Week One at Spike Island

We’ve come to the end of our first week of the Happenstance project and residents Kevin Walker and Linda Sandvik have had a burst of ideas about how to collect data from around the building and use it to make exciting, intriguing and maybe even beautiful visualisations and objects.

Happenstance is an experiment to see what happens when creative technologists are embedded in arts organisations. Already we’ve been invigorated by Kevin and Linda’s fresh approach to seeing and thinking about the complexity of the organisation – for example, they’ve identified the shared kitchen areas as spaces rich with interactions. Linda’s planning some experiments using the kettles and Twitter, so stay tuned!

Kevin’s sent some of his impressions of their first week here:

Our challenge is to find ways to use technology creatively to represent Spike Island as a whole, where interesting data and content are being produced every day. Our approach is to apply ‘computational thinking’ to link the digital and physical; coincidentally this week Linda also launched Code Club to teach primary school kids how to code. We are hackers – we like to take things apart to see how they work, then make new things.

In our first week we began to survey the current state of information and communication at Spike Island, for example mapping places in the building where information is shared and collaborations take place, and tracking people’s activity and movement in various places (watch the video). An unexpected highlight was sitting in on Write Club; as participants read unfinished stories we realised that in a way that’s what we too were making/documenting. And we also realised that the best data input is qualitative – it comes from people, not computers.

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Week 1

We’re three days in to our residency and time is already flying along. We’ve spoken to a lot of people, fixed some niggly problems in the office and had some ideas which I’m sure any Technologist in Residence would be proud of!

Our esteemed directors at Site have been storing up interesting people for us to talk to which has been great. It’s striking how we’ve met people who are passionate, not only about what they do, but about the greater tech community in Sheffield, Sheffield itself, Yorkshire and the North! This resonates with me as a Yorkshirebod and as someone who would like to see the economic balance tip in our direction.

Site have a new Technical expert starting at the beginning of May so there is a small backlog of  outstanding techie issues for the organisation. I find it impossible to sit in the office without diving in to help when the printer doesn’t work or the wi-fi has gone screwy! Hopefully now we’ve fixed some of the more pressing issues but it is highlighted for me that I have to be careful with my time. We had decided that we would spend three days a week on-site in the office but actually it makes sense to spend a day elsewhere to allow us to focus on bigger tasks without interruption. We’ll try that next week to see how we go.

Our bigger ideas are still fermenting, but two Arduino kits arrived on Friday and as it is about 25 years since I last played with electronics in anger, I’m excited to see what we end up using them for. I think I had something like this when I was a kid… you should have heard the stylophone I made!

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My first week in Sheffield

I’m trying to think of fun/clever ways to represent my weekly blog posts during my time at the Site Gallery. We’ve only done three days so far, so I’ll start that next week – but in the meantime, here are some pictures of things I’ve seen and done since I moved here last week. I also hacked a combination lock and watched The Full Monty but I don’t have pictures of THAT. Anyway, hope you enjoy.

(I recommend starting from the top and scrolling down one by one…)


I moved in.


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Getting started – James Bridle

I first visited Lighthouse in the October of 2010. I was speaking at dConstruct, and to accompany the conference Lighthouse was showing a small exhibition of digital work entitled “Suspending Disbelief“. Among the works on show was Caleb Larson’s “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter“, which I’d read about but had never seen, didn’t expect to see, certainly not here, by the sea, on a sunny day, by accident. “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter” is a sculpture which, when connected to the network, continuously tries to sell itself on eBay, with each owner required to pass itself on to the next. A work which explicitly questions the notion of value in art, and uses the digital sphere not as a gimmick, but as a valid and necessary part of that questioning.

Two years later, I’m honoured to be taking part in the Happenstance residency at Lighthouse. For the last couple of years, I’ve had the odd experience of approaching and being approached by the art world while knowing little about it. A lot of the work I like doesn’t work in galleries, but I love visiting them. My work has appeared in art galleries but I have a troublesome relationship with the term “artist”. I’m interested in how galleries and arts organisations in general “do” digital because I believe in curatorial and editorial values and want to see them extended through the network. I am here to learn, and if I can help Lighthouse do more of what it does already, I’m here to do that too.

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Something inspiring.. for Sheffield!

Sheffield is the city of Seven Hills, George Orwell wrote in ‘Road to Wigan Pier’

“The town is very hilly (said to be built on seven hills, like Rome) and everywhere streets of mean little houses blackened by smoke run up at sharp angles, paved with cobbles which are purposely set unevenly to give horses etc, a grip”

We don’t have many horses heading up and down hills any more, nor are our houses mean, but it does feel like we are missing a bit of a trick. The city centre has its ups and downs, steps, ramps and in one particular office block, a slide..

So if an office building can have that, how about a slide in some other parts of the city. At this point I should fire up a photo editing app with a picture of the site in the city and overlay an amazing ‘artist’s impression’ of a slide. Maybe I’ll do that another time. For now though, here is an example of some outdoor thinking in the Netherlands at an entrance to a railway station in Utrecht

This is what we want, some super duper slides installed, imagine what an economic edge it would give to Sheffield!

In the mean time, until we do get more slides, here is one way of getting down an escalator in a hurry…

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First-ish impressions – Site Gallery

Last summer, when I set up my own company, ShedCode, I was fortunate to be able share an office with 3 friends, all of whom I’d worked with before. We were able to get an office on the top floor of the Site Gallery building, so my relationship with Site was already established on a different footing, that of a happy tenant.

