Category Archives: Sharing Stories

Republic of Learning at Camden Think & Do

What is it that we think we know about climate change, what don’t we think we know and, what aren’t we aware that we don’t know?

After 40 or more years of climate science communication on the issue, many people still feel uncertain about what, where and when (indeed, even if) anthropogenic climate change is or will be happening. Over the decades that mainstream popular messages about climate change have tended to focus on single issues at a time (rainforest destruction, the ozone layer, CFC ‘greenhouse’ gases, global warming, melting glaciers, fossil fuels, carbon dioxide levels, melting ice caps, ocean acidification, species extinction etc) without necessarily contextualising them within the larger ‘Earth system’. Its possible that some degree of confusion has been fostered by these well-intentioned attempts to focus people’s minds on tangible and localised issues of immediate or timely relevance. What if, from an earlier point in the 1970s say, the campaign for popular awareness had rather attempted to explain them as visible effects of change within a complexly interconnected global climate system? Such as by revealing how are they connected and why? Revealing the patterns of causes and effects, ripples and echoes, counter-effects and concatenations that all human activity contributes to.

Given that the past year has seen a sudden raising of popular consciousness of the scale of the potential changes, how can people develop their own awareness about the relationships between actions we can take at home and climate change as a global phenomenon? How do our efforts – such as not having CFC-powered fridges, recycling more of our waste, buying less plastic, reducing our carbon footprint etc – relate to environmental and climate changes which are often geographically remote from where we live and, clearly, part of much bigger elemental forces that we cannot affect directly? How might we disentangle some of these complexities in ways that indicate hope and positive ways forward, rather than despair at the enormity of it all?

Over the past year, in parallel with the emergence of the Manifest Data Lab and the Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change project, artist Rachel Jacobs and I have been discussing the idea of creating a “climate change awareness toolkit”. Inspired by our prior independent work, we feel that such a toolkit could help people and communities de-mystify the complexities of climate change and reveal potential pathways for action. It could help focus critical thinking and civic thinking about what and how people can respond to what has recently been named as the “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”.

Sharing an ethos of open discussion and cooperative learning being developed through our series of Republic of Learning meetings at the Make@StoryGarden space, we were invited by Camden Council to facilitate an activity at their Camden Think & Do space in Kentish Town. This pop up shop has been set up as a response to the borough’s Citizen Assembly on climate crisis and is hosting many events over a six week period in Autumn 2019 for local citizens to come together and respond by sharing ideas, hopes, actions and knowledge.

The activity we facilitated at Camden Think & Do on Thursday 28th November aimed to explore the gaps and missing connections in how people understand the complexities of climate change and climate science. We did this in a hands-on way, by inviting the participants to discuss climate change together and to create simple visualisations – emblems of climate change. Around a dozen or so people took part over a couple of hours, using felt and other materials to represent what they thought and how they felt about climate change. Rachel had devised a framework for exploring these ideas that was both open and cooperative, following a series of creative tasks and suggestions:

(slide courtesy of Rachel Jacobs)

The act of making visual representations is a deliberate and convivial method for generating a reflective and cooperative space for conversations to emerge from activity and to flow – rather than asking people to debate fixed opinions or to present pre-conceived ideas. The task of making a representation of thoughts or feelings about climate change means translating from ephemeral words into physical materials, in this case, pieces of felt, thread and wooden craft items. This is made even more cooperative by the process of each person describing what they had made and how it referred to the issue, then passing it over to the next person and receiving someone else’s in turn. By doing this each time, the participants got to respond to and build on each others ideas in a dynamic and creative way. Each time adding new elements that challenged or extended the previous person’s contribution and built up into a rich and complex series of representations of our conversations and ideas.

(slide courtesy of Rachel Jacobs)

The final task was to try to identify which (if at all) of the ‘myths’ of climate change each of the representations most resembled and to add an element indicating this. These were identified and described by climate scientist Mike Hulme (in his book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, 2001) and in the slide above are combined with the environmental campaigner George Marshall’s framework, in his book Carbon Detox (2010). They represent what he suggests are the four most common archetypes or ‘myths’ of how climate science is talked about in popular culture, and also provide a framework for categorising (in a broad, generalisable way) how individuals respond to the ‘problem’ of climate change. It is a useful – albeit simplistic – matrix that can help frame starting points for conversations and establish different perspectives to think from.

The images below show the completed climate emblems collaboratively and cooperatively created by the participants during the workshop. Seven of them were worked on consecutively by at least four or five different people, each responding to and embellishing what previous contributors had added, then sharing their description of what they had added and why. The range of thoughts, belief and feelings expressed during the workshop was extremely wide – encompassing hope, anger, love, despondency, commitment, resignation, frustration, optimism, grief, compassion, abundance, scarcity, spirituality and determination, among others.

Witnessing how these different responses flowed and changed throughout the activities, how the participants explored different perspectives from their original starting points was a great indicator that our idea for a toolkit is valid. Perhaps, not so much to initiate awareness of the issues as to expand awareness of the richness of relationships within the web of life that provide hope for humanity’s ability to adapt and change itself, as well as to embrace resilience in the face of massive change. Further explorations of this approach thus beckon us forward.

