Furl: Soft Pneumatic Pavilion is another* project i discovered at the graduation show of The interactive Architecture Lab, a Bartlett School of Architecture research group and Masters Programme headed by Ruairi Glynn, Christopher Leung and William Bondin.
Bijing Zhang and Francois Mangion explored the field of soft robotics and its future applications to create an adaptive architecture that responds to the human body:
"Furl" combines Electroencephalography (EEG) with advances in soft silicone casting of "air muscles". The introduction of soft robotics replaces the mechanical principles in interactive architecture through a biological paradigm. EEG allows sensing of human brain functioning so that our environments begin moving and responding to our very thoughts. The designed components have a wide palette of deformation patterns of inflation. Through combination of soft and hard architectural elements, "Furl" creates a new platform for a kinetic responsive architecture which can let space interact with users needs and adapt itself to environmental conditions.
Quick conversation with one of the creators of Furl:
Hi François! I hope I'm not going to shock you but I find that Furl is very fascinating but also a bit repulsive. It's a bit of an upsetting creature. It's mechanical but it also looks like it has some flesh that moves and 'lives' and that makes me uncomfortable. So why didn't you decide to make a cute little soft robot?
It is not a shock at all, in the Interactive Architecture Lab, people often attach some kind of a distinct behavioural character to their work and Furl is no exception. We always thought about Furl as a curious 'creature' of polarities, soft responsive moving components in contrast with the stiff sharp structure.
The description text in the catalogue mentions applications of soft robotics in architecture. Where do you see these applications happening? What would a 'soft responsive architecture' be able to do for us?
There's a lot of interest in robotics in Architecture right now. Mostly in fabrication but increasingly thinking about how buildings and space as whole can be kinetic in their response to inhabitation. The problem is that robotics and mechanisms are typically rigid, sometimes dangerous, and generally incompatible with close proximate behavior to people. Soft robotics creates a new platform for architecture, to interact much more sensitively and directly to the human body. These physical properties of soft materials offer a potential to create 'soft' architectural structures or components which can shift shape, rotate, bend unlike anything we've seen in architecture to date. It might be sometime before such techniques are commonplace but we think it opens up new horizons in biologically inspired architecture, an interdisciplinary approach that could potentially lead to a revolution towards a 'soft responsive architecture'.
Could you briefly tell us how the soft part works? In particular, what makes it inflate?
The soft responsive components forming Furl are "air muscles". Made of two layers of silicone with different degrees of elasticity and with air channels cast within them. This difference in mechanical properties and the arrangement of the air channels makes the muscle transform in different ways. You can essentially programme the behaviour of the air muscles by varying moulds for casting the soft material so that it can produce different 'gestures' based on geometries (such as thickness, ratio, depiction) of the solid part the air muscles and air channels. A lot of material experimentation was lead by Bijing Zhang based on work by previous members of IAL including Ben Haworth and Rom Khampanya.
Can you explain me the part about Electroencephalography: "EEG allows sensing of human brain functioning so that our environments begin moving and responding to our very thoughts." How does it work? What can EEG sense exactly? And how does Furl respond?
Our approach to brain sensing was developed in collaboration with DSI (Data Science Institute) at the Imperial College. Using their brain sensors we were able to get raw data about levels of alpha (α), beta (β), delta (δ), and theta (Θ) brain waves. The EEG signal is closely related to the level of concentration of the person. As the activity increases, the EEG shifts to higher dominating type of brain wave frequency and lower amplitude. If people concentrated it alters the theta brain waves frequency and this would active the muscles to inflate. This was actually quite a simple response to what is actually much more powerful data that harnessed with pattern recognition and learning algorithms could spell the end of needing to touch or speak to devices or environments to control them.
Since we're exploring the softness of material, we felt that brain sensing in some way, was the equivalent in soft control. Even more powerful to simple control would be buildings able to take the data and predict and anticipate our needs even before we do. Its an exciting and equally terrifying area of research we're starting to explore and this was just a prototype of that idea.
What was the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while developing the work?
The biggest challenge we had to deal with was to acquire the knowledge of the material's physical properties and develop full understanding of the change in the dynamic behaviour of the air muscles with respect to the specific internal air channels. Through a series of design and fabricated tests we were continuously exploring the capability of mimicking a more natural behaviour and interaction.
Are you planning to push this research into soft robotics any further?
Yes, definitely there are still a lot of challenges we have to deal with and the scaling up to architectural scale at this stage is something that we have to explore. On the other hand we also want to investigate the possibility of prototyping a one functional component with embedded hard materials for structural, interactive and dynamic capabilities. We also look forward in developing further the brain sensor control aiming towards full-scale soft responsive architecture.
* see also The Eye Catcher.
A few weeks ago, i went to the graduation show of the Interactive Architecture Studio - Research Cluster 3 at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL. The unit, headed by Ruairi Glynn and Ollie Palmer, focuses on kinetic and interactive design looking at the latest robotics, material and responsive systems while at the same time borrowing from a long history of performative machines and performing arts. As you can guess, i was quite enthusiastic about many of the works developed over this one-year postgraduate course.
One of the most interesting for me was William Bondin's research project which explores the gap between digital simulation and physical prototyping in the performance of dynamic architectural systems.
Bondin's proposal involves a colony of self autonomous creature-like structures, called Morphs, which very slowly navigate public parks. Their moves are not just dictated by a set of pre-programmed rules, they also rely on their physical and social environment.
Morphs exist and wander freely as individual nuclei but they can also join together and adopt certain geometries according to their needs and circumstances.
This is still very much a work in progress but a very promising one.
Simulations for tetrahedron and octahedron nuclei were carried out. In addition, one tetrahedron nucleus was fabricated as a proof of concept in order to understand the limitations of the technology employed.
