This post is one of several exploring the research and creative processes Giles and I have undertaken for our project Lifestreams, an Art+Tech collaboration with industry partner, Philips R&D in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme.
What I did not yet know – and have been discovering – is just incredible!
Our explorations for Lifestreams initiated further research into bio–mineralisation in animals such as bones and seas-hells. It has opened my eyes – even more widely – into the utter inventiveness of Nature.
I studied architecture and spend several years in design research working on the analysis of morphology and dynamics at urban and architectural scale; e.g. how streets and public spaces and their features are organised and how people move through them – so, naturally, I have an ongoing fascination with patterns large and small, both man made and natural, as inspiration and reference for design ideas.
From this basis and with previous personal explorations into biomimetics many years ago (screen sculpture), I thought that it would be good to connect the idea of lifecharms and our shell concepts with the actual processes of bio–mineralisation as they occur in living systems.
To do this, I would need to have a better understanding of the real thing. Extraordinarily the last 30 years or so can really be seen as a new dawn of human discovery of the nano-scale in nature: Many scientists have been uncovering the most amazing natural phenomena of biological fabrication, self-assembly and material composition at the micro-scale.
Knowledge and research into bio–mineralisation has been of huge area of interest in biophysics, chemistry, medical and biological science. It has opened up new routes in areas such as tissue engineering for bone healing, design and production of prosthetics (i.e. limbs etc) and insights into nano-technologies and materials. For instance, this has helped in identifying bio-ceramics for bone scaffolds that could be used in medical procedures. Research into bio-mineralisation has prompted many innovations and holds a further promise in others fields well beyond medical sciences.
So setting out with virtually no understanding of bio-mineralisation I have come to learn that most living systems – ourselves included – are in fact expert at producing hard mineral deposits by growing them in crystal form. Organisms mix living tissue structures with the creation of a variety of crystalline substructures in very deliberate (and often quite subtly different) ways.
These structures of interlacing soft tissues and crystals of different configurations act as composites which are employed within our bodies to do different things; so you could say that ‘growing’ is more than just about purely organic matter but incorporates and embraces the growing and connecting of crystalline structures in our bodies all the time. We effectively grow our own bio-material composites: we have a variety of patterns in our different tissues that make these crystals assemble in very particular structural ways to – for example – construct bones that act as structural internal support, exoskeletons, teeth, sea-shells, glass-spines, beaks, etc.
The mineral/ crystalline deposits that animals and plants can form vary incredibly and – to my great surprise – have even produced such strange objects such as up to 1 meter long glass rods (spicules)
Growth really encompasses quite complex interactions within cellular tissues where deeply integrated biological, chemical and physical processes result in layers of both living tissue and hard mineral deposits.
Human and animal bones, animal teeth and seashells alike are chemical compositions that are produced by cell tissue acting as templates and scaffolds. These provide the structure along which biologically controlled mineral deposits are formed. As well as the effect of many different chemical compositions, the patterning of these varies greatly depending on the functions they fulfil and what stresses they are under.
One extraordinary type of bio-mineral composite can be found in the teeth of chitons, a type of mollusc that even incorporates iron; in particular an iron oxide called magnetite which together with the organic components make them three times harder than human teeth.
So what good is this to our project research? Well, we are now exploring these phenomena to design a sculptural piece that will use aspects of this bio-mineral composite growth approach in nature. Our experiments are on the way so watch this space!
Tomorrow I start my journey to Papua New Guinea where I’m taking part in the Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK), hosted by the University of Goroka (Eastern Highlands Province) and supported by the Christensen Fund. The title and abstract of my talk at the symposium is:
Digital and Physical : simple solutions for documenting and sharing community knowledge
My work is about engaging with people to identify things which they value – for instance knowledge, experiences, skills – and how they can share them with others in ways that are safe, appropriate and inspiring. As an artist and designer I have helped devise simple tools and techniques that can be adopted and adapted by people on their own terms – such as uses of everyday paper, cameras and printers alongside digital technologies such as the internet, archives and databases. I will demonstrate some examples of how these simple physical and digital tools can be used to share community knowledge in freely and easily accessible ways, so that they can also be re-worked and circulated in both paper and digital formats. I hope to offer some examples of how TEK in PNG might be widely documented and circulated as part of commonly available resources.
I wrote a piece about my initial thoughts on what I’ll be presenting and doing whilst I’m there on the bookleteer blog last month. My invitation to this event has been through James Leach, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen who will be there presenting his collaborative publication, Reite Plants, with Porer Nombo in whose village James has been doing fieldwork for 20 years. I first met Porer three years ago when he visited the UK to assist the British Museum’s Melanesia Project in identifying artefacts from the region where he lives in the Ethnographic Collection. At the time James had asked me to help him devise some new ways to document this kind of Traditional Knowledge Exchange that would capture something of the experience of all sharing knowledge that more institutional methods might miss. Consequently we used some Diffusion eNotebooks to capture and record our interactions as much as the stories and information that Porer and Pinbin shared about the artefacts. Alice and I also had the privilege of spending time with Porer and his fellow villager, Pinbin Sisau, inviting them to our home for an evening with James and his family and sharing with them some of the simple delights of central London life that people who don’t live here wouldn’t experience.
After the symposium James, Porer and myself will travel back to Porer’s village of Reite on the Rai Coast in Madang Province where we’ll stay for a week or so. There we’ll attempt to put some of our ideas into practice – I’ve designed some simple notebooks for us to use out in the bush, some printed on waterproof paper, others printed on standard papers. I’m very excited to have this unique opportunity to test out ideas I’ve had for using the Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer in the field for over 10 years now – harking back to conversations I had with anthropologist Genevieve Bell of Intel in 2003. I’m also very excited to have the privilege of visiting Porer and Pinbin in their home and meeting their families and community – joining the loop of one smaller circle of friendship and exchange and hopefully spiralling out into some larger ones that will continue into the future.
This post is one of several exploring the research and creative processes Giles and I have undertaken for our project Lifestreams, an Art+Tech collaboration with industry partner, Philips R&D in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme.
Our interest in using sea shells as the basis for making tangible lifecharms meant that I had to dive deeper into the maths, biology and development of shells to get a handle on how they grow and also to understand a bit more about what actually goes on at a physiological level. Fortunately there is a long history of the study of shell shapes and morphologies by different disciplines, biologists, mathematicians, artists et al to draw upon.
In my research I have come across many descriptions and models of shells, ranging from mathematical descriptions to those exploring the more complex biological processes involved in their genesis: these for example incorporate the growth of so called cellular templates which then undergo bio-mineralisation solidifying a soft scaffold of tissue into a rigid structural extension of the shell.
Essentially shells represent a geometric pattern that nature embraces and uses repeatedly in many biological structural systems such as the cochlea in our ears. sunflower blossoms and pine tree kernels. It is the the logarithmic helico-spiral. Imagine a flat logarithmic spiral that is then dropped from its centre on to the top of a cone and the spiral path then successively drops and drapes itself onto the surface of the cone.
This results in the 3-dimensional spiral that provides the growth direction for a generating curve which deposits different types of cellular tissue in sequence. The generating curve moves in three dimensions twisting, turning and changing dimension and rotation, at times even (depending on the shell species) changing its edge shape along the route. This then creates the intermittent bulges and outgrowths and sometimes sinusoidal waves along the shell edge.
Different types of shells come to being from a variety of generating curves and shapes that expand along the length of this spiral path as the shell grows. The height or flatness of the cone determines the compression of the helico-spiral on its central axis. As the shell grows the leading edge can vary in shape following rhythmic patterns or sporadic outgrowths. This has equivalents in natural growth phenomena in plants and becomes visible for example as growth rings in trees.
As a shell grows in volume it simultaneously adds variable patterning on the exterior surface of the shell affecting growth based both on environmental and health factors. The surface colouring of the shell is patterned through a diffusion reaction process taking place just at the outward facing shell edge. The mollusc itself is never in direct control of this external pattern as it grows and even within the same species these patterns can vary dramatically.
What has been interesting in taking the formulas as a departure point into a series of parametric and other model variants is that the math evidently only is an approximation of the sea shell form. Some nuances are missed in the pure formula generated shell approach and this became evident when I changed the way I was modelling my shells in different systems and moved away from using straight functional geometric models to more iterative and generative types.
