The artist as boundary crosser in the collaboration process to create a mixed media art piece

This article I wrote with my intern Meike Kurella for the Design Research Society conference 2018. The article was rejected but we would still like to share our findings here.

Summary

In this article we explore the role of an artist in a multidisciplinary team with regard to the effectiveness of the communication and the productivity of the team. In this case study a diverse team worked towards a complex, multifaceted, interactive art piece. Our main questions were: What makes this challenging collaboration successful? How does the team deal with the boundaries they encounter? We have looked at those questions from the following angles: The teams’ use of boundary objects, the multidisciplinarity of the artist, her artistic vision and the final result the team is working towards. We have researched these questions using observation, reflection and through a questionnaire answered by every team member. We have come to the conclusion that all four angles have contributed to the success but there may be other factors at play which call for further exploration.

Keywords: Experiential Knowledge; Boundary Crossing; Boundary Object; Multidisciplinary Collaboration

Introduction

This article describes part of the creation process of a mixed media artwork. This work is being created during a six month project as part of the WEAR Sustain open call. The aim of the WEAR consortium is in line with the broader goal of the European Commission “…to enhance creativity and the innovative capacity in industry and society…” (“Open Call Themes”, 2017) it wants “…to boost synergies between artists and ICT experts (technologists) to enable Europe to benefit from the catalytic nature of the arts and culture across European society and industry. …In order to promote further collaboration between the arts and technology through innovation activities, WEAR focuses its engagement in collaboration, co-design and co-development of a new generation of ethical, critical, and aesthetic wearable technologies and smart textiles to influence change in industries practices and for a more circular economy.” (“Open Call Themes”, 2017)

Artist DR works at the intersection of art, technology, science, spirituality and design. With her work she wants to promote self and environmental awareness and well-being using emerging technologies and data. At the time of the call announcement she had already been working on a wearable for a year. The wearable tracks physiological and environmental data during meditation. Its aim was to learn if and how meditation practice can be optimised by changing aspects of the environment.

This wearable fitted the theme and criteria of the call. She applied for the call and was one of the 23 winners. Below follows a brief description of the project.

The project is called Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit. It is a tool-set that allows users to do their own experiments to improve their meditation quality. The kit consists of:

  • a wearable with 10 different sensors called Silence Suit
  • a software program for storing, analysing and managing data and wearables called the Data Server
  • an Internet of Things interface to automatically influence environmental light using a device called Light Instrument
  • an API to create your own applications with the data

To realise this the system makes use of emerging technologies like Internet of Things. This allows devices to talk to each other wirelessly such as, in this case, the wearable and the light device. An artificial intelligence module will learn from the data to create the most optimal light circumstances for meditation for individual users.

During this 6 month project we focussed on building a basic, flexible system that can actually influence meditation through light.

The structure of the call is such that you apply with a team, they are the project owners and get to spend the most time and money on the project. With additional vouchers a team can buy external expertise not present with the team members. So there is a technical difference between team members and external experts. For our research in this article we will however regard both types of collaborators as part of the team.

Both authors of the article are part of the team. They work on the project as well as reflect on the collaboration. Below we will describe the team and its members in more detail.

What might set this project apart from other design assignments is that the artist is also the commissioner. She had complete freedom in determining the deliverables and setting their standards. She could decide on the success of the project and its outcomes.

At the time of writing the project is still ongoing and is in its third month. But the first stage of the project is where the collaboration is most intensive and the meetings are most frequent. During the first stage the design and production of the wearable takes place. The data server structure and interface is designed. Both these activities require a lot of communication and collaboration. We therefore think that reflecting on the collaboration at this stage will still yield valuable insights. More so because were are not only looking at the results to inform the success of the project and collaboration but we are especially looking at the role of the artist within the team.

Starting points

The product

Part of the requirements of the WEAR Sustain call was that there was already a prototype at technical readiness level 3 (TRL3). At the start of the project there was a wearable that could be worn and data from the sensors could be plotted and stored. So a lot of the design, the concept and technical groundwork was already done. The collaboration during the first three months focussed on:

  • Improving the existing wearable with regards to technical robustness, look and feel, usability and interaction design
  • Designing the overall system and the Data Server which included: system architecture, database design and user interaction

The team

The team consists of a mix of experienced experts, students and interns. Their backgrounds vary from computer science and electronic engineering to design and fine arts. This is a typical setting of boundaries at work in the technology and design domain as explained by Akkerman (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). Below is a summary of the team members’ roles and expertise. This provides a picture of the diversity of the team.

The main team (as defined in the WEAR Sustain call) are:

DR is an artist. She is the project manager and during this part of the project works on various design tasks ranging from interaction design, experiment design and soft electronics. She holds a BFA in sculpting and monumental design. She has completed several university courses in psychology, psychological experiment design and statistics. She finished several courses in the field of software engineering and intensively studied information architecture. She learned the basics of electronic engineering. She took online courses on Buddhism and psychology and philosophy. And she has studied and practiced user-centred design. DR combined autonomous art production with work as a self-employed web designer (until 2013) and various teaching jobs and project management in the cultural sector (up to the present). We will explain the significance of this knowledge and experience in the collaboration process below.

VP is a textile designer with a strong interest in technologies like 3D printing, laser cutting and sustainability through fashion on demand. She is responsible for the suit design, pattern making and production.

SB is an embedded software engineer with experience in hardware for wearables and software development. He’s an employee of the innovation acceleration foundation Protospace. He is responsible for the system design and programming of the Data Server.

The external experts (as defined in the WEAR Sustain call) are:

SG is a master student embedded systems. At this stage he is responsible for the electronics and firmware.

KH is a master student embedded systems at Twente University. He is responsible for the design and production of the PCBs.

JD is a bachelor student mechanical engineering at Twente University. He is responsible for the design and 3D printing of the containers for the electronics.

AH is a student Multimedia Design and Communication and is an intern at Protospace. She works on the user interaction and interface design of the Data Server.

GB is a data scientist. He is responsible for the learning algorithms and artificial intelligence module.

