Testimonials please

In which I ask for a few minutes of your time in return for the promise of more good things ahead…

In 2008 I was awarded support from Arts Council England to run workshops at the Dislocate symposium and at hanare project in Japan, and also to participate in the Almost Perfect co-production residency at the Banff New Media Institute in Canada.

My practice got nudged onto new tracks and cranked up a notch or five. Now with added locative media and things in the city.

When I got home I co-founded and co-ran the fizzPOP hackspace and the BARG games network, both of which involved running programmes of events and workshops alongside the other participatory stuff of my main practice. All this, bar indirectly via a few commissions, with no further support from public funds.

Hands up please if you've taken part in something I've organised...

Now, three years later, I am in the process of writing another application for Arts Council funding; again to support professional development activities in foreign parts: two weeks in New York City, a couple of visits to Netherlands and… two days in Newcastle…

In case you’re not familiar with the Grants for the Arts application form, there’s a section that asks for me to describe how the public (that’s you) engages with my work. Specifically:

Details about the people the activity will reach (for example, the audiences or people taking part), stating whether these people would not normally engage with the arts (see our information sheet ‘Public engagement’).

One of the four criteria against which my application will be assessed is “How the activity increases opportunities for the public to engage in arts activities.”

I could write this section, but it would carry a lot more weight (and give me valuable feedback on what I’m doing) if you could spare a few sentences to describe in your own words your experiences with the things that I (and various collaborators) have made happen. I really would be very grateful.

Here’s a quick reminder of some of my doings that you may have participated in over the last few years:

Colony prototyping, with Fierce at VIVID and The Edge
The Ministry of Rules, with The City Gallery at New Walk Museum and Art Gallery
Circuitbending 101 workshops, at Nottingham Hackspace and Meshed Media
Enter the Arena, with BARG at mac
Taste the Game, with BARG at mac
The Bloop/ Sonar Goggles, with Hide&Seek at Warwick Arts Centre and National Theatre
Location Aware, with Radiator
Market Pongs I, II or III, with BARG
Theremin Day workshops, with Mr Underwood and fizzPOP
Improbable Machine, with fizzPOP at The Lombard Method
Useless Machine workshop, with fizzPOP
Uncertain Eastside Walk and Talk event
fizzPOP Howduino, with fizzPOP, Howduino and Hello Digital
Invigilator: Malvern, with Paul Conneally and MECA
Person, Panther, Porcupine at Mozcamp
Emergent Game, with BARG at The Lamp Tavern and with Hide&Seek at the Royal Festival Hall
w i d e o p e n s p a c e, with BARG
fizzPOP hacksessions, any of them between April 2009 and October 2010
BARGmeets and events between January 2009 and October 2010

Looking at all those links, I guess there’s quite a large secondary audience consuming my work online, too!

If you add your testimonial to the comments below I can link to this page in my application, but if you’d prefer to contact me privately, you can do so via the contact form.

Thank you for taking part.

People in; slightly different people out

Museums as experience machines

So far my 2010 has been very focussed on schools and learning as I first spent a week responding to the second wave of Creative Partnership calls for this academic year and then attending interviews as a result.

Roughly half of the interviews I am invited to involve having to deliver a short activity (10-20 minutes) to a small group of the children. Considering my whole approach to projects is based on collaboration and a particular process aimed at responding to each individual context, it’s quite strange to find myself being judged on solo delivery of something workshoppy to a group I’ve not had any previous contact with!

I’d like to think that with my cross-disciplinary background one of my main selling points is that with pupil-led projects I’m pretty well equipped to be able to bring in practical skills that relate to wherever we end up. This too makes it tricky to decide on just one activity to represent me, because I’m not working from a starting point of offering a particular medium in response to a brief. Again all about the process.

Anyhoo, irony of the situation aside, these activities can be very interesting in their own right.

On Monday I was in a school that was looking for someone to help facilitate Year 5 (9-10 years old) in designing and making their “Museum of Water”. I was really interested in this call because of the way it had been presented as very pupil-led and also because, through my work with pervasive games and hackerspaces, I’ve been involved in various conversations coming from museum professionals that resonate strongly with those of schools. We all want meaningful interactions.

