of how to join the top half to the bottom half, though. Ideally I would be able to do this without the need for a prop, as that would obscure the view into the Orrery. After a lot of searching around, I found these friction hinges. I couldn’t find the ones rated for greater torque available in the UK, so it would have to be a case of fitting them, building the rest of the lid and seeing what happened.

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All good so far with the first few layers fitted…

…then of course I had to take them apart again…

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More sanding.

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And then a lot more sanding.

Now mostly working at Umake open access workshops, I spent several days sanding down the layers to get them ready for waxing and staining. A brief interlude in all the sanding (did I mention there was a lot?) was provided courtesy of Physics and these dancing piles of dust that appeared one evening:

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Meanwhile, Kim had been working hard on the Raspberry Pi end of things that would take the data coming in from Jez and Mike’s creations and set the Orrery in motion.

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Then came the time when I had to make some fairly irreversible decisions about the size of the containing box that everything had to fit inside. Determining vertical height first, then bandsawing slices off the top sheet to get length and width down.

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The original plan for the sides had been to use laths of plywood to keep the edge-on effect, but I had to make the call that there just wasn’t time to do this and that I would instead use sheets on their sides to make the walls of the box.

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Here are the panels freshly cut to size and with fixing batons being glued into place:

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…and then, some time later, the magic moment when it’s all assembled and for the first time I saw the thing that up until now had only really existed in my mind’s eye!

 

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Phew! That was the thing that I had wanted to build!

Onwards with the waxing and staining. Again Umake came in very useful with their large workbenches.

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And assembled again:

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A few extra details to finish off the main structure:

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Very small – but also very strong – magnets.

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Some channels for wiring.

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And some confidently wonky props. (As it turned out that the friction hinges weren’t strong enough on their own to support the lid.)

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Here’s a photo of a milliput bird resting on some grapes.

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Yeah, so, that didn’t work out so well.

 

Next attempt: lasers!

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Keep reading to find out how they turned out :-)

 

What else?

Lots of epoxy glue happened at about that time. Here’s a winding drum about to be fixed to a stepper motor hub:

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And here’s the full set in position:

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By now the main focus was on getting all the mechanical doodads installed and working properly. There was much attaching and removing of the lid, soldering, heatshrinking, drilling, knot-tying and even a few cable ties.

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The hinges got some rubber shims out of the traditional material:

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The timing belt was sewn and fitted:

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Some somewhat more delicate sewing was done:

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And a lot of string was strung:

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The image above shows the lighting strip in place too. Here it is before it got its diffuser:

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The Clacker was one of the last components to get made. I’d planned to get it cut at the same time as doing all the CNC routing at Enginuity, but we couldn’t get the files to read correctly, so I ended up cutting it ‘by hand’ on the bandsaw.

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It just needed a little something extra to complete, which had me scratching my head for a while but The Draw of Random Bits of Stuff came up with a winner:

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The birds came out nice in the end too:

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And then that was pretty much it in terms of the build…

October 2015 to July 2016: a lot of prototyping and eventually using facilities across Birmingham, and in Wolverhampton and Coalbrookdale to gain access to the tools I needed. Not too many mess-ups, and an end result I’m proud of. …except it’s not quite finished yet as we still have a lot of work to do to get the physical structure functioning in response to various data sources.

We’re (we being myself, Kim Wall, Mike Cummins and Jez Higgins) going to keep chipping away at that over the next few months, which is when I’ll also be out and about recording some conversations with different people in response to the Orrery.

Below are a few teaser shots which I hope will entice you to come and see the whole of the Orrery when it is on display in Wolverhampton Art Gallery in October – watch this space for more details closer to the time.

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Visit to Lee Cooper Cycle Frames

With a 10-day R&D residency with Coventry Transport Museum’s cycle collection just around the corner, I’ve increasingly been wondering what exactly is hiding behind the words when we nonchalantly talk about making bikes.

I’ve dabbled with a fair bit of metalwork of varying sorts in the past – ranging from non-ferrous City & Guilds style making of sweet dishes through to a summer job making gates and railings – but I didn’t really have any concept of what might be involved in making a bicycle. I sort of assumed it would include a lot of measuring (and even more filing), but beyond that *shrugs*

Lugs

Lugs

Stock

How do we get from this to a bicycle?

