• "The lesson games have for design is not really a lesson about games at all. It’s a lesson about play. Play isn’t leisure or distraction or the opposite of work. Nor is it doing whatever you want. Play is the work of working something, of figuring out what it does and determining how to operate it. Like a woodworker works wood. By accepting the constraints of an object like a guitar (or like Tetris), the player can proceed to determine what new acts are possible with that object. The pleasure of play—the thing we call fun—is actually just the discovery of that novel action." Not just this quotation, but all of this article, really. So good. Immaterials, again.

I’m going to be speaking at LDNIA in August. The talk’s called The Material World, and is a prototype – or “radio edit”, if you like – of my forthcoming talk at Webdagene:

The modern designer works with more materials than ever before. Not just tangible materials, such as the web, or desktop software, or the smartphone; also, intangible ‘immaterials’ such as data, time, radio, and the network.

To design well with materials, be they tangible or not, we need to be conversant in them, acutely aware of their capabilities. How do we develop that familiarit?

Through a process of material exploration. Not just reading the documentation or making a few drawings – but feeling their grain under your fingernails. To understand the nature of materials, you can’t just look at them. You have to play with them. Tom will, through some of his own work, look at what materials are (and can be); the value of material exploration, and how to approach it; and the value of playing with materials – the value of toymaking.

Tickets are usually quite limited, but are available now. If you’re coming, it’ll be great to see you.

Cross-posted from my professional site.

  • "Distributed as a stripped down, customised GNU/Linux Operating System, the gallery merely needs to copy a single file onto a USB stick, plug it into a computer on site and boot it on the day of the opening. Remote Install then analyses its network context and the amount of space given to it – the free space on the USB stick. It then logs into the artist’s server and creates a file of random binary data to exactly fill this space and proceeds to download it over the course of the entire exhibition. An algorithm ensures the last byte is downloaded on the last second of the exhibition." Gosh. Still: that feels about as thorough as digital-art should be.
  • I won't do Timo a disservice by quoting one fragment of this essay; it's one of those lovely pieces of writing where not a word is wasted, where it all builds an argument, and you should just read the whole thing. Lots of topics I've been touching on in recent years, in part because of my time at Berg, and the designers who are my friends and peers. This is what needs to be beaten into the world, a little; the way to beat it in is to build it in, through our work and products. I should work on that more.
  • "In September and October I did a short pottery course at Brighton's Painting Pottery Cafe – six evenings, once a week." Rod has been potting, and this is a lovely piece of writing about materials, and how they feel in the hand. Also: I think Rod is probably better at this than I'd be.
  • "My interest in materials… is like my interest in tools. What can be made with this? What can this do that other materials cannot? Materials with special properties are cool because they can open new possibilities in manufacturing, design, or even behavior. Additionally, they’re such an amazing cultural artifact. Where and how something gets made says so much about us as people, as a species, even. In a beautiful fabric, the simplest thing can be magic."

Technology As A Material

22 August 2011

The following is an essay for the newspaper distributed to participants of Edgelands, a one-day ‘flash conference’ on technology and the arts, held in Edinburgh on 21st August 2011.

Hannah asked me to write something about technology for the arts sector, and I chose a slightly different take on the notion of ‘Technology as a Material’. I’ve written about material exploration of data before. This piece was intended as a broader, more high-level exploration of the topic for creators in the arts.

Much of the thinking in here – although shaped by my own experiences – began during my time at Berg, and I specifically wanted to thank my former colleagues for their many investigations into “Immaterials” and their undeniable influence on this train of thought.

Video: Immaterials: The Ghost In The Field by Timo Arnall, Jack Schulze and Einar Sneve Martinussen.

To make art with technology, one does not use it as a tool; one must understand it as a material. Technology is not always a tool, an engineering substrate; it can be something to mould, to shape, to sculpt with.

Materials have desires, affordances, and textures; they have grains. We can work with that grain, understanding what the material wishes to be, wishes to do – or we can deliberately choose to work against it. We must understand that grain and make a deliberate choice.

