Just over a week ago the Tupunis Slow Food Festival on Tanna island, Vanuatu concluded. It was the first festival of its kind held in Melanesia – bringing together people from Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, New Caledonia (Kanaky); the Solomon islands and Fiji to celebrate traditional ways of producing and preparing food as part of a redefinition of “development”; rejecting the simple monetary definitions (dollars per day) and exploitative, extractive industries that characterise what global institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF define as development in favour of alternative criteria that recognise the value of sustainable land and sea tenure, the qualities of organic grown food and traditional methods of preparation, and the richness of lives not governed by the need for money. The festival was organised by a coalition of local organisations (including Vanuatu Slow Food Network, Vanuatu Land Defence Desk, Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Tafea Cultural Centre) and supported by The Christensen Fund as well as the Vanuatu Government.
As part of our TK Reite Notebooks project, James Leach and I travelled to participate in the festival along with three people from Reite village in Papua New Guinea – Porer Nombo, Pinbin Sisau and Urufaf Anip – with whom we have been co-designing the TKRN toolkit since 2012. Our trip was intended to bring the TKRN project and toolkit to a wider audience of Melanesians interested in documenting and preserving traditional culture – with the focus on presentation being led by Reite people themselves (rather than James and myself). Our role was to facilitate and support, with the key exchange of ideas, tools and processes taking place between people indigenous to Melanesia themselves.
This is a key aspect of the project for us – having our co-design collaborators from Reite village be identified and engaged with as cultural leaders in their own right who are actively taking steps to document and transmit their living culture and knowledge traditions to future generations in the face of extreme pressure from “development”. For most of our time we were also accompanied by Yat Paol, a PNG man of the Gildipasi community with whom we worked in Tokain village earlier this year (and a representative of The Christensen Fund in PNG). Yat’s insight and gentle wisdom concerning the importance of self-documentation of traditional knowledge as a means for indigenous people to empower themselves has been a source of inspiration and a great sounding board for us.
Porer and Pinbin represented Reite on a panel bringing perspectives from various Melanesian communities and spoke about the project and the importance of kastom, land and bush. For many people at the festival the emphasis was on a return to traditional ways of life – having two people who come from a community that maintains its traditional way of life speak about what it means to them and their families truly caught the mood of the audience and their response was fantastic, giving rousing applause.
The festival ran over 5 days and had speakers from across the region, as well as performances by cultural groups, traditional crafts, music and demonstrations of new ideas for food preservation and health initiatives. Moreover, each day traditional foods were prepared and cooked by people from all the provinces and islands of Vanuatu (and New Caledonia) for attendees to sample. Thus we were feasted on a daily basis on everything from (and often in locally specific combinations of) taro, yam, manioc, tapioca, cassava, banana to fish, coconut crab, goat and beef.
At the festival we connected with Canadian anthropologist, Jean Mitchell, who is running a project (Tanna Ecologies Gardens & Youth Project) with young people on Tanna documenting and recording kastom gardens and traditional foods. James, Urufaf and I ran a TKRN workshop with a group of them, teaching them to fold and make notebooks, as well as co-designing a new custom notebook for their project. A couple of days later we demonstrated scanning in the first few completed books and printed out copies for the young people who had made them. Our simple bush publishing set up of laptop, scanner and printer meant that we were able to do this quickly and simply – working in basic conditions on site and being able to carry all the equipment we needed in a couple of backpacks. Jean’s project is an extension of one she originally developed in 1997, the Vanuatu Young People’s Project, with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Over the next two years the young people on Tanna will be documenting as much knowledge about traditional kastom gardens as they can, using the TKRN toolkit as their primary tool. Jean has worked with them this summer to develop a questionnaire template which has been adapted for the notebooks:
Once back in Port Vila, Jean also arranged for us to train a couple of young people who will be sharing their skills with the men fieldworkers of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre at the annual fieldworkers’ meeting at the end of September. This will complement the work we did in March with the women fieldworkers and hopefully bring the TKRN toolkit to many different communities across Vanuatu.
At the festival we also met and had great conversations with Dr Ruth Spriggs and Theonila Roka-Matbob from Bougainville (a semi-autonomous part of PNG), who are setting up an Indigenous Research Centre on the island, and Professor John Waiko of Oro Province PNG and his son, filmmaker and slow food activist Bao Waiko, from Markham Valley PNG (where he lives with his wife, Jennifer Baing-Waiko, also co-director of Save PNG). We’re hoping to share the TKRN toolkit with their initiatives as part of our next steps.
A highlight of our trip was a visit to Tanna’s famous Mount Yasur volcano, truly awe inspiring:
Before attending the Tupunis festival, we took the opportunity to build on a relationship we had initiated with Wan Smolbag Theatre during our previous trip to Vanuatu earlier this year. Through co-founder Jo Dorras we were introduced to researcher Ben Kaurua and digital trainer Cobi Smith with whom we ran a TKRN workshop introducing the books and documentation process to a group of young volunteers who work with various island communities living in and around Port Vila, the capital on Efate island. (I had designed a very simple custom notebook for WSB in advance of travelling). We were also introduced to some local Chiefs from the nearby Lali community and were invited to attend a ceremony that was part of a boys’ initiation ritual. We left WSB with some new equipment to assist them in using the TKRN toolkit (a Polaroid Snap camera/printer & Zink sheet packs, as well as a low cost Canon combined inkjet scanner and printer) and are hoping to see some results in the future.
Porer speaking at IUCN
After the festival, while I returned to the UK and Pinbin and Uru returned to Madang, James and Porer continued on their travels to participate in the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii. There they took part in a session on indigenous documentation to demonstrate the TKRN process and toolkit, and to discuss the complex issues facing traditional communities who wish to preserve their culture and values and to transmit them to future generations.
This trip was the final activity of our recent TKRN programme – we are now preparing a new programme of activities that aim to build a lasting legacy for the project and enable the establishment of a network of indigenous groups and local organisations in Melanesia to adopt and adapt the TKRN toolkit for themselves. Huge thanks are owed to Catherine Sparks of The Christensen Fund who made so much of this possible; funding many of the projects, organisations and the festival itself, as well as being the consummate connector introducing people and taking care so that everyone had the most productive time possible. Thanks also go out to Paula Aruhuri, Joel Simo and Jacob Kapere who were instrumental in inviting us, arranging travel and accommodation and making time and space for us on the programme.
I’ve recently returned from Papua New Guinea where, with James Leach, I have been doing field work for our TK Reite Notebooks (TKRN) project. This follows on from our work last year in Reite village on Madang’s Rai Coast, and also from our trip to Vanuatu in February, where we worked with a group of women fieldworkers and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.
Having established the model of working with the notebooks with Reite villagers last year, the focus of our trip in this second year of the project was not to produce more books, but to explore how and if the model would work with other communities and, to find other local partners for whom the tools and techniques we have developed could be useful additions to their own methods and practices of documenting traditional knowledge.