Video documenting the whole research:
The morph performing one step:
I contacted the young architect for a quick interview:
Hi William! If i understood correctly, your self autonomous creature-like structures are inspired by a species of brainless slime mould. Can you tell us what you found interesting about that type of slime and how this translated into the Morphs?
The interesting thing about slime mould, in particular Physarum polycephalum, is that its cognitive processes occurs within its environment rather than a centralised brain. It is an example of an organism which has developed a clever way of exploiting its surroundings in order to perform navigational tasks and memory-related processes. For instance, when foraging for food it deposits slime in areas which have already been explored, and then avoids the same slime so that it will not re-explore the same area twice. This simple feedback technique inspired me to develop a form of mobile architecture which, analogously to slime mould, deposits digital data into its environment in order to off load its computational processes such as path finding and spatial memory. In fact, Morphs are very low-level creatures in terms of computational abilities and their complex trajectories are a result of the complex environments in which they are placed.
Could you describe the behaviour of the Morphs?
Morphs, which stands for MObile Reconfigurable PolyHedra, have a behaviour which is dictated by the sites in which they are located and their physical morphology. They are attracted to areas with high pedestrian traffic which ensures a higher probability of engagement with the public, and they stay clear of vehicular roads due to their very slow movements. Therefore, characteristics which are embodied within a site become highly influential to their "desired" locations. Similarly, their physical composition dictates the way they perceive their environment and consequently the way they behave. For example, due to their solar powered circuitry, they avoid shaded areas and do not travel during night time or overcast weather. They are also terrified of water and do not operate in wet conditions, in order to protect their electronics. These are their basic low-level behaviours which, similarly to our primary instincts, ensure their own protection and survival in complex environments. Therefore as an end result, you have these creatures which are very playful and gather in areas where people are likely to meet, but they get scared easily and become very introvert when threatened.
Because Morphs move so fluidly and elegantly, i couldn't help but think of Strandbeests. But they have nothing to do with Theo Jansen's creatures, right?
I really enjoy Jansen's work and appreciate it in its context; as beautiful objects which occupy and travel across landscapes. However, as an architect, I'm not only interested in the spaces which man-made creatures inhabit but also in the spaces which they create. Morphs have the ability of joining together into complex formations to create spaces which can be occupied by people, and respond to these temporal inhabitants. Additionally, Theo Jansen's creatures are automatons which are unaware of their surroundings and the people within their "personal space". Morphs, on the other hand, are responsive spatial structures which communicate between them and their users in order to perform collective tasks. If you threaten one Morph you might send a whole community into hiding, while if one of them enjoys learning a new dance routine it might teach it to others and perform it in groups.
The Morphs move super super slowly. Can't you make them move faster? Why?
All buildings move. They do so over a very prolonged timescale, and it can take centuries for a building to move a couple of millimetres. So if we had to speculate on how buildings view time, because after-all Morphs are architectural creatures, we have to acknowledge the fact that architecture operates on a very different timescale than its users. Morphs operate on a mediated timescale, because although we perceive them as very slow movers they are lightning fast compared to their 'static' counterparts. In terms of time, they exist somewhere in between. This also gives us practical benefits, such as very low power consumption and risk mitigation.
The "Morphs rely on environmental cues and human participation in order to attain purposeful behaviour." Which kind of environmental cues and human participation are you talking about?
Morphs continuously assess light intensity and water presence in order to take informed decisions about their next steps. This ensures that they will not get trapped in ponds or under trees, and helps them to locate themselves in sunny and dry areas. However, Morphs are not completely self autonomous.
There are four classes, or sub-species, of Morphs and each of them has different purposes and degrees of control. The music-enabled units, which are finished in bright orange, are very slow and rarely change their location. They allow musicians to play music within their enclosure, and transmit the sounds they pick up via wi-fi, as a sort of a free-for-all radio station. The purple ones, which relate to dance, are very fast movers and they respond to push-pull action by their choreographers. They are able to store unique geometries in sequence and play them back when instructed to. The architectural ones, identified by their blue colour, are very slow movers but they can carry a significant amount of load. They are ideal for assembling large configurations and can be attached to different coloured units to create complex spaces. An additional class of these polyhedrons is also envisioned to cater for open-source development, whereby users can design and build bespoke components which can be plugged into existing units.
Do the machines learn in the course of their 'life'?
It is envisioned that over time these machines start to learn about their environment, participants and even themselves. This will give them the ability to take better informed decisions about their future actions. For example, if a tetrahedron breaks one of its edges it will then have to learn a new way how to roll over without using that side. In addition, it might ask for collective help from its peers to help it travel or become permanently bonded to another Morph for successful locomotion. Another suggested form of learning is the ability to predict participants' preference and behaviour. This will ensure that the right amount of units are present at the right location when needed.
However, in practice machine learning is a very complex area of research. So far we have been exploring this field in simulation, with limited degrees of success. The intention is to collaborate with robotics engineers and computer scientists in order to actualise these processes into the next generation prototypes.
Do you see applications for the Morphs? In architecture, robotics or other areas?
Morphs started out as a research project into adaptive behavioural architecture. Over the course of a year, it has developed into a semi-speculative project which brings together robotics, computer science, public art, landscape architecture and urban design.
What is next for the Morphs?
Morphs are planned to be unleashed by the end of 2015 as an autonomous but sociable reconfigurable architecture. Prototyping of a tetrahedron nucleus started in March 2013 and has resulted in one functional unit. Current research involves the programming of these nuclei, development of their digital communication and the simulation of their social behaviour. The next fully mobile, untethered, Morph is aimed to be completed by the end of 2013 before larger assembles are explored through 2014.
Elastic Reality is an exhibition about the internet, about its ubiquity and ability to permeate physical space, it's about the way permanent connectedness has added layers and complexity to the notion of 'reality'. Elastic Reality is not just reality, nor is it simply virtual reality or augmented reality, it is an expanding, ever-morphing reality.
