Tokyo Interactions: putting the work in

My first full day in Tokyo.

Making my way to my digs the afternoon before, I’d surfaced out of the train station to find myself at Tokyo Opera City: a place I recognised because I’ve been to the Intercommunication Center (ICC) a couple of times. The ICC is run by the telecommunications company NTT East and exhibits media art and interactive multimedia and I quite like their programming although I haven’t yet quite got to the stage where I remember this and go there by default! Anyway, making the most of being local and it being the last day of a multi-sensory sound-based exhibition I went for a look.

OTO NO BA: Sound-digging with the senses took its theme as “sound that is not only perceived with the ears, but with various other senses, or even with the whole of the body”. Being part of the kids programme, I was anticipating it being quite hands-on, and arrived prepared to prance around a bit to interact with things!

I don’t usually have to gird my loins for interactive art in this manner: I think there may be something interesting going on there where I feel more self conscious here and aware that there’s loads more potential for doing The Wrong Thing.

Grabbing the bull by the horns I jumped straight in with a bit of tambourine action and some sort of motion-tracking projection set up (ratatap, Junichi Kanebako) that responded with visuals when you made a noise with your tambourine (or bongo, or shaker…). As an interesting side observation in hindsight, I think most of the noise was being made by the gallery staff – perhaps a reminder that interactive work either needs a facilitator or to be intuitive to use?

Next I donned a stripy tabbard and approached the Border Shirtsizer (Ei Wada) to make some noise in a pleasingly loud, lo-fi, CRT, B&W, tone generator stylee.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

There was some nice experimenting to be done with jiggling/twisting/wafting to see how the changing camera view of the stripes changed the tone that was output.

After all that noise I made a beeline for touch the sound picnic (Junichi Kanebako). Ear defenders to block out a lot of the ambient noise and a sort of microphone set-up that transformed the sound signal into a buzz from a vibration motor.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It would be interesting to take this outside and through a variety of spaces, as it was quite uniformly loud in the gallery. There was a nice percussive moment when a small child ran past me, though!

For me, the star of the show was Perfumery Organ (Perfumery Organ Project) and not just because of its massive sweeping curve and assortment of small storage.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

I really like this literal take on the idea that perfumes have high and low notes. It was also very engaging trying to figure out the different mechanisms at work and general detail spotting. The organ played at 15 minute intervals and, between performances, you could pick up the little canisters on the front row and sniff the different scents. (During the performance you got buffetted by heady wafts coming from the brown bottles.)

I went to Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House in London a few months ago, but this was very different in feel.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It’s only now as I look back at the video footage that I’m starting to realise that there were a range of different mechanisms for moving the jars/blowy things into position to make the noise.

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It was close to closing time by now so I removed my ear defenders and had a quick look at the main exhibition.

It made me happy to see a piece referencing Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, having only recently discovered the writing and used it in a workshop. Also this dead bug soldered windchime triggered by a Geiger counter was nice:

Tokyo Interactions, ICC

It happened that I was able to book the last slot of the day for Akio Suzuki’s acoustic installation, so I settled down to listen to Kugiuchi & Water Bottle on my own, in the dark, sealed into an anechoic chamber.

I asked the assistant if the artist provided the room or if it was in their tech specs for the gallery to sort one out. It turns out that the chamber is a permanent feature of the gallery and it gets used to house different artworks as part of different exhibitions. hmmmmmmmm……

***bingle bongle ***
Incoming message from Megumi

There’s an opening event and after party at a new shared studio space, would I like to go?
It’s in Kabata *googles “Kabata”* Yikes that’s half way to Yokohama! And it’s already gone 6 o’clock. What is this place anyway?

We talked ourselves in an out of it a few times, mostly just pitching our tiredness against knowing that it would be a really relevant thing for me to go and see and that tonight would be our best chance to meet a range of people.

We got ourselves there in the end though, and the studio was pretty impressive! Some interesting work, too, slightly different to the sorts of things I usually see at artist run exhibitions.

