All posts by Mark

Timestreams In Brazil

While the extended British winter has me thinking of warmer, sunnier places, I remembered that I never really posted about the work I did in Brazil back in October. I was lucky enough to go there for a 2 week residency with Active Ingredient for Timestreams – a joint research and development project between the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Hub, University of Nottingham,  and Active Ingredient.

Timestreams is a WordPress plugin that allows you import, edit, overlay and compare different sets of live and pre-recorded data in timelines, much as you would do in video editing software. This allows you to compose different streams of data, and play with the relationships between them, or simply just to use as an easy to access repository of live data.

Our role in the project was not to produce polished, finished pieces, but instead to explore the possibilities and capabilities of the platform by creating artistic experiments in response to the environmental data we collected.

We spent the first week of our trip on a farm in the Mata Atlantica called Vera Cruz (top image) just outside Miguel Perriera, where we explored, gathered data and tested ideas for things to make. As it turned out, other than being beautiful, our remote setting offered some valuable reminders about our creative process when working with data. Surrounded by nature, and faced with a total lack of web connectivity, we were eventually forced to come up with more analog, and to my mind more creative approaches. Trying things out quickly and simply is much more valuable when trying to get a feel for the stories you want to tell. It requires relatively minor investment and risk, and in doing so allows you to be more agile in your creatives process and decision making.

One example of this was an idea of Rachel’s that came from the possibility that climate change might bring about more frequent instances of extreme weather. She wanted to build a prediction machine that monitored humidity and temperature data in order to offer advice for how to deal with this changing weather. Instead of trying to build the machine immediately she decided to make these fortune empanadas.

They contained predictions and advice based on interviews she conducted with us, and local people. This was designed as a way to see what it felt like to receive such a prediction, without having access to the data needed to build the final machine. In order to fit the predictions inside empanadas meant that they needed to be brief while retaining their meaning. As a result, they were often cryptic, or mysterious, scary or mundane. We wanted to retain these qualities and so when we did eventually built the prediction machine, we used the same predictions.

Week 2 of our residency lead us back to Rio de Janeiro where we took up residence at Barracao Maravilha, an artist studio and gallery space in the city. We spent this time developing what we had started testing during our first week on the farm, but were also keen to collaborate with the various artists who worked in the studio. For many of them it was their first encounter with using data, and they had some really interesting approaches to engaging with it, and with us. These collaborations were similar in that because the artists at Barracao weren’t used to working with data, they bought ideas with them that we could test out equally quickly, and combine with data relatively easily.

This record player belonged to Bruno – one of the Barracao artists. He’d had it for a while and had recently become interested in Arduino, so we had a perfect opportunity to work together and hook it up to Timestreams. First though, we connected the Arduino to the motor that drives the turntable, and used it to vary the speed. Bruno made this makeshift, but surprisingly effective speaker out of a piece of paper and a sewing needle, and we were treated to a raucous, fluctuating rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The result of this experiment was definitely intriguing and compelling, both as an object and as a performance of the music. So, the next step was to get some data involved. We experimented with decibels, temperature, humidity and a few more, but we knew from the experiment that we wanted the speed of the record to fluctuate gradually up and down. We remembered the MaunaLoa CO2 data that we had come across in a previous project. This data set contains global CO2 levels from 1959 to the present day. Within each year, the levels fluctuate seasonally, but the overall trend is gradual and incremental increase. The effect of using this data was that the speed of the record fluctuated, but gradually got faster and faster – the pitch changing with it.

Two of the other Barracao artists,Hugo and Natali, make huge, brightly coloured inflatable structures and place them in various natural and manmade contexts. They made the one seen in the image above especially for us to experiment with. They had always wanted them to ‘breathe’ and move, so we attached the small fans that inflate them to an Arduino, and after some fine tuning, we were turning the fans on and off to make them appear as though they were breathing by themselves. The movement and their bright, vibrant colours were reminiscent of the street life outside the gallery, so we wanted to use data to draw the link between them. We had a decibel sensor sending live data from the street a Timestream allowing the three inflatable structures to respond to the noise of the street.

These prototypes reflect something of the environment in which they were constructed too – they are vibrant, warm, and at times ramshackle. A pretty fair reflection of our experience in Rio, and the area surrounding the studio we were resident in.