15 minutes isn’t really enough time for introductions and then anything much in the way of making, so I decided to aim for something much more feasible …like a paradigm shift!

I wanted the school to see their museum-to-be not as a collection of objects, or of documentation of learning objectives, but as a process. People go into the museum and the museum has some sort of effect on them such that the people leaving the museum are slightly different to when they went in. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I started the session in my favourite manner – by getting things wrong.

Hi, my name’s Nikki and I do all sorts of creative stuff. I’m here because I saw your advert for someone to help you make a Museum of Water.

Well, I thought that was really very easy, so I just went ahead and made it for you. [places 2 litre lemonade bottle partially filled with water on table]

Can I have my £3000, please?


Oh, hang on!

[Places bottle on top of cardboard box pedestal]

[Silence accompanied by glances]

What’s wrong? Can I have my money please?

From this starting point, we were able to have a conversation where the pupils explained to me that, even if I labelled the water, just to have a bottle of water on display wasn’t good enough – they wanted a museum that was interactive and taught people interesting things. They weren’t very impressed with my offering at all.

My next move was to invite everyone down to the other end of the room where I had cleared some floorspace. Within the context of what they had just told me, I introduced the idea that I wanted them to think of their museum as an experience machine. I wasn’t interested in what was inside it right now, but I wanted to think of who went in, and what we wanted them to be like when they left.

Quick profiles of incoming and outgoing museum visitors

Quick profiles of incoming and outgoing museum visitors

Two of the children lay down on some large pieces of paper and struck appropriate poses whilst we drew around them. First of all we gathered around the outgoing visitor and noted and sketched our thoughts about what we wanted people to be doing and feeling after visiting our museum. I was really impressed at the contributions made in what I think was less than 5 minutes.

At one point I announced I was going to write down the obvious and added “happy”. This triggered a conversation about whether we would ever want people to leave the museum feeling sad. Yes they said: there were some very serious things relating to the topic of water and they might want people to be moved by these. When I asked for an example, one boy said that sometimes people drown in water. We agreed it would be important to teach people how to be safe.

With very little time left, we quickly added some thoughts to the picture of the incoming visitor. These were very illuminating in terms of how they perceived museums. Or how they thought museums were perceived – anyway, a very stark difference to the very positive picture they had painted in the previous two activities!

And that was the end of the session ..or it was supposed to be: it took a bit of effort to get the children to stop adding to the picture!

A few pupils helped me take photos of the drawings before I departed (I left the originals with the school – along with the bottle of water, for which I kindly waived the £3000 fee). Below is a slideshow of some of the images…

They’ve set themselves some very high standards in light of what appears to be a somewhat challenging target audience – I hope they can realise them.

19 steps to creating good, engaging experiences for museum and gallery visitors

On Monday, Public Historian made a request:

Can someone recommend (or, oh my, “curate”) the most awesome/vital/important things to come out of #museumnext? Too much information.http://twitter.com/publichistorian/status/5180816482

On Tuesday, @MuseumNext asked a question:

Does the Cathedral and the Bazaar apply to museums? – http://bit.ly/AkIgzhttp://twitter.com/MuseumNext/status/5196698213

The wikipedia article that @MuseumNext links to includes a list of 19 steps to creating good open source software. My response to this was that I was excited by the prospect of a similar list for open museums.

We rattled off 19 steps that, for the most part, swapped in museum terminology for the software design terms. When I first started writing this post on Tuesday afternoon, it was with the intention of digging a bit deeper to check that what we had here wasn’t just some diverting wordplay. I thought I’d supplement each step with references to things that were discussed at the MuseumNext event and it would nicely serve as a redux for Suzanne and others who weren’t able to attend.

Anyway, it didn’t quite work out like that. We really did cover a lot of stuff at the event and most of it was brainstorming in small groups – so even the attendees only have a small part of the overall picture of what happened there.

I gave up on this post for a bit, but I’ve not managed to bring myself to delete it. The thing is, these steps are just too relevant to my work and I feel I need them in the system (equivalent of pinning them up on the wall by a desk) as a reminder as to what’s important for a meaningful participatory approach. So, I’m going to press the publish button after all…

Apologies to Suzanne that this isn’t the nice summary we had both hoped for, but also an invitation for people to chip in with their thoughts. Maybe we can yet use these 19 steps as a framework about which to curate awesome/vital/important things. The comments are yours…

1. Every good project starts by scratching an individual’s personal itch.

Over the day and a half of MuseumNext I met a lot of people who are very passionate about a whole range of different things. We know this is the driving force behind good projects.

