Placemaking's Perfect Imperfections
This project is situated in place making within Folkestone and will explore how to engage and weave the narratives of Folkestone's people, especially young people (16-21 years old). The focus of the place making activity is the former gasworks in Folkestone, which is part of the 2021 Folkestone Triennial and Pioneering Places.
More details on the 2021 Triennial is here.
More details on Pioneering Places is here.
Folkestone college has been invited (commissioned) to exhibit student work on the site and I, as one of the lecturers, will be heavily involved in this. For me, the gasworks represents a container of energy formerly used to fuel the town and people of Folkestone, but also a container for stories that built up around the gasworks site and amongst the people who worked there, lived nearby and came together in the social club that remained many years after the gasworks was decommissioned. So, a good starting point for my study is the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (Le Guin and Haraway, 2019), as this talks of narratives and the importance of containers in the evolution of society. Appropriately, our computational artwork will be displayed in a shipping container. From here we will present ideas, reflect on the past, imagine futures and weave narratives.
Initial questions to answer, explore and pose during the project:
- How can computational art and creative computing be used to weave in the narratives of young people to promote sense of place?
- Could similar methods be rolled out to other age groups and sections of society?
Artefacts to create for this project
- 3D scans and models of the gasworks site and surrounding area, imported into a unity quest game (narrative developed by students, game mechanics and scripting developed by me and a colleague).
- Processing and p5.js sketches, with a gasworks site theme, developed by my students (overseen / led by me).
- Machine Learning installation (primarily developed by me but with student involvement / engagement).
- A 3D online gallery / space, developed by students, where their work can be exhibited remotely and externally (curated by me).
Whilst making and developing these artefacts, the questions listed above will be continually reviewed. Various (relevant) art practices, ideas, concepts, theories and strategies will be examined and analysed alongside this.
Imagination, narrative and place making.
The theme (name) for the 2021 Triennial is 'The Plot' and there is much reference to imagination and narrative on the triennial website. 'Geographical imagination' and narrative is also discussed in 'Art-making as Place-making following Disaster' (Puleo, 2014). Although, the gasworks place making activity is not in response to a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or Tsunami, the area and people have, I propose, been subject to a form of social, environmental, economic or political disaster. The land remains out of bounds and some of the surrounding area seems impoverished and neglected as a result. So, I feel Puleo's text is relevant. For example, Puleo says that geographical imagination 'is a powerful ingredient ...a way of envisioning the world, experiencing and reshaping it too'. As part of this project, I will explore how the unity game engine can help our students witness, experience and reshape their world (many of them live near the gasworks site). Puleo goes on to say, 'The idea of geographic imagination is central to the concept of place, particularly as it relates to the self', so it will be interesting to see if creative computing activities (such as game development), where imaginations can run wild, can facilitate a sense of place amongst the students and local community.
Interview with Matt Rowe, Place making artist, creative technologist and educator:
In this interview (@27 mins), Matt discusses how students (and young people) don't always engage in the creative industries and place making projects, as the creative industries want them to or expect them to. This is where educators can make a difference; by understanding and listening to young people and finding a way to trigger engagement. Matt advocates that the "college is the community", so this situates creative computing educators within place making. Matt has done this through Unity and, in this project, I will be exploring how this can be done with creative coding and machine learning.
Matt also mentions the importance of incorporating real people, (@29 mins) from real memories, within place making installations. He is focussing on, and celebrating, the imperfection of the place and the people as a juxtaposition to the architects 'ideal', which can be very glossy but doesn't capture a sense of place (and the people within it).
So, a point of departure from this interview is to study imperfection and 'glitchiness' to see how this has been used and celebrated in other artistic practices and to see how this might be appropriate and fitting for place making activities. This story of imperfection and glitchy place making is (for now) the story I'm choosing to tell other stories with and the thread I'm pulling on (Haraway, 2019).
'Glitch art' is defined as the practice of manipulating media in ways that produce unexpected images or sounds. This may include data manipulation, corrupting algorithmic code, or using hardware in unintended ways to introduce an element of error into the art-making process' (Shabbar, 2018). Situating her project (Queer - Alt - Delete) in sexual surveillance, Shabbar uses glitch art 'to expose and exploit the inherent vulnerabilities and fallibility of recognition technologies'. In our place making project, we'll be using the glitches and imperfections of 3D scans to represent and celebrate an imperfect Folkestone inhabited by imperfect people; rather than an idealistic Folkestone, as perhaps portrayed by planners, architects, external artists and place makers. We want to show Folkestone, 'warts and all' and don't want to sugar coat it. So, like Shabbar, we are using glitch art to make a social political statement. We will also be using low-poly characters and assets in our unity game and p5.js sketches.