Commentary on the Emblems of Climate Change

  1. This emblem began with lightning, representing the anxiety felt in response to climate change, responding to this was love and care. Added to this was uncertainty represented by hands coming from the Earth that seemed both empty but also offering some solutions. Someone sitting under the tree represented the actions to respond to anxiety. The role of laws and regulation in a framework for change was represented too.
  2. This emblem began with a pessimstic view represented by the blue spots on black, like rain on a dark sky. On top of this was layered a window to represent how we can see out to answers, people’s endless need for proof, the sun spreading light and heating up, the action to just stop and reflect and slow down, in response finding opportunities to create new paradigms that are more spiritual and focused on love and care.
  3. This emblem began with a story of an island that began as desert, where humans slowly planted trees and brought life, clouds and rain back to the island. A first aid sign was added and then the music and abundance of the Earth, the action proposed by one of the participants related to a campaign from the past called ‘Joy in Enough’ representing living with scarcity. This led to a discussion about finding solutions that were as much about reducing consumption, as technological solutions.
  4. This emblem was an interesting combination of words and images. Beginning with the abundance of trees and the wonder of Earth, the word denial represents the lack of understanding of why people are still in denial despite being able to see the effects of climate change (such as forest fires) and our increasing awareness of the science. This led to a discussion of Hulme’s climate change myths and how our beliefs shape the narratives we tell about climate change. The actions in response are represented by an E for education, which led to a discussion of where and how education should be happening and who for, bringing up a question on how activism such as Extinction Rebellion and environmental movements and activities in the UK don’t seem to be able to effectively engage with or reach out to people of colour. This led to a proposal for ‘climate schools’ where people can learn more about climate change and how to respond. Finally the archetype or myth was ‘tradition’, what we can learn from past traditions and what new traditions will be created as climate change occurs. This was also represented by a raft and a ladder, relating to Hulme’s myths of surviving the apocalypse and constructing babel – will we be able to survive and can we build a new world from the rubble?
  5. This emblem began with a void, chasm or the eye of a storm. This was turned into a hole with a ladder coming out showing our attempts to climb out of the hole only to reach the top of a mountain representing the tipping point, raising the question is even 1 degree above the baseline global temperature too much? The action in response to the question was to look at the statistics on planetary health and a proposal that weather reports should start to report on planetary health and the potential tipping points that would cause irreversable damage to our environments so that we would be better informed. The overarching narrative was the ‘cosmos’ and gaining a connection to that which is beyond us, represented by the star on the edge of the original void.
  6. This emblem began with a vision of the two planetary hemispheres, with the South represented by increasingly high temperatures and drought (the sun), and not enough water and the North suffering increasingly from floods and storms and too much water (the flood water). The uncertainty was around not having the knowledge or language to understand how much impact positive solutions around the world are having in comparison to the destruction wrought by climate change, represented by the green and black leaf shapes. The over arching narrative of this emblem was clarity, represented by the glasses and the actions to take is represented by the L for local. This brought about a discussion around scales of action, the importance of local, small scale, imaginative and collective approaches to engaging with and adapting to climate change in comparison to the urgency and scale of change required on national and global levels, in order to make changes at the speed required. Although these types of small scale activities don’t tend to work at scale, they can inform larger scale actions.
  7. This most colourful emblem began with the abundance of the earth, seas and forests, the question was about the numbers and how helpful they are, the action was to encourage imaginative responses and the opportunities for people coming together as we were to do this.
  8. This largely grey emblem began with an expression of the importance of timeliness and role of humans in this, including the challenge of trying to understand each other across languages barriers, as well as understandings of climate change – how things are all folded together. [This emblem wasn’t completed beyond the first stage.]

This activity supports people to try out different perspectives beyond their normal narratives about climate change, to deepen and extend understanding of the changes and work through possible solutions and opportunities collaboratively. We watched as people’s perspectives actively changed moving between pessimistic, hopeful, despondent and inspired throughout the session. We hope to continue to develop the activity as part of the Republic of Learning project to see how this activity can impact on our ability to feel agency, as these changes continue to play out locally and globally, personally and politically.

We would like to thank all the participants who took part.

Rachel Jacobs & Giles Lane
London, December 2019

Paper Revolutions: bookleteer at 10; Diffusion at 19

Bookleteer at the British Library, October 2017

All my life I’ve loved books – collecting and reading them; making and designing them; commissioning and publishing them. My first funded project (which led to founding Proboscis) was to create a publication (COIL journal of the moving image), and my first ‘proper’ job was to create an in-house press for the CRD Research Studio at the Royal College of Art, where I commissioned and published five books in three years.

It was when I was at the RCA in the late 1990s that I first conceived of a ‘downloadable’ book format that people could print off on personal printers at home and make up without needing specialist bookbinding skills or materials: not just print on demand, but publishing on demand. I won a small Arts Council England grant and worked with designer Paul Farrington to devise the Diffusion eBook format, which we launched in September 2000 – 19 years ago. I’ve told that story in more detail previously across several posts, such as its genesis and history here in 2007, and when we celebrated 10 years of Diffusion in 2010.