I went to the Bespoked UK handmade bicycle show in Bristol a few weeks ago which helped me start to get my eye in by properly stopping to look at what joins to what. I suspect I’m guilty of usually ‘reading’ a bike, with my brain filling in a lot of what it thinks it sees; perhaps not quite to the extent of some of these renderings, but still with a certain amount of cognitive hand-waving over some of the details.

Bespoked included a series of short Meet the Maker videos which helped to whet my appetite for finding out more about the framebuilding process and the talks I went to at the event also hinted at some of the things that framebuilders were aiming for in their work as craftspeople. Only one logical thing for me to do next: I did a bit of searching online and tracked down Lee Cooper (second link) who’s a framebuilder reasonably local to Coventry. I explained what I was curious about and he agreed to let me visit his workshop and watch him at work.

I spent a couple of hours with him today, trying to pull off a combination of staying out of the way, poking my nose into stuff and asking him questions about what he was doing and about his experiences within the industry. It was fascinating watching the processes involved with all the jigs and tools designed for very specific tasks. There was also some walloping!

Mallet

Fork legs being percussively encouraged into the fork crown

I was able to recognise elements of the brazing process from welding and soldering I’ve done before, but it was also really nice to watch someone who’s been brazing for decades: where the filler rod gets placed, how hands come to rest and how everything moves around in workstands to reveal the specific area that the flame needs to reach next.

Shoulder

Brazing rod and shoulder

Seat lug braze

The seat lug being brazed. I spotted this rest/reinforcement hand position a few times and it spoke of well-practiced movements and familiar pauses

Bridge braze

Lee at the Very Useful workstand he uses for a lot of the brazing

Bridge Braze

The frame can be spun around in the clamp as Lee works around it with the torch, getting at it from all angles to make the braze flow around the lug

I took a load of photos whilst I was there, but here are some I’ve picked out.

Forks

The fork legs being brazed into the crown

Forks

…again with a bit of strategic hammering as the metal expands and moves

Dropouts

Dropouts

Dropouts

Rear triangles

Stays

This very small ruler was deployed shortly after a very hefty piece of steel square section was used to tweak the frame alignment!

Mitre

A lathe and jig being used to cut a mitre. We talked about how kit like this is worth the investment when you’re making so many frames and the alternative is filing them to shape by hand…

Bridge tack

Once cut, shaped and drilled to give a blowhole, the bridge is tacked into place before being taken to the big stand for brazing (see above)

Bottom bracket lug

Bottom bracket lug

Hot bottom

Hot bottom

Many thanks to Lee for his generosity with his time and knowledge. He’s back framebuilding under his own name after a stint building for larger companies, so check out what he can do for you if you’re in the market for a handbuilt cycle frame.

R&D at Coventry Transport Museum

In amongst all the excitement about the Orrery project, I’m also one of 4 artists who have been commissioned by Coventry Transport Museum (CTM, working with QUAD Derby) to respond to their collections. Unsurprisingly, I proposed that I worked with their cycle collection, so things will be a bit bike-tastic around here for a while!

Wheels

Super spokes

The commissions are to spend 10 days on research and development for a larger proposal that the museum may then choose to take forward later in the year. We’re being asked to “create something that will enhance the visitor experience and help to engage with new audiences for CTM”. I did a small amount of unpicking during my interview, but needless to say there’s a lot more work that I need to do before I understand exactly what the words ‘engagement’ and ‘audiences’ mean for the museum.

My residency doesn’t start properly for another couple of weeks, but finding myself in Coventry the other day with a spare hour or two I decided to do a bit of a recce to start my brain off.

It’s clear there are some interesting curatorial challenges to be worked with: I had been told during my interview that there’s an ongoing struggle to try and stop people from touching the exhibits. (I can’t deny this is hugely tempting, given the number of cranks and levers just within reach!) There are signs everywhere asking people not to touch and explaining that to do so would damage the items, however thankfully there are only a few items shielded behind a protective layer of glass and you can still peer at the details that catch your attention.

