Festival of the Mind

Last month, the first five of my interactive portraits were included in Futurecade in the Sheffield Millennium Gallery, as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. These are kind of like a cross between Tamagotchi and an RPG dialogue system, and they present dialogue taken verbatim from interviews I carried out with transgender people in Japan as part of the Creator Ikusei residency. I’m going to make 13 in total, six of which are supported by Arts Council funding via the Making Ways project.

An estimated 10,000 people attended Futurecade over the course of a week (I’ll get final attendance figures soon), and it was really a thrill to see so many people encounter this work. It’s a difficult time for the public conversation about trans rights in the UK, so it seems more important than ever to put trans people’s stories into public spaces. One person remarked, “this is incredible! There are so many people I want to show this to … emotive and enjoyable and thought provoking.”

The installation looked more striking than anything I’ve done so far, and that’s because I got talented people to help me with it. Brendan Vance improved the UI, and overhauled the code for me so that the pieces wouldn’t crash in unpleasant or boring ways (mysterious glitches I can live with quite happily, and we left plenty of those in there). Jack Lyus built the plinths for me, out of e-waste sourced from local social enterprise Bitfixit, who also gave me three out of the five computers running the pieces. Making use of computers that would otherwise go into landfill is increasingly important to me lately, and Bitfixit were incredibly generous with the machines they’ve gradually accrued over the years that they haven’t been able to find new homes for. Jack is incredibly practical and creative, and did a great job giving the plinths a sculptural quality with a gallery-ready finish.

That incredible hanging piece you can see in the photos is a quilt made by Anne Smithies. I commissioned Anne to make a giant version of one of the characters, in part inspired by a conversation I’d had in Tokyo earlier this year with Zep, who makes Pico-8, the platform on which the interactive portraits are built. We were talking about how as it reaches its final release, Pico-8 is taking on almost textile-like qualities, because of the way it handles patterns. I’ve been playing up those qualities a lot in my design of the portraits, so I wanted to emphasise that even more by having the banner be a textile piece, rather than just a big digital print. Anne took that idea and ran with it in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and she ended up blending pixel art and traditional quiltmaking into something new that I’ve never seen before. Also, the character is made of reflective material, so if you photograph it with flash it lights up!

There are still many more portraits to finish, and more things that I want to finesse as they find new places to tour and be exhibited. Although I’ve set them up to use NES controllers, the simplest game controllers you can get hold of, these still require some knowledge of basic videogame design conventions to be used properly – people who have never played a videogame before are inclined to press the “start” button to start playing, and press the “select” button to select options on screen, both of which bring up a console menu that I don’t want them playing with. Having volunteers minding the exhibition helped, because the volunteers were trained in how to instruct people to use the pieces – and also, incidentally, in how to calm the pieces down when they start glitching out in ways that are expected behaviour, but still not ideal for usability. I like that aspect of the pieces needing minders, but it’s not always going to be realistic when in every situation they might be installed in.

There also weirder things that I want to do with this – in particular, building on the design style Anne has established with this quilt, and working together on more textile elements of the installation. I’m hoping to get funding to do something cuddly, that also solves the game controller issue, and provides an alternative to the big plinths and old desktop computers, which I won’t be able to transport very far!

 

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