In the article, 'Cinematographic Imperfection' (Snauwaert, M. 2013), the author discusses the film 'The Misfits' and how the imperfections of the characters give the film authenticity. Snauwaert does, however, hint that the actors (including Marilyn Monroe) were vulnerable and fragile at the time of filming and that their imperfections may have been exploited. Comparing this to the 'glitchy', aesthetic that we are going for in our place making artefacts, it's important we don't somehow exploit Folkestone's imperfections. Instead, we want to celebrate the imperfections and extract the character and personality of the imperfections.
Incorporating imperfection in art has been celebrated for many years. The art critic John Ruskin (1819 - 1900) said ‘imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body’. This was cited in 'The 3-D Animated Codescape: Imperfection and Digital Labor Zones in Wall-E '(Wagner & Jang, 2008). In this text, Wagner and Jang discuss how animated characters often have some sort of flaw, which makes them endearing to the audience. For example, robots such as R2D2 and Wall-E have an "outmodedness [which] makes them cute and vulnerable; machines we can root for'. I feel it is important that a place making activity includes such flaws such that it reflects real people in real places, both of which are likely to have flaws and are shaped / beautified by these flaws.
Imperfection is important in social development, so is very relevant to me as an educator. In the first few months, or possibly years, of teaching a class I may need to role model and demand (near / perceived) perfection to set standards, expectations, ambitions etc. However, once the students are settled into the class it's important to give them the freedom to experiment and to fail. Accepting imperfection and using this as a springboard to something less imperfect is important. The 'nurturing role needs to be reduced to allow the growth and creativity of the group to develop' (Sargeant, 2011).
Photographic and 3D Imperfection:
Lomography is a style of photography that incorporates imperfections. Originally the Lomo cameras were not intended to be imperfect and glitchy, but often leaked light or had lens defects that led to marks, blurs, effects etc on the photos. The manufactures rectified the defects but the customers complained, as they enjoyed the unpredictable, 'glitchy' images. In response, the company reverted back to the original designs and began making lenses that would give the cool Lomo look. Lomography has been used in place making activities, events and installations, such as the 2012 Olympics 'Lomowall' in the museum of London (Gosling, 2012). A parallel between this and our (college) Gasworks place making artefact is that many of the Lomowall images were created by 'the people' and not a commissioned artist. Also, the 3D scanning equipment we are using to create assets for our unity game is comparatively affordable (compared to high resolution scanners) and easy to use, as are lomography cameras (Lee, 2011). The 3D scanner we are using is demonstrated in the 4 videos below, taken when my colleague (Matt Rowe) and I scanned some buildings and architecture around the gasworks site (the location of our place making activity). As can be seen, and as mentioned by Matt, there are imperfections in the scanned models, attributable to the technology being used and the ambient conditions (so similar to the lomography camera).
Summary on Imperfection and 'glitchiness'
So, an imperfect, glitchy aesthetic for our place making artefact(s) is justified and appropriate for the reasons mentioned above. And, as eluded to by Matt in the interview, it's an aesthetic that is accessible to students, 'making it ok' for them to create animations, games, p5.js sketches etc that are imperfect, incomplete or aesthetically / functionally flawed without compromising their creativity and ambition. I find this acceptance of imperfection a very interesting paradox, as coding is a very precise activity, where the syntax has to be perfect in order for a program to run.
One way of incorporating imperfection and glitchiness into a coding activity is through machine learning, where the machine / model has flaws, largely due to bad training (under training, over training etc). In the p5.js sketch below I have trained a sound classification model and incorporated this into a gasworks inspired sketch. By saying the word "more", the gas cylinder grows (reflecting how telescopic gas containers worked) and by saying the word "less" the gas cylinder shrinks. The glitches occur when similar words are spoken or when other people say the words (the model was trained on my voice, with background noise sampled within my house). The thing I like about this is the simplicity of training the model, using google's teachable machine (https://teachablemachine.withgoogle.com/). I have shown my students how to use teachablemachine and the simplicity and usability of it mirrors the simplicity of the lomography camera, making it accessible to them and therefore appropriate for a place making creative computing activity.
Link to p5.js sketch: https://editor.p5js.org/chrisnewth/full/i9OhfeupA
Video of me interacting with (and explaining) the sketch:
Having studied 'Processing for Artists and Designers', I'm interested to see if Processing can be used to create a glitchy image of Folkestone (from a jpeg of Folkestone, for example). I will experiment with shifting pixels in the original image. I want to make my place making artefacts understandable and accessible to my students, so will choose techniques that they will be able to follow.