Yesterday we delivered a series of research drawings and video work made in collaboration with Gary Stewart and Stefan Keuppers to Bridport Arts Centre for their exhibition of a selection of work from ExLab2012. Gary and I have been working on a new two screen audio & video work inspired by conversations about the experience of time and memory we had with the Cultural Geographers from Exeter University we’ve been collaborating with this summer for our Storyweir commission at Hive Beach. Hive Beach is a continually shifting strip of shingle between the land and sea where the endless cycles of sun, tide and waves cause changes larger than we can imagine, but which are also felt by humans on a daily basis.
The new video at BAC is a new piece combining video shot at Hive Beach with maps, scans of the seabed and archival material. It features footage of several people whose activities bring them into contact with different cycles of life and histories of the area including a fossil hunter, an archaeologist, a member of Coastwatch and Bridport Wild Swimmers. Data on wave height, wave period and wave direction data gathered from the Channel Coastal Observatory beuy at West Bay is being used to control and modulate the ambient soundtrack that accompanies the voices of people who live, work and play on the coast.
You can see it at BAC from 13 October to 23 November.
This post is one of several exploring the research and creative processes Giles and I have undertaken for our project Lifestreams, an Art+Tech collaboration with industry partner, Philips R&D in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme.
I have talked in a previous post on lifecharms to shells about talismanic, engaging and tangible transfigurations of lifestyle and health data in the form of sea shells. I now needed to explore the real thing. Off I went on another little spree of discovery both on-line and the real world, picking up a variety of ‘snails’ trails if you will.
I had been making some initial sketches of shells whilst looking at some of the mathematical models that have been around for shells (more of this in a later post) and got deeper into the strange and wonderful world of shell forms to pick p ideas for forms and processes that I could draw on in the making of our own shells.
Aside from producing a large haul of images from various on-line searches I wanted to make sure I would see a broad variety of the ‘real thing’. So being in London I went on to do take some pictures of ancient and contemporary shells in the wonderful and inspiring Natural History Museum within its fossil and invertebrate collections.
From these I made a lot of sketches for our life-streams shells so that I could get a deeper taste and sense of the kind of shell shape variations that exist. To me these sketches helped me to gain a clearer more visual understanding of some of the various archetypes and key differences in different shell structures that I came across. It got me to think about routes for the shell modelling process I have been evolving alongside on the computer and the 3d printers.
I had looked at both ancient fossils which had lost any of their external pigmentation as well as contemporary shells that still retained all their wonderful colour and detail. I am continuously amazed at the range and expressiveness of shapes and colours pigmentation of shells that are out there.
From its beginning our collaboration with Philips R&D had a focus on lifestyle and health as the two key subject areas so they have formed an integral part of our dialogue and explorations. We’ve spent time in our discussions making and reflecting on the cross-connections between the two; how they intersect and influence each other. As our discussions evolved, we became more interested in some of the challenges for expressing and documenting personal and collective lifestyle choices visibly or invisibly affecting personal health and quality of life.
Stimulating personal motivation for change or reinforcement of positive activities through new means of reflection emerged as goal worth exploring further. Our primary purpose has been driven by thinking of ways and means to make lifestyle choices visible as a means for reflection and possible behaviour change.
We debated what the possible scale and scope of factors affecting our lifestyles were that could be points of reflection; what the nature is of the need for both individuals and groups to see and reflect on the impact of their own and collective choices on health, well-being and quality of life. Our enquiry ranged from evolving ways to make visible and re-enforce positive patterns to ways of making bigger changes to negative patterns. Our aim is to be able to engage people both through individual and collective reflection and debate.
For instance, what could be vehicles for change that have broad reach spanning young and old without requiring great depth of knowledge to ‘read’ complex information? What could be more emotive, accessible, tangible and shareable? That could indeed inspire a visceral and instinctual form of personal and public reflection? What would form could this take?
Our response to these questions was to take totemic objects as emotive points of reference – iconic and tactile tools for ongoing reflection. We began planning to evolve talismans of self-health, personal pieces that could be carried around on a keyring or as jewelery to remind ourselves of what matters to us. The might be like the charms of old, bracelets embellished with objects, tracing key events and people in our lives but extended to become markers for health and quality of life.
From these ideas of the charm we searched for physical forms that could act as personal objects attached to life, as symbols that are already in the public mind. We arrived at the seashell.
Our collaborator at Philips R&D in Cambridge, David Walker, was generous enough to have some of the Lifecharm shells fabbed in a range of more exotic materials than our initial prototypes using Shapeways (a 3D printing firm spun-out of Royal Philips Electronics). The materials used range from metal/silver, ceramic and frosted and transparent glass.
Many thanks also to Dipak Mistry, our collaborator on Visualise Lifestreams at Arts & Business Cambridge who dropped them by the studio this morning.
This morning we are off to Cambridge for our final meeting with our collaboration partners at Philips R&D, where we will be presenting the lifecharm shells we have generated from our health data and talking about where we will be taking the project next.
As part of our quest to explore making health data tangible we began to research means of experiencing larger volumes of collective health data as a complementary experience to the ‘lifecharms‘ illustrating individual data streams. We imagined these different strands operating in tandem to provide micro and macro perspectives on how we can forge new relationships to health and wellbeing.
The question immediately arose of how we could achieve meaningful translations of complex health data. Our initial solution was to turn public health data (derived from Network of Public Health Observatories) into varied surface expressions on a larger installation work, allowing a degree of participation from direct public interaction to inform manipulations of the public data sets. To achieve this we thought about the production of manipulated stacking surfaces that would aggregate into a communal structure.
Our idea for manifesting this health data was to take each data set, determine its dimensions (i.e. which and how many data ranges does it have, what do they represent? e.g. mortality rates, obesity, etc.) and take each of these to be the driving parameters of a set number of ways to cut, punch, emboss or bend thin sheets of material, either paper, card or metal. We would then create one layer of material for each data dimension, apply the parameter controlled action for it (ie, print, cut, punch, bend; where and by how much) and do this for each of the data dimensions.
For each dataset (by ward or time span) we would end up with a stack of screens which together would define a unique surface or mask that would be specific in both tactile and visual effect. These stacked screens would make up the facets to be collated into a larger physical structure that would evolve out of the geometry of the base shape and be assembled by members of the audience to ‘collectively grow’ the public health data installation piece.
We proposed to use Buckminster Fuller‘s fly-eye dome as the base for a slightly larger than human size dome structure which would rest on a tripod-like support structure under which visitors could move to look up and in. The fly-eye dome is a design variation on Bucky’s earlier geodesic dome structures lending itself well as a projection structure. We planned to use it to present transformed public health datasets which become layered and patterned masks to produce alternating light and shadows from within the dome surface. Each facet, or mask, would be representative of a specific grouping of public health data, either by time interval or by geographic proximity.
In thinking about how this would work as an installation, we came up with two different projection approaches creating two types of experiences:
- Outward facing masks with switch-able internal illumination creating projections that are cast on the gallery wall interiors and,
- Inward facing masks with with external illumination where the audience steps inside the dome structure manipulating an exterior light source (or ‘sun’) around the dome structure by hand.
A very attractive benefit of collaborating with Philips is their expertise and product range in professional lighting. In particular, Philips has developed a product series and related technologies called LivingColours which we considered to be a good option for the illumination in our fly-eye domes.
Despite developing this concept quite far, we eventually moved away from it as we felt it didn’t encompass enough of a sense of the living and organic processes which we want to engage people in. In many ways we felt it was moving back towards static data visualisations that are too readily ‘readable’ and which soon cease to have the power to engage people in an ongoing and reflective relationship with how public data can be seen as part of the environment in which we exist.
Our third round of shells fresh out of fabrication is here!
I am excited that we now have shells that are more organic and life-like coming through. To drive this additional complexity I’ve been experimenting with mixing the combinations of data and exploring how these generate more ‘organic’ forms as they are fed into different parameters of the growth grammar.
In my last post I described how I’ve developed a bespoke shell model by programming in JAVA with growth grammars which start out with mathematical principles. These project a spiral onto the surface of a cone in 3D for the primary growth curve. Then I begin to tweak and subvert the surface shape as it grows, adjusting the rhythms and patterning of the data to add a degree of interpretation.
This is very interpretive and not hard science; it is not classic data-visualisation or information graphics. I take sets of health and lifestyle data and make deliberate decisions in how I interpret what kind of ‘expression’ they generate. It is highly designed and crafted process which I am evolving to achieve both an aesthetic outcome, but also one where the data plays a key role that may not be transparent or simply ‘readable’ like a graph, but rather becomes emotive.
This is important and different in that we are trying to produce a sense of meaning that is not read through classic symbols but rather through a tactile and visual experience. The tangible form of the shells embodies rhythm, resonance or dissonance; attraction or repulsion.