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

I’ll direct you to the Hunch website to find out more about the artists, but mostly so you can mouse over their profile pictures, too:

Tokyo Interactions, Hunch launch

The after party involved a few chats with people to the backdrop of steel and regular drum solos by fairy light whilst a cross between Sesame Street’s Big Bird and a mirror ball rotated above us. I met a glass artist, a lecturer in English History, and an artist who also has what sounds like quite a participatory practice – another unusual find for me in Japan, we’ve arranged to meet up and chat next week without the drum soloist…

More photos from the day here:

Tokyo Interactions: the Osaka chapter

As previously noted, the title for this research project is no longer accurate but, in the absence of having had any better ideas, I’m just going to run with it. So, here’s a bit of a write up of the first few days of Tokyo Interactions, er, in Osaka.

[Actually there was a bit of a prelude in Kyoto with artist/game designer Kaho Abe and a selection of local independent game dev types, but that was mostly social and somewhat jetlagged!]

My luggage failed to make it onto the same flight as I did over to Japan from Amsterdam, so my first full day in Osaka was spent at the nearby castle, ready to hotfoot it back to our room in time for the delivery of one large rucksack and miscellaneous contents.

I love Japanese castles for their craftmanship and cunning [aka 101 beautiful ways to kill people = less nice], and they’re made all the more fascinating when an English speaker can give you a glimpse of their secrets. My collaborator Megumi Ishibashi did a great job of translating signage for me and we also chanced across ‘The Miracle Man’ at one of the outer gates talking about this puzzle-joint repair to one of the gate posts of Otemon:

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

It’s really quite tricky to visualise how the bottom section was added in to replace the rotten timber (there’s a massive, appropriately castle-sized gate on top of it too, don’t forget!). Even with the model he produced from his tote bag, we couldn’t see how it worked, but he managed to deftly separate the two pieces. The solution is quite cunning and involves some sliding, but what I’m also liking is that he took the time to hand make his own model (look! You can too with this paper template!), or at least use some serious powers of persuasion so that someone else did…

Across from the gateway was this ginormous stone that had been split in two using hammer and wedges:

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

Not a bad lump of stuff to use to build your wall out of. The other half from the other side of the split was there next to it too, mirroring the gentle curve on the surface.

I think Japanese wedges are of a slightly different style to Western ones (wider and shorter, perhaps), but I’m including this demo video here because it gives a sense of the process. And also because I like the role listening and waiting have to play.


Elsewhere, in one of the turrets, we admired a section of original flooring (other parts of the castle had burned after a lightning strike). As far as I could make out, this floor is usually carpeted because the skills to repair it just don’t exist amongst today’s craftspeople, but it was out and on display on the day we were there. The sort of golfball divots you can see are a trace of what I think was an adze-like tool used to prepare the surface of the planks. Something to do with the samurai needing a particular sort of non-slip surface that worked with the footwear they trained in.
Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

We went into the main castle building too and admired the suits of armour …as we wilted in the heat and humidity in our lightweight summer clothes.

Back outside again there was a chance to admire the rooflines before heading back to our digs. (Note the offset as an earthquake resisting tactic.)

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka Castle

The next day I went to the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living and had a good mooch around their reconstruction of an Edo Period Osaka street, complete with fireworks interval light show!

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

In the early evening I headed over to the Takashimaya department store and Gallery Next where my collaborator Megumi Ishibashi was exhibiting her work.

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Takashimaya of course take their cut on the sales made, but we feel we recouped some of this via some recommendations from one of the staff members (the ‘Knows Everything Man’) on how we should spend our evening.

Megumi had already introduced me to the concept of “kuidaore”, defined by WWWJDIC as “financially ruining oneself by overindulging in food and drink (as a fabled tendency of the people of Osaka)”. Counterparts in Kyoto prefer their undoing to be by fine clothes, whilst the folks over in Kobe have a thing for shoes.

It would be rude to shun the local culture, so we set out on a trail of eateries just slightly off the beaten path of the main touristy bits of the Doutonburi district.