Chain

Difficult to resist turning the pedals and watching these chains in action

Figurehead

For when a head tube badge just doesn’t cut the mustard

You know how it is with supermarkets and museums: you often end up in sync with someone and your paths cross in every other aisle. On my visit one of the people I kept finding myself near was this man, and it was fascinating to watch how he interacted with the collection – mostly by leaning on it, it seems…

Handy man

Handy man

I’ll try and resist too much speculation (is it a territorial thing? were the descriptions too low down for him?), but it was a good reminder that whatever ‘engagement’ I propose – and let’s face it; it’s unlikey to be passive – will have to work hard to flag up what’s an acceptable mode of interaction and how this might be different from the other things in the same space.

So, back to my experience as a visitor to the museum…

[Insert caveat about not having paid attention to anything but the cycles and also having no better suggestion as to how I’d organise the museum if I were given the task.] The collections are presented chronologically and mostly with an eye on the evolution of design. There’s some historical context, but in that broad brushstroke, dry, text book kind of way: wars, rational dress reform, unemployment as a result of the collapse of the ribbon industry. My engagement with it was mostly on an intellectual level.

This bike shone out in amongst the talk of step-through frames and pneumatic tyres:

Gulson

1926 Gulson Touring Bicycle

Or rather, this story shone out in amongst the talk of step-through frames and the development of pneumatic tyres:

Love story

1926 Touring Love Story

This bicycle was purchased in 1928, by a Mr S.A. Lee. In the same year he cycled to Reigate where he began a romance ith a young woman.

He then regularly travelled the 120 miles form Coventry to Reigate on this bicycle to continue the courtship.

A story about a person! (Two people!)

Apparently I said something eloquent in my interview. I’m not sure I can remember it now, but I think it was along the lines of describing my job to be “to find the hooks that help people to link stories relating to the collection to the stories within their own lives and then to use that as a springboard for engaging with the objects inside the museum”.

Something like that. The importance of stories we can relate to, anyway.

As well as my own experiences of cycling, which I expect I’ll be able to link to things within the collection, after my two-week stint helping with the research on Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers project, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of the back stories behind the inventors and what the details in their day-to-day lives were that led them to try and design something differently. (For Bikes and Bloomers one of the things we were interested in was a patent for a transformable cycling dress designed by Alice Bygrave, I spent some time investigating her family history and we started to discover she was surrounded by a family of watchmakers and racing cyclists. And I would love to know more about the sort of experimental tinkering that it seems she was probably surrounded by as a matter of course!

So, first declaration of intent: I’m interested in the stories a layer or two below the surface.

Second declaration of intent is all about the making.

production

By the 1890s the cycle trade was booming and Coventry had developed the largest bicycle industry in the world. 248 cycle manufacturers were based in Coventry, and the industry employed nearly 40,000 workers.[source]

I’m reading statements like these a lot as I do my background reading to try and get my head around how important the cycle manufacturing industry was to Coventry and how important Coventry was to the cycle manufacturing industry. There’s something niggling away at the back of my brain though (or perhaps it’s in my sculptor’s fingers) and it’s the feeling that there’s something that gets hidden behind the words and the numbers. What does it actually mean to make a single bicycle, let alone 1,369 of them?

I want to better understand the time and skill that went into making the objects on display at the museum.

