Reflections on Communicating Research

A presentation I gave on Friday as part of the How to Play Knowledge conference run by PhD candidates at the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media at Birmingham City University.

…a purpose-made forum for reflections on how to communicate research. To communicate is an art and every communication is a performance, so how to play knowledge?
Play as reproduction, play as performance, play as production, play as… You tell us!

Kene Kelly Ochonogor shared this photo of me in action:

Photo: Kene Kelly Ochonogor

Photo: Kene Kelly Ochonogor

Rather than talking about one particular project, I wanted to use my practice as a jumping off point for different thoughts, observations and provocations, hopefully offering a few things for the attendees to chew on within their own practices.

Here’s the approximate text of what I said, along with my slides – you can click on these for larger versions – and some relevant links.

Many thanks to Alberto and the pgr-studo for the invitation!

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Hello, my name’s Nikki

I was an art student at BCU before it was BCU, and I’ve been working as an artist for the last 11 years.

In that time I’ve done various things; here’s a selection to give you a flavour of my practice

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I did a series of not-quite random walks around Tokyo by following this edited map from each of the 29 stations of the Yamanote railway line. I tried to find the location the map showed and then I identified and documented the thing of interest at the end of each of the 29 walks.

http://npugh.co.uk/blog/29_not-quite-random_walks_around_tokyo/

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I’ve led walking and cycling guided tours. I like how travelling by foot or by bike slows things down. I like how you become very definitely placed into an environment and into your senses.

http://npugh.co.uk/tag/a_road_trip_for_longbridge/
http://bikesandbloomers.com/drafting-routes/
http://npugh.co.uk/blog/eastside_walk_and_talk_event_sunday_18th_october-2/

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I made some large, wooden, tapping tubes that beat faster or slower depending on the space you carry them through. I invited people to carry them around the city centre to find out what difference that would make to how they experienced that space.

http://npugh.co.uk/tag/and_miles_to_go_before_i_sleep/

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Working with Hannah Nicklin, we brought people up on to the top deck of a car park in the Jewellery Quarter at night, where they listened to a lump of clay telling them stories about the lives playing out in the city around them.

http://npugh.co.uk/blog/dust/
http://www.hannahnicklin.com/2011/12/what-was-dust/

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I togged up some ramblers with some landscape-reactive sashes and we walked, and walked, and walked…

http://npugh.co.uk/blog/walk_with_landscape-reactive_sashes_gretton_brookfield_plantation_and_rockingham/

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I cycled between Birmingham and York. Back in Birmingham, a sculpture I had made moved in response to how much effort I was having to put in at the other end of the connection.

http://npugh.co.uk/tag/ride_birmingham_-_york/

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I worked in a team that allowed visitors to project graffiti onto paintings in BM&AG. We did this so we could ask questions about behaviour, power and authorship in weighty cultural institutions.

http://npugh.co.uk/tag/inkvisible/
http://wearecaper.com/portfolio/kings-cultural-institute-creative-labs/
http://www.kcl.ac.uk/cultural/culturalinstitute/showcase/current/kei/artsdigital/inkvisible.aspx

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And one of my favourites was this monkey that would only come out and swing on its trapeze if everyone in the room stood still for 20 seconds. Except I didn’t tell people that’s what they had to do. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing to see people experimenting and passing on guesses and knowledge across the weekend.

Also, it turned out that asking a group of people to stand still for 20 seconds – and at the same time – is really, really hard!

http://npugh.co.uk/blog/trapeze_monkey/

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I also work to develop the ecosystem that these sorts of projects sit within. As part of a collective called Many & Varied, a few weeks ago we ran a conference called Bees in a Tin.

Here the call was for interesting people making unique interfaces for the world around them. We’re also running a series of monthly Salons to support practitioners – you can’t go to the first one, because it’s this afternoon, but if you feel like a bit of an outsider or an inbetweener, check them out and get involved.

As you may be able to tell, I don’t really have a convenient label I can use for myself when people ask me what I do. I have to illustrate it.

So I’ve developed this…

https://twitter.com/ManyVaried
http://manyandvaried.org.uk/projects/bees2015/
http://manyandvaried.org.uk/tag/bees_in_a_tin_2015/http://manyandvaried.org.uk/projects/salons_2015/

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This is what I usually use to communicate the territory that I’m exploring:
the intersection of people, place, playfulness and technology.

