A Pervasive Media Studio Lunchtime Talk write-up

On 19 December, I popped back into the PM Studio to see Davy & Kristin McGuire, Sarah EllisMatt Hayler and Karin Brown, give a Lunchtime Talk about their REACT Prototype funded project, Theatre Book.

Theatre Book turns a book into an intimate cinematic experience by combining a pop-up format with pico projection. It’s perfectly pint-sized Shakespeare with all the delicacy of the text and all the drama of the stage production.

The project is a collaboration between the RSC, Davy & Kristin McGuire, who head an award-winning creative studio that design unique visual experiences through art installations and theatrical projects, Karin Brown of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute and Matt Hayler, a lecturer in post-1945 literature at the University of Birmingham who studies the relationship between technology, embodiment and reading.

Sarah Ellis from the RSC approached Kristin and Davy about the possibility of creating an intimate experience of Shakespeare, one that drew on the increasing affordances of small, affordable tech.

At the beginning of the talk, the team squeezed the audience into the Studio’s meeting room, dimmed the lights and set about providing us with a pretty magical look at their prototype. We were treated to Macbeth in 6 scenes, each a beautifully lit projected vignette that skilfully presented us with a coherent story told in a captivating visual style.

We oohed and aahed throughout. We collectively booed when someone’s mobile went off in the group; such was our disdain for the interruption. For the fifteen minutes or so that we spent with Theatre Book, it was clear just how wide the appeal of this format was.

As Matt Hayler put it ‘At a time when we’re worrying again, like Thoreau, about becoming tools of our tools, about giving in to our technologies, the McGuires remind us that we can make any technology beautiful if we look at and act with it in the right way.’ (Matt has written up his section of the talk here)

One of the biggest challenges the project faced lay in telling Macbeth in 6 scenes without dialogue. Kristin and Davy worked with Karin, who acted as dramaturge, helping them to carefully choose the scenes and ensure that the use of symbols was considered.

Following on from the initial prototyping funding received from REACT, the team are now thinking about whether they should develop a model that they could sell, tour or use in exhibitions. In the future there is the possibility to extend the applications of the book as the tech becomes robust enough to be easily reprogrammable, and of course it would be really interesting to work with students – how do you write for this kind of thing?

Much has been written about the changes to the way we read and consume the written word. Now Theatre Book presents us with exciting possibilities for playwrights, theatre makers and audiences.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to guest programme the Pervasive Studio’s Friday Lunchtime Talk. Studio Resident Rosie Poebright kindly stepped up and shared some of the ideas behind the work of her company,  Splash & Ripple, who’s mission is to make beautiful, genuinely moving experiences that put the participants at the centre of the action. Here are some of the interesting insights shared at the talk.

It’s easy to scare people.  Having worked on some very successful games that tapped into people’s fears, Rosie was looking for a new challenge and a new way of telling emotionally resonating stories. It was for these reasons she began exploring empathy…

We’re hard-wired for empathy. A 2010 study found that the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves at the top of the spinal cord, plays a central role in humans’ tendencies towards kindness compassion. This nerve also activates many of the central organs of our body including the heart, lungs, liver, and the digestive organs.

The fact this nerve controls such basal systems as well as our ability to feel compassion has been used to suggest that empathy might be considered part of a set of hard-wired evolutionary responses.

Or in more simple terms, our capacity for compassion is part of a set of basic human functions. Now, I’ll concede that’s not all that revolutionary, but stay with me…

How can empathy make us better storytellers? Can we harness such responses to better tell stories, to uncover histories, and to breath life into buildings who‘s vibrant communities have long since been eclipsed by dry information panels and somewhat turgid audio tours? Splash & Ripple certainly think so.

We live in a distracted and interrupted world. Screens, notifications, and reminders jump at us from all directions. Now imagine there is a castle, and you have been asked to tell the story of that castle. How might you do it? If you’re doing it in person, you can use a range of basic tools to convey a story, for example you might alter your tone and pace to reflect different events. But how do you connect with an audience without having such direct contact?

This was the challenge Splash & Ripple faced when the National Trust approached them about creating a work for Bodiam Castle in East Sussex.

‘If you give someone a hammer, everything looks like a nail…’ Abraham Maslow
When faced with a familiar tool, whether it’s a hammer or an iPhone, we are conditioned to use it in a particular way. For this reason, Splash & Ripple believe that creating a tablet or smartphone based experience would have completely missed the point, and distracted visitors from the castle itself.