HA is a software architect. His responsibility is to ensure the robustness, flexibility and scalability of the whole system.

MK is a fine arts student. As an intern at DR she works on describing the ongoing development of Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit in a weekly blogpost and various hands on tasks like sewing.

The team has used several ways to communicate. Because members were scattered over 5 locations telephone and teleconferencing have been used in addition to face to face meetings.

Research methods

To research DRs multidisciplinairity and the impact on the collaboration with experts from different disciplines, we reflected on the interaction between team members in specific meetings. Especially, we focused on the role of the DR in relation to others. In this research DR reflected mainly on herself and how she experienced the collaboration and the communication. MK took on the role of an observer to reflect on how the collaboration and the communication seemed to a third party.

To verify the assumptions we made, we asked all team members to fill in a survey about how they see the collaboration and communication. In this survey we combined 5 point Likert scale responses with open questions where the team members could describe their individual point of view. So we could get as much detailed information as possible as well as the possibility to compare them to each other.

The questions we asked the team members were about their own role and their motivation to work on the project. DRs role and her qualities, as well as the interaction between DRs role and the team members and the quality of the communication within the collaboration (Attachment 1).

Working with boundaries

In this part we want to further explore the role boundaries play in this project. We have described the multidisciplinary team, the artist leading the team and the mixed media deliverables the project will yield. We want to take this a step further and show how boundaries, boundary crossing and boundary objects are at the core of the process and the end result.

When looking at the progress in the first months (milestones are being met) and the overall smoothness of the communication and collaboration (rated 3.81/5 by the team) we believe the collaboration up to the point of writing has been successful. This is despite the diversity of the team and the complex results they aimed for. We hypothesise this is due to the following factors:

  1. The use of boundary objects
  2. The multidisciplinary artist
  3. The artistic vision
  4. The art piece as a boundary object

1. The use of boundary objects

In order to make communication and transfer of knowledge possible and better, mixed teams make extensive use of self-created objects often referred to a boundary objects. They can be described as artefacts doing the crossing across sites by fulfilling a bridging function (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). The team described in this article is no exception.

We have identified 19 objects which can be considered boundary objects (table 1). They have been used on varying occasions and by different numbers of team members. Because the art piece is multi-faceted, every facet has its own set of objects which may explain the even distribution of use and perceived usefulness of the various objects (table 1).

Table 1. Overview of identified boundary objects

  Title/name Type Use frequency Subjective importance
1 Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit|System Specifications Dropbox paper 41 changes, 7 remarks in 2 months, shared with 7 users 3
2 MLEK Data Scheme Dropbox paper 13 changes, shared with 6 people 2
3 Silence Suit first design a Tangible object Brought to x f2f meetings 3
4 System Outline version 2 Schematic image Brought to almost every meeting, referred to in Skype meetings 1
5 MLEK system architecture PowerPoint with system architect proposals Used in one Skype meeting 3
6 MLEK data server user interface and functionality Schematic image Used in two meetings, referred to in no 1 4
7 Costumer journey maps Text file Used in two meetings 2
8 MLEK DS Implementation Schematic image Used in one meeting 4
9 Meditation Quality Classification Annotated image Used in one meeting  
10 Silence Suit textile sample version 1 Tangible object Used in one meeting 2
11 Silence Suit textile sample version 2 Tangible object Used in one meeting 2
12 Silence Suit first prototype b Tangible object Used in one meeting 2
13 Silence Suit part list Excel file Used in several meetings, shared with multiple people  
14 Project management plan Design Lab White board drawing Used in one meeting  
15 Cable and connection layout version 1 and 2 Drawings Used in several meetings, shared with multiple people 2
16 Photographic notes Photographs Used in several meetings by the designer 1
17 3D PCB designs Technical drawing Used in several meetings 2
18 To-do list per meeting Evernote to-do list Used in one meeting 1
19 User interaction flowchart Schematic image Used in several meetings, shared with multiple people 1

 

In our survey we asked the team to name the objects most helpful to them. We have ranked the objects found most useful by the team and categorised them:

  1. Schematics of the system (5 objects)
  2. Prototype (4 objects)
  3. Interactive collaboration tools (on-line) (2 objects)
  4. Drawings (2 objects)

Other objects have been used but were mentioned once or not at all by team members in the survey.

From the reactions in the survey it has become clear that the appreciation of the communication and the intensiveness of use of boundary objects are strongly linked. To explain this finding we give two examples on the extreme of the collaboration spectrum.

On the one hand is the work with VP, the suit designer. VP rated the overall communication 5/5. DR and VP have worked intensively on the user interaction with the suit. They have used iterations of the suit prototype to explore the way in which users will wear it and interact with it. The prototype was always at the centre of the communication. They enacted the future interaction with the suit with simple objects available at the scene (image 1). This way they simulated the future reality for the user and made it visual and tangible for both the artist and the designer. This type of learning through boundary objects is part of the reflective impact of boundaries called perspective taking. “This taking of the other into account, in light of a reflexive knowledge of one’s own perspective, is the perspective-taking process”. (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011, pp. 145). We crossed the boundary into the future to imagine the most optimal way for the future users to interact with the garment. The object facilitated our learning and thinking process.

Paper sensor, photo Vera de Pont

Paper sensor, photo Vera de Pont

Image 1 cardboard sensor replica and suit prototype. Photograph by VP

On the other hand is JD, the 3D printing expert. JD rated the overall communication 2/5. Contrary to the many samples of VP, JD only presented DR with a 3D drawing of one of the containers during a Skype meeting. It was difficult to get a clear idea of the container from the screen, this was also hampered by lack of computing power to render the drawing. In his statement he clarifies that much remained unclear because of different frames of mind. This makes clear that from his perspective boundaries were not crossed. This is underscored by his remarks when questioned about the use of boundary objects: he finds boundary objects useful in general but acknowledges the fact that we made poor use of them and mostly used email.

