Reimagining bad sounds – a creative approach to sound pollution

The acoustics industry has long been focussed on the mitigation of noise to reduce annoyance and stress to hopefully ensure that citizens are in good health. Quiet spaces are needed and appreciated by people. Many hours of research have gone into understanding the meaning and importance of tranquillity in urban areas. In terms of sound, tranquillity does not always mean quiet or silence, to paraphrase Natural Tranquillity by Clive Bentley, tranquillity can be defined as a serene state of mind – a feeling.

But what other sounds could have potential to improve wellbeing by perhaps being energetic as well as meditative, what about art? More often than not, art can bring communities together, Bristol is a prime example of this with its numerous art festivals and exhibitions. Can placing well designed sonic art in our cities provide a pleasant and inspiring rest-break from our rapid paced lives? What if we stop and imagine a future with drones and ‘silent’ driverless cars, surely their sounds would have a dramatic effect on how they are perceived? Perhaps we should take the time to pause and imagine how to design the sounds which makeup our future cities.

A few months into the Building Instruments project, new team members, Szabina Orosz and  Ainolnaim Azizol brought forward fresh perspectives from their own disciplines to our highly  multidisciplinary project. They provided a wealth of theoretical understanding from musical composition to qualitative analysis methodologies to incorporate into the citizen science and exhibition aspects of the project. How far could we take things, how far should we take things with the time we had?

The contributions from each team member to the Building Instruments project was valuable.  It was enjoyable to dream up creative and often abstract ideas. We settled on the bold vision of people encountering guerilla sonic art installations placed all around the city. whilst we did push this train of thought we discussed how the use of citizen science could help us understand people’s perception of a soundscape using data collected within a mobile app. In the interest of budget, time management and attainable targets, we prioritised our ideas into practical methodological steps.

From data to soundwalk exhibition

Before the development of our soundwalk exhibition, we needed to establish a baseline idea of what kind of reaction or emotion the general public already had to the acoustic environment around them. We did this by interviewing the public in a few locations around the city, Queen Square, The Centre and Spike Island. We managed to capture a wide range of reactions from a relatively small data sample in these locations.

Our initial ideas to situate physical sonic art installations, such air vents playing windchimes or solar powered speakers playing modified audio of the recorded environment around the City of Bristol had to be reimagined as we didn’t have the capacity to safeguard the physical installations. After creating a long ‘short-list’ of locations in Bristol to present the art installations to the public, we concluded that a proof of concept in one location (Spike Island) would be far more achievable and therefore beneficial to the research endeavours. We approached artists Kathy Hinde, Dave Meckin, Dan Pollard and collaborated with Tom Bonnett to reflect on our research and create acoustic exhibitions to present the changing soundscape of Spike Island within Echoes.xyz as an exhibition for Bristol Open Doors 2021, which had a footfall of over 1m people.

Soundwalk Exhibition

Jameson at the Soundwalk for prepared for the Bristol Open Doors Festival

The purpose of the soundwalk exhibition was to encourage participants to listen deeply, to the existing urban acoustic climate, and reflect about whether changing the acoustic climate may have a positive effect on health and wellbeing. The exhibition used museum style narrations to guide participants around digital sonic art ‘installations’ which were played over headphones  to provoke thought beyond the existing acoustic environment. Abstract sounds (defined as relating to objects that were not visible at the time) and practical ideas (such as digitally modulated sound from air conditioning vents) were also presented, as well as, sounds captured from carts on the harbourside rail tracks that mimicked historical merchant trailers and present day workshop sounds.

A contraption made by Ainolnaim to record sounds from the harbourside rail tracks

The responses we received from the questionnaire sent out post-event suggested that we had presented an engaging experience that may have not otherwise been considered by the general public – a first step to discovering whether sonic art can evoke positive emotion which can improve the wellbeing of the public.

Future views

We have just scraped the surface in this topic and are looking at the final product of the research and soundwalk as a medium or augmented reality tool from which we could start to investigate some follow-on questions related to the wellbeing aspect of soundscapes.

  • could actually create positive emotions that reduce stress and improve wellbeing
  • could we encourage people to imagine what a future soundscape could be like and
  • how they could be involved
  • could we provide a platform where people unfamiliar with the notions we were exploring could consider the impact of sound on our lives for the first time

We hope to find out and hope to continue the project.

 

AD4 Games: Working in an Interdisciplinary Team

The project took an interdisciplinary approach where audio describers, game developers, academics and participants with visual impairments worked collectively to produce and evaluate different styles of AD.

Interdisciplinary teams are fundamental to the design of new technologies and their efficacy within real world contexts. While interdisciplinarity should be embraced within research teams, it is also crucial to further such participation with the actors who may be affected by innovation. Thus, individuals and organisations should be consulted at all stages of technology design and development. Taking a ‘user-centred’ design approach that embraces democratic principles of inclusion and empowerment is necessary in order to produce innovations that are more representative of user’s needs.

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach greatly strengthened the project in many ways. Most notable, was the ability to quickly receive feedback from people with varying perspectives on the different AD methods used. The audio describers could discuss the strengths and challenges of each method used, the game developer could then reflect on changes that could improve the audio describers experience, while the visually impaired participants were able to provide insight into their experience of the game throughout each AD method. All the while allowing the academics to collate and document the challenges and opportunities for each stakeholder and begin formulating guidelines for future game developers and audio describers.

Below, some of our project team members reflect on their experience working in an interdisciplinary environment.

Dr Xiaochun Zhang – Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies and Team Leader

“It has been a pleasure to lead and work with a team of very talented people with diverse backgrounds on such a multidisciplinary project. With shared goal and passion, we had thought provoking discussions, experimented various methods of providing AD for game streaming, and explored multiple solutions to making video games more accessible for visually impaired players from diverse angles and experiences. Knowledge is exchanged among academics, audio describers and participants with the user-centred research and game design approach.”

Dr Stuart Grey, Research Associate, Department of Computer Science

“This project addresses an under-represented group within video game research, visually impaired players. From our engagement with these groups within this project, it would suggest that this is reflected by accessibility shortcomings in the design of commercial games, and the subsequent marginalisation of these players. In exploring the concept of audio described games that leverage live streaming environments, we have begun to unpick some of the key barriers for visually impaired players. Moreover, we have produced a number of preliminary insights about the potential of audio described gameplay to tackle this.”

Dr Jane Devoy – Audio Describer

I normally write AD for film and TV so this was a new departure for me. Writing AD for a video game was a very different experience. The main difference was that the game is dynamic and changing each time a player plays it, rather than a pre-recorded, scripted video/film.

The first AD that I did was for a recorded game play so that was fixed, and I was able to describe it in the usual way. The main difference here was that there is very little dialogue and therefore a lot of screen time to describe. There was also lots of graphic detail to describe as well as movement. Hence it was very time consuming per programme minute.

When we were working on scripting a live play, I found this tricky because each time the game is played, it is different. As such I didn’t know if I had explored every space or narrative element when I played. At this point it was crucial to get the input from Claire the designer who was better placed to know all the content of the game. She made a useful spreadsheet and rough script of all the elements that needed describing then myself and Sonia edited and added to these as necessary.

In the end we were able to produce AD that vastly increases the accessibility of the game. In commercial terms, the barriers may be to do with compensating for the time it takes to AD a game. However, we discussed that if AD were integrated into the design of the game from the beginning, then it would be easier and potentially more effective.

This was a fascinating project and very important work, spearheaded by Xiaochun. It was great to work with such a talented and professional team and progress accessibility together in this new avenue.”

Claire Morwood – Game developer, 3-Fold Games

“Developing a solution to the challenge of implementing audio description in “Before I Forget” as part of the AD4G team was really exciting due to the multidisciplinary nature of the project. Working together with academics, audio describers and people with visual impairments allowed us to approach the challenge from a number of perspectives, and all of us were able to provide different ideas and insights into the design process. I personally found this very refreshing in terms of the approach to discussing implementation of various solutions to the game, and also enjoyed learning more about audio description during the project. I hope that I will be able to take some of this knowledge forward into my own future projects too.”

Mairi Deighan – Digital Health PhD student

“I thoroughly enjoyed my experience working in an interdisciplinary team on such a crucial and exciting project. Coming from a background in biomedical engineering I was new to the field of audio description and game development and found working with experts in both fields extremely valuable and insightful. Producing effective AD for video gaming is a highly under-researched and complex issue, this project has effectively uncovered key considerations that will hopefully inform and assist future game developers and audio describers in making gaming accessible for visually impaired and blind users.”

Dr Tanvir Bush – Visually-impaired Collaborator

“I am not nor have ever been a gamer.  It seems strange to me, as a lover of films, books, comics and graphic novels that I never side stepped into Final Fantasy or any of its ilk. I seemed to just miss that boat.

I remember in the mid-90’s, house sitting for a friend who had the latest Nintendo, whatever the thingy.  I was a film producer at the time and the film’s director popped over for a quick chat before work. He saw the gear and dove straight into a game – without a moment’s thought. I placed a cup of coffee next to him and went to work. When I came back 8 HOURS LATER, he was still sitting in front of the screen, coffee cold and untouched by his side.

What evil is this? I had thought. (Coffee is very important to me!) Why would I do that when there is so much else to get on with?

Now, added to the ‘why would I?’ is the fact that I am registered blind. I have a degenerative condition that causes a slow erosion of sight, starting in the peripheral vision and moving in.  I have had it for over 35 years and now have only have a very small tunnel of functional central vision that can blur or white out depending on the light. It also affects my light and colour vision as my rods and cones in the retina become damaged.

However, I am always game to help out a fellow researcher (see what I did there?). So, when Xiaochun asked me to be a participant in her study into audio described game play, I said yes.

The first time we experimented with the game, designed, and built by her team, I had someone audio describing live.  This was great fun as we were both finding our way. It also meant I could ask for help in real time when I got stuck, share jokes and thoughts about the game and experience.  That first iteration needed a few more sound clues and contrast, but we got through the game as a team.

Then later, I had a crack at the next iteration. Now the audio was embedded not live. There were more sound clues, better adaptations to help guide the VI gamer but I still kept getting stuck in space and wheeling around looking for something interesting to click on. I quickly become bored and slightly nauseated by the constant zooming in and out and searching.  I admit I am not the most dextrous when it comes to the controls.

