Tokyo Interactions: a pre-collaboration

A key part of my research trip to Japan is to check out the feasibility of collaborating with artist Megumi Ishibashi. We’ve know each other for several years – having first met when I did an exchange visit with the university she was working at – and I really like her style of re-imagining urban landscapes when we’ve walked around Tokyo together. I’m not very familiar with her working processes and her aims for her sculptural work, however, so we arranged to spend some time together doing some experiments and generally figuring out how a working relationship might shape up.

Unfortunately our time working together was reduced by illness and a few work commitments that came up however, over the course of five days we were able to explore combining interactive and sculptural elements of both our practices.

We based ourselves at Tokyo Gakugei university, where Megumi has been working part time for a few years. After getting a bit tangled up in trying to get started we decided to go for a walk around campus to look for sites where we might locate artworks.

I liked the look of this islanded set of steps surrounded by long grass:

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We also explored down little paths (this one involved ducking under lots of big spider’s webs and swatting at lots of hungry mosquitos) and had a wander around a little allotment where there seemed to be some experiemts going on with growing different varieties of rice.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The campus has quite a lot of trees and green space, so we were constantly surrounded by the sound of the insects in the trees. I finally got to see a semi/cicada up close. Boy are these things loud!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The pivot point came when Megumi suggested we visited the exhibition room of a building next to campus; she had walked past it, but didn’t really understand what they did there and was curious to find out more.

We weren’t disappointed!

The place turned out to be the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), a National Research and Development Agency, and the exhibition hall was full of things that made us go “wow!”.

The first thing we learned was that NICT is responsible for time in Japan: they do lots of work with caesium atomic clocks and calibrating the length of a second. They also determine Japan Standard Time and broadcast it across the country.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

The two ladies on duty did a really good job of explaining everything to me in English and we essentially had a personal guided tour of most of the exhibition. This included microwave imagery from planes; a haptic stylus; a funky smell squirting thing that involved activated carbon, an app and me having to guess some aromas; and live visualisations of internet attacks.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We left a few hours later, a little overwhelmed but very excited by what we had learned. The tower and the big clock made a lot more sense now, too!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

I felt there were some interesting resonances between the semi and the caesium clock – vibrations, being dormant for long periods then all of the action happening in a short space of time (read more about the semi here), those amazing cooling fins…

This kind of stuck and combined with Megumi’s preference for mechanised animation (rather than electronic) in the style of Pythagoras Switch.

Pythagora Switch from cereal griego on Vimeo.

So we sketched and dripped and carved and then spent hours days trying to refine a way of popping water balloons filled with paint over a model of a semi.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Alongside this, we were also trying to find ways of triggering sounds at intervals. We’d bought a radio controlled car, hoping that that would introduce a kind of clock function and visual interest as it circled around the semi. We got this working quite well as a trigger for audio via a Bare Conductive touch board, but alas it stopped working so well once we’d ‘waterproofed’ the sensor mat with some tape.

I also made a few noisemakers that used an arduino to count the number of times a microswitch got hit by the passing car. This gave us better control over the intervals between sounds, but we didn’t quite have the set up to be able to get it mounted securely.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We also had concerns about the splashiness of the paint, so Megumi learned how to make DIY slime, which we then added colour to.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Getting the slime into the water balloons also took a certain amount of experimentation!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We’d done some really long days, so on our last day we set ourselves the deadline of 4pm and said we’d run with whatever we had working by then.

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

After a few test runs with water, we were ready to add some colour to semi-san.
It (mostly) worked!

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

We decided to go for broke and try the slime…

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

Tokyo Interactions, Kokubunji

A lot of cleaning up to do afterwards, but quite a pleasing result!

Megumi usually works intuitively from her imagination, but I think we both struggled with the lack of a context for our experiments – the sorts of information that would shape size, construction and portability decisions. We didn’t have time or the resources to make a refined, finished piece of work, but at times it felt like that’s what we were trying to achieve. We made something interesting at the end of i but, as ever with me, it was the process that I was most interested in. Megumi and I are still friends (as far as I can tell!), so that’s a positive sign given the sorts of hours we were doing in the heat and mosquitos trying to get mechanical and electrical systems to work! I’ve learned more about the way she works and that will help shape any future proposals.

