…further adventures in Japan

 

Fuji from the plane

Having got as far as Tōkyō to take part in the Playable City lab, it would have been a shame to have turned around and gone back home again after only a week. So I didn’t.

What I hadn’t really planned for was my explorations to start with a trip to hospital, but there you go; it’s all good learning.

hospital

I learned that there isn’t really a GP equivalent in Japan and so if you’ve caught a lurgy you join all the hundreds of other people being herded around the hospital in an efficient manner. Somewhat bewildering without enough of the language, but with some supplementary pointing, and after being politely relieved of some money, I got some meds and was eventually on my way.

First stop was Hakone, where I’d decided to treat myself to two nights in a ryokan.

ryokan

ryokan meal

ryokan

The wikipedia article starts by describing ryokan as “a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868), when such inns served travelers along Japan’s highways. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner”. Having gazed longingly at the clear blue skies from my hotel room window when I was too ill to go out and play in Tōkyō, in my chats with the ryokan staff we joked that I was a rain god. Yup, you’ve guessed it: I’d planned to do some walking around Hakone and, for the two days I was there, it was pretty miserable weather.

Armed with my kagoul, a sense of humour and slightly inadequate maps, I set off to walk along a well-preserved section of the old Tōkaidō highway that used to be the main route between Kyōto and what is now Tōkyō. My ryokan was close to the Hakone Sekisho (security checkpoint) so I had a look around there first before setting off up the steep wooded slopes along the ancient cobbles.

Hakone Sekisho

old Tōkaidō highway

Pretty mind-boggling to try and imagine what this road was like 400 years ago with volcanoes and earthquakes adding to all the usual human-powered perils.

Apparently, around here is the re-routed section that was built to make the going less steep. No wonder it was travelled by foot and not by wheeled transport…

I only walked a few miles, but was grateful when I reached the amazake chaya serving its cups of warm, sweet, fermented rice drink. The room was dim and full of slightly biting wood smoke from the fire, but check out the size of that brass kettle between the table and the counter in the background for a sense of how this place has traditionally provided a welcome haven for the travellers that stop off here!

amazake chaya

From the tea house I opted to make use of my Hakone Free Pass and take the white-knuckle roller coaster bus ride over to Hanone Yumoto and then the Tozan Railway and Cable Car (funicular railway) up into the mountains. Unfortunately the Hakone Ropeway (cable car) wasn’t operating by the time I got to Sounzan station, so I retraced my steps back to Yumoto through the drizzle and failing light and then braved the bus once again to return to the ryokan.

The next day was even wetter, but I still had the Free Pass and I was determined to use it so I attacked the mountains from the other direction: taking a ferry boat mocked up as a replica HMS Victory across the lake and then the Ropeway up to Ōwakudani.

Ashinoko

Ashinoko Victory ferry

Ashinoko

Wikipedia informs me the name Ōwakudani (大涌谷) literally means “Great Boiling Valley”, which makes perfect sense: steam rises from countless fumaroles as you reach the upper slopes.

Ōwakudani (Great Boiling Valley)

The combined effect of the vents, the strongly sulphurous smell, the scree slopes and the Geomuseum finally brought home to me how volatile the landscape around here is.

I returned to the ryokan, collected my bags and headed off to a friend’s house and significantly more snuggly surroundings …even if I did have to contend with bears and interlopers in my bed.

Bear Hunt oyasumi

A few days later my JR Pass kicked in, so it was time to hit the road shinkansen.

I arrived in Kyōto around lunchtime along with a light snowfall and a reminder that it was indeed December. I’d originally planned to hire a bike, but opted for a walking instead. I popped in on the garden at Konchi-in as the shadows were lengthening and climbed the sanmon gate of Nanzen-ji as golden hour illuminated a pretty good view of the city.

Konchi-in

Nanzen-ji

That afternoon I was mostly fixated by the many amazing rooflines I encountered, so the taking of photos happily continued as dusk fell and I started to make my way down Tetsugaku-no-michi (The Philosopher’s Path), arriving at Ginkaku-ji well after dark when everything was shut.