I’m interested in how we interact with the things around us – mostly physical spaces, but I also include social landscapes within that.

A quick definition:
Physical computing is the use of software and hardware that senses – and responds to – the physical world. Sometimes it makes stuff happen back out in the physical world too.

In recent years I’ve been using objects that include elements of physical computing.

I speak about these in terms of being ‘place interfaces’. Because, with these, I’m thinking about the interaction between the object and the person using it, as well as the interaction between the object and person combined and the space around them together.

The Venn diagram’s a really effective way of quickly and intuitively getting people understanding the sort of area I’m exploring.

At least, that’s what I think it does!

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Which is probably as good a time as any to invoke this xkcd cartoon…

The first two rows in the sequence are people failing to warn other people about big holes in the ground.

They fall in.

However, in the third row the guy in the beret recognises that the other one doesn’t understand, so he takes him by the hand and he shows him.

The accompanying text says “Anyone who says that they’re great at communicating but ‘people are bad at listening’ is confused about how communication works.”

Communication is a dance for two, right?

https://xkcd.com/1028/

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Rewind.

Before I studied art, I studied Materials Engineering.

I don’t view them as being wildly different – in fact I describe them both as “asking questions about the world around me, doing experiments to find out and then communicating the results”.

It’s easy to forget the two-ness of effective communication though, isn’t it?

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Hello, my name’s Nikki.

I was an art student at BCU before it was BCU, and have been working as an artist for the last 11 years.

Who are you guys?

It’s a bit weird when you think about it, isn’t it? I’ve prepped this whole thing about communicating, but I don’t even know who it is that I’m talking to, or why you’re here!

How often do we do that, and, is there a better way?

I’m going to talk for a bit longer and then there’s time for some conversation towards the end. I’m also around for a bit at lunch time before I go to the Salon I mentioned before – come and communicate with me!

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Hello, my name’s Nikki.

I was an art student at BCU before it was BCU, I’ve been working as an artist for the last 11 years …and I recently went back to uni again.

For the last 3 years I’ve been doing a part time MA because I wanted to investigate where my practice sits in relation to various bodies of research.

Doing the MA part time and whilst having an ongoing art practice means I’m coming at the concept of research from slightly conflicted insider and outsider positions at the same time.

This will almost certainly become apparent…

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Proper Research!
You know: capital P, capital R.

As well as using that “doing experiments to find out about the world” thing I mentioned earlier, I’ve described my work as being “enquiry-led” for a long time now.

But somehow, coming to see my work’s potential for being Proper Research has been quite a recent realisation.

This is partly because up until recently I hadn’t really been exposed to the idea that art could be a valid way of doing research. To illustrate this, just do a google image search for ‘research’.

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Science!

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It’s all science!

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And all science is blue

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and glassy!

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Sometimes it’s even the same glassy science, just rearranged slightly with a molecule photoshopped into the background!

Really?!

There’s evidently a lot more demand for stock photography of scientific research (or what we imagine scientific research might be) than there is for images of research through art.

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Here’s a picture of a cat to make you feel better.

So yes, art practice as research. I’m still figuring out what this might mean for me.

I’m reasonably comfortable with the doing-the-experimenting stage, and the observing-interesting-results stage, but I don’t think I yet do enough to claim the outcomes or the insights. So I don’t think I declare Proper Research to be achieved just yet.

But who decides what Proper Research is?

For those of us in Academia, we’re no doubt being conditioned to think of giving papers at conferences and of writing journal articles.

I’ve definitely found these things useful for absorbing the research of others and for getting a sense of how my work sits in relation to that.

…but this is a note to self to remind me to not accept that as the only option. It’s a construct of an established system, with established boundaries.

…but I’m always drawn to the edges of things and sometimes, if you push, they move…

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I have to confess I’ve not read a lot of theory in the past – largely because of either finding it completely impenetrable or it not interesting me.

Over the last couple of years though I’ve been hanging out with Sociologists and the Mobilities Studies gangs more and more, and that’s starting to change.

Mobilities Studies is another one of those Venn diagrams – Sociologists, Geographers and Artists, often working together, exploring the movement of people, things, ideas and data.

It’s a relatively new area of study, so the edges have not yet become fossilised, and through it I’ve struck a vein of writing from people challenging the status quo about how to conduct research, what constitutes research and what does or doesn’t get swept under the carpet when we present our research.

I like it!

You possibly won’t be surprised to hear I’m drawn to it because of the interdisciplinarity too. But these are really all just icing on the cake.