Through our close discussions with Catherine Sparks and Yat Paol of The Christensen Fund (our project’s main sponsor), we identified some possibilities – the Research + Conservation Foundation (RCF) of Papua New Guinea (in Goroka, Eastern Highland Province); and Tokain village, Bogia District (Madang Province). Having arrived in Madang and met up with two of our key collaborators from Reite – Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau – we made plans to travel up the coast to the village of Tokain and stay a few days to introduce our model to local people. James and I then travelled to Goroka to spend a day at RCF meeting with their director, Sangion Tiu, education programme manager, Emmie Betabete, and resource officer, Milan Korarome. We learnt about RCF’s work in communities and in teacher training, and presented our TKRN approach. This resonated strongly with RCF whose staff spoke of the problem of documenting traditional knowledge in both school and village settings. It was a lovely moment when their enthusiasm for the books spilled over and we decided on the spot to co-design a new template with them. We then spent a while devising questions about climate change for elementary schoolchildren, which RCF will pilot this summer.
We returned to Madang after this highly successful meeting and the next day set out for Tokain with Porer, Pinbin and another young man from Reite, Urufaf, who has become a key proponent of using the TKRN books in his own community. Piling aboard a PMV (an open back truck with benches and a tarpaulin for sun/rain cover) we bumped along the highway following the coast north for about 4 hours before arriving. Many people from the village turned out to meet us and hear Porer, Pinbin and James introduce what the Reite villagers had done with the TKRN books and why it was important to them to preserve and transmit their culture and knowledge to future generations this way. The following morning we walked around different parts of the village meeting people going to market and in the community office, where they have a laptop and printer/scanner of their own, giving us an opportunity to demonstrate the whole cycle of printing off a PDF booklet, filling it in, scanning and storing it as a PDF on the computer and printing out another copy of the scanned book.
Then we addressed all the students from the elementary and primary schools, their teachers and some of the village elders – again, the focus being on the Reite villagers explaining their use of the books and how the school in Reite had adopted the books as part of their own curriculum activities on environmental science and cultural heritage. This indigenous or local exchange of documentation practices (with James and myself taking a secondary role as facilitators rather than teachers) is very much the beginning of where we see the TKRN model developing in the future. The afternoon was spent workshopping ideas for the booklets and getting people used to the cutting and folding process for making up the books, as well as taking their photos to stick onto their books – always a popular aspect of the process. This continued well into the night with the convivial atmosphere of a house party surrounding the guesthouse where we stayed.
We left Tokain having agreed to meet up in a week or so’s time with a representative from the village who would bring us the first batch of completed books to scan and for me to build a simple website for – as I did last year for Reite (Reite Online Library).
From Madang we set off across Astrolabe Bay and down the Rai Coast to return to Reite for a few days and discuss with the community what had happened since our last field trip and what we proposed to do next. A meeting was organised and many people also came from neighbouring villages and hamlets: Sarangama, Asang, Marpungae and Serieng. Porer, Pinbin and Urufaf all spoke about the project, what was achieved last year, what we had just done at Tokain and how important it is for knowledge to continue to thrive and be passed on to future generations despite all the changes happening to the world around them. James also spoke of our visit to Vanuatu, how we had shared some of the Reite books with the indigenous fieldworkers there and we showed them some of the books made by the ni-Vanuatu people we met.
The response was dramatically positive, with people calling for a revival of teaching and learning in their traditional local language, Nekgini, alongside using Tok Pisin to document stories and practices. A core group of people interested in taking the lead to build up a library of traditional knowledge also emerged, a group who were also prepared to go ‘on patrol’ to other local villages to share with them the TKRN methods. We left over 250 blank books in the village, as well as a simple to operate Polaroid Snap camera (and several hundred sheets of Zink photo paper) to take and print out photos of people to stick on the front covers. By shifting the focus from the familiar and everyday towards the more esoteric, and perhaps endangered, types of knowledge of their environment that Reite people have, we are hoping they will be able to develop a truly unique and exemplary library that could inspire others across PNG, Melanesia and perhaps even farther afield to document their traditional knowledge before it is lost. We also took the opportunity to improve the design of the books, redesigning the front covers to allow for more contextual information about the author and the books contents, and rewriting the engaged consent statement on the front for better clarity.
Returning again to Madang we met with Ernest Kaket from Tokain and scanned in the books he’d brought with him from the village. These now form the foundation of their own online library which we hope to expand in due course.
Our next steps are to make a return visit to Vanuatu with a couple of Reite villagers to introduce their use of the TKRN model themselves; and to continue to develop the basis of a partnership with RCF as a means of extending the reach across PNG of the tools and methods we’ve co-created with Reite people.
This week I presented a new generation of lifecharm data shells at a symposium on ethics in data science for the Alan Turing Institute. The shells were created by Stefan Kueppers using the Lifestreams process for data manifestation, and used data from a research project led by Professor George Roussos at Birkbeck University of London which records symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease as experienced by sufferers.
These shells are an initial experiment flowing just 3 data sources into the shell growth parameters, which we hope to expand with further data sources and increase the complexity of the model in future generations. The aim is to capture the high variation in symptoms experienced by those with Parkinson’s as an alternative to the way in which patients’ complex symptoms are collapsed into the single summary statistic of the Universal Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale.
Read my provocation piece for the ATI symposium for more information.
Over the past 2 weeks I have been in Port Vila, Vanuatu in the South Pacific with James Leach and Lissant Bolton (Keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum) working with the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (Bislama for Vanuatu Cultural Centre). Lissant organised and led a special workshop with a group of women fieldworkers on the theme of current changes to kinship systems (supported by the Christensen Fund). The fieldworkers are ni-Vanuatu (local) people representing some of the many different vernacular language groups from across the many islands who do voluntary work to record and preserve traditional culture and knowledge. The fieldworker programme has been established and overseen by the Cultural Centre (VKS) for over 35 years and is a unique initiative where local people gather “cultural knowledges about all the aspects of the customary art of living of Vanuatu”. Each year the fieldworkers gather together to share their research with each other and contribute to the documentation held at the VKS.
Lissant had invited James and I to visit Vanuatu with her and introduce the TKRN toolkit and techniques to the fieldworkers participating in the kinship workshop, as well as to meet with others working on different projects at the VKS. The low cost and ease of use of the TKRN booklets – both for collecting documentation in rural settings as well as digitising and archiving (both online and as hard copies) – made it an obvious tool to share. Prior to leaving London, Lissant and I had made some initial examples of Bislama (the local pidgin) notebooks for Vanuatu similar to those created in Tok Pisin for Papua New Guinea. These would be tested with the women fieldworkers during the workshop and we planned to adapt them with their assistance, as we have done in PNG with local people from Reite village.
