Oblique Innovation

“James, do you know how to work the internet?” For many arts organisations (and many researchers blogging about arts organisations, let’s be honest) technology is a necessary evil, something to be endured – if it doesn’t work, it probably wasn’t supposed to, we’ll muddle through. If one laptop clogs up, use another. If the email clients don’t speak to each other, open another window. Arts organisations tend to be project-focused, not process-oriented. Technology is part of the cluttered terrain standing between us and our goals.

Technologists are more likely to look for a better method – smarter, quicker, more efficient. Some of Happenstance’s innovations have been about the organisations adopting new ways of working with technology, new software, new tools, but also a changing attitude to technology as something which enables, doesn’t just get in the way. Embedding technology into an arts organisation means reconnecting ends and means, method and product.

The quick fix – sorting out the wireless, rebooting a monitor, fixing the website – doesn’t sound like a transformative process. But a lot of the organisational change we are witnessing through Happenstance is oblique – it happens across and sideways from the point of interaction. At the start of this process, there was talk of workshops on agile methodology, drop-in sessions – in reality the learning has been implicit rather than explicit – just watching over the shoulder of the technologists, picking up some of their kit and playing with it, allows arts organisation to adopt or adapt some of their techniques, as well as a different attitude to technique and technology. The residents may not (yet) be able to fix the internet for you, but they might encourage arts organisations (and researchers) to think more attentively about the processes which go behind and before the product.

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Say “Hi” to Offbott

This is an exciting week for me and James, as we have gotten our tool, Offbott, to the minimum viable prototype stage and introduced it to the Lighthouse team this afternoon.

Offbott (your mostly-friendly office bot) is a tool for collecting thoughts and insights that often get lost when working on long term projects. While there’s a plethora of tools for organising, planning and managing teams and processes, there aren’t many successful ones for capturing these processes as they happen, or for reflecting upon them once they’re over. While sometimes these things are recorded through blogging, that’s only true of public-facing projects – and some things can only be spoken about between team mates. There are things you might think about and not consider them useful or significant to record, but together they make up a story of the process that provides a rich insight into the project and the team. One of the aims of Offbott is to help communicate better how the organisation works to external stakeholders; but seeing these thoughts collected over time could also be a catalyst for improvement.

Once a day, the Offbott will email you to ask you how you’re doing. You don’t know when the email will come in. By prompting you out of the blue it tries to catch you slightly off guard, so you record the first thing that comes into your head. There is no set reply format. You’re free to tell it about your whole day, the last five minutes, or your plans for later. You may choose not to reply at all.

It will then gather updates from all team members on the project into a timeline of thoughts, a kind of Twitter for offices. At the end of the project you will be able to see patterns emerging: which things kept being mentioned, where the difficulties have caused frustration, which parts were easiest and most fruitful.

Offbott is not intended to gather data on individual’s performance. In fact, it tries to stay away from office politics – there is no hierarchy built in. It demands trust from everyone involved: every team member can edit the project or add new team mates.

We’ve only just began using it with the team here at the Lighthouse, but we already have lots of ideas how we could improve it and take it further – including opening it up to the public. It feels like we have been so busy trying to get it to this stage that we barely had time for anything else! Next time we talk about it we should have some feedback from our hosts, maybe they can even be convinced to write a little bit about it too.

Offbott is built in Ruby using Ruby on Rails

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Being Useful

Innovation is a combination of the new (novelty, new ideas, new thinking) and the useful (value, application, adaptation, fit for purpose) – applied creativity. In our culture we tend to value novelty over usefulness – we are impressed by the flash of genius rather than the slow burn of incremental change. ‘Being useful’ is an oblique route into innovation.

For a creative technologist in residence, there’s a risk of being sucked into routine tasks, at the expense of defined projects. On the other hands, the everyday interactions of ‘usefulness’ can accumulate into insight and become a catalyst for change. Such an approach requires a certain humility – in the words of one technologist, “this isn’t about my ego, my career, I just want to be useful – to the organisation, to the project, to the community”.

