Immersive VR Environments

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Over the past couple of months, I’ve noticed a rise in discussion among museums and galleries about virtual reality (VR). Not only that, I’ve seen Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, mixed with various adventures in augmented reality (AR) now on the ground in museums. Microsoft HoloLens is being talked about too with recent offers from Microsoft to partner on research for their device (if you are in the US).

MAAS has a history of collecting VR technologies. We have a PowerGlove and an original Virtuality arcade set (which we exhibited when it first arrived in Australia in 1992), in addition to various custom computing and simulation devices for military training. More recently we rolled out AR experiences as part of our workshop programs.

Optical Projector Array made by Research Engineers Ltd in London, 1966, MAAS collection, 98/113/2

Optical Projector Array made by Research Engineers Ltd in London, 1966, MAAS collection, 98/113/2

PowerGlove made by Mattel in China, 1989, MAAS collection, 99/38/1

PowerGlove made by Mattel in China, 1989, MAAS collection, 99/38/1

In recent travel, I encountered Oculus Rift at New Museum in New York as part of their 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience (enabled via a ceiling mounted bungy cord):


Exploring Brazilian artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s Phantom (kingdom of all the animals and all the beasts is my name) (2015)

You can read reviews of the triennial on Artnet and Hyperallergic or watch video about the making of the work. Or, as Flavorpill describes it:

the artist used 3D laser-scanning software to map a lush spot in Brazil’s endangered Mata Atlântica rainforest. The work allows viewers to explore the forest as if they are walking through it. As you move around, look up and down; different elements of the indigenous Brazilian landscape reveal themselves, albeit a grainy, colorless, digitized version of the forest.

Despite the bungy, this not-available-for-sale, only-available-to-developer device is being looked after by staff in the space who carefully help you adjust the straps, work around your glasses, check it’s working (“tell me what you seeing right now”) and generally ensure you don’t break it.

Once inside the work (yes, that’s how I’d phrase it), there is a wonderful sense of immersion. It’s smooth. The high frame rates and quality head-tracking create a seamless experience. New Museum have provided a large enough space to wander about and feel you are exploring some kind of Brazilian rainforest that’s been Neuromancer-ed.

Closer to home a few weeks ago, as part of our ongoing MAASive Lates program, we hooked up with VIVID Ideas to explore “the absence of…”. In between the audio (for those that love to bask in what pleases the ears), visual (treats for eyes that seek the unusual) and cardio (calorie busting and a little bit weird) was another Oculus Rift piece. Artist Warren Armstrong’s The Drawing Room provided a deceptively simple but incredibly immersive experience. Being able to sketch with your finger in three dimensional space was rather magical!



Visitors at MAAS experiencing Warren Armstrong’s The Drawing Room (2015)

We had all the same issues as New Museum. It needed staff to help you get the gear on, help step you through the experience and yes, ensure you didn’t drop it.

The other thing about these VR experiences is that it’s almost impossible to capture still images that provide any sense of what the experience was actually like. We projected the dual stereo (side by side) video on the wall of the museum to help provide some idea, but it really is something you have to do yourself to ‘get it’.

Last week at the MCA, I had the pleasure of encountering an artwork that has recently been re-devised for VR, also using the Oculus Rift. I first encountered The Blinds & the Shutters by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding at ACMI as part of the exhibition Deep Space: Sensation and Immersion. In its original format, it was four large projections with a sound environment that covered a darkened square gallery some 5-10 metres across. In 2001, synchronised video across multiple projections was achieved through Dave Jones boxes and Pioneer DVD players. The original work was a standard definition interlaced PAL with the lovely mosquito noise that only MPEG2 compression can provide. That said, the quality of the video was still incredibly high.

The illusion of this fictional world is only as good as my suspension of disbelief. Large scale projections in the round are an excellent way to do that. As ACMI curator Victoria Lynn describes it:

use computer software and sound recordings to present a virtual world comprised of a modernist fictional house in a remote forest setting, whose contents gradually spill out of every aperture. Shoes and dresses, pots and pans, cutlery, pillows, blankets and plates journey in two directions simultaneously, some disappearing into the distance never to return, others appearing across all four screens in the installation. The larger objects fade up like apparitions, disappear and then reappear in strange locations, breaking all logic that is guiding this imaginary world. The slow drift of these household objects around the four screens is uncanny.

However, exhibiting multi-channel works is hard. They take up loads of space, are a challenge to provide appropriately isolated sound for and you need a bunch of expensive equipment multiplied by the number of channels. It’s appealing to think these works could be seen another way or to have a ‘library’ of these installation/projection works all available on demand. I was fascinated to see what Haines and Hinterding’s work would be like re-interpreted for the Rift.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the MCA adaptation. One of the virtues of a large scale installation is that you can move around the room, get closer, or position yourself to see particular combinations of screens. At the MCA, I’m very much tethered to the wall, so it’s somewhat limited to a spin around experience. Part of the challenge is needing to wear headphones as well as the Rift.

The transfer from DVD to Oculus has somehow lost effective resolution of the images. I’m sure the MCA team has retained every pixel and scanline they can, but I couldn’t give in to an immersive illusion. I couldn’t feel surrounded by the world in the same way I could with larger scale projections.

But these are early days. As we all get better at managing the clunky equipment and find ways to ensure the effective resolution of re-interpreted video installation works, there is hope that more of these larger format, multi-channel works can be accessed more readily. When VR equipment finally moves into the mainstream, there will be another platform for artists to create, but also for museums and galleries to continue our job preserving and making works as available as possible to our publics.

That said, go see the show at the MCA. The works are amazing for all senses (including smell) and if you haven’t ‘rifted’ yet, it’s a great chance to try. The Rift is available for you to try on Thursdays 5-9pm and weekends 10-5pm until 6 September 2015.

For more on VR environments in museums, Gabby Shaw, Alex White and Tristan Deratz from MCA Australia have written up their process too.

