Taking over the world, one canal trip at a time

Jazz Moreton and Alan Van Wijgerden reflect on their Green Futures supported Nest Residency for Random String

Alan Van Wijgerden and I embarked upon our Nest Residency in partnership with LudicRooms with ambitions to make better work than we have seen shown in the city.

Quickly learning that a relatively small grant couldn’t buy us the time required to take over the world, we focussed instead on experimentation with Ludic Rooms’ 360 degree camera. Due to the fact that our residency considered the Coventry Canal’s ecosphere in relation to the concrete and cars of the city, we intrepidly created opportunities to explore the canal and its environs on foot and on water, through the dual lenses of the above camera. Taking aural readings of the surrounding habitat’s soundscape, we created a plethora of footage, from seagulls that have flown all this way inland to feast on thrown-away takeaways and general detritus to a narrowboater and his squeezebox.

Our palatial studio in Talking Birds’ Nest was the scene of much heated discussion. Alan spent much time being told to “shush” by Jazz and retreating to the “naughty chair” (which was very comfortable). We thought that we had wasted the first week, after which we refocussed with an introduction to the 360 degree camera, but thankfully, Astrid Gilberto on Alan’s old HiFi- recovered from the corner of his garage- was very soothing and enabled us to rekindle our friendship and productivity.

Alan cheekily blagged our way onto the RV Scribendi for a boat trip all the way from the basin to bridge 4 in Foleshill: an hour’s cruise. We then walked back to the Canal Basin in all of ten minutes, thus proving Jazz’s experience of having lived and cruised on canals for almost twenty years as being extremely slow.

In another cheeky move, Alan shamelessly hailed the great Alan Dyer, who graciously allowed us into the historic Canal Basin warehouse in order to take photographs and record more 360 degree footage. These experiences were seminal in our bid for auteur cinematic status and we were extremely grateful for everyone’s help. Someone that we are particularly grateful to is the redoubtable Philippa Cross, who supported us in each one of our hours of need. Our biggest issue within the residency was the fact that we were using hardware designed for Mac users.

Both being Windows PC users, we feel- after the experience of transferring data from a Mac to Jazz’s trusty PC laptop- that apples should only be used in strudels, and possibly pies. Talking of pies, Alan came close to cooking seagull pie because Jazz forced him to go on numerous trips to try to record inner-city seagulls. The final successful recording is so deeply engraved in Alan’s memory that he knows for certain that it’s track fifty on his trusty recorder.

Like Donald Trump (and this is the only way that we are remotely comparable), we failed in our planned takeover of the world (also known as a finished production) but we are planning to use the material that resulted from the residency in a further application, after Alan has recovered from Jazz dragging him out of retirement to work on an Art project of momentous ambition.

In moments of contemplation, the view from our window of the futuristic canal crossing inspired us to greater experimentation, which we are going to use as part of an Arts Council or BFI funding bid.

Seriously though, we greatly enjoyed the residency and the opportunities and inspiration that it offered us.

Jazz Moreton, August 2021

A chance to make some real change…

Katie Walters reflects on their Remote Nest Residency in early 2021

Last year was a very difficult time to be a performer. Because of the pandemic, my world quickly became a sea of cancelled gigs and indefinitely postponed plans. As someone whose life revolves around the energy of crowds, it was really disorienting to find them abruptly and unceremoniously outlawed. Last year was also a very difficult time to be a disabled person. As someone who is very vulnerable to COVID, I have been stuck indoors far longer than most people, unable to take advantage of the brief gaps between national lockdowns. From care rationing policies that would deny me ICU admission, to the difficulty I’ve faced in accessing the vaccine, it’s become very clear how little the government value my life, and the lives of the people I hold dear. All in all, it’s been a profoundly alienating experience.


But if there’s one thing the pandemic has been good for, it’s writing. Vast stretches of unfillable time, for me, at least, were a great opportunity to sit down and work on things I’d been far too busy and stressed to make time for. Feeling freshly alienated by the total collapse of life as I knew it, the time felt right for me to pick up Planet Alex; a play about isolation, communication, and a literal actual alien. It’s a show I’ve been working on for quite some time, and a story I’ve been wanting to tell for even longer. In 2019, Talking Birds gave me the office space and financial support I needed to write a first draft (you can read my first blog here!), and in 2020 I was fortunate enough to be awarded a second Nest Residency, which allowed me to write vastly superior second and third drafts. I spent a total of four weeks writing, spread out over several months to suit my access needs, with invaluable input from Ola Animashawun, without whom the play would not be nearly as good as it is. Once it was written, Talking Birds also arranged a rehearsed reading of the script in full [performed by Adaya Henry and directed by Tom Roden], which gave me the chance to properly see how the whole thing fit together, and get some feedback from a small and supportive audience.


My second Nest Residency was a lifeline during a very difficult time for me both as a person and in my career. It gave me work during a time when work was very scarce, and gave me purpose when I felt directionless. Writing during the pandemic afforded me a newfound appreciation for why Planet Alex is such an important story for me to tell. It’s a solo play about an autistic teenager who meets an alien living in her back garden, and a coming of age narrative that reflects the struggles and joys of life as an autistic young adult. I describe it to others as the story I wish I could have heard when I was younger, and I’ve been driven to tell it because I want to improve authentic representation for autistic audiences. But after reading news stories about DNR orders that were imposed on autistic adults without consent during the pandemic, it’s become increasingly apparent to me that this story is important for neurotypical audiences too. Autistic people are literally fighting for our lives. Of course, we shouldn’t have to make great art for people to understand that we deserve to live, but until they do, plays that show how wonderful and complex and brilliant autistic people are feel very important to create. We live vibrant, human lives. That’s something the world needs to know.

The future of Planet Alex is looking bright. Through my Nest Residency, I was able to spend some time talking with producer Pippa Frith, to figure out the best way to take the project forwards. I’ve assembled a modest all-autistic creative team, in director Sam Holley-Horseman and composer Taka Owen. I’m planning to act as assistant director, too, because I really want to learn some new skills.

A four minute proof of concept film for the show is going to be shared at China Plate’s First Bite Festival later this year, and we’re looking for opportunities to spend some time experimenting with the format of the show. Sam is really interested in finding ways to integrate a “sensory diet” into the performance. Plays for autistic audiences tend to assume that we are all sensory avoidant, and need quiet environments with simple lighting to be able to concentrate. And that’s important, but lots of us a sensory seeking too, and we need things to be really stimulating to be able to pay attention to them. So we’re looking at using lighting, music, projected images, all sorts of things to make the show properly engaging for sensory seeking autistics. It’s a really exciting area to be exploring.

Honestly the biggest takeaway from my Nest Residency (apart from the playtext I suppose!) is just confidence. Having dedicated and specialist support from such a kind group of people, and the faith that those people seem to have in me, it’s left me feeling like I’ve got something really special here. Something with a lot of potential. I don’t feel that way very often! But I’m feeling really ambitious right now. I think we have a chance to make some real change in the industry, and that’s super exciting.

On creating complexity from simple rules

Elizabeth Hudnott reflects on her recent Remote Nest Residency.

Me

Hi! I’m an artist who makes interactive digital artefacts which seek to create complexity from simple rules. I love geometric shapes, bold colours, mathematics and computer programming. I invite the reader to become an integrated component in my creations by customizing the pieces to produce your own unique renditions.