What was lacking is this particular communication was the learning aspect of coordination in which “…effective means and procedures are sought allowing diverse practices to cooperate efficiently in distributed work, even in the absence of consensus…” (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011, pp. 143). In those cases boundary objects facilitate the bare minimum of dialogue necessary to maintain work flow (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). 3D printing is an area DR is not very knowledgeable in. JD is a young and specialised student. The two perspectives were very much apart. A requisite for coordination is a communicative connection between diverse practices or perspectives established through boundary objects (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). The lack of (good) mediating artefacts at least partly explains the low productivity and stagnant work flow in the design and production of the containers.

These examples make very clear the key role boundary objects have in supporting boundary crossing communication.

2. The multidisciplinary artist

Multidisciplinarity

To characterize DR as an artist we first need to define different kinds of artists in the contemporary art scene as described by Gielen, van Winkel, Zwaan, 2012.

Nearly every contemporary artist is a multidisciplinary artist who has no steady medium. By medium we mean the traditionally known disciplines, such as painting, sculpting or ceramics through which the artist expresses himself. We are living and working in the post-medium-conditions. This means that the question about the medium no longer defines the artistic practice. It no longer defines you as an artist. It changes the artist’s self-concept as well as how he is seen in the society (Gielen, van Winkel, Zwaan, 2012).

In our days, many creative professions are plural practices. Bureau and Shapiro define in ‘L’Artiste Pluriel’ three different levels of pluriformity: the polyvalent artist, the polyactive artist and the pluriactive artist. The polyvanlent artist has different tasks in his own artistic practice. That could be creating things, developing the concept as well as managing his own project and governing financial matters. The polyactive artist has different professions in different social fields. It is the artist who has a non-artistic job in addition to his artistic practice. The pluriactive artist has different professions in the creative field. That means that the job you have in addition to your artistic practice takes place in the applied art field.  Pluriformity is an economic as well as a legislative and a political choice. It offers you a financial security but it changes the identity and the autonomy of the artist (Gielen, van Winkel, Zwaan, 2012).

Camiel van Winkel, Pascal Gielen and Koos Zwaan add a fourth level of pluriformity to the artistic practice. It is the hybrid artist they introduce. A hybrid artist firstly has to be a pluriactive artist. Secondly, the two practices of autonomous and applied art are no longer divided, so that they are equal. They take shape in one context and in the same production. The blurring can contribute to the identity and the profile of the artist in a positive way. The artist has no need to divide the tasks because they enhance each other (Gielen, van Winkel, Zwaan, 2012).

As van Winkel, Gielen and Zwaan describe, together with the hybridism and the post-medium-conditions goes also the deskilling of the artist. The contemporary art practice is build up around a framework of concepts, intentions and attitudes. The vision of the artist is central. From here the artist determines which (technical) skills he has to learn to realize the vision. This phenomenon is called deskilling because the skills itself come on the second place. They are a derivative of the vision instead of a main thing. The artist creates a versatile package of skills (Gielen, van Winkel, Zwaan, 2012).

In this sense the artist maintains his autonomous context which is characterized as self-determined, uncompromising and authentic (Gielen, van Winkel, Zwaan, 2012). The vision of the artist is central. It is the critical view of an artist and the extraordinary capability to reflect on yourself as well as on the society. A driving force to the artist is the will to make things nobody is waiting for, except yourself. From the personal desires and inspirations around yourself the vision of an artist develops.

Having described the various types of contemporary artist we will now explain how DRs position is unique and how it may influence the team collaboration.

Looking at her art practice we can conclude that DR is polyvalent, pluriactive and hybride in different parts of her practice.

When DR is working in her studio she is an polyvalent artist. Also in this project she has different tasks such as team leader, project manager and artist at the same time.

She is a pluriactive artist when she adds various design aspects to her artistic work, may it be the research method or the outcome of the work.

The combination of design and autonomous work goes further in the case of DR than a pluriactive practice. It definitely can be said that she is a hybrid artist. ‘There is no need to divide the different domains of my work, because it is not possible to divide them. The autonomous practice needs the applied art to meet my vision and vice versa’, she explains.

We think that her skills and her artistic identity go beyond the practice of a hybrid artist. DR graduated from St Joost art school in Breda, the Netherlands in 1993 on the subject of sculpture and monumental design. So when she finished her art school education the post-medium-conditions were not that present as they are nowadays.

DR is not only active as a creative but has also worked in and or studied psychology, ICT and spirituality. During her career as an artist DR has built a broad set of skills and she has expanded her knowledge continuously. Not only to keep up to date with new developments but also to broaden her view.

This process is called ‘deskilling’ (Gielen, van Winkel, Zwaan, 2012). The choices of what to learn and how to expand are closely linked to the artistic vision. DR studied these fields to enhance her art practice and to be better able to talk to experts in different fields. On the other hand the studies and work in different fields are also a big source of inspiration to her. They feed her artistic practice and help her come up with new ideas and provide different angles of looking at reality.

During her career she has stepped outside of the art scene and traditional artist sources. She has been on the lookout for new and interesting developments in science and technology. This is what sets her apart from regular hybrid artists. Having a broad repertoire and keeping a learning mind-set are typical for innovators (Liedtka, 2017). We believe it is this outlook which enables her to perform well across boundaries as we will explain next.

Boundary crossers

Akkerman & Bakker explain the ambivalence people working at the boundary may perceive: On one hand they have a very rich and valuable position since they are the ones who can introduce elements of one practice into the other (cf. Wenger, 1998). On the other hand they face a difficult position because they are easily seen as being at the periphery, with the risk of never fully belonging to or being acknowledged as a participant in any one practice (2011).

Within this project DR clearly performs the role of boundary crosser. Contrary to the claims made above she didn’t experience any of the difficulties described. We contribute that to the following factors.

After winning the open call DR automatically became the commissioner of the Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit project. She also controlled the budget. She was right at the centre of the project and never experienced herself as being at the periphery.