We did pop in on the brightly lit bits too:

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka kuidaore

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka kuidaore

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka kuidaore

Setting a more sombre tone the following day, I went to the Kamigata Ukiyoe Museum where the special exhibition about childhood mostly involved treachery, betrayal, sacrifice and rather a lot of death.

Nice engraving skills, though:

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

That evening, before Megumi caught the night bus back to Tokyo, we popped over to Osaka Makers’ Space to check out how it was taking shape in its early stages and to try and get an initial sense of the maker scene in Japan.

We admired the arduino-controlled sign, admired the arduino-named resident cat, and also rushed outside a lot each time young T went to launch his matchstick and foil rocket! Some promising ingredients for the future, then!

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

I was also impressed by the balance between rapid prototyping tools and the facilities for wood and metal work using regular power and hand tools. It’ll be interesting to see how this space evolves over the next year or so.

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

We just had time to squeeze in some more culinary offerings at this side-street tempura restaurant.

Tokyo Interactions, Osaka

I was really taken by this space for reasons I haven’t yet fully understood. The photo is taken from the street – where we waited on benches for space to be freed up at the then full counter. The hefty wooden tabletop was appreciated, but I also quite enjoyed the narrowness of it all and how we were sat right up against the sliding doors that formed the front of the restaurant.

Hope it wasn’t our fault that they were no other customers by the time we had eaten…

Tokyo Interactions

A while back I was awarded a grant from the Arts Council’s Artists’ International Development Fund to support a trip to Japan, largely to nurture seeds sown when I was out there last year with Watershed’s Playable City programme and doing my own things.

As with all good projects, since then the title of my proposal – Tokyo Interactions – has become hopelessly inaccurate as ambitions creep and good things get linked together.

I’ve just booked the final piece of my accommodation jigsaw puzzle, so hopefully all the major details are now stabilised and my trip will range from Kurashiki-shi in the West, up to Sapporo in the North. About 720 miles as the crow flies …which of course I won’t be doing.

The woman at the travel agents laughed when I enquired about the feasibility of doing Sapporo to Kurashiki-shi in one day by train. She reckoned that, even with the magnificent shinkansen, I’d be regretting my decision by about half way through. So, out with the rail pass and in with the domestic flights and night busses.

The main purpose of my trip is to work with artist Megumi Ishibashi. In December we were musing on what would happen if we combined some of the interactivity of my practice with the sculpture of her practice. Well, the plan is to find out.

Detail of 'dream U reality U phantom' installation at Gallery SEIHO, Megumi Ishibashi

Detail of ‘dream U reality U phantom’ installation at Gallery SEIHO, Megumi Ishibashi

I also have research questions around what sort of an ecosystem is out there that could support my practice in general. Most of the art I’ve encountered so far has been very much based in the system of commercial galleries, although I’m aware of a few friends – Megumi included – who have taken part in outdoor sculpture festivals. To this end I’ll also be visiting a lot of different fabrication spaces, figuring out where to buy kit, and also scoping the streets looking for opportunities to do interesting things where people aren’t necessarily expecting it. I’m looking forward to meeting up with the Playable City Tokyo crew too, as it’ll be really interesting to find out how/if last year’s workshop has infiltrated the way they do things.

I’ll also be visiting a few festivals. Sapporo International Festival is this year asking questions around critical mass with its themes of “How do we define ‘Art Festival’?” and “When Bits and Pieces Become Asterisms”. Yokohama Triennale’s theme of “Islands, Constellations and Galapagos” is similarly a way in for conversations about isolation and connectivity, whilst Koganecho Bazaar starts with “Double Façade: Multiple Ways to Encounter the Other” to express an encounter between art and local community. I’ll also spend a few days in Setouchi Triennale territory, curious about what art lingers out of season and whether places like this might be more predisposed towards unusual encounters in the streets.

It’s going to be a busy 38 days…



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:


(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…


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.


Also traces

You can see my Flickr album of photos from the workshop here:

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.


Orrery: a prop for conversations

Having made the Orrery, the next step was to send it out into the world and see where it could take us in terms of conversations and approaching the idea of live-tracking a bit differently.

