Open House – Site Gallery

I know people always say things like this, but the weeks really feel like they’ve flown by. We’re over half way through and it’s starting to hit us that this is going to end quite soon. But it’s the tunnel at the end of the light, or something, because we’re having such a good time. We feel constantly fortunate to be doing this, and now we’ve picked up some pace we’re keen to keep powering through to the end.

As you may have seen from the posts below this one, all three teams are having halfway-celebrating public events at the moment, and for James and I the Open House took place on Friday afternoon.


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Spike Island Open House 21 May

On Mon 21 May we held our first Open House showcasing the work we’ve been doing. Little ‘exhibits’ were arranged on tables and walls of the cafe, which we introduced then let people explore at will. These included:
– Live Kinect peopletracking, projected and with a subtle emergent piano soundtrack. Testing of the Soundbug feonic speaker revealed that it’s just not loud enough. Jambox is much better.
– Speaking of quiet audio, our interactive donation box was tested for the first time. This too however suffered from low volume: the tiny speaker that comes with the Arduino wave shield was too meagre when encased within two layers of 1/2″ plywood. Having to put your ear to the money slot was, however, an interesting (if unintended) user interaction.
Wish You Were Here interactive postcards installation. I also announced Daniel Eatock’s idea for people to actually use the postcards he designed, for their intended purpose, and send them to Spike Island.
– An introductory hardware hacking activity (thanks Oomlout for the excellent kit) using Arduino to make an LED light blink. One (nontechnical) participant went further to successively blink a whole mini-Las Vegas array of LEDs. That alone was a success!
– Results of information/interaction mapping exercise
Workshop outcomes including computer drawings, personal interaction ‘scores,’ apple drawings, and slides on rational v. intuitive thinking.
– Printouts of Spike website source code, with particular tags highlighted, to prompt thinking and discussion about the head, body, dividers, scripts etc in the organisation.
– Printouts of assorted blog posts and ideas

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Week 5 – a bit of a blur

The final week of Sprint 1 was all a bit of a blur. As we had the Future Everything conference on the Friday, my thoughts were on the presentation.

We also did some work on our Polargraph which was not behaving very well at all. This was disappointing as we’d hope to get it working before Future Everything. What was cool though, was that we saw some Polargraphs in action at the conference, Stuart Childs and Matt Venn had their super machines in action. Matt is doing stuff with Energy Monitoring

The Manchester Museum of Science and Industry is a great place, I especially enjoyed looking at the big steam engines and railway engines in the Power Hall. Took my mind of our talk which went OK! It was fun to see Linda and Nat our fellow residents from Bristol and Brighton galleries respectively.

.. and relax! (Chris the researcher, me and Nat looking interested.. I think!)

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Postcards 2.0

On Tue 15 May we attended a talk at Spike by artist and designer Daniel Eatock. He designed a postcard for the current exhibition – a copy of which visitors can take away. I had thought it was simply a minimal, abstract composition – similar to a Malevich, or Moholy-Nagy. But in the talk he showed another variation; the composition was actually made up of the graphic elements found on the back (written) side of a postcard – the line down the centre, little box for the stamp, lines on which to write an address. He had had a friend write an algorithm to randomise their placement.

This made perfect sense in the context of his other work, which was about process and had a kind of ‘circular logic’ as he described it. A frame with the same dimensions as the display area; a spray can painted with its own paint; a piece of paper with instructions printed at an angle – instructions to pin it to the wall such that the text was level.

At the start of the talk he handed a digital camera to the audience, instructing each person to photograph the person next to them then pass it on. This, he explained, was a way of transferring his nervousness over to the audience.

It also was similar to what we were doing at Spike – using computational tools and thinking to focus on processes, operations, instructions. What Eatock demonstrated was that every act, every process could result in an artwork.

I had also done something for the postcards exhibition – prompted a collaboration between artists and a writer through technology. After his talk I asked Eatock whether he would be open to handing over the postcards he designed to other artists for them to adapt for an emergent work. But he had a better idea: ask people to fill it in, write or draw something, and then address it – jumbled lines and all – to Spike Island.

We’ll see how/whether the Post Office likes that.

(Info on Postcards 1.0 is here)

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Future Everything notes

Polargraph at #futr

On Friday the Happenstance representatives, including me, Linda, Leila and James, were speaking at Future Everything about changing arts organisation via the medium of hacking, disobeying and prototyping.