She felt a strong sense of belonging. DR describes her own role as including but not limited to guarding the process and keeping direction. With that comes a natural leadership position which the team recognises and respects. SG describes her role as between costumer and product owner.  He says: “We have room for our ideas but finally, she [DR] has to agree. Therefore we have to underpin our ideas well.” Apparently the team members follow DR as a leader but also feel free to bring in their own ideas.

As for never being acknowledged as a participant in any one practice: this and other projects have shown that being a boundary crosser is at the core of her work and her identity as an artist. Complex projects like the one described in this case study enable her to fully be an artist at the cross-roads of disciplines and domains.

As explained above DR can be characterised as hybrid artist and innovator which implies a broad repertoire and a learning mind-set. Both the contemporary artist and the innovator can be characterised as multidisciplinary. To verify if DR was perceived as such by the team we first asked the team how they rated the multidisciplinary of DR. This yielded a score of 4.4/5. So the overall perception was that DR is highly multidisciplinary. Next we asked if this broad knowledge was sufficient for the team members to perform their role and tasks. The knowledge sufficiency was rated 4.2/5. DRs overall general knowledge and openness to expert knowledge is appreciated. She has enough general knowledge to be able to enter the conversation. But there is enough room for the experts to do their job and feel they have an import role to play in the project. They feel DR relies on their expertise. “DR learns quickly and trusts advice.” is HDs comment on the question if DRs knowledge is sufficient. SB put it very well: “On a global level, yes on implementation level no. In my opinion global knowledge is in this case important.”

3. The artistic vision

We hypothesised that the artistic vision of DR could influence the motivation of the team members in a positive way. To verify this hypothesis we asked them in the survey if the artistic vision influenced their motivation. This yielded an average of 3/5. But there is only one team member who scored a 3. This points to a balance between two extremes of members who find the artistic vision a very strong influence on their motivation on the one hand, and on the other hand people who find the artistic vision does not influence their motivation at all. We wondered how it can be that the opinions of different team members on the same project are so far apart.

To explain these extremes it is interesting to look at the members own motivation. Here there are also two extremes. On the one hand, there are team members who are mainly motivated because of the collaboration aspect of and the personal challenge contained in the project. E.g. VP: “Knowledge enrichment concerning technology. Working in a team. Being a member of a bigger whole.”

On the other hand there are team members who mainly work on the project because of specific interests such as money or the fascination for their own discipline (e.g. JD: “Money.” or KH: “I am always in for electronics.”). We compared the extremes of the motivation to the extremes of the influence of the artistic vision and it appears that those who worked on the project because of the collaborative aspect were influenced by the artistic vision and those who were focused on a specific interest were not influenced by the artistic vision.

We consider these two perspectives a strength of this project, not a weakness. Members coming from different angles could and did find their role and contribution to the project useful, as we will explain below.

We see the artistic vision as guiding: even if it is not influencing people’s work or motivation directly, this project with all his complexity and diversity could never have taken place without a strong artistic vision.

4. Art piece as a boundary object

When looking at the description of a boundary object one may conclude that the final result of the collaboration will actually be a boundary object. The results translates between different disciplines as well as between autonomous and applied art. We believe this quality contributes to the success of the collaboration, as we will explain below.

The final result will be a mixture of different media and fields of expertise. This will make it accessible for different types of users:

Users wanting to optimise their meditation.

Users who want to experiment with their meditation.

Developers who want to explore new possibilities with the data and the build in Internet of Things functionality.

Users who enjoy the autonomous quality of suit and art works created from the data.

Right in the middle of these use cases is Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit. To accommodate for these different uses the outlook and expertise of very different people was needed.

The parts we worked on at the time of writing were: the garment, the electronic hardware and its containers, the embedded software, the data server with data base and user interface, the artificial intelligence module and the overall system architecture. The outline of the results were there, they guided the various tasks. But there was enough room for every team member to experience that their expertise is a valuable contribution. When asked about their role 4 out of 11 team members explicitly mention their role in the project as useful or important. The others see their role mostly as facilitating important parts or the project as a whole. Or as SG put it: “…It is clear that she [DR] needs to be surrounded by a team of experts to develop all the details of her ideas.”

Conclusion

We have described the process of working on a complex mixed media project with a diverse multidisciplinary team. Despite these challenging circumstances milestones were met and the quality of the communication and collaboration was high. We have explored the reasons for this success through observations, reflection and a survey among team members. We have discovered that the four aspects below have contributed to the success:

  1. The use of boundary objects
  2. The multidisciplinary artist
  3. The artistic vision
  4. The art piece as a boundary object

With respect to item 1. we conclude that we have used many different types of boundary objects which can be explained by the multi facet-ness of the project. In most interactions they have been used intensively. Which resulted in good productivity and communication. In the one case where boundary objects were lacking we saw a lack of productivity and poor communication.

With regard to DR as multidisciplinary we conclude that as an artist DR goes beyond the hybrid artist. Her innovative mindset has provided her with broad general knowledge. This enables her to easily cross boundaries. Her knowledge is sufficient to lead different team members. Being a generalist creates the need for expertise but also creates room for others to excel in their expertise.

We can conclude that the importance of the artistic vision differs among team members. This is driven by individual motivation. Still the overall vision is crucial because it connects the many facets and disciplines included in the project. But we believe that the passion of the artist in pursuing this vision reflects on the team members and acts as a source of inspiration. It might be the (hidden) driving force to go that extra mile. It triggers the team members to cross the boundaries of their own expertise.

Because we can identify the final art piece itself as a boundary object it provides room for users and experts to take a stance on the result and the tasks involved. This allows team members to view their contribution as an important part of the whole. The nature of the art piece is one of the aspects that enabled the successful design and production process.

This research has provided insights into what aspects contribute to successful communication and collaboration. For this article we only looked at the first months of the project period. Future research should take into account the whole project period. We believe that the role of the artistic vision and artist as someone who inspires is worthy of further research.

 

Referencing

Abrahamson, D. & Chase, K. (2015). Interfacing Practices: Domain Theory Emerges via Collaborative Reflection. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 16(3): 372–389. DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2015.1052384.

