Visualise: Making Art in Context

January 20, 2014 by  

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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
ISBN: 978-0-9565608-6-5
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by Bettina Furnee and Dylan Banarse, and Giles Lane of Proboscis and David Walker of Philips Research and a previously unpublished holograph by Gustav Metzger.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 PlayCubes

November 16, 2013 by  

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StoryMaker PlayCubes

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
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StoryMaker Sets (inc VAT & P+P)


Thoughts on failure

November 13, 2013 by  

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.

PlayCubes Film

November 5, 2013 by  

Lifestreams at Mosaic3DX

October 31, 2013 by  

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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.

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PlayCubes : kickstarting the next stage

October 29, 2013 by  


Three years ago, not long after Mandy Tang started at Proboscis, we came up with an idea to use the StoryCubes and bookleteer to inspire people to play and invent their own games. We were inspired ourselves by the Love Outdoor Play campaign, which aims to encourage children, and their parents, to play outside more. Over about six months Mandy developed Outside The Box as a side-project within the studio, devising the three games with help from the team and illustrating all the resulting cubes. We frequently got together to test out the game ideas, as well as with friends and eventually with a group of children on a YMCA play scheme. But as the studio got stuck into several large projects, we didn’t get round to completing the whole package until recently.

The result is Outside The Box – a “game engine for your imagination” – designed to inspire you to improvise and play your own games on your own or with others, indoors or outside. It’s made up of 27 cubes, 3 layers of 9 cubes, each layer being a distinct game : Animal Match, Mission Improbable and StoryMaker. Outside The Box has no rules, nothing to win or lose, the cubes simply provide a framework for you to imagine and make up your own games. You can browse through the whole OTB collection of cubes and books on bookleteer, to download and make up at home.

However, 27 large PlayCubes and 7 books is a lot to make yourself, so we’re now planning to manufacture a “first edition” to get them into people’s hands to find out what they do with them. To achieve this we’re running a kickstarter campaign to raise funds – support the project to get your own set in time for Christmas or choose other rewards.

Animal Match starts out as a puzzle – match up the animal halves to complete the pattern. From there you can make it much more fun : mix the cubes up to invent strange creatures; what would you call them? What would they sound like? How might they move?

Mission Improbable is for role-playing. There are 6 characters: Adventurer, Detective, Scientist, Spy, Storyteller and Superhero, each with 9 tasks. Use them to invent your own games, record your successes in the mission log books or take it to another level by designing your own costumes and props.

StoryMaker incites the telling of fantastical tales : Roll the 3 control cubes to decide how to tell your story, what kind it should be and where to set it. Then use the word cubes as your cue to invent a story on the spot.

Indigenous Public Authoring in Papua New Guinea

October 2, 2013 by  

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Towards the end of October 2012 I boarded a flight to Sydney on the first leg of a journey to Papua New Guinea, where I was to give a presentation about public authoring and the Shareables we have created over the past dozen and more years. Through my friend, the anthropologist James Leach, I had been invited to participate in a symposium at the University of Goroka in PNG’s Eastern Highlands to share my thoughts and experiences of using hybrid tools and technologies with different communities to record and share their knowledge, stories and experiences – a process we have called public authoring since developing our Urban Tapestries project back in 2003.

I first got to know James at the University of Cambridge at a symposium he, Lee Wilson and Robin Boast co-organised for CRASSH where I was an invited speaker. We then began collaborating in 2009 when two Reite villagers, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau, came to the UK to participate in a project at the British Museum Ethnography Department. Porer and Pinbin were invited to help identify hundreds of objects from the Rai Coast area of PNG that the BM has in its collections, but about which very little was known. In addition to the audio recording and photography of the objects, James wanted to capture something about the process of encountering and engaging with the objects; he turned to me to explore using the Diffusion Notebooks format we had previously discussed. Over the week or so of Porer and Pinbin’s visit to the BM Ethnographic Store in an east London warehouse several notebooks were made and shared online (these are also browsable on bookleteer and downloadable – Melanesia Project Notebooks). This small project was a personal turning point in several ways and when the opportunity came to visit PNG and to travel to Reite village itself with James I had no hesitation in accepting.

