Prototype Creatures from the Colony Project – commission for The Lowry

Two prototype creatures from the Colony project have been commissioned by The Lowry for exhibition in Right Here, Right Now; their current showcase of contemporary art relating to digital systems and cultures. It runs through until the end of February 2016, and opened to the public yesterday.

I was up there last Wednesday for the preview and launch event. It started well with a visitor in the cafe doing a double-take-including-putting-glasses-on as I passed by with one of the creatures we’d walked with to gather data a few weeks ago. This acted as my magic vest and we chatted for a bit before I continued up to the galleries.

I like that the creatures act as permission objects in this way, and we experienced the effect several times whilst we were out with them on the data walks. Since I’m designing for a certain amount of spectacle and stranger:stranger interaction as I continue developing the Colony project, it seemed only fitting to bring along a creature for people to interact with at the launch (in addition to the two that were attached to the plinths!).

Here are a selection of the reactions they generated:

critter reaction

critter reaction

critter reaction

I also really like the two modes of engagement captured in this image posted @chrisinculture by on Twitter

Lowry Two Modes

The rest of my images from the launch are in this Flickr album, and the official selection from The Lowry is here, too.

Below are a few installation views of the gallery the morning after the night before – the rest of that album can be seen here.

critter installation

critter installation

critter installation

There’s an exhibition catalogue, including an essay by Beryl Graham that you can download and read. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this, which is what the Colony creatures will be doing for the next three months (with a few variations!)

Critter wriggle

Colony installation at The Lowry

Without giving away too many secrets, here are a few behind-the-scenes glimpses of the two days I spent installing the Colony prototypes at The Lowry earlier this week for Right Here Right Now.

Many thanks to Dave, Emily and the rest of the team who helped. (Especially Dave, who transformed my cardboard maquette and rough sketches into a rather lovely plinth.)

The finished plinth and the cardboard maquette I'd originally made to show what I wanted

The finished plinth and the cardboard maquette I’d originally made to show what I wanted



A plinth in two parts...

A plinth in two parts…

Cable nemesis

Cable nemesis

Committing to a fixed position of the first critter

Committing to a fixed position of the first critter

Final fixing of panels in position

Final fixing of panels in position

The critters settled into their accommodation for the next three months.

The critters settled into their accommodation for the next three months.

Then there was a lot of watching and tweaking of angles. Also a lot of ladders, but I think they’ll be gone by the launch next week!
Colony installation at The Lowry

Salford metropolis in the fog

Salford metropolis in the fog

Salford Quays data-gathering walks

Phase III of The Tour of T’North:


I’ve been building some Colony ‘critter’ variants for exhibition at The Lowry as part of their Right Here Right Now showcase of contemporary digital art. During the exhibition, the animatronic forms will be moving in such a way as to ‘remember’ a walk taken around the surrounding Salford Quays area. This was the data-gathering part of that task where I did the walks and collected the data that would determine the critters’ movements.


Day 1 was my first visit to the Quays and a chance to – literally – suss out the lie of the land. Amidst the drizzle and general greyness I walked around with what I hoped was a not-too-suspicious-looking rucksack full of batteries, GPS equipment, Arduino and data loggers.

dodgy rucksack

The critters are effectively claustrophobic and move more (get distressed) in response to being taken to places where buildings restrict their view of the sky (this links back to the quality of the GPS signal they receive – see the previous post for more information). In order for them to not just be doing the same thing all the time during the exhibition, I was therefore seeking out a range of built environments and collecting the data in order to get a feel for the ranges encountered. Media City provides a selection of massive office buildings with comparatively narrow walkways between them, but the quays also have some plazas and bridges out over the water as open spaces by way of contrast.

No two bridges the same, it seems.

Here’s the non-swinging swing bridge the Detroit Bridge.

Detroit Bridge

I checked the list of banned anti-social behaviours and arting wasn’t on there, so I did a few circles of the viewing platform en route across to the other side.

Bridge antisocial

The data I collect are in the form of many (tens of thousands) lines of text and numbers. To help me quickly see what sort of values I got and to relate these back to the landscape, I often convert the data into visual form and view them in Google Earth. Here’s the visualisation of the walk from that first day:

Recce walks

I had two different sets of kit in my rucksack, so each is represented by a different colour. The quick way of understanding what the visualisation shows is to think that the length of the lines corresponds to the extent to which the GPS signal is being affected by the built environment. It’s also important to remember that the lines can be deflected away from the actual path I took – I didn’t get my feet as wet as some of these traces might suggest! For example, the lines over the water towards the bottom left of the image above, were produced when I walked along the base of the wall of the Imperial War Museum; the effect of this massive piece of architecture being to throw the calculated GPS positions off by several tens of metres.

Imperial War deflections

The imagery currently in Google Earth is somewhat old, showing Media City as it’s being constructed:

buildings to be

I really like this combination of seeing the promise of the buildings that don’t quite exist yet and the invisible effects they then went on to have on the radio waves that also fill that space.

Having retired to my accommodation and spent some time examining spreadsheets and ranges, I returned for day two of the data-collection. This time with two critters.

clear sky

The skies were clearer this time around and I was met by Aliki Chapple, who had generously volunteered to spend the afternoon doing odd things in public places with a stranger off the internet.

Once fully bedecked in our moving wooden sculptures and their fabric slings, we set off to explore.

window reflection

By the end of the afternoon we had completed two different pairs of walks: the first was a bit of an epic loop around the edge of the Quays, mostly encountering different residential environments; and the second was a shorter one centred more on The Lowry and the Media City end of things.