What we are attempting is not just a ‘transduction’ of health data into physical form, but a transformation of how we develop relationships with that data and what it means for us. The data is captured and transfigured into the physical form of the shells – producing something which is magical, transformative and which cannot be easily read but is heavy with the potential for meaning. The shells become more like talismans than just static instantiations of data.
This is very different to a technique that just takes data and processes it into a visual or physical form. It is not about numbers but about a model of generating shells that are qualitative, meaning producing and change making. It is about how a person could pick up a shell and begin to read their own meanings into it, knowing that it is generated from their own health data. Knowing that the subtle but strange variations in each shell indicate something to be explored in our lifestyles and behaviours.
This third generation of shells are moving further towards acquiring a ‘life’ of their own, becoming objects of meaning in the world. They are shaped by ‘lived constraints’ in the growth model and are getting expressions that go beyond pure mathematics.
I’m now working on a fourth generation of shells, this time using data posted on the internet using social media.
I have just come back from the Digital Manufacturing Centre 3D printing lab at UCL where we just had our second round of shells made for us.
This time around you can see shells which are beginning to have some life (or data to be exact) put in to them. They are ‘grown’ by using the health data we have previously collected from the body sensors and data logger which we are beginning to use to evolve different types, shapes and sizes of shell.
We captured the initial data over a week back in May which consisted of blood pressure, step counts, length of sleep, body temperature, exposure to air pollution and alcohol intake. These were gathered to provide a range of values we could use to make the shells change the way they are evolved over time.
These different dimensions of data are used in our growth model as parameters that influence where and how much the shell grows and in which particular way. Each set of data values contribute to determining how much it grows, how smooth or jagged the surfaces are and whether or not there are other outgrowths. All together this results in a very personalised and specific shape that is unique to each data set.
We are planning to fabricate two further sets of shells, one with more extensive data sets informing the shell growth pattern, and the second experimenting with different data sources. More posts to come!
Our growth model as mentioned before is using variants of ‘parametric design’ via L-Systems and Growth Grammars. Here is a very quick explanation of what these do in principle:
In a parametric design different numerical values – called parameters – are put into a set of related mathematical formulas or rules. These are able to generate variations of shapes or objects based on different input values. It is for example possible to create a parametric definition of a basic chair that when combining the height and leg length of a person – can generate a chair with proportions that make it comfortable for that person to sit on. So a parametric design in this case captures the idea of a chair that can be made to fit different bodies – i.e. how many legs the chair has, the way the legs are connected to the seat area, the seat sitting area and the height position of the backrest.
These were invented by a man called Aristid Lindenmayer and are type of formal language that uses sequences of letters that define how something grows over several time periods. They can for example express how a tree expands from its trunk into branches and then into leaves or how a flower’s petals are arranged.
These are more complicated variations on L-Systems that have a richer set of features that can be used to describe growth models such as plant models. Growth Grammars are used in not just modelling the structure of plants i.e. how it is put together and its parts but also how it functions and its parts interact with each other.
After what has been a broad exploratory research and foraging phase into shell morphology and modelling systems for our Visualise project, I have just picked up the first round of 3d printed shells which we had done at the Digital Manufacturing Centre @ UCL. Thanks to Martin and Richard for their assistance with the 3d printing process!
What you see here is a twist on classic plain formula driven generative shells that you may have seen before. We are experimenting with ways of adapting shell formation of our 3d shells based on data capture we have started in previous experiments in lifestyle and health data monitoring. I have been looking into a variety of generative modelling systems anywhere from those originating in the CAD world to those for plant modelling in the bio and agricultural sciences.
Now I have settled on using a growth grammar platform called XL (it builds on ideas of l-systems but with much more flexibility and dynamic rewriting of growth rules). The XL grammar is interesting as its been developed for plant morphological and systemic modelling, allowing the generative growth rules to be switched based on time variant environmental factors throughout growth cycles.
This offers some exciting possibilities of mimicking real-world feedback patterns of environmental constraints on living entities such as plants or other living systems giving rise to different possible ‘expressions’ based on the ‘quality of life’ over time they experience in their environment (e.g. through droughts, wet seasons, sparse or rich nutrition, pollution factors, over-shading, etc.).
The shells you see here are a variations of an evolving shell model that can be infused with our previous and ongoing environmental and personal data capture data sets (e.g. with readings such as daily step-count, blood pressure, sleep pattern regularity) to determine the evolving form.
Look out for further variations on these shells shortly!
Last Thursday I visited members of the Pallion Ideas Exchange (PAGPIE) at Pallion Action Group to bring them the latest elements of the toolkit we’ve been co-designing with them. Since our last trip and series of workshops with them we’ve refined some of the thinking tools and adapted others to better suit the needs and capabilities of local people.
Using bookleteer‘s Short Run printing service we printed up a batch of specially designed notebooks for people to use to help them collect notes in meetings and at events; manage their way through a problem with the help of other PAGPIE members; work out how to share ideas and solutions online in a safe and open way; and a simple notebook for keeping a list of important things to do, when they need done by, and what to do next once they’ve been completed.
We designed a series of large wall posters, or thinksheets, for the community to use in different ways : one as a simple and open way to collect notes and ideas during public meetings and events; another to enable people to anonymously post problems for others to suggests potential solutions and other comments; another for collaborative problem solving and one for flagging up opportunities, who they’re for, what they offer and how to publicise them.
These posters emerged from our last workshop – we had designed several others as part of process of engaging with the people who came along to the earlier meetings and workshops, and they liked the open and collaborative way that the poster format engaged people in working through issues. We all agreed that a special set for use by the members of PAGPIE would be a highly useful addition to their ways of capturing and sharing knowledge and ideas, as well as really simple to photograph and blog about or share online in different ways.
Last time I was up we had helped a couple of the members set up a group email address, a twitter account and a generic blog site – they’ve not yet been used as people have been away and the full core group haven’t quite got to grips with how they’ve going to use the online tools and spaces. My next trip up in a few weeks will be to help them map out who will take on what roles, what tools they’re actually going to start using and how. I’ll also be hoping I won’t get caught out by flash floods and storms again!
We are also finishing up the designs of the last few thinksheets – a beautiful visualisation of the journey from starting the PAGPIE network and how its various activities feed into the broader aspirations of the community (which Mandy will be blogging about soon); a visual matrix indicating where different online service lie on the read/write:public/private axes; as well as a couple of earlier posters designed to help people map out their home economies and budgets (income and expenditure).
Our next task will be to create a set of StoryCubes which can be used playfully to explore how a community or a neighbourhood group could set up their own Ideas Exchange. It’ll be a set of 27 StoryCubes, with three different sets of 9 cubes each – mirroring to some degree Mandy’s Outside the Box set for children. We’re planning to release a full Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange package later this summer/autumn which will contain generic versions of all the tools we’ve designed for PAGPIE as well as the complete set of StoryCubes.
We’ve just published our latest entry in the City As Material series: ‘Professor Starling’s Thetford-London-Oxford Expedition’ – three books documenting the investigative excursions of Professor William Starling and his research team (Lisa Hirmer and Andrew Hunter of DodoLab, Josephine Mills of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, Lethbridge artist Leila Armstrong, and Giles Lane and Hazem Tagiuri of Proboscis) during his trip to the United Kingdom in Feburary, where he sought to examine the rapid disappearance of the European Starling in contrast to the continued expansion of its North American cousin.
The first volume, Perquisitions, contains descriptions of the various participants’ thoughts on the expedition and its rationale. Congeries showcases selected items and ideas collected during their travels, and the final volume, Speculations, offers reflections and fantastical musings on the material gathered and testimonies heard.
Purchase a limited edition copy complete with specially printed ribbon here.
In one of our current (and I feel, pretty exciting) commissioned projects that is part of the Visualise Programme, we are looking at new ways of making accessible interpretations and translations of information in a physical series of objects instead of another classic information visualization.
Although there are many beautiful data visualisation examples out there, the big challenge they often face is that they are very frequently inaccessible to larger audiences. We are really interested in finding ways of creating something very emotive and tactile, giving a more intuitive insightful access to understanding content such as personal health information which really matters to people. We want to overcome it often being hard to decipher with current approaches and tools without being a health expert.
Some interesting ideas are swirling around and en route I could reconnect with some ‘old friends’ that I got to know while still an architecture student many years ago: I have been revisiting D’Arcy Thompson‘s On Growth and Form and his in depth study of shell formation as an inspiration of how we might produce our own little evolving artefacts out of re-interpreted data spaces.