Lissant Bolton, Porer Nombo, Pinbin Sisau, James Leach & Liz Bonskek at BM Ethnographic Store

Lissant Bolton, Porer Nombo, Pinbin Sisau, James Leach & Liz Bonskek at BM Ethnographic Store

The Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Environmental Knowledge took place from October 31st to 2nd November and featured both local as well as international researchers. James and Porer Nombo presented their book, Reite Plants, as a potential model for sharing local traditional knowledge. I gave a presentation about how we have used the Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer in our work with different communities to record and share their stories, experiences and other things that they value. Prior to visiting PNG James and I had spent a few days discussing and sketching up some possible notebooks to take to Reite village. I had also researched a waterproof paper stock that could both be printed on and written on using universally available pens (such as biro and also Sharpie pens) – which was crucial in the hot and humid climate of PNG where ordinary paper is highly susceptible to mould, damp and disintegration. Taking a small amount of this paper with me, and some test printed waterproof eNotebooks, we made our way via Madang to Reite village.

Porer Nombo at University of Goroka [photo: J. Leach]

Porer Nombo at University of Goroka [photo: J. Leach]

Once in the village, we realised that the sketches for notebooks that we had planned before were not quite right and that there was a unique opportunity to co-design a simpler approach that reflected local sensitivities to knowledge sharing. Working with Porer and Pinbin again, we devised a new formulation for the wording of the notebooks about the kind of subject matter we would be asking participants to record and share, as well as the provenance of their knowledge. A key ingredient was the informed consent statement that appears on the front cover of each notebook below the space for the participant’s photograph, which was printed and stuck on using a Polaroid PoGo printer, and beneath which each participant wrote their name after reading and agreeing.

Having just a limited supply of materials I was able to create 16 notebooks – far less than the number of people who wanted to take part – which were all handmade and written out in the village itself. At a morning meeting, the aims of the project were explained to the participants by Porer and James whilst I took their photos and printed them out to stick on the cover of their notebooks. As a simple pilot, we asked the participants to write about just one thing in their environment about which they had specific knowledge – knowledge that was their’s to share (i.e. not taboo or magical knowledge, hap tok in Tok Pisin). It was important that everyone taking part understood exactly what we were doing and why – that this was intended and an experiment to explore new ways for their community to record what they know and to be able to pass in on to their descendants as well as to share with others.

By the end of our week in the village all 16 notebooks had been returned, filled with stories, drawings and information – the first time I have had a 100% return rate in any participation project! Disassembling each of the notebooks back into flat sheets, I used a cheap portable hand scanner to create our very first digital versions of the notebooks, which were saved as multi-page PDF files for immediate sharing. Once back in our London studio I was able to take more accurate scans on a desktop scanner, but the use of the portable scanner to capture and immediately share (via SD card) digital versions of the notebooks was another useful demonstration of the simplicity of the whole process for sharing in the field without access to mains electricity and the usual infrastructure required for file sharing.

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James provided some English translations to the notebooks, which we then incorporated into new versions made and shared on bookleteer – all of which can be browsed online or downloaded as A4 PDFs for making into handmade books in this collection – Reite and Sarangama Notebooks. We also combined the 16 notebooks into three larger bookleteer books grouped together according to subject matter accompanied by a book written by us (in both Tok Pisin and English) browsable or downloadable (as A3 PDFs) in the collection – TEK Pilot 1. Two of these books were recently printed in a small run using bookleteer’s Short Run printing service and sent out to subscribers of the Periodical – read about them here. We are sending handmade versions of all the books and notebooks back to the participants in Reite and Saragama villages, laser printed on another waterproof paper stock for durability.

Our longer terms aims are to expand this process for simple tools and techniques for recording and sharing local traditional cultural and ecological knowledge into a toolkit that could be used in different contexts and situations, and which is, as far as possible, technology agnostic. To do this we plan to return to Reite in 2014 to continue our co-design and collaboration with the villagers there, and to then devise a basic toolkit which can be shared with other people and communities in PNG, then potentially further afield. I would love to hear from others working with traditional or remote communities who’d like to share ideas and perhaps experiment with the process and tools we’ve developed so far.

