Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Making the insubstantial substantial

This weekend I went through my MA research in search of Penny Dransart's incomparable work on Andean camelid herding, and got distracted by my books on ancient Peruvian textiles. Most often made with alpaca wool, their weaving techniques were incredibly sophisticated, and I've never seen their match.

Now imagine the awe a textile geek like me experienced this morning when I saw the cloth pictured above. I didn't even know weaving like this was possible, and curators know of only one other textile of its kind, which was exhibited in 1900 and subsequently lost. So what makes it so impressive? It's made entirely of spider silk!

Made in Madagascar from the silk of more than one million female golden orb spiders, it took almost one hundred people four years to produce—and yes, that is its natural colour. (Stunning!)

"The task of silking a spider starts with a small machine — designed centuries ago when the first attempts to silk spiders were begun — that holds the spider down. 'The spiders are harnessed ... held down in a delicate way,' Godley says, 'so you need people to do this who are very tactile so the spiders are not harmed. So there's a chain of about 80 people who go out every morning at four o'clock, collect spiders, we get them in by 10 o'clock. They're in boxes, they're numbered, and then as they get silked, about 20 minutes later, they get released back into nature'."

"Peers picks up the thread of the story. 'It's called dragline silk,' he says. 'A spider can produce up to seven different types of silk. The dragline is what frames the web; it's the thicker silk on the outside. Also, it's extremely strong. The first panel that we wove, we were quite stunned by the fact that it sounded a bit like guitar strings, pinging like metallic guitar strings. I mean, it is a very, very unusual material.' A very careful person simply pulls the thread out of each spider and wraps it on a spindle. It's then put on a hand loom and woven. The main threads consist of 96 twisted silk lines. The brocaded patterns in the tapestry — stylized birds and flowers — are woven with threads made up of 960 spider silk lines. Peers says they never broke a single strand, yet the tapestry is as soft as cashmere."

"This intricately-patterned spider silk features stylized birds and flowers and is based on a weaving tradition known as lamba Akotifahana from the highlands of Madagascar, an art reserved for the royal and upper classes of the Merina people (who are concentrated in the Central highlands). Silkworm silk has been used for a long period in Madagascar, however, there is no tradition of weaving spider silk in Madagascar."

The textile is currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. There's also a short video about it at the link above, worth watching if only to hear about how sticky the material feels. Cool.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Towards Rural Computing and the Internet of Companion Species

After spending seemingly endless years researching and writing a dissertation, I don't think it's unusual to want to get as far away from the topic as possible. So I'll be the first to admit that this time last year I didn't want to hear the phrase "urban computing" ever again, and if anyone asked, I said that I was more interested in rural computing.

Sheep Crossing by Dana Spencer

At the time, the imperative to get on with urban computing was bound to people quoting that well-known and UN-endorsed statistic about half the world's population becoming urban. (If only people showed that kind of interest in, and commitment to, issues that affect women—also half the world's population!)

So when I read Russell Davies' recent post on what he's called "ruricomp," I perked up. In fact, I even made a little cheering sound when I read this bit:

"Half of us - an entire half - still don't live in cities. This may be a shrinking proportion of the world but it's still a lot of people, and (apart from some privileged bits of the West) it's the poorest, less mobile, less educated proportion. Most people are moving to cities to escape poverty, surely the people left behind merit some attention."

Yes! As I've said many times, who and what get excluded from design visions are just as interesting and important as what and who are included. Western philosophers have long held that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest or least fortunate members (in other words, who we ignore or abandon) and contemporary notions of cultural citizenship rely precisely on how well we interact with people who are different from us.

During my doctoral defense, the examiners were quite concerned about a design imperative that, at worst, seemed to condemn rural spaces and people to irrelevance and, at best, reinforce some of the current divides that actually serve to disadvantage both "sides." I found myself ill-equipped (and unwilling) to provide an argument in favour of predominantly urban, or even exurban, computing. And I began to think more seriously about what might constitute non-urban or rural computing.

Those who know me know how much I love animals, and so it won't come as a surprise that when I think of rural life I think about all the animals. More specifically though, I think of where the Internet of Things might meet Donna Haraway's notion of companion species. How are we all connected? What do we make (of) each other?

I was doing research on farming and country life in New Zealand, the crises currently facing the wool industry, and how Icebreaker has been so successful in marketing their merino products by tracking their wool back to individual farms through their wonderful baacode service.

We know that RFID is widely used in livestock management, but that's not what Icebreaker is working with. So what if they were? And what else could we come up with if we started doing new technology design research in more rural contexts? What new relationships and opportunities would we discover?

While my first reaction to Icebreaker's current catalogue cover was "Oh Hell, No!" it's basically the same statement that led me to my new research project, Counting Sheep.

