Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity: Wolverhampton exhibition

Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity will be exhibited alongside the Wolverhampton School of Art MA show taking place at Wolverhampton Art Gallery between the 1st and 9th of October. Full details here: http://www.wlv.ac.uk/mashow/

Below is the text I wrote to accompany the moving Orrery (playing back sections of four different rides) and the audio of conversations between myself of Hannah Nicklin, Emily Chappell and Tina Tylen.

Orrery detail

Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity is an ongoing project that asks questions about the physical and emotional experiences of cycling, the physical and emotional experiences of being the person left at home, and the frictions of data visualisation.

Various live tracking services exist that enable you to ‘watch’ cyclists as they make their journeys. Usually this involves a web page showing a map, a marker icon representing the person pedalling and maybe a line showing the route they have taken so far. Known as ‘dot-watching’, following the progress of riders in this way is highly addictive and—along with social media—is a big part of the audience’s experience of events such as the Transcontinental Race (Belgium to Turkey via various mountainous checkpoints) or the Tour Divide (Canada to Mexico along the Rocky Mountains) as well as individuals making record attempts.

Working from the starting point that the tools we use tend to influence the way we think and talk about things, Nikki has made the Orrery as an alternative to dot-watching in order to use it as a prop for conversations about the tools we use already and how different tools might open up different avenues of thought.

A physical object with elements that are raised, rotated, rattled and illuminated, the Orrery is driven by the same GPS data as the map-based tracking websites, but rather than showing us where the rider is, how far they have gone and how fast they are moving, it instead conveys something of the moment-to-moment experience of being on the bike. Is the rider struggling up a hill, experiencing an exhilarating descent, battling a headwind or immersed in the arriving dawn?

Here the Orrery is accompanied by audio from conversations between Nikki and Hannah Nicklin, Emily Chappell and Tina Tylen.

Last year Hannah competed in an Ironman distance triathlon (a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile cycle and a 26.2 mile run). Nikki and others gathered online with bated breath, hitting refresh on the results page and waiting for news that she’d made it around the course after some 14 hours.

Emily is known for doing big adventurous bike rides and for writing about them. After an aborted attempt in 2015, this year she completed the Transcontinental Race in 13 days, 10 hours and 28 minutes. Her father’s spreadsheets of her rides form a counterpoint to Emily’s experiences of dot-watching and of being the dot that is watched.

Tina is the mother—and the support crew—for her daughter Kajsa as she attempts to break the women’s year record by cycling more than 29,603 miles before the end of 2016. Tina watches Kajsa’s dot to gauge if all is well …and to check if there’s enough time to nip out to the supermarket before she gets back.

Inevitably this is not a project about data or electronics or even bikes, but about connections between people.

The Orrery is replaying sections from the following rides:
Mark Chappell // Wind Farm and Wild Dogs. (1 hour 25 minutes)
Kajsa Tylen // Starting Out. (1 hour)
Emily Chappell // The Gradient and the Effort and Everything That’s Gone Before. (1 hour)
Hannah Nicklin // Horrible Horrible Rain and Wind. Freezing. (1 hour)

Orrery detail

Orrery detail

Orrery detail

Orrery detail

Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Also with thanks to:

  • Mike Cummins, Jez Higgins and Kim Wall for programming skills.
  • Phil Smith (Enginuity) and uMake for fabrication facilities.
  • Emily Chappell, Mark Chappell, Hannah Nicklin, Tina Tylen, Kajsa Tylen and everyone else who has contributed brains and/or brawn to the project.

Processes of identification

As indicated previously, the conceptual base for the project I’m doing as part of my residency at Wolverhampton School of Art has shifted radically over the last few weeks. One of the results of this is that the old title – Ride – now neither seems to belong to this project, nor feels appropriate.

The project needs a new name.

The project needs a new name …and it needs one reasonably soon because I’m starting to bring in funders and collaborators and, if you’re asking people to come in on on a thing, it really helps if that thing is a named entity. Naming things is hard, though; especially things that don’t yet exist. On top of these usual difficulties, this is one of those projects where I’m building the thing to better understand the nature of the thing, so naming it now seems even more back-to-front.

Needs must, however, so I took to my virtual studio (Twitter) in order to try and find some of the right words for the as yet hazy associations I’m trying to corral and give form to.

I must have hit a good time to catch people on their lunch breaks, because what followed was a very intense hour with various concurrent conversations taking place in which several people shared references and parts of their own stories. I’ve gathered together the individual threads here.

Several days later, the images and associations that are still lingering with me include:
* Migration (of going away and coming back again, of an instinctive urge to travel, of seasonal rhythms)
* Orbiting (of having some central point about which to circle, and also of the centripetal forces that continuously nudge the orbiting body)
* The final verses of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, where John Donne uses the metaphor of a pair of compasses to illustrate the sense of one person remaining rooted in place, thereby allowing the moving person to accurately complete their circuit. [notes]
* “The thin warble of telemetry”
* More of a sense of what it means to be the person left behind (who the cabinet will fulfil a function for)
* And orreries as a similar form to the mechanical cabinet I’m making.