In Port Vila James and I were also were introduced to Paula Aruhuri of the Vanuatu Indigenous Land Defence Desk, an organisation that promotes awareness of indigenous custom and land rights across Vanuatu and campaigns to stop land alienation from traditional owners. With Paula we co-designed a simple reporting notebook for the fieldworkers who deliver awareness events to local communities that will assist the land desk in documenting local people’s concerns and how they might be able to help them. And we met with Edson Willie of the VKS Akioloji Unit (Heritage Unit), with whom we co-designed a notebook for fieldworkers to record heritage sites.
The women fieldworkers experimented with one of the notebook formats and helped us re-design the front cover and write up a more appropriate ethics statement that reflected their different concerns about sharing traditional knowledge. In this case they chose not to share their books online (as we did in Reite), but to have them scanned, re-printed and stored in the ‘Tabu Rum’ of the VKS, the audio-visual archives. Local concerns about rights to aspects of traditional knowledge in Melanesia are a major theme and extremely important to design for. Developing tactics and a strategy to enable clear documentation and permission for sharing has been at the heart of the TKRN co-design process. Lissant has written about this issue in the context of Vanuatu and it also reflects on James’ work with Porer Nombo from Reite on their book Reite Plants in this essay.
We are planning to return to Vanuatu later in the year with some Reite people to participate in a knowledge exchange around the TKRN toolkit and techniques with men and women fieldworkers of the VKS. In this way we hope to develop a model of adoption whereby communities learn from each other how to use and adapt the toolkit for their own purposes, with our role being more one of facilitation than education or training. As a toolkit designed from the grassroots up, I hope to continue expanding on the concept of ‘public authoring’ that has driven the development of bookleteer and the ‘shareables’ it enables people to make and share.
In late April James and I will return to Papua New Guinea to work with Reite villagers to introduce the TKRN toolkit to a couple of other villages in Madang Province – this should provide an good indication of the possibilities and limitations of how a model of community knowledge transfer and adaptation can work.
#MakingLondon was a workshop-based event which considered different approaches to how the creative and cultural industries can continue to innovate in an increasingly corporate and financial capital.
For more information on this and other Creative Conversations events go to http://blogs.gre.ac.uk/creativeconversations/
Ten years ago we published Public Authoring, Place and Mobility – a report on the Urban Tapestries project (2002-04) which brought together all that we had learned, described our methodologies and activities, evaluated our achievements and presented a series of policy proposals. I have been re-reading it to see how well our ideas have held up over the past decade, and to what extent they have been borne out by the development of social media, the mass adoption of smartphones and connected devices, and by social and cultural behaviours.
Urban Tapestries was conceived in June 2002, just after we had completed another project, Private Reveries, Public Spaces (2001-02), which explored the social and cultural impact of the emerging mobile communications revolution. We started to imagine what the effects would be on how people inhabit urban space once the physical topography of the city could be overlaid with an invisible data landscape accessible via mobile devices. Such “location based services” were then only in their infancy (in places like Japan via DoCoMo’s i-mode service) and nearly all the academic and industry research projects of the time focused on their potential use as tourist guides.
Urban Tapestries set out to imagine and investigate the everyday – how might people use them in everyday life: on the way to work or school, going to the supermarket, visiting the doctor, socialising or playing in a park. Funded through an unusual public/private mix, the project set out to peer into the future ten years or so ahead. We sought to articulate a vision that was grounded in actual social situations and cultural behaviours, and not just to rely on imagined scenarios and invented personas.
The report contains a wealth of observations and insights gained from our iterative and participatory process. We combined paper prototyping with social engagement, user trials of functioning systems in public settings as well as numerous public workshops and events where we shared and discussed our ideas as the project progressed. Below are some of the policy proposals which we made back in 2005 along with some comments on how the ideas behind them fare in 2015.
We followed UT with a 5 year programme of projects called Social Tapestries (2004-09), where we sought even further to embed our research in actual communities and situations. Through a series of discrete projects we explored our concepts of public authoring and social knowledge in ways that prefigured many of today’s familiar tropes : wearable sensors and citizen science, civic engagement and participation, big urban data and environmental mapping, hybrid digital/physical interfaces, robotics and hacking, to name a few. In these we sought extend and deepen the insights, working with real communities in actual places to explore what opportunities could become realities.
- Innovation from the margins to the centre
Governments, researchers and businesses need to pay greater attention to the needs of actual people in real contexts and situations rather than relying on marketing scenarios and user profiles.
Co-design and co-creation techniques along with iterative and agile development processes have become commonplace, especially through the concept of minimum viable product as a means of fast and iterative development of new products and services. Although not ubiquitous, they are far more likely to be present in the development of services that engage people, from the grassroots to industry, commerce and government. If this trend continues it bodes well for the role of the actual people in the design, testing and implementation processes of services intended for them.
- Open Networks for Mobile Data
Telecom network operators need to recognise the desires of people to communicate (by voice or data) with each other irrespective of the company they purchase their service from.
Its hard to think back to a time when mobile data was restricted to the network operators own “walled gardens”, but it was actually not so long ago. With recent changes to EU data roaming laws bringing down national barriers by 2018, a whole new wave of data mobility will be realised. ‘Net neutrality’ remains a contested standard though, as all kinds of network and service providers (not just mobile) increasingly converge their offers and seek to maximise revenues for high value content.
- Open Geo Data
There is a clear and pressing need for free public access to GIS data to make public authoring and a host of other useful geo-specific services possible.
The growth of open mapping platforms like Openstreetmap as well as services like Google Maps and Google Earth made possible the rapid growth of user-created georeferenced projects and services in a short space of time. Yet the major owners of GIS data (such as Ordnance Survey) have only slowly and partially opened up their systems for free use by the public. The planned release of the UK’s entire LIDAR data in 2015 by Defra may be a signal moment in the shift from the proprietary model of mapping by the state towards a more democratic understanding of mapping a a civil process in its own right.
- Reinvigoration of the Public Domain
Public authoring has the potential to be a powerful force in enriching the public domain through the sharing of information, knowledge and experiences by ordinary people about the places they live, work and play in.
Social media has exploded into the public realm and has arguably taken a significant role in facilitating entirely new ways for people to share what they know and experience, as well as to organise all manner of movements for action and change. People’s willingness to share with unknown others underlines the essential human quality that seeks to build new relationships, new communities wherever we go. In counterpoint, the Snowden revelations have given weight to concerns about the extent of state surveillance that circulated since the late 1990s (cf the Echelon network) and the degree to which free speech is inevitably curtailed by self-censorship when people are aware that their every utterance and communication may be intercepted at will, now or in the future. Nevertheless, our abilities to form new communities around ideas, campaigns, issues and passions have been continually advanced by the depth and speed that these forms of social media have enabled.