They also reflect an inherent tension when making ‘digital’ work, or at least work that relies on electricity and wi-fi connection. This was an environments where these infrastructures seemed as temperamental as the  environment. In these circumstances though, we are still in the business of using data creating something engaging for an audience, which presents us with some interesting questions that we have encountered before. Where some part of the technical infrastructure you are using breaks down, it leaves you with a difficult choice. First, you can hang an ‘out of order’ sign on the work and apologise for the technical failures. But, this is always a bit embarrassing  and ultimately gives your audience nothing to engage with, and nothing to take away. Alternatively, you can use some prerecorded ‘backup’ data. While this at least gives the audience something to engage with, it also leaves you with an ethical dilemma. If the work is described as ‘live’, people can find out pretty quickly that it isn’t, and that you are misleading them. Also, and this is particularly true when using scientific data, you are in effect giving people information that is not accurate, and therefore potentially misleading.

So which is more important, the experience or the science?

 

If you are interested in finding out more about the project there are more photos on the Active Ingredient flickr, as well as more information on the Timesteams website.

At the time of writing, it is not yet possible to get the Timestreams plugin, but stand by for news of it’s availability. If you are interested in using it yourself – the API is here.

IBI: Weather Maker

The Institute have been busy recently conducting weather modification experiments. We were invited by Phoenix Square in Leicester to undertake a week long residency in their gallery. We used the time to conduct a series of weather modification experiments, as well as collect research material about the facts, speculations and controversies surrounding the science. The devices we built, and the results of our research have been left behind as an exhibition that will be up for the next couple of weeks.
There’s more information and content over here.

IBI: Weather Maker

The Institute have been busy recently conducting weather modification experiments. We were invited by Phoenix Square in Leicester to undertake a week long residency in their gallery. We used the time to conduct a series of weather modification experiments, as well as collect research material about the facts, speculations and controversies surrounding the science. The devices we built, and the results of our research have been left behind as an exhibition that will be up for the next couple of weeks.
There’s more information and content over here.

Camera Explora – Development

Tracing Mobility is almost over, it ends on the 12th, and it really has been a pleasure (if not a little intimidating) to be part of an exhibition with so much great work.

Above is an image of it in the gallery, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. The maps on the wall are those created by people as they used the camera to explore Berlin. That was taken not long after the show opened, so hopefully by now there a few more.

Anyway, since its all up and running I thought I’d post up a few snippets of Camera Explora’s development.

 The Camera

The camera itself has more or less been completely rebuilt. We got hold of some android phones that are better able to cope with processing the images people take and logging co-ordinates to the server. Sam has also completely re-written the application so that its much more efficient. The UI is still very simple with just three main screens and relatively few ‘choices’. Applying constraints to digital technology is a big part of this project so we wanted strip out most of the functionality associated with digital photography, especially the ability to review and edit on the fly.

The camera’s body is a 3d printed case intended to make the smart phone feel a little bit more like a camera. This was again important to creating the desired experience of using a camera that does one job and relates to one experience of one place, rather than a smart phone that (excellent they may be) does everything.  This isn’t necessarily a comment over one being better than the other, more an attempts to find out what it means to have digital technologies that have a specific purpose. The casing also serves the functional purpose of blocking access to the phones buttons. This means means people cant exit the app and play with a free smart phone for a few hours.

 

The Plotter

The plotter draws lines with felt pen onto a map of the city. These lines don’t show your exact route, but instead draw lines between the locations where you take photos. This links the locations of things or events that you considered to be important, or worthy of attention, and therefore recording.

Because the pen only draws when you take a photograph, it rests in one place until another picture is taken. During this time the ink from the pen bleeds into the paper, so the size of the dot becomes a rough indicator of the length of time that passes between photos – or between paces and events of interest. The maps were custom made using open street map and printed on treated ink jet ready drawing paper.

The new version of the plotter is made using an A3 scanner. This gives you all the mechanical elements you need to run the x-axis, and is driven with a pretty standard 4-wire stepper motor so controlling it with an arduino and motor shield was quite straightforward. The mechanism involves a few drive wheels, belts and some wire + pulley systems that slow and smooth the movement of the stepper.

Flatbed scanners have no Y-axis, so I took the drive mechanism out of a smaller A4 scanner and attached it to the A3 scanner’s scan head using some custom made 3D printed brackets. The motor that came with this mechanism was a dc motor with an optical encoder on the back, rather than a stepper motor. These are really accurate, but unfortunately I couldn’t get a reading from the encoder – possibly why the scanner was being thrown out. Instead I got hold of a small stepper motor that could fit inside the  scan head along with the drive wheel of the smaller scanner mechanism.