We have just been in the process of carrying out our own personal health data-capture with some off-the shelf kit (e.g. pedometer, blood-pressure, temperature) as well as environmental sensing via a couple of custom build Arduino data-loggers; the results of which we are now using for sketching out a variety of generative models for our new artefacts.
Watch this space for our first sketches of growing data!
This week just passed Alice, Haz and myself have been running some co-design workshops with local community members in Pallion, a neighbourhood in the city of Sunderland, and with Lizzie Coles-Kemp and Elahe Kani-Zabihi of Royal Holloway’s Information Security Group, hosted at Pallion Action Group. The workshops, our second round following some others in early April, were focused around visualising the shape, needs and resources available to local people in building their own sustainable knowledge and support network – the Pallion Ideas Exchange. We also worked on testing the various tools and aids which we’ve designed in response to what we’ve learned of the issues and concerns facing individuals and the community in general.
The first day was spent making a visualisation of the hopes and aspirations for what PIE could achieve, the various kinds of activities it would do, and all the things they would need to make this happen. Based on previous discussions and workshops we’d drawn up a list of the kinds of activities PIE might do and the kinds of things they’d need and Mandy had done a great job over the past couple of weeks creating lots of simple sketches to help build up the visual map, to which were added lots of other issues, activity ideas, resources and hoped for outcomes.
Visualising PIE this way allowed for wide-ranging discussions about what people want to achieve and what it would need to happen – from building confidence in young people and the community more generally, to being resilient in the face of intimidation by local neer-do-wells. Over the course of the first afternoon the shape changed dramatically as the relationships between outcomes, activities, needs, people and resources began to emerge and the discussion revealed different understandings and interpretations of what people wanted.
On the second day we focused on the tools and aids we’ve been designing – a series of flow diagrams breaking down into simple steps some methods for problem solving, recording and sharing solutions and tips online, how to promote and share opportunities to people they would benefit and things to consider about safety and privacy before posting information online. We’ve also designed some simple notebooks with prompts to help do things like take notes during meetings and at events, a notebook for breaking problems down into small chunks that can be addressed more easily alongside place to note what, who and where help from PIE is available, and a notebook for organising and managing information and experiences of PIE members about sharing solutions to common problems that can be safer shared online. As the props for a co-design workshop these were all up for re-design or being left to one side if not relevant or useful. An important factor that emerged during the discussion was that people might feel uncomfortable with notes being written in a notebook during a social event – the solution arrived at was to design a series of ‘worksheet posters’ which could be put up on the walls and which everyone could see and add notes, ideas or comments to. The issue of respecting anonymity about problems people have also led to the suggestion of a suggestions box where people could post problems anonymously, and an ‘Ideas Wall’ where the problems could be highlighted and possible solutions proposed. We came away with a list of new things to design and some small tweaks to the notebooks to make them more useful – it was also really helpful to see a few examples of how local people had started using the tools we’ve designed to get a feel for them:
On the afternoon of the second day we also spent a long time discussing the technologies for sharing the community’s knowledge and solutions that would be most appropriate and accessible. We looked at a whole range of possibilities, from the most obvious and generic social media platforms and publishing platforms to more targeted tools (such as SMS Gateways for broadcasting to mobiles). As we are working with a highly intergenerational group who are forming the core of PIE (ages range from 16 – 62) there were all kinds of fluencies with different technologies. This project is also part of the wider Vome project addressing issues of privacy awareness so we spent much of the time considering the specific issues of using social media to share knowledge and experiences in a local community where information leakage can have very serious consequences. Ultimately we are aiming towards developing an awareness for sharing that we are calling Informed Disclosure. Only a few days before I had heard about cases of loan sharks now mining Facebook information to identify potential vulnerable targets in local communities, and using the information they can glean from unwitting sharing of personal information to befriend and inveigle themselves into people’s trust. The recent grooming cases have also highlighted the issues for vulnerable teenagers in revealing personal information on public networks. Our workshop participants also shared some of their own experiences of private information being accidentally or unknowing leaked out into public networks. At the end of the day we had devised a basic outline for the tools and technologies that PIE could begin to use to get going.
Our final day at Pallion was spent helping the core PIE group set up various online tools : email, a website/blog, a web-based collaboration platform for the core group to organise and manage the network, and a twitter stream to make announcements about upcoming events. Over the summer, as more people in Pallion get involved we’re anticipating seeing other tools, such as video sharing, audio sharing and possibly SMS broadcast services being adopted and integrated into this suite of (mainly) free and open tools.
The workshops were great fun, hugely productive but also involved a steep learning curve for all of us. We’d like to thank Pat, Andrea, Ashleigh and Demi (who have taken on the roles of ‘community champions’ to get PIE up and running) for all their commitment and patience in working with us over the three days, as well as Karen & Doreen at PAG who have facilitated the process and made everything possible. And also to our partners, RHUL’s Lizzie and Elahe who have placed great faith and trust in our ability to devise and deliver a co-design process with the community that reflects on the issues at the heart of Vome.
Back in February Proboscis was commissioned by Andy Robinson of Futurecity, with the assistance of Dipak Mistry of Arts & Business Cambridge, to undertake an Art+Tech collaboration with a local industry partner in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme. This strand seeks to engage “leading Cambridge technology companies to collaborate with contemporary artists on the creative use of technology in public life.”
Over the past few months Stefan and I have been meeting with David Walker and Steffen Reymann of Philips R&D (based in the Cambridge Science Park) to establish a creative dialogue. The initial topics for our creative exploration were suggested by Philips based on research subjects being explored in their lab – Near Field Communications and health monitoring technologies. Our discussions quickly began to revolve around personal motivations for monitoring health and lifestyle –
- Why do people routinely lose abandon using health monitoring technologies?
- What might inspire new habits that actively involve monitoring?
- How could we create delightful ways for people to make connections between personal data and Quality of Life?
- How could we rethink the nature of data collection away from the purely rational towards the realm of the numinous and speculative?
Our initial thinking suggested that perhaps the problem with data collection is that it is often too crude and reductive – trying to make impossibly simple connections between phenomena in a complex system. Data visualisations are often barely more than pretty graphs – but our lives, our environments and the ways we live are so much more than that. How might we make tangible souvenirs from the data generated by our bodies and habits that could help us discern the longer term, harder to perceive patterns?
As our discussions have continued we have begun to explore how we might generate talismanic objects – lifecharms – from personal monitoring data using 3D fabbing. Things which could act as everyday reminders about patterns the data suggests, which are at once both formed of the data and yet do not offer literal readings of the data. Objects which are allusive, interpretative and perceptible, but still mysterious. What would it feel like to have an object in one’s pocket that was generated from data gleaned from one’s own body and behaviours? How might this help us maintain a peripheral awareness of the things we eat, how much we exercise, our general state of happiness and perceive the subtle changes and shifts over time?
Stefan is writing elsewhere how we have been inspired by shells – excretions produced by creatures that tell (in a non-literal way) the story of the creature’s life – what minerals it ingested, what environmental factors affected it. For the lifecharms we’re experimenting with using personal data to drive 3D morphogenetic algorithms that can generate unique shell-like forms which we’ll then render into tangible souvenirs.
As a more macro counterpoint to the micro of the personal lifecharms we have also been considering how local public health data could be translated into forms which could be experienced as a group in a public setting – we’re investigating making a ‘fly eye’ geodesic dome with a light source to throw light upon the patterns in the data.
We’ll be continuing our discussions with Philips for another 3 months or so, gathering some test data (from ourselves) then making some prototypes and maquettes of our ideas for an event in Cambridge in the Autumn where we’ll present our work.
As part of our work on the VOME project with researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London’s Information Security Group we are working with Pallion Action Group in Pallion in Sunderland on a community engagement project to co-design a process with the local community in Pallion, Sunderland to create a knowledge network around money, spend and budgets. We are collaborating with PAG to identify the areas and issues challenging people around household economies. The project feeds into VOME’s aim of “exploring how people engage with concepts of information privacy and consent in online interactions”.
We’ve have been co-designing designing a set of huge posters with people at PAG to help gather knowledge and find the right language to use. We took a first set up recently for the first exploration session, and based on peoples’ comments revised and changed them and will be heading off to do a two day series of activities with local people to dig deeper into peoples concerns about costs, spend, what we can rely on and what is unreliable. I think the project is going to involve some very interesting cycles of creating, discussing, revising, changing and re-producing materials until we can collaboratively come up with the right materials.