Software is a material. A language like Processing is better at some tasks than others, faster at some things than others, easier to manipulate in certain directions and harder in others. It has a grain, and desires, that we must understand to work with it – that we learn through working with it.

A service like Twitter has an inherent pace, a vernacular language, limitations on its functionality. A project built with it needs to work within these givens to be suited to the medium.

Data is a material. To work with streams of live information, or data sources from an API, it to understand the fidelity of that information, the frequency of update, the relations to other data it affords or not. To work with it requires exploring the dataset, honing your demands of it to those it can meet.

Hardware is a material. As Anthony Dunne writes in Hertzian Tales: “All electronic products are hybrids of radiation and matter“. To build with electronics is to understand both that radiation and that matter. How fragile is the hardware? How can it be housed? Is the output from sensors like cameras or microphones accurate enough? And in the case of radio-based hardware, be it GPS, 3G, Bluetooth or RFID – what affects the field of that radio? Is it useful to the fidelity you require? Is it an appropriate solution for the installation? How does it even work?

In “Immaterials: The Ghost in the Field”, Timo Arnall, Jack Schulze and Einar Sneve Martinussen explore the spatial qualities of RFID through long-exposure photography and an LED probe. The end result is an actual understanding of the field of an RFID reader, not read on a datasheet, but gleaned through experimentation and exploration – all to better understand RFID as a material in its own right.

We understand materials not by reading about them, or assuming what they can do, but by exploring them, playing with them, sketching with them. Ideally, that sketching happens in the final material, but perhaps, like a sculptor sketching on paper, it happens in abstractions such as paper-prototyping. What matters is that you find a way. Sketching is not just about building towards a final work; it’s about building familiarity with a medium itself, working it into one’s practice.

As creators, we must feel our materials – even if we are not the ones using them in the end.

The sculpture analogy is again useful. For centuries, sculptors have worked with the aid of others in their studios and workshops, to produce large works. But despite drawing on the expertise of others, they must be skilled in their chosen mediums themselves.

Last year, I went to see an exhibition of sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s notebooks. In amongst the sketches and prototypes, there was a piece of circular graph paper with a line traced on it. This was part of the process of Monument, Whiteread’s resin, mirrored cast of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar square. It was a print-out from a machine used to test the resin Whiteread was using to cast the sculpture. There, inside her notebook, she had kept a proof of the material’s capacities: a commitment to understanding the material she’d be working with. If technology is a material, artists should treat it no differently.

A better understanding of materials leads to better usage of them. Poor execution cannot be written off with the excuse “oh, but it’s art“; the vernacular understanding of technology is now too sophisticated for that. To embrace an audience’s existing understanding of technology, we must meet their expectations: not being ugly, not being broken. Audiences expect polish, even in experimental work. And to understand that execution, we must become literate in our materials.

Alan Kay defined literacy as “the ability to both read and write in a medium“. I would agree – but I must also be honest: the barrier to becoming literate with technology is perhaps higher than for those materials you can feel in your bare hands.

It’s still lower than it ever has been, though. Compare the diversity and quality of tools aimed at the non-specialist, the designer, the creative to what was availably twenty, thirty years ago. It’s not just that technology has advanced: our abstractions have too. Thanks to prototyping and creative tools such as Max/MSP, OpenFrameworks, or Arduino, it is easier than ever to explore the creative applications of technology.

And, as throughout the arts, there is always value in collaboration. To make art with technology is to make art with technologists, and there are a great many people out there – if you look for them – sensitive to creative endeavours, skilled in technology, and eager to collaborate.

It’s imperative to work with technologists through the creative process: they are not just manufacturers, but collaborators. As a technologist, it’s important for me to observe the terrain I’m working in, to sit with others and see them at work, for them to see what my process looks like. It’s how we come to a shared understanding of one another, and of the work itself.

Technology is not something to be used cynically, to qualify for funding, or to add a veneer of supposed “innovation” to tired work. For art is a purpose, not an excuse. To make art with technology is to make art out of technology. Artists should consider it as a material like any other.