First it visited Emily Chappell and her dad; then I went for a bike ride with Hannah Nicklin, revisiting some of her triathlon route; and then the Orrery caught up with Tina Tylen and Bumble the dog as they waited for Kajsa to return home. I also spoke about the Orrery at the recent Pedalling Ideas event in Leeds, and conversations there have filtered into the mix as well.

For the exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery I made an audio piece (you can listen to it via the thingy above, or download it via this link), which weaves together some of the themes that came out of all these discussions. It’s kind of a snapshot of what the conversationalists and I have been thinking about recently, looked at through the lens of the Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity project. This part of the process has also been the sort of initial brainstorming phase for understanding what the Orrery is …or what it might be.

I’m keen to explore different types of watchfulness relating to cycling journeys, especially those that aren’t served by the sort of live-tracking tools currently in use. Get in touch if you have a story you’d like to share.

Links for things mentioned in the audio:
The blog accompanying Hannah’s development of Equations for a Moving Body
Emily’s blog post about her ascent of Mount Ventoux
Kajsa and Tina’s video diary of the record attempt







Sketch from Pedalling Ideas event by Phil Dean (@PHILDEAN1963 on Twitter)

Sketch from Pedalling Ideas event by Phil Dean (@PHILDEAN1963 on Twitter)


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:

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.


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

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.

Developing Colony: presentation at Networked Urban Mobilities

I’ve just got back from a few days in Copenhagen where I was taking part in the Networked Urban Mobilities conference organised by the Cosmobilities Network. If you were there and just want to get to my talk, then click here, otherwise read on for the background context…

I’d submitted an abstract under the Art as Mobile Research special session strand:


In recent years, it has been argued that new research methods are needed to study current mobility practices, discourses and materialities. Next to more traditional social science methods, mobile methods have included participatory observation, virtual and autoethnographies, and various kinds of mapping. Building on these methodological innovations, this session theme explores art as mobile research. Since the early 1990s, artistic research has developed as a distinct field of study. Making art is taken to be a form of doing research and the works of art that result from that research are presented as a form of knowledge. Practical testing is frequently an essential part of this ‘journey of making’ process, enabling ideas and techniques to be resolved before making finished work as part of the whole creative process. Art is not only relevant from the perspective of the aesthetic experience, it is argued, but also as knowledge claim. For artistic practice, this development undermines the modern dichotomy of autonomy and instrumentalism, thus breaking away from the alleged ‘otherness’ of art as a societal domain that has clear boundaries and can be separated from science.

In this session, we investigate how art practices might contribute to mobilities research, as well as how artists reflect on mobile worlds in their work. How can artistic research practices and discourses be drawn upon to develop new ways of understanding and researching the performative ontologies of travel? How can artistic production be seen as a meaningful context to explore mobilities? How can the creative process of the ‘journey of making’ inform mobilities? We invite papers and art works examining these questions.

The session will be organizaed by Kevin Hannam from Leeds Metropolitan University and Peter Peters from Maastricht University.

Nikki Pugh (UK) is an artist working at the intersection of people, place, playfulness and technology. Over the Summer of 2014 she will be in residence at Bristol’s Pervasive Media Lab developing her ongoing project Colony.

Colony is an exploration of how we navigate public space: a small group of people each carry a landscape-reactive ‘creature’ that uses real-time processing of GPS data to generate either a claustrophobic or claustrophilic personality.

Responsible for its well-being, can you find a route across the city that minimises the enclosed or open spaces that distress your creature? How do you balance the elastic pushes and pulls acting on you: guardianship for your creature; the need to get from A to B; the desire to stay with the rest group; the points and stares from onlookers observing your unusual behaviour?

Colony has been developed through a series of prototypes and playtests. Early experiments saw people carrying vibrating bundles of bubblewrap through the post-industrial landscapes of Birmingham, finding excuse and entitlement to explore slightly grimy alleyways or listen to what doorways felt like. A later iteration explored assumptions about secrecy and convenience with large, heavy, cumbersome wooden tubes that hammered out signals according to how built up the surrounding were. Landscape-reactive Sashes (part of the arts programme at the Global Conference on Mobility Futures, Lancaster, 2013) explored what it was like to move as part of a networked group.