I like it because it speaks to things that I’m interested in.

As a result of this, I have been a lot more motivated to read books and articles; I have so many pdfs of articles I’ve downloaded that I want to read!

Because enthusiasm is important, isn’t it?

Let’s look at it this way though: if I can say I don’t want to engage with someone else’s work because I don’t want to, or because it doesn’t interest me, then I have to accept that other people can say the same about the things I’ve slaved over and put my heart and soul into.

Question:
How do we enthuse people so that they become a receptive audience?

(I don’t have an answer for that, by the way.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobilities

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However, I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks working on Kat Jungnickel’s Bikes and Bloomers project. Kat describes herself as a cycling sewing sociologist and that pretty much sums up the main elements of the project.

She’s researching the transformable garments some Victorian women designed so that they could strike a balance between strict social and dress codes, and safely riding a bicycle so they could benefit from the new freedoms that that offered.

She’s doing and communicating a lot of the research through examining some of the patents filed at the time and then making and wearing a collection of the garments.

http://bikesandbloomers.com
http://www.charlottebarnes.co.uk/140919bikesandbloomers
http://www.katjungnickel.com

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Here are the garments transformed into riding mode.

She talks about ‘entanglements’ between art-based methods and other practices that are not accountable to art – for example Sociology and Ethnography.

She talks about the struggle to have these ways of working recognised by the systems of academia.

But she also talks about their value for understanding the world in different ways and for communicating those insights to audiences.

I’ll post a load of links for you when I put this online, but for now, please take that as a call to action to consider the relationship between how you communicate your research and the methods you used to do the research itself in the first place.

How related are they? How related should they be?

http://transmissionsandentanglements.com
http://www.academia.edu/5704062/Methodological_Entanglements_in_the_Field_methods_transitions_and_transmissions
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1472586X.2014.887263?queryID=%24%7BresultBean.queryID%7D#.VZhonUIo-ZY

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This photo is taken from the sharing event. Note that it’s held at a bikey cafe rather than in an ivory tower at the university or in a gallery.

Here Kat and her team wore the garments they’d made and, in the character of the people who designed them, talked through the affordances of the various skirts, capes and bloomers and the contexts that they came out of.

I was only involved in the project for a short time, but I have spoken about that project to lots of different types of people and I’m always impressed by how easy it is to have meaty conversations with people about it.

There’s a way in for everyone, it seems.

Like bikes? Sorted.
Feminist? Yep.
Maker? Got that covered.
History buff? Look at these old photos we tracked down from the relatives.
Also, everyone likes a really good Victorian inventor story, right?!

Questions:
Could or should your research provide multiple entry points? Multiple ways for people to access it? Multiple ways for it to access people?

http://www.charlottebarnes.co.uk/140613bikesandbloomers

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I’m not very good at making art that gets hung up in galleries. For me galleries are more often than not hubs for activity that then leaks out into the surrounding outdoor spaces.

I use playtesting a lot – I gather groups of people together to try out prototypes at different stages of a project’s evolution. We try things out, I pay attention to the unexpected things that happen and these can then go on to steer the next steps in development.

More often than not galleries are, for me, where research takes place rather than being a place where a finished product is displayed.

Colony is a project I’ve been working on for 4 or 5 years now, and opening it up to playtester audiences is a nice way of invigorating the work. It also gives me lots of opportunities to try out different ways of explaining things and to home in on what the key message might be.

It’s a chance for me to practice the two-ness of my communication.

Also, If I’m getting faces like this when people first encounter the things I make, then I judge I’m on the right track with the enthusiasm thing!

http://npugh.co.uk/tag/colony/
http://npugh.co.uk/?s=playtesting

Can I have a volunteer, please?

Jerome Turner tweeted what happened next…

Photo: Jerome Turner

Photo: Jerome Turner

So this is one of the ‘critters’ from the Colony project. The plan is to make half a dozen or so of them and then they get carried through the city.

They make tangible the behaviour of different radio waves interacting with the built environment, and I’m interested in how this works as a sort of extended sense and how, in turn, carrying one of these and being part of the group affects how you navigate through the urban environment.

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But urban environments also contain people, as well as architecture.

One of the things that was really apparent from this playtest we did in Bristol is that lots of people felt compelled to come up and start a conversation or ask if they too could hold a critter too, or to have their photo taken with it.