The Environment

I’ve built a software environment that contains a selection of sketches, which are at varying degrees of development. Each sketch contains two parts. Obviously there is computer code containing drawing instructions necessary to produce the artwork as I intend it to be. But when you load a sketch you only see one configuration of the artwork among many. Each sketch also creates a user interface that bestows the observer (or rather the participant) with the ability to adjust many parameters that feed into my code to extract one chosen image from a near infinite sea of possibilities. Indeed, it’s a requirement that the participant explores the parameter space because the default settings just replicate textbook images.

My creation effort is divided into two distinct parts, the sketches and the environment in which they operate. The latter provides functionality that is shared between sketches, such as video rendering.

The Sketch

Now that the larger stage has been set I can say that I took a single sketch that began simply and that this particular project mostly focussed on my journey to seek out increased complexity and variety for that chosen sketch. Truchet tilings have the property that every line that touches a tile’s perimeter does so at one of a small number of permitted points on that perimeter and furthermore rotating the tile through any multiple of 90° retains this property. For example, if we choose to allow lines that pass through any corner of a tile then rotating a tile will cause a line to point towards a different corner. Strictly speaking, the definition of Truchet tiles is limited to the particular collection of four tiles that Sébastien Truchet designed, but it’s this particular property about his designs that fascinates me. Cyril Stanley Smith developed alternative designs inspired by Truchet and my designs are an extension of Smith’s.

An image generated using the original sketch.

New Tiles

The sketch originally used three tile designs, two of which replicated a pair from Stanley Smith’s work and the third was a blank tile. An obvious way of extending the concept is to design more tiles. I began by sketching eight sets in a paint package, each consisting of several dozen designs. Two of those sets were taken forward to the coding step. These two sets are interoperable with one another because they only differ with respect to whether straight lines or curves are used to connect the points of interest. The new designs have lines touching the perimeter at the mid-points along the sides of the tile. This switch to different anchor points and away from the corner points which I had used previously will become significant later. The term “anchor points” is not a mathematical term but is rather a piece of linguistic innovation created by my internal monologue. Another of the eight sets of designs is an extension of the original diagonal scheme, so the prior work will be resurrected at some point in the future. Eventually I hope to have all eight schemes implemented.

Some of the new tile designs.

I decided to use my design drawings purely to collect my thoughts together and communicate them to the Talking Birds team. I could have loaded these graphics directly into my software but I want more flexibility than than fixed graphics allow. Therefore I had to add written descriptions of each tile to the program, expressly mentioning each line or curve and the coordinates of its start point and its end point. Although through judicious use of If… then… else… this was actually realized as a single giant recipe with multiple branches that can produce almost any tile design in the set. Implementing the new designs involved reorganizing the code as a whole. Previously the layout of the code was very simple, as the following pseudocode demonstrates. Pseudocode is made up language that’s more rigid than English but isn’t sufficiently detailed to be a runnable program.

r = random()
If r < threshold then
	Draw a leftward leaning line
Else
	Draw a rightward leaning line
End If

This would have become unwieldy as more designs were added and the tile selection process became more complicated. Therefore I replaced it with a model where one section of code describes the design of a tile and the drawing commands needed to produce it but isn’t aware of any details about how the tile is being incorporated into a larger design. A second section of code arranges tiles into a design but doesn’t contain any drawing commands. A third section of code sits halfway between organizing tiles without knowing what they look like and being a tile graphic without a context. That third position represents a specific tile that’s involved in the layout and it has particular colours chosen for it. The tile designs themselves are expressed as abstract lines without colours, although they can indicate suggested or prototypical colours. More on that later. The three parts have to communicate with each other in very precise ways to ask questions of one another and supply answers. For example, the layout algorithm will want to ask a tile design how many of the four possible anchor points it uses and which ones those are. This sketch expanded to become my largest sketch yet in terms of the number of lines of code needed. Therefore, developing a competent engineering design that adequately supported my artistic aspirations was definitely a piece of this project and these two sides, artistic and technical, grew and expanded together. That said, my code does mostly just flow off the tip of my tongue in whatever way I feel expressing my artistic creativity, and while there certainly are software architectural decisions involved the product is certainly not designed with the kind of robustness required for a business application or teamwork project.

Morphing

My master to-do list for this sketch has a section about incorporating different tile shapes. I’d like to add hexagon shaped tiles and even Penrose tilings into the mix. But hexagons work differently from rectangles. Grid lines are particularly easy to calculate for rectangular grids and so for now hexagons remain something for the future. Squares, rectangles, parallelograms and chevrons all share a property that makes them easy to lay out. Hexagonal and triangular tessellations aren’t excessively difficult to implement but my methodology is to build out in successive generalizations, one at a time. I was about to implement a rectangular grid but I knew the next logical generalization of that component would be extension to incorporate parallelograms and chevrons. As I sat down to write the line drawing instructions for the new tile designs I also knew that if I calculated the coordinates of all the points using an assumption of a rectangular grid then it would be particularly fiddly and cumbersome to go back and edit the code to make a parallelogram or a chevron generalization later. So I went ahead and implemented them straight away. During my meeting with Talking Birds it had been said that I shouldn’t feel constrained by my original pitch and it felt really good to be able to do what was best for my overall project vision without feeling I was going against my supervisor’s wishes, as would have been the case under a more conventional business relationship. I hate cognitive dissonance, so avoiding that was definitely a plus.

Unfortunately the parallelogram shaped tiles initially turned out to be a massive flop that failed to live up to my over inflated expectations. My reaction when I first saw them was, “Well done Elizabeth, you’ve put the whole picture into italics! What good is that?” At least, that was my initial impression when I viewed the early parallelogram based images having “Random” colouring and 100% colour flow, which are two parameter settings I’ll describe in the next section. Applying those terms to this early stage of development is anachronistic however, because all the lines were being drawn in a single colour at this point. I recently discovered that other people have the ability to see images in their mind’s eye but I do not. I’d always assumed the phrase was just a figure of speech that people say when they’re intensely concentrating on something. So aphantasia sounds like a good excuse for my minor failure and I’m going to roll with that whether or not it was truly the cause of the mishap! But it’s interesting to see how these parallel journeys that I’m on intersect, growing from a hobbyist into a “proper artist” while also developing understanding and coming to terms with my disabilities and trying to think of ways to adapt things to work better for me, but also valuing the things that do come easily for me. Early on I quickly and easily got this complex sketch mapped out, with its many desirable features and components categorized and organized hierarchically in my “Master To Do List”, and that’s a different kind of visualization.

Parallelogram shaped tiles used in an unsubtle way.

In contrast to the parallelograms, the chevrons were a spectacular hit from my perspective, which was totally unexpected as I mostly threw them into the game plan for completeness and I had felt they’d be inferior to the geometric purity of rectangles and parallelograms. Clearly I learned nothing from reading Flatland! Chevron shaped tiles gave the images a kind of non-uniformity that had been missing up until this point. And they have a pleasant flowing, calligraphic look about them. So I’m very pleased that I went on the detour to make chevron shaped tiles. I’d really like to build further on this feature in the future. Tiles will tessellate with any kind of extrusion glued onto the basic rectangular shape so long it’s created by cutting out a correspondingly shaped intrusion from the opposite side, as was done so spectacularly by Escher. The parallelogram and the chevron are just the most basic examples of this. I think a quadratic curve would be the next logical step. So far I’ve been distorting my square tile designs to fit other shapes, but specifically designing other shaped tiles could also be an option going forward.

Chevron shaped tiles.

As for the two parallelogram parameters, which may be adjusted via the controls labelled “Bottom” and “Right” on the Grid tab, which are short for, “Bottom edge x-offset”, and, “Right edge y-offset” respectively, they’re still there and they aren’t completely useless. In retrospect it’s quite useful to be able to shift a little bit away from rectangular tiles by adding a slight slant to break up the 90° angles. The same controls can be used to refine the chevron shape also. It’s just that the parallelogram isn’t the radically different alternative shape choice that I thought it was going to be, whereas chevrons are.