Akkerman, S.F., Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary Crossing and Boundary Objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132 – 169.

Bowen, S., Durrant, A., Nissen, B., Bowers, J. & Wright, P. (2016). The Value of Designers’ Creative Practice within Complex Collaborations. Design Studies, 46, 174-198. DOI: 10.1016/j.destud.2016.06.001.

Gielen, P., van Winkel, C., Zwaan,K. (2012). De hybride kunstenaar; De organisatie van de artistieke praktijk in het postindustriële tijdperk [The hybrid artist; The organisation of the artistic practice in the post-industrial age]. Breda, Netherlands: AKV|St. Joost Expertisecentrum Kunst en Vormgeving.

Liedtka, J.M. (2017). Design Thinking for Innovation, Coursera Course University of Virginia.

Open Call Themes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2017, from https://wearsustain.eu/open-calls/open-call-themes/

Appendix 1

Questions to team members

1. What did you expect from the project before you started?

2. What motivated you to take part in the project?

3. Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit is guided by an artistic vision (working towards a high tech hermitage). Does this vision have an impact on your motivation?

4. How do you see your role in and its meaning for the Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit prototype?

5. How would you characterize the role of Danielle within the project?

6. How multidisciplinary does Danielle appear to you? How does that impact your tasks for this project?

7. Do you fell Danielle’s knowledge is sufficient for your contribution?

8. The next questions are related to specific meetings. In answering the next questions please go back to one of the following meeting. State in your answer which meeting you picked.

a. Software kick-off via Skype Monday 21 August from 14-16h

b. Kick-off at Design Lab Twente Monday 11 September from 15:30-17h

c. Work session at Design Lab Twente Thursday 5 October from 12-17h

1. If you think back to these meetings how good was the communication? (Think of smoothness, mutual understanding, knowledge sharing, etc.)

2. To communicate we used several aids (think of: prototypes, schematics, shared documents.) How would you describe the meaning of those aids with regards to the communication? Which aids were most useful to you?

Getting deeper

We have some great news: You can participate in a visual demonstration of the Meditation Lab Experimenter Kit the 28th of October on Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven.

At the moment the project really satisfies me. We still get deeper into many aspects of the Silence Suit as you can read in the following.

Reflecting on the collaboration

As you can read in our last two blog posts, Danielle and me are both reflecting on our collaboration with technician, software engineers and designers. By chance, we got a call for a paper this week by DRS Special Interest Groups on Experiential Knowledge. They want to collect papers about experiential knowledge in collaborative interdisciplinary design research. By reflecting further on our personal experience we could contribute a paper to that interesting collection. We choose to work together on one paper and I am really excited about it. Personally, I hope to get clearer what the role of an artist means to me, by reflecting further on the collaboration I am observing in the case of this project.

Deepening of the content

I see that Danielle is working hard to get more knowledge about the influence of light on meditation. She reads many academic articles about how light can influence the relaxing and the activating atmosphere of a room. She mainly wants to focus on first calming the one who is going to meditate and later facilitate his focus while meditating. I find it impressive how she appropriates the knowledge to formulate her own criteria for her own scenarios as you can read here. By still acquiring more knowledge, Danielle retains the deepening of the content of her vision.

NoSQL database

The complexity of the project, I described to you last time, is also noticeable in the setup of the database. Simon de Bakker from ProtoSpace is working hard on the NoSQL database. I learned that this database consists of many different tables. Every table describes one aspect of the whole, such as sensor, session or user. Every table is connected to other tables. That is the point where it gets so complex that I find it difficult to explain. But I understood that it connects for example the user with the suit he is working with. The table about the sensor is first in general about all sensors. When it comes to the suit, as you can see in the following picture, it describes among other things the id of the suit and which specific sensor sits in that suit. When it detects a wrong value the data base learns that one of the sensors does not work. The user first has to know in which suit the specific sensor sits. So that he can later see which sensor it is and how he has to work on it. This is only one example of the correlations which have to be programmed in the NoSQL database, which makes it that complex.

NoSQL data base design

NoSQL data base design

Wire frames

Anne (Protospace intern) is working on the wire frames. I brainstormed with Danielle about the design of the screens. By formulating the criteria, it gets clearer to me what the message should be when the user opens the platform. The atmosphere of a zen meditation and the feeling of calming down do not have to be present in the design. That is something you experience while meditating. Via the platform Danielle wants to transfer the idea of an experimenter kit, tools and functionality. The wire frames have to work as a manual for the kit.

example of the wire frames

example of the visual design

Button ring

To optimise the comfort and the functionality of the Silence Suit we worked further on the button ring to mark a moment in the timeline of your meditation session. I think now we got the most optimal version of the ring. We succeeded in making a ring from conductive fabric functioning as a button sensor. So that the position of your hands do not matter.

button ring from conductive cloth

button ring from conductive fabric

Anyway, you can push the button without much effort while meditating. In the following picture you see the data of our experiment. When you push the button the value minimises. Even if the sensor is a little unstable, you can see clearly the marked moments in your timeline. I am satisfied seeing the success of developing the ring over many weeks in data.

marker button data

marker button data

Generally, I enjoy the moments when our experiments yield insights which bring the Silence Suit to the next level, so that it takes more and more form. Especially, the inspiring conversations with Danielle help me to understand the context and the correlations of the project and the project itself. Personally, it brings me further in my positioning as an artist by comparing my practice to hers.

Bewaren

Bewaren

Things come together in Twente

Last week we went to University Twente to meet Vera de Pont, our designer, and Klaas and Stephen, two of the students of DesignLab, working on the electronics and the software of the Silence Suit. It was a very exciting day to me. Before, I did not really know what to expect from the meeting. But I planned to take the role of an observer reflecting on how a meeting with people from different kind of disciplines proceeds. I have obtained interesting observations I want to share with you in the following.