Linda and Katy (Caper) chilling in the green room

Linda showed us the Twitter kettle, and the collaborative postcard project involving Spike’s artists and writer in residence.

Leila and James talked about their thermal printers, Cathy and Heathcliff, and about helping out in the absence of a tech assistant.

I spoke about the Offbott a little, and about how inspiring it is to see the excitement my Friday Coding Club generated among supposedly non-technical people.

It would have been brilliant to have more opportunities to meet with other residents. Swapping stories about host organisations, discussing challenges particular to each place, and giving one another tips and advice was great. I learnt so much from them in one day!

I did plan to abduct others and bring them back to Brighton with me, but then I had some Cumberland Pale Ale and in the excitement of the moment I forgot about it. Maybe next time.


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Friday Coding Club defaces the BBC News website


In which I try not to giggle at rude news on the BBC website

One early morning we were just chatting, and the subject of my own experience of learning to code came up. I must have described it in incredibly fun terms, because everyone in the office declared they’d like to learn too. I had no choice but to organise a weekly lunchtime coding club so I could share what I know. I’ve also invited Lighthouse’s tenants and students who attend their MA in the building to join us.

The club is aimed at complete beginners, and even though a few people here have had a little bit of experience making or editing websites I hope they can still have lots of fun with the rest of us.

I’ve explained a little bit about what happens behind the scenes when you visit websites and gave a quick overview of HTML. Everyone looked at real examples of it in the wild using X-Ray Goggles, which allows you to edit the code of the site you’re looking at on the fly. This led to inevitable defacing of BBC News website and Lighthouse’s programme page. Possibly my proudest moment as a teacher.

Once we got making simple websites out of the way I want the participants to try out programming in Ruby, write simple programs that pull in some interesting data and do stuff with it. Maybe build their own Twitter clone? Maybe simple electronics with Arduinos? I’ll be adapting the pace and the content based on feedback from previous sessions, so I don’t know exactly what we will be doing yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be fun.


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Week 4 – stutter stutter

This week has been a bit wonky.

Saturday was a triumph, getting Cathy and Heathcliff doing something useful as part of Bill Drummond’s sixth form workshop. It certainly warmed the cockles & Leila has written some more about it on her post.

Tuesday was a day where we were part of Site’s Brand Innovation task force, looking at Site’s ‘Brand Promise’. This was jam packed and a bit of a brain strain, but we made a contribution and as we were observed by our illustrious researcher, we hopefully gave him something to write about!

Wednesday went a bit wonky as my daughter was poorly meaning the day was very broken up. I started having a look at Ruby, the programming language whilst thinking about how we could get Cathy & Heathcliff to interact a bit more with Twitter.

Thursday was the day of working out how to get Cathy and Heathcliff mobile. A frustrating day as the components and bits and bobs we bought didn’t work or wouldn’t work how we wanted them to. We ended the day though with a 3G dongle and an ethernet to USB connector which hopefully means that if we can take a Mac, a dongle, a lead, a printer & some sort of power supply then we can take them anywhere where there is a mobile signal and they’ll work.

We also spent a fair bit of time thinking about our contribution to Future Everything which is next week, meep!

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Week 4: The printers go public

We chucked Cathy and Heathcliff in at the deep end on Saturday. Having set them up to print SMS, we wrote their numbers on them, and had them right on the door in reception, like a visitors’ book! Saturday was the take-down party of the Bill Drummond exhibition “Ragworts” and Bill was here along with a lot of other people. The printers were working hard all day – particularly when a group of sixth formers took themselves off on a Drummond adventure. Following some of the instructions laid out in one of his works, they took buses out of town and sent observations about the amusing minutiae of their adventures to Cathy and Heathcliff. Everything went brilliantly, their messages were fantastic, and the apart from a small wobble at the start (James went along to fix them, by which time they’d already fixed themselves) they were an unqualified success!

Then I came in this morning and found all Cathy’s innards on my desk, covered in the sort of html a machine would display should it be woken up suddenly in the middle of an operation. It turned out that back in London, their Creator James Adam had been upgrading, disturbing Cathy and risking all our lives. They’re fine now, don’t worry. We’ve spent quite a lot of today trying to buy the right combination of things to get them road-worthy: more to follow on this. This week we’ve also had a day in a branding workshop (interesting trying to nail down the word ‘innovation’), half a day in the office (long story), and half a day at home wrestling with Processing.