In retrospect, I liked the teamwork aspect of being guided in real time and exploring the virtual world together. On my own, although I found the sound effects and contrast more conducive, I didn’t have enough curiosity to help push me past the places I was consistently getting stuck, and I didn’t have the energy to keep asking for help to get out or move on, so I bailed. This was partly because I had already played the game once. I knew the plot twists. But also, and importantly, because I felt more uncomfortable with my visual impairment.  Without a live guide, my blindness was more frustrating, and I lost my sense of humour.  In the actual world where I, and other disabled people, are constantly having to adapt, re-think, strategize and find workarounds, why would I want to go into a fantasy world where I experience the same?

I know that resolving this is exactly where Xiaochun and her team are heading so I hope my participation will be of use and perhaps in the next game we can have some kung-fu?”

Find out more about AD4 Games: making video games accessible for visually impaired players.

 

Collaborating on the Brigstow Metre and Memorisation Project

Literary research is, by and large, a solitary endeavour. Writing poems, which I also do, tends to be no more sociable.  In both cases,  the most important process of collaboration is a matter of second thoughts that happen when drafts are finished enough to be shared with peers and editors.  I had noticed interdisciplinary research projects out of the corner of my eye, but I had never seen the relevance of such projects to what I did myself.  I could and did learn from work in other disciplines, but my research methodologies remained very much those of literary studies.

Then there came the day that the methodologies of literary studies proved considerably less helpful in addressing my research questions than they had been.  While researching the poet Walter de la Mare, I had been revisiting the pioneering 1920s work of I.A. Richards, a critic and theorist who established key norms in the academic analysis of poetry.  Back in the early decades of the last century, Richards had learned much from the empirical psychology of the time and was speculating interestingly on the psychological effects of verse.  Assuming that some of these questions might have been settled in intervening decades, I started to read around, first in English studies and then in psychology only to find that, while we certainly knew more now than they did then, some of the most interesting questions Richards, and indeed de la Mare, were raising remained unanswered.  Yet the majority of these questions ought to be amenable to empirical investigation – or would be if one knew a great deal more about the ins and outs of psychological research than I did.  The time had come to speak to someone else.

I contacted the Brigstow Institute, explained the problem and wondered if they could put me in touch with psychologist who might be interested in similar questions.  The first name on the list was that of Professor Chris Jarrold.  Not only were Chris’s research interests pertinent to the topics I wanted to investigate, he was also at the time the Head of Department in Psychology.  We met for coffee, and I explained to him the problems that were intriguing me, and was delighted to find that he was interested in them too.  Chris also put me in touch with Dr Nina Kazanina.

Soon afterwards, Nina and I also had a productive first conversation, but we didn’t have coffee.  The pandemic had arrived and the era of the online meeting had begun.  Still, these online meetings developed our ideas for studies, particularly around poetry memorisation.  We also realised that in this new, socially isolated world, poetry memorisation could be an activity in which many might find enjoyment, stimulation or solace, and that this might take place hand in glove with both the internet technology we were now using for our meetings and the sort of studies we wanted to conduct.  All this fed into the research bid we made to Brigstow that became the Metre and Memorisation Project, in which the three of us were joined by Rebecca Jackson from Psychology, our Research Assistant, and Meg Dyson, from English and Classics, on a Brigstow Studentship.  We were now designing and then conducting studies to find out how different memorisation methods affected the learning of similar poems (our participants learned sonnets by William Shakespeare). We would also run a schools’ verse recitation competition, which led to us launching, Bristol by Heart, a collaboration with the organisation Poetry by Heart.

Working together across disciplines was successful because we were both interested in the other’s fields, we also respected one another’s strengths.  I had been reading up in relevant psychological research, so I was, I hope, able to enter into meaningful conversations about what we wanted to find out. But the very reason for this collaboration was to bring together people of different strengths.  We would ask each other why we were doing something, or what a particular finding might mean. Here the intelligent question from someone not used to the usual subject specific answers could prove really helpful in thinking through what we were doing and why.  At the same time, it was the subject specific expertise that supplied the convincing answers.  I recall for instance Meg and I both worrying about whether the Excel spreadsheets we were using were calculating participants’ memorisation of the poems in a way that was sufficiently accurate.  But it was Chris who knew about something called Levenshtein  Distance. Likewise, for someone coming from a subject where so much is arguable, it was wonderful to debate possibilities and then have the point settled by an elegant graph from Nina.

Here’s what Chris  had to say about what he learnt about the practice of doing interdisciplinary produced research:

I think it helps a lot if all the partners are invested in the research question. I’m not sure that has to be an exactly equal investment on everyone’s part, or it might be that different people are particularly interested in different aspects of the project. However, we’re all sufficiently busy that it’s not really in anyone’s interest to be collaborating to just provide a service, doing something as a favour without really seeing any value in it to you. In my experience a big barrier to effective interdisciplinary research can be the difference in theoretical perspectives, approaches to research, assumptions, and even terminology across disciplines. I think our project has worked well because that gap is not very big. William happens to think like a psychologist. Conversely, I don’t think Nina and I are complete philistines and we have an interest in art and literature in particular (Nina certainly does). So we understand where everyone is coming from and what they are trying to achieve, and, to some extent, what they think in the way they do. I think we’re also clear on the unique contributions that different members of the team bring. William had the idea behind the project and brings with him the existing theory on poetry memorisation. Nina and I have strengths in designing experimental studies and in data analysis. William was clear at the outset that that’s what he wanted in this project, and as Psychologists Nina and I are always looking to do work that is properly theoretically motivated.

The project has provided an opportunity to extend some methods that we were already using within my research group to a somewhat different area, specifically how we score and measure people’s memory. This isn’t a radical extension of those approaches, but has raised interesting questions about how they generalise and need to be modified for different situations. A somewhat more substantial extension of my thinking has followed from the fact that this project looks at long-term memory while most of my previous work has focussed on short-term memory. There’s a surprisingly large different between these two fields and thinking about how our theories and methods bridge across this gap has been very useful. And because William’s starting point and initial theoretical questions weren’t too far away from my interests I’ve been able to learn a lot from the knowledge he’s brought to the project from his own reading. A good example is the literature that suggests that we chunk or hold on to in memory as many words as we could say in a single breath. That’s not a hypothesis I was aware of before now, but it’s an intriguing one and one that does has the potential to inform my own thinking.

For those stuck at home in a pandemic, the Metre and Memorisation project was a social boon.  Not only did the team meet and talk on the different virtual platforms, like a good modern office, we also had a Slack channel, where the friendly interchange of ideas and information would keep up. Soon, I was talking to Julie Blake and Tim Shortis at Poetry by  Heart, and, in time, my fellow judges on the competition, Ife Grillo and Lorna Smith. When the study started, the project’s social horizon widened even more.  There on Zoom were our participants, interacting with us – but also with each other.  After each of the study sessions was concluded, Rebecca or Meg would ask them about their experience.  These conversations were often revealing to us.  But, as participants reflected on the experience they had just shared and on life and poetry more widely with one another, they were clearly also valuable to the participants themselves.  At the end of all the experiments, I, along with Dr John Lee, a Shakespeare scholar from the Department of English, invited participants a couple of much longer discussions.  These were hugely informative about the process of memorisation, but also about diverse personal experiences around poetry, Shakespeare and learning by heart. Not only did I now know more about what our experimentation had meant to our memorisers, I also realised that my research collaboration had been not just with my fellow investigators but also with our participants.  Likewise, the lovely feedback we received from children and teachers involved in Bristol by Heart was in its own way a form of collaboration.

One last memory.  A month after our last experiment I happened to walking along Deal Pier.  A young man had sat cross legged to recite a Shakespeare sonnet while a thrilled circle gathered round him who, when he had finished, burst into applause.  It wasn’t a particularly well known sonnet, but it was one we had chosen for our experiments.  I didn’t go up and ask him, but I could have sworn he was one of our participants.

Find out more about about this research on the Metre and Memorisation webpage.

Urban Sound Pollution – Beyond the decibel

The ‘Building Instruments’ project was created to explore how we might sculpt soundscapes around the public’s perception of acoustic comfort.

To do this we put together a team of people from very different and complimenting disciplines:

  • Ainolnam Azizol – Sonic Researcher (Intern)
  • Pete Bennett – Digital Artist and researcher
  • Jameson Musyoki – Acoustician
  • Szabina Orosz – Qualitative Researcher (Intern)
  • Joshua Taylor – Principle Investigator

Urban areas are designed and redesigned in order to meet the needs of residents and visitors. Over time, pavements or roads get widened, green areas are introduced, supermarkets and workspaces are constructed, to name a few. The design of the spaces is highly multidisciplinary involving town planners, engineers and architects. An important aspect of urban design is in considering how noise can affect people. According to the World Health Organisation (2018, p. 2), noise is the second most potent pollutant in our environments. However, focussing on noise alone neglects the full picture of how a space is used, perceived and by people.

Fog horns on a Bristol Harborside Ship

International ISO and British Standards evolved from considering only noise in terms of the Decibel (dB) sound level measurement unit, to considering the acoustic environment and context in a more holistic way which can be used to consider the effect of sound on the health and wellbeing of citizens. ISO 12913 Part 1 (2014, p. 1) describes the soundscape as the peoples’ perception of an acoustic environment while taking the context of the surroundings into consideration. By defining noise as unwanted sound, acousticians afford themselves some flexibility to consider urban areas in terms of unwanted and comfortable sounds that contribute to a space’s soundscape. This way they can advise how to mitigate unwanted sounds and perhaps introduce some well fitting and pleasant sounds to help mask the unpleasant noise.

Jameson jamming with an air vent

The ‘Building Instruments’ project was created to explore how we might sculpt soundscapes around the public’s perception of acoustic comfort. At the start of the project we found the key was simplicity and by setting a broad scope. We were able to keep focus and adapt to the needs of our research project.

How can we create acoustic environments that evoke positive feelings using sonic art installations and therefore potentially improve wellbeing?

First Steps

We set ourselves a broad scope to guide a Building Instruments’s narrative towards creating positive acoustic environments for the public.

We approached Design West with our proposal which included mapping perceptions of the acoustic environment of Bristol, creation of sonic art installations and then presenting a soundwalk exhibition for Bristol Open Doors, where members of the public walk on a predetermined route listening to and reflecting on the acoustic environment, inclusive of sonic art installations. We also reached out to Landsmith Associates (founders of Bristol Soundwalks) who already contribute to mapping the perceptions of the acoustic environment of Bristol through use of the Hush City App.

Our first cohort meeting with the Brigstow Institute encouraged us to explore beyond this linear thought process and pose further collaborative questions touching on ideas behind the politics of environmental sound, something that we would take on-board whilst creating our reading list, which of course would be guided by our broad scope.