We’ll be meeting up again next week to think more about art that happens outside.
Photos and videos of splatty paint are gradually going up on Flickr as internet connectivity allows…

Tokyo Interactions: Akihabara and reclaimed spaces

As part of my research into how I might go about making art in Japan, I needed to find out where to source the various microcontrollers and sensors that sometimes go into my interactive contraptions. That’ll be Akihabara then, but where to start – I remember going there a decade ago, getting a bit bewildered and leaving fairly rapidly.

Fortunately, Kaho Abe had been on a similar quest a week or so ahead of me and was able to make some recommendations, pointing me in the direction of this useful blog post, including a handy map.

Found them!

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

I expect I’d probably end up mostly ordering online, but it’s super useful to know I can buy things in the real world too, should I need to and, as Kaho pointed out, sometimes you need to be able to hear/feel how a switch thunks before you decide if it’s right for your project.

I made a purchase, just to show willing…

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

After that I wove my way back through the crowds to the station and then followed the train tracks looking for traces of artisan makers: next on the to-do list was a visit to 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan (machine translated link, more information here).

In a way that reminded me of Koganecho, small units have been constructed underneath elevated train tracks and made available to be used as shops by artists and craftspeople.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

It’s amazing what a coat of white paint will do. I just wish I had the means to take a load of lovely handmade ceramics and woodwork back home with me in my rucksack…

Next up: 3331 Arts Chiyoda.

Housed in what used to be a junior high school, 3331 is now an arts centre that hosts a variety of creative businesses, galleries, shop, cafe and events space. They also run an artists in residence programme, so I was keen to get a sense of their personality, as it were.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

It was gone 6pm by the time I got there, so some of the units had already closed, but even so the echoes of the old school made for an interesting time wandering along the corridors.

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Tokyo Interactions, Akihabara

Of sweat and shops: a project in Longbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the following day I returned wearing this:

A simple skin conductance meter, with GPS and logging modules

This is a device that measures Galvanic Skin Response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an overview of all of the data:

Galvanic Skin Response and GPS data combined into a map

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


Last (Halloween) weekend required me to have an illuminated bike for an overnight cycle ride ‘twixt York and Whitby…

Transferring the design

Building up the panel in PVC foamboard (spork for scale)


Diffused RGB LEDs

Illumination test

Adding in microcontroller and wiring

Painted panel

Masking tape over the wires. (Followed by gaffa and a carpet panel.)

Midnight at York railway station

In situ and in the wild

It was a bit foggy. (Photo: andrewclark)

…until it was dawn, and then it was a bit high up. (Click to embiggen.)

Goth-lure mode installed in window at Whitby

Credit: A C

There is a shipwreck…

A few days ago I spent the day down in London with Lisa May Thomas at the Chisenhale Dance Space. Lisa’s been in residence there developing a version of her piece There is a shipwreck in my bones.

Shipwreck in my bones

I was invited to get involved after Lisa heard me talking at the Pervasive Media Studio last year – she liked the combination of technology, sculptural materials and the sense of movement within my projects.

So, having already armed her with a selection of wax pods, on Sunday I filled a large rucksack full of microcontrollers and sensors and headed over to see what I could add.

Lisa was already experimenting with projecting onto different surfaces, including the pods which resulted in a really nice scale and distorted image.

Shipwreck in my bones

I made some systems for colour shifting some LEDs in response to inputs of touch and distance. I also grabbed some snippets of the audio accompanying the piece and rigged up an ultrasound trigger in the passageway leading through the seating tiers to the performance area (Shipwreck is to be a promenade style experience where the audience moves freely around the auditorium, making discoveries along the way.

Of life.

Of death.

Of sea.

Shipwreck in my bones

What was really interesting though, was the process by which I decided to not include any of these. Putting circuitry in the pods limited the way they could be carried and the sense of otherworldliness. The effect of the proximity sensor in the corridor could so easily be replicated with an mp3 player for a fraction of the stress and uncertainty in my absence (I was only there for the one day).

In the end it may be that the one make I have contributed to the eventual realisation of the performance is a scrunched up soaked piece of brown paper.

Sometimes that’s just the way it should be.