Nanzen-ji

Tetsugaku-no-michi

Ginkaku-ji Ginkaku-ji

The next day was mostly about trains; travelling the 460-or-so miles between Kyōto and Kumamoto, almost – but not entirely – successfully managing a series of very tight transfer windows at 4 or 5 busy shinkansen stations.

shinkansen view

YCAM

I stopped off en route to meet up with a producer at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media who gave me a very interesting tour of the building and the various activities going on there, followed by a slap-up sushi lunch and then a bike to go off exploring with for an hour or so. I was so ready for that bike ride after having been sat on trains since early morning!

My somewhat circuitous route took me over to Ruriko-ji where I had a super quick look at the pagoda and then sprinted back in order to be in time to catch a few more trains.

Ruriko-ji

Ruriko-ji Ruriko-ji

After a minor embarkation error and a bit of on-the-fly emergency plan B-ing, I eventually made it to Kumamoto, in position and ready to make the most of the following few days staying with a friend and her family on the outskirts of the city.

Daylight hours included being taught how to play shogi, making splatty sweets and establishing the level of mime required to communicate (we don’t have much language overlap, but it seems to mostly work out okay). After the youngest young ‘un had curled up and been hit several times with a horizontal rolled up newspaper, we set off into the sunset to the village temple…

inaka sunset

kane

…where we were to watch the 6 p.m. ringing of the bell.

…except it turned out that my friend had been at school with the obõsan so we ended up not watching his wife ring the bell but climbing up and giving it some welly [religious technical term] ourselves. I particularly liked the stone system for keeping count of how many times the bell had been rung. The bell was impressively loud and reverberant from that close, so I can well imagine it would be easy to lose count.

We also learned that the 6 a.m. bell ringing had been ceased after complaints from the locals…

kane counting stones

It then turned out that, whilst we’d been ringing the bell, the obõsan had been inside getting changed into more formal attire and we were then allowed to accompany him into the inner part of the main hall where we got to peer at all the ornate carvings and he explained the significance of various things. Again we didn’t have much language overlap, but I probably learned more about Buddhism that evening than I had done in several visits to Kyōto and all the massive temples there.

local temple

The young ‘uns were back at school the next day, so my friend and I joined a class of 5 year olds (almost as loud as a temple bell!) for a miso making session. It involved some very large bowls, some satisfyingly hands-on mixing of squelchy stuff and then punching the resulting mixture into those bags you can see the background, hopefully with no air trapped inside.

making miso

making miso

I couldn’t take much of our miso back on the plane with me, but a lunchbox full is currently quietly fermenting away in the cupboard underneath my kitchen sink. It’s got to do this for the next 3 months or so and then I suppose it’ll either be green and furry or I’ll need to find someone who actually knows what miso’s supposed to taste like to declare whether it’s ready or not!

What with the miso and the amazake, I’m becoming more and more curious about all the different Japanese foodstuffs made from variants of fermented rice. I’m pretty sure there’s a project in there somewhere, but failing that I bet there’s loads of interesting traditional processes to learn about and wonder at.

blue sheets

After the miso punching we had time for a quick look at Kumamoto Castle. Kumamoto was hit by a large earthquake in April and driving through the city had already been a sobering experience seeing all the signs of the damage done: blue tarpaulins on many of the rooftops (as shown in the Google maps screenshot above); gravestones all akimbo; and occasionally an apartment block with a ground floor missing. Well, not missing, just very compressed.

I’d been around Kumamoto-jō on a previous visit, so I had reference points for before and after. Even without these, the large rocks strewn about the place, the collapsed walls and the dishevelled tiles all brought home the power of the quake. They’re still getting aftershocks, so there’s not yet much that can be done in the way of tidying up, though I dread to think how long it will take to try and reassemble everything once they do get started.

Kumamoto-jō

Kumamoto-jō

On the return of the young ‘uns from school that evening we went for a stroll around the local area.

Kumamoto inaka view

My friend was worried that I would be bored in such a small, quiet place (let’s face it: everywhere’s going to be small and quiet after Tōkyō), but I really enjoyed hearing about the personal stories related to the area, including short-cuts back from school along the bamboo road (don’t tell her mum!).

take no michi

Also more shenanigans on a bike that was way too small for me, but much fun nonetheless!