The result was A Knight’s Peril – an interactive fictional narrative informed by academic research. It makes use of cutting edge hardware and interactive software that responds to choices made by visitors, activating the appropriate audio scenes when touched to special seals hidden around the castle. All of the technology is hidden inside a convincing medieval artifact – an Echo-Horn.

Empathy can wake people up. When asked what inspired her to explore this form of storytelling, Rosie responded that her interest is in creating spaces for people to think actively and collectively: ‘You’re not throwing opinions at people, but putting them into a difficult situation, where they really have to weigh up outcomes and pay attention to how they feel. Each audience member should feel like they are a key protagonist in the story.’

Now I’d take an extraordinary adventure like that over a leaflet and an audio tour any day, and it should come as no surprise that Splash & Ripple describe themselves ‘Architects of Extraordinary Adventures.’

If you’d like to embark on A Knight’s Peril for yourself, you can find out more on the National Trust website.


Rapid fire idea generation.

I’ve been busy programming and preparing to deliver Watershed’s Future Producer programme. Below I reflect on the first weekend long intensive workshop with the cohort.

Day One: Sculpting in Jelly

The day began with an introduction to the programme and an icebreaker challenge that saw the cohort compete to build towers from marshmallows and spaghetti. With great feats of confectionary engineering accomplished, the group met their first speaker.

Sarah Ellis, from the Royal Shakespeare Company, spoke about the role of the producer. Her candid description of the role as one where you need to ‘be able to do everything and one specific thing in detail – all at the same time’ was a great way to get the group thinking about the range of skills a producer needs to hone in order to hold a project together.  Her advice centred on self-awareness, knowing when to draw on the skills of others and when you are the best person to lead.

These reflective skills are built into the Future Producers’ programme throughout its delivery and having an inspiring speaker outline the importance of working in this way at the start of the programme sets the tone. The group will be collaborating on live briefs that will be delivered at Watershed this autumn.

The session also touched on the importance of considering different audiences. Taking the RSC’s work with Google+ on Midsummer Night’s Dreaming as a case study. Sarah explained that the project aimed to explore the way in which the RSC could use technology in order to interact with their audiences more playfully. This involved creating vast amounts of online content in the form of Hangouts, video, text, gifs, photos, soundcloud, maps and animation. The result of this was that the content opened up the RSC to new audiences, but it also enable the RSC’s core audience to go on a journey with them if the chose to. But doing things that your audience doesn’t expect can be difficult, and this was returned to in detail in the Q&A session after Sarah’s presentation.

Idea generation during the afternoon workshop.

Group work in the afternoon.

The afternoon workshop, led by Tom Metcalfe, was designed to get the group generating ideas, identifying where they could collaborate and think iteratively. Starting with a broad range of programming theme each working group generated 100 ideas in 30 minutes and then took one of these ideas through to prototyping. If that wasn’t challenging enough once they had settled on one idea the groups had to producer a short film using the app Vine to demonstrate the idea to the rest of the group.  It was a tough exercise but one that we felt worked really well. Having to produce something tangible in a short space of time forces people to work together and clear group dynamics start to emerge. To have to negotiate an idea and its presentation to an audience of their peers is a great accomplishment to end the first end.

Whilst producing can be extremely challenging but it can be equally rewarding. Sarah described the process as one that ‘can be a bit like sculpting in jelly’.  Today has left the Watershed team convinced that whatever they sculpt, this year’s Future Producers are going to produce something pretty tasty.

Recently I had the pleasure to collaborate with digital communications teams from Arts Council England and the British Council, as part of the No Boundaries conference. This saw me support a team of young journalists and photographers who documented and responded to debates across the conference. The aim was to develop the participants’ understanding of the challenges facing the cultural sector, but to also provide a space for them to examine the questions being raised at the conference. It was also an opportunity to create a space in which everyone could ask questions about how we work with young people in order to learn from them and promote their voices. If you would like to read more about this project, please see my Arts Professional article.

Getting to grips with Arduino

Today was the start of Digital Producers Lab in the Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol. The programme is a collaboration between National Theatre Wales, Arts Council Wales and Watershed.

To start the day, Kate Tyndall began by describing the motivations behind her book, The Producers, Alchemists of the Impossible.  She described the role as one of taking an idea into the world to be experienced.A producer must be able to locate various values and promote the right one to the different audiences, be they funders, peers or the public. This requires the producer to draw on a range of people, creative and finance skills.