Post by Michael Parry

Museums Australia Conference Reflections

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The annual Museums Australia conference has just wrapped up in Launceston. This year, the Museum contributed through two presentations – I presented with Lynda Kelly (ANMM) and Jonny Brownbill (Museum Vic) on digital strategy and digital project management, while our Director, Rose Hiscock keynoted on the ‘The Contemporary Museum’. I’ve made available the slides from my presentation. Resources from Lynda’s presentation are available on her blog:
Just before the conference was an inaugural gathering of four distinct, but overlapping bodies: the Council of Australasian Museum Directors (CAMD), the Council of Australian Art Museum Directors (CAAMD), Museums Australia (MA) and the International Council of Museums – Australia (ICOM).  I represented the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences at these meetings – and two points are worth reporting back.
A new approach to joining up our advocacy and thinking has emerged: a more formal alliance between these four peak bodies. While only freshly minted (and yet to be formally named, or structured) this new entity has the potential to seriously impact our sector (for good) and one of the agenda items in discussion was digital.

Sharing Collections – a Sector Wide Approach

Three significant project were noted that look at how we as a sector are approaching sharing and making our collections data (more) available:



While Trove has a long (and brilliant!) history already. However, the amount of aggregated/harvested collections data from the Museums sector is limited by the Trove integration teams’ bandwidth to process new data. This scalability issue is compounded by the challenges of the Museum sector using a wide range of Collection Management Systems, many of which are not easily/affordably able to expose their data to systems like Trove without significant intervention. There is an opportunity here to create better ‘paths’ for museum data to flow into Trove.

Victorian Collections


This already heavily awarded and brilliant program run by Museums Australia Victoria, and Museums Victoria provides a (free!) hosted Collection Management System for small to medium sized organisations along with training materials. I understand work is already underway to expose this data to Trove, and it is no secret that a national version of this project would be a no-brainer with the right support.

Digital Working Party – National Culture Accord

All Federal and State Arts jurisdictions have developed an Arts Accord which attempts to guide a coordinated approach to arts policy development over the next three years. One of the four working parties is focussed on Digital. I’m representing NSW on this working party, which is being chaired by Arts Victoria (each of the different working parties is being run by a different jurisdiction). We will be in a position to publicly release our work plan in the next few weeks.
In NSW I’m currently approaching colleagues across the major State institutions to participate in this work – which is primarily focussed two tasks: assessing existing data readiness for sharing, and exploring what innovation across all areas of digital engagement is already happening in the sector. We’ll be reaching out to the wider GLAM sector over the next 12 months to broaden the data we are gathering. If you are interested in participating, please do let me know so I can put you on our list.
If you are in another area of Australia – you should contact your local Arts Ministry to find out how you can contribute. If you are having trouble getting onto the right people, feel free to contact me.

Museums Australia – Digital Advisory Group

One of the outcomes from the Museum Australia conference was a proposal to form a Digital Advisory Group, focused on providing guidance to the National Committee. Detailed scope and goals are still to be developed, but if you are passionate about how Museum Australia (and perhaps the new Alliance) take a leadership role in how we use and harness digital platforms in our work – please do let me know so you can be involved.

Digital Strategy Workshop

The session that Lynda, Jonny and I ran was one of the few workshops at the conference. Many delegates mentioned to us all that this format (ie. interactive, with extended dialog, and provision of resources) was too few at the conference. This is something we’ve already passed on to organisers.
We opened the session with a call out to the group on what issues, projects and initiatives they were wanting to talk about. Many indicated a general overview of the field was needed, but many also had very specific issues and problems they needed to work through.
While we had no chance of covering all the issues raised in 90 minuteswe had allotted – it confirmed to me that as a sector we need to do some pretty basic things:
  • provide a resource for expert guidance on contemporary technology and digital issues as it applies to Australian museums
  • we are still pretty lousy at sharing the lessons already learnt
  • people really do need help to locate information even if it is already there
Below is a capture of the issues raised by participants in the workshop – and some of the issues we discussed. I think it’s probably a reasonably fair snap shot of actual needs in the sector right now.
  • Are there good (i.e. successful) revenue models/examples for online museum activities/content
  • Tablets (and other BYO devices) in the museum, how to wrangle, use and support – particularly in education/gallery context
  • Location based collections and experiences (iBeacons, geolocated collections)
  • How we can best get our digitised collection assets onto the devices people are actually using (ie. iPads)
  • Self guided tour applications for BYO devices
  • Building Apps vs Mobile Web (pros/cons/for which audiences)
  • Digitisation for indigenous engagement, repatriation and storytelling projects
  • We need a new collection database and organisation website – where to do we start?
  • digital Labels – what opportunities and examples exist
  • Designing digital: mobile first? touch first?
  • Making our collections data available – for who, and in what ways
  • Distance learning, video conferencing and outreach
  • Hi speed networks – what opportunities exist for virtual audiences, and augmented experience
  • Collections: what range of technologies are available for better making them available on all platforms
  • Policy: How do we best do digital projects in the face of copyright and IP issues. Also: moral rights
  • Cross Platform projects: working across traditional (radio/TV) media as well as digital
  • Levels of interactivity with apps – and how do we best track what is and isn’t working?
  • What is current state of art for in-museum use of technology – and what works?
  • Can we stop talking about digital stuff, and just make it part of what we are doing as part of our jobs/existing programs/activity
  • What is the value of the online collection? (Some answers were: educators being able to utilise individual assets in teaching, general findability for broad audiences, other parties being able to repurpose and reuse our content/data – and seemingly most important from this discussion: providing the beginning of a dialogue with audience to aid interpretation and augment knowledge beyond the existing institutional knowledge)
Thanks again to all who participated, I look forward to running more interactive and workshop type programs next year.  If I missed anything you wanted to share – please go ahead and comment below. If you have knowledge and experience to share with the sector, consider whether you too should be offering workshops or contributing to next year’s program. Which brings us to:

Museums Australia 2015 Conference

The 2015 conference will be located in Sydney. The theme (if indeed I understand it from the ad on the back of the 2014 program) is “the message does not equal the medium #a_cultural_cacophany”. Indeed. If you would like to participate, the call for interest will be out soon, and in the meantime save the date: 21-24 May 2015.

Using interactive video with the Museum’s online collection

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Engaging with an online collection

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 1.49.48 PMAn ongoing issue for organisations like the Powerhouse is finding interesting ways to engage the public with our extensive online collection.  The Powerhouse has around 116,000 objects documented online however the quality of the records varies enormously and finding everything that the collection has to offer is not necessarily obvious for the user.