Ten years ago, in 2002, we completed a major 5 year collaboration between myself, filmmaker and artist Andrew Kötting and the neurologist Dr Mark Lythgoe. The project, Mapping Perception, had been an extraordinary journey for us exploring the membrane between our perceptions of ability and disability, through the prism of impaired brain function. Andrew’s daughter, Eden, who was born with a congenital syndrome called Joubert’s (which causes the cerebellum to remain underdeveloped) was both the inspiration for this project and its heart. For the project we produced a major site-specific installation, a 35mm 37 minute film and a publication and CD-Rom.
On Monday 19th March the BFI is to release a new DVD (which includes the Mapping Perception film as a special feature) of Andrew’s latest film, This Our Still Life – a portrait of Eden now grown into a young woman. We’re really excited that MP is present on the DVD as it will mean a whole new audience for the work and are teaming up with the BFI to provide 50 free copies of the Mapping Perception Book & CD-Rom for people ordering the DVD (more details / link to come).
Once again we have been collaborating with our esteemed colleagues Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer at DodoLab on a discursive exploration of place and knowledge as part of our ongoing investigations and collaborative publishing project, City As Material. This time we have been undertaking a research expedition with Professor William Starling into the decline of the European Starling in Britain, seeking stories and evidence to explain their rapid disappearance in three towns : Thetford (in Norfolk), London and Oxford. Alongside Proboscis and DodoLab, we were accompanied by expedition members Dr Josie Mills, Curator of the Art Gallery at the University of Lethbridge, Canada and artist Leila Armstrong.
Haz has posted reports for each of the journeys and visitations which we undertook in Thetford, London and Oxford over on our bookleteer blog and we are now collaborating to produce a series of eBooks charting the expedition’s activities and findings – blending together questions, observations, musings, photos, drawings, rubbings and other things collected. As before, we’ll print up a limited edition of the books as well as placing downloadable PDFs in the online Diffusion Library for handmade versions and enabling bookreader versions for reading online.
Recently the Proboscis team have been working with the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET) and Crucible at the University of Cambridge on a collaborative research project. As the artist for this project, my responsibility ranged from creating visual notations during discussion and brainstorming sessions to illustrating the outcomes of the teams’ reflections in the form of insights and observations. My work was incorporated into a set of books known as Agencies of Engagement.
Each book required a different approach to create a series of illustrations, to accompany the written narrative.
The very first being, visual notation. I used this in the early stages of the project to capture the different ideas discussed during brainstorming sessions. The challenge here was that the discussion was live, it was vital to listen carefully; picking out words to sketch as fast as possible and trying not to fall behind. The idea to this approach was to allow others to see the dialogue visually, the illustrations represented words, topics and how it connected with each other.
The next series of illustrations was aimed to capture the moment of an activity, it was placed in the book describing the project’s progress (Project Account). The sketches consisted of members taking part in a workshop, it was illustrated by using the photographs taken during the session as the foundation and creating a detailed line drawing on top to accompany the detailed nature of the Project Account book.
The most challenging of them all was for the book, Drawing Insight, this book consisted of the teams’ insights and observations. The illustrations were quite conceptual, and although accompanied with captions the representations of these illustrations needed to be obvious to the reader. Thus being a very iterative process and required a lot of patience, I would often talk to the team to define the meaning behind captions to develop sketches to reflect it and then after a thorough review sketches would be tweaked, polished and re-polished until we felt that they had captured the right feeling.
The illustrations used in the Method Stack book, took on the same principle as the Project Account but with less detail. The aim to this approach was to simply suggest and spark ideas in relation to the thorough explanation to each engagement method, by keeping it as simple line drawings it becomes easier for the reader to fill in the blanks with their own creativity.
Finally, Catalysing Agency had a combination of both visual notations from an audio recording from the Catalyst Reflection Meeting and conceptual illustrations like those used in Drawing Insight.
This was my first research project with Proboscis, it was a very intricate one and no doubt the experience I gained from this will be invaluable. Learning about the different methods of engaging with participants of this project and putting them into practice, and deciphering complex findings into a visual to give an insight to others were the main lessons learnt throughout this project, it emphasised the importance of dialogue and communication.
Agencies of Engagement has enabled me to explore and refine my skills in terms of the different approaches to creative thinking. It wasn’t as simple as sketch what you see; there were multiple layers of things to consider – meanings, perception and how the illustrations were to be perceived. Not only was I able to hone my artistic skills in my comfort zone of conceptual illustrations, I was able to explore new techniques such as visual notations in a live situation and both styles of line art for Project Account and Method Stack.
I’ve received my own copy of the finished publication and am overwhelmed with pride, the team did an amazing job and I look forward to participating in more projects like this.
Agencies of Engagement is a new 4 volume publication created by Proboscis as part of a research collaboration with the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technology and the Crucible Network at the University of Cambridge. The project explored the nature of groups and group behaviours within the context of the university’s communities and the design of software platforms for collaboration.
The books are designed to act as a creative thinking and doing tool – documenting and sharing the processes, tools, methods, insights, observations and recommendations from the project. They are offered as a ‘public good’ for others to learn from, adopt and adapt.
Download, print out and make up the set for yourself on Diffusion or read the online versions.
Over the summer we’ve been beavering away in the background exploring new partnerships and planning project ideas and proposals for our emerging Public Goods programme. Although its too early to reveal the projects and partners we’re engaging with just now, we are excited that our aspirations for the programme are beginning to cohere around some specific topics and themes. As the projects and partnerships take shape over the next few months we’ll be posting more about them as well as the experiments and activities we’re developing alongside them.
We’ve also welcomed two new members into the Proboscis team : Gary Stewart and Stefan Kueppers, both of whom have collaborated with Proboscis in different capacities before. Gary is an artist and researcher, currently an Artist in Residence/Research Associate at Queen Mary University of London; Stefan is a designer and technologist who has most recently been a Design & Collaboration Technology Specialist for the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London.
Meanwhile, since the Spring we have been working on a collaborative research project with the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET) and Crucible at the University of Cambridge which is now in its final stage. The public output of the project will be a set of books made with bookleteer that explore the methods we used; an account of the project’s process, the insights and observations that resulted and the outcome of our reflections. We’re hoping to launch these publications at an event in Cambridge in November this year and will post details nearer the time.
IN THROUGH A DARK LENS – THE PROBOSCIS EFFECT
A Critical Text about Proboscis By Bronac Ferran
Creativity and innovation proceed in cycles rather than in some remorselessly forward trajectory. It is only over time that we can see the significance and importance of some projects and initiatives and particularly within the arts and cultural world, there are many different lenses and perspectives which we might take on work which we may wish to call contemporary.
In this text I respond to an invitation by the Proboscis Co-Directors, Alice Angus and Giles Lane to consider their work through the lens of collaboration and partnership. I approached this task aware that often the most critical developments happen below surface, in cyclical and indirect fashion. I was intrigued to explore how far one might consider this conceptually as a counterpoint to the increasingly predominant use of short-term quantitative analysis to assess value within the arts and concerned that such an approach is highly inappropriate for research-led practice (and indeed sometimes also for practice-led research) both of which activities may primarily be focussed on exploring new spaces, opening up dialogues and experimentation in form and media whose value can only become visible over time.
I have long been concerned to argue for value (and in particular symbolic value) of not for profit research-led or research-active creative organisations. John Howkins, a guru of ‘Creative Economy’ thinking, who had indirect influence on the new Labour Government‘s policies in this area from 1997, has recently shifted his focus to the term ‘Creative Ecology’ in which he outlines a more holistic approach to this area. In his book Creative Ecologies – Where Thinking is a Proper Job he argues that “attempts to use ecology to illuminate creativity has hardly begun, beyond using it as a fancy word for context”. In this essay I hope to build some layers onto this observation drawing on the work of Proboscis whose engagement with place, space and locality working with variable types of media provides the context for this text.
Proboscis describes itself as a non-profit artist-led studio “focused on creative innovation and research, socially engaged art practices and transdisciplinary, cross-sector collaboration”. Since its formation in 1994 it has made many ‘journeys through layers’ as is more fully described below. One consistent aspect has been that the work has engaged with numerous different agencies and communities, spanning and bridging private and public domain; always integral to their practice has been the development of publishing and storytelling initiatives using print and networked media processes with a primary concern for combination of image, word and text.