- Public Services Engaging with People
Public authoring could be employed to create new relationships of trust and engagement between public services and the people they serve. Public authoring proposes a reciprocity of engagement whereby public services would not just provide information but benefit directly from information contributed by citizens.
Our ideal of new trusted, reciprocal engagement between citizens and public services has not quite emerged as we may have hoped, however there have been indications that such change is afoot, not least in the expanding area of open (public) data. That more public organisations are allowing others to access and use their data for their own purposes suggests hope for the future. There is much more that could be done to both increase transparency and to increase the role of citizens in the management of our communities. State surveillance is also a factor affecting people’s sense of agency and trust in governmental mechanisms that will have to be continually addressed as we shape the future of our democracies.
- Market Opportunities
The wealth of public data created by public authoring will provide many market opportunities for business people and entrepreneurs. The not-for-profit sector needs to embrace the energy and creativity this engenders as much as the commercial sector needs to embrace the need for people to be more than just consumers.
The dividing lines between “public” and “private” have become ever more blurred in recent years. The impacts of austerities imposed since the 2008 banking collapse and subsequent ongoing economic turmoil have seen areas previously the preserve of the “public sector” outsourced to private enterprise under the guise of “efficiency” and profit. This was certainly not what we envisaged as it has imposed a narrow financial interpretation of value and excised almost all considerations other than the purely monetary from decision making. By transferring more and more of our public services in this way, the scope and legitimacy of democracy are undermined. We need to reaffirm other measures of value that have been pushed aside and stand firm for their re-adoption as standards to aim for so that we can indeed create diverse new opportunities in both “public” and “private” sectors.
- Location Sensing & Positioning
The technological imperative for defining a person’s position needs to be dropped in favour of an approach that incorporates the rich nature of the physical world’s location information – street signs, shop signage etc.
Our insistence on not becoming entirely beholden to GPS, Glonass & Gallileo was perhaps a little brusque. However, there has also been a growing sense of discomfort with the purely digital. More and more people have become involved in making things: learning old manual skills that can be intertwined with newer digital ones. This hybrid digital/physical approach seems more and more plausible with each year.
- Including Everyone
The drive to use the latest technologies and services must not exclude those who choose not to adopt them, or cannot, for whatever reason.
As with recent critiques of the Smart City concept, our emphasis in the report rested on active citizenship being at the heart of the potential opportunities being offered by these mobile, location enabled services. This necessitates including everyone in benefiting from the opportunities offered, not just restricting access to those able to afford to pay. There has been much debate over the intervening years about access to the internet having become effectively a utility needing the same statutory regulation as access to fixed-line telephones. If a government wants to engage its citizens on a “digital-first” basis, it must make sure that there is provision for others not able, for any reason, to access via other means – setting a standard that other services can emulate or aspire to.
- Time and Relevance to Everyday Life
These new forms of communicating will not appear overnight but will need careful cultivation and time to flower. To realise their fullest potential they will need more than just grass roots enthusiasm and activism. They will require regulatory nurturing and calculated risks on the part of business people.
Whilst the integrated vision of UT as we imagined it has not yet come to fruition, the social media services which have flourished in the past 10 years have ended up straddling multiple spheres of life in surprising and unpredictable ways. Who would have foreseen the speed and depth to which services like Google Maps, Facebook and Twitter have penetrated into the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people, necessitating that government, education and business have all had to incorporate them into their standard procedures as well? What kinds of services and platforms will emerge over the next 10 years and how might we shape them beyond the rubrics and dictates of the marketplace?
Looking back I’m immensely proud of the scope and scale of our vision as well as what we achieved both in the original Urban Tapestries project, and how we carried it forward into the Social Tapestries programme. A core strength was our insistence on a social and cultural focus for the project, not placing the emphasis on the technology. It identified that the heart of these systems and services is ultimately about connecting us, enabling us to communicate in new and different ways: building and maintaining relationships to each other, to places and the things we encounter in them.
Our projects since have continued to explore these trajectories – enabling and encouraging people to have agency for themselves; to make and share their own stories, not simply to be cast in the role of the audience or consumer. Public Authoring remains a key concept that underpins our continuing work with communities as diverse as Pallion (Sunderland) and Reite (Papua New Guinea).
Download the report (PDF 2Mb)
— David Robertson (@Davesci) April 29, 2015
A few weeks ago our Snout project costumes – Mr Punch and the Plague Doctor – had a rare outing to take part in a Late at the Science Museum in London. They were presented by students on UCL’s MA in Museum Studies as part of their group final show, We Need to Talk: Connecting Through Technology. We are told they were voted the audience favourite!
Thanks to Professor George Roussos at Birkbeck (for arranging and supporting) and to electronics engineer Demetrios Airantzis for building new power supplies for the wearable sensors, processor boards and LED displays – still working perfectly after 8 years.
Over the last few weeks I have been drawing and painting a series works to be printed on silk and wool for a set of unique textile linings for Victorian ladies cycling garments; commissioned for the Freedom of Movement research project created by sociologist Katrina Jungnickel who is based at Goldsmiths, University of London. The drawings are inspired by Kats in-depth research and tell some of the stories behind each patent, the woman who invented it and the social, technological, physical and cultural challenges that early women cyclists had to face .
Through much of my work with Proboscis collaborating with communities, geographers, technologists and social scientists I’ve become interested in how drawing in public or amongst researchers can be a catalyst for conversation, observation and new analysis, revealing hidden connections and sparking alternative ways to interpret ideas and research. So, rather than being isolated from Kats research in my studio I decided to take the work to Kat’s space in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, and for the conversation this sparked to inform the content and feel of each drawing as it developed. Kat has a keen interest in making, craft and collaboration so at any time there was drawing, sewing, film-making, photography and desk based academic research all going on in the space. The finished linings are the a record of, and result of those intense drawing activities as well as an interpretation of the research.
One of the features of the cycling garments that attracted me to this project is that they convert from one type of garment to another. A long skirt might be folded, gathered or lifted up to above the knee by some mechanism of cords, buttons or hooks, to reveal bloomers worn underneath or perhaps a long coat on top; in another patent a skirt is taken off, to reveal bloomers, and worn as a cycling cape. In previous projects I’ve explored drawing and textiles, creating images that change or are revealed by the movement of the fabric so it was interesting to now do this with such rich research tied to the form of a historical garment and in conversation with the researcher and her team.
I was surprised to find out how controversial it was for women to cycle (particularly wearing bloomers), they were shouted and jeered at, refused entry to cafes, were socially shunned and had dirt thrown at them. The women who invented these garments had to be highly creative and balance the need for modesty with the need for free movement of the limbs and safety from fabric catching in the mechanism of the bicycle. Despite the privileged backgrounds of the very early cyclists (machines were expensive) I think these women must have had to display great courage and strength of purpose to push against convention, adopting and campaigning for women’s freedom to be accepted as cyclists, to race on cycles and wear clothing that allowed them more freedom.