We also saw examples of projects that scratched itchy participants: for example Advice: Give it, Get it, Flip it, Fuck it and the Living Library. Maybe a combination of the two is the driving force behind great projects?

2. Good curators know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).

@MuseumNext included the caveat “works if you say everyone is a curator”.

I’m going to reference the original essay “it’s almost always easier to start from a good partial solution than from nothing at all.”

After Nina‘s presentation on the Friday morning, someone asked where was a good place to find out more about awesome projects – Nina’s blog being an obvious place to start.

I’ve done nothing much more than dip my toes into the world of museum/exhibition design, but I’m aware of a number of people in that area blogging and reporting back on inspiring projects. There also needs to be a place where we can celebrate and openly discuss our failures too (there may be such a place already, either online, or in the form of face-to-face exchanges such as MuseumNext) so we can learn from our, and others’, mistakes. I tried to do this with my How to Wow series of posts and I know it’s not necessarily easy, but it reaps its rewards later down the line.

In our group discussing the Exhibition Gaming wild idea, we kept coming back to the belief that institutions starting to work with games-based projects should think in terms of a programme of games-based projects to give the institution an opportunity to learn and develop.

We also commented that our sessions had generated a lot of questions and that it would be unrealistic to try and answer them all in one project. Choose a few key questions, design for those, then incorporate the successes into the next project.

3. Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.

Again, from the text of the original essay: “starting over with the right idea is usually more effective than trying to salvage a mess”. [reference]

I’m using the work “projects” rather than “exhibitions”. “Project” seems to imply more of an evolutional development to me. Maybe there’s an exhibition along the way (I’m resisting saying “at the end”)? Maybe that exhibition has changed form a couple of times?

4. If you have the right attitude, interesting problems will find you.

How often do the audience get to nominate the project?

5. When you lose interest in a project, your last duty to it is to hand it off to a competent successor.

I’m curious. How long do museum projects last for? Long enough to sometimes need to find a successor for them?

I also can’t help but think that there’s something in the notion that curators are handing over a participatory project to the audience and that a) the audience/participants should therefore be fully equipped with the skills and resources to get the most from the project and b) the curator should see themselves as only being the first in a line of custodians.

Throughout the MuseumNext event there seemed to me to be a recurring theme of institutions having to learn how to relinquish control.

6. Treating your participants as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid project improvement and effective debugging.

I particularly like participants-as-co-developers as a method of giving co-ownership to the project.

7. Release early, release often. And listen to your participants.

This, to me, implies testing. In my role as game designer, that equals play-testing. I’m learning to play-test components, rather than build it up into a nearly finished whole before I test it. Testing unrefined bits of things makes it easier to throw stuff out. See the section of the “Cooperation and Engagement: What can board games teach us?” video below from about 8 minutes in for an example:

“If you try to polish a prototype too early, you become married to it, and you don’t want to make changes…”

8. Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.

This reminds me of tales told by Alternate Reality Game designers who spend ages devising the most fiendish puzzles imaginable, only to watch as the players’ hive mind strips it bare in 20 minutes!

9. Smart platforms and dumb content works a lot better than the other way around.

The original “smart data structures and dumb code works a lot better than the other way around” reminded me of Nina’s diagrams from her presentation:

Institution as content provider ...or as platform provider?

Institution as content provider ...or as platform provider?

10. If you treat your participants as if they’re your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.
11. The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your participants. Sometimes the latter is better.

I’m not sure I can add anything more to those two. Maybe the typewriter for comments is a nice illustration of valuing your participants.

12. Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.


13. Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.

Can you substitute the word “communication” for “design”? What are the implications for that?

14. Any tool should be useful in the expected way, but a truly great tool lends itself to uses you never expected.

This is how smart platforms enable users to steer around dumb content.

It’s also one of the key reasons that I work in the way that I do – it’s so much more interesting to set something in motion and then allow participants to take it somewhere you never dreamed of. Be flexible and responsive when this happens.

