Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts was the event I instigated to accompany the Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipty project. Hosted at BOM it took place on the 21st of August.

Many thanks to everyone to came and took part. Text and photos from the event below…


Nikki Pugh in conversation with Kat Jungnickel and Emily Chappell.

Practitioners from three different disciplines explore the similarities and differences in their working processes. The obvious link between them is cycling, but this event will delve deeper into methods of understanding-through-doing; the affordances of bodies and technology in motion; and how we tell the stories of the physical, emotional and intellectual journeys we go on.

Nikki, Kat and Emily will each give a presentation about whatthey do before then taking part in a group panel discussion that takes a closer look at how and why they do. There’ll be tea, cake, books, bikes and bloomers during the break.


Nikki Pugh

Artist Nikki Pugh investigates interactions between people and place. Recent projects include a research and development residency at Coventry Transport Museum thinking about collective storytelling of experiences relating to cycling and different cycling cultures, and a cycle guided tour in the form of a treasure hunt for adrenaline, serotonin and oxytocin.

Links & Shifts is part of a larger project in which Nikki asks the question “What happens when you change from thinking about markers on a map to an awareness of the changing rhythms of effort and terrain?” and attempts to answer it by building an Orrery – an alternative approach to the visualisation of cycling data involving a moving sculptural object rather than dot-watching on a webpage.


Kat Jungnickel

Sociologist Kat Jungnickel has been researching the social, political and material challenges to the freedom of movement experienced by Victorian women. The resulting research – Bikes and Bloomers – has at its core the making and wearing of a collection of transformable cycling garments patented at the time.

Put yourself inside the research: Kat will be bringing along a selection of the garments which you will be able to try on. We’ll also have a vintage bicycle rigged up for you to sit on and pedal so you can get a sense of what it might have been like to ride in clothes like these.


Emily Chappell

Adventure cyclist and writer Emily Chappell has toured across continents, fatbiked across snow and ice, and raced across Europe. She recently published a book about her time as a cycle courier in London and regularly writes for the Guardian’s Bike Blog.

Emily will be recently returned from racing something in the order of 3,800 km (2,360 miles) between Belgium and Turkey. Join us for the post-race stream of consciousness where memories start to be shaped into stories, links are made and the process of reflection gathers momentum. New endeavour The Adventure Syndicate pledges to show “how it works from the inside”, so expect that to feed into our conversation too.

Copies of What Goes Around – Emily’s memoir of her time as a London cycle courier – will be available to buy for £13 each and Emily will be signing books during the event. (If you’d like to buy a copy, please register before the 11th of August.)

Photos thanks to Pete Ashton, full album on Flickr

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Links & Shifts

Let’s talk about feedback

Most of my work comes from conversations, or from self-made opportunities, or from people approaching me with projects they think would suit me. I’m fortunate in that when things are trucking along nicely I don’t have to put myself through the mill of constantly applying for advertised calls for artists. When things are trucking along nicely.

Sometimes though, the momentum stalls and I do find myself hunting through Arts Jobs or similar, composing expressions of interest, hunting out the relevant images that represent my work and wrangling proposals in under application form word limits. I could probably write pages and pages about the investment of time and emotion that goes into each of these applications, but for this blog post I want to try and think a bit about a different type of investment; a longer term one.

Let’s talk about feedback.

Let’s talk about how practitioners can get better.

I’ve had many rejections for things I’ve applied to over the years, but what I rarely get is any sort of understanding as to why. …and this means I have no understanding of what I might change in order to get a different result with the next thing I try. And that feels like stagnation.

Is it that my idea was poorly matched to what the organisers were looking for? Did I not articulate my proposal clearly? Is my CV presented in an unhelpful format? Was my application nowhere near as strong as the others received, or did I make it through several rounds of shortlisting only to not quite fit into the final curatorial selection of a coherent programme from a group of submissions?

Some of these could be fairly easily addressed from my end, whilst others are completely out of my control. But the knowledge I could leverage to move my practice (or my admin) forwards remains elusive.