The garments themselves will be worn and used for storytelling and presenting the research. You can see them in an exhibition at Look Mum No Hands from 7pm on the 13 June 2014 find out more at bikesandbloomers.com
Over the past six months or so we have been developing some new partnerships and working on several collaborative projects:
Alice is collaborating with Dr Katrina Jungnickel of Goldsmiths College’s Department of Sociology (and a former Proboscis associate from earlier days) on the Bikes and Bloomers project. She has been creating a series of illustrations – inspired by Katrina’s research into early women’s cycling clothes and the “rational dress” movement – which are being digitally printed on fabrics as part of recreations of some of the early designs for freedom of movement in clothing.
Alice has also received an Artist in Residence award to collaborate with the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham on their Aestheticodes project, embedding smart codes for visual recognition into drawings and exploring the properties of working with printed fabrics for physical and digital storytelling.
Giles has been continuing to select works from bookleteer for our monthly subscription service, the Periodical – ranging this year from a tactile history of an ancient Scottish kingdom, to works of new poetry and fiction, memoirs of growing up in Soho in the 1920 and 30s, to a republication of John Milton’s 1644 call for unlicensed printing (and a free press), Areopagitica. He is also running a series of Pop Up Publishing workshops in May for the LibraryPress project, introducing new people to bookleteer and self-publishing in public libraries in Hounslow, Islington & Wembley.
Giles has recently been collaborating with the Movement Science Group at Oxford Brookes University who are leading on the development of a Rehabilitation Tool for survivors of traumatic brain injury (TBI), which is being funded by the EU as part of the CENTER-TBI project.
Giles has also been developing a new collaboration with the ExCiteS (Extreme Citizen Science) research group at UCL to bring together the work he has been doing with Professor James Leach and the community of Reite in Papua New Guinea on Traditional Environmental and Cultural Knowledge (TEK), with ExCiteS work with forest-dwelling communities in Congo and elsewhere. We aim to develop a prototype for indigenous people to be able to digitally record and share knowledge using a combination of machine learning software, mobile devices and their own traditional craft and cultural practices. This is being developed alongside our planning for further field work in PNG to expand upon our pilot TEK toolkit experiments using hybrid digital/physical notebooks formats.
Anglia Ruskin University has published a book, edited by Bronac Ferran, reflecting on the Visualise public art programme. We have contributed a short piece describing our Lifestreams collaboration with Philips Research.
Visualise: Making Art in Context
Published by Anglia Ruskin University
Edited by Bronac Ferran
Designed by Giulia Garbin
Published 28th November 2013
Copies can be ordered from : Pam Duncan, Bibliographic Services Manager, University Library, Anglia Ruskin University
The book brings together essays by artists featured in the Visualise public art programme, which took place from Autumn 2011-Summer 2012 across Cambridge, managed by Futurecity with guest curator Bronac Ferran. It includes reflections on the development of the programme by Professor Chris Owen Head of Cambridge School of Art and from Andy Robinson of Futurecity on the role artists can play in our cities ecology and contested public realm. Among the essays are newly commissioned pieces relating to poetry, composition, music, code, language and place by Liliane Lijn, Eduardo Kac, Tom Hall, Alan Sutcliffe and Ernest Edmonds as well as interviews with Duncan Speakman and William Latham, reflections on two art and industry collaborations by Bettina Furnee and Dylan Banarse, and Giles Lane of Proboscis and David Walker of Philips Research and a previously unpublished holograph by Gustav Metzger.
About Visualise: Making Art in Context
From tales of a transgenic green bunny to a singing painting, from computer-generated lifecharms to a soundwalk at dusk through Cambridge’s streets, parks and arcades, this publication conveys some of the myriad happenings which characterised Visualise; a programme of public art, curated for Anglia Ruskin University in 2012. Funded by the University from Percent for Art sources, Visualise brought new life to hard streets, providing opportunities for public engagement through challenging visual art and sound installations, temporary events and exhibitions. It connected in direct and indirect ways to perceptions of Cambridge as context and site of scientific discovery and technological inventiveness. The book weaves the history of Cambridge School of Art and the Ruskin Gallery (the place where Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd played his first gig and Gustav Metzger, renowned founder of auto-destructive art, had his first arts education before the end of the Second World War) with today’s digital developments. A series of newly commissioned essays provide intriguingly personal insight into how world-leading international and local artists create lasting ‘mark and meaning’ (Eduardo Kac) working in contexts of historical time as well as in physical space.
StoryMaker is a set of 9 playcubes (1 of 3 sets from Outside The Box) that incite the telling of fantastical tales. Roll the three control cubes to decide how to tell your story, what kind of story it should be and where to set it. Then use the six word cubes as your cue to invent a story on the spot. Each set comes flatpacked with a PlayGuide booklet. You can browse all the cubes and the play guide on bookleteer.
Make up stories on your own or with friends. Challenge your storymaking skills with the Genre, Context and Method cubes to suggest what type of story you can tell, what time or place it is set in and how you’re going to tell it. Use the Word cubes to make the game even more fun: choose one set of words to tell you story with, or combine different sets to make up longer stories or more complex games.
Earlier this year we printed up a small edition of the StoryMaker PlayCubes which are now available to purchase. If you’d like a set then please order below or visit our web store for other options.
StoryMaker PlayCubes Set
9 PlayCubes + PlayGuide Booklet
USA/Rest of the World
(inc VAT & p+p)
(inc VAT &p+p)
use PayPal below
use PayPal below
Pay with Paypal
This week we failed to reach our kickstarter goal for the PlayCubes project. And not by a small margin: at the close of play we had only reached 13% of our goal – just £528 out of £4,000. So I find myself asking, “What does it mean to have failed?”
The campaign was an experiment to see if this form of fundraising could work for us. It was ‘low risk’ in the sense that we were not raising funds for a new project, but to complement an already finished one with an additional outcome. It is certainly disappointing not to be able to manufacture the sets and get them out into the world as we planned; there are clearly things we can look at and consider changing such as reward types, pledge amounts and even the physical form of the PlayCubes. But do these issues indicate why the campaign failed or could there be other reasons?
Tim Wight wrote an excellent post a few weeks ago on innovation and failure which I have been thinking about during the campaign and especially once it became clear we would be unlikely to reach our target (essentially after the fifth day of a two week campaign). Tim has some great observations about the way failure is perceived and addressed culturally; how so often people seek to ‘recuperate’ failure by turning it into a risk-averse ‘learning’ opportunity rather than accepting failure as is, as something intrinsic to the creative process.
“I’d argue, however, that we don’t always have to learn from failure, and that sometimes making the same mistakes over and over again might even be part of the innovation (or rather the *invention*) process.”