I'm interested in better understanding how the Internet of Things relates to agricultural production, and some of my first fieldwork will tackle wool-related cultural industries like the Golden Shears shearing and wool handling championships in Masterton. Next year marks the 50th anniversary, so I'll be in full ethnographer mode for the early March events, and again at the amazing Running of the Sheep event in Te Kuiti, in April.

I'm not sure what kinds of connections between sociality, spatiality and materiality I'll find, but I come from a country that has a strong rural constituency and I'm going to another, so I think it's high time to see if Russell is right:

"[M]aybe we could think about network technologies as a way to reintegrate rural and urban rather than accelerate the dominance of one over the other ... If we can stop the countryside becoming a Cursed Earth, we might not need a Mega-City."

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Visualisation, materialisation and affect

This is Luke Jerram's glass sculpture of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus, from his gorgeous Glass Microbiology series, which includes E. coli, SARS, smallpox and HIV (in order, below).
"These transparent glass sculptures were created to contemplate the global impact of each disease and to consider how the artificial colouring of scientific imagery affects our understanding of phenomena. Jerram is exploring the tension between the artworks' beauty and what they represent, their impact on humanity."

"The question of pseudo-colouring in biomedicine and its use for science communicative purposes, is a vast and complex subject. If some images are coloured for scientific purposes, and others  altered simply for aesthetic reasons, how can a viewer tell the difference? How many people believe viruses are brightly coloured? Are there any colour conventions and what kind of ‘presence’ do pseudocoloured images have that ‘naturally’ coloured specimens don’t? How does the choice of different colours affect their reception?"

"In response to these questions, Jerram has created a series of transparent, three dimensional sculptures. Photographs of these artworks will be distributed to act as alternative representations of each virus."

"The sculptures were designed in consultation with virologists from the University of Bristol using a combination of different scientific photographs and models. They were made in collaboration with glassblowers Kim George, Brian Jones and Norman Veitch."

This is a video of glass blower Kim George, working on Jerram's HIV virus design. Choosing glass as his sculptural material is really interesting, not least because it's difficult to work with:
"I'm also pushing the boundaries of glassblowing. Some of my designs simply can't be created in glass, Some are simply too fragile and gravity would cause them to collapse under their own weight. So there's a very careful balancing act that needs to take place, between the limitations of current scientific knowledge and glassblowing techniques."
But the translucency of glass is also important: first, because the actual viruses are transparent organisms, and second, Jerram is colour-blind so he has a different, even idiosyncratic, relationship to colourised representations, and this impacts the way he works.

But the matter of authenticity, or authentic representation, is quite complex in this case. While his sculptures may be "truer" representations precisely because they are not coloured, they are even more distanced or abstracted from the "original" viruses in the sense that his designs are based on other pictures and models. Nonetheless, in the Guardian article on Jerram's work, it's suggested that the clear glass sculptures look "less threatening than popular scientific imagery would have us believe" and this gets straight to the question of affect.

A quick Google image search yielded these two representations of the HIV virus. While the basic shape is similar, the different colours and textures suggest slightly different—if equally vivid—organisms. I'm not sure I find either one particularly "threatening," but the one on the right is a bit creepier because it seems to have little hairs or tentacles (which, obviously, creep me out).

But back to the matter of colour. The top image is one of Jerram's HIV sculptures and the one underneath it is David Sayer's coloured photograph of another one. While both objects are effectively the same, the artificially coloured one appears more dramatic—which must surely be part of the reason the photo received an award from the Institute of Medical Imaging in 2007. But drama (or fear) is not the only way to move people, and isn't beauty really just the ability to move and be moved?

For example, Jerram posts a letter he received from a stranger:
Dear Luke,
I just saw a photo of your glass sculpture of HIV.
I can't stop looking at it. Knowing that millions of those guys are in me, and will be a part of me for the rest of my life. Your sculpture, even as a photo, has made HIV much more real for me than any photo or illustration I've ever seen. It's a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful.

This person was clearly affected by Jerram's sculpture, and did not find it easy to resolve the emotional conflict arising from seeing some sort of beauty in his/her killer. And I wonder, was this affect/effect easier or harder to come by without colour?

But I also wonder if we're just more effectively convinced by three-dimensional material objects? This becomes particularly interesting in the area of (scientific) data visualisation, which quite simply is not data materialisation. I've written many times on the importance of objects in social interaction, and Jerram's sculptures bring to mind Elias Canetti's crowds—but those are connections which I'll have to flesh out another time.

Lucky London-based folks have the opportunity to see all of Luke Jerram's virology sculptures at The Smithfield Gallery from 22 September to 3 October, 2009 and his H1N1 sculpture was recently acquired for the Wellcome Collection.


Update 16/09/09: I can't believe I forgot about GIANTmicrobes - here are the plush versions of E.coli, H1N1 & HIV. Talk about different affective potential!