Flow

Previously the sketch only supported two colours, one for the leftward leaning strokes and another for the rightward leaning strokes. These colours were customizable and each “colour” could actually be a colour gradient that blended between two colours. But essentially there were two colours and wherever a particular tile design occurred in the tessellation it was always drawn in the same colour. The colours didn’t consistently follow the lines as they passed off of the edge of one tile and onto the next, twisting and changing directions.

I wanted to make the colours flow. Implementing this proved more difficult than I expected but I don’t remember why. If I’d retained the diagonal lines then the task would have been slightly more complicated still, because a line that goes to a corner can abut up against three other lines drawn on adjacent tiles in the maximal case. Using the mid-points as anchor points constrains each anchor point to have just one corresponding anchor point on one adjacent tile (or none at all at the edges of the picture). The right side of one tile connects to the left side of another, etc.

The sketch now supports both colouring modes. In the “As Designed” mode, which is the default, the layout algorithm takes the prototypical colours offered by the tile designs as uses those as the actual colours. Colours don’t flow from tile to tile, not all of the time anyway, although the specific details of the designs and particular organizations of tiles may permit some small localized flow of colour to occur occasionally. In “Random” mode the prototypical colours are ignored and the system picks a random colour and makes that colour flow onto any adjacent tiles, then their adjacent tiles, and so on.

Colours flowing seamlessly from one tile to the next.

Prior to this project I discovered it’s often a bad idea to create parameters with discrete options because they produce sharp transitions during animation, which sounds like an obvious thing but the reality is more nuanced than that. Moreover, I discovered a discipline of reimagining things that I initially thought of as discrete parameters as continua instead. This discipline led to the conception and subsequent implementation of a parameter that controls the probability of colour flow. When set to 1 then colours always flow from tile to tile. When set to 0 a new colour is always selected when a line crosses a tile boundary, which looks similar to but differs in construction from the “As Designed” mode. Then the feedback process from idea to thought to code to visualization and back to a new idea led to a refinement of this flow / no‑flow concept. Rather than selecting any new colour from the palette when a no-flow situation occurs, I instead decided to organize the colours into groups so that a yellow line can change into a blue line but not into a green line, for instance, because green is grouped with red. This involved another new parameter to decide how many colours should be in each group. I find the final result quite pleasing.

Non-deterministic colour flows with colours grouped into pairs.

The flow probability slider did not resolve my struggles with animation though, because “As Designed” versus “Random” wasn’t the only sharp contrast hanging around. Unlike my other sketches, this sketch has many aspects which involve forms of interconnectedness that produce drastic changes between successive images as a result of only small changes to the input parameters. Animations become trippy messes without narratives. Consider this change that’s easy to visualize. The “Random” colouring algorithm works by answering the question, “Which tiles are connected to each other?” As in, “Is it possible to trace a line from this tile to that tile, possibly via some other intermediate tiles?” But if I change one tile from depicting a vertical line to having a horizontal one instead then suddenly lots of tiles that were connected to each other are no longer connected and simultaneously it could be the case that many tiles that weren’t previously connected now become connected. It remains an open question as to how many of these animation issues can or could be resolved by making some adjustments to the algorithms. In the previous example we could potentially force the modified tile to incorporate a no-flow rather than always deciding randomly and that would mitigate sudden changes in colour. But then what if the two shapes which are becoming connected previously belonged to two different colour groups? The interconnectedness makes designing and implementing this sketch very tricky. Ideas that sound simple turn out not to be so.

Colour Palette

I wanted the sketch to have a retro computing feel. I really like the way that people made compelling video games in the 1980s on machines that restricted artists to 4, 8 or 16 colours. I like the bold colours of the blocks in Tetris and I remember the sixteen colours of the default EGA palette. There’s something wonderfully symmetric about powers of two and having three primary colours and three secondary colours, together with black and light grey for a total of eight colours, then having a second set consisting of eight brighter versions of the same. The plan was to permit the user to create pieces with between two and sixteen colours and to let them choose the colours because that’s an obvious way to add parametrization. And the current version does indeed permit between one and fifteen customizable colours plus a background, which can be either another colour or an image.

Even though the colours are customizable, I still wanted a default palette that I liked. My plan was to take the EGA palette and tweak each of the colours so they were somewhat displaced from their usual positions but retained their boldness without being recognizable. I experimented with tweaking the colours for a considerable amount of time without being satisfied. Until the realization suddenly clicked that it wasn’t the EGA palette that I desired but it was the colours of the London Underground map that my brain was craving.

Another consideration was how to parametrize colours. I could have gone with the three primary colour RGBA system (Red, Green, Blue and Alpha, i.e. transparency) but in the end I settled on the HSLA system (Hue, Saturation, Lightness, Alpha). I’d originally wanted to flow not just blocks of colour from tile to tile but also have fading between say lighter and darker versions of the same colour along the length of the line. I unfortunately haven’t managed to pull that one off yet, but one day it will come. I needed to make a colour chooser and I was already considering how the existence of colour fades would affect it. Unfortunately the HSLA system isn’t great for producing smooth transitions of colour because fading along the hue axis will generate rainbows. Which is great for my inner gay but sometimes one does want to be able to fade between red and blue without passing through orange, yellow, green and turquoise! Fading between opposite colours like blue and yellow in the RGBA system will produce a a bunch of muddy greys in the middle. I find the HSLA system very useful for my artwork because its concepts like saturation are pretty easy and intuitive to grasp, though the RGBA system is acceptable too. But neither is great for colour gradients. This issue affects my other sketches too. My sketch that draws Julia Set and Mandelbrot Set fractals sometimes produces weird colour gradients because it’s based on HSLA. Another colour space is needed. CIELAB (Luminosity, A* and B*) seems promising but the A* and B* dimensions are less intuitive than HSLA and at the time of writing web browsers don’t support LAB as a built-in feature (but future support is planned). If I wanted to use it today then I’d have to program the necessary calculations to convert numbers from LAB into RGBA myself.

Another issue which afflicts both RGBA and HSLA is that until recently computers have been able to display bright reds and greens but their range of blues has been more limited. It doesn’t make sense to place red and blue measurements on the scales we’ve always historically used, which is a particular problem for HSLA because hsla(0, 100%, 50%, 1) and hsla(240, 100%, 50%, 1) don’t just differ because the former has a red hue and the latter has a blue hue as should be the case because that’s what those descriptions say. But in reality they also differ in brightness because 100% saturation and 50% lightness doesn’t mean the same for red as it does for blue, because the measuring system is based upon the historical limitations of displays rather than the full range of human vision.

Probably the eventual solution to my needs in the medium term will be to continue accepting input in HSLA colour space and then convert those colour measurement into LAB space, perform my colour gradations and animations in LAB space, and finally convert into the computer’s native RGBA space to generate output. But there’s more to this sketch than the colour gradations that I didn’t end up implementing and HSLA is good enough for now. Valuable research for future work though.

There’s currently a glitchy behaviour associated with the alpha colour dimension. When you have a line meeting a curve on the same tile and the colours aren’t fully opaque then you get an effect that’s like looking through two overlapping coloured lenses and the intersection piece comes out darker than it “should”. I did regard this as a bug, though it could also be considered a feature. It warrants further investigation for creative potential.