 

 

bike fun

Back on the shinkansen again…

Fascinating watching how the population puddles in the flat areas, right up to the foothills of the mountains, and then how the cloud sneaks down and gathers on the upper slopes almost as if it’s poised ready to take the place of the buildings if given half a chance.

Shinkansen view

Next was a couple of nights staying at the Wasyugama pottery near Okayama.

tunnel kiln

As soon as I’d learned about this place I’d wanted to make sure I got a chance to visit. Next time I’m going to have to make sure I stay for longer.

On arrival I got a quick tour of the workshop and I grilled K on the firing process (there are a couple of videos on YouTube if you’re interested) and how the different decorative effects were achieved. Then we made a dash across the city to the Fukiage Art Museum to look for a power drill.

I very much like the act of shedding your outdoor shoes, stepping up onto a wooden platform and then padding around on immaculately polished floorboards in a pair of slippers. [I’d love to try to recreate a similar process of crossing a threshold and entering into a different frame of mind/body for engaging with art/ideas back here in the UK. I wonder how it would be received…]

Here the light switches were located in distant corners, so we did a lot of our slipper-shuffling in the dark using our phones for light. That and having the place all to ourselves was really rather magical.

Fukiage Art Museum

I didn’t have a plan for Okayama other than to relax and soak up as much knowledge as possible. With my host’s comment that most people came to stay there because it was within day-tripping distance to the island of Naoshima I hit some sort of threshold for people suggesting I should go there, so that’s what I did.

Naoshima is a small island (I walked across it in about 30 minutes) in the Seto Inland Sea that somehow manages to be home to a massive mining operation …and several contemporary art museums and installations.

A late start and a series of extenuated transfer times for trains, ferries and buses meant I had limited time to actually look at the art, so I opted to forgo the big museums and instead hunt out the Art House installations dotted around the port of Honmura. Here empty buildings have been transformed into artworks, containers for artworks, and things that blur the boundaries between the two.

art house bath

Above: the 200 year old Kadoya house

Below: a former dentist’s office

art house dentist

There are 7 locations in all, and entrance for 6 of them is charged at about £7, with staff at each location stamping your ticket/leaflet. I’m incredibly curious about how the project came about (it seems the first installation was in 1998, and the latest three in 2006) and where the different sorts of value are perceived to be.

I often find myself working in contexts that have a regeneration agenda attached, so to see an empty buildings project that appears to involve a string of established (presumably well-remunurated) artists, and that can support admission charges and associated costs of staffing and marketing, raises lots of chewy questions. Is it purely seen as a commercial undertaking? Was it a grass-roots project that just evolved, or was it masterminded and commissioned by someone? How do the locals feel about having their small town overrun by tourists? How has the art-ification of Naoshima improved the quality of life for the residents (if at all)?

What I was hoping to see was signs of art happening in the margins – of a critical mass of activity that helped to attract and support emerging artists with more experimental practices – but I didn’t really see any. That’s not to say it isn’t there, of course, I only saw a tiny amount of one area before the sun started to sink and closing times were reached.

Instead of walking back over the island to the ferry terminal I opted to walk along the coast and admire the sunset before taking the bus back.

Naoshima view

I’d mostly been inside my head all day, existing in the space behind my eyes as I waited for transport or passively viewed art, so the stand-out experience of the whole day for me was a series of interactions with a young girl who was playing with a football in the car park outside this ramen restaurant and who found the courage to come up to me at the bus stop to say hello. (Something she couldn’t convince her little sister to try!)

jyouzu

It got me thinking about the Playable City lab and how, on an island of flagship museums and many invested art dollars, someone venturing a few steps and offering the exchange of a few sentences was the most profound thing. ありがとうございました、竹下さん。

Back at the pottery I had just enough time to make use of the fruit I had carefully carried from Kumamoto and take my winter solstice yuzu bath.

The following day I upped the ante on my rucksack-slugging journeying and once more set off for multiple train journeys, except this time with rather a lot of fragile handmade ceramics with me.

