Colony presentation at Pecha Kucha Coventry

Here’s a words-and-pictures version of the presentation I did for Pecha Kucha Coventry on the 30th of September…

~~~~~

2010. I’m working with GPS data and walking around Birmingham, on the cusp of starting to try and weave together thoughts about public space, DIY tech, playfulness and the ways in which combining these can change our relationships with the places where we live.

By November I’m starting to get the headpictures – the fleeting images of a half-seen thing that compel you to make the thing so that you can get the rest of the detail.

In my mind’s eye I could see small groups of people carrying creatures that would give them some sort of extended awareness of the built environment around them. I wanted to know how this group would affect – and be affected by – the city as it moved through it.

This project became Colony, And this is a whistlestop tour of what happened next…

I wanted the communication between the person and the creature to mainly be through touch. We’re so used to interacting with things through screens, but I wanted to leave sight free for everything else in the world, not looking down at this thing.

The first prototype had a long contact interface across the person’s body.

Here’s an abridged description from Holly Gramazio:

It has half a dozen different types of vibration (a central shake, for example, and a long ripple that moves from the narrowest end of the bundle to the widest).

It decides when to vibrate – and what sort of vibration to make – entirely at random.

The first thing we noticed was that was that holding the bundle gives you an immense feeling of entitlement.

It’s a cross between a Magic 8 Ball, a personality quiz, a pet, and an emperor.

Out of that first proof of concept we saw how readily people would invest the random vibrations with personality and intent. It also gave us permission to explore the secret corners of Birmingham.

The next iteration had vibrations that were linked to the built-up-ness of the immediate surroundings – this led us into more corners and alleyways.

What we also 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.

We all agreed there was something very nice in the soft, warm, light, secretive cuddliness of the creatures.

So there was really only one direction to go in next!

Big, heavy and cumbersome, I made three of these wooden drums that tapped at different intensities depending on whether you were out in the open or not.

With consumer electronics constantly striving for smaller and sleeker, it was interesting to see the effects of a mobile device you have to work hard at. Really hard at.

The residency those were made through also presented some chewy problems regarding how to exhibit these objects. I usually use galleries as hubs for activity, so exhibiting actual things isn’t something I do a lot of.

When I see the objects as being only half of the constructed assemblage, how do I usefully represent them after the experience and when the person half is not there?

Another residency. This time with a few days to think a bit about the Colony as linked individuals.

I did some experiments with these little radio units and playing around a bit in carparks at night to find out when they stop being able to communicate with each other.

Later, I built on this to make Landscape-reactive sashes. Here the members of the proto-colony are wearing these yellow sashes that have a radio and a vibration motor in them. There’s a central node who is analysing the GPS data and sending out the vibration instructions to all the sashes.

Become separated from the group and your sash goes still.

With Drift, I wanted to find out if it was possible to ‘read’ – to interpret – the vibrations from the sashes.

Given a choice of 3 possible broadcasters – these magnificent creatures – could you deduce which one it was from thinking about the different places where they were stood?

Last year the heavy objects came out again. This is David and Sam from the wonderful If Wet… walking them around rural Worcestershire after I challenged them to use them as musical instruments.

All three of us walked for something like an hour, and I’m fairly sure they saw them more as instruments of torture rather than as a way of sonifying the landscape.

Then I was invited to present a workshop as part of the Global Conference On Mobility Futures at Lancaster University. These are the sashes being walked around a drizzly campus.

Mobilities Studies is a youngish area of research that explores the movement of people, ideas and things, as well as the broader social implications of those movements.

Although the weather was uninspiring I’m getting a lot out of Mobilities Studies as a way of thinking about my work.

This Summer I got an Arts Council grant and finally a chance to dedicate a bigger chunk of time to developing the creatures. Priorities were 1) investigating how to design the bodies so they could communicate the creature’s emotional state, and 2) building in an awareness of the Colony as a whole.

The latter was beyond my skills, so I delegated that to Tarim, who actually knows how to do computer programming. The former started here with bits of string, post-it notes and dissecting pushpuppets for scientific purposes.

The next step was a heartbeat inside cardboard boxes. Even that had the power to make people feel empathy towards the thing and curiosity towards their surroundings.

Over a total of about 35 days we’ve gone from that, to 3 of these.

I spent 9 days working with Sarah Barnes at the laser cutting facility at UWE. Here we built many, many iterations of hearts and spines and brackets and levers.

With physical manifestations to play with, we could figure out the mechanics and also the intricacies of how it all related back to the human body in motion.

We were confident we were onto a winner with this design, and this was confirmed when we put the creatures into the arms of a small group of playtesters.

Humans of course being the part of the system that it’s hardest to design for.

I’m starting to understand about how to manage the getting-to-know-eachother stage where empathy is formed, the Colony is bonded and a shared language is developed.

I was hoping the Colony would provide something of a spectacle, making other people nearby curious about what was going on. I wasn’t prepared for quite how many people came up to us and wanted to touch, wear and talk about the creatures.

I love that these things make a space for stranger: stranger interactions.

And then there was all the unexpected stuff too: one woman spent ages drawing with one of the creatures by dragging it around by one end.

We can also confirm they’re unexpectedly good at skateboarding and that they do not like being dangled over deep water.

I think it’s important for people to have a framework for sitting down and sharing their stories and experiences after walking with these things. I’ve also been working with David Haylock to map the data collected by the creatures, so we have a visual reference for when different things happened and a starting point for thinking about why they happened.

