Once upon a time, the North East was full of heavy industry. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, men of vision had created and investigated things, then got together in coffee shops and societies to talk about their ideas and what they had done. They shared knowledge and experience, had more ideas and went out to build more things thereby created major industries (eg railway locomotives, ships, lightbulbs) which became known and used throughout the world.
By the late 20th century, things were changing. There was fog on the Tyne, and it whiffed a bit. A tidal wave of men cycled back and forth to work with their bait boxes to the pitheads, shipyards, the chemical or engineering works on the banks of the river, watched over by the lofty cranes. Women hung out the washing across cobbled back alleys, and kids kicked balls about the street. The Quayside was virtually deserted apart from rabbits and rats romping around the greening remains of demolished housing along chares and stairs.
That was in the 1980s, and there was already a determination and a vision of how to transform the Tyne and start new industries to replace the heavy industries that were moving or dying out. A core element of the vision was to use creative energy to kickstart and drive change. It was one reason why I decided that I had to study art at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) all those years ago, and fell in love with the North East. The creative energy was evident.
There were already great public art programmes happening, putting real art into the new Metro stations and into freshly landscaped areas along the Tyne. I was lucky enough to be involved with a tiny bit of the work on two of the Art in the Metro commissions when I worked on placement with Northern Arts in the early 1980s. When we were undergraduate students we were also able to attend some great performances at theatres, and regularly went to the Tyneside Cinema.
Live music was slightly less obvious then than it is now, but I remember going to a folk club at the Bridge Hotel, jazz at the Corner House, and bands at a fine art ball held in a nightclub near the Laing Art Gallery. I vaguely remember seeing posters for rock at the City Hall, Mayfair Ballroom, and occasionally at Gateshead Stadium.
This inspiring creativity was happening in a North East where also unemployment was rising, shipyards and mines closing or being threatened with closure, and it was impossible to ignore the gloomy economic outlook.
Culture and digital technology
Fast forward a few decades to now…
The Tyne flows a lot cleaner. It hosts breeding colonies of kittiwakes as far inland as the Tyne Bridge and Guildhall, and attracts wading birds at low tide. Otters are around in the Newcastle area, and I have heard that seals even come up river to fish sometimes. Most of the shipyard cranes have disappeared whilst a Roman fort has been opened to the public where the shipyard’s offices were. Grass and trees have been planted where chemical works once stood.
We have the smooth curves of the elegant Millennium Bridge to cross to the industrial chic of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the cool reflectiveness of the iconic Sage Gateshead. Some of the redundant industrial sites, warehouses and offices are being renovated, restored and converted into studios for artists, musicians, craftspeople, designers; offices for digital technology companies; and art galleries. The universities are still training the new architects, designers and artists, actors – and now also coders, computer engineers, a wider range of musicians; and they are doing more research into art, design and digital technologies.
It is becoming exciting, but there is still a lot more to do. The tech community is, of course, smaller than in the South East. Unlike London, the North East does not have lots of big money investors and patrons on the doorstep. There is still a tendency to regard Newcastle upon Tyne as much farther away than it is from London, although even back in the early 1990s, the faster trains got to London in under 3 hours (faster than travelling across London at times). The trains between the North East and London are very busy early in the morning and evening with people travelling to and from London on business, despite communications now being easier with digital technology.
The North East has a very strong regional identity and sense of pride. The good universities attract academics from all over the world, and there is a cornucopia of creative skills. There can be an advantage to the perception of the North East as different because it can give people more freedom to do things differently and set up their own models for doing things.
This was the background from which the CultureCode pilot in the North East grew. The evaluation afterwards (available to download from CultureCode) stated:
“It was acknowledged by the partners then that, although the region benefits from having strong digital and cultural sectors, there is a comparative lack of arts sector engagement with technology providers, digital networks, SMEs and key individuals working across the North East digital sector. As technology increasingly pervades the lives of business, consumers and audiences, it was felt that perhaps strengths in both the digital and arts/cultural sectors in the region were not being played to – in effect, there was an opportunity being missed. As a consequence, CultureCode was conceived to address and encourage cross-sector engagement and support arts and digital sector collaborations that could contribute to Arts Council England’s overriding strategic aim of ‘achieving great art for everyone.’”
There were multiple events, divided into three stages (and then there was an epilogue, or update, towards the end of the year), and we had Documentally (aka Christian Payne) with us to document it. From the very first event, this felt like something experimental that would develop further, given half a chance. The participants were very unsure what would happen, what the outcomes would be and how we would get there, but there a great sense of anticipation. I have thought for some years that there needed to be the opportunity for the cultural institutions, creative people and digital people to come together more in the North East, especially after I worked in the Institute for Image Data Research (no longer extant) at Northumbria University for a year. Ironically, since my academic background is rooted in visual art in Newcastle, I think that I recognised more of the digital than the arts people during the pilot stage of CultureCode.