Again we experimented with the effects buildings would have if we walked close to them; but we also encountered smaller masses and also had some interesting conversations with befuddled, inquisitive people we passed on our journeys. This is what Colony is really about: using the critters as a tool and as a permission object to pay attention to and explore the spaces we inhabit. They are also deliberately intended to be a conversation-starter.

Imperial War wall


rusty slabs

Needing somewhere to safely leave the critters whilst we went to find some food, we also had some nice interactions with the staff at The Lowry – the cloakrooms were briefly home to some unusual inhabitants!


Here are the visualisations of all four of the walks:

data vis

I was surprised by how little variation we got in the first, more residential, areas we walked in, although I was naturally expecting the overall effect from buildings to be less pronounced.

data vis

These screenshots are from Google Earth with the 3D buildings layer switched on. This is more up-to-date than the flat, base imagery, and it gives a real sense of that relationship between concrete and line length – check out the area in front of The Lowry (top right in the image above, with the tower) and also alongside the multi-story car park for the Lowry Outlet shopping centre (top centre – the blue lines are me walking from right to left along the base of the carpark wall, and then returning on the opposite side of the water, on the far side of the blocks of flats.):

Here are the lines from all six of the walks – quite a lot of ground covered!

All data

Next steps: converting these lines into code that the exhibition critters will remember and play back.

Colony software trialling in York

Right at the end of last year’s residency at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, Tarim and I uploaded the new code he’d been working on to a critter and went for a quick wander before I packed up and headed back to Birmingham.

With a couple of Colony critters having been selected to form part of the upcoming Right Here Right Now exhibition at The Lowry, I wanted to give this code rewrite another try-out to find out more about how it behaves.

Phase II of my recent Tour of T’North was a few days’ stopover in York, so out came the Arduino and the GPS modules…

For the geographically-challenged:

York be 'ere

…or if you like your maps a bit more abstract, here’s the data I collected from my walk:

York lines

A recap for those of you who might not have been following this from the start (5 years ago!), I’m processing GPS data to get a measure of the error that gets induced in the positional calculations by the built environment. If you’re standing near some tall buildings, these often block the direct path of the timecoded radio signals from the GPS satellites, meaning they instead reach the GPS receiver by a longer path having bounced off assorted architecture. The extra time taken for the waves to travel this indirect route throws off the calculations based on the timecodes in the signals and the accuracy of the latitude and longitude co-ordinates decreases. There are other things that can happen too, but that’s a simplified version of the main effect. I’m interested in how this process can effectively give a fingerprint of the stuff that makes up a place.

The lines in these images are a visualisation of the data collected overlaid, roughly, on the areas where the data was collected. The longer the lines, the greater the error and, typically, the more bricks and mortar there are in the vicinity.

Here are the same lines as above, this time viewed in Google Earth. (I do this as part of my process of looking at the collected data, so I can relate the behaviour of the lines back to where I was and what might have caused that behaviour.)

York overview

Getting to this stage was a bit of a learning curve because the data is now being logged in a different format and I had to figure out a way of extracting the numbers I needed to then feed into the script that produces the file that is read by Google Earth. Got there in the end, though! (Nothing too high-tech, just some spreadsheet-fu with 32,000 lines of data.)

Although the Google Earth views aren’t really one of the outputs of the project, I like them as illustrations of the process and, as mentioned above, they are very useful to me in helping to interpret what happened. Switching on the 3D buildings layer is a bit of fun, too!

Here’s the data from around York Minster:

York Minster deflections

I walked down from the top right corner of the image, meandering through the narrow streets near The Shambles. If you look carefully you might be able to spot where the lines disappear for a bit, as I go down an alleyway and the GPS receivers loose the signal completely. I then swooped out along the bottom edge of the open space in front of the church [first photo below], walked along the outer edge of the grounds, then came back towards the front by walking along the path that runs along the left-hand side of the building. From here I walked along the foot of the wall along the front of the building [second photo below], by the steps and the rather magnificent doors.

You can see how much the lines have been deflected out from the actual route walked, particularly when I return to the front of the building – the lines are in nearly the same place as when I first walked along the bottom edged of the paved area!

York Minster

At the foot of York Minster

After a quick detour to the post office, it seemed like a suitable nod to the city to walk a section of the old walls.

York walls

I was a bit surprised at how much the top bit of the ramparts affected the GPS reception, but that’s the whole point of all this really: looking at the results and going “oh, that’s interesting”! Later on in the development of Colony, I’ll be developing a visualisation of the data collected so that the group coming off the walk has an aide-memoire for recalling their experiences and observations.

By way of contrast to all that stone, Phase II finished off with my favourite tree in all of the (just outside of the) city:

York tree

Coming up: Colony at The Lowry

Two of the landscape-reactive animatronic creatures from my Colony project will be exhibited at The Lowry as part of its Right Here, Right Now exhibition:

Right Here, Right Now brings together 16 international artists who use and explore digital technologies. Together they address how technology affects our lives – be that through surveillance, artificial intelligence, voyeurism or online dating.

Created in the last five years, their critical, playful and illuminating artworks challenge our understanding of the digital systems that surround us, while making visible those that are hidden. Many are interactive, while others transcribe data into stunning visual displays or strange music. All invite us to re-think our own increasingly connected and systematised lives. [source]

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