Team Perspectives

Our first brainstorm was just after a COVID-19 lockdown. We decided to do the right thing and have a brainstorm coffee – in a real cafe! By this time Brigstow had facilitated the provision of  two more researchers to the team and we had already started understanding each of our perspectives of the project and brainstorming. Keeping things simple also made our collaborative efforts go further.

Our project was designed to look beyond the current soundscape design standards (ISO 12913-1, 2 & 3) and to understand how sonic art interventions could be designed into spaces, inclusive of assessing their effectiveness in evoking positive emotion of passers-by. One key issue we realised was that technical terms and methodologies needed to be coherent across disciplines. For example, I myself (Jameson) am an acoustician and have  a strong interest in more than just the Decibel  to describe the sonic environment. During the project I was eager to understand how to apply citizen science and qualitative analysis theories to gather information on people’s perception of the acoustic environment. Although the team agreed we wouldn’t be able to gather enough data required for a robust analysis we could still get a flavour of how acoustic environments may be generally perceived.

It was also useful to realise that the term ‘soundscape’ itself has a few definitions, the earliest being R. Murray Shafer (1977, p. 274) which included any physical or abstract (e.g. musical) sound environment to be studied, and the most current within ISO 12913-1 (described earlier) which includes capture of human perception as paramount. Understanding could then be shared with Ainolnam Azizol and the sonic artists who also defined the soundscape differently, solely as the sonic space created within a musical composition or sound design. This then allowed coherence as our project intended to use the ISO definition for soundscape to understand how members of the public may perceive the sound art installations we intended to create.

Initial Ideas –  wider broad scope

Alongside our brainstorming sessions and development of a literature review, we experimented. For example, we explored how to modulate unpleasant urban mechanical sounds into something more musical or meditative, as well as, getting stuck into the creation of instruments that would make (hopefully pleasant) sound whilst blowing in the wind, and also a plate reverb that could amplify everything! We also tried flipping the narrative from positive to negative to provoke conversation. ‘How would people perceive the sound of the M32 being played through loudspeakers within Cabot Circus’? Art, as we know, can be used to cause a reaction from an audience. So evoking a negative reaction, we thought, could be an interesting counter-experiment to pursue. However, awareness of the ethics behind subjecting the general public to something unpleasant, even though for the most benevolent reasons, caused us to not pursue this notion further moving forward.

Pushing forward and keeping our research question in mind, we reestablished the key objectives of the project as a basis for content for our literature review and our overall project aim:

  1. Capture views of the public to noise (the map)
  2. Improve soundscape by using (interactive) instruments (in sound installation form)
  3. Measure views of altered soundscape during exhibition

From this point we then went on to turn the Vision into Reality……..

 

References

  • British Standards Institution (2014). ​​ISO 12913 Part 1, 2014: Acoustics — Soundscape — Part 1: Definition and conceptual framework. London: British Standards Institution.
  • Schafer, R. Murray (1977). The soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. Rochester: Destiny Books
  • World Health Organisation (2018). Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Union Available at: https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/383921/noise-guidelines-eng.pdf

 

Using arts-based research for temperature, weather and climate.

In conversation:

Dr Alan T Kennedy-Asser, Research Associate, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.

Dr Clifton Evers, Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University.

Clifton: Let’s discuss your Temperature Life Stories project today and the use of arts-based research. For those of you who don’t know, or aren’t familiar with this term, arts-based research is the use of Creative Arts practices in research about any particular topic, for example social life, the sciences and across engineering and the business world. Creative arts practices used can be anything from knitting, to filmmaking, to soundscaping, to poetry.

Alan, can you tell us a little bit about your project? And if as a scientist, you’d come across arts-based research before?

Alan: I’m a climate scientist by background. I started my studies with geography and I specified into physical geography quite early on. But based in a geography department, we’ve also got cultural geographers, so quite a broad spectrum within the subject and I’d kind of been exposed to little crumbs here and there – that this is a way that people might do research – but I’d never really given a huge lot of thought to it myself.

For the project Temperature Life Stories, I was interested in how an individual would experience temperature extremes because my day-to-day climate science work is all thinking about temperature extremes. How we classify something as ‘extreme’ or ‘not extreme’ is of fundamental importance when we want to figure out if extremes are changing in the future with climate change. The threshold of what is extreme or not extreme is different for every single person, because some people maybe grew up in a warm place, some people grew up in a cold place, some people might have a medical condition, which means that they can’t tolerate high heat, or they might live in a house which is not well adapted to high heat.

I thought it’d be interesting to produce a life graph of temperature for individual research participants, so they would see how the temperature had varied in the places that they lived throughout their life. I wanted to do something creative, so I spoke to a few people in the university and they suggested working with Caleb Parkin who is a poet, so people could articulate their experiences of temperature through poetry. Then we could compare the graphs and the poetry and see if the two matched up. If people remembered the hottest bit of their life, does the data actually match up with their memories of what they think they experienced. It struck me that there are certain days that I remember feeling very hot and uncomfortable in my own life, but they were generally days when I was stuck in an office in Bristol. It was hot for Bristol, but technically it wasn’t as hot as when I’d been on holiday. When I was on holiday I was kind of prepared for heat, maybe on a beach, I was dressed for the occasion and mentally prepared. Whereas when I was just trying to get my work done at a hot office in Bristol, it was it was really uncomfortable and grim. This is the sort of thing I wanted to explore. We had lots of really interesting ideas that came out through the project.

Clifton: So temperature became about stories. Often when we think about temperature is often associated with data, and we read data in our own ways. Data tells its own stories, but people also speak a more everyday data, for example, through particular stories. They might say “it’s 30 degrees Celsius” but then they’ll go into description of being “sticky”, or say “we didn’t walk here because it was too hot, so we stayed in this place.” Other people pick up on the signals and read them, so stories are a form of data sharing and making through the everyday. Arguably, arts-based research can enable you to explore this data.

One of the things when you’re doing arts-based research is the question: how much control do you place in the process? Sometimes it can be a case of giving participants complete freedom: “here, go create something.” Sometimes that works then at other times people ask for more guidance and structure. So what did you do? How much structure did you offer compared to how much freedom?

Alan: What I had envisaged at the start was that everyone would tell a story with one particular narrative about one particular event and it would compare to some point in their life graph. A clear structure. In some cases, that did happen, but in other cases people brought micro stories to the event – little tiny insights. I think it was because of the first poetry exercise we did called “I Remember”. Caleb got everybody to begin with that phrase – just let everything kind of spill out from your memory. Some of the things that came up were so graphic that you could put yourself back there, scenes you could see, smell or sensations. They were full of all these details, golden nuggets. You could have had one long narrative and it would be one tiny detail that just makes the story complete. I thought that was amazing and I really would claim that was data, a very different kind of data to what I was used to but I think that was a great way to start the workshops off.

In terms of the control, I’d already come in with this idea that people would have a complete single story but really, it was it was an awful lot more scattered. We gave people the skills in poetry, because that’s what Caleb was coaching people in, but we also said to them we want to do an exhibition at the end of three workshops and to bring whatever you want, in whatever format you want, whatever works for you. We did three workshops, two as a kind of actual training and the final one was the exhibition. At the end of the second training workshop, we did ‘graph-jamming’ where people were encouraged to think about how could they reinterpret their graph. What creative method could they use? Could it be turned into a flower bed or a stained glass window, or you know, whatever. People started suggesting these mad ideas and I was like, “that’s crazy,” “no, you couldn’t do that,” “that’s just too mad!” Like soap opera, or docu-drama, an acrobatic aerial silk show. They went away for two weeks and came back and some of them had actually done these ideas that they’d suggested!

So I think one of the things you need to have is a good level of trust within the group to do that. I also think the group size was quite good. I believe that Caleb created an environment that people felt safe to try these things. It’s really essential to have that kind of safe space feeling to be as productive and creative as can be.

Then there was the timing of the workshops: we did three workshops. We did one then we left a week and the second and then we left a two week gap with an optional one-to-one drop in. There was enough time to give people a chance to create something like a piece of artwork: two weeks to go away and compose that but not so long that they kind of lost interest and lost momentum. If we had just done one full day workshop, people would have come up with all these great ideas but not necessarily have had space to build upon them.

Clifton: I quite like this idea – it is a fine balance. You have a goal but it’s a flexible goal. You have quite clear research questions you want to address that you will revisit depending on what the participants bring. People have creative skills and they want to use them. I think an important thing coming out of the project is about a space of safety, confidence, support. If participants felt like they needed some skills, you could offer them skills training but it’s more like a more nurturing environment rather than an extractive environment.

Often when we do data collection, it can sometimes feel to me that when people use some more traditional approaches, be it in the social sciences or physical science it can feel like you’re extracting something from the community. But what you’ve given them is a change to grow and create data alongside you and to make use of it collaboratively. Often when people participate in research projects they’re left behind. It is good practice to go back to them but, as you know with a scientific paper some people might be interested but other people less so. This arts-based research is an opportunity for them to clearly be part of the contribution to knowledge. That’s a really powerful outcome of using arts-based research. It does raise an interesting issue about authorship and ownership of research. Participants present important data, these golden nuggets. Does academic publishing need to better accommodate different modes of authorship, different modes of ownership of data?

Alan: I haven’t given that a huge amount of thought to this point and it is probably the next step. For this whole project, I didn’t know what to expect going into it because I’ve never done this kind of research and used these methods. So much of it was new for me as a physical climate scientist. It was first time I’ve ever had to do an ethics form – if you’re just studying climate model data it’s not seen as having feelings and emotions that you could hurt, so you may abuse the data. That said, the point of doing the climate science with model data is to contribute to making informed societal decisions about what we’re going to do in a changing climate and there is an ethical side to that. I feel that the fact I’ve never experienced an ethics form, or had to think about that at all, as a physical scientist, is quite surprising.

In terms of what happens next with the research, because I’m new to this, I didn’t really envisage before I started that I would actually count this as ‘data’ and research. For me, with a straightforward background in sciences, you prove that you’ve done research by having a publication, or that your name has been cited in some sort of policy report. Doing this project has made me like reassess what actually useful research is. Is it useful if it can be used by society at large through some sort of policy? Or is research about me as the researcher having a shift in my own thoughts and my own views which will then trickle into my worldview which will then inform future publications and reports and feed into the wider academic community.