There was such an excited buzz at CultureCode Boutique, held at the Live Theatre. There was a greater proportion of women than I have ever seen before at any digital event, apart from a workshop about social media for cultural institutions.
People appeared on stage – including from Live Theatre, Tyneside Cinema, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and the Centre for Life – to tell us how they thought bringing together creative people, technology people and data could result in interesting things.
People came on stage to tell us what they created with data and coding. I have picked out three artists.
Rain Ashford showed us what she had been working on and talked to us about Arduinos, particularly the LilyPad Arduino, and conductive threads, which she has been putting into garments that interact with people. For those who have not encountered an Arduino before, it is an open source system of hardware and software. Once can use the small microcontroller with other bits so that it can, for example, switch LEDs on or off, or control a small motor that could make a robot move. Rain made it sound as if it is very accessible tech for creative people. I would like to try playing with these things one day.
Kelly Richardson is an extraordinary artist whose work did not look at all easy. She is a Canadian whose work is known elsewhere in the world but hardly at all in the UK where she has lived for a decade. She showed us some of her work which gives us different realities (I particularly liked the reality and realism issues in it), including the haunting, lyrical The Erudition, 2010, with holographic trees blowing in a fictional wind in a moon-like landscape that show signs of digital decay. She talked about the new piece she was working on – Mariner 9, a stunning, constructed reality of Mars in the future, based on NASA’s data about the planet. She imagined it as an environment altered by humans, strewn with the remains of our machinery. If you get the chance to see her work, do go. It has intellectual depth as well as high aesthetic quality.
Artist and educator Jer Thorp is also Canadian but based in New York. I had seen him talk about his work before, at the Thinking Digital conferences in 2010 and 2011, and found him to be a charismatic speaker. I had been aware of his name for a few years, and had seen his Just Landing, 2009, and Good Morning! 2009 without being aware that he was the creator. I was really looking forward to his talk because I learn a little more about his work each time. His background is in genetics and this does seem to echo in some of his work. Jer works with data and code, usually to produce something visual. This sounds very dry, but he does it with a sense of humanity as well as aesthetics. I still find it hard to describe his work because the theory and methodology I learned for analysing, understanding and interpreting visual art does not quite cover what he does. A couple of months later, at a SuperMondays event, Data visualisation and Processing, I was startled to hear Justin Souter’s description of Jer’s work as “almost art,” because I am so sure that his visualisations are fine rather than graphic or applied art. This is the area that makes it even more difficult to describe his work than Kelly Richardson’s, because many designers create visualisations these days.
This time after hearing Jer speak, I was fortunate to have the opportunity for a brief chat with him in the bar afterwards. I was surprisingly nervous as I waited to speak to him, and anxious that he might think my question foolish (I have talked with artists of international renown in the past, and have a couple of degrees in modern art history). I asked him if he could explain why his work is fine art rather than graphic art, and was quite relieved when he did not have an answer. We had a brief chat that filled my head with thoughts as I left.
As I waited at the bus stop, I thought more about the ideas we had begun to discuss. I could see an aesthetic in the algorithm Jer Thorp created for the 9/11 Memorial Names Arrangement Algorithm & Placement Tool (2010) when he had been explaining it in a previous talk at Thinking Digital. He does seem to bring a natural aesthetic from genetics to his art, which makes me think of the architect Vitruvius and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and aesthetics based on nature, specifically the human body; and of the Fibonacci spiral constructed from the Fibonacci sequence; and further back to the Golden Section (first defined by Euclid). If I were designing a modern art history degree course, I would include a little maths in it these days. I think we may need additional ways of seeing to help us understand, analyse, and try to interpret at least some of the contemporary digital visual arts that depend less on the obviously visual langauage used by artists and designers till now. Some digital art and design is adding different semiotic elements.
The second stage of CultureCode was the Salon. This was held in the basement of the Town Wall bar in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, just a few steps away from Central Station. The idea was to give us a chance to talk to each other, for arty types to talk to tech types and for both to talk to the designated Data Ambassadors. We were given labels as we arrived to identify which type we were, and Joeli Brearly gave firm orders to find someone with a different coloured label and to mingle.
I had difficulty getting down the steep steps, and found the space too crowded to move from the spot where I first landed, though I did find interesting people around me (I have to admit that one or two might have the same colour of label as I did). The ‘Pigeon Lady’ just happened to have a stuffed pigeon with her, which proved to be an excellent way of attracting people to start a conversation (tip there for any party, conference, or other social gathering). We really struggled to hear each other shout, and after a while I found it almost impossible to shout loud enough for my rather soft voice to be heard. I found that frustrating because I was in a roomful of very interesting people with whom I could have had fascinating discussions.