Providing a cohesive narrative but allowing access to detailed information

Something always popular is the curator led ‘behind the scenes tour’. So, when local company Content Theory approached the museum with their new interactive film technology “HitON” we were interested to make use of it in new ways.

Originally developed as an online advertising platform, we saw an opportunity to point HitON at our collection with the purpose of providing a new perspective on collection items that are seldom seen by the public.

The result is Please Be Seated.

In a nutshell, the technology provides a layer on top of video to allow the visitor to click on ‘hitpoints’ throughout the clip which provides additional detail about the collection on screen.

For us, the intention was to explore that middle ground between the online collection, video, and a curator led tour. When applied to our collection, the intention of the technology is to provide a cohesive narrative missing in the online catalogue, but also to give the viewer access to more detailed information on the individual objects not possible in a short video or practical in a curator led tour.

This seemed like a good fit for a stores tour of our chair collection, given the objects rest in open view in long rows, easily accessed for filming purposes, but seldom seen by the Museum visitor whose interest in chairs had recently been piqued by both Sydney Design and the George Nelson exhibition.

The Interactive Tour

Presented by Dr. Paul Donnelly, Curator for Design & Society, the film “Please be Seated” focuses on the Museum’s fabulous collection of chairs, particularly from the mid 20th century, through to modern day, featuring Australian and International designers who have impacted the world of furniture design and become icons in their own right.

As the video progresses interesting facts and links to the collection database are provided in the side bar. The user can pause the video and explore the online collection records or links to additional information provided during the clip.

The film is an experiment in combining video and conventional on-line object documentation.  It is an attempt to give the viewer the feeling that they are attending an expert private tour of part of our storage facility at Castle Discovery Centre.

We hope you like it, please let us know what you think.

Please be Seated

* Requires Google chrome, Safari or later versions of Internet Explorer (it will not work properly in Internet Explorer 8).

 Dan Collins and Lynne McNairn

We have just joined Artsy

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What is Artsy

In the words of Carter Cleveland, Founder and CEO of Artsy:

Artsy’s mission is to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.  We are an online platform for discovering, learning about and collecting art.  Our growing collection comprises 26,000+ artworks by 5,500 artists from leading galleries, museums, private collections, foundations and artist estates spanning diverse cultures and time periods.  Artsy provides one of the largest collections of contemporary art available online.

Powered by The Art Genome Project—a way of providing pathways for discovery for experts and non-experts alike—Artsy hopes to foster new generations of art lovers, museum-goers, collectors, and patrons. We are honoured to partner with 400+ leading galleries, as well as 100+ museums and foundations.

On behalf of the whole team, welcome to Artsy and thank you for exploring our site.


Photograph, ‘Silver cutlery’, black and white, silver gelatin print, by Adolf Lazi, Stuttgart, Germany, 1932.  93/178/7

Why have we joined?

We were approached by Christine Kuan from Artsy to include some of the content from our collection and make it available in this new platform.  We believe in making our content accessible in multiple places and to as many audiences online so that our collections continue to get seen, researched and used and that leads audiences to searching more of our collections through our online collection search.  We have over 100, 000 objects and images online in our database and we have published some/all of this content in other platforms such as the Flickr Commons, Historypin and Sepia Town, Trove and Digital NZ and it is also available via our API.  Artsy really appealed to us as another platform with a different audience that we could provide content from our collection for with a hope that new connections and conversations would start.

Artsy references other images when you search, which it calls the Art Genome Project then suggests other works that may be of interest to the user.  For example here are the suggested artworks matching one of our botanical illustrations. This is based on the ‘gene’ terms that it has to search such as the period, the region and whether the work is an abstract painting or a photograph.  You can read the Artsy blog to check out more on the engineering side of how the site works on their blog.


Botanical illustration, “Eucalyptus sideroxylon (Red-flowering Iron Bark) ‘, by Agard Hagman, 1888 Watercolour P1376


Related artworks as suggested to Artsy for the botanical illustration above.

We hope that new audiences will discover our collection in this platform and that some interesting connections will be made in relation to them.

As Christine Kuan, Chief Curator & Director of Strategic Partnerships states;

With the latest advances in engineering and design, Artsy hopes to help educate and cultivate new generations of art lovers, museum visitors, collectors, and patrons. With a database that includes everything from Cindy Sherman to the Rosetta Stone, Artsy enables experts and non-experts alike to discover and learn about art from all time periods and cultures.

What have we selected?

We have started with 30 objects from our collection and they include:

A few photographs taken by Hedda Morrison that were generously donated by Alastair Morrison.  This collection primarily comprises 349 exhibition prints that were made by Hedda after she settled in Canberra in 1967 and we have selected three for now.  We have two prints by Adolf Lazi, some beautiful botanical illustrations, photographs of models wearing Berlei girdles and bras from the 1930s, some images from our well received Tyrrell collection, and a Matthew Flinders marine chronometer.  We will select more objects and photographs from our collection to keep adding to our account in Artsy so keep an eye out for more content.

You can follow our Artsy account here.

Historypin contributors meetup: and those interested in getting started

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We are excited to announce that we will be hosting a Historypin meetup for contributors and those interested in getting started, here at the Powerhouse Museum next Tuesday the 19th at 10am til 12pm. Jon Voss, Historypin Strategic Partnerships Director will be in Sydney following his ALIA conference in Brisbane and will be discussing Historypin and the next phase of the Australian Memory Project.

Jon is Historypin’s Strategic Partnerships Director. He works with a vast network of cultural heritage, academic, and technology partners, Jon leads the development of institutional infrastructure (like Linked Open Data, and the convening of game-changing conferences and working groups) and advises on consumer-facing web and mobile products.

Beyond Historypin, Jon has organized the first International Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums Summit, founded LookBackMaps and project manages Civil War Data 150, a collaborative project about the American Civil War.

We would love you to come and discuss Historypin with Jon and us. Please register your attendance on our Eventbrite page so that we can get an idea of numbers. Thank you and we look forward to discussing all the interesting work you have been contributing to Historypin.