Proboscis was first formed by Giles Lane and Damian Jacques as a partnership to develop COIL journal of the moving image which ran through to issues 9 and 10 launched as a joint issue in December 2000. Alice Angus joined the partnership in 1999 and began leading some significant projects including the seminal Topologies initiative which was formative in terms of what was then known as collaborative arts practice and funded through the Collaborative Arts Unit at Arts Council England where I then worked, interfacing successfully and in a ground-breaking way between contemporary art practice and the Museums, Libraries and Archives services in the UK. The breadth of this project which ran between 1999 and 2000 added many layers to Proboscis and as is noted below, was shaped by an ideology and set of aspirations which were fully admirable and still unfolding now, in a considerably harsher climate in terms of arts and other public funding.
Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh rightly wrote that “naming the thing is the love-act and the pledge”. With the choice of their name the organisation certainly pledged itself to a high degree of engagement with environment and context.
As Wikipedia tells us the word Proboscis was:
First attested in English in 1609 from Latin proboscis, the latinisation of the Greek προβοσκίς (proboskis),  which comes from πρό (pro) “forth, forward, before”  + βόσκω (bosko), “to feed, to nourish”.   The correct Greek plural is proboscides, but in English it is more common to simply add -es, forming proboscises.
& ‘In general it is an elongated appendage from the head of an animal’ and ‘the most common usage is to refer to the tubular feeding and sucking organ of certain invertebrates such as insects (e.g., moths and butterflies) worms (including proboscis worms) and gastropod molluscs.
Seeing Proboscis and its life cycle as a kind of organism is curiously appealing. I am not sure if it is predominantly elephant or butterfly – or even mosquito… perhaps all these things. Or maybe it’s the Proboscis monkey, swinging from tree to tree in the wind.
On initial encounter with their work I had felt immediately the extensive and expansive qualities of the imaginative terrain over which Proboscis sought to roam not least because of the multi-partner/multi-agency nature of the Topologies proposal. Giles himself was making a fascinating bridge between research in academia with strong commercial connections (working as he was part-time developing a publishing imprint in Computer Related Design at the Royal College of Art at time when there was an ongoing research partnership with Paul Allen’s Interval Research) as well as growing Proboscis as an independent arts agency. In terms of how and where and why they proceed in certain directions extending their range of enquiry, engagement and investigation, their presence in various contexts seeming partly intentional, partly collaborative and always based on an underlying agenda that has critical intervention at its core.
It is at perhaps at edges of collision and collusion between public and private spheres, policies and desire, that what I wish to name the Proboscis effect has been most active.
In probing Proboscis over the past twelve months looking closely at their core ethos and expression in various permeations I have sought to do more than simply referencing the collaborations and partnerships with which they have been involved as this narrative is already substantially documented on their very useful website.
What I have sought to do is to try to decipher the underlying systems and motivations that drive the process of development behind the course of Proboscis’s work. In setting out to do this I thought I should also confront and re-evaluate my own set of perceptions and assumptions about their work in order to gain some new understanding from the process of dialogue and interaction that this project has deserved. I have therefore been developing a set of informal ‘dialogues or infusions’ with Giles and with Alice to absorb their current preoccupations and conscious that they work (as I tend to do where possible) in collaborative and reflexive ways. So it has become a critical aspect of doing the text to destabilise my own existing conception of what Proboscis is and, in so doing, I have hopefully begun to understand what they might do next.
It has of course been interesting writing this against a backdrop of Arts Council England’s major review of their regularly funded portfolio. In 2004-05 along with then colleague Tony White we had made a strong and in the end successful pitch for regular funding for the Proboscis team as part of a larger series of arguments relating to the shifting nature of cultural practice, the growth and emergence of interdiscipinarity as an innovation layer and the fact that there were arts development and production agencies (in this case, the Arts Catalyst, onedotzero, Forma Ltd) and some artist-research organisations (like Mongrel… and Proboscis) which were as significant to the emerging arts infrastructure as orchestras and ballet companies were to the established performing arts canon or galleries to local authorities and the defined visual arts. I had felt that it was the right time to make this case to help these often small-scale organisations to get funding for their core costs so that they could avoid having to make countless small project applications which drew on time and energy and also we argued successfully for the benefits of providing a core allocation that would enable these essentially innovation focussed organisations to prepare the ground for their next phase of development through periods of research and development, travel and experimentation that would inevitably result in valuable new work over the course of the following few years. Making this argument in terms of policy criteria of excellence and innovation and in the context of building multiple partnerships with arts investment (as often these agencies were being highly entrepreneurial leveraging many new kinds of partnerships with other sectors nationally and internationally, batting well above their weight) was effective and allowed for growth and adaptation over time.
It was then important we felt to consolidate an emerging sector that was in many ways ahead of the curve in terms of arts policy. One can argue for strategic (and perhaps then) symbolic value by citing the significance of arts organisation x as the key agency for xxx (e.g. disability arts or public art) but at the same time when it comes to interdisciplinary research-based practice it can limit an organisation greatly when it becomes too specifically defined by a primary funder as there to deliver something in particular – ie to be the instrumental infrastructural agency to do something that mirrors a policy… this particularly applies for organisations like Proboscis which exist on opening up challenging and redefining the spaces between categories, fields and form and indeed establishing and activating critical and significant tensions or gaps between arts funded agency and the arts funding agency itself. These significant gaps are often where the best interdisciplinary practice lies – not representing anything but heralding stuff to come, shifts that will eventually mainstream over time.
On the Act of Interpretation and Analysis
My overall sense since being invited in early 2010 to write an essay about their work particularly from the viewpoint of the range and complexity of partnerships they have made and held during the past decade and a half of their existence as an arts organisation, has felt like I have been staring at tracks in the snow, looking at something which is already formed and fully crystallised and not that much needing of further explanation. And in addition to this, in seeking to assemble some kind of overview or extract a narrative that condenses and crystallises anything definitive from their ongoing processes of enquiry I have held a burden of doubt about the ‘realness’ of what I have set out to do – a belief perhaps that ultimately the work that has lain within the Proboscis shadow speaks for itself, that the documentation of their processes has been carried out in an exemplary way that can benefit little from tacked on interpretation, exegesis or explanation.
At the same time, and with a sense of an organisation engaged in an ongoing process of ‘adaptive becoming’, I felt it could be useful to move towards a perspective on Proboscis which allows us to see their work as a whole, holistically I suppose – as opposed to a series of distinct projects, which is how often their work is discussed or perceived. I was hoping to define a pathway or journey through their layers – perhaps move further along the path in the snow. In a text they produced for the Paralelo, Unfolding Narratives in Art, Technology and Environment publication in 2009, they cite Katarina Soukip, writing in the Canadian Journal of Communication:
‘the new Inuktitut term for internet, Ikiaqqivij or ‘travelling through layers’ refers to the concept of the shamen travelling across time and space to find answers’.
For the past decade and a half they have had a central place along with other organisations that may be broadly described as working within the media art or trans-disciplinary circuit in the UK and Europe with a primary role in respect of ‘the ecology of learning’ to use Graham Harwood’s term. In another essay which I wrote in 2010 for LCACE I spoke of their unique and pivotal position in terms of art/technology/academic/commercial networks – one of the reasons they were invited by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council to become an Independent Research Organisation in 2004 which has been written about in detail – see Sarah Thelwall’s Cultivating Research – where she accounts for how “Proboscis has built its artistic practice around a research approach and in so doing has collaborated with a number of HEIs over the years including the Royal College of Art, London School of Economics, Birkbeck College, Queen Mary University of London and the Institute of Child Health“. Thelwall’s text summarises the range and nature of the Proboscis partnerships inside and outside Higher Education and the economic and other factors influencing their success in gaining Independent Research Organisation status from the EPSRC. She also reflects on the processes of layering I have mentioned above:
‘Proboscis have always developed and maintained a very wide and diverse collection of organisations and individuals they collaborate with. They purposefully bring together organisations as diverse as the Ministry of Justice, Science Museum & Ordnance Survey. This network is built around the delivery of projects but is by no means limited to the parameters and timescales of the projects themselves. It is common to see connections made in one project resurface some years later as what might appear to be a tangential connection to a new piece of work’.
This positioning within an ecosystem of connected and interdependent elements which may combine and recombine over time seems an integral aspect of ‘the Proboscis effect’. This is very much a distinguishing element of their work – a specific way of working, in porous and co-operative ways, engaging with locality and often with habitat.