On the trip to PNG I kept a diary of my experiences for my then 8 year old daughter, which I digitised using bookleteer. It is personal and written with her in mind, yet it is probably the best way to communicate some of the intense experiences I had in the village – with a culture and society that is so very different to my own yet offered so much to me in generosity of welcome, food, gifts and in spirit.

Digital Alchemy

September 25, 2013 by  

Digital Alchemy – transforming data into poetry

“The real nature of matter was unknown to the alchemist: he knew it only in hints. In seeking to explore it he projected the unconscious into the darkness of matter in order to illuminate it.”
Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Alchemy

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From the late Middle Ages alchemists were frequently depicted as seekers of eternal life and unending riches, a wholly materialist set of objectives that would be facilitated by discovering the philosopher’s stone and being able to transmute lead into gold. However, in the twentieth century, an entirely different interpretation of alchemy gained ascendance due, in large part, to the writings of the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung. Jung interpreted alchemy as a symbolic process that aimed at individuation, the psychological assimilation of opposites whilst retaining their separateness, leading to the psychological (or even spiritual) transformation of the alchemist. The use of symbols and materials in the alchemical process function as archetypes of mythological images that reside within an individual’s unconscious, triggering an internal transformation as they pursue the Work. This likening of alchemy to the esoteric and spiritual traditions of East Asia (such as yoga and meditation) as well as its own Western roots in Hermeticism places it clearly within a framework for reflection, revelation, transfiguration and enlightenment.

In January 2012 a team from Proboscis (Stefan Kueppers and Giles Lane) was invited to collaborate in a critical and creative dialogue with scientists (David Walker and Steffen Reymann) from Philips Research Laboratory in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise public art programme (commissioned by Andy Robinson of Futurecity with Dipak Mistry of Arts & Business Cambridge). Our collaboration was one of several initiated between artists and industry in Cambridge that were aimed at helping to communicate the benefits that could come from such partnerships. Philips proposed that the theme for our joint dialogue would focus on personal health monitoring. Specifically our colleagues at Philips were interested in exploring new ways to engage nominally healthy people in monitoring their own health and lifestyle as a preventative measure, rather than waiting for a medical condition to arise and then find themselves having to adopt biosensor monitoring as part of a recuperative regime. The aim would be to think of emerging biosensor systems as part of a continual, holistic process of healthy living and wellbeing, rather than just as technological aids for post hoc medical intervention. The problem was that the statistics concerning the use of commercial biosensor products and related smartphone apps demonstrated that the vast majority of users tended to abandon the devices and ignore the data visualisations within weeks of first using them, undermining any potential beneficial impact they could have.

Over the next six months through a series of intense monthly meetings, rapid conceptual development and iterative prototyping we developed an experimental response to the problem. Our project, Lifestreams, proposed a novel way of thinking about the nature of biosensor data and its relationship to how we live our lives. We sought to move beyond the simple graphs and number counting that pervades so much of the ‘quantified self’ meme towards the poetic and numinous; to capture something of the epic in everyday life. Our aim was to transform our relationships to digital data from the ephemeral of screens and interfaces into something that encompassed the tactile and material producing a more subconsciously emotive and emotional experience – an artefact or Lifecharm.

Having developed the basic concept we grappled with the form that such an artefact should take asking ourselves, “What physical form could be mathematically driven by data to create dynamic and interesting shapes that could also communicate some sense of the whole person?”. The answer was to reflect on and revisit nature for archetypal forms and generative principles. In listing the attributes that an artefact generated from information would likely have, we found ourselves describing the growth patterns and expressiveness of shells. The patterns in their growth are determined by the health of the creature (such as a mollusc or snail) making them; what they consume, stress factors and the environmental conditions they exist within. Shells have a near universal fascination so the idea took hold of using contemporary technologies to artificially allow a human to ‘grow’ their own shells from data generated by monitoring their own health and lifestyle patterns.