*Please note that the event will be held in the Curatorial Cafe so you will need to make your way down the side of the Museum in Macarthur Street to the Security gatehouse where they will sign you in and we will collect you from there.

Free Sydney Harbour Bridge mobile walking tour

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Screen shot of powerhouse museum sydney harbour bridge walking tourThe Powerhouse Museum Walking Tours App was launched early June 2011 with two free tours and one in-app purchase. To date the App has received over 5,500 downloads. We have learnt some important lessons since those early days. The MyTours product has also been updated along the way. Recently our walking tours were made available on Android devices. All of this has seen App downloads remain steady, around 9.7 per day.

The work of Curator Geoff Barker has been instrumental to the continued updating and addition of new tour content. It has ensured this App is not a ‘download and open once’ experience. Geoff recently stumbled upon an amazing treasure trove of Sydney Harbour Bridge related content. This included previously unreleased construction photographs, unpublished transcripts of Dr. John Job Crew Bradfield Bridge radio transcripts and more. We are pleased to announce this new content has formed the basis of the latest free mobile walking tour now available on iOS and Android.

The tour package now comes in at 8.6 megabytes, our first Old Sydney tour to dip below the 10 megabytes threshold we set based on user behaviour and feedback. This makes the tour much more accessible for 3G devices. We have found download size still matters in Australia where mobile data costs remain unreasonably high. We have also increased the production value, with multiple voice actors, professional copywriting, use of linked sourced material to Flickr Commons and walk through testing of the product by multiple testers. Thanks to everyone who pitched in.

This brings the total number of free tours to five. We have also begun exploration of migrating this content into new platforms that support mobile browser environments, thus reducing the time cost to visitors accessing the content on any modern smart phone. Stay tuned for more announcements.

Android App on Google PlayAvailable on the App Store

Already downloaded the App? Rate it on iOS or Android.

A fresh look at content via Flipboard and Currents

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Recently, we made the decision to reformat our blog content to allow it to be accessed in popular mobile based magazine-style aggregation applications Flipboard and Currents.

Flipboard has been one of the most popular apps on the iPad for a number of years, winning the Apple’s iPad App of the Year in 2010, and subsequently developed for iPhone and now on the Android platform.

If you haven’t see it Flipboard looks like this -

Powerhouse content in Flipboard


Currents is Google’s magazine style news aggregation for Android devices and has many of the features of Flipboard.

Here’s what Currents looks like -

Powerhouse content in Google currents


To deliver content to these platforms our online application developer Carlos has created a tool that aggregates our blogs via RSS and reformats them to the specifications required by both Flipboard and Currents.

Given content is flowing through our blogs on a daily basis, and the focus is often on rich imagery, the magazine format appears to work well. Feedback from across the Museum has been good, and the team is pleased that we have been able to find new audiences for our content.

Of particular note, feedback about the serendipitous exploration of a range of blog posts has been pleasing.

Initial fears within the team and other content creators was whether traffic would be steered away from the blogs, reducing measurable traffic and making it difficult for readers to contribute.

Being able to measure usage is almost always important, and we have explored some options in addressing those concerns.

To date we haven’t found a means of measuring traffic that flows via Flipboard, which is a bummer. However the option exists within the app to view the full article and most of the longer articles require that you visit our sites to see the complete text. We can distinguish pageviews that come via those means.

Currents (being a Google application) can be measured within Google Analytics, so we have no problems there.

Both applications make it easy to push the articles into other social networks – Twitter, Facebook and Google+

Although the end product looks fantastic and has the potential to reach many more readers, the process of getting the Powerhouse’s ‘magazine’ found within both apps has not been without a few frustrations. It would appear neither tool makes the feeds easy to find unless you have the clout of a major publisher. Flipboard’s “we’ll get back to you” form response doesn’t fill us with confidence that we’ll be highlighted within their app anytime soon.

The story with Currents is a bit different; Google do a nice job of returning each and every RSS feed the Museum has, so you have a hard job finding the one we have worked hard to make specifically for the tool. We ‘hear’ that beyond 200 subscriptions is the magic number for prominence within the app. Hopefully things get exponential after that…signup and we’ll see what happens! You have to start somewhere.

In any case all of those problems can be avoided if you use the links provided below:

If you use Google Currents simply visit this URL on the tablet or device on which you have Currents installed:













Content can also be read in Flipboard by simply tapping on the red search bookmark at the top right of the app and entering the URL:












Currently you will find content from Inside the Collection, Photo of the Day, our online design magazine D’Hub, The Zagora archaeological dig and this blog Open House. A specific Sydney Observatory project will be out before long.

We’d be interested to know whether you use these either of these platforms. Please let us know your thoughts.

Dan Collins

Digital Archiving: developing a critical language for experience designers and curators

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Post by Deborah Turnbull, Assistant curator

Image Courtesy of ISEA 2012

Image © ISEA 2012

The International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA) will take over Sydney in June 2013.

What started out as a conference to discuss the effects of technology on traditional art practise in the late 90s has become an international symposium for electronic art held every other year in a different city. The symposium often includes exhibitions, performances, and an extensive set of public programmes.

ISEA in Istanbul

 Tina Gonsalves, Chameleon, 2012.

 ISEA in Istanbul

 Kuuki [David Sade & Priscilla Bracks], Suzumushi: the silent swarm, 2011.

Images © ISEA 2012

The Director of the ISEA Headquarters in the UK, Sue Gollifer, was recently in Sydney overseeing her global phenomenon. I had the pleasure of not only going to the same workshop [on Public Art, HCI and Evaluation], but also of having an opportunity to interview her on one of the themes that developed from that workshop: how archiving digital practice can assist in developing a language around the medium.

Many conservators, registrars and curators at the Powerhouse Museum can relate the ISEA 2013’s theme when it comes to digitising the collection: resistance is futile! Instead of frustrating us, could this practice actually assist us? Can it help administrators, as well as educators and emerging experience designers? Let’s see what one of the head administrator’s reckons…

Deborah Turnbull [DT]: Hi Sue, as you know I asked you here today to talk about digital archiving. I wanted to know about your experience with it as a practicing artist and as the ISEA administrator. Are you able to tell us about yourself, your professional practice and your interests?