Although I had a lot of stuff coming at me in that hour, it really helped me to focus in on the things that are important to me with regards to this piece of work. (Thanks everyone!)

What I hadn’t anticipated was how this process would also help me to be able to visualise more clearly the form I want the insides of the cabinet to take. Whereas previously I had a sense of what I wanted to pull out of the data and that this bit might be communicated through a series of cams and how this bit might be converted into light etc, etc, now I’m thinking in terms of “this bit will reference constellations” and “this bit will reference a flock of birds”.

Alongside the naming process, I’ve also had to start articulating what the project is about to potential collaborators. Articulating it outside of my head. Out loud. With sentences and that.

In a phone conversation a week ago I found my articulations falling over at the point where I was trying to describe the sort of stories I might want to curate to sit alongside the sculptural element of the work. I found myself resorting to the word ‘epic’ a lot in describing some cycled journeys and fumbling around trying to express the not-so-epic cycled journeys I think I’ll want to bring into the mix to balance these. I’ve since spent some time thinking about why this was so problematic and have come to the realisation that the epic nature of the first batch of rides is not the story of them that I want to be telling.

Remember how this project is about exploring how we might have different conversations with my mechanical cabinet as the prop (compared to Strava maps or live-trackers). I think I’m coming to realise that’s partly about recognising that the big, epic rides comprise the same battles with gravity and weather and stubborn thought patterns that everyone else’s rides are made from too, just that there are more of them strung together in one trip!

[I’m very tempted to name the piece “Orrery for Bastard Hill and Headwind, but I will attempt to come up with something more poetic before that sticks!]

I don’t think I was very likely to do so before, but now I have a renewed pledge to not keep a tally of miles travelled, instead thinking more in terms of just quietly marking their passing and of the rhythms of the miles rather than the size of the cumulations or the speed of their acquisition.

So yes: quite a lot of identification having gone on over the last week, both processes having hinged off of conversations and speaking/typing things out loud. Here too, blogging about it in order to continue to coalesce those thoughts and encourage things to continue to take shape.

Maquettes and learning through doing

For the last couple of days at Wolverhampton I’ve been working through what form the cabinet might take this time around.

Last time around it was a rectangular Nikki-sized construction with a porthole through which you could peer through and see the innards moving around. Except not everyone could peer through – I was mortified when I realised a friend in a wheelchair couldn’t quite get high enough to have a look at what was going on inside.

Since then I’ve been trying to find a balancing point between accessibility and also being very attached to not wanting the cabinet to reveal all of itself too easily. I like it when you have to make a deliberate physical action to view something, bringing you out of passive viewing mode and back into a body and 3D space.

maquette

I’ve been experimenting with a sort of locket form, trying to get a feel for what it’s like to look inside and move around to see different parts of it.

Here’s the first maquette I tried to work out what sort of angle of the top part might function best at:

maquette

It seemed like it might be somewhere along the right line, so I’ve been thinking about how this might then scale up and how it might be made out of more structural materials. Top of the list at the moment is a layered form out of plywood, but I wasn’t sure how that would work out, so back to the cardboard…

maquette

maquette

maquette

Still feeling optimistic about it!

Next stage is to work out what’s to go inside it and then scale things up accordingly.

Meanwhile, it’s now looking unlikely that I’ll be able to do the cycle ride I’d planned to use to animate the cabinet. As a result I’m having a bit of a rethink about how the cabinet might manifest as part of a final piece of work. It’s been a bit hard to let go of my original plan, but mixed in with that is also the realisation that it’s also almost certainly going to be a stronger piece of work now as a result.

The original plan was, after all, based on the pilot project I did back in 2013 and my thinking has moved on a bit since then, as have the questions I’m asking of/through my practice. With last year’s Where the Sky Widens and current R&D for Colony I began to pay closer attention to the spaces and frameworks I was making for conversation and for the sharing of stories. Of where we could get to through using the things I make.

Whereas so far in this residency I’ve been talking about how I’m interested in how having a visualisation of the effort the rider is having to put in (rather than a pin-marker on a map giving just location) changes the conversation, now things are shifting more towards me actively seeking out those conversations rather than disappearing off on my bike for a week – which would have been differently good! – but I always had the nagging feeling that that wasn’t really where the action was and that something was missing.

The thing is I’ve not worked much in this way before, so I’m having to feel my way through in much the same was as I’m doing with the maquettes to help me arrive at the physical form of the cabinet. Try something; sit with it a bit; see how I feel about it; next steps; iterate.

