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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.

Camera Explora at Territorial Play

camera explora_territorial play

Camera Explora recently appeared at Radiator’s Territorial Play , the opening event of their Tracing Mobility programme. Unfortunately I didn’t get much chance to publicize this fact in the run up to the event as I was too busy trying to work out what kind of string would give the most friction on a rubber pulley.
Embroidery cotton is quite good.

There were two main elements – activity and installation. The activity bit involved people going out and exploring the city using the camera, which is now a repackaged Google G1 phone running a custom made Android application. That bit was programmed by Sam Meek, who’s done a great job in spite of the somewhat … ‘limited’ hardware.

Those that took part seemed to respond well to the experience. A few said that they found it frustrating at first to be so constrained in what they could take photos of, but eventually began to resist the urge to photograph the first thing they came across and took the time to have a proper look around first.

camera case prototype

The second part – the installation part – was an arduino controlled CNC plotter (hence the business with the string) that drew lines onto a paper map of the city between  the locations where each photograph was taken, as they were being taken. Each photo represents, in theory, something the photographer found interesting or noteworthy. Physically connecting these instances on a paper map ties them all together. It links them in memory and space, as well as providing a tangible, non-photographic mnemonic of those experiences.*

The aesthetic of the plotter is quite rough. Although it’s absolutely a work in progress this was, for the most part, intentional – because it was an installation rather than a product design I wanted it to look like the kind of eccentric, unrefined, but very personally engaging and valuable machine that someone might have built for themselves. The details of that were worked out by just building as much of it as possible out of stuff that I had lying around. Whether or not that was the best strategy is up for debate.

plotter closeup

The projects is about exploring new places, so one concern leading into the event was that because most of the participants would be from Nottingham, the intended experience might be somewhat diluted. However, even those that were familiar with the city enjoyed actively seeking out things that they might not have seen or noticed before, which certainly seems to suggest more attentive exploration of the city. Some even requested to keep the photos they had taken, as well as the route map that had been drawn, when they returned. It’s nice when things like this come out in testing.

Anyway, not an especially in depth write-up just yet – think I’d need to run it again to do that. There were also a few minor technical issues that we couldn’t iron out in the time available. So although things didn’t run quite so smoothly as we would have liked, it helped us see exactly what was and wasn’t right about the prototype both technically and in terms of the design. There’s nothing that can’t be fixed.

Not bad for a first go. Fun too – it’s always good to see people using and enjoying something that you’ve made.


* This is not to say that tangible things are necessarily, or inherently any more or less valuable than digital things. One of the aims of the project is to investigate ways of generating meaningful records of experiences, and the play between digital and physical things is just one way of looking at how to do that.

Barcelona

It’s actually been ages since I was there, and it’s only the second time I’ve been but it is definitely one of my favourite places in the world so I thought it was worth a mention.

I went out there with some friends to go to the Primavera Sound music festival, which is now one of my favourite things in the world.

This is due in no small part to the incredible line-up some of whom, like The Dan Deacon Ensemble and Jesus Lizard, were unforgettable.

On a more boring note it was also incredibly well organized. Hardly any queues for the toilet, and even less queueing at the bar.
The only thing that made it a bit less ‘festivaly’ is that there is no camping – it’s up to you to find somewhere to stay in the city – and it was a much better experience for it. We managed to rent short let apartments for a week, so during the three days of the festival you got to do a bit of exploring, site-seeing or just plane old wandering around during the day before making your way to the festival when it began at 6pm. It felt like more than a festival.

I think if there was camping we would have spent the whole time on the fetsival site and not seen anything else, which is fine if you’re at Reading but a shame if you’re in Barcelona. It’s a beautiful city, even the new bits. Mind you the sun, and the being on holiday probably helps.

Anyway, no point really. Just that I highly recommend the Primavera Sound festival and Barcelona which is now pretty high up on my ‘places I want to live’ list.
More photos and videos here and here respectively.