Let’s hop over to the other side of the fence…


You want to put out an open call for the exhibition/conference/commission you’re running. You’re probably horribly over-worked as it is, how do you efficiently deal with the couple of hundred applications you get for the dozen or so places you’re curating?

For the two Bees in a Tin conferences I’ve co-organised for the Many & Varied project, I took the approach of offering feedback to those who got back in touch and requested it. It turns out not many people took us up on that offer, even out of the 150 or so applicants we had last time around. Still, it’s a fairly hefty drain on resources when you’ve got to crack on with organising the event.

A lot of organisers take the approach of either stating up front that if you don’t hear anything back assume you’ve not been successful, or of sending out a bulk generic “thanks, but unfortunately…” email. Sometimes these are accompanied by a line something along the lines of “due to the high number of applications, we are unable to offer feedback”.

This got me thinking: the implication here is that, if there were far fewer applications for the opportunity on offer, the organisers would be happy to offer feedback to everyone. So what’s the cut-off point? What’s a manageable number of people to give feedback for their applications? And could we pledge to give at least that number of people feedback, rather than a blanket silence to everyone?

It turns out giving good feedback is hard though. So maybe thinking about it in terms of numbers alone isn’t a fair representation of the amount of time it takes to structure some constructive criticism to someone you don’t know, on the basis of a few hundred words written on an application form?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to reconcile my desire as an artist to be able to get better at what I do, and my need as an organiser to do what I do as efficiently as possible. I think the solution I’ve arrived at is something like this (and I’m sharing it here in case we can maybe act together to move our sector forwards a bit):

What if, as organisers, we pledged to offer feedback to whatever number of applicants that is manageable for us. But what if we pledged to make that meaningful feedback. Maybe to the people who were close, but not quite there. Not necessarily the ones that didn’t make the cut due to curatorial decisions, but the ones who you think could improve their chances of success next time around if they made a few changes. Maybe it’d only be to six people out of the 150 who applied, but that’d be better than nothing, wouldn’t it? Better only half a dozen people getting some insight into how their proposals are being received, than everyone being left none-the-wiser and puzzling over how to improve?

Can we do that? Can we make a small change like this that might just make a difference to a few people at a time, but cumulatively help move our sector forwards?

Comments are open for a while if you’d like to add any constructive feedback…

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!


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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!


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…


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!


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?



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?



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!



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…


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’.




It’s all science!


And all science is blue


and glassy!


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


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.


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…


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.

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

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


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.


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?


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?!

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


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!

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.


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!


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!


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.

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?


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.


…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.

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.

Can I have 3 volunteers, please?


[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.


[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.


[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

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


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!]


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.


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.

I’m going to stop talking at you now.

Bees in a Tin line-up announced!

It is with very great pleasure that we’ve just announced the details for Bees in a Tin, an event I’ve co-curated with Hannah Nicklin and Jen Southern.

Bees in a Tin will feature talks and workshops from key makers and thinkers from around the country as well as two panel sessions for audience questions. If you’re interested in the spaces where the arts, science, technology, and games crash into one another, apologise, and then buy each other a drink: then this is for you.

The talking throne made by East London Kinetics

Even if we do say so ourselves, the line-up is outstanding, with contributions from

  • Dr. Rebekka Kill
  • Kate Andrew
  • Holly Gramazio
  • Hamish MacPherson
  • Stuart Nolan
  • Nigel Reid
  • Tim Wright
  • Pete Ashton
  • Katie Day
  • Alice O’Connor
  • Gareth Briggs
  • Henry Cooke

You can find out more about them all and what they’ll be talking/doing about on the Many & Varied website.