Meeting in Twente - Vera, Danielle, Klaas, Stephen

Meeting in Twente – Vera, Danielle, Klaas, Stephen

Network
When we arrived, Danielle introduced Vera and me to Frank Kresin, the managing director of DesignLab. He warmly welcomed us. He asked us: ‘What is your background?’ I explained where I am from: ‘I am studying fine arts at the art academy St.Joost in Breda. I am finishing my final year and among other things I am doing my internship at Danielle’s Awareness Lab.’ He smiled warmly and said something like it was nice to meet. Vera’s answer was much more professional. She really explained what her work is about and which techniques she is familiar with: ‘At the moment, I am focussing on 3D printing’, she said, ‘so I am especially engaged in the graphical side of design.’ Frank seemed interested and wished us a productive meeting.

After we walked away, I wondered what his question was about. It was all about networking. Danielle explained later that he is into connecting people with each other. I guess that Vera is now saved in his memory and he associates her with the words she dropped within this short encounter. When somebody asks him the next time for a designer engaged in 3D print he will think about her. When it comes to my person, he only associates the intern of Danielle. That is neither good or bad, but the next time somebody asks me such a question I will know what this question is about. I need to name the core concept of my artistic practice in a few words.

I think it is good to be aware of such behavioural codes in the art world as well as in your daily life. As a child you have to learn what the answer should be if somebody asks you ‘How are you?’ We should say: ‘Good. How are you?’ At a certain point those behavioural codes go unknowingly. At the moment I am still the growing child. I am really thankful that I am learning from this internship about the behavioural codes in the art world.

In the course of the meeting I found it really interesting how an interdisciplinary collaboration proceeds. The Silence Suit has to meet many requirements such as beautiful look, stable data and convenient fit. In the following I will reflect on the different kinds of roles of the designer, the technician and the artist.

The role of the designer
Vera de Pont arrived with a big suitcase. ‘I thought it would be better to take some swatches with me, so that we can try different things. The suit itself is not that big.’, she says and laughs. She was well prepared. When we entered the meeting room she immediately unpacked her suitcase and presented the different parts of the suit on a table. I really loved to see how attentive she treated the suit she has made.

Preparing the suit for fitting - by Vera de Pont

Preparing the suit for fitting – by Vera de Pont

The first half of the meeting was about the progress of the electronics. She had many practical questions for the technicians about the look of the badge and the microcontroller container, so that she could include it in the following sketch of the suit. She properly wrote down every information she got about the electronics. In that first half of the meeting, the role of the designer was to understand as much as possible of the electronics to optimise the design of the suit.

Danielle fits the bottom layer - looking for solutions with Vera de Pont

Danielle fits the bottom layer – looking for solutions with Vera de Pont

The second half of the meeting was really about the fit of the suit. Vera seemed very excited when Danielle fit the suit. ‘It is so nice to see it on you.’ She said with a great smile on her face. It fits very well and she seems pleased that Danielle likes it. We have to think of each sensor, where it should be placed and how the cable connects to the microcontroller. Vera came up with new ideas how we could bring the electronics and the design together until everyone agreed. Her arguments were mainly about the look and that it should be as comfortable as possible for the user to maintain the suit. I was really impressed how focused she stayed during the whole meeting. In the second half of the meeting the role of the designer really seemed to be a living source of inspiration. She really thought in options instead of problems.

Danielle fits the suit - by Vera de Pont

Danielle fits the suit – by Vera de Pont

The role of the technician
Stephen and Klaas are both master students of University Twente participating in the DesignLab working on the software and the electronics of the Silence Suit. The DesignLab seemed to feel like home to them and I experienced how deep they are into the subject. They even worked through their lunch break. Before we met, they have worked many hours to optimise the construction of the badge and the microcontroller PCBs. They were able to minimise the number of plugs. Stephen and Klaas seemed happy about the outcome of their research.

Sketch of the electronics - by Klaas

Sketch of the electronics – by Klaas

Finally, they got a nice sketch of the electronics. But still, Vera and Danielle had some questions about optimising the electronics. For example, a screw connection of the plugs would be better than a clicking one. The argumentation of the technicians was mainly based on what the market offers. If there are no screw connections for that kind of plugs, they cannot do anything about it. But they were also trying to understand Danielle’s vision of the suit to bring it to a higher level on the field of electronics. They came up with the idea to change the light sensor with the wind sensor on the badge, so that the shadow of the plug will not influence the data. I enjoyed to see how they tried to think in the artist’s shoes.

Danielle consults about the electronics with Klaas and Stephen

Danielle consults about the electronics with Klaas and Stephen

The role of the technician stayed the furthest away from me. I was really impressed how much they know about their subject, but I only understood some of it. Still, I see the role of technician as a really practical one. In contrast to a designer or an artist who create things, the technician’s choice is more depending on existing things.

The role of the artist
I think the role of the artist is a really personal choice. Every artist has to formulate his own criteria. In the following I will try to characterise the role of the artist as I observed it in the case of Danielle during the meeting with Vera, Stephen and Klaas. Danielle herself told me once that she sees her own artistic practice in bringing things together. Her personal fascination leads to the vision of a project. In this case her vision is about Hermitage 3.0. The role of the artist here is to plan smaller steps to realise that vision. One of these steps is the Silence Suit as a part of Hermitage 3.0. Within that project the artist has to look for experts and people she wants to collaborate with. That is why we are sitting in Twente around a table with Vera, Klaas and Stephen.

During that meeting, Danielle kept on task all the time. But for me it seems very difficult to find the balance between practical choices and visual choices without losing your vision. For example, when Klaas told her that there is no screw connection for that kind of plug, she did not want to believe it and asked him to research once more. She asked it in a very respectful way, but I witnessed that an artist does not want to depend on existing things. Maybe Danielle’s role as an artist is comparable to a tinkerer.

Danielle presents the bottom layer of the suit by Vera de Pont

Danielle presents the bottom layer of the suit by Vera de Pont

Generally speaking, I think that an artist has to offer alternatives to existing structures. In my opinion, Danielle contributes valuable aspects by collaborating with different kind of disciplines. She creates her own universe by utilising different kind of research as a source of inspiration. The collaborations and the diversity of sources of inspiration make that she comes to a vision which could not have been thought out by one person.