What can I learn from this process? Is there anything, in fact, worthwhile to learn? Did the project “fail” or is it that I didn’t “sell” it well enough? Is it a failure of concept, execution or communication?
“…failure doesn’t necessarily need to have a learning point or any value.
We can just noodle about and experiment and repeat and fail again and again and again without any obvious point. Many great artists have done this. “
As I’m sure others who’ve launched kickstarter projects have experienced, I received a number of messages offering me advice and professional services to enhance the campaign. Essentially all the advice boiled down to a simple nugget, that the only way to succeed was to already have a significant “fanbase” who could be “activated” or motivated to pledge support and then amplify it by sharing the fact they’d supported the project to their friends and social circles. If I’ve learnt anything then its probably that Proboscis doesn’t have a fanbase as such to activate.
The irony, too, was not lost on me of trying to raise funding for a project about free play and improvisation without rules, winners or rewards on a crowdfunding platform entirely structured around rewards and goals – where there are only winners (those who reach or surpass their goal) and losers. Could there be more to this than just irony? Could it be that the conceptual nature of the PlayCubes (indeed of my whole practice) is just so diametrically opposite to the way in which kickstarter and the communities which form around it operate that it was always unlikely to succeed? Tim’s post also quotes Tom Uglow writing about a project they collaborated on, #dream40
“Artistic projects like this do not fit one-size-fits all metrics; and I’m not sure what those metrics are anyway – though I do know that targets breed strategies to hit targets, so you’ll forgive us for ignoring them. Hitting targets reward organizations not audiences, or artists, or culture.”
Tom Uglow, Google Creative Labs
This leads me to think about consumption and how kickstarter reflects an ideal of a free market economy, a sort of microcosm of how free markets are supposed to work, albeit in a very basic form. As an artist I have spent my whole career trying to evade the normalising effect of being part of such an economy – most likely as a product of growing up in the 1980s during the Thatcher years. My work has always been about exploring what’s beyond the horizon, of trying to anticipate the things that are just out of our reach, that are outwith the contemporary boundaries of society and culture. So much of what we’ve done at Proboscis since around 2000 has also been forward looking, about inventing new futures. The kinds of social and cultural ideas, tools and techniques we’ve created have often been ahead of their time: testing the just-possible and directing attention at where things could go. Is there perhaps a contradiction in using the logic of consumption and popularity to support projects that are precisely not popular because what underlies them is unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable – something that may not become mainstream for years?
“Even more importantly, people generally don’t learn from other people’s mistakes. They’d much rather learn from their *own* mistakes. Your own mistakes hurt so much more and live with you much longer. It doesn’t matter how often Mummy or Daddy tell you not to put your hand near the fire, you’ll only really remember not to do it *after* you’ve burned your hand, right?”
Despite our kickstarter campaign failing, I feel unrepentant. I’m going to keep getting my hand burnt in this way because I believe that what Proboscis does is genuinely valuable – despite the dearth of pledges we’ve had plenty of positive feedback about the PlayCubes. We find ourselves, like many others, struggling to keep afloat in challenging times, but persistent, dogged in continuing to make work and to make a difference. Like the spider Robert the Bruce famously watched trying to weave a web across a cave entrance, even though it kept falling down, it kept on trying until at last it succeeded – “If at first you don’t succeed, try try and try again.”
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
We’ll keep trying, fail again and again, but fail better.
This week we exhibited the Lifecharm shells, datalogger and Lifestreams film at the Mosaic3DX conference, held at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. The exhibition was organised by Karen Jinks of Cambridge Creative Network and also featured Jenny Langley, Gareth Wild of Apropos, Nick Edwards, Jon Heras of Equinox Graphics and Circuit Cambridge.
A selection of Lifecharms made for our Lifestreams project with Philips Research will be exhibited in a group show, This New Nostalgia, as part of this year’s London Design Festival at the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Bishopsgate, 14th-22nd September. The show is curated by InspireConspireRetire exploring,
“how we transform the physical object world and how this world in-turn, transforms us… The Lifestreams project by Proboscis forms a key feature of this exhibition, opening conversations about the role of the maker in developing objects that embody emotion and hold meaning without a superimposition through forces of branding and advertising. [T]his project engages the design community in questioning our role as makers of meaning and significance whilst keeping up with technologies and harnessing their powers for transformations extremely personal, weaving themselves into the narratives of everyday life.”
During the long process of sorting through our studio at Turnmill Street in preparation for the recent move, we began to assemble a collection of the print publications, multiples and other ephemera from many of our projects over the past 19 years. It is not an archive of everything we have made or published (it certainly excludes thousands of Diffusion eBooks and StoryCubes created with bookleteer.com and its predecessors), but it is a pretty comprehensive collection of material outputs from many of the projects we have undertaken. It includes artefacts made by collaborators and commissioned artists – such as Andrew Hunter, Cathy Haynes & Sally O’Reilly, Neville Gabie, Rob Kesseler and Bob & Roberta Smith – as well as many things created over the years by members of Proboscis.
We have managed to put together five identical versions of this ‘Miscellany’ – one which we will keep as a reference set of our own; the other four we are donating to libraries/archives to make them publicly available to scholars and other artists (or anyone interested). This week the first collection will be delivered to the Special Collections Library at Chelsea College of Art & Design (University of the Arts London). We are also in discussion with the Banff Centre Library in Canada to donate another collection to their Artists Books Collection there. The third and fourth sets are intended to be donated to similar institution (to be confirmed) in Scotland (where Alice is from and where we spend considerable time each year) and Europe – where, as yet, we have not found a suitable home.
Over the summer we are planning to create a companion book (using bookleteer) that describes each of the components of the Miscellany. We will hand make copies of these to give to the libraries we are donating the collections to and make the book available as both downloadable PDF and as an online version to act as a guide.
During our open days Friday 21st June and Saturday 22nd June between 12noon and 8pm we will also be selling some work from recent years including framed and unframed works on paper and textiles as well as publications including:
Works on paper from the Storyweir series Things I Have Found, Learned and Imagined on Burton Beach; the series In Good Heart , Pinning Our Hopes, and the original drawings for 100 Views of Worthing Pier Tall Tales Ghosts and Imaginings and As It Comes as well as other works on paper and textiles. You can see some more of some of the series of the drawings here
On Friday 21st June and Saturday 22nd June between 12noon and 8pm Alice and I will host two days of open studios to which we invite people to come and view work made by Proboscis in recent years – to have a chat and enjoy some tea and cake. We will have work on display from projects such as Hidden Families, StoryWeir, Pallion Ideas Exchange, Lifestreams, the Periodical, StoryCubes, bookleteer, Perception Peterborough, Snout, Feral Robots, Urban Tapestries, Mapping Perception, Social Tapestries, Fifties Fashion, As It Comes, In Good Heart and others.