We’re also very excited to have a keynote commission from Sarah Angliss:

According to Sarah, the stage is a tricky place to deploy a machine with an unusual interface. Your audience may be encountering the interface for the first time. They’ll have to grasp its function as the music unfolds, even though they can only see and hear it in action, rather than get their own hands on it. These days, musicians often have to face the challenge of laptop-based interfaces, where so much of the function is embedded in invisible, intangible code. As Sarah talks about these issues and her experience with unusual machines on stage, she looks at the importance of ‘coupling’ – in particular, the audience’s sense of cause and effect between a musician’s actions and sound. What are we gaining – or losing – by loosening this coupling? Does it matter if the audience have no intuitive sense of the musician’s influence on the music? And how can we deploy coupling to turn any gig into an unforgettable event – one which could never be replaced simply by listening to recorded music at home.

Tickets are only £4.50. Buy some.

Declaration of intent: collaborations, brokerage, weird shit and ecosystems

This is still shifting around a bit too much to go on the Many & Varied website as something concrete, so putting it here more as thinkings-in-progress…


For a long time now I’ve found myself having conversations with people about how we’d like things to be different; about what’s missing in the Midlands; about how we often seem to meet up Elsewhere, because that’s where the stuff that feeds our practices is.

A few weeks ago I gathered together some of the people I’d been having these conversations with and we sat down and asked the question “so are we going to do something about it?”.

The team was selected on the basis of being proactive folks having a wide range of skills and backgrounds, here’s who was present:

David Checkley – Involved with festival style events and performances (such as Shambala and ProjectXPresents); Senior Teaching Technician, School of Electronic, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Birmingham; has helped several arts spaces across Birmingham get set up with electrics and lights etc.

Katie Day // @otherwayworks – Artistic Director at theatre company The Other Way Works; produced the Theatre Sandbox scheme for iShed, working with six regional venues to commission six new projects that explored the use of pervasive media in live performance.

Alyson Fielding // @alysonf – Managing Director of Pyuda, (storytelling, digital content, play); currently doing work for the Government Digital Service team; leads sessions for TeenTech; also working on various artistic/cultural projects.

Nikki Pugh // @nikkipugh – Me. Artist working at the intersection of people, place, playfulness and technology; founder of Many & Varied; co-founder of Birmingham’s first hackspace fizzPOP and mover and shaker for events there for a few years.

Antonio Roberts // @hellocatfoodArtist, curator and VJ; another fizzPOP co-founder, mover and shaker; runs events like Bring Your Own Beamer and GLI.TC/H.

Kim Wall // @kimble4 – Herder of bytes, electrons, photons and cats. Actively involved with Many & Varied, co-creator of Fun Factories and interactive igloos.

So between us we had a lot of angles covered, but we quickly identified that our concerns were similar. I’ll add the notes I made from the meeting to the bottom of this post, but the executive summary is that some or all of us will be working together to put things in place for a Midlands-based interdisciplinary hub of some sort. As the next iteration of Many & Varied we’ll be designing and delivering a programme of research, events and activities that move us a few steps further along that path.

We’re developing that programme now and identifying the research questions we want to address through it. If you’re thinking along similar lines or have thoughts/resources to contribute, then please get in touch.

Summary of meeting on 24th of November 2013

The challenges:
– Birmingham (and the wider West Midlands region) is missing a FACT- or a Watershed-like institution to champion and facilitate interesting interdisciplinary works [do we want to use the ‘D’ word? is it healthy?]
– Finding places to make (physical) stuff is difficult
– Finding people to collaborate with is difficult
– Intermediate layers of administrators can suck up disproportional amounts of the limited funding available to artists
– Birmingham often feels like it doesn’t ‘get’ interdisciplinarity, with newer artforms lacking support and people being judged on day jobs and academic background (or lack thereof)
– It’s difficult to find/make space in which to play/learn/explore

Ideal ecosystem:
Space and facilities for making things
– Fun and inclusive
– Where weird shit can happen
– Embraces interdisciplinarity (including in same person)

Space and facilities for meeting people (may not be the same physical space as above)
– Talking as a currency (also see PM Studio’s contract of interruptibility)
– Co-working/hot-desking options
– Events that bring people together
– Facilitates serendipity and bringing together potential collaborators