I think that’s kind of where I’m at now: I realised that actually that’s what some research is about. The common format as a scientist is to write a paper, but actually there’s lots of ways I can change my viewpoint, and then I’ll go out and have conversations with my colleagues in geography or elsewhere based upon those little golden nuggets. In the future, how this may make it into a publication, and how people need crediting for that, I’m not really sure at the moment. I just feel like I was in that group of participants, I was a participant as much as the others were, and we all learnt together. I’m just more likely to be in a situation in the future, potentially, than some of the other participants where I’ll actually have to talk about it and process what the bigger picture was from all of those little nuggets and stories that people brought to the workshops.

Clifton: I love that idea that the methodology is a learning experience that everyone is involved with. You’re showing people’s work, you’re building a website to show the contributions to knowledge and you’re valuing everyone’s contributions to knowledge. That is an acknowledgement. There are some great examples out there when it comes to acknowledgment. For example, the CLEAR lab in Canada, headed up by Maxim Liboiron, who put everyone down as co-authors. They bring a very, very different ethics to science research. I think Temperature Life Stories worked out a lovely model. That’s credit to the way both you and Caleb have run this project. In terms of advice going forward, I know you haven’t done a lot of this work, but what advice do you have?

Alan: Although a project can be too small meaning you cannot pay an artist like Caleb to facilitate it, I wouldn’t have wanted it to be too big either – it’s quite nice to start small-ish. For someone like myself who’s new to this kind of research, it’s quite nice to have that small to medium sized funding pot for something like this.

I don’t know how much of the success of the project really came down to the luck of getting the participants who came along; if we’d got a different group of people who just didn’t really click with each other or were disinterested, the whole thing might have been a bit like “it was interesting but I wouldn’t do again,” whereas I loved it. I thought it was really, really good. I think, for me, that was kind of the perfect size of project and the perfect length as well. I couldn’t have justified costing in my own time without knowing that it was going to be a useful experience, and I didn’t know it would be useful before I’d started. I think was more than just a pilot project though. I think it really generated stuff. It wasn’t just a proof of concept.

Besides the money and the practicalities of running it, it does require a very open mind. I’m not saying that every scientist has to do it. Just like not every artist should have to interact with the sciences. But it’s also really important that there’s some people who bridge the gap between different, approaches. I think it’s exciting because as a researcher I’m curious. I’m sure most other researchers would describe themselves as curious. So why not try something different? I think it helps if you already have a bit of love of the arts. If you’re one true passion in life is computer coding, that’s great: code and code and code and make the code better and more efficient – and that’s fantastic. But if you just sort of think “I wonder what those cultural geographers are really doing, what do they talk about?” then just go out and try it. It’s good fun!

Clifton: Sometimes these projects work and sometimes they don’t. I think we have to be comfortable with failure. Sometimes people don’t gel, it can happen in focus groups but you’re learning something anyway. And I think that experience, that willingness to be open minded and experiment and to explore has a place in a research setting. Given the challenges we’re facing in the contemporary era we have to have these urgent conversations and collaborate: we’re not going to accomplish any changes alone.

Find out more about Temperature Life Stories .

AD4 Games

Video gaming has become a worldwide mainstream entertainment with over 7 billion active gamers in the world in 2020. Yet, most video games are not accessible or fully accessible for people with disabilities.

Game accessibility for players with sight loss is especially challenging due to the visual and interactive nature of games. Despite the accessibility barriers blind and visually impaired users face, some of them like playing video games and do so by using different strategies, such as playing with somebody else’s help or playing simplified versions of existing games, which may reduce their gaming experience and enjoyment. Making games accessible for blind players requires all visual elements to be represented by means of auditory or haptic feedback. Audio games are games built on audible and tactile feedback with no visual elements, which are thus blind accessible.

The aim of the AD4 games project was therefore to investigate how audio description (AD) can improve game accessibility by working with professional audio describers, game developers, and visually impaired participants.

The first step of the project was to investigate how AD can be applied to game playing. We identified three ways AD can be produced: Pre-recorded AD, live AD during a gaming stream and finally the delivery of AD live while the audio describer plays the game themselves. Throughout the project we trialled and tested each approach, uncovering the varying strengths and challenges of each. This provided interesting insights into the complexities of providing high quality AD to games already developed. The project uncovered many areas of AD in games that must be carefully considered by both game developers and audio describers in the future.

For the pronouns, feedback varied as to how people wish the audio describer to address the character in the game. When using first person (“I opened the door), participants may feel disconnected from the gameplay as this removes the ownership they have over the character. Should the description be provided as if the audience is playing and interacting with the game or as a co-player? Again, answers to this varied, perhaps a future study with a larger sample size can determine a majority consensus, or perhaps the gamer could have the option to change how the AD describes the character within the game.

With regards to interactivity between the audio describer and the gamer, some participants felt that the AD would have been enhanced given the opportunity to engage with the audio describer. Particularly during live streaming of the game to an audience, where people from the community expressed interest in asking questions to the audio describer during gameplay. This was also a consideration when thinking about scrip-based AD (used when AD was pre-recorded) versus live AD. This issue is well-summarised by a participant who wrote: “Script-based description wouldn’t allow for community interaction but would provide a tighter and more cinematic gaming experience, since all the right words would be used to convey exactly what’s happening, as opposed to live description where the describer may not be able to think of the right word, forcing them to approximate”.

With the AD and data gathered from the experiments, the team is now working with the game designers, exploring possible ways of implementing AD in this game. Currently, we have added audio cues and AD, and created a tutorial room to help the players to engage with the accessibility features. From a theoretical viewpoint, data and experience collected in this project may contribute to set up guidelines for audio describing gameplay. Meanwhile, it is also interesting from a collaborative translation or co-creative design perspective to explore the interactions among game designers, audio describers and game players in producing translation products, in this context, the final version of the audio description in the game.

This project faced many challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making recruitment of blind and visually impaired participants a significant challenge. A few people we reached out were not equipped to Zoom or their computers were not updated to install the game. Ideally, we could conduct game testing in real life, providing all necessary technology and equipment to the audio describers and participants.  We hope to test the game with more visually impaired participants and improve on the current version.

Find out more about AD4 Games: making video games accessible for visually impaired players.

Becoming Dragon

All images © The Hatchling.

In this blog I will take you on a behind-the-scenes tour of “becoming dragon”: the multi-discipline and multi-sited collaboration that has brought The Hatchling to life. Thanks to Brigstow funding I have been lucky enough to sit in during R&D workshops and performance rehearsals to witness key innovations and stages in the creative development of this project. This blog will take you on that journey of discovery and becoming, and underline the extraordinary talent, expertise and energy that has gone into the making of this ground-breaking theatrical performance. The blog takes the form of a photographic  essay and is organized around a series of “landing sites” that have been key to the development of the project.

Landing Site 1: University of Bristol, May 2017 

I am in the middle of dissertation marking when I receive an email from Gail Lambourne manager of the Brigstow Institute, a University of Bristol institute set up to foster experimental inter-disciplinary and co-produced research. At this point in the summer marking schedule any distraction is welcome but a message from Gail is particularly so as she is always promoting interesting events and opportunities. This message exceeds expectations:

“Dear Merle,

We would like to invite you to a short meeting to introduce a project that Brigstow has asked to be involved in.  The aim is to gather around 15 academics from UoB whose research might intersect with the project.  I’m afraid there are some confidential issues which mean we’re unable to share any more detail with you until the meeting, but we hope the following outline might help:

Brigstow has been approached about an arts project of a phenomenal scale. The creative team includes the puppet director of War Horse, a kite world champion flier and set designer for Bjork. The project has some key research and public engagement opportunities which will reach audiences in their tens of thousands.

So we would like to invite you to meet the creative director of the project to find out more.

Having looked at calendars, we are proposing Wednesday 12th July between 2.30 & 4.00 pm for the meeting.  Would you be interested in attending?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Gail”

Photograph of Angie Bual
Image 1: Angie Bual Creative director of The Hatchling

A tingle of excitement runs up my spine. An arts project of phenomenal scale the creative team behind which includes the puppet director of War Horse and the set designer for Bjork: sign me up! I immediately reply in the affirmative to Gail and it’s not long before I and several other academic researchers meet Angie Bual, an award-winning producer and the artistic director of Trigger – a Community Interest Company that creates memorable live and digital events that interrupt daily life – to find out more.

Angie begins by telling us a story. One morning a mysterious giant egg appears in the centre of a city. The city’s inhabitants are intrigued and alarmed by its unexpected arrival. Will it hatch? What will hatch? Will it be friendly? When the egg hatches later that morning a baby dragon emerges, unsure of its urban surroundings and the human interest in it. Apprehensively, she begins to take her first steps and sense her surroundings. She is both curious and cautious. A dog bark intrigues. Traffic lights and sirens unsettle. Getting bolder she roams the city streets interacting with the sights and sounds and people and places she encounters along the way. Fatigued after an overwhelming day she finds a good place to build a nest and rest for the night. Although she has settled down for the evening her human co-inhabitants are left with a conundrum: what should they do about their new visitor? Should they welcome her or be wary? The next morning the dragon has doubled in size. This day she is more confident and purposeful when roaming the city. She is seeking something. As the sun is setting, she finds what she has been looking for – a pearl! – then undergoes an incredible metamorphosis and takes flight after it, leaving behind her awestruck human audience.

What an audacious idea. But any reservations there could be about the scale and ambition of this city-wide theatrical spectacular are not entertainable. Everyone who has just witnessed Angie’s pitch knows that she is the woman to make this event a reality. She tells us that the idea was partly inspired by a trip to China, where she learnt about Chinese dragon folklore and their highly crafted and intricate dragon dances. Recognizing that dragon legends and story patterns reoccur not just across China and Asia but also across Europe and the British and Irish Isles, Angie thought that a performance centred around a dragon might be an effective way to connect cultures, traditions, and communities.

Gail then outlines why academics have been invited along to hear about Angie’s project, a project that is not only charting new ground in the world of puppetry making but also offers the opportunity to explore the role co-creative large-scale puppetry can play in engaging urban communities and environments and addressing the themes of belonging and migration, as well as cross-cultural folklore and mythology. Brigstow has small pots of money to help facilitate academic research into and public engagement opportunities around the performance, and Gail invites us to come up with ideas and to apply for funding. Given my previous research into taxidermy, the craft skill of preparing and mounting animal skins to appear ‘lifelike’, I was immediately interested in researching the puppetry craft and performance skills needed to make a mythical creature come to life.

The funding application leads with the question: How do you develop, make and embody a believable yet mythical beast based on various real and imagined creatures that “reads” as one? Titling the project “Becoming Dragon”, I am not just interested in the animal references, real and imagined, that will inform both the making and performance of the dragon but also the multi-faceted creative collaborations needed to enable a human-operated puppet roam a city’s streets and take flight, a world first in the world of puppetry. However, rather than just witness this process from the side lines, I state the project will feed into and create a valuable record of the process of “becoming dragon”.