15. When designing entry points to the project/exhibition, make it only as difficult as it needs to be. Never throw away feedback

(Original: When writing gateway software of any kind, take pains to disturb the data stream as little as possible—and never throw away information unless the recipient forces you to!)

I used some creative license in interpreting this one – mostly riffing off the idea of gateways…
In our games group we talked a bit about providing multiple entry points into a project. Nina also talked about offering multiple engagement points and not focusing solely on creators.

Rather than saying to make entry points as easy as possible though, I think there are cases for providing either a grain of sand to needle at what might otherwise be a no-thought-required entry (fairly literal example, the Would you go to Mars doorway to the Facing Mars exhibition), or to make entry a challenge or a thrill (Ref: Another Exclusivity Paradox: Secret Gardens, Hidden Museums). Thus making entry points just difficult enough and no harder than that.

16. When your institution’s/sector’s language is impenetrable to your audience, change your language. However, don’t patronise.

I’m mostly thinking of a comment made by someone in our group who flagged up that there was often a language barrier between institutions and that terms could have very different meanings to different organisations. I might also be thinking of grumblings in response to this post about the Ashmolean in Oxford.

17. Leave secrets to be discovered for those willing to search for them. Reward curiosity.

Particularly with reference to games and not having everything immediately apparent after the first glance, but also the Another Exclusivity Paradox: Secret Gardens, Hidden Museums mentioned above.

18. To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.

Motivation, motivation, motivation.

19. Provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the participants/audience, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.

Use the communications medium that’s most natural to your intended audience.

Have you got anything more you’d like to add? What thoughts do these spark off for you?

MuseumNext: wild ideas about participation

I’ve just got back from Newcastle and the rather marvellous MuseumNext event led by Nina Simon and Jim Richardson:

a two day workshop event … for museum professionals who are interested in innovative new ways to energize audiences and create more engaging experiences for museum and gallery visitors.

Hardly any surprise then that the introductory getting to know you sessions took place amongst the Great North Museum‘s Doing it for the Kids exhibit from [re] design.

We made sock aliens; constructed quilt panels from Action man clothes; killed virtual spiders; and made Frisbees out of milk bottles (of the plastic variety).

It wasn’t long though before we were down to the serious business of the 7 Wild Ideas that had been submitted to the conference as the case-studies we would work on.

I joined the Exhibition Gaming team in response to Daniela Bauer’s vision of museum visitors being pawns in a game. Unlike some of the other Wild Ideas that were very much linked to specific contexts faced by particular institutions, Daniela was approaching this as a Psychology researcher and so our discussion was in general terms rather than attached to a particular location or design brief.

That didn’t stop it from being very in-depth though.

I first came across some of the awesome participatory work being done by museums via people from the sector involved in games such as Superstruct and Signtific Lab. Although I’ve as yet had no direct experience of working with museums, the discussions I’m reading coming from this direction have definitely inspired and influenced my thinking regarding participation. I therefore attended MuseumNext expecting to be out of place – in a good way – and expecting to learn loads.

I was and I did! Hurrah!

I’m fairly sure we didn’t answer any of Daniela’s initial questions, but in exploring them we came up with about 20 new questions. These questions were quite wide-ranging, but also with a significant amount of overlap. We were originally trying to work towards a framework for designing a museum-based game, but I think what we may have ended up with was more like a framework for institutions to start putting together a design brief for a potential game.

Collaboratively-made sock alien

Collaboratively-made sock alien

The second day of MuseumNext started off with a very interesting presentation from Nina about participatory museums, after which we had two un-conference sessions. Incentivised by the prospect of being able to take a sock alien home (he needs a name, btw) I had offered to run a practical Lost Sport of Olympia session.

Although the people in our Wild Idea group had some great ideas about doing interesting stuff in interesting places, not many of them seemed to have had any experience of being on the receiving, playing end of such things. I thought the best thing I could offer was to give them a chance to actually feel what it’s like to be in a group of strangers doing something a bit odd in a public place. I asked for chalk and permission to temporarily deface the forecourt of the Centre for Life and got both.