This was the main event of the CultureCode pilot. We were based in the Tyneside Cinema for the weekend, and it started to feel like a second home after half a day (the staff there are really lovely and gave us a warm welcome).
People with data talked about what data they had to offer. Then we split up into three different activities: hacking, seminars, and ‘Coding for beginners’ workshops. Since I was doing a presentation, I had to be in the seminars.
The CultureCode Hack seminars
- An Introduction to IP – Matthew Ripon.
- ~Flow Project – Owl Project, Ed Carter, and Tom Higham.
- Painting by data – and a little about the © word – Janet Davis
- An interview with Documentally – Christian Payne interviewed by Joeli Brearly.
- Chip music Performance (Game Boy)- Conor Clay.
- An introduction to interactive media – Dr Stephen Gibson.
- The 3D printing revolution – Bettina Nissan.
- Why data sucks – Jeremiah Alexander.
The first speaker, Matthew Ripon, made one or two of us rather anxious about what images we were using in our presentations in his talk about intellectual property and what one cannot do (I have written before about why I think current copyright legislation is not working, and this talk confirmed that thought). I left some of my slides out, and did not present as well as I could have done because I was a bit out of practice in changing presentations at the last minute or whilst doing them and so lost my thread a bit. I ought to re-write my presentation as a post sometime.
It was interesting to hear about the ~Flow project, and I did visit the tidemill in the summer. It was rather hypnotic, hearing the music made by the instruments sampling and measuring the Tyne whilst feeling the gentle movement of the river under my feet.
Christian Payne (aka Documentally) told us things that I had not heard him tell before, although I have heard him speak a number of times. I think I first met him on Twitter back in 2009, and I still follow him. If you get the opportunity, go and listen to him speaking. He has not only done interesting and unepxected things but is also a lovely person. I respect and admire him greatly.
Conor Clay was a teenager who played chip music live. I had no idea what this involved since I have never even handled a Game Boy, but it seemed a retro sort of experience (reminded me of a simple music-making facility in first workplace email software I used) – and I thought that he was very brave to stand in front of such an audience to perform live.
Dr Stephen Gibson’s talk about interactive media made me want to make big, public artworks in digital media. I have wanted to create immersive environments for years. Since the beginning of this century, I have wanted to project images (especially historical) onto buildings, and have thought that it would be great if we had more opportunities for public digital graffiti. I loved some of the examples of interactive art that Stephen showed us, especially the one where the shapes projected on the wall changed according to the way in which people interacted with them. I would very much like to make such work.
Bettina Nissan’s talk about 3-D printing was also very popular with the audience. Everyone loves 3-D printing, and I think I have some understanding of how it works after Bettina explained it. I can see that the printers at the lower end of the market are great for prototyping, but wonder how useful they are for producing many practical things. The best example that I have seen so far of a desirable (but not useful) thing is the 3-D printed version of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest (or Sand Beast). Bettina went on later to do a great hack that used data from ~Flow with a 3-D printer (more about this later).
Jeremiah Alexander boldly went where I did not dare after Matthew Ripon had warned us about the problems of copyright, and used a Star Trek image in his presentation ‘Why data sucks’ – an image showing Data. He was another one who was very busy because he was also part of one of the hack teams (more about this later).
These seminars were very popular to the level where there was only standing room left. There was a great atmosphere, a sense that people were really interested in the presentations, and that at least some of the ideas were new to them.
At the end, some dashed off to catch the final ‘Coding for beginners’ workshop of the day. I would have liked to do that but I was too tired to go straight into something else that would require intense concentration. I hung around to chat to people for a while, and then left those able to cope better than I with sleeping on seats to the night of films and/or hacking.
The CultureCode Hacks
When I arrived back at the Tyneside Cinema the next day, there were lots of very exhausted hackers, some still asleep, in all corners of the upper floors, and stacks of foil-wrapped bacon and sausage butties left. I began to get glimpses of what was being created, wished very much I had been able to stay awake for long enough to try working on a hack myself, and had interesting conversations with others not directly engaged with the hacks.
Eventually, we got to the show-and-tell part of the day. It was really impressive what people had managed to do in only a few hours and with very little sleep:
Hopebook by Jeremiah Alexander – games; Amy Golding – data and script; Colin Oakley – games; James Rutherford – platform. Also significant contributions from: Becky McCartney – illustration; Emer McCourt – script editing; James Robinson – graphics. Using poverty data for Newcastle neighbourhood schools; image media from Children North East; headline statistics; dialogue from user stories and theatrical work generated from this.
Melody Explorer by Jonny Fairfull (@jonnyfairfull); Timothy Bryan (@tim_bryan); Giannis Sfyrakis; and graphic design by James Robinson (@noahsapprentice) using European Music Traditional Music data.