In late 2002 and 2003 I began to consider how it might be possible to create a web-based app that could generate the complex page imposition required for making the Diffusion eBooks. This had to be done by a professional graphic designer in those days, using expensive proprietary page layout software (QuarkXPress and later Adobe InDesign). I discovered an open source solution, built using python (then a quite new and esoteric programming language), and we created a proof-of-concept working prototype in Summer 2003. Unfunded, it then took a few years to create our first working prototype for what became known as the Diffusion Generator. And then in 2008 I won a small feasibility grant from the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) which led to the development and launch of the bookleteer platform in September 2009.

Hybrid Digital/Physical Publishing

As an artist, I began working with film and filmmaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s – initially making small experimental documentary films of people and places I knew or visited, as well as more formally experimental pieces and then site-specific installations using looped film. During this time I also collaborated on photographic projects with friends studying at the Architectural Association School – including making a glass-leaved book with Marcelyn Gow, and a series of handmade folio publications for Aidan LeRoux.

Playing with form – making tactile, tangible experiences – has been part of my practice ever since. Just as I moved from making ‘single-screen’ projected films to immersive filmic installations, once I began working with digital technologies I wanted to create things that could reach beyond the screen into our physical experiences of the world. The web itself was never a satisfying reading experience for me, so I have set out to explore how digital and physical can be woven together to create hybrids. Many of my projects reflect these concerns – from the way we used physical means to prototype digital interactions for projects like Urban Tapestries, to the feral robots and instrumented Snout carnival costumes of our Social Tapestries citizen science projects, to the tangible souvenirs of digital experiences explored through Sensory Threads. All the way to the data manifestations of biosensor readings of Lifestreams.

Over the past decade bookleteer and the Diffusion formats have been an intrinsic part of my work and life – enabling me to work with people in all kinds of places and to collaborate across a wide range of disciplines. For three years I ran The Periodical – a project sending out curated selections of bookleteer books to subscribers. I’ve run lots of Publishing on Demand workshops in public libraries and elsewhere, showing people how to use bookleteer for their own purposes. I’ve made books with people in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Greece, Holland, and Vanuatu, as well as with people across the UK. And a few of my own…

The zenith has been working with Reite people in Papua New Guinea to make hundreds of books about their traditional Knowledge. Only last night, my close collaborator and friend, James Leach, gave the 2019 William Buller Fagg Annual Lecture at the British Museum – discussing the nature of making and doing documentation in Reite culture and society.

James Leach presenting at the British Museum, Sept 2019

The Next Decade

Where next with bookleteer and hybrid publishing? I’ve long harboured a desire to make it even more accessible for others – to be able to install and run their own versions on their own servers; and to have some sort of federated system of sharing books across multiple versions and instances that makes search ability and discovery easier. I also hope to find ways to share the incredible journey of learning and making that the TKRN project has opened up, with other communities in other places around the world.

A Republic of Learning

These are uncomfortable times, full of disconcerting facts, chilling implications and uncertain outcomes.
– How do we respond to problems that are on a planetary scale?
– How do we affect systems and processes that scale way beyond the reach of our own hands?
– How do we step aside from feelings of despair that is commonly engendered by incipient knowledge of the enormity of the changes already afoot?

We do so by coming together, talking and making things – sometimes objects, sometimes decisions. We do so by sharing what we have and know, as well as what we do not know. We do so by engaging our imaginations and making real – bit by bit – another world. We do so by defining resilience within ourselves, our communities, our actions and intentions – by attending to the local as well as the global. In this way we achieve a common wealth of ideas, stories, tools and techniques – of fellow feeling and support against impending tragedies. Each time we wrest other small piece of sovereignty away from those who would subject us to further to unfeeling systems of control and we make our own republics of learning, knowledge and community – in which we are all citizens.

A Republic of Learning is a new monthly meeting space for exploring and discussing the role of art-making, data science and climate change and making things in response. It aims to address the local to global, to challenge experts and non-experts to learn together and share questions about how to make sense of the transformational changes ahead of humans, ecosystems and other lifeforms on the planet. To make responses together, outside of the habitual spaces in which we act.

Our first meeting, last Friday 20th September, coincided with the Global Climate Strike in which millions of young people and others around the world took part – demonstrating for action on climate change. We gathered to make our own contribution to action – starting something we hope will grow over time and become a space for people to come together to share and learn together.

To get things started, Rachel Jacobs brought in some objects from various art works and projects and talked about her practice and how it has engaged with places, environments, communities and ecologies over the past decade and more. The objects provided us with tangible things to discuss among ourselves and think about what our own contributions to positive and purposeful transformation could be, especially as some of us had children participating directly in the marches and actions happening at the same time.