Tile Designer

Originally the plan had been to use my initial drawings of tile designs as thumbnails and have users choose tiles from a broader catalogue of designs. But the number of designs had grown quite large and I became concerned that if I implemented the catalogue approach then the user interface could end up being cumbersome. Noting that my designs are built from simple components, I determined there would be sufficient constraints imposed on the user that creating a tile designer widget and embedding it inside the sketch would be eminently feasible and would provide a more direct way of engaging in tile construction than scanning through a list. And so I implemented the tile designer widget. You can click in any of eight areas to toggle lines on and off, convert lines into curves, or change colours. And I think it’s a great success because very quickly I was playing around and creating new designs that were not on my original list.

A design that wasn’t in my initial collection.

Initially the tile designer only supported drawing lines in a single colour. When it came to extending it to support multiple colours I hit upon a new challenge. My original designs adhered to a discipline whereby whenever two lines on a tile touched one other then those lines were either the same colour or they crossed over one another clearly at 90°. But now that I had created this open ended tile designing interface it would be arbitrary and difficult to impose the same restriction on others. So I had to go back to pen and paper and draw out every possible tile design and decide how the different coloured parts were going to mesh together. Then I went back and rewrote most of the tile drawing code so it could accommodate the necessary new additional design elements.

A multicoloured design that wasn’t in my initial collection.

The tile designer has some limitations. Sometimes it’s a bit fiddly to use. When it’s not doing what I intend then I find I need to click a little further away from the middle of the tile and a bit closer towards an edge or a corner. Sometimes creativity may lead you to attempt something that the tile designer won’t let you do. In order to work with the “Random” colouring mode every line needs to connect with one of the tile’s anchor points so that it has somewhere where colour can flow in from. Sometimes you’ll attempt to say draw a yellow line but it’ll insist on drawing a blue line instead because a blue line already exists in an adjacent position on the tile. However, there isn’t a good reason for imposing this constraint when the tile designs are being used with the “As Designed” mode. This problem also suggests that a hybrid mode would be desirable, whereby when the “Random” method is chosen then colours would flow in from the anchor points whenever possible but any inaccessible lines would be rendered “As Designed”.

Furthermore, what application of colour in the tile designer even means with a “Random” colouring mode is not explained clearly within the software, so I’ll explain it now. If you have a design with some red lines and some green lines then it means that red lines will be drawn in the same colour as one another and the green lines will also be drawn in a consistent colour. However, what those colours actually are has nothing to do with which colours were used in the tile designer were because the whole point is that the colours are chosen randomly. So red and green or blue and yellow, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that two colours are being used. When the tile is placed into the picture “red” and “green” may even end up being the same colour! Though it might be handy if there were some way of choosing whether or not to force the system to choose two distinct colours. Enforcing additional constraints is a broad area that offers a rich tapestry that’s ripe for further innovation, as we shall see.

The tile designer permitted new designs that weren’t in my notebooks (on paper or digitally). But conversely I also had a few designs in my notebooks that didn’t fit within the simplistic expectations of the tile designer. I think the best approach going forward will be to offer a smaller catalogue of “specials” that can supplement the tile designer when needed, but I haven’t quite reached that stage yet.

Gradients

By this point I was close to reaching the suggested time commitment for this project and I’d achieved all of the objectives I set myself in my pitch except for one thing, which is that I wanted to have lines with fading transitions of colour. But when I started thinking about how I would achieve this I realized that it wasn’t very straightforward and would involve editing many different portions of the program. I didn’t want to run out of time and have the task half completed because half complete code doesn’t look half complete, it just doesn’t run. So instead I decided to look for low hanging fruit. I added a second line width parameter so that horizontal lines can have a different thickness to vertical ones, which enhances the calligraphic feel. I also wanted to address an issue that I had on my master plan as a later follow up item but which became a pressing issue now that the algorithms were close to producing images that looked a step up from where I’d started.

The biggest challenge to adding colour gradients is that lines often loop back on themselves, so getting seamless joins at every point of intersection requires some thought. Secondly, each tile doesn’t contribute an equally long piece to the total line. A horizontal segment is as long as the width of the tile, a vertical one is as long as its height. A diagonal line will follow Pythagoras’ theorem. That’s assuming rectangular tiles, but what about those parallelogram and chevron shaped tiles? Then there’s the curved segments. They look like quarter doughnuts but that characterization is an approximation because I actually draw them using cubic Bézier curves and in the future I want to give users the ability to change them into different looking curves by moving the control points, much as you would do in a program such as Photoshop.

Constraints

Introducing colour flows had started giving my images some form. But there were often instances where a tile didn’t connect with any adjacent tiles. For example, these could be curved pieces that didn’t connect to anything at either of their two ends. I named these tiles “wispy bits”. I wanted a way of ensuring each tile looked like it had a purpose, so I devised a plan whereby I would be able to configure a minimum number of connections for each type of tile. This allows me to express, for instance, that a straight piece or a curved piece should be connected to something at least one of its two ends or that a T-junction should be connected at least two of its three points.

A design with several unconnected “wispy bits”.

Implementing this proved more difficult than I’d anticipated because the layout algorithm selects tile designs to go into spaces by scanning from left to right and top to bottom, but sometimes it would get stuck in a situation where none of the tile designs in use could be placed in a space because the combination of tiles around it didn’t permit it due to the constraints. I adjusted the algorithm so that when it gets stuck it will now go back and make a fresh tile selection for the space to left of the current one. And if that strategy also fails then it’ll make a fresh selection for the space above the current one. But sometimes even these accommodations are not flexible enough, in which case my algorithm just gives up and violates the constraints. It’s intellectually dissatisfying knowing that there are cases where a valid picture exists which meets all of the stated requirements but my algorithm isn’t sophisticated enough to discover it. On the other hand these failures usually occur when it’s presented with a limited choice of tiles combined with high degrees of constraint, which isn’t the norm.

Adding constraints took a bit longer than I expected because my initial attempt contained some programming errors, as tends to happen, but ironing out the creases in this particular section of code was more difficult than usual because there was a lot of data that wasn’t easily visible concerning combinations of tiles that were being tried and which ones were being accepted and which were being rejected, and all of these decisions happen before anything gets drawn on the screen.

The result is partially satisfying. Wispy bits in the original sense can now be avoided when desired. However, it’s still possible to form very short lines that only span two tiles. More sophisticated kinds of constraint will be needed before a level of control can be attained which fully satisfies me.

Enhancing The Environment

My long term goals for the software are:

  • To add more sketches, and to add more parameters to existing sketches.
  • To add social elements that will let users can share their creations with each other.
  • To grow the user base and increase product recognition.
  • To facilitate users to create their own sketches.
  • To enhance the sensory experience using sound and motion.

Before the Covid-19 lockdown hit I was doing voluntary work teaching women and non-binary people from non-computing backgrounds to code. Naturally, I was wondering about building a code editor and coding tutorials into my environment. I decided to use the final hours of this project to experiment with this idea. I’ve always taught text based programming languages because they’re the ones professionals use and they permit expression of greater complexity within a smaller amount of screen space than the alternative. However, I concluded that a mouse driven graphical language would be better in this case for several reasons. Firstly, because the obvious idea would be impossible to implement securely, which would be to have users express their sketches using the same language as the software itself is written in. This conflicts with another of my long term goals. If I were to give users an ability to save their work and I also added a JavaScript code editor then it would be trivial for a user to send another user a sketch that deleted all their work. Secondly, designing and implementing some other text based language as a bespoke venture takes a lot of work and renders third party learning resources useless. Thirdly, the free flowing nature of text makes it easy to make mistakes that prevent the text from being interpreted as a valid program. Creating tutorials to illustrate geometry using a text based language is a lot of work and would duplicate what’s already been done elsewhere in the context of other programming environments. Learning a text based language takes commitment from the user to follow a course that begins with a lot of trivial examples. But this environment is a fun, entertaining thing for users to dip into, so a mouse driven programming interface that clearly presents a library of commands and prevents syntactical errors is more appropriate. I familiarized myself with the Google Blockly framework and built a basic proof of concept that demonstrated that it can be done and I have the skills to progress it further. This isn’t integrated with main environment yet.

