Category Archives: Sharing Stories

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

img_5247

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.

Fairness and Bias in an Algorithmic Age

unbias-logo2

Last month a new research project of which I am part got underway – UnBias: Emancipating Users Against Algorithmic Biases for a Trusted Digital Economy. Its a collaboration between the Universities of Nottingham (Horizon Digital Economy Institute), Edinburgh (Informatics) and Oxford (Human Centred Computing) funded by the EPSRC through its Trust, Identity, Privacy and Security in the Digital Economy strand. Over the next two years it will look at the complex relationships between people and systems increasingly driven by personalisation algorithms and explore whether, and to what degree, citizens can judge their trustworthiness.

My role will be to lead a co-design process that will create a ‘fairness toolkit’ : raising awareness about the impact of algorithms on everyday behaviours; devising pragmatic strategies to adapt around them; and engaging policymakers and online providers. We will be working with schools and young people to co-develop the toolkit – following in the wake of previous projects exploring young people and social media, such as Digital Wildfire.

For me this project cuts to the quick of concerns at the heart of today’s society: empathy, agency, transparency and control. I will be bringing ideas and practices to the project I have been exploring from a number of different trajectories over the past few years, from my work on the Pallion project to data manifestation and reciprocal entanglements. I am particularly excited as this marks my first formal collaboration with Oxford’s Human Centred Computing research group with whom I’ve been in dialogue for a couple of years.

Data Manifestation Talk at ODI

Video of my talk at the Open Data Institute on Friday 17th June 2016:

For further details, read my post, How Do We Know?

How Do We Know?

The following is the text of a ‘provocation’ I gave at the Responsible, Ethics-Aware Research and Innovation in Data Science symposium hosted by the Alan Turing Institute in March 2016. For the event, my colleague Stefan Kueppers and Professor George Roussos at Birkbeck University of London generated a new set of Lifecharm shells using data from a research trial with sufferers of Parkinsons Disease. We 3D printed multiple copies of 4 shells which were given to the participants as a tangible souvenir of the data manifestation concept.

**********

I’m going to speak today about a concept I call “data manifestation” and how I believe it can add a significant dimension to data science and how we make meaning from data.

First I wish to pose a question –

How do we know what we know?
And how do we make meaning from what we know?

The answer is, of course, through the interaction of our senses with the stimuli coming in to them from the external world – and how this is processed by our consciousness and woven in together with our memories and emotions.
This is a system of high complexity and entanglement. It produces judgements based on multiple factors and dimensions all working together.

I believe that this is qualitatively different to the kinds of inference driven systems that are increasingly coming to dominate our civilisation and how it operates.

For instance: when we feel that something we have eaten is delicious, how do we know this?
It is not just the taste that defines this judgement, but includes many other factors such as smell, look, texture, sound, shape and size, whether it invokes memories, or causes a momentary shift in our sense of balance. If each of these factors is seen as a data input, how would we begin to map such complexity into the decision-making systems of today?

Art and aesthetics are another example of this complexity. When you encounter a work of art the experience itself which determines your aesthetic reaction to the piece – whether one of awe, delight, revulsion or indifference – is driven by similar complex factors. The use of materials, colour, scale, lighting, etc as well as memory and emotion create each person’s own aesthetic experience. There can be no right or wrong aesthetic experience, only how each individual experiences a work of art in relation to the summation of their own existence.

Much of the data that is captured, recorded, analysed and used as the basis of inferential decision making systems in the everyday world is principally derived from visual interfaces, from the writing of the software that generates it to the representation of the data in screen-based visualisations – from spreadsheets, to graphs and animations. There are in a few cases some sonic representations of data, and in extremely rare cases some haptic interfaces. But on the whole the way we create, analyse and present data is visual and screen-based.

But not all experiences are visual. And my proposition is that by failing to encompass the whole and extraordinary sensitivity and careful tuning of the human sensorium in our methods of expressing data we are missing huge potential.

Back in 2012 Proboscis was commissioned to collaborate with scientists at Philips Research Lab in Cambridge as part of a public art programme. We were asked to explore the problem posed by the failure of commercial biosensor devices to engage people in leading more healthy lifestyles. Essentially the FitBits, Fuelbands and similar devices were being switched off within a few weeks of activation. Philips is a big player in the separate business of TeleHealth (where people with serious medical conditions have instrumented homes that record and transmit data to health professionals and back to the users). They were interested in how these emerging life-tracker devices could have positive well-being and health benefits for nominally healthy people over the long term. But the usage data suggested this was simply not happening.