The monthly meetings – held on the 3rd Friday of the month (10.30am to 1pm) – will take place in The Story Garden, a new community space in Somers Town behind the British Library and next to the Francis Crick Institute, made by and for the local people and managed by Global Generation. We are generously hosted by Make @ Story Garden, a public engagement project of Central Saint Martins UAL.

The concept of a republic of learning is borrowed from Fred Garnett, who conceives of The Republic of Learning as a “post-Enlightenment” rethinking of self-determined learning spaces and communities outside of the academies and learned societies that have dominated learning and teaching for centuries. His concept harks back to Erasmus who, in the 1500s, declared himself a “citizen of the Republic of Letters”.

Our Republic of Learning is convened by artists, Rachel Jacobs, Erin Dickson and myself as part of the engagement activities of the Manifest Data Lab – a new transdisciplinary group based at Central Saint Martins who are exploring art, data manifestation and climate change. The format for the meetings will be open and fluid – no formal presentations or workshop structures, but instead a place where conversations can emerge and evolve. We hope to grow a community of people who want to address these issues through the lenses of creativity, in partnership with the insights offered by science and the possibilities of technologies, new and old.

A little more personal archaeology

Recently I’ve re-connected with a couple of former colleagues from my time in the Royal College of Art’s Computer Related Design Research Studio, now 20 years ago. Jonathan Mackenzie and Gavin Baily have joined our Manifest Data Lab team at CSM to help deliver the Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change project. Back then they were part of Richard Brown‘s team working on the Biotica and Mimetic Starfish artificial life art projects. Looking back over the Biotica book I published its held up well, as have the others from that time.

My role then (1998-2001) was the CRD Research Studio’s “Writer, Editor & Curator” – setting up a new publishing imprint, commissioning books and other print materials from my colleagues, editing and publishing them as well as developing external partnerships and relations for exhibitions and installations. In the three years I was a member of the studio I commissioned, edited and published five books, as well as co-curating an exhibition with Claire Catterall celebrating 10 years of the studio’s work. All the books are now out of print (except Tony Dunne’s Hertzian Tales, which the MIT Press re-issued in 2005), but they can occasionally be found second hand.

  • Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design (1999) by Anthony Dunne (re-printed by MIT Press in 2005) – ISBN: 9781874175276
  • Technological Landscapes (1999) by Richard Rogers –  ISBN: 9781874175284
  • Project #26765: FLIRT by Fiona Raby (2000) & Ben Hooker –  ISBN: 9781874175292
  • Biotica : Art, Emergence and Artificial Life (2001) by Richard Brown with Igor Aleksander, Jonathan Mackenzie and Joe Faith – ISBN: 9781874175330
  • The Presence Project (2001) by William Gaver & Ben Hooker –  ISBN: 9781874175322

The Studio was founded in 1990 and led by Gillian Crampton Smith, who had an extraordinary eye for talent and hired a brilliantly diverse team including: Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby, Bill Gaver, Giles Rollestone, Richard Brown, Shona Kitchen, Ben Hooker, Ian Morris, Heather Martin & Brendan Walker. The teaching staff also included people such as Rory Hamilton, Nina Pope, Nick Durrant & Durrell Bishop. I was assisted by Paul Farrington who designed most of the print materials, except for the FLIRT book by Graphic Thought Facility. It was an amazing place to find myself, and to be given the opportunity to develop my ideas and strategies for “guerrilla” publishing and cross-disciplinary collaboration early on in my career.

A Little Personal Archaeology

Recently I’ve re-read and scanned some of my early writings published in the 1990s and up to 2000. This was quite a specific phase of my work, when my writing was aiming to be both poetic and critical without following more formal structures. The essays were published (often under a pseudonym, Gilles Lazare, and once as Lily de Rais) in mostly obscure small-press creative publications, such as Brandon Labelle’s Errant Bodies series, Inventory: Losing, Finding, Collecting, as well as my own COIL journal of the moving image, and once in Parallax, a more conventional peer-reviewed academic journal.

Looking back almost 25 years, there are clear strands that run through this body of work, and which resonate through subsequent projects and my more recent writing too: the inequities of power, privilege and agency and how art and creativity provide powerful counterpoints and opportunities to change those narratives. Below are some short summaries of each piece:

An Endless Insurrection: Bataille, Matta-Clark, Athey 
COIL journal of the moving image
issue 9/10, 2000
A weaving together of the work and thinking of writer Georges Bataille with the work of artist/anarchitect Gordon Matta-Clark and performance artist Ron Athey.

 

The Masque of Self-Death
Parallax vol 5 issue 4, October-December 1999
Commissioned to write on the theme of ‘honour’ by Johnny Golding, this piece reflects on the role of suicide as sacrifice, inspired by the death of Walter Benjamin.

Against the Grain – Steve Farrer’s Cinema of Machines
Commissioned by Locus Plus, 1998
Exploring the work of artist/inventor/filmmaker Steve Farrer.

Evanescence
Inventory volume 3 issue 2, 1997
A poetic text exploring the dissolution of identity in a sea of being.