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The lifecharms were created by capturing a range of personal biosensor data types (heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, step count, sleep pattern, exposure to air pollution) and applying the data to a workflow using algorithms to extend the principles of the helico-spiral with time-based rules. These allow us to ‘grow’ the shell in the Groimp 3D modelling environment producing the initial 3D model surface which we then post-processed using Meshlab software for export as a stereolithographic file. The file can then be sent to a 3D printer to generate the physical artefact in a variety of different materials such as plastic, metals, glass, resin and ceramic. What makes the lifecharms unique is that they are not just parametric or formulaic transmogrifications of the raw data but generative because time as a key element informs the variations in the growth grammar that evolves the shells. Each of the biosensors’ time-series data drives one of the parameters governing the shell’s growth form. The data points are iterated through time intervals and become parameters altering the shell’s growth rules as more data is fed into the model. This gives each shell a non-deterministic morphology somewhat akin to the way a shell would be grown by a living creature.

Our own research into and experiences of using more common screen-based interfaces for visualising biosensor data had left us feeling that they were somehow inadequate. Their frankly mechanistic approach to relaying the data back to the user seemed to lack the kind of poetry that would allow someone to weave the process into the daily narrative that people construct about themselves. Unlike data visualisations the lifecharms are generated through a process of non-deterministic spatial data transformation. It does not confine them to such an instrumental purpose as merely 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 health conditions and lifestyle patterns in which the data was collected. Such insights are prompted by tactile and intuitive reflection.

Over the past decade Proboscis has been exploring tactile interfaces and tangible souvenirs as a key part of our research into the way people create and share knowledge, stories and experiences – what we call public authoring. An element of the handmade often features in the outputs we design, but here the imprint of the person about whom the data being shared is directly embodied in the object itself. 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 yet an implement or 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.

“Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art”. I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness.”
Alan Moore

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 of 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 a thing of becoming. Their role in the personal narratives we construct around our daily lives is revealed as much through our continued interaction with them as by their thingness.

Like poetry, the lifecharms are also diachronic – meaning that 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 likely to be mediated (through devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers) and determined by our behaviours and patterns of using those 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 tactile familiarity with their physical form. This difference becomes an opportunity to augment our means of understanding the phenomena recorded in the biosensor data – an opportunity to explore meaning making through a relationship to complexity and intersubjectivity.

About six months after our initial three generations of shells were created and 3D fabbed I came into my own uncommon insight – that the shells were in fact, tactile poems. This happened partly as a result of my stay in Reite village in Papua New Guinea with anthropologist Professor James Leach (University of Western Australia/CNRS) during November 2012 and our conversations since, as well as those I have had about my experiences there with poet Hazem Tagiuri (a Proboscis associate). 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). Reite people were traditionally non-literate and remain highly skilled makers, carving and weaving many of the things they use. Touch is a powerful sense through which they acquire information about their world, as indeed it could also be said to be with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople of our own society. However, the incredible sense of presentness in everyday Reite life and the intensity with which they conduct continuous social relations is vastly unlike our Western culture of discontinuous being, mediated as it is through patterns of dislocation, telecommunication and distraction. I felt that their physical knowledge of materials connects at a deeper level and is more attuned to detail and granularity than ours. Looking at our own society and culture, such physical, traditional knowledge has been debased as a lower form of skill and social standing – for instance in the negative way manual labour is contrasted with intellectual work, or how craft is ‘lesser’ than Art – for centuries.

Since returning from PNG my conversations with James have often focused on this intensity and presentness – a kind of radical continuity with being that life in the village feels like. This intensity has also been the subject of my many attempts to describe what life in the village feels like to others. An enduring memory I have, and which I described to Hazem, was watching a man ‘conjure’ fire from cold sticks in a firepit without using any form of tinder, or ember or fire-lighting materials. What seemed like magic or an illusion was an everyday demonstration of the uncanny power and knowledge this man possessed. He knew just 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 neither witnessed nor even previously heard of. The poem Hazem subsequently wrote 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 actual; 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. Perhaps such a thing might also be described as the Work of digital alchemy.