The latter loomed high on our cohort’s agendas. Anne Siegel from Ffotogallery discussed the gallery’s experience of Kickstarter. Whilst it is a more informal structure, the relationship with the funders still calls for a commitment to selling an idea. On the topic of regional funding there was a feeling that it is difficult to attract commercial partners for projects outside of large cities. It was felt that this might be countered by finding the appropriate values to promote when creating partnerships. Asking for help and using social media to do so was another approach to breaking through such barriers. Later in the week specific sessions will pick up on the issues of funding, so it was good to see these issues arising early.

Next, artist Nikki Pugh introduced her own work as a meeting of place, playfulness and technology. In her practice Nikki explores the behaviours and barriers inherent in public space and challenges these by prompting conversations. Over the week, the group will be constructing instruments with Arduinos in order to form a GPS orchestra. For all of them this is their first experience of using these microcontrollers. Thankfully they have Nikki and Creative Technologist David Heylock on hand to help them work towards their performance on Friday.

Today’s tuition began with a rundown of Arduino, breadboards and resistors. Flashbacks to GCSE Physics abound, Nikki soon had them on the right path. In the space of an hour the group had built circuits, had LED’s flashing and fading, and some even started editing the code to get different effects.

Clare Reddington finished the day by talking about digital trends. This covered real world gaming, the Internet of Things, mapped projections, new routes for distribution and much more besides. Focusing on how this technology can be used to augment human experience rather than fed into a service economy underscored the growing relevance of the Digital Producer in the cultural landscape.


This post, along with one summarising each day of the Digital Producers Lab, can be found on National Theatre Wales’ Community


Jordi Ruiz Cirera, Margarita Teichroeb from the series Menonos, 2011

Ask ‘What is captured in a portrait?’ and more questions arise thick and fast. Successful portraits, if one believes Henri
Matisse, are contingent ‘on the projection of the feeling of the artist in relation to his model rather than in organic accuracy’.¹ What does ‘accuracy’ mean when a portrait is photographic?

These days to put faith in the photograph as a truthful document seems more than a little archaic.  We accept that images are not factual records, but what about the potential of a photographic portrait to communicate a feeling or emotion? Can we take something of the person’s personality from an image? Surely that’s open to subterfuge too? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s failed search for a photograph of his mother: ‘I never recognised her except in fragments.’²

I hated having my picture taken for years. In writing these notes it occurred to me that this was partly because I never really recognised myself in photos. The moment always seemed as if it had been caught and mangled by its record. Portraiture offers only an impression – regardless of whether the likeness is moulded in clay, paint, silver nitrate or, as is more likely the case today, in pixels.

This sense of impression often remakes us as characters or charactertures. At the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize,  figures turn and look out from the devices used to frame them. Trapped – viewing and being viewed – an exchange which has been, and continues to be, much commented on, and I see little to be gained from adding to those debates, except to ask: in theorising this experience what is lost? What escapes if, as I suspect, the act of responding to images in a binary form of language constitutes an act of elision?



Antonie de Ras, Displaced Migrant Worker From Libya #1 from the series Trapped in Transit, 2011

As part of an art historical education one learns to apply constructs and divides such as gender, class, race, and sexuality as cartographic techniques. And though I would not disagree that the production of these maps is important, the acts of layering them upon one another and stealing from other disciplines in order to reveal new territories for discourse is more productive. From this we may venture into terra incognita.

Portraits intervene in the categories that bind and separate people.  These categories, which constantly renew and reform, are our evolving territory. Trapped as we are in our boxes of skin and flesh, we view in relation to ourselves first. Perhaps, because of that, we are ‘boxes of deceit’ – a term artist Gustave Metzger directed at the museum, but I apply it here because I find myself wondering to what degree each of us are comprised of selves displayed and stored; lives lost and won.³ I cannot suggest how one might attempt to capture that in a portrait, but many of the entrants in the prize have succeeded in doing exactly that.


The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, on tour from the National Portrait Gallery, will be on display at M Shed, Bristol until November.

[1] Cited by John Klein, Matisse Portraits, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 26.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucia: Reflections on Photography, (London: Random House, 1993), p.107.

[3] Metzger, Gustav ‘Manifesto World’ (1962) in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings ed. Stiles, Kristine and Selz, Peter (LA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 403.