That is not to say that I had any real idea what happened in the building! Sure, there was a cafe and a shop, but I was not that familiar with the rest of the space, the actual gallery. I’d have a look at each new exhibition, but it was usually a quick zoom around whilst waiting for a coffee.

Fast forward to this week, Tuesday 27th March 2012, when the Happenstance induction began and ignorance would no longer be an excuse! Leila (my co-technologist-in-residence) & I spent a couple of days finding out much more about our place of work for the 10 weeks. We had many chats with the two directors, Laura Sillars and Judith Harry, sat in a staff meeting, had a tour around the secret rooms of the gallery, unearthed old AV kit, basked in the sun on one of the balconies, met our mentor, James Boardwell, met our  researcher, Chris Bilton, went to our fantastic local pub, The Rutland Arms and visited some of the art spaces within a 10 minute walk of the Site.

Now we have a much better idea of where Site Gallery sits in relation to the city of Sheffield, the UK and Internationally. The gallery is located a few minutes from the Railway Station, in the middle of a real creative area of the city. Apparently there are over 300 studio spaces within 10 minutes walk! We were fortunate to be able to have a sneak peak in some of these places, Yorkshire Art Space, Access Space, the Archipelago Works, Bloc and S1 Artspace. Many of these buildings I would walk past each day on the way to work, without realising that behind the walls, doors and windows, incredible things were taking place.

As for Happenstance, well, I’m looking forward to working with Leila, we have different, yet hopefully, complementary skill sets and I feel I have a lot to learn from her. We’ve discussed some of the challenges that appeal to problem solving techies and we have a few ideas which we’ll be looking to explore further when we start officially after Easter. The Gallery itself has recently been going through a period of organisational and strategic change. Laura and Judith have been able to look, with fresh eyes, at the potential for growth of the organisation and it’s role as a connector within the city. It is exciting talking to them about the future and I hope we can help!

The first *real* impression I remember being able to do was Windy Miller from Camberwick Green. Well actually, it was Windy Miller’s windmill, but you know what I mean…

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Working at the Lighthouse

The Lighthouse is an interesting organisation – it describes itself as a digital culture agency, rather than simply a digital arts agency, emphasising its broad interests that go beyond the arts sector. It’s an organisation that is forward looking and welcomes the challenges presented by technology. Perhaps this is why they are confident enough to let me and James Bridle drive the process without necessarily having a clear idea of the outcome (or direction) just yet.

Their openness was what attracted me to the project. I could work using the process in which you gradually narrow your problem space to eventually define the project’s objectives is what they would like to happen. This kind of approach from my experience can result in something much more interesting than when the outcome is clearly defined at the beginning. While it may not be suitable for every type of project, it feels exactly right for Happenstance, where the goals are much wider than simply delivering a product. You can probably tell by now that I am excited about having an opportunity to further develop my practice.

I haven’t worked with any arts organisations before, so it will be interesting to find out more about the work they do and how they do it. Lighthouse not only exhibits existing work, but also acts in a commissioning capacity, as well as doing administrative and supportive work that is largely hidden from public view. Any impact that this project will have on the way Lighthouse operates will be felt by many more organisations, so this is a brilliant opportunity to do something great… no pressure then!

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First Impressions – Leila Johnston

I’ve just got back from a few days of induction to the project, met lots of new people, and experienced some of the achievements and challenges of the Site Gallery and the city as a whole.

The Site Gallery is a contemporary art space on an extraordinary street packed with maker hubs, artists’ studios, arts centres and university buildings. I can’t stress the intensity of creativity in the area. My first impression, at least, is of an under-funded area that wants, more than anything, to make. The urge to create is in the air, it’s normal and doesn’t need to be justified – so it’s not spiked with competitiveness, it’s laid-back and friendly. People have huge amounts of time for each other. They walk down the street and they talk to each other face-to-face. As a result there is a massive amount going on. Unlike London, there are things on here that I’d go out of my way to do or see, every single night. It’s hard to sound genuine saying this, but I really think that something wonderful his arising out of this culture of default friendliness.

It helps that the Site Gallery’s new management, Laura and Judith, and the whole team, have put a massive amount of time and energy into connecting with the community. I’m glad they’re there – they’d be wasted in London. My co-happenstancer James Jefferies is exceptional, and while we don’t know quite what we’re going to build yet, we have found several things at the gallery we’d like to put our skills behind. James is a great developer and I sort of shepherd and articulate technological mash-ups. It’s obvious that we’re going to have a lot of fun working together, whatever happens. Keeping this short, but the full post is over on my blog, here.


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Residents Announced

We’re very pleased to announce the six Happenstance residents, who will be taking their posts in April. Chosen from a brilliantly strong field of candidates, each of the six has something special to bring to the programme and to the organisation they’re working with. They’re a very exciting group of people, and they’ll be blogging and sharing their experiences of working with Site Gallery, Lighthouse and Spike Island over the next few months. Stay tuned for updates!

SPIKE ISLAND: Kevin Walker and Linda Sandvik

LIGHTHOUSE: James Bridle and Nat Buckley

SITE GALLERY: Leila Johnston and James Jefferies

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James Jefferies

Resident at Site Gallery

James has spent many years working with technology, as a software
engineer, architect and consultant. Having worked for big banks,
utility companies and digital agencies, he now runs his own company
ShedCode based in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He enjoys helping other
people solve their techie problems, whether large or small. Apart from
geeky things, James is interested in industrial archaeology,
transport, music, books and film.

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