Giles Lane
Loch Ard, Scotland August 2013

This essay was first published in Tasting Notes, a book accompanying the exhibition, This New Nostalgia, curated and published by InspireConspireRetire, September 2013.

Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit

September 16, 2013 by  

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Last year we collaborated with the Possible Futures Lab of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London to assist local people in Pallion, Sunderland develop a way to come together and help each other map out the skills, knowledges, resources and capabilities for responding to and effecting change in their community. The outcome of this was the establishment of a regular group of people working out of the community centre Pallion Action Group. As part of our work with them we co-designed a series of simple ‘tools’ that could be used to help them do things like identify problem and solutions and share them online confidently and safely.

The tools use very simple paper-based formats – wall posters, postcards and notebooks – that can either be printed on standard home/office printers or cheaply printed at larger sizes at local copy shops. The notebooks are created with bookleteer and can be downloaded direct : http://bookleteer.com/collection.html?id=9

To make these tools available to anyone for use in their own communities, we have now designed generic versions and collected them into a Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit. The toolkit is free to download and everything in it is free to adopt and adapt under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike license.

Download the Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit (zipped archive 48Mb)

We would love to hear of anyone’s experiences using or adapting these tools for their own purposes and keen to hear of suggestions for improvements or additions to the toolkit. One of the items we feel is currently missing is some form of simple self-evaluation tool for communities to use to determine how successful (or not) they are in achieving their aims and objectives. We are also working on a special set of StoryCubes designed to help both organisers and communities work through common issues and to devise solutions and activities that help them set up their own Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange.

Where possible (time and resources permitting) we are willing to develop new or customised versions of specific tools, such as the notebooks or worksheets. Please get in touch with us to discuss your ideas or suggestions.

Creative Commons Licence
Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange by Proboscis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Lifecharms at London Design Festival

September 10, 2013 by  

Header Image with info

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.”

A Proboscis Miscellany

July 30, 2013 by  

Proboscis_Collection_Box

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.

Sale of works

June 10, 2013 by  

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:

Things-I-found-3..  

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

1950s memories - Version 2  

 

Open Studio Days & Sale of Work

June 4, 2013 by  

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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 FamiliesStoryWeir, 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, an event with Tony White, Hayley Newman & James Marriot

May 25, 2013 by  

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
TW-authors

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.
TW-books

‘Hidden Families’ at Conference on Human Factors in Computing 2013

May 1, 2013 by  

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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.

CHI_poster3  CHI_poster5 CHI_poster6 CHI_poster7

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Shortlisted for an Arts & Business Award

April 11, 2013 by  

Lifestreams, our collaboration with Philips Research has been shortlisted for an Art & Business Digital Partnership Award this year.

Read the case study here.

Hidden Families at AHRC Connected Communities Showcase

April 5, 2013 by  

Hidden Families StoryCubes

March 25, 2013 by  

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“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.

View the whole Collection of 8 StoryCubes

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Lifestreams : Tactile Poetry

March 21, 2013 by  

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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.

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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.

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Tactile Poetry?
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.

Hidden Families Films

March 12, 2013 by  

Some films made as part of the Hidden Families project :

“The Loneliness Group” by John, Donna and Jonny from StoryWorks on Vimeo.

“Hidden Families” by Cath Chesterton from StoryWorks on Vimeo.

Lifestreams film

March 7, 2013 by  

A new film to explain some of the technical aspects to our Lifestreams project and how we created the Lifecharm shells.

Lifestreams from Proboscis on Vimeo.

Hidden Families publication

February 27, 2013 by  

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.

 

New Threads

January 31, 2013 by  

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.

Hidden Families

January 16, 2013 by  

  

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.

   

New Lifecharm Shells

December 12, 2012 by  

Our colleague at Philips R&D, David Walker, was kind enough to have some more shells 3D printed in metal for a small experiment we’re planning to run in the new year. Here are some photos he’s taken of them.

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