It’s also risky – how do you explain after five weeks that all you’ve done is fix some stuff? Where’s the output? Where are your credentials as a creative technologist? Well, at this stage it’s a matter of trust – Happenstance assumes that if you put brilliant people into an organisation, brilliant things will happen. These arts organisations seem happy to let the process follow its own pace – don’t panic, let it happen. And being useful might in the end be the best route to being innovative.

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Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture workshop

Last week I attended a workshop around the Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture, a partnership between Nesta, Arts Council and AHRC. This was a meeting of all the funded projects, and a chance for us to share our thoughts and findings as this early stage of development. This included partnerships such as Battersea Arts Centre working with Videojuicer and The Arts Collective on a digital version of the BAC ‘Scratch’ programme, or the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk working with with MIT to create a mixed-reality, online version of their New York production Sleep No More.

Hearing updates on how the Happenstance residencies are going, something which is clearly shared throughout all three pairs, is the way they have set about getting to know the organisations as intimately and as quickly as possible. Lots of the focus in what they’re making and playing with so far is on understanding how the building is used, how the team interacts, and what happens in each organisation, beyond the fact that they present work to the public.

What feels clear from talking to the Happenstance arts organisations is that they have each been receptive and welcoming of this exploration of their organisation. Openness and trust, which is so crucial to r&d, is visible in the attitudes of all three cultural organisations. Site Gallery admitted they’ve literally let residents access everything and anything – from their business plan and financial details, to sharing organisational challenges and concerns. In our discussion though it did raise a question about openness – how do you protect it, when everyone inevitably has their own agenda too?

It was interesting to hear our own thoughts echoed by several of the other project teams. Punchdrunk talked about how a huge amount of trust had to be bestowed in the team they’re working with from MIT – because of distance there were only 3 face to face meetings. Ultimately they felt their technology partner really understood them and their ambitions, which enabled them to have complete faith. Similarly for Happenstance, Spike Island felt that the fact the residents were really user focussed, as opposed to tech focussed, helped them to trust in the residents and feel they were approaching things in a like-minded way.

The workshop was a great opportunity to hear more about the other projects, but also to talk about Happenstance to an audience, and see what questions and thoughts it provoked outside of the project team. Especially, now we’re just a few weeks away from our three Open House events, which are our opportunity to invite the public into each organisation and hear what the residents have been doing so far.

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Relatively Innovative

Everybody knows that innovation and creativity depend on context – what’s old to you may be new to me. Entire musical careers have been built on this. For the technologists in Happenstance, ‘ripping off some old stuff’ might represent innovation in the context of an arts organisation. The creative idea in this process may be about connecting together an old technology with a new problem or reframing two disconnected ideas (bisociation) or simply reviving an old idea by connecting it to a new capability. The idea of putting ‘Site’ on the roof of Site Gallery (and making it visible to Google Earth – hello world!) was something that had been talked about before but now the organisation might be capable of doing it. Technologists seem to be resourceful in this way – recycling old technologies, bits of kit. They don’t abandon ideas that don’t work, they archive them – even the unused offcuts from a successful project might be squirreled away. Ideas that don’t work now might work later. By contrast, arts organisations seem more project focused – they don’t have the institutional memory (or at least the memory doesn’t exist outside the head of one person). Our technologists are coming up with ideas and projects – but perhaps they can also change the way arts organisations capture and retain ideas of their own. One practical example has been the use of Trello – a free online project management tool introduced by James and Leila for Happenstance at Site, and now being used by Laura and Judith for managing projects in the gallery. Trello is a virtual noticeboard where tasks are sorted and prioritised – it captures some of the principles of ‘agile’ working, notably the use of an open ‘scrum board’ for tracking progress of complex projects. This allows members of a team to park an idea and come back to it, and allows an organisation to retrieve and share ideas which don’t necessarily fit with the needs of the moment or the individual.

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Generally speaking

The following statements may not be true: Technology = agile, opportunistic, ad hoc, process-driven. Arts organisations = risk aware, accountable, strategic, project-based. Artists are a bit like technologists. Arts managers are a bit like managers.