This version of the plotter has a stand so that it could be displayed as a stand alone unit. I also wanted it to look and feel a bit more like a piece of furniture than last time.

Its build using plane old pine timber and plywood. But to make it look a little more like something that would belong in a home I covered it with oak veneer. I like how it turned out – it’s intentionally quite retro looking. This was partly to lend it a little domestic familiarity.

  

 

  

 

The Printer

As you walk around and take photos, a small photo printer hidden in the plotter display prints your photos. This happens as you take them.

The printer is a Polaroid Pogo. These are designed to work with mobile phones and certain camera with PictBridge functionality. It does this either by a usb connection to the camera or a bluetooth obex transfer. A PC won’t recognise these printers through a USB connection as it can’t run PictBridge, so the photos had to be sent over bluetooth.

The printer was held inside the plotter display casing by a 3d printed bracket. This means the printer can be easily slid in and out when the paper needs replacing, which, because they only hold 10 sheets, is quite often.


 

That’s a bit of a quick overview, but for the sake of brevity, that will do for now. Along with Sam who did all the android development, many thanks also go to Mike Golembewski and Rob Mitchelmore for help with various bits of software development.  It will soon be coming back from Berlin, and when it does i’ll get around to making a film about the project and post up some of the maps and photos that have been created.

I will also running some more controlled user trials for use in my PhD research. So if you’d like to have a go, get in touch!

Coming Up – Tracing Mobility Berlin

Camera Explora will soon be going to Berlin to take part in the Tracing Mobility exhibition at Haus De Kulturen De Welt from the 24th November to the 12th December 2011.
The exhibition will showcase about 20 works around the theme of cartography and migration in networked space.

Mobility has become one of the most important keywords in the discourse on globalisation, techno-economic change or the Information Society. The idea of nomadic, ‘mobile’ persons supported by spatial mobilisation of capital, goods and knowledge pervades politics and economics, technology and science, advertising and media, commerce and culture. The Tracing Mobility exhibition and symposium present a snapshot of the dynamic topography of this constant being-in-motion.

The prototypes have changed a lot since their last outing in Nottingham. I’m still working with Sam and we’ve managed to solve pretty much all of the hardware and software bugs (we’re working on the rest!), so hopefully the experience should run much more as intended. This means that we should be able to start getting some more useful feedback from people about how the technology influences their exploration and perception of the city. I’ll do a write-up about this after the event, as well as more detail about the prototypes.

It’s going to be really exciting to see people using them in a city i’m unfamiliar with – I’ve only ever seen it or tried it out in cities where I live, so hopefully I might even get to have a go myself!

Anyway, if you’re in Berlin any time between the 24th November and the 12th December, come along and say hi.

Visualising Climate Change … again

 

The next showing of the Active Ingredient’s project ‘A Conversation Between Trees’ is coming up at the Rufford Gallery and Country Park in Nottinghamshire. It’s running from the 13th September – 30th October 2011, with members of Active Ingredient in residence until 24th September.

There’s been a whole load of development since the last exhibition, with improvements to environmental sensors and mobile app’s to name but a few. The Climate Machine I’m developing has also undergone significant improvement. A lot of the kinks are being smoothed out to not only make it mechanically more efficient, but also to make it more robust and easier for us to run throughout the whole period of the show. We’ve also been playing around with how the machine draws out the data, trying to find the way that we thing offers the most truthful and interpretable impression of global CO2 levels since 1959.
To add to this we also have a new data set based on MET Office predictions for future Co2 levels. This gives forecasts of data up until 2050, which will hopefully allow us to give an impression of a trajectory into the future, and think about what these increasing CO2 levels might mean.

Anyway, I shouldn’t give too much away just yet. For more information visit the project website: www.hello-tree.com.

Visualising Climate Change

In a previous post I mentioned that I was working with Active Ingredient on their current project, A Conversation Between Trees. Well, that’s exactly what happened and we recently spent a few days in Rockingham Forest, Northamptonshire installing the work in the Fineshade Woods art centre. You can read up on the project over at the site, but for now I’m just going to talk a little about what I worked on.

The main part of the installation involves  projected visualisations developed in Unity 3D that show real time environmental data from sensors in trees in Sherwood Forest UK, and the Mata Atlantica, Brazil. To compliment these, we wanted to create something that would add some historical context to the data. Global CO2 levels in particular change slowly, and by very small increments that aren’t linear or continuous, so we wanted to add a more accumulative and temporal impression of the data allowing more of a ‘big picture’.