Admin component
– Optional – can access the hub without buying into training etc
– Advocates for interesting stuff, showcasing good projects
– Brokers for funding
– Initiates projects that give purpose to collaborations
– Approachable at the start of a project to fast-track linking up with people and resources
– Promotes collaborations (cf contracting for services) and the skills required for this

Short-term aims:
– To develop a community of interesting people
– To develop a culture of open, interdisciplinary events
– To get in place what we can in terms of community and infrastructure, so that we can hit the ground running when we get to the stage where we need to ask for support and money/membership etc
– To begin to identify sources of income and strategies for sustainability

Short-term actions:
– Sort out a programme of events that bring people together and explore initial questions about what might or might not work
– Get clued up on what else is going on the the region

Inkvisible #4: smooth moves and scribbles

Today was our last day of Inkvisible playtesting. Having decided to move away from the L.A.S.E.R Tag software to a motion-tracking based system, it turns out we still stayed with the Graffiti Research Lab.

Ben Eaton hacked an installation of BlitzTag to work with a Kinect sensor.

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

After a bit of configuration for the space, we started getting our first curious bystanders.

They rapidly became participants!

Inkvisible Day 4

The first observation was that this system gave much smoother results. Strangely the projected line almost felt elastic at times. The second was that people seemed to get really very absorbed into the movements – in the same way that you might run your fingers through sand on the beach or trail them through water. It’s quite a different experience from the version that tracks a laser pointer. This is much more about the movement of the body.

The snippet of video gives a small sense of this, but basically we were finding that people (of all ages) were doing this for several minutes, content to just swirl their arm around and see the traces formed.

With very few exceptions, the results all looked like this:

Inkvisible Day 4

Although we did have one or two cases of people writing their names:

Inkvisible Day 4

People seemed to filter out the paintings we were hoping they might respond too. I think most people would have preferred to have had a blank area of wall to mark onto.

This, however, was not what we were trying to investigate so, time to change things up a little!

We relocated to the gallery next door and set up over an abstract painting. Here we wanted to see if we could find a base layer that resonated more with the projected graffiti layer.

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

It started to show some promise, so we did a slow pan of the room to see what different scales and substrates did.

I very much liked the feel of working on a huge scale as when happened when the projector reached down to the far end of the room. The corresponding drop in intensity was noticeable though, in that the lines were quite faint. It would be really good to try something on this scale, but with a much more powerful projector so that the results are still vibrant.

Next we came to Ana Maria Pacheco’s Man and His Sheep.

Oh yes.

Now we started to be actually interacting with the artwork. Admittedly still through kind of scribbling, but when you mark across a face, a part of you feels it on your face too.

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

Inkvisible Day 4

So, this was significant not only for the shift in interaction, but also because this was the first time we had been able to successfully project onto 3D sculpture (reflection and scatter problems with the lasers).

Both systems we trialled have their pros and cons. In particular with this one we missed the ease of being able to tweak settings and the effect of the paint drips.

As with L.A.S.E.R. Tag, BlitzTag was not without its quirks when it came to problems with tracking. For some reason it simply would not detect and respond to the movements of several people.

We weren’t really in a situation that enabled us to do de-bugging of what was causing this, but we suspect it to be partly to do with differences in clothing.

Inkvisible Day 4

The system was generally able to detect me, so we devised a couple of work-arounds that sometimes worked. The first was to give people my brown shirt to wear (see above) and the other was for me to stand in front of people to act as a sort of shield.

In summary we think this has got a lot of potential, but we think any next steps would benefit from a particular context (giving a direction to the types of responses being sought) and a big chunk of time that could be spent de-bugging the installation and customising the nature of the projections.

That’s us out of time, though. Next week we report our findings back at King’s College.

Inkvisible #3: Associations, assumptions and frustrations

Having previously decided on our location and homed in on some of the aspects of interaction that we wanted to encourage during a planned final even, our aim for last Friday was to set up in situ and perfect the tech and social set-ups.

It all started well, with some excellent exchanges. Following an observation from Ben, we made a bit more of people having their photos taken alongside the marks they had made.