Once you look at these particular arts organisations, artists, technologists, generalisations like this start to unravel and other patterns start to emerge. As researchers we trade in generalisations. We are expected to amplify details into generalities (not the other way round) and to weave generalisable truths into a story, aka our final report (no pressure there, then). Over the next few weeks we will be posting some of our (possibly true) generalisations on this site. We hope you will find time to disagree with us – just to show you’re listening. Or even (occasionally) to agree.

One such pattern emerging across the projects is the idea of making the virtual physically present. How do you make the invisible parts of a creative process visible? How do you help an organisation see itself and be seen by others? There have been ingenious solutions – using motion sensors to capture and represent the human traffic of Spike Island, using a bot to animate conversations in Lighthouse Media, using mini-printers to capture social media chatter about Site Gallery. Creative technologies can show the activity which precedes an exhibition or an installation, in the studio or the back office. They can open up another way of engaging with audiences and visitors beyond a moment’s interaction with an exhibit, exposing the workings under its skin. They can allow organisations, and the people who work in them, to become more attuned to each other and to the world around them, making virtual interactions physically present. They can bring the outside in and the inside out. McLuhan described media technologies as ‘extensions of man’ – computers and phones are so much part of us that we don’t notice them. By giving them a tangible form and location, technologies can remind us not only of their own presence, but also of the creative and organisational processes which connect us.

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Week 2. Notes on a printer…

I think James is writing more about what we’ve been up to, but we’re both a bit pressed for time this week, so in lieu of an in-depth report, I’ve typed up some of the notes I’ve been jotting down over the week. I printed them out using our new thermal printers! Yes, we’ve been loaned two arduino printer kits from our pal James Adam at Free Range, and are enjoying playing with them and thinking how we might be able to use them to help the Site Gallery. Things continue apace.


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Week 2 – how do you do?

This week has all been about pairs of trousers. It has rained a lot and usually when you are equidistant from where you are going and where you want to go, the heavens open and you get absolutely soaked. I’ve been through three pairs of trousers and counting.


So trousers.. and marketing/branding innovation labs, meeting with yet more interesting people, fixing the internet and eating flapjack.

To distract us from the weather and all these other things we’ve had the excitement of two receipt printers which we are bringing to life. The illustrious James Adam has written a fantastic article about how to build internet enabled receipt printers. My advice would be to go away and read that, when you’re done, come back here!

So we have been guinea pigs, taking delivery of two printers complete with special arduino kits, leads and other gubbins. Of course, all we needed to do was plug them in (following the instructions) and BOOM! The little printers would burst in to life….

… except they did not 🙁

The little light flashed to say that it was talking to the internet, but the internet didn’t want to speak back. This was a blow, was it the printer, was it the lead, was it the network, was it the circuitry, was it the ‘sketch’ (the arduino program)? So we put on our best Worzel Gummidge problem solving heads and got to work. We broke in to the server room and tried a direct connection (rather than through all the office switches and routers), fired up skype and waved the laptop in the direction of the kit whilst the illustrious one watched from afar. No joy.

We knew that one of the other tenants in the building used a different internet connection, so we took one of the printers up there and plugged it in. It burst into life and the backlog of messages we’d sent it arrived in a semi-orderly fashion, hurrah! We knew the printer, leads and circuitry worked, but why didn’t it work on the other network?

The next day the magic serial-USB debugging lead arrived and it was time to download the Arduino app and work out what on earth was happening. Once hooked up, the little bundle of electronic joy started telling us debug messages from the sketch.. which was nice, but it still didn’t work. Time for some coding I thought.

I don’t think you can actually see what code is being run on the device as it is compiled in to assembler, so all I could do was add some further debugging information and upload it. I had some theories about the network too, what would happen if I put in the explicit IP address? Tweaked the URL it was using? Nothing, still didn’t work. At this point I thought we may was well upload the original sketch with the relevant bits tweeted…


Heathcliff lives…

Heathcliff Lives

and after lunch, we got Cathy working too!

Next week we’ll send them off to Wuthering Heights and see what happens..