I submit my application and a few weeks later hear the good news from Gail that the project has received funding from Brigstow and that I can join The Hatchling team for their first R&D workshop.

Landing Site 2: Former British Aerospace Factory, Filton, December 2017  

Image 2: The creative team with the walking and flying dragon prototypes

I arrive at the former factory of British Aerospace and immediately get a sense of the scale of the project. The cavernous hanger, where numerous aeroplane prototypes and designs were once built, including Concorde , is now the R&D workshop for the project. Angie gives me a tour of the space and introduces me to the large-scale walking and flying dragon prototypes that are already competing for my attention.

It is fitting that the research and development stage of a project attempting to make a human-operated puppet fly is taking place at this historic centre of aviation innovation. Angie informs that for the flying dragon prototype they have been experimenting with makers at Cameron Balloons. The idea developed so far is that the walking dragon puppet will house an inflatable dragon so that when the time comes for the dragon’s metamorphosis, the walking dragon puppet structure will burst open as the flying dragon inflates and takes to the skies. Conceptually this idea is as beautiful as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Technically it sounds like a demanding design puzzle. Having read about the history of the Filton site before arriving, many of their prototypes failed to reach flight and I marvel at the ingenuity, skill and sheer chutzpah  needed to pull this theatrical stunt off. And as if to quell any questioning the flying dragon prototype majestically inflates and is run across the hanger like a soaring kite by members of the creative team.

Angie turns attentions back down to ground level by introducing me to the walking dragon puppet prototype and her designer Carl Robertshaw. Carl is a world champion kite-flyer who has been designing and  making kites for over 20 years as well as designing and consulting on fabric structures and installations for performances, events and installations using kites as his main inspiration. If anyone has the know-how to make a sculptural walking form metamorphosize into a flying one, it’s clearly Carl.

He takes me over to the prototype of the adult dragon and reminds me that there will also be a juvenile dragon puppet. Standing next to the adult dragon prototype I get a sense of her awesome size. She could certainly be intimidating to meet walking down a city street. For the moment though, her structure is made from thin flexible plastic tubing and tension ropes, which makes her appear skeletal and delicate. Carl then introduces the scale model of the adult dragon which he built on “mum’s coffee table” and I get a much better understanding of the “look” of the dragon. Carl confides that her body structure has been highly influenced by the body and wings of Pterosaurs, prehistoric flying lizards that were basically “catapults with arms”. Pterosaurs were also the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight so it makes sense that a dragon might have descended from them. Meanwhile her head and face have closer affinities with Chinese dragon-dance puppets. Carl states this is deliberate as it not only makes her appear more sympathetic, but also importantly references the Chinese folklore and performances that initially inspired Angie. The dragon is therefore a chimera of different animal and cultural references.

Carl then introduces me to Russel Beck, a leading theatre and stage prop-maker, who is collaborating with Carl on the puppet build. Today they are workshopping the puppet’s range of movement with the performers. Russel states that what they do not want is “a box on legs” and that the structure needs mobility. Yet at the same time they also do not want the structure to be so mobile that she lacks “bodily integrity”. Carl adds that both they and the performers need a “responsive structure” that tells them “what the body can and can’t do” and that this responsiveness must come as much from the puppet as much as from the performers.

Image 5: The puppeteers assemble

As if on cue the performers appear and assemble around the adult prototype. I am introduced to the leader of the troupe and the project’s director of puppetry, Mervyn Millar. “Merv” is one of the world’s most experienced puppetry directors and was part of the original creative team behind the National Theatre’s ground-breaking production of War Horse. This production was consistently praised for the power of its puppetry, which Merv co-devised and directed. Although the audience could see the that the puppets were human-operated, there was something about the combination of the intricate life-size sculptural-horse puppets and the realistic movements created by their puppeteer-operators that meant the hybrid human-puppet-horses took on lives of their own.

Image 6: Mervyn Millar on the prototype puppet

Mervyn has reassembled some of the War Horse puppeteers for this R&D phase and it is now his and the performers’ job to work out how to breathe life into the dragon puppets. However, before that magical alchemy can be achieved Mervyn informs that they have far more prosaic things to work out, like “how the poles work”. Much like a traditional Chinese dragon puppet, the head, shoulders and hips of the prototype adult dragon are lifted and operated by several poles. The poles allow the puppeteers to manipulate these different body-sections and the puppeteers must be able to co-ordinate these movements with the performers who are operating the legs and the tail so that the dragon has a convincing and compelling walk.

Today Merv is particularly interested in learning about the range of movement and weight distribution as “there are various things we don’t yet know about the puppet”. He tells the puppeteers to experiment with movement and range but to always shout “stop” if uncomfortable or it “feels off”. Russel adds they are also concerned to understand “how it moves and how you move with it” and to ensure both the performers and puppets “survive the performance”. The health and safety of performers and the robustness of the puppet are paramount.

The performers take to their places on the prototype puppet body. Three performers are assigned to the poles on the head. Sets of two performers are assigned to the poles on the hips and shoulders, while the four legs and tail are assigned to a performer each. All the pole operators are asked by Merv to lift in unison and the puppet body wobbles upwards. Carl tells me they have not yet worked out what they are doing with the neck and that it is “floating for now”. Although still a little wobblily the dragon body starts to cohere as the performers settle in their positions under her body.

Image 7: The puppeteers take their positions

Merv instructs the operators that before they start moving it is important to not think of themselves as “components parts” but as a “whole living, breathing” dragon. To assist in this, he asks them to “think about breath” and he directs the shoulder operators to lead the dragon’s breath. The two operators start to breath heavily in unison and begin to lift their poles up and down with their inhale and exhale. Merv then instructs the other operators to “match this breath and movement”, which they do. At this, the dragon’s body begins to look like it is inhaling and exhaling, becoming animate for the first time.

Having gotten the performers to breath as one, Merv suggests to the head operators that the dragon has “heard something” over in the corner of the hanger and they duly lift and tilt the head, as if she is listening. It is only a small movement, but it gives the dragon an alertness she did not have before. Merv reminds the performers to think about the “three Rs”, which he later tells me are “Reaction, Recognition, Responsiveness”. In this case, the dragon reacts to the sound by moving her head, recognizes that it is coming from over in the corner and so now needs to respond. Merv suggests that the response is that she wants to move closer to the noise to investigate. This means that the puppeteers face the challenge of making her walk.

Image 8: Russell Beck examining the puppet as the puppeteers ready her to walk

Attention turns to the performers operating her legs. Merv reminds everyone to “try to keep the breath going” as that rhythm should “help generate and propel the movement”. Merv instructs the performers to “try out the lizard walk” (which I find out later they have been researching by watching youtube videos). Lizards walk by moving diagonally opposite feet simultaneously, the left fore foot with the right hind, and the right fore with the left hind. There is a little hesitancy between the left and right dragon fore legs as neither appears sure which should move first. Once the right decisively goes for it, there is a bit of lag before the left hind legs move forward in response. The left fore leg then springs forward but again there is a delay before the right hind leg responds. As they lumber forward in this pattern of movement the back legs are constantly playing catch-up and at times appear improbably stretched behind the rest of the body. Yet as they pick up speed the delay between the diagonally opposite legs moving forward lessens and the dragon takes on a lolloping if not strictly lizard-like stride.

Image 9: First steps
Image 10: “Becoming dragon”

Once the dragon reaches her destination Merv tells the performers to “Ok stop”. He then asks the performers to let him and Russel know how “she handles and feels” so that they can make any necessary changes and adjustments. The left hind leg operator feeds back that at times the legs felt “too outstretched” and that it was difficult to “keep up and in sync”. Merv responds that it’s important that the operators all communicate with each other and that means “talking to one another” but that they also need to work out how to do this without “losing the dragon”. He also states that it’s ok if “our dragon doesn’t exactly walk like a lizard” and that they need to “work out her walk”. The shoulder pole operators then feedback that it felt like they were being “pulled in in different directions” and that they were “taking a lot of strain” when the hind legs lagged behind the fore legs. In response, Russel suggests that he and Carl might need to restrict the range of movement in the back lags to prevent or at least “reduce this”.

Listening in to this feedback session it is clear that “becoming dragon” is not just a case of perfecting a walk or developing a character, rather, it is an iterative and co-creative process between director/puppeteers and designer/maker and the puppet-prototype.

Landing Site 3: Rusell Beck Studio, London, January 24th 2019 

Image 11: Carl Robertshaw and Russell Beck making the dragon at Russell Beck Studio

I arrive at Russel Beck Studio excited to find out how the puppet design and build are progressing. The Studio is the UK’s leading workshop for the design and fabrication of props, sculpture and models for theater, exhibitions, and events. The double-height studio space’s walls are lined with the tools and materials of the trade as well as boxes tantalizingly labeled “Felt”, “Rubber”, “GLITTER”, “Zorro” and “Avenue Q”.  Russel gives me a brief tour of the space and introduces me to a team of prop-makers at the back of the studio who are busily engaged in making replacement ivy, a weekly job, for a production of Les Misérables. He then takes me back to the front of the workshop where Carl and Merv introduce me to the “new and improved” models of the juvenile and adult dragon puppets that Carl and Russel are in the middle of designing and making.

Image 12: The new and improved dragon models

The first thing I notice is that the heads, which are made from tracing paper and card, are much more characterful. Although made up of a series of geometric shapes, the overall sculptural effect is surprisingly friendly and open-faced rather than harsh or hard-edged. Carl informs me they plan to further soften the dragons’ sculptural and skeletal base structures by covering them in layers of translucent stretch fabric. He is hoping that these layers will help to build up a sense of the dragons’ musculature and skin while also suggesting “lightness and flight”. Carl brings out some of the fabric swatches they have been experimenting with, including some swatches of large iridescent sequins that will give the dragons’ a magical shimmer.

Image 13: Dimorphodon Macronyx is given a magical shimmer

Carl places one of the sequined swatches over an image of a Pterosaur, one of several reference images that are lying next to the models. I read that this image is of “Dimorphodon Macronyx Walking as a Quadruped”. The image is a photocopy from Harry Seely’s popular 1901 book on pterosaurs, the wonderfully titled Dragon’s of the Air. A British paleontologist, Seeley correctly contended that Pterosaurs were warm blooded active flyers as opposed to Richard Owen’s earlier characterization of them as cold-blooded gliders. The question of if and how pterosaurs walked was an open question for paleontologists at this time and Seely posed Dimorphodon Macronyx as both a quadruped and biped in his book. This conundrum was answered in 1957 when William Lee Stokes found pterosaur tracks that were quadrupedal and although his attribution was dismissed at the time, several examples of quadrupedal pterosaur tracks were found in the 1990s that corroborated pterosaurs walked on all four limbs just as posed in Seeley’s image “Dimorphodon Macronyx Walking as a Quadruped”.