 

The machine draws out CO2 data taken from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. This dataset is the longest continuous record of global CO2 data available, and has monthly readings dating back to 1959. Having data that covers such a large period of time allows us to depict the behaviour and effects of the increasing CO2 levels over the years.

 

The machine consists of a revolving circular platform and an arm that moves between the center and edge of the paper depending on the CO2 level. The revolving platform represents time with one revolution of the platform representing one year. After one revolution the paper is removed and the machine starts again. Because each year is on a seperate sheet of paper, it gradually builds a stack of paper marked with 52 years worth of CO2 fluctuations.

The data readings are  monthly, so within one revolution there are 12 readings, and the arm plots lines between each data point. Arduino controlled stepper motors drive both the platform and arm, and the steps needed to draw lines between data points are calculated using Bresenham’s algorithm. This is done in Processing rather than Arduino, as it it made sense to do all the calculations on a laptop rather than the arduino itself. The processing sketch then just passes simple movement commands to the arduino which drives the motors accordingly.

 

Lines are scorched onto the recycled paper using a soldering iron. We did a lot of experiments to test which papers scorched nicely, but didn’t burn, and which speed / heat combinations left the nicest mark on the paper. We’re not sure we’ve got this quite right yet and will continue trying different tips for the soldering iron and different speeds for the new surface area and heat combination that this will create.

As well as forcing an uneasy contradiction by using a carbonising process to make marks, the act of burning symbolises the relationship between global CO2 levels and temperature.

This brings us to an interesting point of discussion that has come to light through doing this project. The team have discussed many times the role of technology led human intervention in environmentally engaged artwork. As ever, we have no answers, but these projects are about presenting information to provoke debate and dialogue around some very serious but complex issues without being prescriptive, or trying to force our views on the audience.

This is still the first prototype, there are a few bugs to work out, and some more in depth design decisions to make but its a good starting point, and by the time the next exhibitions come around it will, of course, be flawless.

Urban Immunology

prototype image

 

LAB have undergone a few changes recently. Following our run of workshops throughout Sideshow, our activities and practices were changing and together with a new commission, we decided that it was time for a new name and identity. LAB has now become The Institute for Boundary Interactions, and while the LAB activities and ethos will continue to be a part of what we’re doing, we will also be concentrating on our own creative output.

So, the big new is that we have been awarded a commission by the Broadway Digital Innovation initiative Making Future Work, to undertake our proposed project, Urban Immune System Research. Here’s the opening blurb from our proposal:

Urban Immune System Research [UISR] is a critical design project exploring parallel futures in the emergence of the ‘smart-city’ and the appropriation of humans as data-agents in urban systems.

“Our cities are non-living and yet our cities are growing and we are covering every square inch of this planet which means that we are going to engineer things that we can live with, that give us some value and purpose.”
– Andrew Hessel – The Internet of Living Things

LAB will design, prototype and produce a range of speculative future technologies that will take form as a mixture of wearable and portable devices, mixing consumer electronics, couture fashion, ecological systems and organic components.  These will constitute strategies for creating more fluid interactions between humans, technology and both the built and natural environment .

Re-imagining the urban environment as a multi-cellular living organism, what might threaten or support the health of the city?  If the economy is our digestive tract what is it trying to feed?  If communications networks are the nervous system what is the city trying to feel?  How might we design more sustainable and healthy futures by modelling our cities, peripheral devices and interactions with technology on ecological systems?

We’re really excited about this project as it gives us the chance to further develop our collective practice, and to explore an area of research that we feel has real potential.

Our new site is currently under development, but there’ll be much more information and regular updates on the project available soon, and we’ll be blogging our activities and progress on the Making Future Work site too. There will also be a more comprehensive archive of all the activity from the Sideshow Open Laboratory residency.

Check out the MFW site soon to see the other commissions – there’s going to be some great work coming out.

Active Ingredient: A Conversation Between Trees

Data Visualisation

[image from Active Ingredient]

Over the next few months I’m going to be working with Active Ingredient to develop a dynamic sculpture for their project A Conversation Between Trees. The project combines environmental data gathered from trees in Nottingham’s Sherwood Forest and Brazil’s Mata Atlantica. This data from each location is then visualized (above image) side by side to illustrate the contrast between the two environments, and represent a form of conversation.