This ever more complex environment blends the virtual and the real, the dataflow with the landscape. Whereas new terms are regularly coined to describe this state of things, none truly encapsulate the multi layered realm we inhabit. Hence, comes the notion of elastic reality, which was inspired by the works on display in this exhibition. The participating artists not only play with these distortions of the "real", but also pioneer new ways to interact with their work. The formal exploration of new interfaces is as much part of their preoccupation, as is the content of their work, and the kind of commentary on the current state of reality we live in.
Elastic Reality was co-produced with Le Fresnoy, Studio des Arts Contemporains, a post-graduate art school and audio-visual research and production centre, where young artists are invited to produce new work under the mentorship of guest artist-professors. The exhibition is a selection of the works produced in the course of last academic year (ending in June 2012.)
Some of the works are openly political, others are of the 'move around and interact' kind, some invite to introspection, others are made to dazzle. There were good surprises (notably Tarnac, Chaos and Grace.) and a few fresh ideas but I must say that half of the description texts drove me CRA-ZY. Do french-speaking people really have to write in such a convoluted way? Does being arcane equal being smart?
Anyway, here's a couple of works i found particularly interesting:
The Mafia's retaliation was brutal. Bombings, murders, attacks on touristic spots and other demonstrations of violence. Vincent Ciciliato grew up against that background and the game he has developed unfolds in six different locations in Palermo, some of which are the stage of a murder. Players have to re-enact the murders and fire at moving targets inspired by real murders but they don't actually know if the person is an innocent passerby or the specific person who has to be eliminated. The identity of the victim is revealed only after they have been shot (to kill people, players have to do the well-known gesture of holding a handgun up and then aiming and firing with the finger.) The executor becomes the witness when the shot is followed by a series of archives documents that reveal the murder that took place at that exact spot some 30 years ago.
Zahra Poonawala's Tutti installation made me think of Futurist composer Luigi Russolo's magnificent Intonarumori but the reference was actually the acousmonium or loudspeaker orchestra, a set of 80 loudspeakers of various sizes and shapes designed by Francois Bayle for tape playback.
Tutti invites visitors to a dynamic experience of listening by walking around the components of the orchestra. The characters each have their own volume, register and a different personality. In front of this background the soloists stand out, isolated loudspeakers that are mobile because they react to the movement of the spectator who is incited to move to make them react. The different layers of sound intensify this spatial organisation. From a fundamentally complex chord which forms a base, the reaction to the spectators' movements determines the changes of intensity, ignites solos which stand out from the sound mass.
Ryoichi Kurokawa was one of the mentors of the students at Le Fresnoy in 2012 and as such, he was invited to develop his own work during his stay in Northern France. As can be expected from the über-talented artist, the result is jaw-dropping.
Dead End is a charismatic metallic sculpture inspired by abandoned industrial monuments and futurist constructions, the start of fantastic progress of the edification of a modernist mirage; hybrid architecture striving to rise up but also to deconstruct, to gradually deteriorate.
"The void of distance is nowhere else."
Véronique Béland's installation attempts to listen to radio waves that civilizations living on other planets might broadcast. This is exactly what the SETI program has been doing with very little success since the beginning of the 1960s as part of its mission to find intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The young artist, however, proposes to capture «non intelligent» radio broadcasts and process it through an automatic generator of random texts. The data is captured by radio-telescopes from the Paris Observatory, the algorithm turns it into a text and a synthesized voice articulates it in the exhibition space in real time.
More descriptions, details and essays in the press kit.
Previously: Tarnac, Chaos and Grace.
Elastic Reality. Beyond the Exhibition: New Interfaces for Contemporary Art in Europe was curated by Benjamin Weil. The exhibition remains open at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Art and Industrial Creation Centre) in Gijón, Spain, until 8 September 2013.
If i were a man i'd want to be either Idris Elba or Garnet Hertz. You know Elba, he was gangster Stringer Bell in The Wire and a detective in Luther. Now Garnet Hertz is neither of that (to my knowledge) but he's the guy everybody wants to talk to at media art, tech or design conferences because his works play with several levels of engagement: from instant entertainment to deep reflection on DIY culture, design processes and technological progress. Hertz makes robots controlled by cockroaches, video game systems that you can literally drive around, he gives talks about Zombie Media and has just crafted a magazine about critical technical practice and critically-engaged maker culture that puts us all (us being media people) to shame.
And now for a more rigorous bio of the artist:
Doctor Garnet Hertz is a Fulbright Scholar and contemporary artist whose work explores themes of technological progress, innovation, do-it-yourself culture and interdisciplinarity. His work often involves building real-world technologies that are designed to take his audience into a speculative future gone humorously astray. In the process, Hertz's work inverts the idea that technology needs to be faster, more efficient or higher resolution: innovation is born out of human emotion, historical tradition, and creative obsession.
Hertz is Co-Director of the Values in Design Lab at UC Irvine, is Artist in Residence / Research Scientist in Informatics at UC Irvine and is Faculty in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design.
Hi Garnet! I'm very intrigued by Videodome. Can you explain us what the experience of using it will be like? Can the person whose head is inside the big helmet move around? What will he or she perceive and how? And is what they see broadcast in any way to a broader audience?
Videodome is a project that I'm developing that explores different types of virtual reality without the use of a computer. Instead of a computer, I'm using a large number of miniature "spy" videocameras connected to many televisions. At this point, the project has two main physical structures: a helmet-like globe containing the cameras and a two meter diameter geodesic dome covered in televisions. These two components will be configured in different ways -with inner-and-outer facing cameras and screens, for example- to creatively explore the process of mediated sensation, perception and reality.