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Week Two at Spike Island

After an exciting start to the project last week, things really took off on Monday as Happenstance residents Kevin Walker and Linda Sandvik brought in a whole load of gadgets and spread them across the Associates Space. Linda shares what they’re working on, including two experiments that you can see at next weekend’s Spike Island Open:

We continued to play around with sensors and collecting data. Arduinos, Nanodes, IR sensors and a very pretty motion detection device from Maplin have been added to our kit. Kevin also started experimenting with how to present the data using Processing, a programming language developed specifically for artists (visual designers) – very well suited for the purpose! We are going to do a workshop on Processing for anyone who is interested sometime during our residency.

I am hoping to get some sort of skill swap going on, where people can hold workshops on something they know, and share their knowledge and expertise with the other people at Spike. Personally, I’d like workshops in letterpress and screen printing, and how to work the big scary machines down in the wood shop.

Every day I spend at Spike I fall a little bit more in love with the place. The building itself is a great source of inspiration, and there is a lot of potential in cross-pollination between the different departments/people here.

Kevin has started an Artists’ Postcard Swap project, with the theme “Wish You Were Here”, collaborating with 20 different artists at Spike and the former writer in residence. Postcards with RFID chips, that is. *Exciting*

I decided to have some new age fun with a vintage feel, and finally got my little Polaroid printer working over Bluetooth. People at Spike Island can send me pictures by email or using a specific hashtag on Twitter (#myspikeisland) that will automatically make the printer print out some small, low-quality stickers that will be put on display, sometime, somewhere.

You may have noticed that our plans are a bit loose still. This is fine. We may not know exactly where we are going with this, but in the meantime we keep on hacking, experimenting, playing around, and as we do our ideas develop and change.

We also visited Watershed and the wonderful Pervasive Media Studio where our minds were blown by some of the wonderful projects they’ve got going on. The bar has been raised.

While Kevin and Linda worked, I (Spike Island’s communications manager) headed up to Nottingham on Wednesday to take part in the Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture workshop where I heard about the other funded projects and shared what we’ve learned so far. Partnerships between cultural organisations and technology companies have resulted in a range of outcomes from a ticket-buying app for students by the London Symphony Orchestra to a new immersive way to experience Punchdrunk’s production Sleep No More online.

There was a lot of discussion about what research and development means: while for some of the technology partners it’s an essential element of their business, its place within arts organisations is a bit less clear. It was suggested that within the context of Happenstance the residents are perhaps more focused on process, while we as a staff team are (or at least feel) obliged to produce outcomes – we don’t usually spend months working on an exhibition and then decide not to do it! In a way, it’s true that we don’t always have the time, headspace or resources to do the sort of playful experimentation that Kevin and Linda have been invited to do here. On the other hand, maybe R&D should be seen as more of an ongoing thread of our work than a standalone activity. We certainly are always thinking, reading, talking and planning whilst actually delivering the programme, welcoming visitors and supporting a community of artists and designers.

Whichever way you look at it, my hope for the Happenstance residency is that it not only opens up the world of digital tools to us as a staff team, but that through this it inspires new ways of working and of seeing Spike Island for the whole organisation. Just today we’ve had a fantastic response from people across the building to Kevin and Linda’s invitation to participate in the projects described by Linda above!

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Weeks One and Two — Happenstance Brighton

Nat and I started properly at Lighthouse last week. We came straight into a big team meeting, where everyone in the organisation lays out what they’re up to and where various projects are headed. The Otolith Group show at Fabrica has just opened, and as well as that Lighthouse are coordinating a number of events around the Brighton Festival, including a show from Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, and Invisible Flock. Various props for the latter, including ship parts, navigation equipment and soon-to-be-augmented telescopes started arriving at Lighthouse yesterday and we’ve been staring at them enviously.

As we get to know the team and start looking for site-specific work we can do, Nat and I have started work on a small tool to help generally. One of the briefs for Happenstance was to help artists and art organisations communicate better what they do: the process of putting together work and exhibitions. We’re building something to make chronicling this easier and more public, and we’ll have something to show for it soon…

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