To conclude this eventful day, it can be said that I acquired an in-depth view on how a collaboration in that professional environment looks like. I have especially learned a lot about the role of an artist by seeing how Danielle defines her artistic practice. That helps me to think about my future position in the art world.

Bewaren

Bewaren

Bewaren

Bewaren

Bewaren

Design Lab nirvana

Ready, set, go!

After a difficult start things are really starting to move. Since a couple of weeks all the team members are working on their individual tasks: the database design, the interaction design, suit design, PCB design and experiment design. The project feels like a sort of organism that grows organically in different directions. I keep track of what everybody is up to via Skype or phone but nothing beats a face to face meeting. Last week we had such a meeting at the Design Lab Twente.

Teamwork, photo Meike Kurella

Teamwork, photo Meike Kurella

From 12 o’ clock onwards the Lab had kindly reserved a room for our team to collaborate. Present were Klaas and Stephen students from the TU Twente, designer Vera and my intern, art student Meike.

Klaas and Stephen have been working hard on the PCB design. Their main task is to simplify the design and make it more robust. Vera had been working on the first silhouette of the suit. Our goal for the afternoon was to check if things were still matching up.

Paper sensor, photo Vera de Pont

Paper sensor, photo Vera de Pont

Match maker

The boys walked me through their designs. We were able to clarify things for each other and we spend quite some time on the plug layout and the interaction with them.
I’m learning more and more to think like a designer by assuming the role of the user and by quick prototyping of problems and interaction hiccups. I really loved the way Vera and I found solutions by taking a different angle, using paper, key-cards and even a jojo to make future usage tangible.

Key-card as batch, photo Vera de Pont

Key-card as batch, photo Vera de Pont

Vera and I also discussed the fit and aesthetics. Wearing the suit has to be a pleasant experience that has to be put to the test. At the end of the afternoon Stephen said: You must like the way it fits, you’ve been wearing the suit all afternoon. And he is right, it does feel good to wear it.

Storing wires, photo Vera de Pont

Storing wires, photo Vera de Pont

I also loved the way in which we all are working towards something which still isn’t completely clear to any of us. I use intuition, faith and persistence to keep trying to bring the different worlds together. I’m discovering that this is what comes natural to me. Merging these worlds, looking for solutions to make the most of a problem and connecting different ways of thinking to come up with something that surprises myself.

Hardware and design, photo Vera de Pont

Hardware and design, photo Vera de Pont

Calling

I started this project with the aspiration to become a modern hermit. But more and more I’m beginning to see that I am made for teamwork, that I love to inspire and be inspired. Nothing beats creating something new together. I suppose I’ll be the first part-time hermit.

Maya cabin hackathon

Since this year my projects Meditation Lab and Silence Suit are part of Hack the Body program initiated by the art-science lab Baltan. They want to combine different programs so they suggested that Hack the Body should work together with people from the Age of Wonderland program.
That meant I could work with Branly again. I met him last year and that was a very impressive experience. Branly works with people using ancient Maya spirituality.
At the same time I could try out the Sensiks cabin. With this cabin you can create multi-sensory experiences. This is very similar to what I want to do in my Hermitage 3.0 project. (This will be a space where I can optimise meditation by changing the environment and influencing the senses.)
I brought my Silence Suit which already has a lot of working sensors. We could use the suit to log biometric and environmental data and see how they are influenced by the actuators in the Sensiks cabin.
The main aim of the hackathon was to explore if ancient Maya culture and rituals can be transferred to a high tech environment. The team members were David, Branly, Masha, later to be joined by Michel.

Day 1: exploring
The first afternoon Branly explained the Tuj/Temazcal. It is used in a purifying rebirth ritual. It is a small dome-like structure that is heated by hot stones and steam. The experience resembles a sauna. The rebirth ritual is multi-sensory too: touch (temperature, rubbing with twigs and salt), smell: different herbs and resins, taste: hot drinks (herbal infusions, cacao, honey). Sound: beating of a drum, like heartbeat. Vision is excluded mostly. The Tuj is dark except for red hot glowing stones. We decided to take this as a starting point for building our experience.

Tuj/Temazcal Wikipedia image

The Tuj is located on a beach or in the woods. A quiet, relaxing space. The ritual isn’t limited to experience in the dome. Preparations start days before. The space around the dome is also part of the ritual. For example the structure has a low door so you have to get on all fours to enter. This immediately takes you back to your childhood.

Sensiks control panel photo by Masha Ru

Sensiks control panel photo by Masha Ru

The Sensiks cabin has lots of different actuators: smell, airflow, light, sound, temperature and VR. Everybody had a test ride. We all felt the cabin was rather clinical. We wanted to connect it to the environment. Make it part of a bigger ritual like the Maya rebirth ritual.

Day 2: concept development
Next day we were joined by other Hack the Body participants and hackers. One of them was Michel with whom I collaborate on the Silence Suit.
The whole group had a very interesting discussion about what an experience actually is and where it is experienced. Is it meaningful to recreate an experience that can never match the real thing? The most interesting would be to create something that can’t be experienced in the real world. We wanted to work on changing our state of mind through bodily experiences.

Another level of conciousness... Photo by Masha Ru

Another level of conciousness… Photo by Masha Ru

Day 3: design and experiments
The Maya team was joined by technology wizard Michel. We decided that we did not want to mimic the actual sensory experiences but try to induce a state of mind, another level of consciousness. We used these keywords as our guideline: womb, unknown, subconscious, abstract and random, rhythm. The next step was to translate these abstract concepts into an experience in the cabin. Actuators that we could use: smoke, heat, sound, red and blue lights.

Michel at work Photo by Masha Ru

Michel at work Photo by Masha Ru

In the womb the developing child experiences the heartbeat and breathing of the mother. In the rebirth ritual they make use of a drum to simulate that heartbeat. We wanted to use our own heartbeat and breathing using life data from the Silence Suit. The Sensiks cabin would provide the feedback through sound and light and influence the user. We did little experiments to try out the effects of hearing your heartbeat and breathing, using smoke, scent, heating the cabin, using airflow, etc. It was promising.