Image 14 “Dimorphodon Macronyx Walking as a Quadruped”, image from Harry Seely’s Dragons of the Air (1901)

Carl relates that Mark Witton, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth, introduced him to this rich history of scientific speculation and that it was conversations with Mark that informed his early design ideas for the dragons. For example, it was Mark who told Carl pterosaurs were quadrupedal and that they likely used a vaulting mechanism to obtain flight, a bit like vampire bats. Mark also told Carl that the Smithsonian institution once commissioned an aeronautical engineer to build a half scale remote-control flying model of a pterosaur to appear in its Imax documentary On The Wing (1985). Although the latex rubber and Kevlar Quetzalcoatlus northropi model was filmed flying for the documentary it spectacularly crashed as part of its publicity tour in front of tens of thousands of spectators. Carl, unfazed by this potentially foreboding story, informs me that they are still trying to work out how the dragon’s metamorphosis is going to work, so that the inflatable dragon emerges and can take off without a hitch in front of their crowd of spectators.

Image 15: Carl discusses the Dragon’s design DNA with me

Angie, who has joined us, explains that they have finally secured a city and date for the performance – Plymouth in August 2020 – and she is hoping that the dragon will take off after the pearl from Plymouth’s Hoe promenade, with its spectacular scenic views out to sea.  She and her production team are currently exploring how they might turn the dragon’s metamorphosis into a performance event in and of itself by commissioning a composer to set the transition to music. Merv adds that the musical interlude, as well as being an important performance element, will also be important practically, as it will give the puppeteers time to transition the adult dragon from its walking form to its flying form. Yet with so many unknowns still to work out I am amazed by the team’s calm confidence and as if to quell any doubts, Carl excitedly shows me a part of the puppet build they have recently resolved.

Carl relays that the joints needed to hold the skeletal structure together had previously been giving him and Russel a bit of a headache as they were not strong enough to endure the wear and tear of performance. However, after various tests they innovated a triple-joint bonded and toughened with a fiberglass wrap. To prove its strength Carl places the prototype joint on the studio floor and stands on it, whereupon it does not even bend. Impressed, I suddenly think the prototype also nicely reflects the strength of The Hatchling’s three-pronged creative team in: 1. Angie and her production team, 2. Carl, Russel and their making team and 3. Mervyn and his puppeteers. The combination of their respective skills, expertise and experience creates the perfect trifecta.

Landing Site 4: Theatre Royal’s TR2, Plymouth April 23-25th 2019 

Image 16: Arriving at TR2

I have come to the Theatre Royal’s TR2 to watch the puppet rehearsals and gain an appreciation of Merv and the puppeteer’s approach to bringing the dragon to life. The figure of the puppeteer is fascinating yet understudied in theatre and performance studies (though see Astles 2009, 2010).  This is because the puppeteer as a performer has traditionally been required to disappear, which is why they dress in black. The puppetry in War Horse was ground-breaking as they did not attempt to hide the puppeteers from the audience, rather, the puppeteers formed part of a performative alliance with the life-sized horse puppets so that they became an essential and unquestioned part of the horse performance. Although dressed in the same period costume as the actors, the puppeteers did not appear as all-powerful actors imposing their will on an inanimate object, rather the performance came from the relationship developed between the sculptural horse body and the human puppeteer bodies – it was through this interplay that a believable “horse” emerged.

Merv confides that part of the reason this interplay worked so well for War Horse was because both the designer and the puppeteers studied equine movement and behaviour. The designer was therefore able to build puppets that could move like horses while the puppeteer bodies were trained so that they could express and perform “horseness”, as Merv puts it, when operating the puppets. Given a dragon is a mythical animal I ask Merv if this makes the task of creating the dragon performance easier. Merv agrees that they are “less constrained” in some ways as they do not have to be so concerned with creating “accurate movements and behaviours”, however, they still need to base their dragon on realistic animal movements and behaviours so that an audience can invest in the dragon as a “believable beast”. This is also why Carl has gone to such pains to trace a probable evolutionary history for dragons and why pterosaur anatomy became the building blocks for his puppet design.

Image 17: Carl discusses the dragon design DNA at a sharing session

With the dragon design DNA decided upon it is now the task of Merv and the performers to create an impression of believable animality or “dragon-ness” when operating the puppets. As well as watching animated recreations of pterosaurs moving and flying, Merv and the cast have also been researching the movements and behaviours of lizards, Komodo dragons, vampire bats and even gorillas in a bid to build up a plausible physical and behavioural vocabulary for the dragons. Yet for the puppeteers it is one thing to attempt to embody these movements individually using their own bodies (and following the example of specialist animal movement coaches on youtube), it is quite another task to work as an ensemble and transmit this mélange of movements and behaviours into a puppet so that it reads as one creature.

However, before they reach this level of performance, Merv explains he first needs to help the puppeteers to develop a sense of themselves not as singular performers but as part of a collaborative “performance ecology” between “living and non-living bodies”.  Merv tells me that he developed a repertoire of exercises to help facilitate this transition during his time training the actor/puppeteers for international productions of War Horse (Millar 2007). This morning he is introducing the dragon performers to some of his “stick exercises” (Millar 2018). Although the assembled cast still includes a couple of trained War Horse performers, the majority have no prior puppetry experience. This lack of experience does not seem to faze Merv as they bring “new info and skills to the table”, and perhaps more importantly, do not need to “unlearn” anything.

For the warm-up exercise Merv gives each of the performers a stick and groups them in pairs. He instructs them that the aim is to keep both sticks off the ground by “sharing responsibility for them”. Before they begin the pair need to decide who will be the “leader and responder”. In their pairs the performers pick up their sticks and hold them between each other balancing them on their palms. Merv instructs them to “find their breath”. Once the pairs are breathing as one, Merv gets them moving by offering the prompt “explore your range of high and low”. The partnerships start to tentatively explore the physical limits they can push their new body-stick configurations to. On a couple of occasions, the partnerships overreach and the sticks come clattering to the ground, but Merv reassures them that “you might drop the polls, but it doesn’t matter”. On picking up their sticks Merv reminds them to “enjoy re-establishment of connection and mutual pressure” and “don’t forget breath”.

 

Just as it seems the partnerships are in tune with one another, Merv instructs the group to change partners and “establish connection and breath with” within their new partnerships. He tells me as an aside that switching partners is important as none of the performers will have a designated place on the puppet dragons, rather, they will rotate places. Merv directs the new partnerships to “hear each other through the object” and to “respond” by “speeding up or slowing down” the movement. He also reminds the partnerships to be aware of their “body-space” and that of the other partnerships, as some of them look like they are in danger of crashing into each other. Next, he prompts the partnerships to explore “angles and crossings” which necessarily leads to more clattering. After several such instances Merv senses a natural pause and asks the group “how was that?”. One of the performers feedbacks that at first it was difficult to “place trust” in the other person’s movement, but that when they closed their eyes it helped them to “to just focus on and respond to the feeling”. Another performer also closed their eyes to “focus on feeling”, but that this made them “less aware of spatial constraints”, including the other partnerships.

If the “sharing sticks” game was about developing trust and reciprocity, Merv’s tells me the next stick exercise is about developing “sympathetic performances”. The group remain in pairs and with a stick each, however, now the “game”, as Merv puts it, is to mirror each other’s movement with the stick. He directs that it does not matter if they are “not exactly mirroring” each other’s movements, rather, the aim is to mirror their “energy”. However, before this mirroring can begin Merv instructs the “leader” of the pair to focus on their stick, to feel its “weight” and give it “breath”. Although there is scant scholarship on the training of puppeteers for contemporary live theatre, Cariad Astles (2009: 54, 59) maintains that for the purposes of performance the puppeteer needs to be trained in a bodily sensibility that can “generate and transmit huge amounts of energy towards the inanimate figure, material or thing”, while also being encouraged to develop “an awareness of the energy held in the thing, respecting the qualities of the [puppet] itself”.

By prompting the performers to feel the weight of their stick, Merv is clearly encouraging the performers to recognize the potential energy held in it. Moreover, by asking them to give it “breath” he is also directing them to transfer the energy of their own breath and movement into the stick. For Astles (2010: 32), the importance of breath in puppetry training cannot be overstated as:

“From the breath comes the movement: the breath and movement partnership create phrases which map the score of the performance. Training the puppeteer is thus to train a bodily awareness of the breath as impulse to the movement, which in turn suggests life.”

Merv is clearly attempting to encourage this type of bodily awareness in the dragon puppeteers, and it is working: when the leaders begin to focus and transfer their breath movement into their sticks these simple objects become animate.

Once the leaders have established a breath and movement partnership with their own sticks, Merv instructs the followers to mirror the leader’s movement. This he tells me is to encourage “complimentary and sympathy” between the puppeteers, which will be hugely important when they come to operate the dragon puppet together. Watching the pairs, it is apparent some of the followers are hyper-focused on keeping in time and step with the leaders’ movements, whereas others seem more attuned to mirroring the overall dynamism of the performance. The latter of these approaches appears the more sympathetic, as they more successfully reproduce the energy of the leader’s performance. To encourage the followers in this latter approach, Merv directs them to “pick up on mood” and to “not to worry” if they fall behind or do not match their partner’s movements exactly. Merv reminds them that the aim is to explore “complementarity” and prompts the followers to match the “quality” of the movement rather than the movement itself. This direction has the desired effect as those that had been struggling to exactly match the movements of their partner now relax and become more attuned to the breath and mood of the leader’s movements. As Merv moves from partnership to partnership he reminds them to “stay sensitive and sympathetic” and to “remember it all comes from breath”.

Reading Astles’ (2009, 2010) work on my train journey home and her argument that breath and sympathy are the central sensibilities one needs to train a puppeteer in so that they can give the impression of life in otherwise inanimate objects, I realize that I have just witnessed a masterclass in puppetry training.

Landing Site 5: Royal William Yard, Plymouth August 14/15th 2019. 