The initial configuration simulates being inside of someone else's head. To do this, I've constructed a wearable panopticon-style helmet - a clear plastic globe with a diameter of 45cm that has 48 cameras that face inward toward the person's head. Each camera is connected with cables to a flat panel television, and the group of televisions are arranged in a dome with screens facing inward. The screens form a low-tech VR-style cave that show the person's face turned inside-out.
At this point, this project is local and live with no transmission or recording - it's goal is to be analog. If I was going to do recordings of the camera array, it might be fun to try to do it with a mountain of VHS VCRs.
A major theme in my work is the exploration of inefficiencies and intentionally doing things the wrong way, and I have a recurring interest in poking fun at virtual reality. I love graceful kludges, rural folk machinery, and chindogu, and building Videodome is like trying to build a realtime immersive imaging system with parts that don't cost more than $10.
From a technical perspective, the project is a RAID - a redundant array of inexpensive devices - and is easy to reconfigure. It's just a $10 camera, a cable, and an old television multiplied many times. The cameras can be positioned to face outward on the helmet, or the camera cluster can be put on a dog or a tree - or the televisions can be arranged on a floor, in different shapes or on the side of a building. For me, it's a return to the spirit of video installation artists like Dan Graham or Nam June Paik when the format of video still had a sense of technological magic.
When my sons (aged 7 and 9) first played with a typewriter, their perception of it is that it was a very fast computer that instantly printed letters as fast as you typed them. And - if you think about it from the perspective of the time it takes between hitting a keystroke and when the letter is rendered on paper - the typewriter beats a supercomputer every time. In a similar way, an analog video camera is like a streaming video server with zero lag - typewriters, analog video cameras and other devices from media history are still very high performance and interactive devices in their own limited ways. The project is aimed at exploiting the high performance component of an old technology - it's a bit of a novelty at a time where digital cameras are thickly layered in technical infrastructure. You just plug an analog camera and it's instantly streaming video, although your network is only as long as your video cable.
The project is influenced by a few projects, especially Michael Maranda's Sphereorama (1991), Kenji Kawakami's 360' Panorama Camera (1995), and Hyungkoo Lee's Objectuals (2002) - and the idea to use a mountain of cheap cameras initially came from my friend Jason Torchinsky. It's scheduled to premiere in San Jose at an exhibition that Madeline Schwartzman is curating related to her book "See Yourself Sensing". The piece is not in the book, but I'm very happy the project is included in the show - in my opinion her book is the most brilliant contemporary art books I've seen in a long time.
Judging by the reaction the project OutRun received in gaming, gadget, vehicle blogs and magazines, have you ever thought of modifying the work and giving it a commercial existence, making it something that rich kids could buy?
The original car is actually for sale, but it's priced at $100,000 - so it would take a very rich kid to purchase it. I've floated the idea of purchasing the original car to a few obscenely rich people like Jay Leno but as of right now it's still for sale. There was a glimmer of hope when the billionaire owner of Lego, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, drove the original project in Denmark. He clearly had a lot of fun driving the project - and he had the money to pay to replace anything he crashed into - but I don't think he thought I was serious when I proposed to trade him for one of his Ferraris.
I generally don't pursue the monetization or commercialization of my projects - I tend to enjoy focusing on research and the exploratory prototyping phases of technological development. At this point I'm comfortably paid to do my artwork, so I'd rather spend my time focusing on building new projects.
That said, if anybody is interested in the original vehicle or working on porting the concept into a more commercially viable platform, I'm open to ideas.
And more generally, have you ever been tempted to work more closely with the gaming industry or any other industry? Surely they'd welcome creative people like you?
I used to work in the design industry through advertising agencies, film production houses, and by doing product prototyping, and at that time my slogan for much that work was "Making Your Shitty Idea a Reality". There were a few exceptions of situations where you have a blank slate and a blank check that I found enjoyable, but for the most part I've found it uninspiring.
There are significant exceptions to this - I think of Julian Bleecker at Nokia for example - I think there's a lot of room in research positions that might be rewarding. It also may be that most of my experience in industry was in the 1990s when I had a thinner portfolio and CV; maybe there are a lot of places that would be a good fit.
I generally like the quirks of the art world and academia; I usually find my colleagues in these environments to be interesting, intelligent and strange in a fun way. Both of my current appointments - full time at UC Irvine in Informatics and part time at Art Center in Media Design - are great because of the people and the projects they're working on. Paul Dourish, Gillian Hayes, Don Patterson, Geof Bowker, Anne Burdick, Tim Durfee, Ben Hooker, Chris Csikszentmihalyi and everybody else I work with - they're all brilliant and fun to be around. And for now I generally get to do whatever I want, so I can't complain.
You wrote in your statement page: "I believe that industry and academia often draw false distinctions between experts and amateurs, hardware and software, mind and body, and science and creativity, and my goal is to meld these polarities in the projects I develop. Many of our greatest social challenges and technological opportunities now lie in these connection points." How can experts / amateurs connection lead to technological opportunities? Also what can experts learn from amateurs?
I'm interested in leveraging DIY, hackerspace and amateur cultures for a number of reasons. I believe that innovation and breakthroughs happen when individuals go beyond their standard frames of reference and discipline to learn new skills on their own: breakthroughs often require us to become amateurs in a new field, in other words. During the process of learning new things, we often cobble together materials, figure things out informally, and explore things on our own. For this reason, DIY culture and doing things in nonstandard or non-expert ways are useful models for how innovation is done.
I've also seen a significant cultural surge toward DIY electronics, physical computing, and hands-on "making" over the last decade. The turn toward physical making is partly due to people being tired of mass produced consumer Walmart culture - they're tired of having disposable, spiritless and generic junk. DIY electronics is also partially in response against the trend of conceiving information and knowledge as virtual things. Platforms like the Arduino - which started out filling a niche within the physical computing community - has grown to be quite widely implemented in multiple fields of design.