Experimenting with sound Photo by Masha Ru

Experimenting with sound Photo by Masha Ru

Day 4: building and presentation
We wrote a scenario of the ritual which started and ended outside of the cabin. Our aim was to slow heart-rate by manipulating the feedback. Just like the peaceful heart-beat of the mother will quiet the unborn child. This is also a way to connect to the heartbeat of the cosmos.
From this came the idea to limit the experience to 260 heart-beats (there are 260 days in a Maya year). By slowing your heart-rate you can make the experience last longer. Four stages of 65 beats would offer different experiences aimed at first going inward and then returning to the outside again.

The ritual starts outside Photo by Masha Ru

The ritual starts outside Photo by Masha Ru

The main challenge was to get the Sensiks and Silent Suit systems working together and to time the events to the users’ heart-rate. We didn’t even have time to test the final scenario.
One of the jury members agreed to be the guinea-pig. And even though we didn’t manage to manipulate the heart-rate feedback we could hear her heart-beat slowing down as she progressed through the experience. Later she described that she could turn inwards and let go of the world outside the cabin. This was exactly what we were aiming for.

Presenting "260 beats womb reset" Photo by Stellarc

Presenting “260 beats womb reset” Photo by Stellarc

Some conclusions
For me the “260 beats womb reset” experience was a proof of concept. That you can actually change a state of mind through relatively simple means (light, sound, smell and airflow) using physiological data as input. An interesting insight is that it is important to make the experience bigger than the box. To create a larger ritual that is not isolated from the rest of the environment. The user must be lured and triggered to actually use the cabin, it must make sense in the context of life.

It was a great inspiration to work with Branly, David, Masha, Michel, Fred (the inventor of the Sensiks) and all the other participants. Michel did a great job of getting everything to work in time for the presentation and combining the systems. We’ve been able to create a spiritual experience using technology. It will be worthwhile exploring this further. I feel a step closer to realizing my Hermitage 3.0.

Edit >> In addition to this report there is an interview with me by Olga Mink from Baltan Laboratories all about the hackathon. Included there is a very nice video impression of the whole week.

Bewaren

Bewaren

Bewaren

Virtual View: Literature research

To get a better idea of which type of landscapes and sound have the biggest effect on (experienced) relaxation explorative research is necessary. At the end of January I started the research trajectory for the project. This is a collaboration with students from the minor “Active ageing” from the Avans Hogeschool. The three students are: Simone van den Broek, Carlos Ramos Rodriguez and Denise Hereijgers. There is support from two teachers from Avans: Marleen Mares and Lowie van Doninck.

Both the students and I started on a literature study. The main questions being:

Which visual elements in a landscape and what landscape properties have the most effect on relaxation and heart rate variability?

Which nature sounds and sound properties have the most effect on relaxation and heart rate variability?

Which emotional, physical and cognitive aspects influence stress and relaxation in relation to nature and landscapes?

To get the students started I made a list of tags to search on: Environmental psychology, Stress, Arousal, Heartrate Variability (HRV), Heartrate coherence, Relaxation, Landscape Aesthetic Quality, View, Landscape preference, Environmental aesthetics, Restorative environments, Attention restoration theory (ART), Stress recovery, Sounds, Birdsong, Stress Recovery Theory (SRT), Skin Conductancy Level, Effortless attention, Soft fascination, Aesthetic, levels of complexity, pattern, depth, surface texture, mystery within an environment, acoustic properties of animal sounds: smoothness, intensity, pitch, biophilia.

There are a couple of authorities in this field: Roger Ulrich and Kaplan & Kaplan. They have done extensive research on visual landscape preferences and restorative properties of nature. While the students search was broader my main focus was on environmental psychology. There has been quite a lot of research on the effect of viewing landscapes and natural scenes versus urban scenes. A lot less research has gone into the effect of nature sounds on health and relaxation.

From Human responses to vegetation and landscapes Roger S. Ulrich (1985)

An example of a preferred landscape from the article Human responses to vegetation and landscapes Roger S. Ulrich (1985). This is the kind of landscapes we’ll use in our experiment.

For me this was my first experience of reading scientific articles on one theme. Some of the findings conflict and I had a hard time combining the theories and findings into a coherent story. (A more official article will follow later.) One of the students suggested looking at the virtual aspect of the piece and how that influences the experience. I hadn’t thought of that so that was valuable input to explore. Most difficult is to draw the line at one point and start thinking about the actual experiment.

For our experiment we’ll be using sets of static images accompanied by existing nature sounds. Three sets of landscapes are based on preferred and fascinating aspects of landscapes as researched by Ulrich and Kaplan & Kaplan. One set of landscapes consists preferred landscape scenes but in the form of abstract paintings. A contrast set consists of neutral hospital interiors. For the sounds we have chosen different combinations of water and bird song sound. As a contrast we’ll be using sounds from a hospital ward. More about the actual experiment design and consideration in the next blog.

Collaboration…

During the I-machine festival in Oldenburg, Germany I met Laura Beloff, who has lots of experience in working with wearables. As it happens she is heading a research and art project on climate change, in Lapland, Finland. At a later stage they’ll also be developing wearables for measuring pollution. She’s interested in collaborating with me. I’ll be keeping her up to date of my progress and findings and she’ll see if she can provide help if needed later on. She’ll also be informing me of requirements they will be formulating together with the scientists. I can see if I can integrate them in my wearable.

With the wearable they also want to promote Citizen Science which is letting the general public collect data for scientific purposes using for example their mobile phones. So I suppose I could fit in there nicely. She already had some tips for me. I should use a Symbian phone with integrated GPS. For her projects she used a Python script to communicate with a server. She said that Processing wasn’t very good yet in the mobile department. So I have good reason to speed up my purchase of a new phone/PDA :)