Newcastle Libraries hack by Jason Judge and Peter Bull using data from Newcastle Libraries.
Project Plaque by Andrew Waters and Matthew Ballam using data from Newcastle City Council.
A Sort of Statistical Programme Predictor by David Coxon using data from the Theatre Royal.
The CultureCode website has more information about the above hacks. There were others, including one about patterns relating to (I think) the Lindisfarne Gospels, one by Peter Nelson.
The Hope project, about child poverty in the North East, was the overall best of the hacks. This was partly because the team took such an imaginative approach to using the data, and partly because what they put together (and in such a short time) was so moving that I doubt that there was a dry eye in the house by the end of their demonstration of it.
Why this hack was great
The representatives of the data-contributing organisations became genuinely excited or moved at seeing their data transformed by the coders and designers, and started to think differently about their data.
People who had not known a lot about their data seemed to begin to see it differently, and to understand it better.
There was great synergy starting to happen between the cultural institutions, the creative people and the coding people.
Some hacks with a lot of potential came out of the weekend.
Lots of people learned lots of things.
It provided a focus for creativity in a digital context in the North East.
What could make a future CultureCode series of events even better
For the Boutique
This was pretty near perfect. More creative people showing us how they use data and digital tools would be super-perfect.
For the Salon
The concept was great, but I would rather have met people in a larger space, with room to circulate easily and for the sound to be less overwhelming, perhaps over tea, coffee and cake (another good digital and arts tradition – and I have noticed that people start to talk to each other naturally when they have to pour their own coffee or make their own tea, and choose from a selection of edible things). We need teacamps in Newcastle!
For the Hack
This was, overall, wonderful!
I think that there could be more mixing together of people. I thought that there could have been more multi-disciplinary teams. There still could have been a lot more discussion between the people who know the data, the people who code, the people who make art/design/music/performances.
There is a lot to be gained from working together to create something, and I know that there is a lot of potential for something new and, quite possibly, better to come out of working together.
Attracting sponsorship from big digital technology companies could be a good thing. Similar types of digital events in London tend to be able to get sponsorship from the big, international digital technology companies. I think that having such sponsorship at North East events would signal that international digital businesses do regard the region as somewhere with serious digital business potential, and could attract more press attention to the event. It could also attract more people from farther afield so that there is a greater spread of skills and ideas. At some events in London, the staff from big companies attend – and sometimes join in the hacking, helping with coding. This would be useful in the North East too, to help get a wider perspective and some specialist advice. It can be difficult to get people out of London but I know that when they get up here, they usually enjoy their trip to Newcastle and Gateshead.
What I got from the events at a personal level
It was exciting.
I really enjoyed meeting the other people and hope I have the chance to do more with them in the future.
I realised that I have data that I have created over years that could be used in a hack if I can put it all into spreadsheets.
It made me want to be more actively involved in more hacks (I have been involved in a few before but want to do more hands-on-touchpad/keyboard designing or even coding).
It inspired me to think about creating more overtly digital art and using data more (I have used computers and digital cameras in image-making for over a decade).
I should do more presentations because I am a bit out of practice (and when I do them often enough not to be too anxious, I do enjoy doing them).
I feel the need to go back to philosophical and aesthetic basics to work out how I think that the art and design produced by digital means could be analysed; and whether I think that existing visual arts theories need expanding.
There was CultureCode 1.1 one stormy evening at the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. It was a fabulous venue (it would have been lovely to go outside for the second part, as originally planned, if only the weather had cooperated). We had an update and some reflections on how it had worked.
I was delighted to hear that the Hope project is still going forward. This was such a worthwhile project and brought such a movingly human face to data that it really ought to inspire Government, local government and Third Sector organisations to think about how their data can connect with real people.
I was equally delighted to hear that Bettina Nissan had gone to speak to people at Culture Lab at Newcastle University about developing her idea for vases that could be 3-D printed from data, and had been offered a fully-funded PhD to develop her ideas further.
Joeli Brearly was a lovely leader or host of the events.
We really need more CultureCode events! Soon, please. For me, the conversations stopped after the main CultureCode events. That may be partly my fault and because I do not belong to any company or cultural institution, but I would like to continue conversations that might lead to doing things.
I would really love to see some more cultural heritage people (for example, archaeologists), and more creative people at future events, for example more music people (maybe some sound engineers as well as musicians?), architects (could be ideal for the Archigrad people?).
The North East has a lot of talent. Let us have more opportunities to use that talent.
Further viewing and reading
CultureCode Initiative website – includes videos from CultureCode Boutique, and Encounter.
More information about the CultureCode Hacks can be seen on the CultureCode website.