That evening, in a university art department somewhere towards the west of Tōkyō, I dined on traditional Japanese cuisine such as oden, onigiri, sushi and honey and ginger flavoured KitKats.

oden

I was the guest of an artist/lecturer there and, having met various members of the department and given a presentation about my practice, in the morning we then set off on a mission to explore Tōkyō.

Nakano Broadway

First was our induction into ‘Deep Tōkyō’: Nakano Broadway. This building has evolved into a centre for anime and manga otaku; something neither her nor I are, so we nervously explored different floors and a few of the tiny, crammed shops before escaping back outside into the relative fresh air and serenity of the city.

Seeking an antidote to Deep Tōkyō we headed up, up, up to the 45th storey observatories in the Metropolitan Government Buildings in Shinjuku where the weather was on good form, giving us a reasonable view of Fuji-san and strikingly dramatic shafts of sunlight lighting up swathes of the metropolis stretching out endlessly all around us.

Tokyo

fujisan

We finished up by spending about 3 hours poking around in the wonderful Intermediatheque museum. Photography wasn’t allowed and the website doesn’t give much of an impression of the place, so you’ll have to imagine somewhere that’s a cross between the Pitt Rivers museum and the Lapworth geology museum at the University of Birmingham, with something of the curatorial feel of the V&A.

The highlight for me was the man at the desk at the back of the 2nd floor trying to piece together a jaguar skeleton whilst happily chatting to visitors and challenging people to correctly match the articulating surfaces of a deer’s leg. He said it takes him about 2 weeks to prepare a skeleton and armature – you can see why!

The next day we went to see a group exhibition of some artists who work in metal and then I managed to convince my companion to join me at the Bicycle Culture Center [English language article] by telling her a bit about Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers research project and showing her my photos of the Bloomer Ride.

Bicycle Culture Center

Bicycle Culture Center

By this stage it was Christmas Eve and I relocated back to Yokosuka for more bears and also a second yuzuburo, although this time with more juggling and plastic turtles.

Yuzuyu two

For our Christmas party we took the Japanese’s adopted fried chicken, and added raw octopus, sushi cake and a kind of summer fruits pudding.

taco

sushi cake

Christmas cake

Our special guest of honour seemed to approve, and I have to say I also really enjoyed the blend of familiar and completely alien ingredients to the afternoon! We did however keep to the universal truth of the empty cardboard box being played with as much, if not more, than the present itself.

