The project began with a two day workshop on the 18th & 19th May 2016 and then the group worked together for a further six sessions over a period of five weeks. This first phase led up to displaying our research outcomes at the Utopia Festival at Somerset House from the 24th-26th May.
Session One : 18th May 2016
Mirrors of Invention: Soho House, Boulton & the Lunar Society
Soho House in Handsworth was home to Birmingham industrialist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. It was also the regular meeting place for the Lunar Society, a leading Enlightenment group who exchanged ideas, conducted experiments and discussed philosophy, envisioning how science and culture could create a better future for society. As such, it was the ideal place to locate the Maker-Centric project, which aims to imagine community futures through heritage, place and the act of making.
Soho House Museum kindly agreed to host Maker-Centric, providing space for a series of workshops and introducing participants to the history of Boulton and his circle. The project began with a guided tour of the house so that the group could return to the spaces and artefacts of the past in order to better understand how people imagined the future then. The house has been restored to how it would have looked in Boulton’s time and the tour included reception rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and the wine cellar. Participants were introduced to the room in which the Lunar Society met each month on the night of the full moon. The gilt, convex mantle mirror with its neo-classical ornament, which would have reflected Society members such as Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly and James Watt, as they dined, drank and debated together – port apparently was a favourite tipple – was particularly impressive. The group also saw such innovations as an early example of underfloor heating, impressive ormolu vases and candlesticks that Soho House was so famous for, intimate family portraits and personal artefacts such as a silver Sheffield plate straining spoon displaying the family crest, and books from Matthew Boulton’s library.
After the tour, storyteller Gauri Raje worked with the group to help them recall and imaginatively re-inhabit memorable moments from their past, and reflect on what utopian or dystopian futures might look like. This resulted in a series of stories that participants developed individually and collectively, as they imaginatively connected their own stories with those of Soho House.
Session Two: 19th May 2016
Spoons & Balloons: Visual Story-telling
The central design concept at the heart of the project was that artist Melanie Tomlinson would support participants in developing their own utopian/dystopian Praxinoscope. Melanie herself specialises in making Praxinoscopes, an early form of animation device patented in 1877 by the Frenchman Emile Reynaud, which employs a revolving drum and mirror, developed from the more familiar slotted drum of the Zoetrope. The Praxinoscope was chosen because of its historical and futuristic associations, being a device that was both cultural and scientific, and anticipated the evolution of film in the early twentieth century. Designing for the Praxinoscope, additionally enabled the group to work collectively. The magical transformation from still to moving image, moreover, both brought their stories alive, returning them to the temporal dimension of storytelling and memory, and imbued them with a sense of moving forward and future thinking.
The first stage was to translate the stories developed in Gauri Raje’s workshop into visual motifs. Melanie works with a combination of drawing, painting and shaping fine sheets of metal, and she set the group the task of synthesising their memories and utopian thinking with their experience of visiting Soho House. The group set to work and intriguing motifs quickly started to evolve. Alex, for instance, shaped a beautiful silver spoon with the soft sheet metal, which reproduced the form of the Georgian silver straining spoon in Boulton’s family collection, but included a face wreathed in shadows in its bowl; an image that both recalled the dark, varnished family portraits on the walls of Soho House and drew on Alex’s memories of his father as a first generation migrant to the UK from Jamaica. Alex’s father was a carpenter and Alex also fashioned a metal saw to accompany the spoon, creating a distinctive cutlery set; a material metaphor for the metalwork industries of the midlands, where Alex’s father found himself, and his own skills as a maker. Alex reflected that “I remembered things I hadn’t thought about for a long time. I reconnected with my history”. Viv, meanwhile, was inspired by Boulton’s interest in ballooning and flight, evidenced in a book from his library that described the ‘Machine Aérolslatique’. On Christmas 1784 Boulton even launched a miniature hot air balloon from his garden at Soho House, much to the amazement of his family and friends, and employees. Viv’s balloon motif, beautifully formed out of metal, echoed the ‘balloon in flight’ shape from the engraved plate in Boulton’s library. Her utopian vision included a future world in which people travelled by balloon rather than in cars, dispensing flower seeds as they went so that wild gardens would spring up in their wake; a utopian, ecological, futuristic re-imagining of an old technology.