Inkvisible Day 3

We’re interested in how this may change the dynamics of what people draw and also the ownership they take of it.

Inkvisible Day 3

A Dutch artist echoed the paintings she usually does that consist of white and blue lines. She was very keen to take lots of photos of everything and there was a very strong sense that she would go on to share these with others.

Inkvisible Day 3

We don’t often get people writing text (it’s quite difficult, especially on your first attempt), but someone who I’m guessing was a visitor from East Asia, contributed an I ♥ You.

I’m curious about how this behaviour might relate to whether people consider themselves tourists or not. As a nice juxtaposition, though, this member of staff was also keen to have a go and to know where she could find her photo online afterwards. (pssst! It’s here!)

Inkvisible Day 3

We also had our first genitalia drawn – suffice to say from an unexpected source!

It’s been very interesting talking to people and finding out about their expectations and assumptions about what ‘everyone else must draw’. We think there’s some interesting psychology going on here beyond anything too Freudian.

Unfortunately we then hit a point where the technology started to seize up on us; first working intermittently and then failing to work at all.

This has scuppered our plans to hold a formal event at the end of the month, however you could argue it has furthered our learning and the conversations around it quite a bit.

After some wrangling we decided we couldn’t run an advertised event with the technology being as unpredictable as it was. We have a fair idea of what we are asking from such an event though, and increasingly how to achieve that, so we’re still going to design and plan one – we’re just not going to try and make it happen just yet.

In the meantime we’ve still got one more day at BMAG: stay tuned to find out how we’re going to use it…

Inkvisible #2: Provocations

Last week we had our second playtesting day for the Inkvisible project. (Here’s the write-up of the first one.) This time I was at BMAG with Dr Gretchen Larsen, our King’s College academic.

With or without a PhD, we all start in the same way!

After struggling to get the L.A.S.E.R. Tag software we’re using to track our green laser pointer in the orange space of the Buddha Gallery, I’d bought a purple laser pointer to try out. In parallel to this, we’d also been talking to a BMAG conservator to ensure our lasers aren’t doing any damage.

It turns out there’s not a lot of published research regarding the use of laser pointers for drawing graffiti within the museum environment!

The conservator is going to do some calculations and research into fluence and intensity, and whilst we think we’re a long way off the sorts of powers, spot sizes or exposure times that would be needed to do any damage, we’re making sure we err on the side of caution.

Inkvisible Day 2

This means that we will restrict the use of our green lasers to glazed oil paintings (framed behind glass), ceramics and sculptures, and our purple laser (with its shorter wavelength and increased likelihood of generating ultra violet radiation) to only ceramics and sculptures. Fortunately the area in the Buddha Gallery we were interested in using contains stone and bronze statues.

Inkvisible Day 2

We’re interested in this particular gallery partly because of its links to a community that come to leave devotional offerings and partly because of the overlooking balcony that means we can potentially project down into the space.

This affordance of being able to have all the technology up out of sight seemed to have a distinct effect on the interactions with museum visitors. In contrast to when we had the projector and laptop out in plain view and people readily came up to ask us what we were doing, here the mechanics were somewhat hidden and people tended to stay back to watch from a distance. We could still hear the appreciative exclamations, but it was almost as if when the workings are visible they act as an invitation for people to come up and ask what’s happening and how it works.

We’re also wondering if this effect is related to how many people are with the laser – if it’s just one, do visitors feel they need to leave them alone to do whatever it is they’re concentrating on?

Whilst the invitation seemed to have been removed, it was replaced with more of a sense of magic. “Is it real?”, one man was heard to say.

Something else was to become apparent too: the big bronze statue of Buddha didn’t like the laser!

Inkvisible Day 2

The above image might look like a lot of indiscriminate scribbling, but it’s us trying to figure out why the projected graffiti would stop as the laser passed over the statue. With a bit of tweaking of the software settings, we managed to get the laser to track over the (basalt, I think) surround, however we could not directly draw any traces over the statue itself. (Only drips or traces that were offset due to tracking misalignment.) We think this was because of the reflective relief metallic surface bouncing the laser off in all sorts of directions therefore making it invisible to the tracking camera.