Here’s what they say about the project:

“Welcome to a forest that spans time and location… a journey from the temperate north to the tropical south to discover the invisible forces at play, to reveal a story of 150 years of climate and environmental change.”

A Conversation Between Trees connects trees in different environments, using sensors connected to mobile phones to visualize and interpret the sensor data, as part of a new locative artwork. Following on from research developed as part of the Dark Forest Project.

Active Ingredient will work with environmental sensors including CO2, temperature and humidity, to interpret the carbon cycle and the sensitivity of this process to climate change (carbon cycle feedback).  This will take place in forest and woodland environments in a series of locations.

The sculpture will join the work they have already developed for the up-coming series of exhibitions, and will offer an alternative to the data shown through the visualisations, giving a physical and accumulative representation of the contrasting environmental conditions, and the significance of the changing climates over time.

Human sensor data maps

[image from Active Ingredient]

Showing environmental data in ways that are meaningful to people, but still true it’s complexity, is extremely problematic. To find compelling ways of doing this Active Ingredient have undertaken several local community based exercises to map and visualise environmental data and the longer-term affects of climate change. One of these was a workshop with school children in Brazil [images above], where the children created data maps using felt to depict the environmental conditions as they perceived them:

As objects, data maps, they are quite beautiful, the colours, layout and style (to use the language of Robin Active Ingredient’s programmer) were simple yet evocative representions of the data they collected as ‘human sensors’.

I really like these data maps, and although they are highly personal representations, I think the intuition involved in making them and their highly evocative illustration also describes part of our approach to designing the installation. Simply, the idea to create something that changes and evolves to show abstract data, and the tensions and dialogues at work within, in compelling ways that people can immediately, and tangibly make sense of.

I’ll post more as things develop, but have a look through Active Ingredient’s website for more information and regular updates, including the exhibition dates and locations.

Project LiloRann


[Original Photograph © Anurag Agnihotri]

Back in the summer I spent a great 3 months or so doing an internship with Superflux where I worked on a few new projects that they were starting up, some of which I will continue to be involved in over the coming months.

One of those projects, LiloRann, has just recently been launched. Here’s the elevator pitch:

Could we reverse ecosystem degradation by growing organic structures from unruly, invasive plants?
This is just one of the many possibilities Project LiloRann will explore in the deserts of North Gujarat, India; an area that exemplifies some of the greatest challenges posed by climate change, while being rich with the potential for ecological regeneration and resilience.

Rather than focusing too heavily on outcomes and final products, the project will instigate and maintain a set of processes that enable the combination of local knowledge and more advanced technological practices, such as bio engineering, to tackle the effects of desertification in locally sustainable ways. To do this the project will operate on two levels. Firstly, it’s an ecology project that aims to help local communities in the Gujarat region of Northern India build sustainable resilience against ecosystem degradation, and to see tangible benefit as a result.

Achieving this with any level of success requires an approach that is sensitive to, and takes full advantage of the knowledge, expertise and ability of local communities. So, secondly, the project will create the opportunity for collaborative, interdisciplinary knowledge sharing.

This test-bed for experimentation and collaboration between a unique, interdisciplinary team and local citizens aims to find ways of addressing the global issues of environmental degradation by empowering communities to take on the effects of such changes at a local level. Ultimately, it is our hope that by sharing knowledge in this way, those most at risk from climate change can be better equipped to counter its effects.

Rather than a top down imposition of expertise, the project will aim to create the conditions for emergent forms of new knowledge and ecological practices to be developed through collaborative experiments between members of the project team, local farmers, ecologists, and anyone else who’s interested.  By monitoring and documenting this process, the team hope to derive a framework for how such projects might be conducted more efficiently and sustainably in future. While interest in collaboration to engender emergent practice has been around for a while, it is still something very difficult to  achieve, especially when the project requires the combination of very disparate sets of knowledge. The hope is that these difficulties can be somewhat overcome by working within a very focused region, allowing new strategies for effective knowledge sharing to be generalized from the examples provided during the project, while still  seeing real, tangible results in the ecology of the region.

It’s only just beginning, so its difficult to say too much about it yet, but I think it’s an exciting project and I can’t wait to see what happens next. As well as more detail about the projects aims and approaches,  the LiloRann site has a lot of information, which will including updates as the project progresses and details about how potential sponsors and collaborators can get involved.

Oh, and some other projects that I worked on with Superflux are also under way – I’ll post more here about them as and when.