Sue Gollifer [SG]: Firstly I’m an artist, even though I forget that sometimes. I’m also an academic, I run a Masters Course [in Digital Media Arts at the University of Brighton], I’m a researcher and I’m an early pioneer of digital art and how digital technologies affect art practice. That started in the early 90s, and I’ve moved on to working as a curator of digital art shows initially featuring 2D work and more recently interactive installations.

Gollifer's Untitled

Su Gollifer

Images © Sue Gollifer

I moved on through [trying to go to ISEAs where you have to do something, present something, a paper, represent your research] to working with SIGGRAPH, and that’s probably why my practice moved on quite significantly. I was employed, well not so much employed as volunteered, to be an onsite volunteer to hang the 2D work in the SIGGRAPH art gallery show and I did that for about 2 or 3 years. Then I was ask to apply to become SIGGRAPH art gallery chair in 2004. That was really great, an amazing opportunity to be involved…it took 3 years of your life and was a very powerful, very significant and very important.


Image © SIGGRAPH 2006

The gaps, in the meantime, I actually became a consultant for higher education working in a centre called CTI [Computer Teacher Initiative] in art and design. So anyone who was in art and design that was an academic in the UK could phone my centre, email me and we had a turnaround of answering questions and we did workshops and individual visits to all sorts of institutions about how to engage in new technology either in their practice or in their teaching or in their research.

DT: My next question is about how you come to be working specifically on ISEA. It’s what’s on everyone’s mind right now because it’s coming to Sydney next year. A lot of people, not just in academia, but in other educational institutions like museums, like biennales…everyone’s interested in what’s happening with ISEA. What is it about ISEA that actually appeals to you as an artist and by extension as a supporter of electronic art?

SG: The first [ISEA] I went to was in 1995 and I knew a lot of the people on the board at that time. In that period, during the 90s and [this goes back to one of the other questions you’re going to ask me about digital archiving] I was beginning to teach my students about different technologies and current practice and the only kinds of things I could show them was my ARCADE exhibition and SIGGRAPH and I knew ISEA happened because I went there; but there was no real evidence of any of it.

So I received a research award to put together all the conference proceedings towards the end of the 90s. I got in touch with all the hosts of the symposiums, got together their conference proceedings, and this was the start of getting involved outside of this in a more voluntary capacity for ISEA.

DT: You seem particularly interested in archiving, as you’ve already mentioned. When I think of archiving, I think about artists storing and reflecting on their work. How does it help you make sense of your own work and your own practice; and by extension, how does that work for/with ISEA and other artists? There’s this externality that you seem to have, you’re not just interested in helping yourself. You’re interested in supporting the field; and I know in a way it’s your job because you work in a university and you’re a researcher and are a bit like me, naturally curious about the way things work. But archiving is a very specific process, you and Matthew (Connell) were talking about it yesterday…there’s all this metadata there’s all these things that you collect around an object, so it’s actually a lot of work for you to go past your own work and help other people with theirs. Are you able to talk a little about why you do that and how it helps you?

SG: I suppose the link to digital archiving exists in a lot of facets for me. One of them was when I mentioned being a consultant. I was working outside the university at the time and my paid job then was from HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England], which provided the extra layer or the infrastructure for the IT within UK universities.

There was an initiative which was called the Knowledge Gallery that I suddenly found interesting even though I knew that people using it found it was really techie and not particularly artistic at the time. I’m really not quite sure how I got into it except that I was given a sum of money {by now it’s an absolute pittance} [DT: but at the time you were thrilled!] Yes, I think it was about £60,000 to give to various different institutions to digitise their collections and the things that were lurking about in people’s plan-chest drawers. So I went around to the Royal College of the Arts, say, and said, “Would you like £10,000 and we will digitise your printmaking collection?” I became very involved with that and there were four collections, there was a call out and I went around to lots of institutions and I suddenly realised that in a way I was the only one who could do it because I was not only an artist and a curator, but I was also involved in education and I could look at the work and see if it was relevant and whether or not anyone could use it.

Other collections digitised by Sue: Central St. Martin’s | London College of Fashion

Digital archives of note: design archives at the University of Brighton

These collections could be used for scholarly activity. I mentioned the basic design collection and so as an academic I thought maybe one could go in there and there would be all copywrite-free and downloadable. Another initiative came down through JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) called the Arts & Humanities Data Service and part of that was a thing called DAM [Digital Art Museum]. They took the collection and they’re building on it so basically you can go into their collection and use their archive and their images.

Now I work for the JISC and act as a consultant in an advisory capacity on other collections like the Ghetty or BBC performance films. And so they’re building up this really large database of things that people can use.

DT: How do you think that archiving digital work will help artists and designers?

SG: Well I think we [people, artists] are very bad at recording things. Things are happening so fast, my students at the MA digital art, we talk about hardware/software, but these materials don’t come with a history. Digital practice is not like painting where there are lots of books and they wouldn’t change from year to year; past techniques would still be considered relevant. By contrast, by the day I could update my reading list. And there’s not that much history of people having a critique of digital art…do you remember we mentioned that in the [PAW] workshop?

DT: That’s right…because of a lack of language, so digital practitioners don’t have much of a critical history, really.

SG: No we don’t and this is what I just sort of suddenly realised: I’m surrounded by all these pioneers [like Ernest Edmonds and Paul Brown] and the idea struck me that we really need to recognise their work. I also worked in an advisory capacity for an initiative called CASH and it was linked with the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum] who are building up their collection of digital prints. I also worked with the Daniel Langlois Foundation and had a conversation with Juliana and they are closing down soon. And where will their collection go? I think we mentioned clouds previous, and they’re great places to put stuff, but the physical stuff it has more significance because the technology is moving much more quickly, so what you did as a quicktime movie a few years ago might be very quick or very slow, but it’s certainly not going at the same speed as it did originally.

Paul Brown

Image © Paul Brown 2006-11

Shaping Form 

Image © Ernest Edmonds 2007

DT: Am I correct in noting that you think that all of this archiving will provide artists with a history and help them develop a critical language? What about for their curators, their role in developing themes and setting up exhibitions, you think this will contribute?