Video of the Processing sketch:
Link to p5.js version: https://editor.p5js.org/chrisnewth/full/vuYl-vNhh
Inspired by my Machine Learning module, the following experiment is with a machine Learning technique called 'style transfer'. The aim is to style an image of Folkestone as glitch art, training the model on a sample glitch art image.
As can be seen in the video above, the output images were over styled, obliterating the input image of Folkestone, making it unrecognisable. I find this interesting, as it reminds me how place makers and town planners can over style a place and obliterate it's identity and narrative. The training and troubleshooting took over 5 hours, so I will re-do it, but with a more subtle input image (as shown in the video). I like to think that place makers would also be prepared to go back to the drawing board if they make mistakes and consult 'the people' before rolling out and realising their ideas!
As seen in the video above, attempt 2 was much more successful and achieved the lomography effect I was after. The video explains the results and process in more detail.
Having experienced issues and failures in this experiment, this has inspired me to investigate issues and failures (or perceived issues and failures) in the wider context of place making to see if there is a correlation or if lessons can be learnt / translated. One example that comes to mind when considering place making failures is high rise tower blocks, often perceived (by outsiders, like me) to be flawed and socially dysfunctional. However, this opinion can be ill-informed. This point is explored by Saffron Woodcraft in 'Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past', where she discusses how place makers and town planers talk negatively of high rise 'mistakes of the past but without offering further detail about the mistakes being referred to'. She notes that 'these exchanges rarely focus on a specific case and rely on knowledge that is taken for granted and that circulates in professional practice', rather than really understanding the reality (and potential joys and benefits) of high rise communities. This is a good reminder that place making and a 'sense of place' can be two different things. It's a good reminder that my project needs to be situated in the latter. In another article (Peters, 2016), we are reminded that sustainability of places is often quantified in terms of a building's sustainability rather than focussing on social sustainability and people. I find this relevant to our place making activity at the gasworks, where new futures are being planned and imagined for the old, derelict site. It's important that our place making activity has people and their narratives as a focus, to facilitate the social sustainability that Peters refers to.
Artefact 3 - As an interactive piece. I have developed artefact 3 so it is activated by pose detection rather than mouse clicks. The poses are in response to the social club that was once on the site, which hosted many dances and discos, so I have the narrative of the site and people in mind. It will also link in with the dance floor exhibit by Jaqueline Donachie that will also be on the gasworks site.
Artefact 3 - As a performative piece: In the video below, you can see the model being used performatively, acknowledging and celebrating the glitchy, imperfect style of Folkestone.
Artefact 4 - In response to my machine learning projects / artefacts, and noting the strong link between machine learning and imperfection (due to over-training, over-styling etc), I have been motivated to create another machine learning artefact. This one attempts to create a sense of place by taking the wikipedia content of Folkestone and using that to produce generative text in the style of HG Wells, who lived in Folkestone. The text produced is far from perfect and coherent but, as with my other artefacts, this recognises and celebrates Folkestone's quirkiness and diversity. Here's a video demonstration of the model.
Here's a video walk through of the Unity text based adventure game. Part of the narrative was developed by one of my students (Aaliyah), overseen by me and my colleague (Matt Rowe). Matt and I did the 3D scans together, then Matt created the game in Unity.
The link below is to a mozilla hub 3D model of the gasworks site, created by one of my students. This is an example of engaging the students in placemaking activities, and helping them gain a 'sense of place' through creative computing projects. The model is 'work in progress' - The aim is for the student(s) to create a virtual exhibition space inside the model of the shipping container (that can be seen in the virtual world) to showcase student work online. The model of the shipping container and site are accurate representations of the actual shipping container and site.
Interviews with students
Having made the decision to create glitchy place making artworks, and rolled this out to the students, this is a good point to interview a few students to measure and monitor their engagement in the project and to see how their voices and narratives have been captured.
Interview with Casey and Aaliyah (Level 3 students):
Key points from interview:
Note: This interview wasn't staged, scripted or planned, so the responses of the students are genuine, natural and, in my opinion, credible.
It is clear from the interview that the students are 'into' the project and engaged with it. They talk enthusiastically about their contributions and how they have been discussing the project and gasworks area and history with their family.
It also clear that their lecturer (Matt Rowe) has provided the students with a framework in which to work and engage with the project. For example, Aaliyah mentions some research documents that Matt loaded onto OneDrive and I'm also aware that Matt has taken the narrative of Aaliyah's text based adventure game and has converted this into a unity quest / game. This has maintained the student's interest and involvement whilst raising the quality of the piece. I feel this is a good, if not essential, approach to place making activities i.e. retaining the ideas, stories, narratives of 'the people' and finding ways to present that artistically but without over-styling or changing it too much. Maintaining that imperfection, if you like.
