Fermynwoods residency: changing gear

I’ve just started a 10 day residency at Sudborough Green LodgeFermynwoods Contemporary Art‘s rural outpost surrounded by forest and fields.

The residency is part of their associate artists programme rather than linked in to a particular commission, so I’m in the fortunate position of not having to work to a specified outcome. This is time I can use to feed my practice, and that doesn’t come along very often.

So I’m here with a handful of questions that I probably wouldn’t get much opportunity to engage with in amongst the usual hectic to-and-fro of my working week. I have questions about how the making of field notes might relate to my practice; I have questions about moving around at night; I have questions about how far my ailing knees and feet will carry me nowadays; I have questions about whether I can still draw; but mostly I get to find out what happens when I have time and space in which to follow my curiosity.

Coming after several months of flirting with burn-out, this has all required something of a change of gear. …and giving myself permission to not to anything in particular in these first few days. There have been lie-ins and reading of good books and exploring.

When I was here last – 4 years ago – I was making the Landscape-reactive Sashes ready for deployment as part of the Corby Walking Festival. I remember spending a lot of time hunched over sewing machine and soldering iron, and I remember a lot of rain: this meant I missed out on the chance to explore my surroundings, so basic orientation has been top of my to-do list.

I started off by getting a bit lost.

tracks

I got on my bike and I started off by turning left at the junctions in the track where up until now I’ve only ever gone right.

I had my Garmin with me, showing the line of my journey thus far as an aid to figuring out where I was in relation to where I’d been …and where I needed to get back to. Fun was had relating the dotted line on the small screen to the rapidly deteriorating surface of the bridleway in front of me. No really – it was fun! I like not knowing what’s around the corner and if you’re going to have to turn back or not; that internal debate between being gung-ho and the bit that tells you enough is enough.

tracks

Gung-ho held out just long enough along a grass-covered, deep-rutted, what used-to-be-a-gravel-track for me to find myself at a high seat. No questions about what needed to be done next.

tracks

I pushed a bit further along what might optimistically be called the path, hoping to be able to link up with one of the dotted lines on my screen, but a combination of disorientation, brambles and mud made me call time on that avenue of exploration and I turned back to rejoin terra more firmer.

Rinse and repeat for about 10 miles in total.

high seat

I had half an eye on looking for suitable places to come back to at night. There were a couple of more promising looking high seats, but they were padlocked and not for public use in quite a definite manner.

Other than some purpose-built shelters, it looks like some field margins might be my best bet. Mostly however, we’re in the traditional Forestry Commission configuration of track>ditch>fence. I shall have to keep my eyes open for opportunities for getting beyond that.

Alongside my beating of the bounds, I’ve also started reading Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways” and am loving it. It seemed like it was going to be a relevant read to hold back until I was here, and early indications are that it’s not going to disappoint.

As I progress with my explorations – mostly by bike, so far – I keep getting trapped between busy A-roads and byways that are probably best left to the ramblers and the horse riders. There’s not a lot in the middle, either in terms of volume/speed of traffic or of routes that link up.

ways

I managed a 20 mile circuit yesterday that had minimal A-roads, and with my Macfarlane-primed eyes was very tuned in to noticing all the footpaths criss-crossing the landscape. I’d like to explore these more, but not sure if I’m currently rated for more than a couple of miles on foot.

I also noticed lots of churches (that or my route twisted and turned enough that I just saw the same few steeples from an array of different angles). It got me thinking about the size of a parish; about communities and the walking distances between them.

Artist in residence at Wolverhampton School of Art – beginnings

I’m one of several artists in residence based at Wolverhampton School of Art this academic year.

My proposal was based around improving the sculptural and theoretical elements of the Ride (Birmingham – York) project I did in response to a commission from VINYL in 2013.

A few years ago I conducted a successful proof-of-concept for a project called Ride. I cycled 240 miles between Birmingham and York whilst a mechanical cabinet back in Birmingham glowed, spun, levered and whirred in response to how much effort I was having to put in on the other end.