SG: Yes, exactly. At the moment, well years ago, I did a thing at a conference in Newcastle, before they were sexy, and one of topics was: if everybody could use computers to make art, who’s going to decide what’s good and what’s bad? The other one I was really interested in was copywrite in the digital age because two things we’re bad at: 1] remembering our histories; and 2] giving things away for free. And at the end of the day your intellectual property for your work is important because that’s how you’re going to make your money or your estate. It’s the same with programming, you think of Processing and things like that…people are very generous with creative commons and open source and hackers, you name it. But I think at the end of the day we should remember that we are artists and we do own the copywrite for our images [work].

DT: That’s interesting in terms of valuing your work, not evaluating, but valuing and actually thinking my time is worth this much and you’ve got that now based on my blood, sweat and tears and what does that mean in terms of the life of the project. In any of these archives, have you been able to capture the audience’s response in any way? Like in terms of archiving digital work, have you ever been able to archive the audience’s response to digital work?

SG: I had an MA student and this is part of her dissertation. She was a librarian and what I wanted her to look at were the ISEA archives in relation to all the other archives; people really want this to happen.

DT: Well I don’t think having a lot of archives is a bad thing, having choice is great, but I was particularly interested in [audience response being recorded for archival purposes]. This thought is actually as an extension of Beta_Space. Matthew mentioned Lizzie Muller, she’s very interested in the audience’s role in interactive art. Ernest was also talking at the workshop about interactivity being an attribute…so I wanted to really look at how you could store interactive art…you could have the program there and have the machinery to play it, but how do you really know what it was like to engage with it?


Image © Julien Phalip 2006


Image © Deborah Turnbull 2011

SG: I think it has to do with what people might deem public art and wonder whether it has to do with White Night or similar things that happen on the street like VIVID and whether people actually think of it as art or maybe…

DT: People think of it as entertainment.

SG: Well we’re straddling between so many –isms. To us it’s art.

DT: This came up when Matthew and I were discussing what kind of objects we should collect and we both feel we should be collecting [computer] programs, but we have no room, no facilities, and we don’t know how best to do it…and that’s why else I was very interested to talk with you because you have done a lot of digital archiving.

DT: What sort of systems have you utilised to make these archives accessible?

SG: Half the time I’m just so pleased that it’s out there. I think all the archives that I’m involved in and the artists projects as well, seriously suffer from design and navigation issues really. I think they should be accessible, as you say, you just want the stuff [the thing you’re looking for]…you don’t always want to play [be distracted]. A classic example is the Sandrone Project, and the trouble was that the developers had a lot of fun making the archive fun to use, but there was some really good stuff in there. Alas, to find it, you’d need a pickaxe of data mining. So, I think what happens is the developers have fun because they think [the content] is art, and the artists allow them to do it and don’t have enough control over saying, no, we just want the stuff there.

DT: Well that’s why I wonder if even as an artist yourself, do you see a benefit of layering engagement with the archives? I mean I don’t think that you do, is that what you’re saying? That you’d rather just sort of get the information and then go off and be the creative force to get something out…

SG: I guess for me it also goes a bit back to teaching and learning and how you would do it, with communication and the stuff that you would need to give a lecture or your would want a student to go to have a look at.

I think there’s something to what you were saying about simplicity and calculation and navigation and what you want to look at. Have a look at the VAD [Visual Arts Database] site, you have a bit of a shopping trolley where you can grab things, so they are making an effort [to modernise]. They’ve been going on for quite a few years now since the 1990s, which is quite a significant amount of time to build up something that they feel is relevant. We were talking about Daniel Langlois and as being in the UK, and everywhere in Europe and I’m sure here in Australia, we’re suffering from cutbacks. And even in the centre for Design and Humanities that I was in, they no longer exist, and yet a lot of money was put into it and it would be a pity if someone comes along and turns off the server. But I think, back to what you were saying, being in Albuquerque, as you say, the engagement with some of the work, people being around actually add to the work.


Image © Tweetris Project, OCAD 2011

DT: But, like you say it comes back to copywrite and people’s privacy and the ethics of engagement. You can’t video everybody unless you put a little sign up. I think that Dustin {Freeman} and his crew at OCAD University got around that really well by doing it [storing images] on Twitter so that all of those images become a part of the public domain. You have to let people know that you’re doing it for research and get them to sign and they say yes sure and sign the waiver; but that’s so much easier than getting 9000 people to agree to an ethics application; and what an amazing database they have now of all those human gestures.  So I think that’s the way things will go. Find us on Facebook, for example, or flickr; and that’s one way to continue our research.

But then what about the specialists? What do we do about the title of the specialist? It’s difficult because I think that digital or electronic work can exist without an audience because it is a bit like a painting or a sculpture. But then significance comes into play where that object isn’t significant unless someone’s there to provide it with significance, so audience is actually in a lot of public art and work that’s part of a festival or open exhibition. For example, if nobody went to the art gallery, would it be so esteemed? If we didn’t have histories and specialists and practice built up around it, would it be as important? It’s the audience that brings all of that. So with interactive art, they don’t just bring the feedback or the criticism, but they’re actually activating the artwork and the artwork is responding to them and I think that that adds a layer of ability in creativity that the arts have been trying to figure it out, and perhaps they’re not there yet, but I wonder if its worth archiving? That medium…

SG: Certainly something that was triggered in RCA and ISEA is coders…the art of coding…a lot of those programmers and coders are artists in their own right and a lot of that stuff wouldn’t happen without them and their different languages, and we were talking about the native American coders (DT: and the magic…) yes. I mean there’s a lot of stuff out there, it’s really very exciting, isn’t it?

They’ve got this amazing exhibition in Albuquerque that’s on at the museum until January and I went, just like I did here in Sydney, talking to people, and I went to the museum and he was choosing the work that he wanted to have . I didn’t want to put him off, but he mentioned that he was going to have it on for 4 months.  I can tell you in the back of my head, I was going, “ohhhh, is this stuff going to work for 4 months?”

DT: I think there’s an art to prototyping as well, though, regarding how you put something out there. I curated such a show for the Australia Council;  I was invited to curate a show on digital practice and digital culture.