Probably all this will change once I have a chance to meet with the museum staff and find out more about what it is that they want to get out of the residency, but that’s where I’m at going in and I can’t wait to get started properly!

~~~

Walking home from the museum, I spotted this in one of the subways under the ring road:

?

?

Having spent the previous few hours looking at things like this:

sociable

Sociable

…my first thought was that it was obviously a cycle lane intended for use by riders of sociables, but on getting closer I think one of the bikes is probably facing in the opposite direction to the other one.

Q1: Which direction do the painted bikes near you face?
Q2: What happens when the effects of the museum leak outside and into the wider world?

Announcing ‘Orrery…’ and ‘Links & Shifts’

After what feels like a small eternity of putting things into place, I’m really excited to now be able to announce a major project that explores questions about the physical and emotional experiences of cycling (and of being the person left at home); the frictions of data visualisation; and different practices of finding-out-by-doing.

Over the coming months I’ll be building a sculptural object that responds to data generated by people as they undertake journeys by bike. I’ll then be putting it into use to explore how it might shift our relationships and awarenesses in different ways. Alongside this there’ll be an event at Birmingham Open Media with guest speakers Kat Jungnickel and Emily Chappell, and the project will be in an exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in October.

Read on to find out more…

Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity

An alternative approach to visualising long cycle journeys: what happens when you shift from thinking about markers on a map to an awareness of the changing rhythms of effort and terrain?

Trackleaders mapping of the ridersin the Transcontinental Race, 2015

Trackleaders mapping of the riders in the Transcontinental Race, 2015

The Orrery is intended as a device for exploring how our conversations and connectedness change when we have a moving sculptural object constantly communicating progress rather than us occasionally clicking to refresh a map on a webpage. It’s there as a prop for thinking with and also as a physical thing made out of stuff that can be lived with and related to over time. Not an answer, but a tool for asking questions.

Although driven by what’s effectively the same GPS data that services such as Trackleaders (above) and other platforms use, rather than utilising this to give precise location and to draw lines on a map the Orrery gives no information as to the whereabouts of the person you’re tracking. Instead the Orrery uses cams, cranks, pulleys and changing light levels to give cues for envisioning if they are experiencing a grinding uphill slog, the simple pleasure of a tailwind or the liminality of cycling into the dawn.

The Orrery reacts to data as the miles pass by, muscles contract, views are revealed, strangers encountered and trains of thought dance. How on earth do you begin to convey some sort of essence of that to someone on the other end of an internet connection? Should you?

Accompanying the Orrery will be recorded conversations with a selection of people who have either undertaken significant [there’s a chewy word – more on this later!] journeys or been the person remaining at home wondering how they’re getting on. I’m aiming to record about six conversations in total, here are the ones that have been planned so far:

Hannah Nicklin

"Standing in cool morning air, being kept warm by my mum and brother." Hannah waiting for the start of the Outlaw triathlon.

“Standing in cool morning air, being kept warm by my mum and brother.” Hannah waiting for the start of the Outaw triathlon.

Theatre maker, poet, game designer, producer and sometime academic, Hannah Nicklin is interested in community storytelling and the spaces between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ where new thinking happens. Last year this involved training for an ironman triathlon whilst making theatre based on that experience and the stories weaving through and around it.

Our conversation starts with my experience of anxiously hitting refresh on the triathlon’s results webpage, waiting for an indication of whether or not she had made it across the finishing line.

Together we’ll return to the 112 mile cycling section of the course and retrace in situ the highs and lows Hannah encountered during the race a year earlier.

~~~
Hannah’s performance Equations for a Moving Body will be showing in Edinburgh during August – follow Hannah to find out more details as they’re released.

Tina Tylen

Tina and Kajsa

Tina and Kajsa

Tina Tylen’s daughter Kajsa is currently attempting to beat the women’s year cycling record by cycling more than 29,603 miles before the end of 2016.

Tina uses an online tracking service several times daily to check in on Kajsa’s progress. At the time of writing, Kajsa’s tracker is showing 16,127 km (10,021 miles) ridden since the start of the year.

What is it like to simultaneously structure every day for a whole year around a journey made 77 years ago and your daughter who is out there in the wind and rain right now? As we watch the accumulation of lines showing all the roads ridden, amongst all the armchair analysis of average speeds and breaking records, is it worth reminding ourselves that the tracker is also a convenient tool for knowing when to have dinner and a hot bath ready?

~~~
Kajsa’s challenge runs throughout 2016. You can follow her progress tracker-style or catch up on scone reviews, headwinds and weary legs with the video diary.

Emily Chappell

Emily and her father

Emily and her father

Adventure cyclist and writer Emily Chappell has toured across continents, fatbiked across snow and ice, and raced across Europe. She recently published a book about her time as a cycle courier in London and regularly writes for the Guardian’s Bike Blog.

What are the common threads woven through these experiences of cycling and what of these are captured by the spreadsheets compiled by her father? What are the pressures that come from knowing your location is being precisely tracked and what are the frustrations of not quite having enough information to know how someone far away but important to you is getting on?