I envisage my software will arouse interest for four purposes, which I definitely hope are not mutually exclusive. In no particular order:

  1. To produce abstract art pieces that are shown and appreciated online or in print like other art.
  2. To offer a space to experiment, visualize, develop intuitions, form personal theories and learn the maths behind the sketches, for those who have an interest in recreational mathematics.
  3. To provide sensory stimulation for sensory seeking neurodivergent individuals with conditions such as autism, as a relaxing activity.
  4. To stimulate interest in coding.

To satiate the third need I would like to add an ability to translate the evolution of musical qualities into changes to the visual parameters. I think synchronization with music along with the ability to control parameters using hand gestures would be two really fulfilling features for me to enjoy as a person with neurodivergent traits and for others like me.

I’m not currently knowledgeable on the topic, but I wonder if my music visualization aspirations could also be adapted into a useful tool for deaf and hard of hearing people. As a hearing person I remember around the turn of the millennium when products such as Microsoft Windows Media Player 7 were launched and music visualization algorithms were an exciting new way of understanding music. But the novel element wore off quickly. I’m seeking to create a much richer experience in terms of customizability and personalization but I need to research if there’s genuine potential to communicate useful information in an accessible way or not.

So far the tool has been entirely grounded in me and my needs. There’s still a considerable amount of work to be done in terms of engaging with online enthusiasts, teachers, and other disabled people.

As an artist I’ve got many ideas for new sketches that I’m eager to get stuck into. But taking the environment to the next level by making it into something special will/would be exciting too. It frustrates me that I can’t be working on both simultaneously!

Evaluation

When I began this project, the sketch had five limitations that I wanted to address.

  1. Only one set of tiles was available and that tile set only included two tiles (plus a blank tile).
  2. There were only four points available on each tile (the corners) to join lines between tiles.
  3. The lines were always straight.
  4. The colours didn’t always flow naturally from one tile into another.
  5. The computer code was rigid because it was written to draw those two shapes only. The code didn’t contain an explicit model of the high level properties.

And now:

  1. Eight styles of tiles have been invented and two of these are available for use. They’re now styles rather than sets of tiles because the tile designer interface doesn’t constrain the user to a small predetermined collection anymore.
  2. There are still only four anchors in active use, though they’re different ones from previously. Internally however though the code has been rewritten in an abstract way so that it may support any number of anchor points in future, with sixteen already defined.
  3. Lines can now be straight or curved.
  4. Colours do flow naturally from one tile into another, though not with colour gradients yet.
  5. The code is more flexible. New tiles can easily be coded separately and plugged into the general algorithm.
  6. Chevron and parallelogram shaped tiles are possible. Users can design their own tiles using the built in tile designer and refine the layout by imposing constraints. An initial proof of concept for user programmed sketches has been created.

Overall, the project has been a success. The next task is to keep the momentum going and plan what comes next. Working with Talking Birds has boosted my aspirations and raised interesting questions about possible future directions for my work.

Lockdown Residency

Holly Clark reflects on her 3 day remote Hatching Residency in Winter 2020

I am Holly, I am a theatre maker based in the West Midlands. I took part in a 3 day digital Nest residency. It was to explore a new solo show idea about being dyspraxic and neurodivergent. I knew I wanted to use movement in the piece (as it is known as the ‘clumsy syndrome’) to celebrate the way I move and also to highlight parts of dyspraxia and for it to be autobiographical.

My first talk with Janet about my piece, theatre, and about lockdown was so refreshing. As we know due to the pandemic, this was a rare experience to talk about art and ideas with someone new. I came away with inspiration and ideas and actually put in an Arts Council bid off the back of it. I also tried some ideas and thoughts we had created and discussed.

I then got really stuck. I found making and creating at home really uninspiring and the things I was making didn’t feel right or of any quality. I was getting in my head about it. I was regularly doing automatic writing and trying to imagine what the work could be.

The chats with Janet each time were encouraging and sparked new ideas. She gave me articles on how to reinvent the daily walks and focus on things other than the work in order to relieve the pressure. It worked. I let go and just tried to generate rather than analyse.

I actually got the Arts Council funding for an R&D for the piece. Those three days allowed me to have time and pay to do it. Even though work that was made didn’t go any further it laid the groundwork. The conversations with Janet helped spark ideas of what the piece has begun to be and helped shape it.

It was such a valuable experience to have the mentoring time and support. I encourage you to apply to be part of the programme.

Plastic is my home

Alan Van Wijgerden reflects on his Covid-interrupted Nest Residency

Plagues of locusts, biblical floods, it all seems to have happened to my Nest Residency!

It started over a year ago now when Covid was a rumour and happening mostly in China. Things went well for me and my able assistant: set, costume and camera person Jazz. But Covid spread and, with two days to go to finish the production phase of the project, it had to be halted due to the first Covid lockdown. And so the little room in Eaton House became a distant memory.


Over a year later, with Talking Birds’ move to Radford – and Covid (which as everyone knows was only going to last a few months) finally receding – we restarted. I re-learned a forgotten script, It’s relevance around dementia brought into much sharper focus by family events. Personally I’m scared stiff of dementia and my sister says she doesn’t want to get old. Dementia is slow, insidious and cruel.


But Plastic Is My Home also re-visits some of the issues of a now archive film of mine called The All Electric Home which, if I may say, predicted the impact of the likes of Facebook. And Facebook feels like it’s been with us forever now. But in reality it’s so recent.


Talking Birds were grand throughout, providing us with facilities. And special thanks must go to Janet, who held the faith through troubled times and enabled a production I wouldn’t ordinarily have had the resources to do. Jazz was a real trooper too. These residencies are well worth applying for. With a little bit of dosh which is always useful.


Our set came courtesy of that cornucopia of all things cheap and cheerful CROW. (Community Recycling Of Waste) Perhaps for me the hardest part, paradoxically, was memorizing my own script. Such lines as “AMERICA IS ON LINE!!!” and a short ode to the old red phone box.


There look to be opportunities with City Of Culture to show the piece now, which didn’t exist pre-pandemic. Just waiting to do the edit now…

Alan in his costume during a break in filming

Open Call! Artists opportunity!

Future Ecologies – Talking Birds/Ludic Rooms Collaborative Nest Residencies

Ludic Rooms has teamed up with Talking Birds to create two Nest Residency opportunities for artists who live in the CV1-6 postcode to take time to explore ‘Future Ecologies’ around Coventry Canal. Nest Residencies have been running since 2019 and prioritise D/deaf, disabled, neurodivergent and/or locally-based artists, supporting them to experiment with one of those ‘What if…?’ ideas.

This call out is intended to identify artists living within the CV1-6 postcode who are interested in:

– exploring the themes of Future Ecologies along the Coventry Canal; 

– engaging with digital technologies (whether or not this is already part of their practice);

– collaborating with Ludic Rooms and Talking Birds;

– exploring sustainable or regenerative working practices; 

and who would benefit from a supported studio residency within the creative community at The Nest.

The Nest Future Ecologies residencies are supported by by Arts Council England Project Grants, Coventry City Council Project Grants and the City of Culture Green Futures Programme.