Looking at the problem, our insight as artists was that this was an issue of relevance to people’s sense of their own self, to their identity. Our hunch was that the ways in which the narrative of a person’s life helps construct their sense of self were just not being engaged by the graphs of data represented on smartphone screens or laptops. Humans frequently invest meaning in objects that act as triggers for memory and personal significance. These can be highly ritualised objects such as wedding rings or other kinds of jewellery. They can also be seemingly random objects, such as a piece of cloth or a pebble from a beach. With all these things, the memory is evoked not just by the sight of the object, but through other factors such as the way it feels.

Our insight was to connect this tactile relationship to meaning with the kinds of data that could be collected by tracking devices. We built a simple data logger with off the shelf components and collected a range of data over a week from members of our studio: step count; pulse rate, sleep patterns, blood pressure, stress factors etc.

My colleague Stefan Kueppers then developed an algorithm based process to flow this data into a shape that could be 3D printed. We looked to nature for inspiration and realised that the mathematics and geometries in shells would allow for extraordinarily complex and unique expressions of data in a 3 dimensional form. Here are a few examples of the objects we made from our own biodata. We called these “Lifecharms” and the project, “Lifestreams”.

What I am going to show you next is our latest experiment. We have been collaborating with Professor George Roussos at Birkbeck (where Stefan is currently working on his PhD about the Lifestreams work) to adapt and extend the data manifestation concept to other uses.

Birkbeck have been running a data collection project working with Parkinson’s Disease patients – mapping the wide variation of symptoms that they experience. Parkinsons is a disease encompassing high variability in symptoms between individuals; ideally this ought to imply a high degree of personalisation in their medical care and disease management regimes. Yet health policy and medical care management for Parkinson’s sufferers are determined by a ‘scale’ (called the UPDRS) derived from about 70 factors of motor performance criteria a Parkinsons patient is classified against. These factors are collapsed into a single “summary statistic”, which is then used to assign treatment for patients according to where they lie on the scale. Whilst this is an effective way to communicate the multiple dimensions of Parkinson’s on a linear scale of progression, because of the enormous variation it is common for people with entirely different symptoms to score similarly on the scale, yet require very different care.

For patients and health professionals alike, finding ways to express the unique characteristics of an individual’s actual experience of Parkinson’s would be a big step both for personal dignity and as a way to convey the wide variations in an easily appreciable manner to policymakers.

What you see in these four examples here, a version of which you are being given to take away and keep, is an expression of three data sources from four individuals who participated in the Parkinson’s trial, each mapped in 3 dimensions into the form of a shell. They demonstrate the clear variations in symptoms experienced by these individuals. The data used were :

1) Tremor in the Left Hand – which maps to how much the spiral of the shell stretches outwards.

2) Left Leg Agility – which maps to the overall growth scale of the shell (i.e. how big it gets in terms of volume)

3) Two Target Fingertapping (Left Hand) – which maps to the change in the frequency of the recurring ridges on the exterior of the shell.

These four shells are only a very initial experiment and there are many more factors that we will be able to control with data sources from the trial in future iterations, such as the number and increment of rotations, ripples in the curve of the shell exterior, the sweep curve of the main shell, twists in the shell curve, other geometric entities occuring on the shell surface (spines and nodules) as well as the number of segments that make up the whole shell.

A key indicator in Parkinsons is how it affects a person’s left and right sides of their body so, in the future, we also propose to develop twin or “clamshell” forms that spiral out from a common centre and reflect differences recorded between a person’s left and right symmetries.

As you can see, and soon feel, even with just 3 data sources informing the shell growth parameters, it is possible to appreciate the individuality of each person in a way that is qualitatively different to looking at a graph. As we introduce more granularity and complexity, the individuation will become even more pronounced.

Taken as snapshots, such shells, could over time reflect the changes in Parkinson’s symptoms as experienced by sufferers.

What use is this? We believe that this kind of approach offers a very different and rich way to express complex datasets for making meaning in a world where data is ubiquitous, is increasing exponentially and – as we are constantly being told – is overwhelming us.