I have a basic functioning prototype of the technology that broadcasts data from a phone (with me on the bike) back to the cabinet in near-real time, however the cabinet I used with it had workings made from foamboard and other materials that I could easily build with in my flat. Not great, sculpturally. I would like to use the residency with Wolverhampton School of Art to develop the form of the mechanical cabinet and also to refine the way in which I present and frame the project.

So, post MA and time spent thinking about sense-scapes and embodied experiences, I’m using the residency to start again from the beginning and really examine how a responsive cabinet such as this might be an interesting object/system for prompting conversations about connection, distance and effort.

Remotely watching someone travelling by bicycle often boils down to looking at a marker on an online map. Here’s the marker and map I’ve been watching in 2015: Steven Abraham’s attempt to beat the One Year Time Trail record:

Most (but not all!) of Steve's tracks Jan-Dec 2015.

Most (but not all!) of Steve’s tracks Jan-Dec 2015.

This is an extreme case: at the time of writing, Steve has cycled 60,004 miles since January the 1st, 2015. (He’s aiming for more than 71,039 miles.) Whilst the map and the orange track lines help to give a sense of the accumulated achievement, they don’t very well communicate the blood, sweat and tears experience of cycling about 200 miles a day every day for a year. The forum threads I’ve seen seem to be characterised by speculation about routes, plans, diets etc, but when someone reports having seen Steve out on the road, the questions suddenly shift to asking about how he seems to be getting on and whether spirits are high or not.

So my starting questions include: what is lost through using the marker-on-a-map approach, and what are the affordances of a more embodied approach focusing on physical manifestations of the exertions of a rider?

space

I’ve been installed up in one of the studios with a table and a bit of wall space which I’m currently using to get some words down and try and get at what the key starting questions might be and what it is I actually want to make and do in order to activate these.

Here are two bits of insight that have come out of the brainstorming so far:

accumulations

mini brief

That second one is a mini brief that’s emerged for the cabinet. I don’t want to make literal illustrations of heartbeat, pedalling or headwinds, but instead create a complementary sensory experience for the watcher. (I’m going to have to find new names for the different roles, too – “watcher” sounds a bit too creepy!)

Also on the to-do list is to experiment with different mechanisms I could use to make things happen in the cabinet.

I used my first day to suss out the laser cutter and made this:

links

chain

It’s perilously close to being illustrative, but there may be a supporting role for a chain and sprockets somewhere!

grubby

Supporting Rachel Henson on her Blast Theory residency

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

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

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

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

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

sunrise

Living the dream – sunrise over Travis Perkins

Soldering

“Clean your tip!” Soldering 101

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

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

GPS test

Weatherproofing strategy – hide!

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

keyfinder experimenting

Call and return with keyfinders

keyfinder trail

Laying a trail

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

Looking for meaning

I spotted this whilst out and about in Coventry last week: a shop window with no fewer than 6 trapezing monkeys!

I’m desperately hoping that this is because this building is where a large group of people come to practise circus skills…

[reference]

Recording of the ARC A&Q discussion

Last Wednesday night we held the A&Q discussion session to round off my Artspace Research Commission. Present were representatives of the Coventry Artspace community including artists, studio holders, directors and board members.

Jon Randle bought along recording equipment, so we are able to share this documentation of the 90 minute free-form conversation:

Topics covered include:
teaching,
multiple histories,
interacting with spaces,
unsuspecting audiences,
hooks,
looking up,
the (non)exchange of stories,
non art audiences,
playfulness,
online experiences,
audience feedback,
to tweet or not to tweet,
the things you get used to,
secret messages and secret lives and giving the secret things voices,
invisible people,
existing as different things at different times,
connecting with the monkey,
unexplored spaces,
almost hearing the sermons,
doing it again,
attractions,
engendering happiness,
discomfort,
foundations,
steel-capped boots and caring for the building,
eradicating smells,
glitter balls,
non visuals,
void spaces,
not realising the basement is derelict,
Specials cotton wool and not being beholden to it,
what could be done with the xxxxx space?,
mythologies,
allowing cultural squatters,
ownership and territories,
heritage graffiti,
slightly blinkered views
and whitewashing.