~~~
Emily will be competing in the Transcontinental Race in August, there’ll no doubt be a map full of markers for you to follow along with…

… or you can come to …

Links & Shifts

21st August at Birmingham Open Media
Doors open 2:30 for a 3pm start
Link for tickets: https://linksandshifts.eventbrite.co.uk

At this event I’ll be joined by Kat Jungnickel and Emily Chappell for an exploration of understanding-through-doing; questions around sensescapes; our relationships to place; the affordances of bodies and technology in motion; and how we tell the stories of the physical, emotional and intellectual journeys we go on.

bloomers

Sociologist Kat Jungnickel has been researching the social, political and material challenges to the freedom of movement experienced by Victorian women. The resulting research – Bikes and Bloomers – has at its core the making and wearing of a collection of transformable cycling garments patented at the time.

Emily will be recently-returned from racing something of the order of 3,800 km (2,360 miles) between Muur van Geraardsbergen (Belgium) and Çanakkale (Turkey). Join us for the post-race stream of consciousness where memories start to be shaped into stories, links are made and the process of reflection gathers momentum.

~~~
Places for Links & Shifts will be limited, so if you want to find out about ticketing when the time comes make sure you’re either signed up on my mailing list or following me on Twitter, @nikkipugh.

Update: tickets will be available from https://linksandshifts.eventbrite.co.uk

Moving forward

There are so many people behind the scenes helping to make this project happen. Lists are a bit inadequate at properly expressing gratitude, but here’s one anyway. Thank you!

Wolverhampton School of Art – A residency there has enabled me to do a lot of the prototyping for the Orrery. Time, space and tools for developing ideas are immensely valuable.
Arts Council England – Who have awarded me a grant that will enable production of the Orrery, recording of the conversations and some of the events linked to the project.
Mike Cummins – Chief data-wrangler, stoking the code that turns data into Orrery fuel.
Kim Wall – Making sure the Orrery can talk to the databases and keep all the spinny things spinning.
Jez Higgins – Who coded the phone app we use for live tracking of journeys.
Birmingham Open Media – Providing venue and support for the Links & Shifts event.
People of the internet – Everyone who has riffed with me on various trains of thought that have fed into and shaped this project.
Also of course Hannah, Tina, Emily and Kat who took a punt on this project whilst it was still very much in its nascent stages.

The exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery will be open between the 1st and the 9th of October, so get those dates and the 21st of August into your diaries, stand by for more information and consider this an invitation for conversation in the meantime.

Playtesting for loneliness

Following on from our first experiments a few weeks ago, on Friday we (Tarim and I) ran a short playtest of the system we’ve been developing to measure what will eventually become the extent to which the critters are connected to the rest of the Colony.

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I built the circuits from before into some tupperware containers in order to make them more suitable for being jollied around the city centre, and we added a feedback system of heartbeats to indicate how panicked (lonely) the critter (tupperware) was feeling. If the critter became so removed from the rest of the group that it was no longer able to receive the radio signals from any of the other critters, then the heartbeat reach a ‘hammering’ state – something it could only sustain for 23 seconds before the critter died. So, if your heartbeat gets that fast, you have to quickly find someone from your Colony. Really quickly.

We repurposed the LEDs from before into ‘lives remaining’ indicators and also built in a mechanism by which dead critters could be reincarnated so they could rejoin the playtest: once dead, if you could surround yourself with enough colony members you would be revived. Only up to 5 times, though.

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Our first group was given the task of making their way to the centre of Millennium Square whilst making sure they had exactly four lives remaining when they finished their journey.

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There was an interesting split in the group nearly immediately, but we did manage to reconvene in the square and reincarnate those who needed it.

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The second playtest involved a slightly longer walk over to Castle Park. In order to seed a few conflicting dynamics within the group, we gave different people different target numbers of lives to end up with.

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I think I had only one spare life for the whole journey, so at one point I ended up diving into a lift with one of the other playtesters in order not to get stranded alone upstairs in Watershed.

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This longer challenge had a coulple of distinct phases to it: initially our tendency was to walk together in clusters, chatting, however as we drew closer to the park and people realised they still hade lives to lose, things got a bit more interesting, with people dashing down side streets, crossing over to the other side of the road or making a quick dash for the church.

Some of us even finished up with the right number of lives!