At the Networked Urban Mobilities Conference, Nikki will recount how these modules of research build on each other as she investigates the design of the animated, networked, landscape-reactive creatures, the narrative of the events through which they are used, and the affordances the combination of these give for providing new experiences of moving through the city.

My proposal was accepted into what evolved into the ‘Artistic Interventions’ session held last Friday, also speaking alongside Jen Southern, David Pinder, Mike Collier, Peter Peters and Samuel Thulin in a series of 7-slides-each-of-a-minute’s-duration presentations.

This gave me slightly less manoeuvrability than the recent talk at Pecha Kucha Coventry, but I tend to bring props with me and, well, they have a pretty good frame rate!

Accompanying me on the flight over to Denmark was a flat-packed creature fresh from the residency at the Pervasive Media Studio and a couple of heartbeats.

The flatpacked critter being reassembled on the first day of the conference. Adjustable spanners have a habit of being a few millimetres too narrow, but fortunately I had made a lightweight wooden one of the right size to bring with me!

Heartbeat device v4: I took one in a relaxed state and one in a panicked state for people to spend some time with.

The heartbeats were passed around at the start of the session as we waited for further audience members to successfully negotiate the navigational challenge of getting to the room we were in. (The building used to belong to Nokia and seemed to have inherited some of their security quirks. We never did see the sauna, though…) It was interesting to watch people place them on their bodies and feel the different pulses.

Meanwhile the critter was draped over a table and purred away contently throughout my talk.

…And here are the slides and basic content of my presentation (although I did go off piste a little bit).

Hi, I’m Nikki and in 2010 I realised I was working here.

I’d just spent a few years involved with hackspaces and pervasive gaming.
So, peer-to-peer skills-sharing with a technological bent and also grownups doing playful things in public places.

What I took from the hackspace stuff was a sense of possibility that someone like me – with next to no formal training in electronics or coding – could design and make my own technology.

I don’t really get on with screens; I’m much more interested in working with pounding hearts and the hairs on the back of your neck. Making my own devices means I can choose alternative ways of interfacing with the tech, with each other and with the world(s) around us.

My practice is centred on exploring how we interact with and perceive our surroundings. By adding in sensors and microcomputers to sculptural and worn forms, I could now explore extending or adjusting our familiar senses and our everyday experiences of place.

I wanted to work on a project that would enable me to explore my relationship with that territory in the Venn diagram. That project is Colony and I’m going to give you an overview of key stages in its evolution so far.

I had a fleeting image of a small group of people, each responsible for the well-being of some sort of creature they were carrying.

I was interested in the different pushes and pulls that I thought would be acting on the people carrying the creatures. Curious as to how all those would interplay to affect the experience of navigating across a city in a group.

The first version I made was a simple bundle of bubble wrap with vibration motors down its length, programmed to go off at randomly-selected intervals and intensities.

One of the participants blogged this comment.

She also described how it was a passport to go down grimy alleyways and look over walls.

I like to think of the things I make as being permission givers.
Permission to go to new places, permission to behave differently, permission to be playful, permission to talk to strangers.

Feeling I had a successful proof of concept, the next step was to make the bundles landscape-reactive rather than just behaving randomly. This was to be the extended sense and the cue for selecting one path through the city over another.

I had a technique I’d been using that relates errors in GPS positional calculations back to the built-up-ness of the urban environment, so I used that to make the creatures claustrophobic.

I’m not going to go into detail about the system now, but feel free to talk with me about it afterwards..

What we got from this location-aware version was an excuse not just to go to different places, but to interact with those places in non-usual ways as people experimented with prompting and sensing different levels of distress in their creatures.

We all agreed there was something very nice in the soft, warm, light, secretive cuddliness of the creatures so far, so there was really only one thing to do next.