Thanks to everyone who took part for an interesting conversation and a chance to look at the building, the residency and its various outcomes from various different perspectives.

A&Q session for ARC: Hijack

As I mentioned at the start of my week on the Artspace Research Commission, I suspected that the process would (and should) raise as many questions as it answered.

I made my devices; installed them in selected locations; and we stepped back and watched people discover and interact with them.

But it feels like the job would be unfinished if we left it at that.

What did we notice? What did we learn? What might we try next time?
(Writing this I’m suddenly reminded of the standard structure we used for our lab reports when I was an engineering student!)

This coming Wednesday you are invited to come along to Artspace and interact with the installations with a critical eye before participating in a round table discussion to wrangle with observations, intentions and aspirations. All welcome. It’s free. There will be biscuits.

Answer and Question Night with Nikki Pugh

Wednesday September 19th
6:30pm (7pm start) at Coventry Artspace
16 Lower Holyhead Road, Coventry, CV1 3AU [map]

Nikki, Artspace and the building are inviting you to be part of this conversation in a night of lively discussion where anything might happen.
Refreshments and interactions from 6:30pm
Discussion starts at 7pm
More information or to RSVP Laura@coventry-artspace.co.uk

Secret Police Disco

I’m very proud of the monkey and the effects it catalysed, but the Secret Police Disco may have to be declared the most powerful of all the installations. Not bad for something about an inch high!

ARC: HIJACK

Hidden away behind the hatch to the basement, only viewable through the gap caused by the hinges, the Secret Police Disco was intended to be a subtle counterpoint to the big obviousness of installations such as the Trapeze Monkey and Ghost (Town) Tapper.

I decided not to tell anyone where it was (although I did succumb to pressure/sympathy and give a few clues!) and wait and see if it got discovered. What was really interesting was watching what happened after that…

On each day of the weekend we had a team of Challengers working with us to facilitate and document the various things going on. I briefed them about the Monkey in the Community Room’s rafters, the tapping things in the basement and the tweeting things in the Members’ Room, but when it came to the police disco (the building was at one point used as a social club for the police force) I merely said that there was one, and, if they were to find it, to please not broadcast its location.

That of course turned it into a massive mission to try and find it. The ‘secret’ bit of the title kind of evolved into use as different knots of people started challenging each other to find it. What was nice though, was that it wasn’t out-and-out competition, but rather the different groups would also work hard to lead people to the point of discovery. [Note to self: read up on naches and vicarious pride.]

Secret Police Disco was a really nice reminder that small can be juicy and also that, amongst all the complicated mechanisms, some of the most powerful technologies for interaction at our disposal are collaboration; collusion; obstruction; pantomime (thanks Martin!); blinky lights; and an understanding that our actions have made something happen.

Dodge Errol

The choice of location for this piece was simply to make people linger in the non-space of the corridor outside the toilets. It’s also practically the only place out of the whole building that looks a leetle like a gallery space, so that suggested making something in a frame…

ARC: HIJACK

ARC: HIJACK

ARC: HIJACK

My commission included the support of a bursary awardee – Reece Kennedy – who gamely dived in to all this new techy stuff. To balance out the shopping runs for fishing wire and batteries, I challenged him to come up with (and produce) the content of the frame.

On learning that there used to be a youth club housed in the building, and that one of their activities was a boxing club, Reece immediately made the association with Coventry-raised boxer Errol Christie.

ARC: HIJACK

Reece constructed the frame, ‘cobboulaged’ the image and got the different elements mounted up on foamboard and servo armatures. I provided a bit of demo code and from that he defined the sequence and ranges of movement. All that then remained was for me to link it up to an infra red range finder as a triggering mechanism.

Dodge Errol from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Ghost (Town) Tapper

At first I was unsure about placing interventions in the Artspace basement – this space is already so loaded with story and visual stimulation.

The basement is famously known as the former rehearsal space of The Specials and other 2-Tone bands. ‘The Holyhead Music Workshop’ is still preserved in its original 1970s-80s condition, including original graffiti and signage and is part of Coventry’s cherished 2-Tone Trail.From the Heritage Open Days website

After a bit of pondering, however, (and also some gut feeling during a walk-around) I came up with a couple of designs that I thought might work. Only one of these got realised: Ghost (Town) Tapper.