I knew that many of the artists were only going to be sending me sketches because they were only funded earlier that year and [the Council] wanted it to be current. So what they did is they gave me a database of all the successfully funded projects across Australia, 931 of them, and I just went Ctl+F +media and Ctrl+F+digital. Luckily up came 41 works with these search parameters in their description or their titles, and of these 18 agreed to exhibit sketches. I wanted to do something that looked at the art of prototyping but that also spoke back to the people who funded it. I actually wanted to comment on them as a funding platform, that this is the way you needed to go, which of course it took a long time to get approved because it was critiquing them {laughs} but you know we nudge where we can. That’s where I think that having an archive that you can search, that was an archive, that Excel spreadsheet of all of the projects that had been approved for funding and had anything to do with digital practise, because otherwise how do you sift through all the information? genart_sys

Australia Council for the Arts window

Image © New Media Curation 2010

SG: I think you’re absolutely right and I remember the Arts and Humanities Research Centre, I remember at one point if you got an A&H research grant and included some digital you had to archive it with VAD {DT: it was part of their grant? That they had to archive it somewhere?} Yes. And that made total sense, but at some stage somebody stopped making them do it, so it just went at some point. SIGGRAPH at one point was very commercial and focused on the latest computer animation and the latest papers about stuff {DT: and it had big corporate names attached as well} but at some point, the pioneers of SIGGRAPH who demanded that there would be an art gallery were quite significant because that where things would happen. That was where you started seeing evidence of work.

DT: Well, people want to see things, it’s all well and good to say if you click this, this will happen; but if give them the thing to click and it happens, it’s a much more meaningful engagement.

Season’s Greetings from the Red Planet…

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Shooting in the The Mars Yard

This year for Christmas I found myself knee deep in red dust, looking out over a vista of the Martian landscape, covered in Christmas decorations with a cute robot eyeballing me. You may well ask, how did I come to be in this strange situation…? Well, each year before the average person has started writing their Christmas list or the department stores have started putting up their decorations, I find myself musing on Christmas. But, I am glad to say that there is a completely reasonable explanation for this pre-emptive festive planning and that is the annual Powerhouse Museum Season’s Greetings e-card.

The challenge for me each year is to creative a short, engaging and festive video piece which explores a particular area of the Powerhouse collection or focuses on a theme which is relevant to us as an institution. Unlike, last year’s brief, which required that I showcase our tin toy collection, this year’s brief was much wider and far less prescriptive; ‘make it contemporary’. Now, ‘contemporary’ left me with quite a scope when dealing with a collection with the depth and variety of the Powerhouse’s. My options were as diverse as our stunning collection of contemporary fashion, modern ceramics, a vast collection spanning the history of modern computing, and the list goes on. So, after weighing up the options I decided to explore our impressive collection of technology and headed to the office of Curator, Matthew Connell, to have a brief, impromptu brainstorming session about his area of expertise. After ten minutes we had hit upon the idea of using the Museum’s Mars Yard as a backdrop for the e-card. So, with the Red Planet in mind, I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to create a short movie around the idea of Christmas on Mars! I immediately set about creating a storyboard with the irresistibly charismatic ‘Mawson’ the experimental replica Mars Rover robot in the starring role.

With a ‘world’ and a star (please pardon my unintentional astronomical puns), my next step was to tell the story of the discovery of Christmas through the ‘eyes’ of a robot. Beginning with the premise that it’s an innately human urge to want to anthropomorphise non-organic entities, I worked on a storyline which imbued Mawson with all of the traits of his namesake adventurer. The story places Mawson in a location which is entirely normal to him, Mars, and shows him going about his normal daily duties, perhaps even hints at the idea of him being bored with wandering around, day in day out with nothing to break the monotony. Then in the desolate Martian landscape, amongst the red dust, he discovers a pile of Christmas decorations. He comes closer to inspect the ‘foreign objects’ and although his scientific sense tells him to approach carefully, he throws caution to the wind and experiences an entirely human moment when he decides to embrace the spirit of Christmas by covering himself in the decorations.

Once I had the story line complete, I began work on the storyboard and shot list which I created in Celtx pre-production film software. As is the case with almost all filming, it is crucial to be prepared with a detailed list and diagram of all shots and angles which need to be covered in order to create a coherent story in editing. Missing just one close-up or a particular view of the action can often mean that when edited together the story is missing a key moment and the final film doesn’t flow logically.

Storyboard and shot list in hand, laden with multiple cameras and lights I headed to the Mars Yard, to begin the technical execution of this story. I used a Sony NEX-FS100 camera with an 18 – 200mm zoom lens to shoot the main action, and a small sports camera called a GoPro, which I stuck to the top of Mawson’s ‘head’, for all of the point of view shots. I also used a GoPro to capture the timelapse of the filming itself. The point of view shots, which are shown as a scanning view, were important to allow the audience to see through Mawson’s ‘eyes’, thus creating the sense of shared experience. Similarly, the close-up shots of his face and his ‘reactions’ upon discovering the decorations humanise Mawson and create a connection with the viewer who can then share his experience.

Leonie Jones (PHM Audio Visual) with Muhammad Esa Attia (Research Engineer at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, University of Sydney) and 'Rover'

The location itself posed some challenges for filming as both ends of the Mars Yard have open spaces which either lead on to public viewing areas or the lab where the robotics technicians operate the robots. So, keeping this in mind I had to adjust all of my camera angles and shoot narrow to avoid showing these areas. A very big thank you goes to Muhammad Esa Attia, Senior Technical Officer from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, who can be seen in the pictures driving Mawson for the shoot. Esa was tirelessly patient with my many, many takes and I believe may have even introduced Mawson to some new moves during the shoot! Esa even got Mawson’s lasers working for the filming and as luck would have it, in the true spirit of Christmas it turned out they were red and green!

I used Adobe Creative Suite 6 to make the video. I edited the video in Adobe Premiere Pro and produced all of the special effects and write on of the end messages in Adobe After Effects. I created the screen overlays, which give the appearance of a computer interface in the point of view shots, in Photoshop. Adobe Creative Suite allows for dynamic linking between all of the programs, which means that the three programs I used to create the video were all linked and automatically live updating between each other as I worked. Before the days of a feature such as this or computers powerful enough to allow for this sort of operation, video editors had to create each separate element in the individual programs and then manually import the updates every time a change was made. Dynamic linking has vastly enhanced the efficiency of the editor and special effects producer and allows for far greater flexibility and ease of process. The soundtrack includes a selection of 15 individual sound effects and was carefully mixed to create both the ambience of the environment and Mawson’s ‘voice’. And the whole was topped off with a cheery rendition of Sleigh Bells!