I also think that higher education has become increasingly detached from physical objects. I think that this is a mistake: I believe that innovation and education needs to be engaged with the real world, get dirt under its fingernails, and learn the skill of working hard at problems that are often ambiguous. Universities needs to combine hands-on construction and skill with advanced knowledge and concepts in order to effectively innovate in research - and for workforce development.
If i understood correctly, the hand-made zine on critically-engaged making were printed in only 300 copies and given out for free. i do suspect that far more than 300 people would love to get their hands on it. Most would even be happy to pay for it. The content is brilliant, so is the format. Are you planning to change the distribution model?
Yes - the project is called Critical Making and I the documentation for the project is at http://conceptlab.com/criticalmaking/. There's been an outpouring of interest in expanding this project and there are clearly a lot of people involved in DIY or maker communities that don't fit into the "family-friendly kit-based weekend-project" focus of Make Magazine. The initial idea was to do an actual photocopied zine with a bunch of people I admire and to give it away for free - although this has become a much bigger project with almost 350 pages of content from about 60 contributors. It's nicely grown into a pack of zines, a little like Ginko Press's "McLuhan Unbound" project.
I'm still going to give the 300 copies away for free - and I'm making a special edition for the contributors - but I haven't yet determined what to do after my initial run. I'm currently talking to some different people and presses, and I'm open to ideas.
At this point, I'm not inclined to just slap an open source license on the content and put a PDF of it online. I'd ideally like the project as only available as a photocopied object that somebody hand produced - but I realize that this may not be practical. I'd consider an academic or art press, distributing it through the contributors, or returning to a zine model of people sending cash in an envelope to an address.
There's an interesting push against electronic books happening - instead of the format of physical books dying, there's a fresh crop of bookmaking work that fetishizes the physical page. I wouldn't term it as a "zombification" of books, but a useful opportunity to rethink what physical components of a book are valuable.
For my Critical Making project, if people want copies or are interested in this as a publishing/distribution project, let me know. I'll send you a copy too, Régine - but the contents of this collection of zines is a whole other conversation... we should talk about it after I've shipped them off.
One of my favourite projects on your homepage must be the customized taco (food) truck that would go around communities and give D.I.Y. laboratory for circuit bending. Is it going to happen soon?
This project, with an official title of Repurposing Obsolescence: Teaching DIY Science, Technology and Engineering Practices to Adolescents in Underserved Communities, will design, develop and test Do-It-Yourself (DIY) hands-on workshops to introduce and teach middle school kids in underserved communities technology and design by customizing and repurposing e-waste technology, like old electronic toys. Right now the major outcome of the project will be the creation of a workshop kit that covers the processes of learning DIY electronics for distribution to after school programs and other informal educational venues.
My team has implemented a number of pilot projects over the last three years that demonstrate the ability of hands-on DIY electronics curricula to motivate and encourage students and to enable them to acquire a deeper understanding of core engineering, mathematics and science concepts by introducing creative and artistic use of circuit bending,ì the creative short circuiting of electronic devices that make sound.
I'm interested in extending maker culture into different environments, and I think the approach is useful in getting kids interested in learning about how things work. In this project, I'm particularly interested in reaching out to communities that normally wouldn't have the resources in their schools to explore art or electronics. Sadly, California has a growing list of schools that have slashed art or any items that aren't part of the standardized test structure. Hands-on education - with shop, woodworking and art classes - have been removed from most schools. This is doing an incredible disservice to kids, and it's especially bad in communities that don't have a lot of resources. It's not teaching people how to think, be creative or holistic problem solving - it's teaching people how to memorize things to get a high score on a test.
I think circuit bending is a great antithesis to a standardized test. It doesn't have one right answer. It uses your hands. It makes noise and can be dangerous. It can be very simple or incredibly complicated. It involves genuine exploration and discovery. In a nutshell, I think it's a better model for how life works than a test on paper, and I think the United States would be a better place and have a more skilled and creative workforce (and more interesting artwork) if more kids were taught things like circuit bending at an early age. The scientific hypothesis of the project is that this approach will lower barriers to experimenting with custom-built electronic instruments and lead to greater participation and success of people pursuing secondary education.
So, my challenge in this project is to develop hands-on workshops, kits and curriculum that work within the educational system of the United States, or at least Southern California. I also want it to work for people with English as a second language, and as a result have translated prototypes of the curriculum into Spanish, Chinese, Korean and French - but within Southern California, Spanish is my main focus.
My vision is to extend this work through the development of a mobile D.I.Y. laboratory to more easily bring our specialized infrastructure to underserved communities. In other words, have a vehicle that acts as a "bookmobile" to bring specialized resources to groups and communities that lack educational infrastructure. The initial idea for this "makermobile" would be to have it in the form of a customized taco (food) truck, a common component of Los Angeles and Orange County culture. This vehicle would transport workshop mentors and specialized tools and would serve as a public platform to disseminate the workshop materials. I've envisioned that the vehicle would need to be really cool - with lowrider hydraulic suspension, nice rims, and a cool paint job - as a form of propaganda to get kids excited.
I've recently got funding to develop the curriculum and hardware component of this project, but I don't yet have funding to buy a vehicle. As it turns out, purchasing a vehicle through a university or research funds is usually problematic - it doesn't fit into the standard categories of research equipment, especially a pimped out lowrider taco truck.
Do you think schools, and education in general, isn't doing enough to make young people 'techno-literate'?
I think kids generally get quite a bit of informal education around technology using computers, mobile phones or iPads at home. What they're missing is the opportunities to open up and learn about the mechanics of what's inside of the black boxes of technology, to go beyond a consumer of the technology. I want kids to move beyond downloading a game off of the Apple App Store - that's not technical literacy, it's just another format of consumption.