Ludic Rooms is based at Coventry Canal Basin and is currently focussing on life by water (in the most landlocked city in the country) and ideas for folk traditions of the future. These are being developed through its major arts and technology programme called Random String, as well as an associated project, Landlocked, where Juneau Projects are working with local residents that overlook the water to imagine future wildlife in the canal. 

The Nest is a brand new shared making space created by Talking Birds as a place to grow an inclusive, climate-conscious creative community which supports and enables disabled and local artists, giving them space to explore ideas and create new work. The Nest is on the Coventry Canal, adjacent to the Daimler Powerhouse, and is a 5 minute walk up the towpath from Ludic Rooms.

These Ludic Rooms/Talking Birds Nest Residency opportunities aim to play with the ideas and connections of the waterway and an artistic support structure – through the idea of ‘Future Ecologies’. The residencies are available across disciplines but should in some way engage with digital technologies. Ludic Rooms can support this, if you have ideas but limited know how. 

The successful artist will be provided with an accessible work space at The Nest where they will benefit from mentoring, constructive critical input and production support from the two partner organisations. The successful artist will also receive:

  • Residency fees: £800 or £1600 (plus additional access support to make the residency work for you)
  • Modest but flexible materials/making budget to include support as needed with digital technologies or other construction.

Schedule

For these Future Ecologies Nest Residencies, the deadline for applications is 22nd July 2021. We would ideally like the first residency to start as soon as possible. Nest Residencies aim to be responsive to the needs of the artist and the idea they are exploring, so the exact timing of the residency will be arranged with, and to suit, the artist.

There are two opportunities:

  • A short intensive residency ending 27th August with work to be presented during the Bank Holiday weekend events that are being held at both locations and along the canal.
  • A longer or more spread out residency, with a studio available between 1st September and 15th October. If the appointed artist wanted to take advantage of the engagement opportunities outlined below, the start date could be earlier.

It would be useful if you could indicate in your application if you have a preference on timescale.  

Sharing the Work and/or community engagement opportunities

There are a number of potential sharing, testing and presenting opportunities between July and November (see below) which is why we have structured the opportunities in this way. 

Nest artists can potentially present works in progress or engage with the public in developing their work during Friday sessions at Ludic Rooms’ Roam + Dwell public events (every Friday through July and August); August Bank Holiday weekend (27-29 August); and finally at Random String Festival 11-14 November. 

Who can apply for the Nest Future Ecologies residency programme?

Any Coventry-based artist or small company with a CV1-6 postcode, with priority given to d/Deaf or disabled or neurodivergent artists. 

How to apply

Either complete the online application form here

Or you can submit your application in video or audio format to cover the questions below

  • What idea would you like to develop during this residency?
  • What if any experience do you have and what input you might need?
  • Why are you interested in working with the partner organisations?
  • Why is this opportunity beneficial to you at this moment?
  • Please specify any support you would need in order to make this opportunity work for you.

You can include links to your website, Youtube, Vimeo or Instagram accounts

You can upload up to three images of your work with the form if you have a google account, or email them to anne@ludicrooms.com 

An easy read version of this information is available here

We’re looking for someone…is it you?

Are you a brilliant person who can make creative things happen, while supporting artists to experiment with, and develop, their ideas?

Are you interested in work with artists and communities that is at once local and place-based, but also deals with much bigger, universal issues?

Do you agree that artists have a social and civic responsibility to the places and communities where they live and make work?

Are you interested in how artists respond to the problems facing humanity: in exploring what an arts organisation’s role might be in fighting against climate change – and for social justice?

Has the pandemic made you think hard about what happens next and how artists might lead on imagining & building a better future?

We are looking for someone to join our small and friendly staff team as we grow a creative community at The Nest, our new HQ in Coventry. We have imagined this role as Nest Community Connector, but we want to work with the right person, and this means that the role, title and terms of employment are open for discussion. To begin with, we are looking for someone to join us 3 days a week for nine months – but we’re growing and changing at the moment and we hope to be able to make this a much longer term thing.

You can view or download the recruitment pack below (PDF format). A text only version is pasted in lower down this page, or if you’d prefer the information in another format, please let us know.

NEST COMMUNITY CONNECTOR Recruitment Pack (Text)

Who are we looking for?

First and foremost we are looking for someone who is excited by this brief, by the possibilities it holds and who would like to get stuck in – who is excited by the fact that everything is fluid and not yet pinned down. Someone who can’t wait to come and join us in Coventry, can see the huge possibilities of The Nest and wants to be a key part in making it a success for our city.

We’ve made a list of the qualities we are looking for, but we know that the right person may not have every single one of these – and will likely have more useful qualities that we haven’t even listed – but if you read this and think it sounds like you, then please consider applying.

We are looking for someone who:

  • likes people and is a generous collaborator, a good listener, is quick thinking and good at working with others to make interesting things happen.
  • is able to recognise the best idea in the room and work with that, even (and maybe especially) when it isn’t their idea.
  • is really curious about how and why, and is interested in change.
  • can think practically and strategically, loves to solve problems and wants to help make the world a better place.
    can hold a conversation with anyone, and make them feel confident they are being listened to, that their words matter.
  • knows how to gently question or challenge an idea or viewpoint from a position of care, and can inspire others to work with them to achieve something really special.
  • can bring something, in their skillset and lived experience, to the team that we don’t already have.
  • knows that sometimes something needs doing in a particular way whilst at others it is appropriate to challenge how things are done; and can just get stuck in and finish the job when that’s what is needed.

The kind of person:

  • whose values are important to them, and which chime with our own (Kindness, Brilliance, Transformation, Curiosity, Wellbeing, Collaboration) and with our ‘six big ideas’ (about artist process & support; access & participation; climate conscience; agency, equity & diversity; nurture & resilience) – which weave through our work, guiding our choices and interactions.
  • who is interested in people power, cultural democracy, collective decision making and the positive transformation that groups of people working together can effect, especially through the arts and culture.
  • who believes that artists have a responsibility to their communities and their cities, and that small and agile, but connected, organisations working strategically can affect big and meaningful change.

We think that the person we are looking for might previously have worked (maybe in the arts, events, charity or community sectors) in a job called something like ‘Producer’ or ‘Creative Agent’ or ‘Changemaker’ or ‘Project Coordinator’ or ‘Project Manager’ or ‘Community Activator’ or ‘Community Engagement Instigator’ (or maybe something else!). In the kind of job that is as much about envisioning the future as seeing something through – we are looking for someone who is as good on fine detail as on the big picture, and is comfortable with – and excited by – change.

Other skills that might be useful include:

  • is comfortable managing/tracking project budgets.
  • is able to reflect on how a project has gone, gather everyone’s viewpoints and fold that learning into working out what happens next.

What will we be working on?

This is a big and busy nine months for Talking Birds, and for Coventry as it becomes UK City of Culture. As we’ve mentioned, our biggest project is The Nest, a brand new home for the company – somewhere to build our climate-conscious creative community and make a hub for the wider independent artists’ community in Coventry. Within The Nest there will be co-working and meeting spaces in addition to studio spaces for artists undertaking Nest Residencies, which prioritise d/Deaf, disabled and locally-based artists, providing space and support to experiment with those ‘what if…?’ ideas.

We know there will be lots to do in inhabiting our building for the first time and in creating the right spaces and atmosphere – and much of that is about the care and attention of our team. Alongside this, we will be opening up the Nest Residency Programme again and working towards the delivery, in November, of our major creative project for City of Culture.