Artist Antonio Roberts joined us to observe this session and assist the group to develop designs for the top and bottom edges of the praxinoscope drum. These would be lasercut at a Fab Lab to combine the use of old and new technology into a one representative object. Antonio would convert participants’ drawings into vector files for laser cutting.
Thoughts & Notes: Iterative Reflection
At the end of each session the group recorded their thoughts, feelings, reflections on the project ‘sharing table-cloth’ using images and words. Each statement was labelled with a coloured dot so that we can track any shifts or changes throughout the project duration. It is a technique that the research team developed in a previous project Co-Creating CARE: Community Asset-based Research & Enterprise https://cocreatingcare.wordpress.com/the-project/ and which proved very successful. Some of the participants were also involved in CARE and naturally gravitated to this as a means of quickly and easily recording their own thoughts and sharing them with others in the group.
Reflections included such observations as, “As imagination flows, Our picture grows” and “I’ve gone luminary”, referring to the Lunar Society and written in such a way that the ‘I’ becomes ‘We’. “My painting hand has been freed” appears next to a beautiful image of a paint brush, while another participant reflects “Nice to go back to my childhood in Brum and share it with others, feeling welcome and at home in my city…change is possible if we work together.” The aspirational statement “Getting together and learning together to better the world” appears next to the more prosaic “Today’s session was short for me but I thoroughly enjoyed painting my lovely flower” next to a beautiful image of a flower; both are equally meaningful. On the process of crafting together participants felt that “doing with others leads to inspiration and ideas”.
Selected quotations from poems that summed up the participants’ experience are printed on the top of the finished praxinoscope. They include: “Reflect the past and mirror the future,” “a timely reminder of what matters in life,” and “grow and flourish”.
Sessions Three and Four: 26th May and 2nd June 2016
Designing Together: Collective Prototyping
Guided by Melanie, the group began to translate their stories and models into ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian’ design motifs. These included an eclectic mix, from such utopian themes as balloons in flight, flowers and an amazing tree complete with branches reaching up to the sky and roots burying deep into the earth, to dystopian cogs of industry, a prison, railings, a large bottle of pills.
Dystopic themes included the treatment of and attitudes towards mental health and the effect on the environment of dumping waste. Many people in prison have mental health issues and so the prison in Handsworth is represented in dystopia. In utopia there would be a more enlightened and humane way for people with mental health issues to live and work inclusively in society. There would be a balance of medicine and alternative natural therapies available to people to help them manage their lives. Participants envisaged a much greener place with more communal spaces for community gardens and collective endeavours which would lead to healthier more connected communities.
The outlined designs were then arranged into an integrated design on a long sheet of paper, which would be translated onto the drum of the praxinoscope. Melanie then enlarged the designs individually and brought them to the following session so that participants could add colour by painting their motifs. Melanie brought along one of her own praxinoscopes to show to the group, an amazing piece that features exotic birds, fishes and flowers. She uses gouache paints to create her meticulous, intensely coloured designs, and demonstrated how to mix the paints to the right consistency and build up layers of mat colour and delicate, decorative detail. Melanie also brought some examples of her own painted design sheets of butterflies and birds to suggest ways of applying the paints and creating decorative effects.
Few of the participants had used gouache before and although many claimed to have no painting skills, everyone soon became absorbed in their work. A peaceable silence fell over the room and the painting process certainly seemed to have a calming effect, as participants built up their layers of colour and added details. Melanie collected the finished pieces and had them transferred into digital files so that the colours could be adjusted and the design could be printed onto the drum of the final praxinoscope.
The next session was held at Fab Lab West Bromwich at Sandwell College, a new experience for almost everyone!