So, I missed the first of the un-conference sessions because I was outside figuring out how to draw a couple of labyrinths without the usual marked-out length of string. Fortunately the ground was paved with bricks so I was able to use a combination of counting them and using my shoes to measure out radii.

It was well worth the effort – a good group of people decided to brave both the weather and the public gaze to come outside and play for the second un-conference session.

Action shot of me explaining how it works (photo from MuseumNext on Flickr)

Action shot of me explaining how it works (photo from MuseumNext on Flickr)

A brave volunteer gives it a go. (Photo from MuseumNext on Flickr)

A brave volunteer gives it a go (photo from MuseumNext on Flickr)

Things get competitive as we split up into two teams. (Photo from MuseumNext on Flickr)

Things get competitive as we split up into two teams. (Photo from MuseumNext on Flickr)

After the un-conference sessions wrapped up, we reconvened our Wild Idea groups. Daniela had identified three parties that she wanted to investigate their motivations for getting involved in museum gaming: the institution, the audience and the urban gamers (there was a little confusion over this, but I think she meant the game designers, rather than players already in pervasive/urban gaming communities). It was really useful to examine these three groups and see where their motivations overlapped and where they differed.

After that we returned to our big list of questions and, working in threes, we tried to answer a few each. Again, I learned loads from this.

I’ve been working with game mechanics both in my own work (for example, Emergent Game and the Bournville scavenger hunt) and also through BARG for a year or two now, and I’m keen to start applying some of my skills to some issue-led contexts. I want problems to try and address!

I gained a lot through speaking with museum (and psychology!) professionals of all sorts and it has really helped me to better appreciate the sorts of issues institutions might be trying to address through the use of games and playful experiences. Also what the main concerns they may have in doing this and where likely pitfalls may be.

A massive thank you to all the MuseumNext team and all the participants: I have a feeling that the effects of this one will be reverberating around for quite some time to come.


Well, I’m feeling like a proper 4649 veteran now, but it’s actually only 3 weeks today that I was first invited to join Kissa Hanare‘s project!

Taking part has raised all sorts of interesting questions: not least about my own lack of political awareness of what’s going on in my own country. I haven’t got anywhere close to answering those, but in the meantime I wanted to note down a few thoughts about my photographic contribution.

going for the chat jugular

In the introductory post I challenged you, dear reader, to take some images of the 4649 stickers that would stimulate a chat. Having already challenged myself to do likewise I had previously gone into Birmingham’s city centre and headed straight for two obviously very charged locations: the Hall of Memory and the Peace Gardens.

Yikes! Red poppies everywhere! Giant red poppies. hmmmm, not sure what I feel about that, think it’s possibly crossed a line somewhere…. (Oh, and by the way, Happy Christmas Birmingham)

Happy Christmas Birmingham

Heading off somewhere equally disturbing in the opposite direction, I also suddenly became aware of how noble and, well, perfect the statues around the Hall of Memory are.


What exactly are we saying here?

… and how do I want to use the stickers to respond to it?

After a fairly predictable set of images involving statues and red telephone boxes I headed off down past the Mailbox towards the Peace Gardens – a distant memory from first-uni days and the number 44 bus up from the Vale.

public notice

This is when I started getting a bit more creative and started incorporating parts of existing signage into my images. Sod possible language barriers, this was much more interesting. I also loved the ambiguity that came from me not actually knowing what the text on the stickers says, or in what tone it says it.

What happens to 九条死守夜露四苦 when you put it next to a sign that says “For how long?”?

Anyway, I felt using the stickers to react to more subtle details in the city landscape was a lot more interesting.

Article 9999-999


I probably spent about an hour and a half taking photos and have whittled the results down to 39 which I’ve uploaded to a Flicker set.

Which ones are most successful and why? (How do you judge success for something like this?)

meanranch, while at the back…

down the pub

I just want to say a big thankyou to everyone who responded to the mailout and have requested stickers either from myself or directly from Hanare.

There’s not much time left before the Monday-night event, but you can still print off a few if you’d like to contribute.

Of the original batch of stickers Hanare gave me I’ve given away 11 to people who wanted to join in and I’m now left with just one. Where should I put it? Should I go for a good photo, should I stick it somewhere it’ll get left up for a while, or should I seek out somewhere where it’s likely to be seen by people who can read the text?

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