You are Co-Director of the Values in Design Lab at UC Irvine with Geof Bowker, Cory Knobel and Judith Gregory. The objective of the lab is to blend "rich social theory with design practice in order to produce information systems and technology imbued with strong social and ethical values." Which kind of works are you developing in the Lab? Do you have some examples of projects that represent particularly well what the students are working on there?
Actually, within the last couple weeks this lab name has changed to "EVOKE" - Emerging Values, Ontologies, and Knowledge Expression - we're working on a number of different things, including a Values in Design workshop for doctoral students.
At this point we're still getting the lab set up, but we're interested in infrastructure, ontologies, values, big data, making, and how knowledge is formed and communicated. It's an intentionally big mix of topics that doesn't neatly fit into the format of something like a TED talk. I see the lab like a research group or design initiative, perhaps like a smaller version of the MIT Media Lab, that work on investigating complex issues, building prototypes and solving problems built on a foundation of serious social theory.
We have a lot of projects going on, including researching new forms of scholarship that move beyond linear texts, design by youth, and work that encompasses biomedical informatics. The first project that we completed at UC Irvine during summer 2012 was a design workshop for doctoral students, titled "Values in Design". Our mission in this project was to train researchers in a broad range of disciplines - including Informatics, Computer Science, Design and Science and Technology Studies - to produce new forms of information systems and technologies which express strong social and ethical values. It ran over the course of a week, and the format was a little bit like Project Runway - with teams designing technology prototypes - and an academic conference with guest speakers lecturing on design-oriented topics. It was a lot of fun.
Within the different projects through EVOKE, I'm primarily interested in making physical prototypes of complex concepts: I'm focused on what art can do to actually extend and add to research and science.
I hope you won't mind if i say this but you're an established artist. You're also teaching and holding academic positions. Could you point us to young, emerging artists whose work we should be paying more attention to? Either students or yours or just people whose work you stumbled upon online or at a Dorkbot meeting?
I have some student work that I'm very proud of, especially my graduate students coming out of Media Design Practices at Art Center. My favorite projects over the last little while are:
- Chiao Wei Ho, Slow Letter (2012). "The design of Slow Letter is based on the concept of Process-based Interaction which focuses on the process instead of the task itself. It is my challenge to the instantaneous interaction of user-centered design. It questions the essentiality of instantaneity and convenience in current digital service. What would the interaction be like when time and space are being elongated? We all have experienced the satisfaction of these digital devices around us, it can take us from point A to point B within no time. However, Slow Letter tends to discover alternative values outside of task-orientated interactions. The project reevaluates the weight of our words in the digital communication by elongates the process between point A to point B. It transforms instantaneity into emotional values and inject unconventional perspectives into the numbed daily routine."
- Alex Braidwood: Noisolation Headphones (2011). You've written about these at http://we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/2011/10/the-noisolation-headphones.php - since you wrote that article an updated video of the project is here:
- Hyun Ju Yang: Measurement of Existence (2010). "This hypothetical device informs your quantum state within innumerable versions of our universe in the quantum state of the universe. The main idea is inspired by an equation, the measurement of existence from the relative quantum mechanics created by physicist, Everett who invented Many-World theory."
Last week, while walking down Marylebone Road, i saw a sign pointing to an exhibition of works by graduating students from the University of Westminster MA Photojournalism. I'm not one to miss a photo show when i pass by it.
One of the most stunning photo series was In the Shadow of Faded Dreams by Zlata Rodionova. The young photo reporter traveled to Star City, a small town near Moscow that hosts the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, the heart of the Russia Space Programme. She encountered nostalgia for a time when the USSR was a Space Superpower, poor living conditions, impressive machinery and an inextinguishable passion for the cosmos.
The idealism of the Soviet Space programme speaks of serving humanity and a belief in peaceful future. However, politics has left a negative trace on these ideas and we often associate Gagarin with the tense atmosphere of the Cold War. Still, for people working at the Yuri Gagarin Training Centre, a military complex where all cosmonauts have been trained since the 1960s, Gagarin remains a hero while space is the only reality they know, almost blending with the surreal machines they work with, they seem to be trapped in a window of time. In the shadow of faded dreams, thus sheds the light on a close-knit community of space-lovers, still clinging to the decaying legacy of the 1960s Space dream.
I contacted Zlata to know more about the conditions in which she made the photo series. I suspected that the stories she'd tell me would be as fascinating as her images. And i haven't been disappointed...
In the past, Star City was a highly secret military installation and access to it was restricted. This is not the case anymore. How easy was it for you to visit the training rooms, talk with people working there, and document what you saw? Did you need to obtain special permissions? Could you roam free and photograph as you wanted?
Indeed during Soviet Times, Star City's location was kept secret. Most ordinary Russians had only vague ideas about its location. The lucky few that had the chance to visit it (through jobs or rare state organised 'excursions') revealed that Communist's ideals promised by the State could only be seen and enjoyed there.
Today it is very different as you can visit it as a tourist, pretty much everyone in Russia knows where it is, however it is quite expensive.
For instance, the 'Russian Space Museum Tour' cost $165. You basically have to choose what exactly you want to see within the city or the centre but there is not really a tour that encompasses everything. So for me it quickly became evident that for my story to be told the way I wanted I would need to obtain a special press access.
It was very difficult to get. While explaining my project I often said that going there felt like travelling back in time to the Soviet era. For me this journey started at the very early stages, as when obtaining papers I had to deal with proper Soviet style administration. One call to one office led to another. I had to obtain different permissions to live in the city's hotel, be able to walk around the city freely and a separate one for the training centre. As in soviet times the person on the desk could not give me any information as long as the head or deputy-head of the administration was not there. If the person in question was on holiday I would have to wait for days. I don't know what it would have been like for a foreign photographer, as the first question I would be asked was "Do you have Russian passport?", which fortunately I do.