Session Five: 7th June 2016
Maker-Centric Central: Fast Fabrication at Fab Lab West Bromwich
The Fab Lab is located in a downstairs space in architect Will Alsop’s ill-fated centre for the digital arts, The Public in West Bromwich. Now housing Sandwell College, The Public, an extraordinary black box of a building with neon pink ‘speech bubble’ windows, is imposing from the outside despite is rather architecturally jumbled interior. The building had a friendly atmosphere, nevertheless, something that was particularly evident when we entered the Fab Lab to be greeted by Anne Scrimshaw. Anne’s friendly presence immediately put us at our ease, and was particularly reassuring for those of us feeling a little lost amongst the ‘techy’ digital fabrication machines.
The ethos of the Fab Lab – a global phenomenon promoted by the Maker Movement – is a technical space where you can make almost anything and is available to everyone. In reality, however, these spaces often have a somewhat ‘geeky’ culture, which can be alienating, particularly for women. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to have a woman in charge and someone who was clearly so open and ‘up for anything’ as Anne is.
She began by showing us round the Lab, introducing us to the equipment and showing us samples of what it could do, including etching and cutting the most delicate marks and precision shapes into almost any material you could imagine.
Melanie had brought the digital files for the praxinoscope drum with all is delicate extrusions and the plan was to cut it on one of the digital routing machines. She had decided that we would use card rather than wood, due to its flexibility, but had not yet settled on which weight. We set out to run a number of trial pieces. The group gathered around the machine as it moved swiftly across the surface of the card, cutting the delicate outlines with precision.
All the participants thoroughly enjoyed themselves and were keen to go back and use the Fab Lab to develop their own designs and prototypes. Anne explained that currently the Lab is free and if people volunteer to support other users they can use it at any time for their own work. The experience certainly changed a few minds about their ability to work with the technology as they realised what a flexible, useful, open and accessible resource the Fab Lab is, and its value in their own creative projects.
Reflections from the Fab Lab experience
For some it was a totally new experience and they had not heard the term ‘Fab Lab’. They were amazed at ‘how delicate’ the laser cutting machine was and intrigued how it cut out from the smallest part to the biggest part of the design. One participant reflected that it reminded her of her old job at a packaging factory where she worked with a Heidelberg machine. All came away with new knowledge and some with business and enterprise ideas – things they wanted to test out. All wanted to return with friends,relatives or other groups they were involved into introduce others to the potential for producing almost anything. It seemed to be a moment of revelation, a ‘can do’ moment, an expanded world of possibility.
Session Six and Seven: 9th and 16th June 2016
Collaboration, debate and exchange
In order to co-create and with a tight deadline to meet, the group had to find ways to collaborate effectively. There was negotiation and occasional disagreement but an accommodation was found and everyone’s ideas were somehow incorporated. There was debate about the words that would feature on the disc on top of the praxinoscope. There was a motto which a participant had noticed in Soho House which some thought gave a perspective on utopia. The group also considered phrases extracted from short poems they had written on the storytelling day. It was decided that these phrases communicated more powerfully than the old extract from the house.
There were quiet moments of concentration when all were absorbed in their creative efforts and other moments of making/doing and talking. Participants, some of whom didn’t know each other before the project, exchanged conversation about themselves, their past and present. At one point the group conversation turned towards origins, roots, race and family backgrounds – a multiplicity of identities emerged – Chinese, Italian, Irish and Welsh inter-marriages across past generations.
Melanie brought in the laser cut sides of the praxinoscope drum and everyone was very pleased with the outcome and the edges in profile. She also brought in a draft paper printout of the two sides of the praxinoscope so that participants could see where they wanted to add additional elements. As well as finishing their painted motifs, the background had to be painted separately. There was a discussion about colours and how they would be blended to represent the transition from dystopia to utopia.
Melanie explained how she would take away all the paintings and background to scan it all into a digital file. She would then scale the image to the right size and print it onto transfer film. The transfer would then be carefully applied to the laser cut card.