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The next variant was to allow people to choose the number of remaining lives they were going to aim for. This resulted in some extremes of behaviour as some frantically tried to first die off and then re-join with enough other colony members to reanimate.

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I’d donated my tupperware critter to a fresh playtester who had tracked us down at Castle Park, so I was in a purely observational role for the return journey. I really enjoyed a little exchange where someone hid behind a tree, then crept up on someone she knew was trying to lose a lot of lives, preventing them from doing so. Apparently this dastardly life-preserving tactic didn’t go down so well as shortly afterwards both players were spotted sprinting down the road – I assume one trying to get away from the other!

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We tried a few experiments in Queen’s Park to see how big the colony could get and then we headed back to the Pervasive Media Studio for a chat and a debrief.

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It seems the technology mostly worked as expected, so we were able to mostly focus in on the psychology of the experience: at what points did it feel like a game; did the critter’s perception of separation from the group match with your own; how did the task of losing/preserving lives affect your awareness of the location of the rest of the group?

It was a very interesting chat with lots to think about now as we start to move the mechanics closer to what will eventually be integrated with the GPS-based movement behaviour. All looking very promising for a first playtest though, and it was great to see an actual colony moving around the city for the first time!

Processes of identification

As indicated previously, the conceptual base for the project I’m doing as part of my residency at Wolverhampton School of Art has shifted radically over the last few weeks. One of the results of this is that the old title – Ride – now neither seems to belong to this project, nor feels appropriate.

The project needs a new name.

The project needs a new name …and it needs one reasonably soon because I’m starting to bring in funders and collaborators and, if you’re asking people to come in on on a thing, it really helps if that thing is a named entity. Naming things is hard, though; especially things that don’t yet exist. On top of these usual difficulties, this is one of those projects where I’m building the thing to better understand the nature of the thing, so naming it now seems even more back-to-front.

Needs must, however, so I took to my virtual studio (Twitter) in order to try and find some of the right words for the as yet hazy associations I’m trying to corral and give form to.

I must have hit a good time to catch people on their lunch breaks, because what followed was a very intense hour with various concurrent conversations taking place in which several people shared references and parts of their own stories. I’ve gathered together the individual threads here.

Several days later, the images and associations that are still lingering with me include:
* Migration (of going away and coming back again, of an instinctive urge to travel, of seasonal rhythms)
* Orbiting (of having some central point about which to circle, and also of the centripetal forces that continuously nudge the orbiting body)
* The final verses of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, where John Donne uses the metaphor of a pair of compasses to illustrate the sense of one person remaining rooted in place, thereby allowing the moving person to accurately complete their circuit. [notes]
* “The thin warble of telemetry”
* More of a sense of what it means to be the person left behind (who the cabinet will fulfil a function for)
* And orreries as a similar form to the mechanical cabinet I’m making.

Although I had a lot of stuff coming at me in that hour, it really helped me to focus in on the things that are important to me with regards to this piece of work. (Thanks everyone!)

What I hadn’t anticipated was how this process would also help me to be able to visualise more clearly the form I want the insides of the cabinet to take. Whereas previously I had a sense of what I wanted to pull out of the data and that this bit might be communicated through a series of cams and how this bit might be converted into light etc, etc, now I’m thinking in terms of “this bit will reference constellations” and “this bit will reference a flock of birds”.

Alongside the naming process, I’ve also had to start articulating what the project is about to potential collaborators. Articulating it outside of my head. Out loud. With sentences and that.

In a phone conversation a week ago I found my articulations falling over at the point where I was trying to describe the sort of stories I might want to curate to sit alongside the sculptural element of the work. I found myself resorting to the word ‘epic’ a lot in describing some cycled journeys and fumbling around trying to express the not-so-epic cycled journeys I think I’ll want to bring into the mix to balance these. I’ve since spent some time thinking about why this was so problematic and have come to the realisation that the epic nature of the first batch of rides is not the story of them that I want to be telling.

Remember how this project is about exploring how we might have different conversations with my mechanical cabinet as the prop (compared to Strava maps or live-trackers). I think I’m coming to realise that’s partly about recognising that the big, epic rides comprise the same battles with gravity and weather and stubborn thought patterns that everyone else’s rides are made from too, just that there are more of them strung together in one trip!