merii kurisumasu

I flew home a day and a half later.

~~~~~

I’m not really sure how to conclude this blog post – writing it has been a good way to remind myself of everything that happened, but I feel its only just the start of the process of digesting and reflecting upon it all. Maybe check back in with me in a few months’ time to see what is still in technicolour and what has faded?

In the meantime, many, many thanks to everyone who hosted me, taught me, laughed with me, or just took a chance on saying hello.

The photos here are all released under a CC by-nc-sa license, with larger sizes of the originals (and many more) to be found over on Flickr in this album. If you want to skip the Playable City workshop photos, then start about halfway down this page.

 

Playable City Tokyo

Playable City Tokyo

I was recently one of four British participants selected to take part in Watershed’s Playable City project in Tokyo. Working alongside 7 Japanese counterparts and an awesome support team from the Pervasive Media Studio and British Council Japan, we spent a week exploring the theme of playful welcomes:

 

In 2020, the world will focus on Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In the run up, the construction period and during the games themselves, thousands of people will visit the city who have not been before. With the theme of  a ‘Playful Welcome’, seven Japanese and four UK participants will collaborate and develop playful ideas to connect visitors and local people to each other and to the city, during this exciting time.

…The Playable City Tokyo 2016 Creative Lab and Forum programme is part of the trial research project for the governmental “Basic Policy for Promoting Measures related to Preparations for and Management of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020”.

Further details about who was involved can be found on the Lab’s page on the Playable City website.

It was an intense week with a lovely group of intelligent, observant, generous people all riffing off each other and their surroundings; poking at gaps in language and disjoints between cultures, asking many questions and exploring even the smallest of details alongside the big questions.

Some of the very many things we packed into that too-short amount of time included some of the following…

Looking up

A map-making exercise of the area around the WIRED lab in Ark Hills where we were based. These maps led us to complete creative activities, to seek out the deity hidden in plain view and to chase after leaves. The one I made was effectively a prompt for people to slow down and to look up: a sort of treasure hunt of details and views.

Looking up

We also concocted small games for each other. Jo and I were set the Chopsticks Challenge which comprised several tasks that had to be completed working together elbow-to-elbow to make a pair of chopsticks with our forearms. I’m quite impressed with our portrait of Hilary!

chopstick drawing

As the week progressed we were allocated to different teams and we began the task of a more focussed critique of Tokyo and the processes of interaction and integration we might like to see happen as visitors start to arrive as part of the upcoming Olympic Games.

group sharing

We filled many ginormous sheets of paper with notes and diagrams like this:

thinks

(I can assure they all made perfect sense at the time!)

Gradually the concrete room we were colonising became covered in the traces of our thought processes and we began to distil out key themes and assemble them into a proposal for things-that-might-be.

With limited time and resources, prototyping was very lo-fi …but fast, and full of energy. Also little magic moments like this demonstration of a restaurant queue enlivened into a collaborative dance routine by responsive light panels in the floor!

magic moment

Other experiments took place outside.

We only got into trouble with the local security guards twice in the whole week…

trouble

As our ideas got bigger they also started to ask more questions about the types of interactions we wanted to nurture, the places we wanted these interactions to happen and how we wanted to mediate these.

Our group repeatedly grappled with the ideas of gateways, rabbitholes and entrances, so when it came time to take our prototyping outside to include real people and places, we chose to take things right back to basics and to do some experiments questioning how the very first invitation might work. What does it take to bring someone over that line between playing and not playing?

To focus in on the invitation we had to choose play that was familiar enough that we wouldn’t need to explain the rules. One thing led to another and suddenly we were armed with a selection of signs and an escalator in the nearby shopping centre.

pick one

Our aim was to use the fixed space and timespan of the journey up the escalator as a space in which to recruit people to playing a game of Rock, Paper, Scissor (or Janken Pon) at the moment that they reached the top.

janken escalator

We tried different signs in the approach to the escalator and also on and alongside the escalator itself, but without much uptake at all. It wasn’t until we ‘rebranded’ the escalator as The Janken Escalator that things started to turn around.

Perhaps not at all unsurprisingly, the real change came when we had a person waiting at the top of the escalator, ready to start throwing shapes. Up until then we’d had a poster with a pre-made choice that the player ‘played’ against by making their choice – and grabbing a piece of paper representing it – on the way up.

Playing with a real person is just loads better!

(c) British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

© British Council, photo by Kenichi Aikawa

Again I think we raised as many questions as we answered, but that’s when you know things are interesting. Alas we were out of time, though, and the following day we were presenting our research to a room full of people before wrapping up and saying our goodbyes.

traces