 

 

Jacob’s Ladder: Tarkovsky, Benjamin, Jennings 
COIL journal of the moving image
issue 5 1997
Cinema, dreams, poetry and gestures: drawing parallels between the films of Tarkovsky, the writing of Walter Benjamin and Humphrey Jenning’s Pandaemonium.

 

The Mutilated Body and the UnBroken Shadow: Jayne Parker/Mona Hatoum
COIL journal of the moving image issue 4, 1996
A study of sacrifice and ritual explored through Jayne Parker’s K and Mona Hatoum’s Corps Etranger.

 

Speculations on a Garden of Forking Paths: Andrew Marvell’s poetic ipse in the void of being 
Errant Bodies Flowers
Los Angeles, 1996/7
My take on Andrew Marvell’s extraordinary poem (from the mid 17th century), seen through the lens of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and a hint of  Jorge Luis Borges.

 

Thief in the Studio: Genet & Giacometti
Inventory volume 2 issue 3, 1996
An exploration of the relationship between writer Jean Genet and artist Alberto Giacometti drawn from Genet’s 1957 essay, ‘The Studio of Alberto Giacometti’.

 

Jeux des Anges / Bovisa: an inventory of confluence & representation (Borowczyk/Hedjuk)
COIL journal of the moving image issue 1, 1995
Exploring overlaps between Polish/French filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk’s 1964 animation, Jeux does Anges, and the project, Bovisa, by Czech/American architect, John Hedjuk.

Marpungae Singsing video

In May 2018, as part of the TK Reite Notebooks project, I was back in Madang Province in Papua New Guinea. There, James Leach and I ran a 3 day workshop with members of the Reite community at the Bismark Ramu Group compound just outside Madang Town, followed by a week’s stay in Reite village on the Rai Coast. We were invited to be part of several important ceremonies, the biggest of which was a 3 day event to mark the re-founding of Marpungae village. This had, until a couple of generations ago, been an independent village next to Reite, but whose population had subsequently dwindled down to just a handful of people. They had been invited to merge with Reite and intermarried, growing into a thriving hamlet. Now they had decided to re-establish their independent status with a big ceremony, including performances in the bush of the Tamburan (sacred instruments/voices of the ancestors); a large food distribution to all their relatives, and culminating in an all-night singsing.

I’ve edited together a video of sections from the start (in the dark, late at night) to the end (after dawn the next morning) which conveys some of the intense, passionate energy of the dancing, singing and music – slowly revealing the elaborate costumes and decorations made especially for this event as day breaks:

The following is an extract from my field diary :

“Banak [Gamui] and I set off back to Sikarani to relax before going on to Marpungae for the singsing. When we arrived, the household was in full throe making bilas (ceremonial decorations) for the singsing. [Our host] Katak’s family were to be a leading part of the second singsing group (the Marpungae family being the first group).
The previous night Katak had been replacing the skin of a drum with a whole monitor lizard’s skin, leaving it to dry overnight. Pina [Sisau] and some others had also been adjusting other drums with little cones of a wild beeswax substance placed on the skins. Banak assisted as Katak removed the excess skin and adjusted the drum to get the right tone. Meanwhile the children prepared other things (they had been dying grass skirts and making bilas for days).
James [Leach] returned and we ate a little supper before heading down to the new Marpungae village site where we arrived about 9pm. Then there was a bit of waiting around as people got themselves ready – I watched Kerrep finish making a headdress, then sat with Katak as he made his own bilas (and mine) – all from leaves, plants and other local flora. They use a lot of porpor and gorgor (coriander and ginger) and the smell was both beautiful and strong. In my clumsy Tok Pisin I chatted with Katak about Scottish ceilidhs, although I’m not sure it made much sense to him! When the men all disappeared into the bush to get ready (covering themselves in red coconut oil paint, putting on their bilas and loincloths)  I sat with James at Tariak’s house (and was fed, again, with taro cooked in a mushroom sauce – really delicious!). After a bit more waiting around, at about 11pm we began to hear the Tamburan (sacred instruments/voices of the ancestors) being played down in the Haus Tamburan by the village’s main clearing – so we hurried down to get good seats! It was pitch dark and very hard to see anything at all, except for the incredible sound of the Tamburan droning and the singing and drumming.
The men and women have very different styles – the men drumming and chanting, with the women overlaying a higher pitched chant. It seems that there are many different songs, but I can barely tell them apart, especially as they are all, of course, sung in Tok Ples. The first half hour or so was held in complete darkness before they lit a coconut torch and danced it around the group, lighting up everyone to see. The first sight was thus extraordinary! I hadn’t realised that they were so close and the visual effect was both astounding and unexpected. As people then began using torches to illuminate the group, and with the occasional flash from a camera, I could see the stunning costumes and decorations – many wearing heavy structures that held up poles carved with intricate stories (this was, I believe, what Takarok [Yamui] had been working on for days, which is why he hadn’t been around much). The poles were probably 10 feet tall and extraordinary. There were lots of children in both male and female groups, including some very little girls (from maybe 3 year old and. up).
The first group (from Marpungae) performed on their own for perhaps an hour, then all went dark again as the second group (the Reite relatives) approached, singing their own songs. Eventually the two groups merged and another torch was lit to illuminate them all, and at last we could see the whole large number of people dancing: in a circle, men in the middle, women circling them. The Tamburan continued to sound (I assume from inside Haus Tamburan) and to drone beneath the singing and drumming in an intensely mesmeric way. Across the night I found myself, at various points, falling into the rhythm and losing sense of time, then being brought round again by a lull or a change of song or beat. This combination of almost total darkness and music had such a profound effect, continuing right through the night until dawn, and then after.
Banak had joined in with the second singsing group. Sangumae had made his bilas,: head gear, loincloths, grass skirt and armbands, plus pig tusks etc, and he was there with the others covered in full red pigment and coconut oil paint. We finally got to see him in all his fine as he stepped out briefly for buai. Orengi (Katak’s wife) also dropped in and out of the group as her knee injury is still not fully recovered. The event was really social – lots of chatting and laughter, joking and fun, as well as serious – a real community festival!
As light began to emerge (about 5am) the Tamburan finished and “went away” – to be returned to the secret places in the bush. James also told me that the carved bilas poles would be used once only for this singsing before being taken to sacred places in the bush to rot away.
The singsing continued well into the dawn as we could finally see everyone and everything. Some of the children were still dancing and performing – 6 or 7 hours later (including Pina’s sion Sebastian and Katak’s youngest son). Many of the audience, from Asang, Yasing, Sarangama and Serieng had already left so it was mostly close Reite and Marpungae people left for the last hour or two. Both Catherine [Sparks] and I were pulled into the dancing for the last hour (respectively for the women’s and men’s groups) – being decorated with bilas and headdresses. Urufaf [Anip] put a pair of his pig tusks around my neck to wear – a big gift – and Katak gripped my hand all the way through the dancing and singing. There were all so excited that we had joined in, they started up with some special songs: first “Catherine Singsing”, then “Giles Singsing”, and then “James Sunup”. At the bitter end of the long night’s celebrations, Uru’s elder brother Peter led the remaining group up to where Tariak’s [Uru & Peter’s mother] and Uru’s new houses are. There we danced the last songs before breakfast was cooked for everyone. It was probably about 7am by now – many of the people had danced continuously for 7 or 8 hours straight so there was immense adrenalin in the air. After breakfast  we headed slowly back to Katak & Orengi’s house for a refreshing waswas (wash in the river) before a long sleep.”