The result was really quite eerie and added to the feeling of transgression.

The same thing happened when we tried the statue of Lucifer in the Round Room.

Our next stop was one of the Pre-Raphaelite galleries. Having had a wander around the museum we felt that Inkvisible would work best in the more traditional galleries: the new history galleries for example are lovely and spiffy, but our stuff would just look too normal in them, it would disappear.

The Pre-Raphaelite collection at BMAG is renowned and attracts a lot of visitors expecting a particular kind of museum experience. We deliberately sited ourselves here to get a feel for what sort of responses disrupting that would produce.

Inkvisible Day 2

This was our first interaction: a woman who was drawn to it as if to a car crash. She was horrified at the prospect of having marked over the paintings, but couldn’t tear herself away. Result.

Inkvisible Day 2

Not long afterwards we were descended upon by a series of groups of school children. Rising to the challenge we invited them to take part, giving as many of them a go as we were able to.

This was good learning for us as up until now we had only dealt with participants in twos or threes. Instigating countdowns to mark the end of turns and designating a Special Assistant to help with clearing the screen, we kept groups of about 10 7-year-olds engaged at a time.

Chatting to them between changeovers it was interesting to explore the extent to which they had already been trained in ‘appropriate’ museum behaviour. They enjoyed the opportunity to draw all over the walls and to not get into serious/expensive trouble!

Inkvisible Day 2

We were a bit nervous about handing over some Class 2 lasers to some excited small children, so for the most part we used an alternative method. Rather than tracking laser light reflected off of the walls and paintings, here we used a torch held so it pointed straight back towards the camera.

This had obvious advantages in terms of safety for both the artefacts and the participants, but it lacks something in the feedback for your movements that you get with the laser pointer unless you are right up close to the projection surface.

I like this a lot – it’s a very different experience when you can see the brush marks on the surface you are graffiti-ing over and this method also encourages you to move your (whole) body in a different way. We got some of the groups to try jumping and making marks as high as they could.

Inkvisible Day 2

Struggling a bit with the lack of correlation between movement and mark, also with the tracking system not being able to keep up with very fast movements, we switched back to the laser pointer method with some of the later groups.

Here it was very apparent that the children would treat the area of wall above the paintings as their canvas, avoiding the artworks below unless they were specifically encouraged to work lower down.

Inkvisible Day 2

After the school groups had all got on their respective coaches, we were paid a few visits by chaps from the Digital Heritage Demonstrator project. One of the comments was “I bet everyone draws lines across the eyes straight away”. Well, er, no, actually. Nobody had! It was interesting to think about what people assumed would be the obvious first thing to do.

We’ll be running a public event on the 26th of July where you can come and do some mark-making of your own.

What will you do?

Many & Varied

A couple of months ago I was approached by the arts team at The Public about spending some time with them on a residency based around hackspace activities – something they want to be more involved with in the future.

Following a successful application for Arts Council funding, I’m now working under the umbrella of Many & Varied to deliver a programme of events and consultancy based around themes of maker culture and DIY technology.

maker hands

I learned a lot through co-founding and helping to organise events for fizzPOP for a year or two. Also during the following years where I have run various workshops as myself. Many & Varied is the next iteration in the evolution of these and my attempt to respond to things I have noticed, struggled with and aspired to.

First stop is the programme of events at The Public and we’re working on some Big Exciting Things for after that.

Stand by for events that embrace and nurture a wide range of skills, media and fun.

Inkvisible #1: Getting to know the medium

Last month I was invited to take part in in Arts and the Digital Ideas Lab (part of King’s Cultural Institute’s Creative Futures programme, produced in collaboration with Caper) as a creative technologist.

About 40 people took part – split more-or-less evenly split between representatives of academia (primarily King’s College London), cultural organisations (such as the Maritime Museum, Coney, Crafts Council and the Royal Shakespeare Company) and the creative technologists (always a delightfully ‘misc’ collection).