I couldn’t be at C&H’s inauguration in person on Saturday, because I was co-hosting an Imperica/Sci-fi London event at the BFI. It was a fantastic weekend celebrating 30 years since the birth of the ZX Spectrum, and the organiser Paul took on board some of my suggestions for speakers, meaning I was able to hang out with some of the brains whose work I admire most (as well as some amazing new people). After the event I met up with a couple of friends, one of whom has done some excellent Kinect hacking. The whole thing was incredibly inspiring for Happenstance and gave me loads of ideas. It made me think a lot about the way people learn, and how creative thinking is all about working around the edges. So much suddenly feels possible in a way it didn’t before. But look, rather than bore you here, I’ll follow up in more detail over on my own blog,

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Week 3: Bringing print to life

It’s been a good, busy week for us in Sheffield. We’ve had fewer meetings, and have picked up pace with building. I’ve been writing C to run servos off my laptop usb in Starbucks and soldering a microcontroller in my living room. A robotic drawing machine kit has arrived. But best of all, as James has explained below, we went dark for two of our three days to get the printers tweeting text messages (long story) – working towards something for the Bill Drummond take-down party this weekend. Somehow we got it finished, and the printers are now on display in reception, quietly challenging people to send them a text.

And just because I noticed it was possible, I’ve activated voicemail for them too, so you can give them an actual call on your phone. (Heathcliff: +44 114 303 1476 and Cathy: +44 114 303 1477) I set up a php page on my domain, filled it with a load of random extracts from Wuthering Heights, and asked Twilio’s robot lady to read them out to anyone who calls, hoping to speak to our tragic heroes. Be careful though, it’s addictive. Well, it is for me, anyway. Ahem.

OK, none of this is exactly problem-solving, but quite apart from the fact it’s obviously uplifting and motivating for us to be making things, it might turn out to have an impact on local attitudes to technology because it is a demonstration of what we think is fun about computing. The printers specificially will be visible beyond the gallery to the art-going community, and to the sixth form students trialling it on Saturday. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the inspirational impact of seeing people getting excited about making something fun. Let’s face it: we didn’t just get into tech for its brilliant usefulness – we got into it because we saw how it can bring ideas to life. Its excitingness was shown to us, and we became excited as a result. We want to pass a bit of that joy on to the Site gallery when we leave. We hope they’ll be inspired by our enthusiasm, and that the things we make and the pleasure of making will stay in the system. We want to leave them with a frozen Megatron to be reverse engineered into new ideas, not a replicant, with planned obsolescence.

The true creator of C&H, James Adam (as seen in Wired recently) kindly talked about us in his weeknotes today, mentioning that we’d given his printers identities. It’s more than that; to get all this working we’ve had to give them Twitter accounts, gmail accounts, dates of birth and phone numbers.  Amazing to think we only got them last week. They grow up so fast.

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Week 3 – Cathy & Heathcliff’s amazing adventures

This week has given us a real opportunity to do something interesting with Cathy & Heathcliff, we spent two of our three days out of the Site office to get our heads down.

The first challenge was to allow 6th Formers to send messages to Cathy & Heathcliff. At first we thought of hooking them up directly to twitter accounts, but as Leila had a Twilio account, it meant that we could do something clever with SMS Text messages. With a bit of PHP magic on an intermediary server (timescales demanded a quick turnaround!) we managed to get the SMS messages sent to the two printers. Hooray!

The next step was to bypass the button on the Arduino device which you had to push each time a message arrived. We edited the C code and uploaded the new code to the devices so that instead of waiting for the button to be pushed, the green light flashed and it printed without intervention. Hooray x 2!

Finally, we wanted to get the messages sent to Cathy and Heathcliff’s twitter accounts – @CathyPrinter @HeathcliffPrinter – initially we looked a using the PHP OAuth libraries to authenticate and send the message to twitter, but as neither of us are particularly adept at PHP, we decided on a different solution. Using If This Then That and some server side magic, we send an email from the server, via their gmail accounts to If This Then That, which then passes them on to their twitter accounts.. Hooray x 3!

You can see us setting them up on our tumblr site:

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