The process became a bit easier when I commissioned my story to the Russian political weekly magazine Profile which regularly runs photo-reportages alongside more political and business orientated articles. With their support (they were more keen on working with an accredited photographer than an MA student), I was given access and allowed to live within Star City in the hotel Orbita for two weeks. In the whole it took me a month to get all the papers I needed.
Once on site, I could walk around freely in the residential area and document it in depth as well as discover its spirit and people but the training facility remained a closed zone. I was only allowed to be there on particular times, specific areas and always accompanied by someone from the media team or one of the instructors. Also when international crews would be training I was not allowed to photograph as it meant I would have to get another authorisation from NASA.
How big is Star City? How many people are living and working there? I'm interested in the size of the place because many of the photos show huge rooms with machines, cockpits, training simulators but there is no animation, no people busy working on it, getting in or out of the capsules for example. You mostly show people posing for a portrait. Is Star City so vast and desolate? Or was it just your choice to depict it like that?
Star City itself is a small town about 25km of Moscow, it is within this town that you can find the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre but they are two distinct areas and have two distinct administrations. They divided in 2009 when the town itself became subordinate to Moscow Oblast (Moscow region) while the centre is administrated by Roscosmos.
The city has about 6,500 inhabitants. Approximately one-third of whom are pensioners aged 60 to 90 years. This year the city will even celebrate the 100th birthday of one of its citizens. Most of them are former employers of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC).
The city was an intriguing place. To me it felt as if I was in an Soviet sanatorium or pensioner's retreat but one dedicated to Gagarin, his statues and portraits gaze at you from every corner while you can buy your groceries at the supermarket Little Star or go for lunch at the cafeteria Little Sun. On the days where I couldn't photograph there were old people sitting by the lake sun bathing. But the glory of the olden days is definitely gone. The town has not received any funding since the nineties, and the flats have not been renovated since the sixties. For many residents hot water or heating is a treat that only occurs on occasional days.
The training facility itself is a place of visual contradictions - colourless decaying buildings are aligned in an orderly way, however inside you discover machines that you could only expect to encounter in Stanislav Lem's science-fiction novels.
For my project, I decided to focus predominantly on the training centre, as Star City's residents' lives revolve around it and it is there that you can see all the commitment, relationship between men and machines as well as the last glimpses of the Soviet Space dream. While walking around it, you can see people are working and it is more active than shown in my pictures, however as the physical space and machines are huge it always seems pretty empty. The atmosphere that comes out of this gives you the impression of walking through a dream that is slowly fading away, I wanted to capture the strange magic locked beneath the surface in order to reveal the nostalgia associated to the USSR's status of Space superpower and shed the light on a close-knit community of space-lovers, still clinging to the legacy of the 1960s Space dream.
Thanks to the use of my medium format camera, the Leica S2, 30 x 45 mm in size, which often had to be used on a tripod due to poor lighting conditions within the training centre, I managed to create a distance both physical and psychological between myself and my subjects. The aim was to create a surreal, respectfully distanced and neutral mood leaving the viewer to make his own opinion about my pictures and this particular place.
Being motivated by the desire to uncover the unknown, understand its purpose, and display its majesty this format also permitted me to show all the surrealism and grandeur of these gigantic training devices. Finally, this camera, does not allow you to take photographs in an instant, it requires more installation and planning, which gave me two advantages. First, it offered time for my subjects to open themselves up to me, and gave me the opportunity to shed the light on individuals that traditionally do not receive such attention. Second, the photograph produced is still, detailed and frozen, which helped me to suggest a community and place fixed in time in a volatile moment in the country's history.
The Russian space program seems to be pretty active though. I was reading this morning about the Soyuz capsule returning to Earth. Did your visit to Star City and the discussions you had with the people working there make you perceive space missions as adventurous and glamorous as ever? How much has your experience there changed or reinforced your perception of space travel?
One of the Russian space industry's main problems is financing. A third of the industry's enterprises are practically bankrupt. Compared to developed countries, Russia invests ten times less in research and development in the industry, and five times less in basic assets and personnel training.
Every single person that I spoke with: trainer, engineer, cosmonaut said that no one comes into this industry for money.
Also there is simply a loss of interest, if in the Soviet era cosmonauts were considered heroes and every single child dreamed of flying in the outer-space nowadays Russian schools don't run programs like astronomy anymore. I was amazed to find out that a cosmonaut who finished his military service, finished an MA in aerospace engineering, spent about 15 years training and 164 days in the outer space only received around $350 a month as well an allocated room within a shared flat for him, his wife and child. Another one told me he worked as a part-time taxi driver to make ends meet.
So the image I got out of there was definitely not the glossy one you get from US blockbusters with big rooms full of flat screens, and sleek looking man running around with perfectly ironed white shirts and coal black suits. The GCTC's people you see are probably from the most ordinary archetype you could imagine. Chubby smiling middle-aged men, or on the contrary older very dignified veterans, resembling the ones you see on postcards from the Soviet times. I also gained new respect for them, they really all are people of dreams. When asking the question what brought them here, most of them replied that they still remembered the day Gagarin was sent into space or the fact that they've been dreaming of flying to the stars since childhood. One of the trainers who works in the Hydrolab and couldn't qualify to be a cosmonaut said that after training cosmonauts for long hours under-water, at night he sometimes dreamed that he was himself walking in the outer-space.
They are all very aware of the crisis within the industry but no one wants to change jobs because it's simply their passion and they couldn't imagine their life without it. It does seem like they live in a bubble where time is standing still.
What are you going to do now that you've graduated?
My main problem is that I have too many interests. Besides photography I have a real passion for writing. For me they complete themselves.
So right now I am really hoping to find a job as a writer on photography, and finish to build my online portfolio and website, which I couldn't concentrate on while doing my MA. I am also hoping to promote and sell my project to a magazines as I really want my story to get out there.