Specific jobs might include:

  • Artist development and support at The Nest: you might lead on the co-ordination of co-working sessions, and the team’s support for artists undertaking Nest Residencies.
  • Festival of Transition: you might be the main point of contact in the team for artists and the co-ordinator of a series of talks/events.
  • Art for the People: you might be a key creative collaborator in the shaping and coordination of this major arts and social democracy project.
  • Inclusion and Relevance: you might take the lead on connecting and extending our key strands of work around access and diversity.
  • Nestival: you might be a key creative collaborator involved in developing and producing projects in preparation for a year-long programme of creative work marking Talking Birds’ 30th anniversary in 2022.
  • Shape and influence the company’s projects, systems and future direction as a new team member with a fresh perspective.

Our working hours are pretty variable and flexible. They are often shaped around the needs of a project, but also around the other responsibilities that our team have elsewhere, like caring responsibilities or other part time work – we plan as a team to find a balance that works. We will be happy to explore different working patterns that work for the company and our new team member.

This is a part-time role and the salary will be pro rata of £26,000 per year (£15,600 per year for a 0.6 FTE role) – which for the 9 month period of this contract is £11,700. For more details, see ‘Terms and Conditions’ below.

How to apply:

If you think you might be the person we are looking for, then please send an email (up to 500 words) or a video (up to 3 minutes long) along with a CV or list of recent work to talkingbirdscoventry@gmail.com

In your email or video, please let us know:

  • What is exciting for you about this proposition?
  • And why do you think this is the role for you?
  • What will you particularly bring to Talking Birds (and Coventry)?

Closing date for applications: Friday 4th June

Interviews: Thursday 10th June on Zoom. Although many Covid restrictions will have relaxed by this point, we have taken the decision not to schedule in-person interviews at this time. Other arrangements can be made if this is not a suitable medium for you. If you’d be unable to attend during the week but would need an evening or weekend interview, please mention this in your application. We will share the questions with all interviewees before the interview date.

The interview panel will be Janet Vaughan (Co-Artistic Director), Sujana Uphadyay-Crawford and Jess Pinson (Board Members).

Questions about this role
We’ve tried to take care with the language in this job call out, and to write it in an open, accessible and equitable way – but if anything isn’t clear, or you’d like to chat with someone before applying, we’re really happy to talk to you. Please email talkingbirdscoventry@gmail.com and leave your name, details with the best way/time to contact you – and one of us will be in touch.

Positive Action Statement
Like many artist-led organisations, we are working to better represent the UK’s wide wealth of lived experience. Whilst we feel we have made progress with the diversity of the artists we work with and with the make up of our Board, our core staff team is less ethnically diverse than it might be. Therefore we are particularly keen to attract applicants who identify as something other than white British.

Travel
We advocate for greener/active travel wherever possible, and this role will be based at The Nest in Coventry, which is a 20 minute walk from Coventry city centre – or a 10 minute cycle (a docking station for the West Midlands Cycle Hire (Beryl app) network is 100m away on Sandy Lane). We have pedestrian access from the canal towpath or from Sandy Lane, which is also well connected to the local bus network. There is ample bike parking on site and two car parking spaces, which are reserved for those for whom travelling without their car would be a barrier to accessing the building.

Terms and conditions
This is initially a temporary contract for nine months. We hope – subject to successful fundraising – to extend this.

The role is part time – pro rata 0.6 of a full time equivalent (FTE) working week of 37.5 hours (i.e. 3 days / 22.5 hours a week). We are open to flexible working patterns (by agreement) and committed to family-friendly working. Some non-usual hours may be required depending on projects, possibly including at weekends or evenings,
by prior arrangement.

Salary will be pro rata of £26,000 per year (£15,600 per year for a 0.6 FTE role) – which for the 9 month period of this contract is £11,700. There will be 11.25 days of paid holiday per year over the 9 month period of this contract (pro rata of 25 day FTE per year). In addition, there is entitlement to the usual public holidays in England and Wales on a pro rata basis, normally to be taken in the week of each bank holiday.

Reasonable time off in lieu (at a time agreed with the Artistic Directors or General Manager), will be granted for excess hours worked. Occasionally, by agreement, additional pay may be offered instead of time off in lieu.

Talking Birds has a company pension which the postholder will be eligible to join. Employer contributions will be 3% and employee contributions 5%. Employees may opt out of this if they wish.

There will be a probationary period of 2 months.

There may be some flexibility around the number of hours and/or salary for the right candidate.

More info
You can find out more about us at www.talkingbirds.co.uk – we are in the middle of making a new website to launch with the opening of The Nest, but hopefully the current one will give you enough of an idea about us and our work. If you have any problems with getting in touch via our email address, please use the contact form on the website.

We have proof-read this pack about 5000 times, but please forgive us if you spot any errors… 😉

The Nest (left) and the Daimler Powerhouse beyond.

*This page was edited on Fri 14th May to change the email address for questions and applications because the previous email address was not working consistently.

How can work be both spacious and space-making?

Alex Hilton reflects on their Remote Nest Residency:

For my nest residency, I wanted to explore reimagining work, using a framework of mutual space

So many inequalities exist in access to work, and so few people feel they have the space to be themselves at work. At the same time, so much work is extractive – creating pollution, contributing to climate change, contributing to inequalities, reducing the space for other beings to flourish in the world. What would it mean for work to be spacious for the people doing the work, and space-creating for wider society and the ecosystems around us?

I’d been thinking about these issues for a while, related to my own jobsearch as an autistic person and my concerns about environmental issues. My housemate suggested that art would be a good format for exploring these issues in a broader way.

As a new artist, it was wonderful to have the space to explore my ideas which the Nest residency provided. Initially, I really noticed how nervous I was about the project. Would I write the ‘wrong’ thing? Would what I made ‘count’ as art? This felt the opposite of spacious. But once I got into the flow of working, I found it easier.

I thought about how art could be used to communicate that elusive sense of how mutual spaciousness would feel when you haven’t experienced it. It can often be easier to see what’s wrong than to see how it could be right. So I thought of the role of art in imagining and inspiring the best of what society could be. This feels especially relevant in the year of the pandemic and the need to reimagine what a better future could look like.

Janet was really supportive and it was really helpful to talk through how the work could be developed. We settled on creating a postcard prompt to get contributions for a future zine/ exhibition. Janet introduced me to Andrew Moore, who helped to create a design for the postcards which really got my ideas across and was eye catching.

I’m hoping to get contributions and include a wider range of voices in a zine/exhibition later this year exploring reimagining the best of how work could be.

Imagine Spacious Work is an art project to make a zine and exhibition on the topic of re-imagining work. This will happen in Coventry in Summer 2021. We’re looking for creative contributions on the theme of re-imagining work. This includes paid and unpaid work, childcare, homemaking etc. If you’d like to contribute writing, drawing, audio or video on this topic please get in touch via ImagineSpaciousWork@gmail.com

I needed to make a difference

Mahendra Patel reflects on his Nest Residency

Being a musician for many years, I’ve often witnessed Discrimination on many levels, and I thought if I could turn this into a play, theatre piece this could be good.  For me it had to be done very differently to what I had seen on stage in the past, it would need to grab people’s attention, make them sit up, be involved somehow – and then of course go tell their friends, post on social media to get more people to come and see.

So the idea came and a few days later a friend posted online about ‘Talking Birds Nest Residency’ I had an idea that needed exploring, researching, bouncing around, talking through with a few theatre professionals. I grabbed my tablet made a few videos, picked the one I thought described what I wanted to do best and I applied for the scheme.