Land’s End

As a follow on to the previous post, this morning my mum came into the room brandishing a photo:

Lands End

A group photo of all the people on the coach tour my great grandmother Ida took in 1950.

Here she is in the dark hat on the left with two of her sisters to the right of her:

Lands End detail

The coach is branded “Smiths”. I assume it’s the same Wigan-based Smiths that went on to become Shearings through a series of mergers.

The back of the photo is stamped 7th of June and marked up as being taken by Richards Bros, photographers based in Penzance.

Travelled just over 1,000 miles

When my gran died, I inherited her postcard collection.

Tucked in amongst the postcards, we found a handwritten list of British placenames.

Quite a long list.

The list

The list

It’s the itinerary from a seven-day bus tour my great grandmother Ida took in June 1950. Departing from Northenden at 7am (presumably where she’d been staying with some of her many sisters – we’re not sure if any of them accompanied her on the tour update – we’ve got this photo), she then got a taxi into Manchester, a bus over to Wigan and then boarded a long-distance bus bound for the South West.

Ida

Some of the photos we have of my great grandmother Ida

Her journey took her down the Welsh Marches then into Devon and Cornwall, where she spent most of her week away.

I’ve plotted the places from her list onto a map:

All of the places on the list plotted on a map

All of the places on the list plotted on a map

(Did I mention it was quite a long list?)

1000

1000

The reason this list found its way into my gran’s postcard collection, was that Ida had bought various postcards during her tour to mark the places she’d visited: Tewkesbury Abbey; caves at Cheddar Gorge; the postbox at Land’s End…

Some of the postcards Ida bought as mementos of her trip

Some of the postcards Ida bought as mementos of her trip

I knew as soon as I found the list that one day I would re-trace the journey that Ida documented, but it’s taken 15 years for the right time to come. With the residency I’m currently doing at Wolverhampton being based around a mechanical cabinet as a device for linking observers with someone travelling by bicycle, I needed a suitable journey to undertake to provide the data to animate the cabinet’s workings. A journey that would feed the themes of effort and connection that I’m wanting to explore. That’ll be this one, then!

So I started looking at that sequence of locations in more detail, wondering how it might work out as a cycling route. Not too badly, it turns out. One thing that rapidly became apparent however, was that I’m not going to be able to do the whole trip in one go. Taking just her first day though, Northenden to Bristol, works out at a decent 300 mile cycle tour and about 8 days of pedalling.

Day One of Ida's tour

Day One of Ida’s tour with purple place-markers and my cycle route starting to get filled in between them.

My planned route in blue, and a likely route Ida may have taken in cyan

My planned route in blue, and a likely A-road route Ida may have taken in cyan. Not a bad match for most of the route

I’m planning on taking camping gear with me and overnighting at campsites, so that’s influenced my route a bit, as has trying to avoid too much unpleasantness in urban areas. I’ve also afforded myself leeway to divert a bit for good bridges or other points of interest such as the Dramway – a horse and gravity powered line transporting coal from collieries north of Bristol down to the River Avon. ‘cos, y’know, if I’m going to cycle 300 miles, I’m going to make sure I savour the opportunity to see things that I’d otherwise be oblivious to if I was travelling by car.

Other diversions have also had to be put into operation. I’ve not done an awful lot of cycle touring before, but I’ve already learned that the official National Cycle Network‘s approach to routing isn’t always amenable to a fully-loaded touring bike. These two bits across fields, for example:

National Cycle Route 5

National Cycle Route 5

National Cycle Route 5

National Cycle Route 5

So, with my route largely based on some of the National Cycle Routes, but amended after checking with others’ experiences and scouring the satellite view of it all, I think I’ve pretty much got 8 days of 30-40 miles pinned down. This should be a nice balance between covering ground, being able to stop and explore stuff encountered en route, and having time to sketch and reflect.

I’ve really enjoyed the last week of poring over maps and putting together my cycling route. Hat tip to http://www.gpxeditor.co.uk which has been an invaluable tool. It’s tempting to jump in and start doing the same for the remaining 6 days of Ida’s tour. If nothing else it’s like vicarious cycle touring pleasure whilst the weather’s wet and wintery.

Whereas I think her first day was mostly about getting to the South West, it seems she leapfrogged about a lot more once she was down in Cornwall. That first stage of translating a series of place names into a journey through the in-between places is going to be an interesting one. I suspect the terrain’s going to get a lot lumpier too!

It looks like this section of the trip’s going to happen in early June. So quite an excruciatingly long wait between now and then. I do need to build that mechanical cabinet though, and I also want to experiment with making a few modifications to my tent, so there’s plenty to be done in the meantime! First task, whilst I’m waiting to get back in the workshops: read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust…

[Edit: me actually cycling this in June is now looking unlikely due to knees] :-(

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



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