This is going to be an interesting thing to have to work through. Do I design the experience to allow for these actions? Do I mediate the interest from these secondary audiences? Do I not allow for them at all and instruct the critter carriers to ignore them as they make their journey?

I think that’s a really interesting tension within the context of this conference. What happens when you have engaged, curious, benign audiences, but the timing’s just inconvenient?

Does anyone have any questions or requests for our volunteer? If so, now is the time!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/sets/72157647557546055

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I presented Colony last year at the Networked Urban Mobilities conference.

This involved having to flatpack one so it fit into my rucksack for the flight to Copenhagen, and also having to reassemble it at the other end.

I ‘performed’ the reassembly in the canteen to provide an opportunity for people to have a chance to start a conversation with me.

Yes a straight powerpoint would have been easier, but I work with bodies and experiences and spectacle and I’m prepared to put some effort in to convey those in ways beyond photographs.

That said, I’m increasingly being drawn into the world of academic papers and conferences. I get some value from doing this – and early signs are that it’s a two-way value – but it does highlight how outside of these systems I am at the same time.

Without an institution supporting me, delegate fees, travel and accommodation can be prohibitive.

How can I push at established conventions of convening in order to share the stories I want to share, with the people I’d like to share them with?

I would like to do a PhD at some point …I think… but not straight after finishing my Masters. So here I’m talking from the viewpoint of someone all too aware they’re about to have their library card taken away!

http://npugh.co.uk/blog/developing_colony_presentation_at_networked_urban_mobilities/
https://ruconf.ruc.dk/index.php/NetUrMo/NUM/schedConf/presentations

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The term ‘para-academic’ captures the multivalent sense of something that fulfills and/or frustrates the academic from a position of intimate exteriority. Para-academia is that which is beside academia, a place whose logic encompasses many reasons and no reason at all (para-, “alongside, beyond, altered, contrary,” from Greek para-, “beside, near, from, against, contrary to,” cognate with Sanskrit para “beyond”). The para is the domain of: shadow, paradigm, daemon, parasite, supplement, amateur, elite. The para-academic embodies an unofficial excess or extension of the academic that helps, threatens, supports, mocks (par-ody), perfects and/or calls it into question simply by existing next to it.

So, it may already be that as a non-institutionalised artist I’m already para-academic.

Back when I was doing a lot of projects in schools, I often felt under pressure to know about curricula and learning outcomes and the like.

This was a trap.

I was there precisely because I was not a teacher. My value was in being something different.

Questions:
Should I be as protective of my not being an academic? Should I be protective of my identity as an independent artist? Are the two mutually exclusive? Are these silly questions to be asking?

Maybe there’s a place just close enough to academia that I can get the stimulation I crave, but outside it enough that I can retain my identity as artist?

Maybe that place is a collaboration?

http://punctumbooks.com/blog/party-or-is-it-a-panel-discussion-on-para-academic-publishing-or-both/
https://ia601405.us.archive.org/19/items/paraacademic/paraacademic.pdf

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I recently read a journal article I really liked, it’s called ‘Cycling through Dark Space: Apprehending Landscape Otherwise’.

I started reading it because it called to my enthusiasm. I’ve done a few night rides, enjoyed them, and I’d like to do more.

As I continued reading it, I found it really relevant to my work in the way that it talked about experiencing landscapes via senses other than sight.

Having finished reading it, it now also signifies a small breakthrough that I had.

You see, the article takes the form of field notes from one of the authors combined with an academic style commentary wrapped around it. What if teamwork is an option?! What if I’m not wholly responsible for all aspects of the research or all of the communication?

Actually, the realisation that I could use field notes at all is a bit of a new one too.

I think I’ve encountered a lot of techniques from various places – especially ethnography – that I’m quite keen to poach and adapt to my work.

However, in the same way that the written word isn’t always the best way to communicate an idea, with things like this I reckon thinking about it in your head isn’t always the best way to decide if a particular way of working is right for you or not. So I plan to get empirical and to design projects that will let me try these on for size – experience them – enable me to feel if they fit me.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17450101.2014.956417

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…but for now I’m still doing my MA…

My final project has been based around a series of workshops, so I have to follow particular procedures around informed consent. Which means giving people a load of written information.

I tried to consider my participant information sheets as objects. To give the same thought to form and materials as I would to a sculpture.