[I’m very tempted to name the piece “Orrery for Bastard Hill and Headwind, but I will attempt to come up with something more poetic before that sticks!]

I don’t think I was very likely to do so before, but now I have a renewed pledge to not keep a tally of miles travelled, instead thinking more in terms of just quietly marking their passing and of the rhythms of the miles rather than the size of the cumulations or the speed of their acquisition.

So yes: quite a lot of identification having gone on over the last week, both processes having hinged off of conversations and speaking/typing things out loud. Here too, blogging about it in order to continue to coalesce those thoughts and encourage things to continue to take shape.

Let’s talk about feedback

Most of my work comes from conversations, or from self-made opportunities, or from people approaching me with projects they think would suit me. I’m fortunate in that when things are trucking along nicely I don’t have to put myself through the mill of constantly applying for advertised calls for artists. When things are trucking along nicely.

Sometimes though, the momentum stalls and I do find myself hunting through Arts Jobs or similar, composing expressions of interest, hunting out the relevant images that represent my work and wrangling proposals in under application form word limits. I could probably write pages and pages about the investment of time and emotion that goes into each of these applications, but for this blog post I want to try and think a bit about a different type of investment; a longer term one.

Let’s talk about feedback.

Let’s talk about how practitioners can get better.

I’ve had many rejections for things I’ve applied to over the years, but what I rarely get is any sort of understanding as to why. …and this means I have no understanding of what I might change in order to get a different result with the next thing I try. And that feels like stagnation.

Is it that my idea was poorly matched to what the organisers were looking for? Did I not articulate my proposal clearly? Is my CV presented in an unhelpful format? Was my application nowhere near as strong as the others received, or did I make it through several rounds of shortlisting only to not quite fit into the final curatorial selection of a coherent programme from a group of submissions?

Some of these could be fairly easily addressed from my end, whilst others are completely out of my control. But the knowledge I could leverage to move my practice (or my admin) forwards remains elusive.

 

Let’s hop over to the other side of the fence…

 

You want to put out an open call for the exhibition/conference/commission you’re running. You’re probably horribly over-worked as it is, how do you efficiently deal with the couple of hundred applications you get for the dozen or so places you’re curating?

For the two Bees in a Tin conferences I’ve co-organised for the Many & Varied project, I took the approach of offering feedback to those who got back in touch and requested it. It turns out not many people took us up on that offer, even out of the 150 or so applicants we had last time around. Still, it’s a fairly hefty drain on resources when you’ve got to crack on with organising the event.

A lot of organisers take the approach of either stating up front that if you don’t hear anything back assume you’ve not been successful, or of sending out a bulk generic “thanks, but unfortunately…” email. Sometimes these are accompanied by a line something along the lines of “due to the high number of applications, we are unable to offer feedback”.

This got me thinking: the implication here is that, if there were far fewer applications for the opportunity on offer, the organisers would be happy to offer feedback to everyone. So what’s the cut-off point? What’s a manageable number of people to give feedback for their applications? And could we pledge to give at least that number of people feedback, rather than a blanket silence to everyone?

It turns out giving good feedback is hard though. So maybe thinking about it in terms of numbers alone isn’t a fair representation of the amount of time it takes to structure some constructive criticism to someone you don’t know, on the basis of a few hundred words written on an application form?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to reconcile my desire as an artist to be able to get better at what I do, and my need as an organiser to do what I do as efficiently as possible. I think the solution I’ve arrived at is something like this (and I’m sharing it here in case we can maybe act together to move our sector forwards a bit):

What if, as organisers, we pledged to offer feedback to whatever number of applicants that is manageable for us. But what if we pledged to make that meaningful feedback. Maybe to the people who were close, but not quite there. Not necessarily the ones that didn’t make the cut due to curatorial decisions, but the ones who you think could improve their chances of success next time around if they made a few changes. Maybe it’d only be to six people out of the 150 who applied, but that’d be better than nothing, wouldn’t it? Better only half a dozen people getting some insight into how their proposals are being received, than everyone being left none-the-wiser and puzzling over how to improve?

Can we do that? Can we make a small change like this that might just make a difference to a few people at a time, but cumulatively help move our sector forwards?

Comments are open for a while if you’d like to add any constructive feedback…



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