Informatics: What am I doing here?

Most of this morning was spent reading about various Informatics research projects online and emailing people to set up meetings for next week. I watched a podcast of Nigel Topham talking about his work on micro computer chips and one of Sethu Vijayakumar talking about his research into robots and motion. I finally found the name of the foam-spike padded chamber I saw yesterday (hemi-anechoic chamber), and started tracking down information about an intriguing-looking project called the ‘Bloomsbury Machine’.

Then I took a break from the laptop and wandered down to one of the relaxing spaces on Level 2 with the intention of reading a couple of chapters from one of the books I borrowed from Jon yesterday – Reading In The Brain: the new science of how we read by Stanislas Dehaene. In the end I was distracted by watching a cleaner make her way round the curve of the offices and kitchen spaces opposite, and started sketching-out some dialogue instead.

One of the added bonuses of this residency is that over the next year I’ll be able to see my family and friends in Edinburgh regularly, rather than trying to rush around on high-days and holidays to snatch five minutes with as many people as possible before going back to Newcastle. However, two questions in particular keep coming up since the lovely Leverhulme people sent me the confirmation letter about the grant for this residency.

1)    What is Informatics?

2)    What does a writer in residence actually do?

As I understand it, Informatics draws on research across disciplines in order to study how data is processed: a technology-driven branch of 21st Century philosophy rooted in both theory and practice. Put more neatly, one of the brochures I’ve borrowed from reception says: In the information age, computing technology changes the way we work and play. Informatics changes the way we think. In addition, the School of Informatics website at Edinburgh defines it as: The study of the structure, the behaviour, and the interactions of natural and engineered computational systems. For a more accurate answer you’ll probably want to read this and then go hunt down a dictionary.

In general terms, a writer-in-residence is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: they spend some time in a place (both the amount of time and the space itself defining the concept of residency) and they write. The Leverhulme residencies are designed to foster collaborations between creative practitioners and UK institutions ‘where creative art is not part of the normal curriculum or activities of the host department’. When drawing up the funding application, myself and Jon identified areas of research activity at Informatics and aspects of my own creative practice which had a natural sense of mutuality of interest, and seeded some ideas for projects for the period of the residency. If all goes to plan then I’ll be running some masterclasses for researchers, using creative writing techniques to bring a fresh perspective on REF statements and grant proposals. I’ll be writing and filming a set of panoramic narratives, using the Puffersphere display equipment in Inspace and seeing what other technologies they’ve been developing and working with in the realm of Device Art and Digital Media creative practice.  I’m also hoping to work with some of the language processing researchers to adapt existing narrative analysis software to make a toolkit for writers editing fiction MSS. The Forum itself is an interesting space, and I’m always curious to observe how people interact with the worlds they have created around themselves, learn new vocabularies, and – naturally – get a chance to play with some robots.

After lunch I did some more wandering around the different levels of the Forum. My sense of direction is truly appalling, but I’m starting to develop a navigational system based on where I am in relation to the spiral staircase (it’s the only way I can find my temporary office). Then I typed up some of my writing from the morning, and had a flip through the exhibition catalogue from Talk To Me: design and communication between people and objects by Paola Antonelli (another volume from the Oberlander library). However, the glass wall of my temporary office is directly opposite the main staircase. This is the staircase where people stand and wave at colleagues, run into each other (occasionally literally. Yes, it was hilarious), carry incongruous boxes containing what appeared to be no less than three different types of melon… an observer’s Mecca. So, once again I became distracted from reading and had a good, old-fashioned people watching session instead, interspersed with making myself a reading list of things I ought to either brush up on or find out about (all suggestions welcome). Then I dropped the larger of the books back off to Jon & asked for some sample Impact statements for next week. Now I’m about to say farewell to 3.22 and give the key back to reception before going to see FAR by Wayne McGregor: dance inspired by – amongst other things – technology (apt).

Extract from my dialogue sketches:

Gil just appeared one day, awkward as an adolescent and somehow always under my feet. At the time my patience was particularly short – Archie had been having one of his bad spells and we were behind on the gas bill even thought it was almost still summer. When I came round the corner and found Gil standing there for the fifth or sixth morning in a row, nose pressed up against the glass, I forgot all about the probation warnings and poked him in the ribs.

“See that?” I pointed out the greasy smudge he’d left. “I clean that every morning. Always the same height. Can’t you just watch the vans from a step back, or are you trying to escape through the glass?”

He had a wobbly look to him, all eye blinking and lip-wetting and bobbing Adam’s apple like a fairground attraction.

“And another thing. I’ve been watching you rushing around here this last week, bumping off the corners of the furniture and spilling coffee like there isn’t a care in the world. Either stand up straight and take your time, or only fill the cup half-way so it doesn’t slosh everywhere. Have you ever tried to get coffee stains out of a low-pile carpet? Do you know how frustrating it is for me to follow your drip-drip-drip paths from floor to floor?”

He was younger than I’d thought now I had the chance to look at him up close, his clothes all bagging as though picked from the wrong machine at the Laundromat. They all began to look the same after a while, the RAs, with their facial hair experiments, slept-in t-shirts and bush-baby eyes. Fuelled by coffee and static electricity, it had become increasingly hard to see one and not want to iron them out, tell them to get a grip on he world outside the labs and send them home for a shower.

Gil stammered through an apology, flushing hot pink. I still had two or three more comments to share with him about respecting one’s space, then I saw that he was digging his thumbnail hard into the flesh of his palm and it crossed my mind that he was about to burst into tears.

There’s not much privacy in The Forum. It was designed this way on purpose: glass walls, central core of a courtyard. Open view spaces to be seen to be relaxing in, smartly, in between conference calls and deadlines. If someone saw I’d made another member of staff cry – even an RA – then…

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