I hope you enjoy this short festive offering from the Powerhouse Museum and from myself and all of the staff at the Museum, have a safe and happy Holiday Season!

Leonie Jones Media Producer/Editor

Post and video production by Leonie Jones Media Producer/Editor
Photos by Geoff Friend
License: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia

Thinker1 – The development of the programmable electronics lab

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Earlier in the year I spoke with Peter Mahony, who heads up our Learning Technologies area and the Museum’s Thinkspace Labs.

Much has happened in that space during the year, but as the year has been winding down, we were able to grab a few moments to reflect on the year, and have a quick peek at some new programs – especially given the new focus on electronics and the new technologies that support those efforts.

DC: Peter, the last time we discussed the holiday programs in Thinkspace we focused on Minecraft. The development of the Minecraft program continues, booking out each holiday period, but this time I’d like to discuss some of the new program offerings, especially those that focus on hands-on ‘making’ and electronics.

PM: For a couple of years now we’ve been identifying opportunities to re-focus our offer and develop visitor programming around physical computing.

We’ve been working pretty well with MIT’s Scratch, a very robust and useful first step into creative computing and coding especially designed for beginners and youngens. Dabbling with a range of hardware from Lego WeDo to Xbox Kinect, and the enthusiasm and engagement levels we have seen have been very encouraging. My attendance at the biannual Scratch conference at MIT Media Labs has been integral to my growing understanding of the real value of these practices as being about logical thinking and collaboration. Amongst the Thinkspace crew, we also feel that everyone needs to understand what code is and how it works to some degree, in order to fully participate in our modern world.

However, as we had been focussed on digital media production activities – storytelling in video formats, music and soundscapes, and the like, there were some interim steps we needed to take, particularly program formats, content development and staff training, in order to build secure foundations for this new activity stream.

DC: I know you have been getting pretty seriously into Arduino. How did you decide on the platform and develop the up-coming workshop program?

After researching and considering a range of possible platforms, then chatting with colleagues with interests from hobby to professional, we settled on Arduino as our starting point.

So using our preferred action learning approach, we committed ourselves to a basic offer for the April 2012 school holidays, bought some arduino UNO boards and a bunch of components, and plunged into the open source world. And we began making projects, teaching ourselves to code, and making choices about what might constitute a challenging and fun school holiday activity.

A colleague, Carlos, pointed us towards the lilypad protosnap board, which although specifically designed as an e-textile solution, also provided an already-made ‘project platform’ because it includes a good selection of components, such as output devices like several LED’s and a buzzer, plus a range of inputs like a switch, a button, a light and temp sensor. Because these are already wired up to the LilyPad Arduino via the circuit board, its possible to begin experimenting the components and modifying the code straight away. The idea behind the Protosnap is that once you build up your programming Skills, you can break each piece off individually and implement them into your project, however, apart from making up a couple of ‘example projects’, we’ve found them so handy for our introductory workshops that we’ve left ours intact.

After some searching, we found some great pre-existing code blocks useable on the Protosnap, such as how to compose you own melody for the buzzer to play, and how to encode a secret word on the row of LED’s, which can be read when you wave the board back and fro (ie persistence of vision).

For a first offering, the Protosnap was a great way to test some of early assumptions. Something we learnt straight away was that beginners really benefit from making a simple circuit before moving onto any kind of circuit board.

Whilst the Protosnap allowed us to leap forward, it was an expensive option at $66, pushing the total cost of the workshop beyond the reach of many potentially interested people, especially as an entry point for young people.

DC: Why has Thinkspace remained focussed on a gadget?

PM: Two reasons. Years of experience have taught me that people just love to take something tangible away from a paid workshop experience. But primarily, our interest is in opening up a creative space for young people, much more than a single experience.

Our next step was to look to take some of what the protosnap offered, and see if we could incorporate those elements into a board of our own design.

Our first home-grown gadget was very simple, featuring a single LED and a buzzer. We soldered these inexpensive kits up ourselves onto a standard small round printed circuit board, but it was a slow and fiddly process. Plus it offered only a very basic set of activities, and the biggest limitation was that to re-program it you needed to remove the microcontroller and upload the modified code using something like a redboard. For our typical beginner users, this effectively blocked further experimentation.

So although this gadget was below our expectations, we were now convinced that an arduino clone hard wired to a bunch of components should be achievable at a competitive price point.

DC: How have you been able to move so quickly toward a custom hardware solution?

PM: By walking the walk and connecting with the Arduino community.

Our next steps were to open up our conversation to a more colleagues, and the combination of a clearer design brief and wider set of skills and experience enabled us to take another leap, and the result is the Thinker1.

The Thinker1 is a much more mature product. We are describing it as a programmable electronics lab you can hold in the palm of your hand. Not only does it offer a virtually unlimited variety of activities, its endlessly re-programmable using an inexpensive USB-serial cable, plus we’ve open-ended the design by breaking out the unused inputs and outputs from the microcontroller. Plus assembly time is massively reduced because we are using a custom printed circuit board.

A number of colleagues have contributed to the design of the Thinker1. The core team has been James Oliver, and myself, although we could not have achieved it without John Hirsch’s skills and networks. Along the way, we’ve had invaluable input from Carlos Arroyo, Owen Conlan, Arturro Rivillo, Tim Wilson, Robbie Mudrazija and Kusum Normoyle.

Currently we are re-formatting our tutorial notes to specifically reference the onboard components, and running additional staff training to ensure the whole crew are across at least the core aspects of what the board can do. It’s still early days, but we’ve already identified a number of possible variation gadgets.

DC: Thanks Peter. It sounds as though there will be an interesting and challenging program ahead for the school holiday workshops. We’ll check in with you in the early part of the year for an update on Thinker1

For those interested in more details of  practical electronics courses (and a range of other holiday workshops) in Thinkspace – see the new website