Shipwreck in my bones

Hacking The Public

Last weekend I took part in The Public’s experimental Gallery Hack Camp event. Experimental in that they’ve never hosted anything like this before and also, well, it’s a bunch of creative people in a space – we’re going to end up trying stuff out!

First up: rearrange the letters. GRAHAM CAKELY PLC. That’ll do nicely.

Second up: respect The Public’s attitude towards caffeine.

Third up: a tour of the 230 metre long gallery ramp that we had been invited to tweak and re-imagine.

++th up: IDEAS!

Eventually the ebb and flow of conversations settled down into coagulations around ideas. Kim, Alyson and I set off in search of cracks and crevices to leverage towards exciting, secretive, human-scaled experiences. This involved some impromptu den-making and a certain amount of static electricity…

Eventually the gravitational pull of the ramp drew us back in to what had been most people’s first response to the ramp: by some administrative oversight, the ramp is currently without a marble run. Shocking!

We fixed that.

like marbles; but BIGGER

We only had a few hours making time, but we managed to scrump some interesting materials from various boxes, shelves and cupboards. We by this time being Kim, Dave and I.

I think we had a nice demo mix of mechanical and electrical going on with chutes, a bicycle wheel paddle wheel, drumroll, unfeasibly large alarm clock, fire bell and Christmas lights all either affecting or responding to the golf balls along their journey.

Things got a little eratic after we relocated from the camp HQ to the ramp, but I think the power of these things is all in the build. Remember the Improbable Machine?

marbles from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

It’s got me thinking a lot about the use (or not) of prototypes in settings like this. I think I’d like to be able to engage with imperfection more.

Star Jar

Last year I made a Geiger counter triggered decoration.

This year I’ve improved on it by making it fully mains-powered and fading the transitions. [Instructable]

Star Jar from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Season’s greetings.

Museum Camp: interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens

On Monday I attended Museum Camp. As with MuseumNext in 2009 it was a) rather marvellous and b) a stimulating place to discuss ideas that relate directly and indirectly to my practice. Thanks to all involved!

Hello. We are interested in Museums and we want to think about...

I hadn’t intended to lead a session, but as a spur-of-the-moment decision I offered to instigate a session on ‘interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens’. This was largely from a desire to carry on the conversation that had begun with my recent residency at Coventry Artspace linking in with Heritage Open Days, but also fly the flag for this other face of digital that perhaps institutions aren’t aware of.

I was really happy to see so many people come along to take part in the session. Sitting-on-tables-or-the-floor room only! This post is intended as a reference for those that were in the session and those that weren’t able to join us: pulling out the main areas of discussion and linking to some of the examples mentioned.

I started off by talking a bit about my background and why I was interested in interesting digital stuff that doesn’t involve screens: my journey through gradually more expanded forms of people+place and then influences from pervasive games (I like this definition) and the hackspace/makerspace movement.

I sat on a table and waved my hands a lot as I talked about two recent digital installations that encapsulated a lot of stuff I’m passionate about: making people look up; affecting how people interact with a space; instigating collaboration; making people think and speculate and do experiments to try and find out.

Trapeze Monkey from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Secret Police Disco from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Rebecca Shelley took some comprehensive notes on the conversation that followed as has been kind enough to share them, so here’s where we went from there…

But how much does it cost and is it something we can realistically implement?

Your local hackspace as a resource for know-how and possibly people with skills looking for an interesting project to use them on:
Coventry: Tekwizz
Hackerspaces wiki (includes a listing of active spaces around the world)
Hackspace Foundation has a UK list

Not got a local hackspace? Why not host one?
Museum 2.0 post
At the time of MuseumNext 2009 The Life Science Centre in Newcastle had got a long way towards planning to host one, not sure how far they got with implementing it.

Arduino is the platform I use: a small computer but also a community that shares a massive amount of information. A standard board costs about £25 and a lot of the sensors are available now as things aimed at a hobbyist market. It’s probably people’s time that’ll be the main expense.

Sensors include distance-measurers, motion sensors, noise detectors, humidity sensors… You can link up sensor inputs to a variety of different outputs, with some decision-making in between if the result is this, then do this.


Later on we reminded ourselves that the behaviour or effect we wanted to induce should lead the design, rather than the technology.