The Data Sublime

The Observable Universe

In February 2014 Marina Jirotka and I met as participants at Blast Theory’s annual two day seminar, Act Otherwise. That year’s theme was “The Invisible Hand: On Profiling and Personalisation”, exploring many issues around the generation and use of “Big Data” in artworks and by artists as well as more generally in culture and society. We found ourselves sharing a healthy skepticism about the way “Big Data”, number-crunching and data visualisation are often presented as a ‘final’ and over-arching narrative to understanding modern life; as an “end to theory”. We both found this triumphalist narrative – that data-driven computation can comprehensively explain everything – to be troubling and misguided, especially as it seemed to be spreading across many other disciplines and fields of practice. The implication that both research and culture could thus be transformed into quantifiable commodities to be analysed and neatly compartmentalised purely by computational means was another major concern.

At the seminar I presented the Lifestreams data manifestation project (2012) which demonstrated how we could use our senses of touch and proportion to engage people with otherwise abstract and ephemeral information being collected about their life patterns and behaviours. The project also offered an alternative vision to the emerging “Quantified Self” and Internet of Things narratives in which complex human behaviours are often reduced to a set of data-driven variables that can be processed from sensor data. This also seemed to be an Orwellian vision that promised all kinds of benefits on the basis of a worryingly narrow perspective.

After the seminar, Marina invited me to Oxford to speak to her research group in Human Centred Computing about the Lifestreams project and my work in general. From there we began a conversation and collaboration that has continued over the past five years; most recently resulting in the UnBias Fairness Toolkit – my contribution to the two year UnBias research project (of which Marina was a Co-Investigator). We also developed two proposals that were not realised, but which coalesced some key ideas and thinking which have never-the-less flowed into other projects and activities. Both proposals revolved around ideas I was beginning at the time to crystallise – reciprocal entanglement and the data sublime. An early proposal in 2014 addressed Big Data and the Quantified Self via the data sublime, whilst the other (in 2017) focused on issues at the heart of developing Quantum Technologies. Marina’s research group is a part of the NQIT Hub, conducting studies into Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in the quantum field. Whilst I have since written about reciprocal entanglement in relation to quantum technologies, the ideas behind the data sublime remained unpublished in proposal documents. The purpose here is to bring them out into the light as they have a renewed relevance to the new project I am embarking on (Materialising Data, Embodying Climate Change).