~~~~~

I didn’t really have a snappy closing line, so instead I invited the evening’s organiser, Janet, to come up and meet the critter I’d bought with me

(re)form follows function – presentation at PKN Coventry

If you’ve been anywhere within earshot of me for the last couple of weeks you’ll know that I’m currently on a placement with the Bikes and Bloomers research group at Goldsmiths, and very excited I am about it too.

I’m particularly excited about their emphasis on the use of stuff to understand stuff, and also how we can get messy and inventive in our communication of our new understandings.

It was in this spirit that I gave this presentation for Pecha Kucha Night, Coventry.

Unfortunately their usual videographer was unable to make it to the event, so this is the footage I got from my compact camera propped up on a makeshift tripod made from an empty glass and some mobile devices… Exposure and sound are suboptimal, but I’ve added captions which you can switch on (recommended), by clicking on the [CC] button. Full screen’s probably also a good idea.

(re)form follows function from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

29 Not-Quite-Random Walks Around Tokyo

I’ve been a bit slow in posting this one, but the audio and slides of the talk I did for Pecha Kucha Night Coventry in October has been put on the main PK website:

The explosion during slide 13 is courtesy of the party poppers left behind by an earlier speaker, Laura Elliot!

Follow @PKN_Coventry on Twitter to keep up-to-date with what’s happening with future events.

Coming up: Yamanote Stories at Pecha Kucha Coventry

Tomorrow I’m one of the presenters at Pecha Kucha Night Coventry, this time in turn part of the Japanese Cultural Festival being run by The Tin Music and Arts.

This means entry is free and there’s karaoke afterwards should you so fancy it!

Using an edited map to navigate around Tokyo

I thought the Japanese theme would be a good excuse to look again at a project I did back in 2006: Sites of Potentiality Guidebooks: Yamanote Line. 29 not-quite-random walks in Tokyo looking for Interesting Things.

PKNCov regulars may remember the Invite Boredom presentation Paul Conneally talked about a year or so ago:

Pecha Kucha Coventry | Vol 8 | Paul Coneally from MINDRIOT PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

This is very much a precursor to the Invigilator project and probably sets the scene for most of my practice since then!

See you at the Coal Vaults at 7pm.

Own This City – Pecha Kucha Night, Coventry

Last night I gave my first Pecha Kucha presentation at the lovely PK Coventry.

I’ve been meaning to do something like this for some time, as one of the aims I’ve set myself for this year is to do more public speaking. This is in order to give myself more practice at articulating the ideas around my work.

Here are the resulting slides and words for “Own This City”, in which I give an overview of some of the observations, ponderings and questions feeding into my newly-commenced project, Colony.

Own This City

Own This City is a section title I’ve shamelessly stolen from a section of New York Time Out, because I think it’s important.

Ownership towards – rather than over – spaces is part of a wider spectrum of interactions between people and place that I’m thinking about a lot at the moment, as I develop a new project called Colony.

Shinagawa Station by mdid on Flickr

Tokyo: population 36 million, and, it seems each of those people desperate to be somewhere different.

Here more than anywhere I’m aware of the city being just a backdrop to that perpetual process of being neither here nor there.

It’s like the background in a platform game – it moves as you move, but it’s not somewhere you will ever touch or be touched by.

Man on bench by Jay Morrison on Flickr

So, to what extent are we blinkered as we move around in our everyday life?
Maybe the first step towards owning our city is to stop and to be aware of it?
To slow down.
To simply spend time with a place.
To linger,
To be present.

17th Street Plaza opening by Jamison Wieser on Flickr

These people sit in a plaza made from space reclaimed back from the traffic.

I look at this photo and I wonder what sort of sense of ownership they are feeling after having fought for and won back this territory?

I wonder if observation of the city is enough, or does ownership also require being proactive?