Many of the works will be available for purchase (details to come), including paintings and drawings by Alice Angus, a unique Large StoryCube set made for an exhibition about cyberneticist Gordon Pask, as well as many of our publications.
For those interested in signing up to our monthly participatory publishing project, the Periodical, there will be extra special gifts to take away for subscribing on the day. To find out more about subscribing see here.
We will also have lots of freebies to give away to reward those plucky enough to ascend the infamous stairs to our 4th floor garret!
Please email us to let us know you’re planning to come.
Climate Commons: literature, climate change and activism
Readings by Tony White, Hayley Newman & James Marriot
Wednesday 19th June 2013 at Proboscis Studio 6pm to 8pm
NB – Proboscis studio is NOT wheelchair accessible
Book a free place on Eventbrite
Tony White’s latest novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South is published as an exclusive free ebook by the Science Museum, with an accompanying exhibition that runs until April 2014. Described by Marina Warner as ‘a bold novel-cum-manifesto, a prophecy, satire, and warning,’ Shackleton’s Man Goes South was inspired by – and explores the implications of – a forgotten science fiction short story warning of climate change that was written in Antarctica in 1911 by atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson. Flipping the polarity of the Shackleton myth, White tells a new story about Emily and her daughter Jenny, climate change refugees who are fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it, in a hot world rather than a cold one.
Alice & Giles invited Tony White to curate an informal studio event where some of these ideas could be explored further. White will be joined in Proboscis’s studio by two other authors: the artist and activist James Marriott of Platform, a London-based arts, human rights and environmental justice organisation, and performance artist Hayley Newman, who is committed to working collectively around the current economic and ecological crisis.
James Marriot is co-author with Mika Minio-Paluello of The Oil Road (Verso), an extraordinary book tracing the concealed routes from the oil fields of the Caspian Sea to the refineries and financial centres of Northern Europe. The Oil Road maps this ‘carbon web’, guiding the reader through a previously obscured landscape of energy production and consumption, resistance and profit.
Hayley Newman is the author of a new novella, Common (Copy Press), which chronicles one day of her self-appointed artist’s residency in the City of London. Taking us to crashes in global markets, turbulence in the Euro-zone and riots on hot summer nights, Common opens up the City through richly imaginative stories and empowering political actions.
Readings and discussion will be chaired by curator and interdisciplinary innovator Bronac Ferran.
As part of our project Hidden Families with Lizzie Coles-Kemp (from the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London). Alice illustrated, digitally printed and created a handmade quilted textile ‘poster’ about the wider project for the 2013 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing.
“The visitors who told their stories are very proud of the work and the fact that they can see their work put to good use.” Cath Chesterton NEPACS
We were recently asked to create a set of 8 StoryCubes for Hidden Families (part of Royal Holloway University of London’s Families Disconnected by Prison project), to be used by Royal Holloway and partners such as Action for Prisoners Families, NEPACS and in training, talking about and raising awareness of the issues faced by families with a relative in prison.
We selected 48 of the images, originally created for the Hidden Families quilt, around the six key themes that had emerged – family, journey, time, finance, loneliness and support. Using a combination of participants’ photos, words and sketches with my illustrations, we created a block of 8 cubes that brings together some of people’s memories, comments and experiences.
Lizzie Coles-Kemp project lead said; “The focus of this project was to create a call to action by collecting the voices of families separated by prison and using different techniques to present the collective narrative. StoryCubes help us to develop the call to action by making the collective narrative interactive and providing another means for adding to and developing the story of this particular community. They make interactive and tactile objects from the textile quilt which are even more accessible to families, policy makers, practitioners and academics alike.”
NEPACS and Action for Prisoners Families will be using the cubes at training events and conferences, raising awareness of the impact of prison sentences on families.
Since early December last year I’ve been carrying around one of the Lifecharm shells with me every day. It was generated from personal biosensor data gleaned not just from myself but from two other studio members last summer when we were capturing a range of experimental data sets to generate prototypes with. Using the data, Stefan generated this particular lifecharm as part of our third iteration of prototypes in late July. This shell was one of several that we later chose to have 3D printed in different materials at Shapeways – this one in sterling silver, the others in glass, ceramic, resin and steel.
I have been carrying it around to see how I feel about it, what it means to me and how I weave it into my everyday life. Our original concept for the lifecharms was that they might trigger an entirely novel way of developing meaningful relationships to the kinds of personal health data gathered by sensors (such as Fitbit, Fuelband etc) that people are now adopting as part of the ‘quantified self’ meme. Our colleagues at Philips Research, David & Steffen, told us that the statistics of use of these kinds of sensors by healthy people tended towards abandonment after just a few months as interest and engagement fades. Their interest was in exploring motivations that might make self-monitoring of wellbeing and healthy lifestyle a thing someone would choose to do before they discovered a health issue that required monitoring.
Our approach to this was to think about the way such sensor data is relayed back to users – most commonly in the form of screen-based visualisations. We wondered if perhaps these simply aren’t arresting enough to weave themselves into the narratives of everyday life that people construct for themselves. I’ve long been interested in touch as a form of knowing and sharing, and Proboscis have been exploring physical outputs from digital experiences for many years (such as tangible souvenirs) so we started out by thinking about how we might embody the data in a physical form that could be carried around and used like a charm or talisman. Stefan has written previously about our research methods and the journey that led us to devise the lifecharm and its inspiration from nature. His Lifestreams film also explains the various technical processes we adopted and adapted to create the results.
What’s so special about these ‘data objects’?
Unlike data visualisations the lifecharms are generated through a process of data transformation that does not confine them to an instrumental purpose such as relaying the original data back to us as information in a simplified and easy to comprehend manner. Instead, they are embodiments of the data, transformed from the abstract and ephemeral into the concrete and present. They establish the potential for uncommon insights to be perceived into the conditions from which the data was collected (i.e. someone’s health and lifestyle patterns), prompted through a process of tactile and intuitive reflection.
A Lifecharm shell synthesises the intrinsic qualities of the data within its morphology (visualisations, on the other hand, make extrinsic interpretations of such data). It is, at one and the same time, both an informational object – representing a state gleaned from sensor data – and also a philosophical thing triggering intuitive reflection. It unites different traditions of investigation and meaning making: the scientific and the mythic, or magical, both ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. However, a lifecharm is neither an ‘icon’ (nor iconic) nor an ‘implement’ (tool) – it embodies a state without representing it banally. What it exemplifies is not knowledge in the form of a ‘transactable’ commodity or product but a path to knowing that arises from an ongoing process of continuous interaction with and intervention within everyday habits, in this case practiced daily through touch.
The Lifecharms are not rational, functional objects, they are magical, irrational, indeed talismanic things by which, through tactile familiarity we may come into knowledge or understanding by way of revelation. Like poetry, which is much more than the sum of words and their arrangement on a page, they are more than the sum of the data that drives their growth parameters.