The Data Sublime

The category of the sublime in literary theory and aesthetics refers to encounters with phenomena that are excessive – too much to handle – and which inspire awe or dread in the subject. What renders the experience sublime is our ability to, nevertheless, address this vastness or dreadfulness and to incorporate it into a perceptual register for meaning or sense-making. It has been a hugely important and influential category of perception in the Humanities for almost three centuries – as well as having roots in Roman-era Greek philosophy (Longinus’ On the Sublime, 1st century AD). Edmund Burke was one of the earliest English philosophers to write about it (in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756), followed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 1764), then Arthur SchopenhauerGeorg Hegel, Rudolf Otto and others since (notably Jean-François Lyotard).

What the sublime offers us is a conceptual mechanism by which we can recuperate an almost overwhelming encounter with things which are too massive or complex to calculate, measure or fully comprehend. It allows us to make sense, to make meaning of an encounter with the ungraspable. It describes an ontological encounter that transforms something from being numinous (or unknowable) into something phenomenological – which we can incorporate into a narrative experience and a type of knowledge. Joseph Addison’s description in 1704, “The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror” (from Remarks on Several Parts of Italy etc. in the years 1701, 1702, 1703), captures the internal ambiguities of the sublime – that horror can be at all agreeable – which make it such a powerful perceptual register of recuperating the excessive. Such a rupture and intertwining of perceptual and critical abilities within a person’s consciousness could, perhaps, be figured as a form of entanglement between oppositional states and phenomena – the sublime being the moment of awareness of the entanglement itself. It is, of course, always relational between the person and the thing they are encountering.

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Big Data, Algorithmic Decision-Making are the latest issues du jour, about which we are so often told that the data is too big to understand, the algorithms too complex to represent and the decision-making processes too opaque to be grasped by mere humans. Might it be possible for us to make sense and meaning of such vast quantities of data and computational processes in ways that affect our social and cultural aspirations for society beyond the purely instrumental? We could consider the speed and quantity of the data being generated, both individually and societally, as a monumental encounter. Such an encounter could then be approached as moment of the ‘data sublime’; an encounter where artistic practice may offer us alternative opportunities to assimilate and make meaning from it.

What do Arts & Humanities offer?

Art and aesthetics offer different ways to conceive of what happens in complex encounters than those utilised by the sciences. When you encounter a work of art, it is the experience itself which determines your aesthetic reaction to the piece. It could be one of awe, delight, revulsion or indifference – whatever it is, it is driven by similar complex factors. Each person’s own aesthetic experience is affected by the use of materials, colour, scale, lighting, sense of space and proportion as well as by their own memory, critical thought and emotion. There can be no right or wrong aesthetic experience: each person experiences a work of art in relation to the summation of their own existence.

The methodologies and critical analyses from the arts and humanities, such as aesthetics and categories like the sublime, offer alternative ways to develop new ways of realising knowledge from data and computational systems through encounters that work on multiple senses, not just via sight and sound as most contemporary technologies currently deliver it. We don’t just have to simplify and summarise data in linear ways to make it easier to represent visually on a screen (e.g. in a chart or diagram), we can also use our other senses – touch, sense of scale and balance, taste, smell, hearing, time and temperature. The data sublime in artistic encounters allows for multiple sensorial engagements, where we are reciprocally entangled in the possibility for meaning making with the work itself, through our own consciousness. It is a route away from the reductive reasoning of standardisation, quantification and calculation that lead to probabilistic and statistical interpretations. Instead it is a route to knowledge that reinserts key human qualities of judgement and imagination that can encompass the kinds of ambiguity, diversity and the unknowable that would be routinely excised from analytical systems based on quantification alone.

Evolving technologies such as Quantum computing and AI – topics of extraordinary complexity and subtlety – run counter to mundane understandings of the phenomenal world and stretch the limits of human perception. The intangible, counter-intuitive nature or sheer vastness of the science makes it hard for people to grasp, and yet so exciting in its implications for the future. The complexity and interdependence of planetary life and natural systems (such as climate) is another sphere that often seems overwhelming in terms of the scales involved. Modelling climate systems alone require some of the most complex computational methods and powerful resources. How people can make sense of such data, often geographically and experientially remote, is one of the key challenges of our age.

The MDECC project will be attempting to explore ways in which artistic expressions of data into physical manifestations (sculptures, installations and inhabitable spaces) might offer new ways for people to make sense of such remote phenomena and connect it to their own lived experiences. In this way we will be exploring the affordances of a data sublime to make climate science accessible in ways it has not been before.

Civic Thinking for Civic Dialogue

Over the past six months or so I have been focused on my work for the UnBias project which is looking at the issues of algorithmic bias, online fairness and trust to provide policy recommendations, ethical guidelines and a ‘fairness toolkit’ co-produced with young people and other stakeholders. My role has been to lead the participatory design process on the Fairness Toolkit, which has involved devising and facilitating a series of workshops with young people in schools and a community group, as well as with stakeholders in the ICT industry, policy, civil society and research fields. My colleagues in the Human Centred Computing group at the University of Oxford and the Horizon Digital Economy Institute at the University of Nottingham, as well as Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, have been wonderful collaborators – providing a rich intellectual and pragmatic context for developing the tools.