Gustave Courbet, The Mill at Orbe, 1875, oil on canvas, 49.6 x 60cm, purchased with funds from the James Pyke Thompson bequest, 1912 (NMW A 2446)

Due to his involvement with the failed civilian uprising of 1871, more commonly known as the Paris Commune, the painter Gustave Courbet was arrested and imprisoned. Following his arrest and subsequent exile to Switzerland, his work remained popular but was boycotted by the French State until his death in 1877. The artist Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, in his role as a judge for the 1872 Salon, announced that ‘Courbet must be excluded from the Salons, henceforth; he must be dead to us.‘¹ Yet the controversy did not hamper Courbet’s ability to sell on the private market. Despite Courbet’s inability to sell at the Salon, the popularity of landscapes with the clients of private dealers led to his increasing dependence on the genre after 1873. Unable to keep up with demand for his work he turned to collaborators.

In 1875 the newly established Republican government charged Courbet with the cost of rebuilding the Vendôme column. Unable to meet these costs Courbet fled to Switzerland. He was joined by Cherubino Pata, who by this time had been assisting Courbet with the production of his works for several years. In exile his escalating alcohol problem, failing health, and looming debts meant it became necessary for several assistants to produce works in the artist’s style. Courbet would then only need to tweak and sign the paintings. As a result, Courbet’s late paintings are plagued by issues of attribution and The Mill at Orbe, in the collection at Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, is no exception.

Several other factors exacerbate attribution of Courbet’s late works. It is difficult to establish a sense of stylistic evolution as he erratically changed how he painted. These changes are so pronounced that there is almost a sense that he painted differently depending on his mood, health, and sobriety. As his health declined, Pata took over the studio supervising copyists and arranging sales. Pata also continued to produce forgeries. In contrast with Courbet’s own work, two particular weaknesses in Pata’s painting style have been identified; these are his muddied grey tones and heavy-handed application of paint. These two issues are certainly present in The Mill at Orbe and this support the doubts over the painting’s authenticity. Yet the painting requires further study before one can pass a conclusive judgement on its attribution.

Courbet was certainly not alone in his deceit. There is a joke within the art history community that illustrates the issue, it goes something like this:  ‘Of the 1500 paintings by Courbet, 3000 are in the United States’. Not exactly side-splitting, I know. But it’s important to have a little perspective when it comes to art historical humour… I’ll stop now. It is not uncommon to find the joke’s figures altered and Jean-Baptiste-Camille. As with Courbet, it appears that Corot knowingly put his name to the work of others.  He is know to have signed the works of financially desperate artists – an act of charity that ensured them a quick sale.²

Screen shot 2013-07-29 at 20.18.55

Manner of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, A Lake at Sunset, oil on canvas, 22.6 x 34.9cm, bequeathed by Gwendoline Davies, 1951 (NMW A 3494)

In spite of their authorship these works still serve to deepen our understanding of their social and political situation. Furthermore, our attitude to fakes and forgeries today is particularly interesting and reveals how we as a society have continued to define and value creative genius – despite the fact that these issues appear to be less of a concern for some of the artists who colluded in the process.

¹ Avis Berman, ‘Larger than Life’, Smithsonian Magazine (2008) <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/larger-than-life.html?c=y&page=3>

² Gary Tinterow and others, Corot (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996), p. 389.

The Vatican Secret Archives

The Vatican Secret Archives. Photo credit: VdH Books

The title of this post is a question I was asked recently. I was being asked about archival research and the possibility of running into a dead end. Ever the tenacious and adaptable researcher I responded that silence can be as pedagogical as text and image, and one should simply ask whose silence it is; why it is that they are silent; whether are they being made to be silent, and by whom. The practice of history is shaped by such interventions.

We have been challenging master narratives for 30 years and yet there is still work to be done. What we archive (and how) is still significant but my interest is in what’s missing from the record or what has been destroyed. Granted these may not be the easiest materials to get to grips with but looking at what is omitted, brushed over or sidelined is a valuable practice – one which furthers academic and public understanding.

Perhaps the next question is an ethical one: at what cost does one make an interruption in silence?

For further reading on the disposal of archives, I would highly recommend Dr Costanza Caraffa on the photographic archives at Tate & the V&A.

Despite having written interpretation for a national museum and studied on a course which largely equated accessibility with interpretation (textual and otherwise), I made an effort to approach the newly hung Tate Britain with an open mind. It helped that at last year’s Association of Art Historian conference I attended the keynote speech delivered by Tate Britain’s Director, Penelope Curtis, in which the changes were discussed at length. So it is fair to say I had some idea as to what to expect but I was still unconvinced.