Natalie Adams, a senior producer of The Hatchling and co-director of Trigger, reminds me over email rehearsals have moved site to Royal William Yard Plymouth, as the site has indoor and outdoor rehearsal space.  When I arrive at the yard, I find out that the term “indoor” to describe the dilapidated warehouse space they have set up camp in is perhaps a little generous, as it is almost completely open to the elements. But as Merv breezily annouces when he comes to greet me: “the performance is happening outdoors, so we need to get used to it!”.

Image 21: Natalie, Carl and Merv in their “Warehouse office”

Merv takes me over to Carl who has some “exciting news” to depart. Carl informs that there has been a major creative development in the puppet build: the walking adult puppet is now also a walking kite that will take flight. He recounts that the transition of the walking dragon puppet into the inflatable flying dragon had been causing problems both in terms of the build – storing the inflatable in the frame of the puppet was proving problematic – and in terms of performance – the team were worried they might lose the audience’s emotional investment in the dragon when it metamorphosized into its different inflatable form. Carl’s elegant solution means that the adult dragon puppet-form will both walk and take flight. The puppeteers still need to transition her from “walking mode to flying mode” so the metamorphosis performance remains in place, but the kite innovation means that the transition will be more practical in terms of build and more plausible in terms of transition/performance.  It also strikes me that it beautifully reflects Carl’s expertise in kite-making and flying.

Image 22: Carl’s kite dragon design

Carl and Merv want to get the puppeteers onto the adult puppet build this morning so they can see “how she is handling”. She is so large the performers need to walk her out of the warehouse so they can get a better view. As the puppeteers take their positions on the poles and legs, I run ahead with Carl and Merv so that I can see her emerging from the shadows of the warehouse and into the light of day. Merv comments that “something magic happens when you take a puppet outside and it interacts with the elements” and he is right, when her head emerges around corner of the warehouse door and appears to sniff the air, she takes my breath away. As she walks towards us in the carpark, I note the puppeteers are roughly following the pattern of a lizard walk but that because now she more clearly appears to be walking on winged forelimbs, she takes on the appearance of a stalking vampire bat. She is quite intimidating.

Image 23: The dragon meets the light of day

Merv sensing my awe relates “a puppet in an open space creates its own theatre, it changes time like dance”. And time does seem to stand still while I take in the uncommon site of a dragon strutting around a carpark. Merv then turns to the dragon and offers the prompt “she becomes transfixed by that red car”.  In response the head pole operators lift and crane her neck and head towards the car in the far corner of the carpark, so that she focuses her attention on the car. It is just a small series of movements but as they do so the shoulder operators speed up the rhythm of her breathing, so that she takes on an added mood of alertness. The speeded up breathing also has a ripple effect though the body and the tail operator begins to whip the tail back and forth in response completing the “three R’s”.  Then one of the shoulder operators offers “she wants a closer look”, and she begins to strut towards the car. Carl, who is standing next to me, states “it’s good to get a look at how she moves” and says to Merv “the spine’s still too flexible”. Merv responds that “perhaps we can give the illusion of a strong spine”, to which he then directs the pelvis pole operators: “try to stay in alinement with the shoulders”. The pelvis pole operators try to dampen the spine’s flex but as she walks towards the car the dragon still has a distinct S-bend walk, not unlike a Komodo dragon.

 

Image 24: The dragon explores the carpark

When the dragon is nearing the car, Merv, sensing a tentativeness from the performers, prompts “she’s wants to communicate dominance, so think about the Gorilla stance”. In response the forelimb operators adopt a wider stance whilst the shoulder and head operators lift up their poles so that she grows in stature. Then Merv instructs “OK let’s try out a roar”. In response her breathing, led by the shoulder operators, becomes heavier and louder and as her body expands and contracts to this rhythm the head and shoulder operators begin to make a low guttural sound. Merv asks the performers to “think about where the emotions located… perhaps a growl comes from the back?”. The pelvis pole operators offer some growling sounds, and this helps to build the noise, but with the wind picking up and seagulls raucously calling overhead Merv encourages them to “be loud” and reminds them that it is “better to do it too big so you know where wrong is”. However, although they do build the noise the overall sound effect comes across as more of a snarling grumble than a full-on roar.

 

Image 25: Trying out a roar

As the sound peters out Merv takes this as a cue for rest and reflection so asks the performers: “Ok so what have we learnt? Let’s talk movement first”. One of the pelvis pole operators feeds back that they are still having to dampen a lot of movement and as a result are taking “a lot of strain”. Carl acknowledges the spine is still too flexible and that he and Russel will investigate how they might better “stabilize it”. Then one of the hind leg operators notes that the leg “still feels a bit leaden”. In response Carl states that “we can add more bungies to give her more of a spring in her step”. He then notes this request in his notepad whilst telling me that “we actually need more connective tissue (the bungie cords) all over the carbon-fiber structure to help the limbs spring back and to cushion the movement”. He also informs me that every requested change to the build also gets logged in the computer model and that the build is a “constant process of tweaking” in response to the feedback from the performers.

Next another performer notes that even though the structure lacks a bit of spring “the impulse is always to move forward”. Merv responds that they need to “fight this impulse” and work in more “moments of stillness”. He continues that these “landing sites” will not only give the audience a chance to catch up and “feel the emotion” it will also give the performers a chance to rest and anticipate the next move. He also reminds them that “the dragon cannot spend the whole day walking around Plymouth as she and you (the performers) will need to conserve energy”.  Merv also tells the group that they are “still being too polite”, which makes for a “quiet and tentative dragon” and that after lunch they will work on making the dragon “come alive vocally”.

Over lunch Merv imparts that for War Horse, it was never intended that the puppets would vocalize, but that when they started playing about with noises in rehearsals, they recognized that they helped to communicate emotion and character and thus were incorporated in the onstage performance. This meant that as well as researching equine movement the puppeteers, who were mic’ed for the duration of the performance, were tasked with researching and practicing equine vocalizations and communications, including “snorting, nickering, whinnying and squealing”. Merv then imparts that the question of “if and how” the dragon should vocalize is still a “live question” and that he will engage the performers in a “sound bath” after lunch to explore. On my asking what a sound bath is he informs that traditionally a sound bath is a healing therapy that uses sound, usually made by a “singing bowl or tuning fork”, to induce a meditative state but that he uses it as a vocal warm-up exercise.

After lunch, when he and the performers have reconvened in the warehouse, I witness how Merv has adapted this ancient practice. First, he gets the cast to stand facing-inwards in a close-knit circle so that their arms and bodies are touching the person either side of them. He then asks them to close their eyes and instructs them to slowly increase the sound of their breath so that everyone in the circle can tune in to the same breath. Once they are breathing as one, Merv prompts them to explore making sounds on the in and out breath and to “keep listening and responding” to each other. The noises made on the out-breath sound like descending yawns whereas those on the in-breath sound like shrill yowls. Merv then tells the circle he wants them to take responsibility for “making offers” and to let the sounds “volley” around the circle. Someone begins to groan and then several other groans and moans reverberate around the circle in response. Then someone starts clacking their mouth and the circle slowly starts to transition from moaning and groaning to clicking and clacking to meowing and trilling noises and the circle starts to caterwaul. Merv reminds them to switch their “brains off” and “become more feeling-led”. Over time the ping-ponging of noises lessens, and the circle settles on snoring on the in breath and growling on the out. The sound is low and guttural to begin with but as the volume increases and layers of bellowing and snarling sounds are added, the deep rumble builds to the crescendo of an impressive roar.

The dragon has awoken.

Landing Site 6: Home Office, Bristol August 28th and September 9th 2020  

I get an email from Natalie with “exciting news!” – they plan to test fly the dragon the following week and would I “like to join?”. It is indeed exciting news to receive after The Hatchling event was cancelled and the dragon was grounded due to the emergence and world-wide spread of Covid-19. And although I cannot join them for the test flight it is heartening to learn that The Hatchling is still in development as I have read with concern that those working in the cultural and creative sectors have contained the greatest share of jobs at risk during the pandemic, as many jobs in these sectors have not benefitted from the policies and schemes put in place to support firms and workers. There has even been talk of encouraging creatives freelancers to retrain in “viable” jobs. Yet instead of dismissing the arts, the pandemic has shown that now is the time to cherish and support them as in such times of crisis they not only generate positivity, appreciation, and hope, but can also help us to face up to injustices and process global events.

A few days later I get the following WhatsApp message and image from Angie:  

 “she flies!” 

Image 26: “She flies!”

On seeing the dragon soar, I think about how this feat of design, engineering and imagination has been accomplished by the expertise, hard work and passion of Angie and The Hatchling’s amazing creative team and that when the dragon does finally take off from The Hoe, she will lift the spirits of all who watch her.

Brigstow presents our 2022 Ideas exchanges

We are delighted to present our 2022 Brigstow funded Ideas Exchanges.

Brigstow Institutes Ideas exchange funding provides researchers the time and resources to connect with others and explore an idea’s potential together. It is designed to support emerging, interdisciplinary networks and partnerships that are co-designed and co-run with external partners.

This cohort of seventeen ideas exchanges range from dismantling ableist barriers in performance to creatively signposting the public to life saving medical equipment, from exploring the temporal imagination to the impacts of hormonal changes in women. We are looking forward to seeing these partnerships strengthen and research ideas developing.


All the Others: Creative responses to gender based violence

Contrasting public discourses which tend to misrepresent gender based violence by conveying stereotypes of victimhood, the project will explore how to use creative life writing to construct life story portrayals in collaboration with participants using person centred approaches.

Involving Dr Ana Baeza Ruiz (History of Art), Dr Sarah Jones (History), Ms Jo Higson (English), Dr Nadia Aghtaie (Policy Studies) and Dr Louisa Parker (The Oxford Centre for Life Writing, University of Oxford).


How did/does our garden grow?

How can community creativity centring on communal gardening in St Pauls contribute to unmooring “traditional” Environmentalism from its white supremacist origins and on-going entrapping?

Involving Dr Erin Forbes (English), Akulah Agbami and Lulu Veronica Sakala (Black Artists on the Move), Judit Davis (Friends of St Pauls), and Latisha Cesar (Libation Dance).


Seeing the Invisible, Hearing the Inaudible: Revealing estuarine mysteries through art and science

In what ways can engagement in the nocturnal human-environment entanglements of the River Erme foster curiosity and care for the river by those living within its catchment, and does this reveal new insights about the contested futures of our rivers? Studies of iconic UK rivers abound (Thames, Severn). But what of the much smaller water courses? How do those living in the catchment areas of smaller rivers engage with them after dark?

Involving Prof Martin Genner (Biological Sciences), Laura Denning (Artist), Adam Davison and Nicky Bailey (South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)).