The advent of Arts Council England funding changes now announced, which have swept through the ecosystem of digital media organisations in this country with desperate disregard for preserving and sustaining knowledge within a still developing sector – reminds us to suggest the importance of finding ways to recycle and re-embed these elements into a broader cultural ecology. In this sense Vilem Flusser’s words about waste come very appropriately to mind:
‘Until quite recently, one was of the opinion that the history of humankind is the process whereby the hand gradually transforms nature into culture. This opinion, this ‘belief in progress’ now has to be abandoned. …the human being is not surrounded by two worlds then, but by three: of nature, of culture and of waste. This waste is becoming ever more interesting…’
Somehow this seems appropriate in many ways to Proboscis preoccupations. They have separated themselves from dependency on ACE life rafts for floating media practices and now have set themselves new agendas, new partnerships and new horizons engaging even more closely with critical social challenges from global technological waste to employment of young people from disadvantaged contexts in London.
The Partnership Domain
As noted above many of the projects which Proboscis have generated and fostered have been formative in terms of exploring and building transformative connections between variable and separate fields, particularly between artistic research, academic research, commercial R&D and the public domain. The projects which they have worked on and generated over the seventeen years of the organisation’s existence have had an exciting range reflecting broader shifts within cultural practice. In addition to conceiving and shaping various projects Proboscis as an arts organisation has defined itself during this time as a vital critical space for understanding the emergent nature of collaborative practices, from research through to the public domain and as an agency through which documentation and discourses around these processes has been facilitated and enabled. What it has also most critically done is to provide a space for documentation and critical reflection on these processes – their significance has partly been to find a way to make the temporal or temporary processes of collaboration stable in terms of existing in accessible documentation over time. As their website now rumbles with tag-clouds and twitter-feeds it continues to grow in an organic fashion, as a responsive and collaborative space enabling expression of differences within an open and common domain.
Why does this matter?
In considering patterns of collaborative arts practices in the past fifteen years, often emergent work has been primarily time-based with documentation of the practices secondary to the event of the work itself. Simultaneously when we speak of interdisciplinarity what is commonly implied is the construction of spaces for dialogue and exchange, for things to be ‘in formation’, contingent, open and process-based.
In viewing the work of Proboscis through the lens of interdisciplinarity and collaboration across different arts and other disciplines over many years and recognising the high level of intention with respect to formation of high profile partnerships which have in a sense redefined ‘the public domain’, one recognises a consistent line of enquiry: the probing of interstices, the construction of new interfaces, the drawing of connecting lines, tracing points of relation through dialogue and through process. The process is never mechanical but somehow organic and collaborative – as traces are made, they may also be erased. Or they may be retained held in the act of publishing, drawing or commissioning critical texts. These traces gain longevity and new emphasis also by means of citation (for example the high degree to which Proboscis’s work has formed part of PhD theses and other types of reports) a fact which may carry little weight in relation to arts funding assessments but may in other important ways (particularly if viewed longitudinally) reveal value, especially intellectual or symbolic value as noted above.
In referencing a latency I am also signalling how in the nature of research based arts practice only by looking at developments over time might one truly realise the value. At times something may be in germination stages lying low in order to succeed but hard if not impossible to measure. These stages are in my mind at least the most important stages and ones most deserving of subsidy.
As noted above and looking now in hindsight at how the life cycle of the organisation we know as Proboscis has evolved we see many layers embedded over time. The projects have moved through moving image, film, locative and other mobile media, software, performance, carnival, workshops in making, storytelling and narrative, diy and open access publishing, photography and psychogeography, art and science, art and health, artists books and libraries, archives and community memory, folk-tales and archaeologies of place, open public data, art-industry, art-ecology and design/co-design and many other things. Within all the projects has been a set of disparate connections – sometimes with other artists, sometimes with scientists,sometimes with companies, sometimes with academia – and often with groups working in similar fields, as part of a set of network connections – producing an identity which is both fixed and process-led.
Somehow in these spaces between specificity and hybridity and tracing and erasing the Proboscis effect adheres.
It is vital to also consider the development of the Proboscis effect or practice within the context of recent intensive shifts with respect to how artists and arts organisations work within the spectrum of a broader creativity often, though not exclusively, technologically related. The most compelling work in this terrain has brought about a fusion of different disciplinary approaches and a combination of themes, fields and metiers into common and uncommon forms. This period of development has brought about also a shift within the nature of culture itself not just towards hybridity but towards open and collaborative works that engage directly with audiences or users transforming their position from user to co-producer, collaborator and joint agent within a process or design.
Proboscis’s work in the early 21st Century radically anticipated this layer which is now fully mainstream – of encouraging social innovation based on participatory processes.
In terms of how they approach collaborations and partnerships it is perhaps interesting to also consider the internal relationships which inevitably drive and define this kind of organisation. When one considers the identity of Proboscis, we recognise a pattern similar to the other organisations of similar scale and size. Often these organisations are indelibly connected to the personalities of their original founders. At the same time, when it comes to small-scale organisations the intensity of the human relations (the personality and behaviours within the group) often transfers to become the image of the organisation as a whole. Organisations form around and mirror the values and ideas of the people who form them. When people change the organisations inevitably change. But organisations evolve even when they have the same people involved who helped to develop the initial projects. In the case of Proboscis, its work has shifted and developed radically showing the various inputs and influences of the various people who have become involved over the years at project, administrative and consultancy level – yet it has also retained and maintained a consistency that is highly recognisable though perhaps difficult to define. Over many years they have brought in various skilled people to work on diverse projects which has provided an abundant network within which the organisation is situated and which they have in turn helped to generate and facilitate at various points and in various places. The workplace trainees who have been present in the office over the past year have been carrying and bringing a different, more youthful energy into the studio and as their voices grow louder as they are encouraged to express their views online and this has in turn shifted the pattern of perception of how and what Proboscis does. At the very heart though is the deeply creative core relationship of the two Co-Directors whose differing and complementary sensibilities suffuse all aspects of their work.
Garnering the Spaces Between
When it comes to unique organisations that are built on activating and ‘the space between differences’, in exploring commonalities and uncommonalities, in the energies that combine and force apart processes and practices – in other words, interdisciplinarity – it may well be said that change is the only constant and that inherent within the suggested Proboscis effect is the opening up of new relations from investigation of these tensions. I am suggesting this as it seems to me that implicit within any discussion about collaborations and partnerships is a belief system or set of values that informs and entwines with the nature of these connections and that what has partly distinguishes how Proboscis has been working in these interdisciplinary fields has been a set of principles or operating framework which has insisted on autonomy and independence of status within a broader assemblage or set of networks.
‘… But also, the value of dissent needs to be high enough so that dissent is not dismissed. How do you facilitate dissent so that it’s a strong value? Part of the concern in science collaborations is that there is a huge push towards consensus. So the dissent issue becomes very important’.
– Roger Malina
Achieving Effective Process within Asymmetrical Relations
The strength of the process was demonstrated most visibly in the pioneering Urban Tapestries project which Proboscis initiated and ran between 2002 and 2004 and which probably for the first time ever demonstrated the capacity of a small not for profit organisation to draw together a set of large institutional and commercial partners leveraging plural funding routes and most spectacularly to define the terms of engagement. This project not only prefigured the convergence of ubiquitous mobile computing and social media but also resulted in a series of community based activities between 2004 and 2007 – called Social Tapestries – which took R&D aspects from corporate and academic labs fully into the public domain and in turn revealed the significance of public participation in terms of any effective R&D with respect to social media – a kind of liberation strategy which displays eloquently the value sense underlying the Proboscis operation. Here is an extract about the project:
‘Urban Tapestries investigated how, by combining mobile and internet technologies with geographic information systems, people could ‘author’ the environment around them; a kind of Mass Observation for the 21st Century. Like the founders of Mass Observation in the 1930s, we were interested creating opportunities for an “anthropology of ourselves” – adopting and adapting new and emerging technologies for creating and sharing everyday knowledge and experience; building up organic, collective memories that trace and embellish different kinds of relationships across places, time and communities.The Urban Tapestries software platform enabled people to build relationships between places and to associate stories, information, pictures, sounds and videos with them. It provided the basis for a series of engagements with actual communities (in social housing, schools and with users of public spaces) to play with the emerging possibilities of public authoring in real world settings’.
On the Daniel Langlois Foundation website (who provided funding towards the project) the language outlining what happened is different again:
‘What would freedom of expression be without the means to express it ? As fundamental as this concept is, it appears empty and abstract if you don’t complement it with the freedom to choose the means of expression. Today’s wireless communication networks offer novel ways to express ourselves. For the time being, these networks escape government or corporate control, which is why they are being used by many artists and activists to give this concept more concrete meaning’.