Also traces

You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/albums/72157673973684273

It was a wonderful, challenging, stimulating workshop to have been a part of and it’s left me hungry for more of the same. It’s also been interesting to have had the work flow structured by someone else – making me reflect on the processes I would normally work though and highlighting aspects that I find more or less important to me in my practice. For example, in particular I felt the lack of having a specific place to be designing interactions for. What was interesting though was that I also felt the lack of having a technological system to work with too.

Normally I’d be reciting a mantra of “don’t start with the technology”, but Playable City is ultimately about being playful with the infrastructure of a place (rather than just being playful in a place) and it felt like that was missing a bit from the ideas we explored.

I wonder both how I would approach the brief if I tackled it by myself, but also how we would build on what we did in that one week if we tackled it again as a group.

I think even if I did do a solo project I’d be carrying the Playable City cohort with me: my perception of Tokyo is now mediated through the eyes and experiences of everyone in the group and the things that they shared.

 

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!

Playfulness and navigation at BM&AG

I’m going to be working on a short project with Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery helping them to explore a few questions loosely themed around behaviour and navigation in the museum.

There are things we want to poke at about where visitors go, but this is also about the museum trying out different ways of working so, rather than me spending all of my 10 days working on producing a single thing for them, I’m instead going to be working in a much more open and collaborative way with staff and visitors to cycle through some rapid prototypes. The idea is that, through working in this way, we can come away having learned more and with much more of an understanding of where to direct time and resources in the future.

It’s making me think of the the vital failure in the manifesto Hannah Nicklin and I wrote. We stand to learn as much from what goes ‘wrong’ as to what goes right. Not that a single big outcome doesn’t also stand to fail(!), but this way we then get to ask why, make some changes in response and then try something a bit different.

Here’s the brief I’m working to:

  • 10 days of experimenting with fast, iterative methods of prototyping.
  • 10 days of trying out playful, collaborative approaches to designing.
  • 10 days in which to try out different methods of encouraging people to dwell in, and interactive with, the quieter parts of the museum.
  • 10 days in which to gauge how visitors react to more playful activities happening within these areas.
  • 10 days of demonstrating that playfulness is not just for children.

We set the precedent for some of this with the Invisible project I did at BM&AG in 2013. Inkvisible was the result of a hackday type event run by Caper at King’s Cultural Institute (King’s College, London), and a resulting commission that saw Linda Spurdle (BM&AG), Dr Gretchen Larsen (King’s College), Ben Eaton (Invisible Flock) and I working together over 4 days.

Inkvisible Day 1

Inkvisible Day 1

There were lasers and things – which was exciting, yes – but the most important thing for me was that we did all our experimenting and testing out in the gallery spaces where visitors and staff could easily approach us and be a part of the conversation: trying things out, explaining to us where they found things difficult, and giving us a chance to see when people’s eyes lit up and they had big grins on their faces.

That’s the main thing I want to build on: transparency of the process and paying attention at each step so we can adjust the process as necessary as we go along.

Very important meeting

I met with Linda and a few other relevant members of staff a while back to get a feel for the lie of the land. Literally, it turns out. We shunned the basement meeting room and instead opted to talk as we walked. We’ve got a few areas within the museum that we’d like to focus on and a couple of starting points. Favourite excerpts from my notes include “go to the owl and turn right”, “doorway giggles” and “giving the snake full directional control”.

I’m not sure where this will go next, but it seems likely that there’ll be a few call-outs for volunteers to help us try stuff out. Watch this space!

Prototyping for loneliness

After a few days a while ago finding my feet, I’ve been back at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol getting started on the next wave of development of Colony – the walking experience I’m developing that involves a group of landscape-reactive animatronic ‘critters’ being carried through the city.

Colony Playtesting 12/09/2014

I was here in the summer of 2014 for a previous residency working on the project, and it was so productive that I’m back again as part of another batch of R&D activities – thanks to Arts Council for funding both of these residencies.

Last time around I arrived at an interesting design for the physical form of the critters and we did some playtesting to get a feel for how people responded both to this and the behaviour we (Tarim and I) had programmed in response to the interaction of GPS radio waves interacting with the built environment.

Last time the question was “can you see the sky?”; this time it’s “can you see your friends?”

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Again working with Tarim, we’ve been working on the second strand of critter behaviour to do with how connected they are to the rest of the colony. We’re using XBee radio modules to set up a communication network amongst the colony so each critter can monitor how long it’s been since it last heard each of the other critters announce their presence. If it goes quiet for too long, loneliness sets in and the person carrying the critter will have to hurry to rejoin the rest of the group.