I made 3 of these wooden, heavy, cumbersome drum versions. They run off the same technology, but rather than using vibrations to secretly communicate their state to the person carrying them, these beat out a tapping noise that anyone standing nearby can hear.

I needed to challenge our first-reaction thoughts about what a ‘good’ design might be. What would be the affordances of something contrary to these?

In a world where our mobile devices are constantly sold to us on the basis of being smaller and sleeker and lighter, I also wanted to investigate carrying something burdensome. To constantly be aware of its presence.

The drums were not padded and they would get painful on your shoulder.
The cloth they were wrapped in was slightly abrasive, and would graze your knuckles as you gripped onto the cord.
The bulk of the thing would block your vision.

And people carried them around for much, much longer than I anticipated!

It’s like it became something of a mission. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I think there’s something there in becoming emotionally and physically invested in carrying an object that I’d like to return to later in my research.

Time to think about the Colony as a group. So I networked together some ramblers.

One person carried the equipment that was processing the GPS data and then radio tranceivers broadcast corresponding instructions out to sashes like this. Each sash had a single vibration motor in it that again buzzed with increasing intensity depending on how built up the surroundings were around that person who was doing the broadcasting. Being in rural Northamptonshire, that more often translated to density of tree cover.

We were walking for quite a long time and, unlike the Heavy Objects, I think there was a tendency for the sashes to become invisible to the people wearing them. The regular buzzing eased into the background.

Visually, however, those splashes of bright yellow made us stand out from the point of view of a spectator. They marked us out as being a group. I’m interested in that transition point between one lone person doing something odd and being seen as an outsider vs a number of people doing something odd and the spectator feeling that they’re on the outside because there’s something cool going on that they don’t know about.

This Summer I did a month’s residency at the rather marvellous Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol in the UK. 9 days with a laser cutter too. This was a chance to start pulling together all these little investigations I’d done so far.

Here’s where we’re up to now. This one isn’t processing GPS because we’re indoors, but when it’s got the proper version of the code it’ll thrash its tail around when it gets distressed.

It’s a bit clunky and you have to concentrate to carry it around, but it doesn’t actually give you bruises!
We’ve been experimenting with slings to help support some of the weight, and there’s something very interesting in the almost ritual action of binding yourself to the object.

That’s the point where I start to see it as being a complete entity – when it’s a creature-human assemblage.

We’ve taken 3 or 4 of them out for a few walks around Bristol, and what I hadn’t expected was the amount of stranger:stranger interactions they invite. We had so many people coming up to us asking if they could touch them, photograph them, draw with them…

This makes me happy as I’m a big fan of urbanist William Whyte’s ideas about the importance of conversation starters for contributing to the conviviality of public spaces.

So, that was a whistle-stop tour of some of the main chapters in the development of Colony. As different opportunities have presented themselves I’ve used them to home in on different questions that have bubbled up.

And a lot of different questions have bubbled up.

In terms of a research process becoming a finished piece of artwork, it seems I’m converging on designing objects that I’d like to be used as tools for sensing the behaviour of radio waves in urban environments. On a macro scale in terms of the signals from the GPS satellites – GPS shadows, concrete canyons and multipath errors – and on a comparatively micro scale using the same radio tranceivers I used for the sashes to bring in a line-of sight test for whether you are still connected to the other members of the colony.

That’s what the heartbeats that have been going around are for – if you get separated from the group, the creature panics and you have a limited amount of time to get to a position where you regain contact. Leave it too long and it’s game over.

The end!


Artist Lise (surname unknown, sorry) was live-drawing the session. Here’s her take on my presentation:

Strange. But in a good way!

Colony residency at the Pervasive Media Studio

I’m very happy indeed to be able to announce the start of a residency at the Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol, where I shall be developing my ongoing project Colony.

The residency will be for about a month – mostly taking part in July and August – and leads on from the Place Interfaces lunchtime talk I did for them a while back and conversations sprung from the GPS Orchestra workshop I ran.