Carrying a lifecharm and touching it everyday, both consciously and even as a displacement activity, causes you to develop a relationship with it over time. You become familiar with its materiality – the feel of the shape in your hand; the weight of the material it is made of, the textures of its surface. None of these reveal the patterns in the data that generated it directly, however this is precisely the point at which the lifecharm begins to operate in a mythic or magical capacity – as a performance of patterns of being and behaviour embodied and reified into a talisman. Its ‘magical power’ could be defined as the potential for revelation that it holds for you to come into an uncommon insight by handling it over time. In this way you might come to perceive new possibilities for change and adaptation in your own patterns and behaviours – triggering your own process of subjective transformation. The lifecharm is thus not just a thing of being but an thing of becoming.
Like poetry, the lifecharms are also diachronic – we can experience and relate to them across time, whilst the meaning or data they embody is fixed in time (i.e. the shape of the shell or the words of the poem do not change). Dynamic data visualisations may often be synchronous – i.e. driven by live or recent data streams – but the way we experience and relate to them is more likely to be mediated (through devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers) and determined by our behaviours and patterns of using the devices they are mediated through. This makes the lifecharms intrinsically different to screen-based visualisations of data. The information that we may glean from them is less to do with an instrumental replay in visual form, and much more to do with how we begin to learn about the patterns they embody through a growing familiarity with their physical form. This difference becomes an opportunity to augment our means of understanding the phenomena recorded in the bio sensor data – an opportunity to explore meaning making through a relationship to complexity and intersubjectivity.
I came to my own uncommon insight – that the shells were in fact, tactile poems – partly as a result of my stay in Reite village in Papua New Guinea and the conversations I have had since with anthropologist James Leach, and also with poet Hazem Tagiuri. The villagers of Reite lead a traditional ‘kastom’ lifestyle in the jungle with a fairly minimal exposure to a ‘modern’ existence predicated on patterns of consumption and mediated sociality. (Although the modern world of industrially produced goods and telecommunications is slowly but surely encroaching and making an impact on their lives and culture). They were traditionally a non-literate people and remain highly skilled makers, carving and weaving many of the things they use. Touch is a powerful sense through which they acquire information, as it could be said to be with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople of our own society. But coupled with the incredible sense of presentness in everyday Reite life and the intensity with which they conduct social relations that is so unlike our own society of discontinuous being, I felt that their physical knowledge of materials connects at a deeper level and is more attuned to detail and granularity; whereas in our own western culture it has been debased as a lower form of skill and social standing – such as the negative way manual labour is contrasted with intellectual labour, or how craft is ‘lesser’ than art.
Since returning from PNG my conversations with James have often turned on this intensity and presentness – the form of radical continuity with being that life in the village feels like. I have, in turn, attempted to convey my experiences to friends, to describe how utterly different I felt whilst in the village. During the course of one conversation with Hazem I described watching a man ‘conjure’ fire from cold sticks in a firepit without using any form of tinder, ember or fire-lighting materials. What seemed like magic was a demonstration of the uncanny power and knowledge this man had in knowing how to feel for residual warmth within the sticks, and arrange them in just the right way that would amplify the heat enough to stimulate combustion. A skill and power I have not witnessed nor even heard of before. Hazem wrote a poem about my description of this act which he sent me as I was grappling with writing about the lifecharms and what they are. His poem helped me to connect the lifecharm’s talismanic nature to poetry. It helped kindle the spark of revelation that, like the way we come to know a thing through poetry, so the kind of knowing that resides within our hands and sense of touch is not just symbolic knowledge, but practical; that we may truly come to know something through touch alone. And that, like in poetry, the precise, elusive moment in which we come into the knowledge that the lifecharm offers us remains on the edge of conscious thought; a sensation we intuitively call revelation.
Invoking Fire by Hazem Tagiuri
We talk of his time in the jungle.
He describes one marvel in particular:
how a fire was conjured from cold sticks,
as if heat swelled in their fingertips.
No tinder, hot coals; embers a day dead.
“It’s not that it seems like magic, it simply is.
Their magic. These are not illusions.”
No sleight of hand. Smoke, but no mirrors.
What we mimic through tools,
these men of power can summon,
with quiet majesty. No incantations;
they save their breath for the flames.
We have just finished putting together a new publication for the report on Families Disconnected by Prison, of which the Hidden Families project was one part. The project is led by Lizzie Coles-Kemp from the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London and is going to be on show at the AHRC Connected Communities Showcase on the 12 March.
A delivery of digitally printed fabric arrived this morning with the work for the Hidden Families project and for my mermaids and monsters work. I’ll be spending the next few days sewing up the quilts for Hidden Families partners.
The other fabric that arrived is part of new textile and embroidered work inspired by the traditional knowledge, memories and myths of the sea and water that have come up in Storyweir and Tall Tales Ghosts and Imaginings, In Good Heart and Sutton Grapevine.
In the last few months I’ve been working on Hidden Families, a project with families with someone in prison. The project, run by by Lizzie Coles Kemp of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London, was trying to find out how to improve the way information is made available to families, because people sometimes don’t or can’t engage with support services. The hardships families experience are diverse;- travel, costs of visiting, the huge distances to visit,the stress of uncertain weather and travel conditions that might cause someone to be late and miss their visit, bringing children, access to pension, welfare and benefits advice, sentence planning, prisoner safety and welfare, being stigmatised and outcast, and not expecting help or having the ability to improve the situation.
The project has several facets and I was involved in working with Action for Prisoners Families, NEPACS (who provide support services for families separated by prison), performer Freya Stang and visitors to a visitors’ center in a Category A prison.
Action for Prisoners’ Families (APF),
works for the benefit of prisoners’ and offenders’ families by representing the views of families and those who work with them and by promoting effective work with families…
A prison or community sentence damages family life.
NEPACS builds bridges between prisoners, families and communities that they will return to, they
believe that investment must be made in resettlement and rehabilitation to ensure that there are fewer crime victims in the future, and less prospect of family life being disrupted and possibly destroyed by a prison sentence… After all, the families haven’t committed the crime, but they, especially the children, are greatly affected by the punishment
Lizzie’s approach to working with people differs from typical academic studies. Rather than only surveying or asking questions of a community she collaborates with groups to create projects, workshops and events that are independently of value to that group, rather than just to fulfill research ends, she often works with artists, writers and performers to support partners and participants in articulating ideas.
The project partners and visitors contributed to booklets, postcards, conversations and a wall collage gathering experiences of the practical, technical and emotional issues people face. I brought together the stories, experiences and sketches, with a series of sketches I made, into a digitally printed textile hanging based on the idea of a patchwork quilt for the NEPACS Visitors’ Centre. Participants expressed a wish to produce a version that could hang in the Chapel and Action For Prisoners Families have versions which they will using for their training, education and work raising awareness of the hidden issues families face.