There are security bars across many of the windows at Artspace and they’d got my attention as early on as the pre-application surgery session, during which I couldn’t resist getting up and pinging the ones in the Members’ Room with my finger.

I particularly liked the ones on the basement windows for their liminal nature. Maybe just on the threshold of the basement would be something I could work with…

Ghost Town seemed an obvious song to reference and, when my ears failed to be able to pick out what was going on, Mister Underwood heroically stepped in with a spreadsheet even I could decode …and then recode as instructions for the solenoids.

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and...

When we played it back we liked it so much we decided to leave it as-is and not worry about matching it to the tempo of the original track.

I wasn’t able to spend much time in the basement over the open weekend, so I didn’t see many of the interactions it instigated. I did see a couple of corkers, though! I do hope a little bit of boogie-ing went on too…

Here are some of my photos:

Trapeze Monkey

My aim with this installation/intervention was to try and turn the large, empty space of the Community Room into a reverse ballroom – not somewhere where the occupants all move in coordination, but one where they synchronise standing still.

We learned that people find it very hard to stand still…

ARC: HIJACK

Fair play though: most people got there in the end!

With nothing more than a prompt on the doorway to the room to not startle the monkey, it was largely left to people to a) find the monkey, b) decide how not to startle it and c) hang around long enough to find out if they’d got it right and what would happen as a result.

Perhaps we should add d) on to the end of that list: whether (and how) to teach newcomers.

I popped in and out of the room quite a lot (monkey maintenance), but I don’t remember doing a massive amount of explanation, even though I joined in the standing still quite a lot. On quite a few occasions I saw people jumping around and waving their hands a lot in order to try and entice the monkey down. My favourite experiment however, was the family that spotted the stereo in the corner and started playing music at various volumes to see what startling effect that might have. Since the stereo was in the corner out of range of the monkey’s motion sensor, it turns out to have had the effect of making him come down!

Below are a selection of my photos from across the weekend. The complete set can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/nikki_pugh/sets/72157631495270018/ and I’ll also be keeping an eye out for images coming from some of the other people who were around and documenting stuff.

It's always nice when you can prompt people to look up - something we don't do enough of. The height of the ceiling in the Community Room meant that there was a lot of 'up' to look at and the presence of the monkey at the top of it was particularly striking - especially when stood directly below.

This boy was captivated by the monkey (returning to the room several times) even when he had traced the various ropes and strings back to the mechanisms that were making it move.

I really liked watching the monkey-watchers from this angle - the zoomed-out view of the whole room as well as being able to pick out the incremental movements people made in an attempt to not startle the monkey.

ARC: HIJACK

One of these girls had encountered the monkey and trapeze as work in progress. She returned with her sister, two of their own toy animals and the unshakable belief that the monkey should be able to do back flips.

Yes the monkey was a hit with the visiting children, but it also seemed to captivate the older audience members. Or is that just an illusion caused by the motionlessness? In either case, I did notice that staff and studio holders frequently returned to the room to watch - or just check on - the monkey throughout the weekend!

It was whilst standing with this group of people that I noticed how standing still also seemed to go hand-in-hand with being silent

There are some technical improvements I would make to this installation if I had the chance to do it again. I also have a hankering to fill the room’s canopy with a whole cartload of monkeys!

I’m very happy with the responses the installation catalysed – and am satisfied with the simple ‘do not startle’ prompt, but one thing I think I would like to explore is better communicating the reason there was a Trapeze Monkey. (There’s a group that uses the room regularly as a space in which to practise circus skills. I had a chat with some of them whilst I was working, and they’ve been coming to Artspace for at least 15 years. I also learned that I’ve forgotten how to juggle clubs…)

Unfortunately the monkey mechanism wasn’t reliable enough to leave running over the next few weeks, but we did talk a few times about what it might be like to have it running whilst the community room was in use by the various pottery, art, acting and circus skills groups that rent it out. Would he just stay in his box the whole time, or would he creep into people’s peripheral vision during a quiet moment?



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