As for my actions, I suspect they are more loan this city than own this city: temporary occupations. Passing moments that leave little or no trace on the city itself.

Within my practice I try to affect people’s perceptions of space, which is a slightly different thing to altering the space itself, but it can be just as vivid.

Recently I’ve been learning from the world of pervasive games.

I’ve learned a lot about the power of a silly hat, the power of brief moments of spectacle, the power of conspiracy and the power of doing daft things in public places.

I learned the thrill of knowing the secret life of a place…

…of knowing that these market stalls are really a wiff waff stadium

I learned that familiar things in unexpected places can make people pause and that these pauses can be turned into many different things.

I learned that after the running around and the laughter, serious conversations happen in the pub. Where can you pong? Where would you hide a stash of bats for those in the know?


The thing is, once you start playing in public places, you become aware of how much of the city is only pretending to be yours.

In such a case, I tend towards subversion and a little bit of risk.

Some of the people in this photo have dared to come to this shopping mall with no intention whatsoever of buying anything.

When Nicky Getgood reported there were half a dozen different ballhead stickers, and that there might only be one place in which you could find all of them together, suddenly we were seeing the little blighters everywhere!

Having a task or a framework radically pulls different elements of your surroundings in and out of focus.

Chaser Country by Kevan on Flickr

Kevan has had a slight, irrational fear of the steps at the back of the Royal Albert Hall, ever since he first encountered them during a chase game.

This is where it starts to get very interesting for me. The play may only be fleeting in terms of its presence on the streets, but its effects and resonances can stay with you for a long, long time

I first became aware of this whilst on a train about here. The wasteland in front is where we had once spent the afternoon playing and sharing a picnic. One afternoon.

This time though it was hosting men in hi-vis and some sort of massive drilling rig! It was a real gut-churning moment of “But it’s ours! They can’t do that! ”

This got me thinking and I started compiling a map of all the places around Birmingham that I now feel I have some sort of ownership towards.

Actually, I got a bit carried away with some of these areas – this large one bounded in red, and the one inside it bounded in yellow. They should really just be a series of perimeters.

Here are the bits I actually claim as mine, and I claim them not through spectacle or subversion, but through quietly and mindfully walking the same journeys over and over again.

Through this process I am starting to gain an affinity for what are, frankly, pretty grotty bits of the city.

These grotty bits are also regeneration areas and I place myself within them as a sort of witness to change.

As I walk on a daily basis, changes on a micro scale reveal themselves:

Shifts in litter, new additions of graffiti, fresh coats of paint.

The same space can get occupied by construction workers, emo kids and office staff at different times of the day.

As I repeat the walks on an annual basis, changes on a macro scale are revealed as buildings are demolished, carparks assembled and the other type of ownership changes hands.

These are the big changes that have a habit of being made by stealth:
the ones where you can never quite remember what was there before…

While I walk, I gather data that describes the landscape. In these drawings short lines indicate open space and longer lines indicate lumps of stuff.

Over the years I hope to capture something of the changes in the fabric of the city.
But when I’m walking I cannot pause to investigate or chat. It’s a solitary, introspective process.

This is where I find myself now: at an intersection wanting to weave several threads together.

For Colony, I want to transform the process that I use to make those drawings into a real-time shared experience. I want the data to manifest itself as you walk through the city.

To do this, I’m having to make the move from closed-box electronics, to building the darn things myself – because I want to own my data in much the same way that I want to own my city.

I want to seed feelings of empathy amongst the participants, so the technology will eventually be housed within what will be some sort of landscape-aware organism that is carried around.

Maybe this organism does not like open spaces. Or maybe it starts to writhe around if it feels too enclosed.

A colony of these creatures will be transported by foot across the city. How will their guardians negotiate the different pushes and pulls acting on them?

  • Empathy
  • Stares
  • Camaraderie
  • Flocking
  • and the logistics of getting from A to B?

More questions!

How do these factors combine to affect how people will perceive the city in order to be able to navigate it?

What will be shifted into focus?

Will any of these effects be long-lasting?

What sort of desires will be projected onto the creatures,
and what sort of passport will these provide for passing into and maybe owning new parts of the city?

~~~

Many thanks to Janet, the gang and the other speakers for a really excellent evening and a great atmosphere.

Pecha Kucha presentation coming up…

I’ll be presenting at the Coventry Pecha Kucha night coming up on the 10th of May (tickets available here).

I want to explore themes of affiliation with place; of different ways (relating to my practice) that feelings of responsibility, empathy, custodianship and connectedness can be fostered.

With the early form of a presentation entitled “Own This City” in mind, I took these two photos yesterday:

Let’s see if they make the final cut of 20 slides…



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