An early prototype for a Colony creature

An early prototype for a Colony creature

There’s more information on the PM Studio’s project page, but in short I’m developing some landscape-reactive ‘creatures’ and am interested how use of these affects our experience of navigating cities.

I’ve just finished an introductory 3 days in the Studio which I used to suss out my approach for the main chunk of time next month. It was also a good chance to revisit my original aims for the project (first conceived back in 2011) with a few years’ more experience under my belt. This process involved a lot of post-it notes and a few push-puppets.

I’m not sure how the push-puppets felt about this.

Doing a bit of research into how pack animals signal to each other

Doing a bit of research into how pack animals signal to each other


A push-puppet robot about to reveal its secrets…


These limbs were a red herring


Now we know!


Reassembled components = more learning



Having successfully dissected and reconfigured one of the push puppets, I wanted to see if this approach to applying and releasing rigidity could be scaled up to the sort of size that the creatures I’m making will be. (I’m investigating body tension as a simple way of communicating distress.)

Drilling axial holes in dowel with a lathe


After a morning drilling and sanding dowel on a convenient lathe, I was able to experiment with much larger components and start to see how different surfaces and gravity start to play against each other.

I suspect dowel’s going to be too heavy for my purposes, so I think I’ll try beads next.

Meanwhile I’ve also started investigating use of XBee radios to network all the creatures within the colony so they exchange information with each other.

Lots of pages like this in my notebook as I think that through:

Lines of communication

Lines of communication




Here’s what my desk ended up looking like:

Traces of thinking, learning and doing


I think that’s as good a representation of the process as any!

A few more photos from the last few days can be found on Flickr.

Many thanks to the Pervasive Media Studio community who have already moved my thinking on a lot, and also to Arts Council England who are supporting this residency through their Grants for the Arts programme.

Bees in a Tin line-up announced!

It is with very great pleasure that we’ve just announced the details for Bees in a Tin, an event I’ve co-curated with Hannah Nicklin and Jen Southern.

Bees in a Tin will feature talks and workshops from key makers and thinkers from around the country as well as two panel sessions for audience questions. If you’re interested in the spaces where the arts, science, technology, and games crash into one another, apologise, and then buy each other a drink: then this is for you.

The talking throne made by East London Kinetics

Even if we do say so ourselves, the line-up is outstanding, with contributions from

  • Dr. Rebekka Kill
  • Kate Andrew
  • Holly Gramazio
  • Hamish MacPherson
  • Stuart Nolan
  • Nigel Reid
  • Tim Wright
  • Pete Ashton
  • Katie Day
  • Alice O’Connor
  • Gareth Briggs
  • Henry Cooke

You can find out more about them all and what they’ll be talking/doing about on the Many & Varied website.

We’re also very excited to have a keynote commission from Sarah Angliss:

According to Sarah, the stage is a tricky place to deploy a machine with an unusual interface. Your audience may be encountering the interface for the first time. They’ll have to grasp its function as the music unfolds, even though they can only see and hear it in action, rather than get their own hands on it. These days, musicians often have to face the challenge of laptop-based interfaces, where so much of the function is embedded in invisible, intangible code. As Sarah talks about these issues and her experience with unusual machines on stage, she looks at the importance of ‘coupling’ – in particular, the audience’s sense of cause and effect between a musician’s actions and sound. What are we gaining – or losing – by loosening this coupling? Does it matter if the audience have no intuitive sense of the musician’s influence on the music? And how can we deploy coupling to turn any gig into an unforgettable event – one which could never be replaced simply by listening to recorded music at home.

Tickets are only £4.50. Buy some.

Bees in a Tin – call for unusual interfaces

I’ve been running the Many & Varied programme of events over at The Public, and as the last in that series (relocated to Birmingham, because The Public has now ceased to be) we’re gathering as many interesting and exciting people as we possibly can together in the same room at the same time.

The event is called Bees in a Tin and the call for proposals is here: (deadline January the 8th). Follow that link for full details and the application form.

So, if you make unusual interfaces for the world around you, get thinking about how you can use that day. Also have a think about who you’d like in that room with you and spread the word!

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