Update 12/10/09: My favourite science mag, Seed, has a short article on Jerram's work and his focus on "the animation of otherwise hidden phenomenon." David Ng also chimes in with some thoughts on the "complicated relationship between science and art" - something that might be of particular interest to designers making "conceptual" pieces and the challenge of answering the more empirical or technical concerns of scientists and engineers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Textiles, patterns and bodies

A few years ago, at a wearable technologies conference, I gave a talk on seams and scars (pdf). It's not a great paper, but I always liked how it connects textiles, bodies and patterns to ask questions about time, beauty and goodness (i.e aesthetics and ethics).

When I was checking out the Central Saint Martins MA Design for Textile Futures programme's 2009 degree show this morning, I also saw some photos from the Fine Art - Byam Shaw degree show. It's a shame they posted photos without any descriptions or attributions, but I was really taken by this embroidered (christening? funeral?) gown:

It seems so creepy-but-pretty, like a body inside-out, a cadaver, or an old anatomical model. (That last link via the always-awesome Morbid Anatomy blog, which reminded me to also hunt down a link to Bioephemera: Art + Biology.)

On a related note, I also recently learned about Ninette van Kamp's Souffrez Pour Moi project:

"Van Kamp's pieces use artfully placed seams, beads, and textured fabric to create intimate, temporary patterns in the skin. Using luxury fabrics and materials these special jewel-encrusted undergarments explore how beauty and suffering are subtly intertwined."

I really like patterns on the skin and these temporary ones are quite lovely. Much more appealing than the pillowcase creases I find on my face most mornings, these designs remind me of dermographia, a skin condition that allows for incredibly beautiful patterns to be etched onto the skin—just check out excalipoor's arm or Ariana Page Russell's skin one and skin two series:


While it's clear that the human body is inscribed both metaphorically and physically every day, it doesn't seem difficult to further treat the body (or skin) as a canvas or living textile. In addition to a very long cross-cultural history of tattoos, branding and scarification, notable artistic explorations include Shelley Jackson's SKIN project, "a story published on the skin of 2095 volunteers," well-known examples of body painting like Veruschka's modelling work in the 1960s and Greenaway's 1996 film The Pillow Book, and the more mundane expressions collected in the Words on Skin Flickr group.

Ultimately, I think this is all interesting because it gets me back to concerns about how people and things are made. What do we flaunt, and what do we hide? What do these choices say about what we value?

Monday, September 14, 2009

PLSJ resurrected

After more than a year since my last post, I've decided to pick up blogging again. (Yay!) But before I really get into it, I have some news to share.

In November I take up a new permanent position as Senior Lecturer in Design Research at the School of Design, Victoria University of Wellington. Besides being super excited about moving to New Zealand, I'm proud to be joining such impressive colleagues and students doing world-class design.

I'm looking forward to my first year of teaching in the new Culture+Context specialisation programme—which means developing courses in design+culture and design anthropology, as well as co-teaching a design research class. I'm also really looking forward to growing the Design Culture Laboratory and getting started on my new research project, Counting Sheep: Using RFID to Explore NZ Wool Industries.

One of the things that got me most excited about this job is the incredible—and I should add unique—opportunity I'm being given to truly unite my studies in sociology, archaeology and anthropology. I'm looking forward to working with historical and emerging material cultures in terms of situated and embodied practices, and really thinking, doing and making stuff on an everyday basis.

On a related note, I have to thank Timo Arnall for giving me the opportunity to start making these connections while working on the Touch project. Earlier this year I completed re/touch, a website that "brings together hundreds of cross-cultural examples of social norms and values involving touch to help designers and researchers create design briefs, refine interaction scenarios, define game play or otherwise get inspired to think, make and do things touch-related." The Oslo super-team designed an interactive exhibition for re/touch that showed at Nordes 09 a couple of weeks ago, so keep an eye on the project blog for more on that. And more later on my current work, which involves a material culture analysis of the project's RFID objects collection.

In other news, I've also expanded my duties with the Space and Culture journal, where I now serve as Web and Book Review Editor. That means I've really got to up my game at the space and culture blog, and I'll be looking for people interested in reviewing books for us. (Hint, hint, free books!)

And last, but not least, I've actually started writing and publishing stuff again. Teaching six classes last year made it difficult, but I've got an article called “Locating Media Futures in the Present, or How to Map Emergent Associations and Expectations" coming out in Aether: The Journal of Media Geography, as well as a chapter on "The Affective Politics of Urban Computing and Locative Media" in Throughout: Art and Culture Emerging with Ubiquitous Computing, Ulrik Ekman's awesome edited volume for MIT Press. I've even got a couple more articles under review, which should finally take care of all my dissertation-related research. Of course, I'll post copies of everything here as soon as I can.

So. That's more than enough for now. I've got loads of stuff to do, but I'll be back soon!

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