Once I build up a portfolio strong enough and wider range of contact I would ultimately like to become a foreign correspondent.
Thank you Zlata!
When i interviewed Tom Keene in the studios of Resonance FM a couple of months ago, he told me approximately 44 seconds before the end of the programme that he was working on a speech recognition algorithm that searches radio waves for conversations about money.
The work, called Uncertain Substance, investigates the Viterbi algorithm which was devised by Andrew Viterbi in 1966 as an error-correction scheme for noisy digital communication. Its use has since been extended to many digital technologies: speech recognition, satellite, DNA analysis, video encryption, deep space, wireless communications systems, etc. Physical manifestations of this algorithm exists as microchips installed in mobile devices, enabling communications networks to permeate every conceivable space, blurring distinction between home, work and social environments.
Tom's interest in the algorithm isn't purely motivated by a passion for programming, his project is also looking into the social effect of its application and implementation:
Used to identify patterns and trends of human behaviour, the Viterbi plays a role in automated systems that interpret, record and report on human activity. These systems increasingly make economic decisions, govern response to crime, disaster, health and manage the everyday flow of cities. The Viterbi operates at a deep social level as it constructs new sets of social relations and radically shapes the development of our cities.
Uncertain Substance: The Viterbi Algorithm was shown recently at Forking Bits, the graduation show of the MA Interactive Media: Critical Theory and Practice at Goldsmiths in London. I was out of town that week, so i decided to make yet another interview with Tom:
Hi Tom! You developed speech recognition algorithm that searches radio waves for conversations about money. How does the research of the search manifest itself? What happens? Did you test the system? Where and what were the results?
I tested two versions of the system, one as an installation in an old porters office in Goldsmiths University, the other as a mobile version built into a shopping trolley which I tested at Moving Forrest at Chelsea College of Art. The porters office version displayed two very dull looking computers one of which was a speech recognition server (SRS) built around the open source project CMUsphinx, and the other was a software defined radio server (SDRS) which was built around a hacked £10 USB TV tuner. The SRS listened to the audio output of the SDRS and if it detected speech then it would stay on that radio station in the hope that it would find a keyword from a list (Money, Credit, Debt, Thousand, Billion, Trillion etc), if it didn't find any words within 20 seconds, then it would trigger the SDRS to find another station where it would begin the process again.
The porters office added its own narrative which I discovered while cleaning it out and getting rid of years of grime and dumped objects - it recorded a pretty depressing history - there were old letters of redundancy, a broken pair of spectacles, betting slips, a small screen marked "payroll". I incorporated these elements in the space as a subtle way of illustrating the entanglement of algorithms into everyday lives and other media systems, where algorithmic reporting and profiling informs and influences our decision making processes, event though these outputs haven't necessarily been planned or programmed, the technology is then exerting its own power and its that mechanism that I want to understand.
Can the person monitoring the algorithm actually understand the conversation?
If by that you mean, did the system do a good job of translation? No - it's terrible at translating radio! Speech recognition is a very tricky thing to do well and this sort of system is much better suited to recognising a few keywords spoken by a voice it has been specifically trained to listen to. Though in this instance I wasn't particularly fussed about the quality of the speech recognition, I really enjoyed (along with the audience) watching the weird sentences that were being produced as the result of a mathematical model.
What I really wanted to achieve was for the audience to engage with the operations of the algorithm, the decisions it made and how it entangles itself with other media and social systems. To achieve this I attempted to display its inner workings as much as possible.
The SDRS displayed the radio frequency it was tuning into and you could hear the audio as it shifted between pure noise, music or speech. On a second screen the SRS displayed a rolling log of; transcribed audio, found keywords, how long it had been listening for and feedback that indicated if it was bored or couldn't understand the conversation. A point of sale receipt printer generated a physical paper trail as it printed any texts about money as and when they were found. I also managed to rig up a CCTV screen that displayed the current radio frequency/time, which also broadcast (through an on-board speaker) "found money" which it spoke in a digital voice whenever a money conversation had been found. So this relatively simple set-up incorporated multiple media systems of: Radio, Paper, CCTV, Work life, Finance, Computer networks - each touched by the Viterbi algorithm in some way.
Wasn't the public upset by the idea that an algorithm was looking for their financial conversations?
Not at all! More amusement than anything else. The most common question was - is it going to make you rich? Which gave me an opportunity to talk about the wider issues of the project and the fact that it can be very difficult to understand the the effects of the Viterbi algorithm as it cannot be separated from complex layers of social (human and technical) layers in which it is embedded. This project has been been about building a series of contraptions as a means to reveal the effect and influence of the Viterbi, the speech recognition project has been just one of those exercises, others have included its use in Mobile technologies, and its path finding capabilities.
If i understood correctly the description of your project, many crucial governmental and economic decisions depends on the algorithm's interpretation of human activity. One would expect an algorithm to be reliable and rational so surely, we should be reassured that our fate is in such capable 'hands', right?
Just to be clear, I'm not saying that the Viterbi is used by Government and that's a worrying thing - I'm not attempting to make a value judgement here - there are many examples of algorithms being used for governmental and non governmental decision making process which have both positive and negative effect. I am just attempting to illustrate the social effect of an algorithm used in a mutlitude of systems, where the power of those systems is not held by any single political party or economic system, but is dissipated and exerted by the system itself. That power exerted by these systems have the potential to influence city planning decisions, or discipline people's behaviours at a micro level in their day to day lives, where social effect doesn't occur because it has been programmed that way, or that government investment has created an infrastructure that facilitates greater control of he population, but rather new social phenomena is produced in a messy, unstructured chaotic way outside of human control. In terms of these algorithms being rational, then at the level of mathematics and science they are, but at the level of their actual real world social effect, then they are most certainly not.
Thank you Tom!