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That’s the plan, anyway. For the last couple of days we’ve been using breadboarded prototypes to get a feel for how this might play out in practice.

First tests involved a couple of LEDs and me wandering up and down the PM Studio corridor in a slightly shifty manner looking for when the connection between two radios was lost.

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Yesterday we scaled things up to five prototype boards and many LEDs!

After more odd behaviour in the corridor (the sacrifices I make for my art!) and a quick venture outside, we gathered a team of volunteers to get a feel for how things might be with a group of people.

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We gave ourselves a basic rule-set: scatter until you have only one LED lit (but try try not to lose all of them and become totally disconnected from the group) and then try and link up with everyone again. We were curious about how attenuated the group might get in the urban environment and what sort of shape it might take at that point. We were also wondering about what might happen at that inflection where some of the colony were still trying to get down to one light whilst others had already started to seek out more companions again.

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Our first test was in amongst the Watershed buildings along the harbourside, so quite linear (although I did see Tarim heading down a jetty at one point!), so then we went around the corner to Millennium Square and a big open space. We all radiated out to get away from each other, but even at the edge of the open space we were still within range and had most LEDs lit. Then it got interesting with people ducking behind vans and nipping into buildings to try and block the signal radio waves. We liked that!

All in all the first experiments have been very positive. We’re discovering some quirks of the XBee system – of course – but there’s a definite sense that we can translate the behaviour of the radio modules into something that can be read as loneliness. Mostly I’m super happy to have caught a glimpse of an actual colony moving through the streets.

I’m going to build up a few more prototypes, we’re going to tweak the code and the feedback system and then, next time I’m in Bristol, I think we’re going to run another playtest where we observe how people move between two pre-determined points. Stay tuned…

Maquettes and learning through doing

For the last couple of days at Wolverhampton I’ve been working through what form the cabinet might take this time around.

Last time around it was a rectangular Nikki-sized construction with a porthole through which you could peer through and see the innards moving around. Except not everyone could peer through – I was mortified when I realised a friend in a wheelchair couldn’t quite get high enough to have a look at what was going on inside.

Since then I’ve been trying to find a balancing point between accessibility and also being very attached to not wanting the cabinet to reveal all of itself too easily. I like it when you have to make a deliberate physical action to view something, bringing you out of passive viewing mode and back into a body and 3D space.

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I’ve been experimenting with a sort of locket form, trying to get a feel for what it’s like to look inside and move around to see different parts of it.

Here’s the first maquette I tried to work out what sort of angle of the top part might function best at:

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It seemed like it might be somewhere along the right line, so I’ve been thinking about how this might then scale up and how it might be made out of more structural materials. Top of the list at the moment is a layered form out of plywood, but I wasn’t sure how that would work out, so back to the cardboard…

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maquette

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Still feeling optimistic about it!

Next stage is to work out what’s to go inside it and then scale things up accordingly.

Meanwhile, it’s now looking unlikely that I’ll be able to do the cycle ride I’d planned to use to animate the cabinet. As a result I’m having a bit of a rethink about how the cabinet might manifest as part of a final piece of work. It’s been a bit hard to let go of my original plan, but mixed in with that is also the realisation that it’s also almost certainly going to be a stronger piece of work now as a result.

The original plan was, after all, based on the pilot project I did back in 2013 and my thinking has moved on a bit since then, as have the questions I’m asking of/through my practice. With last year’s Where the Sky Widens and current R&D for Colony I began to pay closer attention to the spaces and frameworks I was making for conversation and for the sharing of stories. Of where we could get to through using the things I make.

Whereas so far in this residency I’ve been talking about how I’m interested in how having a visualisation of the effort the rider is having to put in (rather than a pin-marker on a map giving just location) changes the conversation, now things are shifting more towards me actively seeking out those conversations rather than disappearing off on my bike for a week – which would have been differently good! – but I always had the nagging feeling that that wasn’t really where the action was and that something was missing.

The thing is I’ve not worked much in this way before, so I’m having to feel my way through in much the same was as I’m doing with the maquettes to help me arrive at the physical form of the cabinet. Try something; sit with it a bit; see how I feel about it; next steps; iterate.

Where the Sky Widens – the MA writing

It’s taken a while to get there, but I have now submitted for the MA course of which Where the Sky Widens was a part.

Several people have been asking if they can read the writing that accompanies the practical work, so here it is: my MA ‘evaluative document’ (like a dissertation, but different).

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Where the Sky Widens: An exploration of slow making and spatially-aware prototypes as methods for considering emotional connections to distant places

The practical component of this research project centred on the design and use of paper ‘pods’ supplemented with computational processing and electronics to make them react with movement and light to being pointed in a particular direction.

I ran workshops with different groups of people and we used the time it took
participants to make the pods to talk about the distant places to which we have strong emotional connections. We worked and talked at the pace of folded tabs and PVA glue—4 or 5 hours—giving us time to share stories; consider our relationships to our pasts, to people, and to places; and also to question the implications of crafting our own interfaces for digital technologies.

After having selected a location that was of significance to them, participants then had time to walk with the pod they had made, now programmed to signal when person and pod were facing towards that place.

The workshops were held with members of the public at Birmingham Open Media; Visual Sociology staff and students at Goldsmiths, University of London; and with staff and researchers connected to the Centre for Mobilities Research and Lancaster Institutite for the Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University. Two further
workshops had been planned, but were not realised.

Rather than describing the pods and workshops in detail, the following chapters are intended to complement the practical work through exploration of my practice, indicating relevant contextual frameworks and evaluation of the research project as a whole.

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So, link to the .pdf file below. I’ve had to jibble it a bit so it makes sense away from the other things that were part of the MA submission: if it doesn’t quite make sense, or if I’ve messed up on figure numbers or anything like that then please let me know and I’ll fix it.

As ever with these things I see them as the start of a conversation, so I’m also happy to hear back about suggestions for where to go with this next.

Over to you:

Download: Where the Sky Widens v2.2 (.pdf)

There are some important “thank you”s I’d like to make too:

Thanks to Jen Southern, Kat Jungnickel and Anne Galloway for an intense month in 2014 which helped me to realise how things might slot together; gave me new ways of seeing my work and the beginnings of a vocabulary to express that; and also their support and challenges as I worked through everything after that.

Thanks also to Helen Kara for fielding so many research-related questions that, by various routes, always seemed to end up at her door.

To the ladies in the lasercutter suite: you’re awesome. Keep up the amazing work.
To my lovely proofreaders: your perfectionists. Keep up the amazing work.

Many, many thanks to the participants who took part in the workshops and gave so generously of their time and their stories. Thanks also to Jen and Kat (again!) and Karen Newman for hosting those workshops and for dealing with all the logistics of room bookings and spreading the word.

And finally, hugs and appreciation to all those who have contributed moral support and encouragement, cardboard tubes and sandpaper through the challenging times. THANK YOU!

(I think that’s everyone, but I’ll have inevitably forgotten someone crucial, so expect that list to be added to…)

Where the Sky Widens – Shropshire

Spending a few hours with a pod was all well and good, but what’s it like to spend a lengthy amount of time with one?

I took myself, a pod and a tent up into the hills of Shropshire to find out. (Click for the full wide-sky version of that image.)

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

These guys launching from a few tens of metres behind my newly-pitched tent helped to set the tone for a few days thinking about journeying, roots and …buttons.

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

I walked with the pod…

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

…paused with the pod…

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

…ventured forth with the pod…

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

…and shared a tent with the pod until its battery ran out on the 4th day.

Where the Sky Widens - Shropshire

All the time with it reminding me in which direction the place where I was born is.

I’m not sure what to write as a conclusion – as with most good experiments it raised as many new questions as it answered.

Lots more photos here.

Where the Sky Widens – a walk by the edge

The thing about the interactive devices I make for all these interactive workshops is that I rarely get to experience them for myself.

I took the first steps towards correcting that on a recent trip to the South coast, where I spent a few hours walking along a gravel spit that juts out into the Solent.

After experimenting with programming the pod with a few different locations to respond to, I eventually settled on the place where I was born. Here’s the pod doing its thing on a sweep of the horizon:

It was interesting observing how the pod changed in nature as the sun set and night fell. It’s fairly conspicuous in daylight – prompting a “What’s that?! A dinosaur egg?!” from one passer by – but in low or no light it becomes something of a beacon.

Where the Sky Widens - a walk at the edge

Where the Sky Widens - a walk at the edge

Where the Sky Widens - a walk at the edge

Where the Sky Widens - a walk at the edge

On the drive back home my Mum tried to predict which corners would make the pod wobble. She got quite good at it!

You can see more photos here.



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