Labels have been reduced to tombstone information: artist, title, date and medium. Not all interpretation has been removed and anyone touting the idea that the new hang is interpretation free is wrong.  Key works (such as Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c. 1944) are still accompanied by text and further interpretation is supplied by AV terminals. Of course one argument against this form of cherry-picking is that it propagates a version of art history which is pliable to a museum’s agenda. It’s important to be aware of this but subscribing to such a view too forcefully might leave one largely ignorant of ongoing debates regarding the historiography of art history. These are discussions which began in the history discipline, and there is an increasing and wholly justified push to understand history, and the writing thereof, as a process of interpretation rather than the act of committing facts to paper in the name of posterity.

The Mud Bath (1914) by David Bomberg, one of t...

David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914.

What does this mean at Tate Britain? Well for a start chatter now fills the galleries. Instead of visitors engaged in solemn processions from work to work, an act characterised by a swift look at a painting followed by an extended glance at the text panel, I watched an elderly gentleman attempt to recreate the stance of a horse, overheard school pupils debate amongst themselves whether David Bomberg could have worked as a graphic designer (whilst stood in front of The Mud Bath, 1914) and witnessed many others discussing features of works with their companions. Playful, commercial, socio-political and formalist readings were not lacking. When more information was required I heard two separate parties seek out a member of staff. If staffing levels and training can be maintained and funded in line with demand, then I think that this direct dialogic approach is an excited one. Tate Britain has extended past facts and interpretation sanctioned by professionals; it now offers a creative exchange with its visitors – one that feels both dynamic and timely.


‘These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance….Here are images of flight, or ragged claws “scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear’ – Herbert Read

When I wasn’t stalking the galleries and eavesdropping on visitors there was the new hang to enjoy. When executed with sensitivity, the juxtaposition of works from different periods provokes enquiry and fosters thematic links across chronology. However Tate’s new chronological layout allows the climate of artistic production to surface without the need for tautological language. I found this most striking when confronted by a group of works from 1949 (pictured above). These works prefigure Herbert Read’s critique of the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale, in which he coined the term the ‘geometry of fear’. Granted my art history education provided this context for me but the works chosen to reflect the period visually resonate with bleak post-atomic uncertainty.


Background left: Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c. 1944. Near right: Henry Moore, Maquettes for Madonna and Child, 1943

Elsewhere contrast is used effectively to suggest context. Henry Moore’s Maquettes for Madonna and Child, 1943 are beside Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Such a placement articulates the idea that many different forms of artistic production occur simultaneously, and this serves to strengthen the idea that there are multiple modes of reception and consumption. photo

Eric Gill, Ecstasy, 1010-1911.

Eric Gill’s Ecstasy, 1010-1911 appears to need little interpretation. One struggles to think of a text that would not seem twee or, worse, rather dry. Just past Ecstasy were several Henri Gaudier-Brezska sculptures nestled around Jacob Epstein’s Female Figure in Flenite, 1913. Tate’s impressive collection of early twentieth-century direct carving benefits from being viewed en-masse. The chronological arrangement draws attention to the fact that this was a group of artists informed and influenced by each others’ work. My only bugbear were the perspex boxes which surrounded much of it. The terrible glare they inflicted interrupted the spatial qualities of the sculptures.

photo photo

Left: Henri Gaudier-Brezska, Singer, 1913.  Right: Jacob Epstein, Female Figure in Flenite, 1913

I left Tate Britain eager to see how the changes are managed long-term. I then made my way to ‘Bowie is…’ at the V&A. Upon entering the fittingly theatrical and elaborately staged exhibition the following quote greeted me:

All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the artist. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple meanings. David Bowie, 1995

Penelope Curtis certainly keeps good company.

Currently on show at Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery is a Hayward Touring exhibition which showcases the Art Council’s collection of Henry Moore.

Being that I am interested in the relationship between drawing and sculpture, I was immediately drawn to a series of sketches with titles that began ‘Ideas for Sculpture’. These reveal the influences that underwrite the primary motifs within Moore’s work. Pencil studies of conch shells betray Moore’s interest in interior and exterior forms. Ideas for Sculpture: The Transformation of Bones, 1932 rejects the properties of breast, flesh and femur. Irregular dots, nipples, attempt to add a spatial reference but the disorder is too complete.

Heavy set reclining figures, another defining feature of the artist oeuvre, remind one of the large scale works that dominate Moore’s post war production. But the more intimate scale of the works in this exhibition and the deft integration of works on paper are a reminder that the artist was certainly no slave to scale.

The exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery runs until 23rd June and is £3.50 well-invested.



Top: Exhibition view.
Bottom: Ideas for Sculpture: The Transformation of Bones, 1932


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