Use what you have in terms of resources and the space.

Low-tech is as valid as high tech.

Other technologies you can harness

Magic vests, silly hats and balloons.

Secrets, missions, games, small groups of people who are in-the-know and pantomine (as seen with the Secret Police Disco as people who had found it tried to enable others to make the discovery too).

How do you set/stage the space?

How you describe what’s going on and the process by which people enter that activity (or not).

Do I see it as performance? No – mostly because the idea would terrify me! – but I do see it as performative sometimes, and I’m interested in spectacle and different types of audiences that observe it.

I tend not to emphasise art (it’s scary to a lot of people!)
I tend not to emphasise technology (it’s scary to a lot of people!)

Can you pique people’s curiosity? Reward those that seek out the hidden things?

The Heritage Open Day event that Trapeze Monkey and the Secret Police Disco were a part of had a short paragraph and the end of the heritage-orientated handout that said I’d been in residence and things were ‘available for discovery’.

Question from Nikki: How does this sit with pedagogical aims of institutions? Does it matter if only a small number of people make the discovery?


How do you connect these experiences with the outside?

One participant talked about experience using gamification, linking in to people’s online social networks and harnessing the technology people carried in their pockets.

Another reminded us that not everyone has smart phones and I reminded us this was a session about non-screen-based approaches!

We then talked about the urge to share stories/experiences and possibly also how to close the feedback loop and do something useful with the contributions coming in from social media (or I might be conflating that with later discussions).

Education and fun

I noticed a few undertones that seemed to suggest these two are mutually exclusive…
(I disagree.)

Flows of visitors

Institutions are aware that visitors tend to stay in the areas that are more populated. Can we use interactive installations to draw people into the less well-trodden areas?

We talked about conferring agency, and how this brings people back if they can see their actions are having a direct effect on the space.

Someone talked about the audio piece Shhh… at the Victoria and Albert Museum and how it had enabled things like men transgressing into the ladies loos.

Can I give some examples of exemplary projects?

Um, this threw me a little as I think this is what I’m trying to move towards understanding through getting more of the museums’ points of views. I fell back on describing things I had encountered that had resulted in me having a powerful experience.

Symphony of a Missing Room, Lundahl & Seitl part of the 2011 Fierce Festival Hannah Nicklin’s thoughts and a This is Tomorrow article.

Ran on blindfolds, binaural recordings and the gentlest of touches leading you down the rabbit hole.

We talked again about spectacle, and returning to see what things look like from the outside. Also buying in to an activity and submitting to the experience.

Blast Theory were mentioned as the technology big guns. I’d seen some of their control room for I’d Hide You. It’s a lot of tech!

Reminded me to say that things will go wrong. Embrace it! (And design for it!)

This linked us back to an open approach and fostering a sense of agency and ownership – you can playtest your prototypes and people will appreciate it, it doesn’t matter if it’s not polished and flawless.

Hide&Seek’s Sandpit approach (and use of low tech).

I also mentioned the previous week’s Heritage Sandbox showcase and the Ghosts in the Garden project at the Holburne Museum. Smartphone technology wrapped up in an intriguing interface and an engaging narrative.

I’m totally into this as an approach and have used cardboard and simple electronics to replace touchscreens and turn using what’s basically a satnav into a team activity for 5 people.

Worried about a lack of budget? Cardboard props are great because they flag up that this is something running on imagination-power and you can do anything with that!

A Song for Skatz: using The Anticipator from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Weatherproofing homebrew GPS kit (part 3)

With the first GPS Orchestra workshop and the Ikon Youth Programme project coming up, there’s been growing urgency to find a way of protecting my GPS modules from a) people and b) weather.

I’ve been toying with the idea of laser cutting some cases, but have found prices prohibitive, so I had to think laterally…

Job done – I’ve turned a dozen of these battery-to-USB-power gadgets from the pound shop

nah, we'll use it for something else, thanks.

Into a swarm of Cumbria-ready GPS units.

swarm of GPS receivers#

There’s a Flickr set showing the intermediate stages…

Sitting quietly with my eyes closed, focusing on my breathing and then opening my eyes and waggling my fingers in front of my face really really fast

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