No doubt there were different spins to the narrative again on the websites of the different project partners – as clear an illustration as one might wish for of the pluralistic capacity of Proboscis during this 2002-2007 period acting as a broker, connector, and transdisciplinary catalyst. It is interesting that on the current Proboscis website, the ‘history’ section ends at September 2007 and before this that year Alice and Giles had visited Australia, Canada and Japan as well as taking part in numerous UK based events, conferences and discussions – being greatly in demand to un-layer and share tales of the Urban Tapestries and Social Tapestries adventures and outcomes. This work was intensive and significant with respect also to the broader history of collaborative media practices in the early years of this century.
The history of the period between September 2007 and now is also now still waiting to be written – and the turn which is now happening in relation to the direction of their work more explicitly revealed
Between Tactical Extremes
Taking further forward some of the ideological strands initially outlined in the goals for Topologies as well as running through the Urban Tapestries above, Giles writes currently on the Proboscis website about their forward programme for 2011 which will focus around the over-arching theme of Public Goods,
‘In the teeth of a radical onslaught against the tangible public assets we are familiar with (libraries, forests, education etc), Public Goods seeks to celebrate and champion a re-valuation of those public assets which don’t readily fit within the budget lines of an accountant’s spreadsheet’.
Showing this long-term commitment to core ideals, when I first met him in 1998, when commencing their Topologies project, Giles had written:
‘Public libraries are seen by Proboscis to be one of the UK’s most important cultural jewels, long-underfunded and lacking in support from central government. As sites for learning and culture they are unparalleled, offering a unique user-centred experience that is different from the viewer experience of a museum or a gallery’.
It is also ironic now writing this just after one of the biggest public demonstrations that London has known in the context of planned government cuts to the public sector and recalling that whilst the aim Proboscis had thirteen years ago was to add to the experience of visiting libraries by adding artists books into their holdings, the demise of the library system itself is now the battle along with devaluation and depreciation of many aspects of the public domain. Here one has a sense again of the uncannily fore-shadowing nature of many of Proboscis’s themes. Their antennae as sensitive collaborative creatures twitching often too soon?
In exploring the way in which Proboscis set out to work in collaborative ways over many years one notes a serious attuning to context, making events and initiatives which often involve deep localised engagement with those with whom they have chosen to partner whether in public or private sector contexts. Often these partnerships are sustained over many years as for example with DodoLab in Canada with whom they have a long-term relationship that manifests in different ways in different places addressing social, urban and environmental challenges through artworks, performances, interventions, events, educational projects and publishing using social media, the Proboscis bookleteer and StoryCube initiatives and others ways of involving and communicating with people.
Other relationships have been related to specific projects; almost all take place over at least two or three years following a series of research questions or over-arching line of enquiry which requires focussed time and many different manifestations. The techniques which Proboscis bring to the table in terms of collaborations have been well-honed in various scenarios – as are well outlined and documented on their capacious website. Connecting these techniques for group interaction and group authorship with technological and industrial change and a corresponding shift in the cultural and social imaginary has been a prevalent element and thread which has emerged throughout a series of interrelated activities.
Re-drawing the Map
I developed a deeper understanding at first hand of the Proboscis effect when 2009 Alice Angus, Giles Lane and Orlagh Woods from the company were among a group of UK based arts technology and design researchers and practitioners who came to an event held in Sao Paulo called Paralelo with which I was closely involved. The event brought together individuals and groups working in three countries – the Netherlands as well as UK and Brazil – on topics and themes relating to Art, Technology and the Environment. Proboscis brought a beautifully honed process of group Social Mapping to the opening session of the event. This created a way of introducing individuals and everyone to everyone else with the plus factor that it gave form to the latent network connections that lay underneath, beside and across the topology composed on paper laid out on the ground. It was in many ways a characteristic Proboscis intervention inflecting the overall event with a collaborative and open-ended fluidity of approach with participants then returning to the map at the close of the event and in a ritual of consolidated iterative expression redrawing earlier lines, shifting to new points of intensity. This effect relies on an appreciation of ritual, of the act of drawing with the hand on paper, of making marks and leaving something that over time becomes a document of something that has now passed…
‘The development of new forms of expression is not something that is bound to happen, but is a matter of the choice and preference of artists. What is possible is the programmed creation of works. The artist is then creating a process, not individual works. In the pure arts this may seem anathema, but art thrives on contradictions, and it can be yet another way of asking what is art?…’
From first page of EVENT ONE, first edition of PAGE journal of Computer Art Society, 1969.
In their contribution to the book Paralelo: Unfolding Narratives in Art, Technology and Environment which emerged after the workshop in 2009, the Proboscis team also brought a singular simplicity (that held much deeper meaning than what was visible on the surface) to the project. Their text, Travelling through Layers, available also as a Diffusion eBook – holds in a small space a series of interleaving observations, images, quotes and commentary – all of which combine to build a narrative that stands alone or as part of the larger whole in this case the wider texts that make up the publication, a small microcosm of the broader Proboscis effect.
In Conclusion – The Latency of Glass?
As we enter into 2011 and shifts in political and arts funding scenarios, it seems to me that Proboscis are once again on the turn. Adapting to constraints that have emerged from socio-environmental contexts, they are taking a slower course. expressed in the lavishly vulnerable depiction of the disappearing markets in Lancaster which Alice has recently produced and the oft expressed commitment to providing tools and resources at low cost for others to access whilst wishing to do this by way of exchange and experiment – allowing social concerns to dominate technologies and allowing the reinstatement of hand and handi-craft into the Proboscis process.
It seems to me that with the usual fore-shadowing the organisation is now pointing towards a need for deep contemplation and reflection on what is currently in danger of being lost and following the ecological theme, seeking to ensure that we devise ways to recycle material back into the system. In some extent they are going out further to those margins and extremes, wanting to fuse together some new points of tension or heightened concerns. No doubt this will slowly and surely emerge.
And most importantly how does one articulate and measure value within these processes? What kinds of measurement can apply when one is talking about ‘effect’? What distinguishes their work from others who have moved into these spaces between the arts and other sectors? What has made them so effective in these spaces? And having moved in, developed systems of exchange and parallel processes with many other agencies, what has Proboscis gained and lost – what (apart from documentation on their website) might remain? Why do they move on? What do we learn from the textures and edges that their processes effect?
Their capacity to retain an integrity and critical edge whilst being involved in processes of exchange with many different types of partner organisation has been admirable; if as outlined in the 2010 Prix Ars Electronica Hybrid Arts text we might see hybrid arts practices as being fundamentally about an ontological instability or insecurity then in many ways the work of Proboscis throughout sixteen-seventeen years may be situated in this terrain.
Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s so far the best projects (and those which become most memorable) at least in relation to the broad field of collaborative and interdisciplinary arts practice seem to me to be those which tend to fuse together layers of different processes, systems and materials to form a new, highly charged synthesis that carries within it the tensions implicit in making something disparate whole. If broken or contracted, new edges will then emerge that redefine the boundaries of the whole.
Over time what is engendered and revealed are certain qualities manifest at both surface and depth – I describe these forms as having something like the latency of glass.
The Proboscis narrative has many of the properties of glass (fused to a point of stillness, yet with inner motion and capable of breaking to form new edges). If I have managed to identify at least one angle on their work using the perspective of the dark lens it is related to something Giles said in conversation in February 2011 about his interest in “exploring extremes and the points of tension between”. The photographic negative awaiting advent of light in the darkroom is another way of seeing this. Perhaps the phantasm of ‘true collaboration’ lurks in the latency of glass.
Bronac Ferran, April 2011
“Trundling along our everyday routes through the city, our minds often consumed by thoughts of work and daydreams, our surroundings become all too familiar; a grid which we traverse on set rails, eyes downcast, something purely to be suffered until we reach our destination.
Surrender to the city’s own pace – immobile and immemorial – delve into dark corners and gaze upwards at spires; abandon the city as a stale platform for living, and seize it as material to inspire. Through shared excursions and experiences, playfully exploring our city, we come together to create. Open to all with no set ambitions, join us to collaboratively produce publications which showcase and investigate the city we inhabit.”
The City As Material set contains the 10 books commissioned and produced as part of last Autumn’s City As Material series of urban explorations and collaborative bookmaking. Printed using bookleteer‘s Short Run Printing Service, the set is limited to 50 slipcase-bound, individually numbered copies. It includes:
- City As Material: An Overview
- An Unbooklet of Disappropriation
- Ebb and Flow
- Ancient Lights, City Shadows
- Sonic Geographies
- The 2nd Book of Urizen by Tim Wright
- River – Gap by Ben Eastop
- Skylines & Sightlines by Simon Pope
- Deep City by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino