Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Catching Up

It has been some time since we updated our AI blog as most of our activity this year is focused on

Things in the AI office are quiet... Matt Watkins has been focusing much of his time on Mudlark activities and Chromaroma in particular, from the Big Smoke (which is a little bit literal at the moment after this crazy weekend of rioting on the streets of London) although keeps the vision and ideas true to Active Ingredient's aesthetic and conceptual form. I share my time between AI's office and the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham where I am also doing a PhD.

Rebecca Lee, artist, consultant and educator who has shared our office with us for several years has now officially come on board to support project management, public engagement and generally keep us all sane. Robin Shackford still makes it all happen with his amazing creative and technical brain power.

Silvia Leal is working with us from Rio and London, bridging and creating dialogues as well as adding her own artistic conceptual and strongly aesthetic ideas into the Active Ingredient mix.

Through my work now at the University of Nottingham I have linked up with Mark Selby and Mike Golembowski who are supporting A Conversation Between Trees, helping out with building our C02 scorching machine and new sensors to put in trees in UK and Brazil forests.

This period of time has become very much about dialogues with people and locations... ongoing conversations happening not only between the data collected from forests but also with scientists, Carlo Buontempo from the UK Met office; other artists; young people and teachers and visitors to our exhibitions.

Exploding Places is still on the back burner. Matt is keeping the ideas and funding opportunities ticking over in the hope that we can develop the game... it seems now a bit prophetic and all the more important to keep exploring the ideas around communities, their survival, their tipping points at this time.

Keep Watching...

Thursday, November 11, 2010



Today has been incredibly inspiring as Silvia had organised a visit IGB and Dora Hees who manages the institute and botanical gardens in Niteroi, across the bridge from Rio. This is a residential area, with fishing boats along the coastline, where the white UFO curved modernist modern art museum sits facing back to the view of Rio. Supposedly Carioca’s say the best thing about Niteroi is the view back to Rio. From our 2 short visits (to see Bruno and IBG) I would strongly disagree - although the journey is breathtaking.

Today we had the EME van and so the journey along the bridge to the other side of the bay was by car this time and not ferry. We passed through the docklands, like our own docklands in London they are being transformed for the next Olympic Games after London 2012. Derelict warehouses and shipping yards. Here is an artist occupation that was also involved in one of the previous residencies Siliva has hosted, Flor do asfalto, Zona portu├íria, Rio. Along the bridge the views of Rio’s skyline, mountains, modernist and colonial buildings, and of course Christ looking down over the city, the bay, the water.


We arrived at IBG and set up, plugging electricity into the institute’s mains, opening the van up as a small installation and learning space. We Both EME and Active Ingredient wait for the stage of the project where we can find alternative energy sources to fuel our interventions with technology and the environment. Until that time comes we follow a fragile line between using these tools that need so much energy and then disappearing into the forest to explore and experience nature unmediated. The energy and mobility issues of the project are uncomfortable (diesel consumption and air travel), but is a process which we hope to resolve and approach as much as possible in an international collaboration such as this with alternative options as appropriate.


We had an hour with a visiting school group. 3 groups of 10 children between 12-14 years old being introduced to the project, the mobile sensor technology, and the visualisation. We then walked with them to a part of the gardens that was a terrace surrounded by forest and ran the human sensor activity. The groups asked really intuitive questions and took their time with the process. The teacher said she was really happy with the project and the educational team filmed the whole process.

As the workshop took place visitors to the gardens walking past the van also stopped to find out what was happening. The van works so well as a new space to present art, a mobile installation, for interventions in public space. It has the potential to be developed in a flexible context. Sylvia talks about the potential for EME (Estudio Movel Experimental) to occur anywhere and with any type of mobility, even inside the fridge where the magnetic EME signs live when they are not on the van!


A teacher from another school who happened to be at IBG chatted to us and was keen to find out if we will return and if her school could take part in the project. The teacher in charge of the group that we worked with took the human sensor activity away with her and we explained the possibilities to develop it with a visualisation activity and she was keen to see how she could integrate it into her own teaching. This is perfect. If we can add a new perspective not just to the children but the teachers too, leave seeds of ideas of a different way of seeing the world and using technology to facilitate this alternative view, then I feel we have done our job as artists, researchers, interventionalists.



Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – it is going so fast and we have got a bit behind on the blog.

We returned to the school on Monday, having finished the data maps, the felt was all glued and the circles framed by an ingenious idea of Silvia’s – hula hoops, that she managed to find in the centre of Rio. As objects, data maps, they are quite beautiful, the colours, layout and style (to use the language of Robin Active Ingredient’s programmer) were simple yet evocative representions of the data they collected as ‘human sensors’.


We went to the school and arrived in the middle of a birthday celebration so we joined in singing Happy Birthday in Portuguese (clapping along) and were treated to some very sticky chocolate cake.

The art teacher Silvia had worked with arrived and took us to set up the exhibition in the entrance to the school. Apart from a small computer room (the size of the one we had in the 1980s in London but of course with up to date computers) there is very little technology in the school and at this time hardly anything on the walls but outside there is forest, a small planted garden that was grown as part of the education programme with the botanical gardens. With 40 children in each class it must be very hard for the teachers, but pretty much all the children we worked with were attentive, focused and thoughtful about their work. Supposedly the school is one of the best state schools in Rio and they certainly have a wonderful resource next door with the botanical gardens.

The kids walking past were very intrigued and the class we seemed quite proud as we attempted to align the 5 data maps on a brick wall. Once we had hung all the data maps and notebooks from the original workshops Sylvia did with them we left, our intervention over - but with plansin place for the longer term exchange project with schools in the UK.


We then went on to the botanical gardens to meet NEA, the education team there in their beautiful resource centre. Carmelita and Marcia showed us the games and activities that they use to introduce the botanical gardens and the biomes of the Mata Atlantica to the groups they work with and then showed us round their inspiring installations about the history of the gardens and botany in Brazil. The gardens themselves are beautifully landscaped and ‘curated’, which is the word they use for the way the plants evolve in the gardens.

After a fantastic conversation with NEA we met Bruno for lunch and were also introduced to Ricardo, the garden’s curator.

And so continues our week of conversation with the people who work with the Mata Atlantica, and with the forest itself through collecting micro data in the locations we visit along our journey in the van.

Despite our growing tiredness, due to the early wake up calls from Luis the fantastic driver and owner of the van, we went out to a launch of a book in a community near the docks.

Walking through the twisted streets with houses built as if they have grown organically interwined and interdependent, up a steep staircase that weaved to the side of the community, to the top of the hill with a large building and watch tower looking over the docks. The group of hackers organising the event are occupying an empty house here and transmitting a pirate radio station over Rio, alongside the launch of their book about their work. The book looks interesting although of course near impossible to read in Portuguese, it will be a good start to improve my vocabulary. They were distributing it as an e-book via pen drives. We met many of Silvia’s peers and collaborators and had some good conversations as people came and went. Standing in the street listening to music from the live radio transmission, drinking beer in the hot sticky night.

Matt ended up doing a DJ slot on the radio and filling Rio’s airways with his own unique DJ ChOw dubstep and two-step sounds of Nottingham.


Active Ingredient are in full effect, well there’s two of us here now so we’re now kind of a force in Rio Today’s journey took us from the lush green hillsides of Santa Teresa across Guanabara bay to Niteroi where we were to meet up with an old friend and associate on the project, Bruno Rezende, botanist from the Botanical Gardens in Rio, who lives and works with the Mata Atlantica (Atlantic Forest).


We managed to jump on board one of the old open air ferries, which I’m informed is a much more pleasant experience than the new enclosed ones that service passengers on a weekday. The expanse of city against jungle is awe inspiring and being out in the bay you can really get a sense of the scale and shape of Rio De Janeiro and it’s huge green nobbly landscape, from the lego bricked communities to the shimmer of the city skyline.


Bruno rolled up and swaggered over from his jeep and we made haste over to his farm, new family home and what we were about to discover was an eden for flora and fauna from all over the world, side by side. He explained energetically en route about his passion as a plant collector and a botanist, detailing the many species he has on the farm. Such is his passion that we even stopped off to pick up a plant from a friend. Bruno is also an artist, experimenting with plantlife and man-made materials, planting germinating bromeliads into glass and cement structures and documenting the seemingly impossible manner in which plants adapt to their new plastic prefabricated environment and as their new home for growth. Some of his creations seemed to mimic the structures they encompass, like the vines growing down against gravity from three showerheads arranged on the exterior wall of his house; Or the huge metal sheeted sculpture which has become home to smaller clusters of plantlife winding their way up the white fragments to the sun and nutrients. There’s a real surreal, Dali-esque quality to the work, but it also stands as solid botanical research and a document to Bruno’s belief in a second nature.


This phase of the project is all about conversations, not between trees but between us and the people who work with the trees and the Mata Atlantica. Bruno has a strong belief that nature can be advanced by technology, he says… “ Technology can make a second nature possible, a balance between what’s been here for millions of years and what’s moving up really fast. There’s lots of technology within my work too, look at the irrigation systems in my sculptures, they’re dealing with engineering problems, self compensating water emissions and pressure rates. Technology can make human life and second nature possible and sustainable.”


The irrigation systems he refers to are there in his latest project, a huge conical cement and marble structure built from found materials on the streets of Rio and plants he has been given or found through his networks. He calls it his nuclear reactor under construction.

We were treated to a delicious lunch spicy shrimps, rice and the traditional manioc sweet fried potatoes I’ve come to know and love. Hats off to the chef (Obrigada Anette.)


It was only when we were invited to take a guided walk through his incredible extensive collection of plantlife and around his sculpture gardens that I realised just how site specific his work is. He has started a life-long piece of work setting up the stage for this diverse range of plantlife and discarded man-made products to flourish in hamony together side by side. He sees his work as nature performing for him and it is very much one huge experiment where he is kind of curating his land and laying the foundations for nature to take root and it truly is a land art installation. It is something that would take 100’s of years in the temperate UK climate, but here in Brazil, such an intense, bright and humid place, you can already begin to see these sculptures come to life. I can see a link to our work on A Conversation Between Trees, as we set up the parameters for our sets of data, if the humidity rises, the image becomes more blurred or if the temperature rises more red hues etc. But we didn’t know what was going to happen when the data from the trees and its surrounding environment slowly fed into the system. It is very much nature performing for us too.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Felt data maps and down at the Cocabana

Today was another early start. We got to the school sleepy eyed and ready to make the large data maps with the groups. Starting well with the first group (atmospheric pressure) they seemed to get the maps although the concept of interpreting the numbers from the data into felt symbols was a bit confusing for them.

Method of interpretation:
1. Created a scale of 1 – 10 for each dataset (temperature, humidity, decibels, atmospheric pressure, light)
2. Ask 80 children to choose a number on the scale based on their memory, experience, what they see and feel in the forest
3. Add all the numbers together for each dataset
4. Calculate the percentage for each dataset e.g. the children collectively decided that the humidity was 20% in the forest
5. Create a data map interpreting the data calculation, using symbols and colours from work they did with Silvia earlier in the year
6. Layout the symbols on a circle of felt based on the digital visualisation we had created.

The activity reflected the interdisciplinary nature of the project to encourage cross-curriculum learning, working with maths, science, environment and art.

What worked best for me was the way the children worked together in groups, negotiated and led the process. We ended up having all 40 as the they didn’t have a teacher that day and set them up around the van to continue working on the maps as each new group did the introduction.

One of my favourite moments was when I was helping one girl cut leaves out (for the light map), she was watching me to copy what I was doing and I asked her in my terrible Portuguese what size to make it and that it was what she wanted not how I wanted it to be (which involves strange noises, pointing and waving, some Spanish, French and an occasional word of the actual language – which the children found hilarious). She gave me a massive smile and explained how she wanted it to look and said she really liked the leaf I had made with real pride. Another great moment was when some of the other children came up and asked me what the sensor kit in the tree was. I said I was an English artist working in the school but I couldn’t speak Portuguese and some of the children we were working with rushed to explain the whole process to them with incredible enthusiasm, pointing out the visualisation.
Silvia said that some of the other children asked her what was happening and she said that the tree was talking to a tree in England, they all laughed at her so she asked our group if she was telling the truth and they all very seriously nodded their heads and said yes of course with total conviction in the concepts of the project.

After we finished we were completely exhausted, we returned to the flat and I spent a lovely couple of hours in the hammock reading whilst Silvia popped to her Dads house. I then began the laborious process of sticking the symbols to the maps.

hammock with a view

A wonderful meal across from Copacabana beach with Silvia and her mum, with the smell and sounds of the Atlantic Ocean (with the UK just across the water – and up a bit). Going to Copacabana and Ipanema makes me want to pinch myself, the names evoke such a Hollywood image of fantasy tropical world, I can’t believe I am here and working with such a wonderful project such as EME.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Felt dust and forests


I didn’t manage to blog yesterday as it was a really long day. Fantastic but packed full.

Morning we went searching for felt for the workshops. Visited Gentil Carioca, an independent gallery where Silvia showed her first set of work with EME. A lovely gallery, we went behind the scenes to see the amazing toilet that is an artwork and had a quick expresso with Incio who works there.

Gentil Carioca Gallery

Got the bus to the botanical gardens to meet Bruno and popped into the school so I got an idea about what it was like. So many conversations about British / Brazilian education our experiences with the schools exchange.

Silvia took me on a walk through the botanical gardens showing me the places they took the children and what they did. Stopped for a drink at the cafe to wait for Bruno - my first Pao de Queijo of the trip (bread cheese) and Gaurana.

Had an amazing couple of hours with Bruno and Silvia at the stunning Parque Largo (the art school below the hill with christ on the top). Talked about science, astronomy, he showed us the amazing work he has been doing since last year building a botanical sculpture to regenerate the land (which was once Mata Atlantica) as a kind of surreal second nature.

The school workshop

Today was a 5.30am start to get to the school for 7am. Here the children have morning school or afternoon school and 40 children in a class. We worked with 80 children in 5 hours but in the most peaceful stress free way. Groups of 6-8 children came to our mobile studio in the van and on stools made by Silvia outside in the playground. We introduced the project to the groups we hadn’t worked with before and showed the work from Djanogly to the group who Silvia had worked with earlier in the year.

We did the human sensor activity with the children also using the sensor kits to compare their perception of the forest with the science.

Returned home to cut felt. Felt dust in my mouth. Beautiful circles of coloured felt and symbols to build the visualisation from the human data collected by the children to create a picture of their experience of the forest on the edge of their school.

Didn’t see any monkeys though.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Preparing to go on board the van

The first day was a research day, preparing for the schools workshops.

I am going to the school that we worked with on the Dark Forest project on Thursday and meeting the young people that Matt and I worked with remotely and through the exchange with Djanogly School in Nottingham. It will be wonderful to finally meet them and the teachers and follow on from the beautitful work that Silvia and Alissa did with the group (see the School’s section)

We have planned to run some sessions that introduces them to the next phase of the project - ‘A Conversation Between Trees’, present the work that Matt and I did with Djanogly in Sherwood Forest and then run an activity from the van in the school playground.

Using eco felt (a sustainable felt material) we will create a visualisation based on the human sensor activity we did at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The young people will collect the data from standing under a tree in their playground (that is surrounded by the forest) and use the data to build an evolving data map made of felt objects. This data map will reflect how they perceive the forest in their playground on that day. It will be like a large fuzzy felt that can be remade and reformed by the group on different days, a way to visualise their perception of the environmental data we are collecting from the forest - based on the data groups they worked with earlier in the year (temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, decibels and light). It is attempt to introduce to the young people the creative process of building a visualisation of scientific data based on their own perceptions of the world. The final artwork they generate together will then work in contrast to the visualisation we have generated digitally using the scientific data. The process will be filmed and recorded as a time lapse animation - as a performance of nature by the children - to investigate the forest environment around their playground.

We are using felt as it is a thermal material, it reminds me of the fuzzy felt toy from when I was a child where you created landscapes by placing different people, trees etc… on a felt board. It comes in bright colours and will be movable using velcro, creating a physical manifestation of the digital visualisation we have created. This morning we are off to buy the felt and later we will create the symbols for each dataset (based on the drawings the group did earlier in the year) for the group to use to build the visualisation.

The visualisation will then travel with us along our journey inside the van - so that we can present the work of the young people to the people we meet along the way and will be presented back to the school on our return.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Second Week

Back at Longside today.

20 people

Human sensors, asking people to note down the temperature, humidity, atmostpheric pressure and decibels around an oak tree.

Making a stop motion animation based on the data collected from the visitors.

Live data projected from the oak tree. The projection worked really well and looks very interesting when it is changeable weather, it was one of those sunshine and shower days, but with real horizontal rain and wind and then suddenly sunshine and blue skys. At one point the visualisation turned yellow with the sunshine, we’d not seen that before. The temperature as the rain came dropped by the minute and the humidity rose to 99 percent (although we wondered if that was caused by a build up or rain on the sensor).

The activities seemed to work quite well and the animation is building up slowly.

Our ideas are also solidifying. We still have a big gap between the visualisation and the concepts for a physical sculpture, being pulled between the ability to create a dynamic augmented reality on screen and being tied to a physical space when you create a sculptural experience, we’d like to make the augmented space physical… which we did with Chemical Garden, but I am still unsure what materials would create the ethereal experience that the projection is creating.

Have been looking into CO2 as a solid substance and would like to create a tree out of it but it is lethal, can cause frostbite if you touch it and asphysixation in large quantities, sounds worse than the ammonia we used in Chemical Garden to create the salt crystal trees… I like it.

But not for this, I think this is likely to be mechanics and light, but we are thinking this work will evolve and different outcomes, at the tree (the sensors and speakers that enable you to hear a tree in another location), in the forest (tracking your journey through the forest), in the gallery (visualising and interpreting the data as a sculpture).

Our goal for the weekend is to redo the visualisation so that the parameters are more meaningful, to enable people to ‘decode’ the effect of the data on the image and also to enable people standing in front of the visualisation to interact with it.

We will do some tests with audio to see how we can capture audio from the tree and what kind of sounds we can capture.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Going Into the Second Week

Tomorrow we will return to YSP, had a weekend off-ish.

The last 2 days of last week, went well. We had 20 people on Thursday and 32 on Friday. The activities got some really interesting results and some great feedback. The thing that most stood out was a Forester who visited who spoke about the language we were creating through the visualisation of data and said he wanted to be able decode, or understand what the sensor kit was telling us about the tree. Like Carlo, when he saw the visualisations between Sherwood and the Mata Atlantica he said he could tell the health of the tree by the colour, light and it would be great to be able to read the other information too.

This led us to develop an exercise using our bodies as human sensors to decide how we see and percieve the atmosphere, based on our experience or points of reference. We will upload these to the map of the park tomorrow. When doing this exercise another visitor who was a nurse began to talk about some work she had done with patients perception of symptoms and the difference between what they percieve and what they could reveal through medical science. This was really interesting in terms of what we are trying to ‘interpret’ through the artwork as opposed to simply revealing the scientific data… also reflects back to our previous work Heartlands. In a way this project is the opposite of Heartlands, instead of revealing the invisible inner process as we walk through a landscape we are hoping to reveal the invisible external process and our affect as we walk through a landscape.

Next week will be less reflective and more ‘active’. We will start playing with materials, designs, audio, the data…

Day 2

Documentation of the day…

16 visitors

Narratives and Tree Stories themes
6 stories added
The morning involved discussions around narrative and the external experience.
Walked to the oak and birch woodland area near Longside Studio.
Talked about tracking visitors journeys in the forest area, GPS, audio or not, visual or not.
I had an idea about using a phone around your neck to track your journey, light and colour, sound and GPS, to give you audio feedback based on the data from the trees, where you are (shade or open sky) and how close you get to the trees with the sensors on. Using the technology to create a communication between your sensor data and the trees.

Talked about narratives informing the work. Linear narratives such as stories about trees, wrote stories about tree memories and asked members of the public to tell us or write their stories and added them to the wall.

Stories felt too linear and didn’t really answer our questions about the ‘experience’ but maybe could inform an audio trail. Not abstract enough, but maybe this is something you can whisper into the tree, a memory of a tree from a time gone by?

Was told that the work had charmed one man and had a discussion about the performance of us as artists presenting the ideas of the work, he was very interested in this as an experience rather than just looking at an artwork.

Some of the stories were about smell, particularly interesting when talking about memory.
One couple sat for some time and wrote their stories for us.