Provocation:
As with the research you have done, think about what you want to communicate to people about the research you are about to do. Think about the tactile, sensuous ways you can do that.

http://npugh.co.uk/tag/where_the_sky_widens/

Can I have 3 volunteers, please?

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[Spoken only to the first volunteer]
In a short while I will invite you to walk with someone who endures.

She is finding it incredibly difficult to walk at the moment because she is in so much pain. In two week’s time she will have a hip replacement operation. A few months after that she will also have the other hip replaced. She hopes that the other side of surgery will come a time when she can climb a particular hill in the Lake District again.

This is a walk of hope and of ambition.

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[Spoken only to the second volunteer]

In a short while I’ll invite you to walk with a man and a boy. They are the same person, but when you walk the man sees this place as he remembers it when he was a boy.

He has moved away three times, but each time he is called back to this same cluster of houses.

This is a walk of memory and of belonging.

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[Spoken only to the third volunteer]

In a short while I’ll invite you to walk with a distant friend.

The friend is in Australia. Her husband is dying. Not only can you not go to be with them, neither can you find the words to write and offer support from afar.

This walk is your way of signifying to an unfair world that your thoughts are still with them.

This is a walk of separation and of connection.

Please walk with your companions.

Ezinne MT shared these two photos of the volunteers walking with the pods and the people’s stories they represented:

Photo: Ezinne MT

Photo: Ezinne MT

Photo: Ezinne MT

Photo: Ezinne MT

https://twitter.com/emichaelia/status/616916852506279936/photo/1
https://twitter.com/emichaelia/status/616915162356957184/photo/1

Does anyone have any questions or requests for our volunteers? If so, now is the time!

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Here we have an example of a recurring challenge for me.

I work with experiences. If not site specific, then at least very much about being located in a body. I make things that have to be interacted with, that have to be carried, that have to be felt.

I make tools that are intended to be used.

Quite often I make tools because the tools I need to ask the questions I want to ask, don’t yet exist in the world. I have to make them before I can ask questions of and with them.

Exhibiting things like those pods or the critters from the Colony project is possible, but they are not necessarily where the art is and often I see them as being lifeless and incomplete when they are not in motion with their symbiotic human.

Heaven forbid these things get preserved behind glass in a sterile vitrine! I want people to be able to do more than just passively regard these things from a distance.

For example: The Colony critters are instruments for detecting radio waves in a way that people can sense them and feel emotionally invested in what is revealed.

Until the time comes that we’ve made fully working versions and put them into use, people only see the tools. And yeah, okay, they’re kind of compelling by themselves, but this is not the project. I need to communicate something different. I need to be clear where the research is.

[I need to finish the project!]

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Example: The pods are the result of a process. And it’s the process that I’m interested in.

I ran workshops with different groups of people and we used the time it took the participants to make one of these to talk about the distant places that we have strong emotional connections to.

The pods come in kit form and are stuck into shape with PVA glue, so this is a period of several hours, punctuated by …………………. and by ……………….

The crafting and the pace of the materials made a particular space for conversation. Slow space.

It was the potential within this, and also the way the people related to their pods once they had been brought to life, that I was interested in.

Not the pods themselves – they are the bare minimum to allow the other stuff to happen.

As a way of communicating that project, scenes like this don’t do a lot for me.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/sets/72157652348168280
https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/sets/72157651285885910
https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/sets/72157651899634919

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Put the pods into people’s hands though, and watch for the moment when they get it, and that’s infinitely more satisfying!

Those faces. That’s when I know I’ve communicated something.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/sets/72157654066662452

I’m going to stop talking at you now.

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:

‘ART AS MOBILE RESEARCH: THE JOURNEY OF MAKING’

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: Lunchtime Talk at Watershed

On the 19th of September, nearing the end of my residency at the Pervasive Media Studio, I presented at one of their Lunchtime Talk events. Doing what I do, this also had a Lunchtime Walk element afterwards, where a few folks came outside with the critters to experience what it’s like to explore the urban environment with them.

Watershed have done a very thorough write-up of the talking bit here.

Nikki then brought her project to the Studio with Arts Council funding, on a residency to experiment with haptic mechanisms and methods to convey the creatures’ emotional state. She made a laser cut heartbeat machine with a solenoid and an arduino, programming it to beat faster when GPS signals were distorted. Cushioned inside of a jiffy bag, or a little card-board box, the solenoid felt like the thumping heart of a small creature. It was bizarre to hold a jiffy bag and to feel so attune to its needs and responsible for its well-being.