My proposition is that in this way we can find alternative ways to make meaning and take decisions based on human insight and judgement from complex data sets. We don’t just have to simplify and summarise data in linear ways to make it easier to represent visually on a screen, we can also use our other senses – touch, sense of scale and balance, taste, smell, hearing, time and temperature. We can also benefit from other knowledge traditions (as well as contemporary science) and apply methodologies and critical analysis from the arts and humanities, such as aesthetics, to make meaning and draw judgements from highly detailed material artefacts that reify complex data sets into actual things, not just representations on a screen.

Thank you.

Characteristics of the Shells

Shell 1 – spiral not so pronounced, which indicates that the left hand tremor amplitude is not so strong; the shell size is quite big indicating the patient has significant increase in amplitude of left leg tremor; the ridges are also become quite pronounced indicating that there is a growng lack of accuracy and slowness in finger tapping.

Shell 2 – the spiral is at the higher end, suggesting the patient has a higher amplitude of left hand tremor; the shell size is a bit smaller so the patient experiences less left leg tremor amplitude; the ridges are very small indicating a higher degree of accuracy and speed in the patient’s finger tapping.

Shell 3 – the spiral is a median, indicating a moderate but not pronounced amplitude of left hand tremor; the shell size is slighty above average, suggesting increasing tremor in the left leg; and the ridges are fairly pronounced suggesting a greater lack of accuracy and slowness in finger tapping.

Shell 4 – very pronounced spiral suggesting very high amplitude of left hand tremor; shell size is smaller indicating less amplitude of left leg tremor; the ridges are very pronounced suggesting a high lack of accuracy and slowness in finger tapping.

Peeking over the Horizon

When trying to imagine what’s possible how can we look beyond what we can already see on the horizon?

Yesterday I ran a workshop on Peeking over the Horizon as part of the Making London event at the University of Greenwich. The event invited participants interested in “making London a city where arts and innovation can continue to thrive” to take part in “a day of inspiring presentations and engaging workshops on how to make London better“. The theme of the day was to: “rethink the relationship between markets and communities in London. Do you have a different vision of work and life in London, of its communities and businesses? Do you have a project, problem or question you would like some time and some tools to explore? Do you just want some new ideas? ‘Making London’ is a day of workshops for designers and non-designers, to help rethink and remake our experience of London.

The workshop I devised aimed to encourage the participants to stretch their imaginations beyond what we can see on the horizon now; to think through potential impacts and consequences, to anticipate next directions and emergent themes and to aim at some uncommon insight into the kinds of creative and socially innovative interventions that could be possible. I cited our Urban Tapestries project as a model for this kind of critical and creative projection, specifically because I have recently reviewed the project’s final report (which was published 10 years ago in June 2005) to see how our ideas and policy proposals have held up.

In the first part of the workshop we used some large worksheets to address the event’s theme along a series of 6 vectors : heath and wellbeing; transport; work and leisure; housing; social behaviour; and communications. The exercise asks participants to identify current outliers : i.e. things which are causing change but which we do not yet understand the impact of. From there the next stage is to think through the potential impact these outliers may have and anticipate future directions that could result from them. At the confluence of these vectors the participants were asked to identify emergent themes.

In the second part of the workshop I introduced 15 critical concepts that underpin the way our our modern developed world functions : algorithms, chains, contingency, corridors, efficiency, energy, infrastructure, labour, logistics, parameters, protocols, standards, waste and zones. These were offered as specific lenses which we could apply to the previous exercise’s emergent themes. The concepts were inspired by those used in the Logistical Worlds research project. Each participant used a StoryCube to select up to 6 of the concepts and marry them up with the themes to distill their ideas. The resulting cubes could then be used individually or together to generate more ideas on the large map of London which the event hosts were using to coalesce outputs from the different workshops of the day on.

I was very pleased with the level and depth of conversations that the workshop provoked, participants told me it was challenging and rigorous, and that the way it helped to focus ideas and then make them transportable (via the StoryCubes) was inspiring.

Further Iterations
If you’d like me to deliver or adapt this workshop for other groups (academic, cultural or corporate) please contact me for prices and bookings. The workshop takes about 2 hours for groups of 10 to 30, is suitable for a range of abilities and levels of expertise.