The Climate Crisis: What best hope to tell now?

An interdisciplinary investigation/discussion into how we ‘tell’ stories about the future, given the unfolding climate catastrophe. Authors, scientists and academics discover how to use storytelling to help people and communities prepare for the climate catastrophe.

Involving Dr Mimi Thebo (English), Prof Rich Pancost (Earth Sciences), Prof Richard Pettigrew (Philosophy), Joanna Nadin (English) , Emma Geen (Author) , Elen Caldecott (University of Lancaster) and  Lucy Christopher (Author / Academic).


The Colour of Dinosaurs: A musical exploration of melanin and vision and how we communicate complex subjects

Involving Dr Jakob Vinther (Biological Sciences), Prof Ute Leonards (Psychological Sciences), Prof Nick Scott-Samuel (Psychological Sciences), Lloyd Coleman (Paraorchestra and Friends), Dom Coyote and Liz Counsell (Made of What), Malaika Kegode and Victoria Oruwari (Independent).


Designing in’ Defibrillators: Combining art and urban planning to increase the visibility of public access defibrillators in civic spaces

In an emergency, how would you locate a defibrillator? You have a matter of moments – where is the nearest one to you? This research will creatively consider ways to ‘signpost’ campus users and members of the public to the locations of live-saving defibrillators.

Involving Dr Matthew Booker (Bristol Medical School), Dr Sarah Allsop (Anatomy) , Dr Claire Wienburg and Mr Jason Parr (Safety and Health Services).


What it is to be there: Exploring grief, place and memory

Although grief is a universal, human experience, it still remains a taboo subject for many. By focusing on a personal, lived experience of disenfranchised grief, this research aims to open up conversations about death and bereavement, in a manner that destigmatises grief and promotes compassion and understanding.

Involving Dr Lesel Dawson (English), Helen Acklam (BV Studios) and Dr Julian Brigstocke (Cardiff University).


Microbes, Microplastics and Man: Micro-entanglements and the biological complexes of human and more-than-human collisions

Can we imagine a time when we take responsibility for the health of our water systems? What might an arts practice look like as a result of this speculative dialogue? The diatom as a micro-space/organism will be at the heart of the project as a thinking-making trigger and to communicate beyond the project.

Involving Dr Joshua Dean (Geographical Sciences), Prof Marian Yallop (Biological Sciences), and Dr Veronica Vickery (Independent Artist).


Towards Creating Inclusive Performance Spaces: Introducing haptics in performance art to dismantle ableist barriers

How can participatory research can help us to further our understanding of how the sensory environment affects inclusive design and societal wellbeing? This research wants to better understand how new technologies affect people’s multisensory experiences and can allow for more inclusive musical experiences.

Involving Professor Ute Leonards (Psychological Sciences), Greig Dickson (Psychological Sciences), Rowan James (Independent), Dr JF Burn (Mechanical Engineering) and Dr Antonia Tzemanaki (Mechanical Engineering).


Boys at the Crossroads: Insights and innovations for doing masculinity differently

Recent social movements have catapulted the issue harmful masculinities into the forefront of public consciousness. Men also experience violence, yet this is overwhelmingly perpetrated by other men. This research seeks to form a network of practitioners, artists and academics to talk about boys, men and masculinity.

Involving Dr Nathan Eisenstadt (Bristol Medical School), Martin White (Office for Health Improvement and Disparities), Rachel Potter (Kooth), Tom Antebi (Off the Record, Bristol) and Alex Greenwood (TIGER).


Educating the Temporal Imagination: A proposal for a new ideas conversation

How we think about time – and use time to think with – matters. This ‘temporal imagination’ shapes our understanding of the world, how it might change and influences what we value. What would an educational approach to time look like?

Involving Prof Keri Facer (Education), Solveig Settemsdal (Independent), and  Penny Hay (House of Imagination).


Woven

How might an engaging artwork help women to connect or understand our bodies and hormonal changes on a deeper level? This research is focussed on the human experience of mental health and hormonal changes for women and how this effects society as a whole.

Involving Prof Maria Fannin (Geographical Sciences), Angie Bual (Trigger) and Bronia Houseman (Independent).


The Bristol-led Digital Filmmaking Research Network: 1st Annual Meeting

Filmmaking research underwent significant methodological restrictions during Covid-19 due to travel bans and lockdowns. The Digital Filmmaking Research Network emerged, an online space where global film makers, researchers and participants sought to collaborate on experimental methodologies. This network is looking to explore “What happens next?”.

Involving Dr Miguel Gaggiotti (Film and Television).


Methods Ideation for Participatory Critical Futures Making in Immersive Shared Spaces

Can shared immersive digital spaces facilitate the co-creation of fairer and more sustainable futures with communities at the margins? This research will engage with communities to co-produce a series of use-case scenarios in which an immersive environment could be used to support participatory critical futures making.

Involving Dr Lyndsay Grant (Education), Dr Neil Carhart (Civil Engineering) and Jon Somerscales (Independent).


Laundry Justice

What is the effect of contemporary laundry methods on our rivers and coastlines? What places and spaces within the city facilitate alternative forms of garment care? This project seeks to explore ways to live better with our clothing.

Involving Lizzie Harrison (Centre for Innovation), Lara Luna Bartley (University of the West of England), Naomi Millner (Geographical studies) and Josh (Bristol Vehicles for Change (CIC)).


Empowering Audiences through Street Performance

How can we better understand audiences experiences of temporary monuments? What is the best way to collect and use audience feedback during a live performance? This research explores these questions through the performance of living statues.

Involving Dr Sumita Mukherjee (History),  Louise Jordan (Independent Artist), Dr Tanja Schult (University of Stockholm) and Prof Tim Cole (History).


Improving the Quality of Life for People Living with EB: Developing an interdisciplinary network to evaluate requirements and engineering solutions for a second skin technology.

Can the discipline of engineering find ways to improve the quality of life for those affected by Epidermolysis Bullosa? This network of engineers, ethics researchers and those with experience and expertise in Epidermolysis Bullosa looks for solutions to make life better.

Involving Dr Mohammad Naghavi Zadeh (Engineering Mathematics), Dr Mari-Rose Kennedy (Bristol Medical School), Prof Jonathan Rossiter (Engineering Mathematics), Prof Fabrizio Scarpa (Aerospace Engineering) and Sharmila Nikapota and Elizabeth Clark (Cure EB).

‘I summon up remembrance of things past’: responses to memorising poetry   

‘Metre and Memorisation’, a Brigstow institute project and a collaboration between English and Psychology academics, investigates how we learn poetry off by heart, and how it feels when we do. Along with psychology graduate Rebecca Jackson, I led a series of Zoom sessions last summer in which we asked participants to memorise a Shakespeare sonnet using four different memorisation conditions: silent reading, oral rehearsal, imagery, and movement. Then we looked for two bits of information: how accurately they could recite the poem from memory immediately afterwards; and, more informally, what the experience had felt like for our participants. Did they enjoy memorising the sonnets? What did the poetry make them feel? Did they learn anything about Shakespeare, or memory, or about the subjects of the sonnets – love, death, time?

We gathered this information from discussion groups and surveys held after the sessions. Certain themes came through across our 85 participants: lots of people found that the experience of memorising new poems made them remember poems (or lines or individual words of poetry) that they had learnt earlier in life. One participant remembered learning a poem as a young child at school, reciting while moving around ‘as if I was hypnotising myself’. Another could still remember the first verse of ‘The Lady of Shallot’, which they had memorised at age 12. The act of learning a poem off by heart provided a link, or continuity, with other poems and with other acts of memorisation. One participant recalled a very ill family member, near the end of their life, reciting a poem they had learnt at school. Poetry was ‘the last thing to go’, the participant explained – the last words that memory could hold onto.

Sonnet 123, one of the ones we asked our participants to memorise, explicitly concerns continuity and change through the passage of time. It begins ‘No, time, thou shalt not boast that I do change’, and ends: ‘I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee’. One of our participants said that they found this one easier to memorise, ‘maybe because I’m getting old, so I can relate to wanting to tell time to **** off!’. The feeling of relating to certain messages or themes in the sonnets was a common response among our participants. Sonnet 98 begins: ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’, and describes how even the ‘lily’s white’ and the ‘deep vermilion in the rose’ seemed pale, insignificant, with ‘you away’.  In June of 2021, a long spring of absence seemed particularly relatable to many of us. One participant commented: ‘The trees are beautiful, but in lockdown or isolation we can’t see them properly. Do they lose their meaning, or do they gain meaning when we’re absent from them? Do they make me feel more or less when I can’t see them?’

We discussed the repetitiveness of the sonnets, and how the similarities between them made memorisation harder: some participants found themselves combining two sonnets about love in their memory. Dr John Lee, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Bristol who joined some of our discussions about the project, said that one explanation for repetition in and across the sonnets is that ‘part of the defining quality of love is its repetitive nature – love constantly finds new ways of expressing the same thing.’ This posed a challenge for some of our participants, but others found repetition helpful, especially in the ‘oral’ condition, in which we asked participants to memorise a sonnet by speaking it out loud. Sonnet 104 addresses love across time, and includes the repetition of a particular sound:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,

For as you were when first your eye I eyed,

Such seems your beauty still.

The phrase ‘your eye I eyed’ – which, as John Lee pointed out to us, might be read as a pun on ‘aye aye aye’ – was ‘irritating’ to memorise during the experiment, according to one participant. But the assonance of this line also meant that it stayed in their memory for a long time; this discussion took place a couple of weeks after the session in which they had been asked to memorise sonnet 104.

For almost all of our participants, certain memorisation conditions felt harder than others. Lots found the ‘imagery’ condition difficult: we asked participants to picture a ‘story board’ of the sonnet, and memorise according to those images. A common response in our discussions was that this felt counter-intuitive because they instinctively wanted to perform the poems orally – it was ‘a joy to say the poems out loud’ in the oral condition, said one person. Another wanted to ‘gesticulate and point’; the physical connection to poetry was a common response, with one participant explaining that in the ‘movement’ condition they tried to ‘physically embody a piece of text or a thought’.

The primary focus of the ‘Metre and Memorisation’ experiment is investigating which of these four conditions represents the most effective method of memorising poetry. The discussions and responses from our participants suggest that across these conditions, people feel a personal, sometimes physical connection to poetry when memorising and reciting it. For many of our participants, then, learning these Shakespeare sonnets off by heart facilitated a feeling of connection: with their bodies, with their younger selves, with lost loved ones, and with the world around them, especially in a year in which so many of us had been ‘absent’ from each-other.