Here are some photos from the walking bit:

Colony never stops moving, however, so as soon as the guests had left we loaded up some brand new code, rejigged the wiring of the circuits and headed out again to do some initial testing of some code that Tarim had developed.

More photos here.

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

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.

Heavy Objects at If Wet…

Last Sunday me and some Heavy Objects were at the monthly If Wet… salon.

Heavy Objects at If Wet... #5

In a Possibility Probe stylee, I was curious as to how these landscape-reactive devices would look when regarded within the context of musical instruments.

As ever, the most interesting things happened when I stopped talking and handed the objects over to the audience to take and explore with.

If Wet 5 - August - 11

If Wet 5 - August - 15

If Wet 5 - August - 16

If Wet 5 - August - 14

The photos above were taken by Pete Ashton – you can see all his images from the day in this Flickr set. All my photos are here.

Many thanks to Sam and David for looking after me on this occasion, and also for organising such an enjoyable and stimulating gathering every month. I can highly recommend making the trip down to Callow End to sample If Wet… if you’re not already one of the regular participants.

Coming up: Heavy Objects at If Wet…

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the If Wet… HQ at Callow End in Worcestershire, If Wet… being a fabulous monthly salon of sonic explorations, the like of which you’ve almost certainly never seen – or heard – before.

This weekend I’ll be presenting Score for heavy objects and built environment at If Wet.. #5.

You may remember the Heavy Objects from the And Miles to go Before I Sleep… exhibition last year: large, cumbersome wooden tubes that process GPS data in order to make tapping noises in response to the type of space they are moving through.

An Heavy Object getting a test drive last year

For If Wet… we used the Heavy Objects to record a sonic profile of the village of Callow End and the surrounding area. Having first waited for a gap in the rain, we set off with our unusual instruments…

Score for heavy objects and built environment (If Wet...)

Score for heavy objects and built environment (If Wet...)

It was hard work, but worth it for the expressions of the people we encountered along the way. Sam had a few explanations to make to some of his neighbours, although I noted no-one really seemed surprised at what he was doing…

Score for heavy objects and built environment (If Wet...)

Score for heavy objects and built environment (If Wet...)

Score for heavy objects and built environment (If Wet...)

The recording currently only exists as raw data:

And a couple of visual representations:

For Sunday’s If Wet… we will play the recorded data back though the Heavy Objects for the first time – no one has heard it yet, not even me!

Weather permitting, there will also be an opportunity for you to take a Heavy Object outside and have a chance to use it as an instrument yourself.

As if that wasn’t enough, there will also be a (very) limited number of prints available of one of the data visualisations of the heavy sound of Callow End.

There’s a preview of everything on the programme at http://www.ifwet.org.uk/news/if-wet-5-preview/ and you can buy your tickets in advance at http://ifwet5.eventbrite.co.uk/. Kathy Hinde’s work is very interesting – well worth checking out.

See you there!

Art + Satellites

On the 2nd of July I took part in an ‘in conversation with…’ style event for Fermynwoods Contemporary Art: Art + Satellites. My conversation partner was Laura Tomei from Garmin (the GPS device folks).

There’s a recording of the event on the Fermynwoods website.

One of the things that came up was the language of GPS part of this was realising that GPS is only one dialect amongst many satellite navigation systems (GLONASS, BDS and Galileo being others)

I had a bit of an insight into my own practice and observed that perhaps what I was doing was also searching for alternative languages of navigation, often those that work on a more intimate scale: the whispers in the ear and the tug on the sleeve.

Place interfaces – thoughts on bubblewrap, bees and lumps of clay

Here’s the audio and visual for the Lunchtime Talk I did on Friday for the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol. I’m afraid I couldn’t add the wax pods

In the talk I outline how I first got critical of interfaces and then use 3 recent projects (Colony, Dust and Waggle) to talk around approaches and experiences relating to using physical interfaces to mediate between people and place as well as between people and tech (and people and other people).

Place Interfaces – upcoming lunchtime talk at the Pervasive Media Studio

On Friday the 23rd of November I’ll be back at the Pervasive Media Studio again for a lunchtime talk. This time though, I’ll be stood at the front of the room…

Colony Prototyping

I’ll be talking about recent/current projects Colony, Dust and Waggle and their interactions, interfaces and materials. The full title of the talk is Place interfaces – thoughts on bubblewrap, bees and lumps of clay.

Further details are available on the pm studio website



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