It was interesting to hear Aaliyah talk about the importance of 'intertwining [the narratives] of the older and younger generations and making the [gasworks story and future] more accessible to everyone' . Also, it was interesting to hear Casey's opinion on the future of the gasworks site. The project has clearly raised his awareness of the site and how he sees that site being used in the future. My thoughts are that the students have developed a sense of place and I believe this can be attributed to taking part in the project. It would be interesting to see if that same sense of place would have been evident 'anyway'; perhaps due to an inherent, sub-conscious, subliminal love of Folkestone (as the place they grew up in and live). Maybe the mere exposure effect has a part to play too? Has a sense of place developed simply from living in the area, walking past the site, knowing the site? Is there an underlying aesthetic antirealism where student engagement has been achieved 'not because of the quality of the place making activity / artwork, but the fact that the students are regularly exposed to those places / artworks' ( Nanay, 2017). However, Nanay argues "that the mere exposure effect only works for good art". So, whilst the mere exposure effect may play a part in the engagement of the students / young people, I believe this is outdone by the good work, good pedagogy and 'good art' of our college's place making activity.
Interview with students, discussing our 'glitchy' placemaking aesthetic:
Summary and Conclusion
The narrative of this project has been the glitchy and imperfect history (and possibly, future) of Folkestone and the old gasworks site. The place making artefacts and activities I have made, or been involved with, have been centred around the young people of Folkestone (our students in this case), either incorporating creative coding techniques that they can understand and engage with or incorporating and developing their narratives and ideas. Judging from the interviews with the students, and working alongside them for 6 months on this project, I believe we have helped them develop a sense of place and helped them feel more connected with, and invested in, their community. The project has been a good reminder of how important people are in place making and how external agencies and planners can overlook this or convince themselves that they have the community's interests at heart, where in fact they don't really understand the community because they are not situated within it. Game Engines, Creative Coding and Machine Learning lend themselves well to place making activities, as they be used artistically to create engaging content and to immerse an audience. They are also good as they can be hosted online, which is particularly useful in today's world of lockdown and limitations associated with public spaces and events. The project has highlighted some interesting social, political and environmental issues surrounding town planning and place making, opening up discourses and further research. Returning to the carrier bag theory of fiction, I believe we (the college lecturers and students) have treated Folkestone and the Gasworks area as a container of people, buildings, narratives and histories that deserves to be celebrated, respected and revered. Perhaps place making activities and initiatives such as this will help shape the future of towns and cities in a way that gives the people a sense of place and has the people at the centre of any redevelopment.
Le Guin, U. and Haraway, D., 2019. The carrier bag theory of fiction. S.l.: Ignota Books.
Puleo, Thomas. "Art-making as Place-making following Disaster." Progress in Human Geography 38.4 (2014): 568-80. Web.
Rowe, M. (2021). Interviewed by Chris Newth, 2 April. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F89OJ0oZnN0
Haraway, Donna. "It Matters What Stories Tell Stories; It Matters Whose Stories Tell Stories." Auto/biography Studies 34.3 (2019): 565-75. Web.
Shabbar, Andie. "Queer-Alt-Delete: Glitch Art as Protest Against the Surveillance Cis-tem." Women's Studies Quarterly 46.3/4 (2018): 195-211. Web.
Snauwaert, Maïté. "Cinematographic Imperfection: The Art of Life in Film (On John Huston's The Misfits, 1961)." English Studies in Canada 39.2-3 (2013): 23-29. Web.
Wagner, Keith B, and In-Gyoo Jang. "The 3-D Animated Codescape: Imperfection and Digital Labor Zones in Wall-E (2008) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012)." Animation : An Interdisciplinary Journal 11.2 (2016): 130-45. Web.
Sargeant, Rhona. "Imperfection and Disillusionment as Therapeutic Agents." Group Analysis 44.1 (2011): 40-51. Web.
Nanay, Bence. "Perceptual Learning, the Mere Exposure Effect and Aesthetic Antirealism." Leonardo (Oxford) 50.1 (2017): 58-63. Web.
Gosling, Emily. "Lomography Creates a Lomowall for the Museum of London." Design Week Online (2012): Np. Web.
Lee, Kevin. "GEEKTECH." PC World 29.10 (2011): 22. Web.
Saffron Woodcraft. ""Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past"." Focaal 2020.86 (2020): 69-83. Web.
Peters, Terri. "Social Sustainability in Context: Rediscovering Ingrid Gehl's Bo-miljø." Arq : Architectural Research Quarterly 20.4 (2016): 371-80. Web.
Hawes A. and O'Connor C. (2021) interviewed by Chris Newth 29 March. Available at https://youtu.be/ZkJQk_Pq26I
Hawes A. and O'Connor C. (2021) interviewed by Chris Newth 19 April. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrynbaj5tBs