Tick tock time went by and one day I see a reply from them, my heart starts beating faster, getting anxious, scared of opening the email I put the kettle on and made a coffee.  Grabbed one of my drums to feel calm again and 2 hrs later I slowly took my mouse, clicked on the email . . … Nearly fell out of my chair with the biggest grin, I got it!  No Match Funding needed! I was going to be a Nest Resident, and so it started with a meeting with Janet and Derek.  To be honest I couldn’t believe it, but they believed in me to get this started.  

‘When Instruments come to Jam’ has at its heart the idea of using instruments as a metaphor to show discrimination on many levels.  So I started to focus on the conversations instruments would have if they communicated with each other, (as humans would) the fun, laughter, judgemental, good/bad thoughts, gossiping, sarcasm, joking around and then of course discriminating!

I’ve not written a play before, so Talking Birds they got me a meeting with Ola Animashawun to help me start to sketch out the story I wanted to tell – this was a chance for me to start sounding out my ideas with a theatre professional/dramaturg, and for me this was again all new territory.  Within a short time I’d realised there was a lot of work to be done by myself – he left me with provocations regards my idea which going forward would help me structure my idea/my play. I had conversations about my idea with musicians and animators and they all helped influence the way the idea shaped up.

About a month later my partner and I were off on a short break to Bulgaria (sadly not part of the residency!), the weather was great and I found this wonderful beach bar.  The laptop came out and for the first time I was inspired to start writing the beginnings of ‘When Instruments come to Jam’, for some reason the beach bar provided the perfect conditions, the sea, sand and gentle breeze.  

How do you write about ‘discrimination’?  It’s simple, you draw on your very own experiences from the first day at school to today!  Remarks about colour/size/abilities/being too good/being too bad/ethnic background/standing up for yourself/for your friends/not being white! And to be honest not all was that bad – especially because most remarks/insults around ethnic background were wrong (for some reason very few people could actually truly insult me about this since they never take the time find out what my ethnic background actually is!)

Transferring this to instruments at first was difficult but then surprising enough started to become easier as even instruments have a make-up.  Colour/size/background/abilities/the sound they produce/presence and they too have feelings.  It’s hard to explain that although music has no barriers, the musicians choose to put up barriers.  

As the title says, the story starts ‘When instruments come to Jam’ – although I have an idea of how the story plays out, I want to develop it collaboratively over time, maybe once a week with an open call to musicians to attend; building up a group producing great music regardless of knowing or ever having played alongside each other…. that’s where the trouble starts!

Without this Nest Residency, I would not have been able to get started  on this project – the funds and support allowed me to schedule time in to my work specifically for this project/idea, think about why I wanted to tell this story, and who it was for.  Being a full time musician means I have to generate my own income and anytime spent on ideas, looking at new projects in my own time would mean I’m not earning.  The Nest Residency meant I could afford to spend time on this and explore this idea of mine: contacting artists, writers, audience development specialists. I wanted to see if, firstly, this kind of delivery has been done in theatre, have instruments been used as a metaphor and the main point was would audiences be open to a play without spoken words and just music? I’ve spent a lot of time wondering, experimenting, and being ‘brave’ in order to develop the idea further.

The next step for this project has been to apply to (and be shortlisted for) the We are Unlimited/City of Culture Trust commissions, taking this to the next level of applying for an Emerging Artist Award in theatre. My time as a Nest Resident exploring this idea needs to end to move forward.  I’d like to thank Talking Birds for their time, guidance so far and hope that we’ll continue this on the next step as it starts to take flight . . .

condition of co-creation: a ‘process that went wrong’

condition of co-creation:

a ‘process that went wrong’

by melissandre varin

From November 2020 i collaborated with T, this experimentation did not go as planned because of external factors (pandemic, family challenges, uncaring processes, race, gender, ableist dynamics…) and internal mechanisms within our exchange on which i am about to expand audio-visually and verbally in this performative sharing.

i am including some of the correspondence emanating from me in the blogpost as a sort of a mixed modal and fragmented essay. You are invited to take as much and as little as you wish from this buffet. The video shows me reading the letters i delivered to T for the first time. There is an audio version of it as well that i recorded on my phone simultaneously for those who have had enough screen for the day. The tone of this entry is self-reflexive but it is not only a sharing of feelings and post-collaboration analysis but also just a sharing space. Only unedited documents are shared, because i believe in the force of self-exposure, i believe it tells a lot about the context and the re-contextualisation of creative processes and about oneself. Welcome in the bits and pieces of a ‘process that went wrong’ and made me grow on multiple levels. 

As i am solely elaborating from my proudly subjective perspective my last Nest residency has been a much needed grounding work on collaboration. It literally brought me down, and pushed me to my limits. Reflecting on it i am grateful it happened                      yes                 if i were to choose,            i would do it in similar ways                                            again.

i have tried to collaborate outside of my political practice and it ended up in exhaustion. i wrote to my collaborator in one of my correspondence: ‘i was exhausted before (anyway)’.

In the context of a global pandemic and under lockdown restrictions adding up extra difficulties to a state of things already hard to navigate in was a doubtful choice that guided me to learning more about my limits. 

This collaboration beyond the initial excitement quickly turned out no longer serving me but rather weakened a friendship, my mental health and future possibilities to collaborate as a free spirit. In one of the letter i regretted that i did not : ‘appreciating the distance between us. Same city, different contexts, different bodies.’ prior to this experimental process.

i got trapped in the process:’there is no start nor ends just complexity’

Can setting up new collaborations be taken lightly or ahistorically? My current self would reply with the negative to this question. Power forces have been neglected in this experimentation. My only desire was to stop worrying, stop caring about my collaborator, stop the guilt of not caring as i should, just stop. Stop, observe, and learn from the unfertile ground from which we started and from which we did not manage to grow a healthy exchange.

That went wrong because that was wrong from the beginning. Consent checklist, management of expectations, and regular checking that the other part does understand your struggles, needs, and claims are essential for me                                     even more so now.

This experience has furthered my understanding of myself, reasserted the importance of informed consent when collaborating and highlighted my limited capacity to expand emotional labour here and now. Which is a shame but it is also the ugly truth of what it is. Reflecting on the process and gathering some thoughts has proved to be helpful to start to repair and look at this scar right in the flesh so far. i take away my need to say no without solely pondering the validity of my need on consensus to be able to stand still. i use my practice as a liberating force, i understand better that there are deviations that i should not take if they do not bring joy.

i dis-placed one of my hair jar at T’s home during the creative process. When it came back i started to gather my strength back. 

on my ears while putting this together: 

Aretha Franklin
Bridge over troubled water
ENNY, Jorja Smith Peng
Black Girls Remix
Raveena
stronger
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9-yfeA2JZshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW_UHYs3giUhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wx44WvDcyXs

sending love

During this period of investigation we have sent threads of thought and element of practice to one another that ended up in a nonsense collection of letters and things that mismatched with each other but did narrate our impossibility to collaborate. i had extreme difficulties making peace with the imbalanced exchanges, and my refusal to self-censor. The issue was that refusing to self-censor did not help the other half of the research to feel welcome nor to find ways to play in the process. 

it is messy                         i am going to be alright                  ok

audio letter reading https://soundcloud.com/melissandre-varin-752685844/can-we-stop-now-talking-birds-nest-residency-melissandre-varin

audio-visual letter reading

My love goes to Talking Birds to Janet and Philippa for their kindness and never failing support and to Dr. Bharti Parmar and Janet again for gentle and transforming mentoring sessions. i am sending love to my collaborator towards whom i directed a spectrum of feelings and thanks to whom i learnt to appreciate failure and found joy and contentment in unexpected spaces and challenging times.