The co-design workshops with two schools (in Harpenden and in Islington) and with a young women’s group in Oxfordshire explored what their levels of awareness of the issues were, how relevant to their own lives they perceived them to be, and what they thought should be done. In each workshop, and with each group, we consistently encountered quite different perceptions and experiences – often unexpected and surprising – whilst also observing certain commonalities, which were echoed in the findings of the Youth Juries which our colleagues at Nottingham have been running for UnBias since late 2016. Many of the young people expressed a certain fatalism and lack of agency regarding how they use technology which seems to foster a sense of isolation and inability to effect change. This was coupled with a very limited sense of their rights and how the law protects them in their interactions with service providers, institutions and big companies. Unsurprisingly, they often feel that their voice is not listened to, even when they are the targets of some of the most aggressive marketing techniques.

The tools have thus been informed and shaped by young people’s perceptions and their burgeoning understanding of the scale and depth of algorithmic processes affecting modern everyday life. The tools have also been designed to address the atomising effect that personalised technologies are increasingly understood to have – whereby the increasing personalisation of platforms and services isolates our experiences of media and the mediated world from each other. Where broadcast technologies used to be understood to have a homogenising effect on societies, networked technologies, and the highly personalised software services running on them, are creating a sense of isolation from other people’s cultural and social experiences as they serve each of us something more bespoke to our own tastes and preferences. Recent controversies over the use of targeted advertising in US and UK elections has exposed the iniquitous consequences of such hyper-specific campaigning, and offered a new set of insights into the wider, and deeper social and cultural impacts happening around us.

I have tried to design a toolkit that could build awareness of these issues, offer a means to articulate how we feel about them, and provide a mechanism for ‘stakeholders’ (in the ICT industry, policymakers, regulators, public sector and civil society) to respond to them. What has emerged is something I call a ‘civic thinking tool‘ for people to participate in a public civic dialogue. By this I mean a mode of critical engagement with the issues that goes beyond just a  personal dimension (“how does this affect me?”) and embraces a civic one (“how does this affect me in relation to everyone else?”). And then, when we participate in a public dialogue about these issues, it is not simply conducted in public, but it embraces the co-construction of our society and acknowledges everyone as having a stake and a voice within it. It is about trying to find co-constructive and non-confrontational means to engage people in critical reflection about what kind of world we want to have (and the roles algorithmic systems in particular should play in it).

On Monday we held a workshop to preview the first draft of the toolkit and seek feedback from a variety of stakeholders. Take a look at the presentation below to find out more:

The response has been very encouraging – highlighting the strengths and revealing weaknesses and areas that need additional development. The next stage is to start a testing phase with young people and with stakeholders to refine and polish the toolkit.

We are also developing relationships with “trusted intermediaries” – organisations and individuals who are wiling to adopt and use the toolkit with their own communities. As the UnBias project concludes in August, our aim is to have the toolkit ready for deployment by whoever wants to use it this Autumn.

Phantom Tomes from an imaginary library

Ever since she was little, my daughter Clara has loved games of invention and imagination – especially ones which involve creating stories and fantastical worlds. Inspired by Edward Gorey (and others) we have been making up absurd titles for fictional books as we walk around London for sometime.

Recently a chance email reminded me of the amazing collection of book covers and other images that the British Library made freely available online and we came up with a way to share our pastime with others, and to expand on it as well. Thus was born the Phantom Tomes a collection of fictional books from an imaginary library – with covers adapted from ones we found online.

In the Phantom Tomes you are invited to dream up and write down your versions of what the publisher’s blurbs might say for these books. Or imagine that you are a literary reviewer composing your critical exegesis of these pseudo pot-boilers.

There is a distinguished literary tradition of creating fictional books, and amongst my own personal (and perennial) favourites are authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Stanislav Lem. Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum, remains for me a highpoint in absurdity of the genre – an entire book of critical essays devoted to non-existent books.

Clara and I have had enormous fun putting this little book together and sincerely hope it offers as much pleasure to others in using it as it has afforded us in imagining it.

Read it online or download, print out and make up your own paper copy.

Exploring Risk

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Over the past 6 weeks I’ve been working with Professor Lizzie Coles-Kemp and her team in the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London to produce a publication as a deliverable for their part of the TREsPASS project.

TREsPASS : Technology-supported Risk Estimation by Predictive Assessment of Socio-technical Security was a 4 year European Commission funded project spanning many countries and partners. Lizzie’s team were engaged in developing a “creative security engagement” process, using paper prototyping and tools such as Lego to articulate a user-centred approach to understanding risk scenarios from multiple perspectives. The three books and the poster which comprise TREsPASS: Exploring Risk, describe this process in context with the visualisation techniques developed by other partners, as well as a visual record of the presentations given by colleagues and partners at a Summer School held at Royal Holloway during summer 2016.

The publication has been produced in an edition of 400, but all 3 books included in the package are also available to read online via bookleteer, or to download, print out and hand-make:

We are now starting a follow on project to develop a creative security engagement toolkit – with case studies, practical activities and templates – which will be released in early 2017.