The Emergency Artlab’s ’64 Samples’: controlling the seduction of technology


author: Dave Everitt
author: Mike Quantrill
created: 16:19 23may2015
modified: 09:13 26may2015 keywords: uncertainty, collaboration, mapping, data, privacy


  • [n] footnotes are numbered
  • {stuff} to be done
  • word count about 1500 of the 2000 WITHOUT images, so little space left


The Emergency Artlab (e-artlab [1]) emerged within the infrastructure of a research project investigating computer support for creativity, involving a survey of artists using digital technology internationally and a series of artist-in-residence studies conducted with UK-based artists (COSTART [2]). In 1999 Dave Everitt and Mike Quantrill formed the e-artlab as an outlet for their experimental work under COSTART, and involved other artists and collaborators as needed or as opportunities were taken up. The idea was to take collaborative practice-based research in art and computing into the public arena with minimal lead time and with direct participation from audiences. This article covers the background behind the creation of the first public project - '64 Samples' - created and performed over the space of around 3 days with two sound artists (Pip Greasley [3] and Matt Rogalsky [4]), and performed as the Arts Council of England commissioned work at 'Wired and Dangerous' Digital Arts Conference, Leicester UK in 2000.

Background, environment and 'necessary uncertainty'

We began to work together under the COSTART project, which was designed to foster collaboration in an art-science-technology environment. Initially this was a skill share in which Mike would write code and Dave add sound parts, both of us building on an existing practice: Mike as a programmer and artist interested in the process of drawing, while Dave was looking for a technical collaborator to extend his work on a heartbeat-driven mathematical artwork. Our first collaboration involved an infra-red sensor grid that mapped human movement over time, but investigations rapidly expanded into other areas and became intimately bound up with the available technologies, as mentioned in the COSTART interim report:

They worked in collaboration to explore the sensor space. Everitt’s input was to be development of sound. However it quickly became apparent that use of the space involved a much wider collaboration than first envisaged and they ended up working closely together on all aspects of the work during their residency together.

it was both surprising and pleasing that the collaboration... seemed to mirror the struggle to find ways of working with this integrated environment. Much time was spent trying to define the unique properties of the space and at the same time MQ and DE were trying to define their roles and common interests. [...] answers from either one provided insights to the other. [5]

We had clear notions about what was important in our work, but no ontology with which to define it. However, two key themes came together in a complex mingling of ideas: the mapping of human activity without an explicit or visible computer interface, and the issue of harvesting personal data in the public realm.

Again, the COSTART report describes the resulting process well {REWRITE the first part in our words and just quote the last?}:

Reflecting this complexity within a single work involves juggling with the interaction of many variables, without losing sight of the whole. A procedure based approach (we do this, then we do that, therefore this occurs...) proves completely inadequate in this case, and the evolution of discrete modules of procedure that, while remaining distinct from each other, are also interdependent, is an issue that MQ and DE have recognised from the start and are now beginning to tackle. It is crucial to the development of the work that the mapping matches both DE and MQ's qualities, and is therefore in a constant state of evolution and change. The artists are unwilling to 'pin down' what they 'want to do', but they periodically map out key features in the landscape that may - or may not - provide reference points along the way. However, there is always the possibility as the work progresses that what emerges will eclipse these original references, or modify them.

The environment was crucial to our process. Other artists working with technology were always around, and although there was an enticing array of equipment and the skills to adapt it (e.g. the EPROMs for the sensor grid were programmed by a willing university staff member {NAME}), the environment was supportive but, as an observational research project, completely hands-off. This enabled us to explore and develop in ways that would be impossible for two individual practitioners. We became so involved that, when working outside university hours, we more or less had the environment to ourselves and could use the large whiteboard uninterrupted to map out plans and diagrams over many days. This process was deeply iterative and complex, covering many facets from the mechanics of the necessary code to the abstractions evoked by the two main themes of mapping and personal data. '64 Samples' as output was just one direct result of these extensive research sessions.

There has... been a constant quality of necessary uncertainty about the work, which has actually proved crucial to its development, and both MQ and DE have been mindful of this need, while perfectly able to achieve specific tasks. In a way, the work is evolving as a by-product of their joint mapping process, in much the same way as a Sierpinski carpet gradually emerges from an initial scattering of apparently random dots. [5]

This approach carried over into the e-artlab's projects, where the nature and form of the public work could not be determined in advance, but instead developed in tandem with conference plans, tested in the environment, and eventually transformed by delegates' interaction with the ideas and methods of the emergent artwork.


keyphrases: "more than an idea, less than a concept", "controlling the seduction [seductive nature] of technology" {points below to be incorporated into the narrative - either above or in this section as appropriate}

The aim was to create conditions that optimised the emergence of an artwork or distributed works from material gathered from audience participants—in this case, conference delegates. The unpredictable qualities of working in a live setting became part of the very subject matter of the work and, taking ideas from the earlier sensor grid, to explore the process of integrating human and computing activity in such a way that the underlying processes of both systems are activated without conscious awareness of the outcome.

Live participative digital performance was an ideal medium to make serious, yet playful, comments on the electronic gathering of pri