At a previous event 19 challenges had been arrived at and we started off by aligning ourselves to one of these. I gravitated towards “How can we nurture and sustain spaces for collective creative and critical thought in the digital world?”.

By the end of the day I was on a team pitching an idea that we later wrote up as:

Inkvisible is a hybrid framework of digital, projected graffiti; game mechanics; and narrative applied within the interior space of the museum.

Our aim for this phase of the project is to playtest different variations of the framework at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) in order to gain an understanding of how it can be applied to create a channel through which the audience’s critical voice can be expressed and heard.

We got some money; we got the go-ahead from BMAG and now we’re doing it!

Starting yesterday, we began what’s effectively a 4-day residency to get to grips with what the affordances of this idea might be.

‘We’ now being a team consisting of:

(Others also contributed to the development of the initial idea.)

So, our first task was to get to grips with the technology we would be using to project the graffiti. We’d short-listed the Graffiti Research Lab’s L.A.S.E.R. Tag system (which seemed very much in the spirit of the voices we’re trying to encourage and the brief to use open source software as much as possible) and an alternative using motion sensing via a Kinect and outputting with Processing.

Ben and I set up in Gallery 10 and started experimenting…

Inkvisible Day 1

We had a bit if hoo-hah caused by insufficient cable-age and interference from the display cabinet lights, but before too long we were up and running and attracting curious observers.

Inkvisible Day 1

Inkvisible Day 1

It was immediately obvious that this was something that draws people (of all ages) in and can be used as a catalyst for conversation. Our task next is to make those conversations productive. We’ll be exploring that more when Dr Larsen and I are back in the museum again on Tuesday and Thursday next week.

For the remainder of yesterday’s experiments, we tried a few more locations.

Inkvisible Day 1

Our attempts at projecting down from the balcony into the Buddha Gallery were thwarted by what we think was a combination of distance, reflection angles and the background orange light.

Next we tried the iconic Round Room – the first bit of the collection you encounter as you come in from the main entrance.

Wanting to cover an area that overlapped with several paintings, we struggled again due to angles of incidence and the matt paint on the walls preventing the laser spot from being detected. We’ve been given permission by the conservation team to use our lasers on certain materials (not egg tempera, textiles or watercolours), but we don’t really want to upgrade to using a more powerful laser (we’re currently using Class 2).

So, out of a combination of necessity and curiosity, we then tried honing in on one single painting.

Inkvisible Day 1

Inkvisible Day 1

As you can imagine, this had a very different feel compared to when we were using a blank area of wall above the cabinet in the ceramics gallery.

Inkvisible Day 1

Inkvisible Day 1

Having a specific and almost-tangible object to interact with (you really get a sense of the (im)materiality of both the pigment and the overlaid light when you’re up close) gives the opportunity to respond to something in particular.

Inkvisible Day 1

Inkvisible Day 1

We had people telling us about what they thought of the painting, for example: having grown up in that area of Oxfordshire and how the landscape reminds them of home. We also had someone backing-off to sit down and think for a bit before returning and asking to write the word ‘sky’ – the element that struck her the most.

The location in this part of the museum was very well trafficked and we had an almost constant stream of people coming up to us to ask questions, share their thoughts and give it a go.

People’s responses were not always positive – which I think is fair enough – and these were also important conversations to have. A few people said they didn’t see the point and one man in particular felt that we were being quite disrespectful to the work of the artist.

That last conversation came towards the end of the day when the overlaid projections were getting quite scribbly and doodley. Our experiments also came the day after a portrait of the Queen was defaced with real spray paint.

Inkvisible Day 1

It seems that use of the laser pen and seeing the resulting ‘paint’ traces is experience enough, and we’re not sure how much narrative we want – or need – to wrap it up in. What I think we will have to focus our efforts on is how to steer the use of this tool towards eliciting comment on the institution.

We’re in again playtesting on Tuesday and Thursday next week (18th and 20th of June) – do pop in and join the experiment.

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