Supporting Rachel Henson on her Blast Theory residency

I spent three days last week supporting artist Rachel Henson as she embarked on her 2-week residency at Blast Theory HQ in Brighton.

Rachel’s been investigating the use of haptic navigation devices and moving images off-the-screen. She got in touch after reading my dissertation about the paper-crafted Where the Sky Widens pods and, after meeting for an initial meet-up and chat several weeks ago, invited me to join a team of advisers who’ll be helping her with her R&D.

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

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

Rachel’s local to Brighton, so it’s been an interesting experience where I did the packing of equipment, the travelling, the living out of a rucksack and the residing in a liminal sort of space – as per usual for residencies – but without being the actual artist in residence! Rachel’s working towards devising a mechanism for guiding a solo walker to a selected destination in such a way that, along the way, their senses are working in a state of alertness to what’s around them. My three days were to get Rachel and Neil initiated into the world of physical computing before she then fed in expertise about sound and situated visuals from other practitioners.


Living the dream – sunrise over Travis Perkins


“Clean your tip!” Soldering 101

Neil’s a programmer, so the coding side was covered and I focused on skilling them up on working with the hardware: primarily GPS and magnetometers, but then also looking at different actuators that could be used to respond to the data coming in off the sensors. First task: getting them the other side of The Fear that most people seem to experience when working with this kind of thing for the first time. Soldering irons were deployed and we went from complete beginner on Monday, via adding connectors to various components, to Neil assembling an Adafruit Wave Shield on Wednesday!

Alongside the soldering we also breadboarded a GPS+compass system that would tap a solenoid in a heartbeat pattern to guide the walker to a secret location. There seem to be two types of residency venue: those with roofs that are very permeable to radio waves (and everything else!) and those that are somewhat more bunker-like. 20 Wellington Road is a former Victorian icehouse, tending towards the latter, so testing things involved going up three floors to the roof (also street level, thanks to the local gradient!) in order to get GPS reception. Monday was nice and wet and blustery, so we had to get a bit creative with protecting the laptop we were using to monitor the incoming data…

GPS test

Weatherproofing strategy – hide!

We also did some experimenting with a breadcrumb style approach along a trail in contrast to carrying a navigational device with you all the time. This involved a lot of keyfinders and a lot of whistling!

keyfinder experimenting

Call and return with keyfinders

keyfinder trail

Laying a trail

This almost immediately set Rachel’s thinking off in another direction, because of the way it focused her awareness in and down instead of out. When I left on Wednesday, it seemed the main area of enquiry was going to be on a navigational device at a distance to the walker – in front, but always out of reach, leading the way. They’ll be half-way through the residency now – will be very interesting to how ideas have progressed at the end of next week!

Where the heart is


I’m interested in how we connect to distant places.

A lot of my work prompts people to consider their immediate surroundings, but what of those places we feel some part of us is in, even when our bodies are elsewhere? Are you homesick? Do you long to travel to a particular place? Are you missing someone you can’t be with right now?

When a GPS Orchestra workshop seeded sleepless imaginations of being able to harness bee power, it got me thinking about the waggle dance bees use to communicate the location of good sources of pollen with other bees back at the hive. Since then I’ve been working on developing an object that signals to you your relative location with these significant places.

I want something that feels special.
Something that feels as precious and as fragile as the emotions and memories the person holding it has invested into the process.
Something that makes you slow down, something that encourages you to be contemplative.

I want a conversation that lets me spend time thinking about the places that are significant to me.
I’m curious about the places that belong to other people. The people that belong to other places.

I want to be stood on the deck of a sailing boat at dawn and have it remind me where home is.


Last weekend I went for a loooong cycle ride with a bunch of strangers. Having recovered enough to get back in the saddle today – and keen to learn the route to Clent Hills for myself – I retraced part of the journey.


Green! This is why I want to learn the way to Clent!

Thanks to the ride leader having provided some GPX files ahead of the loooong ride, I was able to study the route and equip myself with the necessary high-tech navigation equipment:


But it turns out that, for the 13 mile ride out, this was all but unnecessary: there were enough located memories along the route – sarky comments, llama farms, junctions with spooked horses – that I was able to recognise where I was and where I had to be. I think that’s pretty interesting! (And a measure of how lively the group was – thanks guys!)

Also interesting was how disorientated I was by comparison on the way home (going back the same way). Here the main instance when the landscape looked familiar to me was when I managed to take a wrong turn and loop right back round on myself. That was very disconcerting in a deja vu stylee!

I’m blaming the fog.


The birds and the bees and the fish

I had a sleepless night a few weeks ago when, seeded by GPS Orchestra, inspiration for a project struck.

Actually, less inspiration and more a vision of the finished thingy. The task now is to figure out how to make it.

Whilst that’s going on, I’ve been looking for ways to describe what it is that I want to make (happen). The image that seems to capture something of the quality of the movement of people that I’d like to see is that of a shoal of fish. You know the epic, deep water, deep deep blue natural history films; you know the voice over; you know the big shoal of fish, moving through the ocean as a group of individuals; and then flash! suddenly there’s a coordinated movement and a moment of silver.

I think that’s what I’m after.

Looking for video, I’ve also got sucked into murmurations.

I also aspire to the reaction at 1m 40s in the video below:

Murmuration from Islands & Rivers on Vimeo.

That’d be nice, huh?

And the bees? More to come on them later, I expect…

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