Blogging as reflective practice

You are reading a blog that started off about art practice-based research charting
the journey of doing a phd. It explores alternative ways of using hand held devices
to create print-based interactive artworks using graphical tagging such as QR-codes.
Art, design, technology and craft were the main themes in writing. But life gets in the
way, and over this journey the story takes unexpected happy twists along the paths
of having a baby, going on a UK Digital Economy Sandpit, meeting fanstastic people,
and subsequent group success in funding for a large multidisciplinary research
project called TOTeM.

Coded Moments at the Small Society Lab 

I’ve been flat out these past two weeks making some works to exhibit as part of the Small Society Lab. The Small Society Lab is a collaboration between Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) and Product Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design to provide a pop-up creative research space over the summer. It will be running from the 7th of June till the 30th of July in the Visual Research Centre at the DCA, so its been all hands on deck on the install.

For me, this means that I have a gallery space to test prototypes of works for my Coded Moments Exhibition which will be hapennig in Australia later on this year. In my testing I’ll be looking at how people interact with the works in a gallery space, the usability of the tech, general user experiences and how I can make everything easier for the user. At the moment, the backend tech is proof of concept, not yet pretty. Until I gain feedback on user testing, making things pretty at this stage could be a waste of time and energy, for I need to make sure people can actually interact with my work without getting frustrated.

The aesthetics of the works on a conceptual level will be examined through user intereaction, as well. At the moment, what is in the gallery are large scale cyanotypes, but as the exhibition goes on during June and July, and I work upstairs in the print studio, the cyanotypes will be replaced by photo-etchings. Again, the etchings will respond to feedback in the gallery.

sneak preview of works up in the gallery space

I’ll be running a few workshops which will provide artists with the tools to go about how artists, curators, designers, or anyone who is interested can use tagging in their works, or as digital maker’s marks. I’ll also be doing a couple of workshops on injecting a bit of playfulness into business practices using QR codes. When things calm down I’ll post the info for the workshops here, meanwhile you can find out more information at the Small Society Lab website.

Tumbling Hills 

And now for something completely different. I’ve had my head in tech for a few days while I sort out QR code issues in my work and battle with messy directory structures set up by wordpress on my server. I’ve also been trying to work out matching audio up with source cyanotype imagery and how to display the works with QR codes that will be successful not only as prototypes in an exhibition that is opening in a month’s time, but also to follow through with for my exhibition in Australia at Victoria University’s Foyer Gallery as part of Australia’s Month on Print in September.

It all got me thinking about what other people are doing with cyanotypes, so did an image search and came across the blog Tumbling Hills by artist Angie Rogers. Lots of synergies with my work but freer because she doesn’t seem so strapped in by academia. There are times when the whole phd process and having to think like a researcher are so restricting, focusing on one area for such a long time can get rather tiring and there are times when I just want to go off and explore other art ideas, just get into the studio and make without having to post rationalise or intellectualise what I am doing and how it answers my research questions. Anyway, Angie’s blog has reminded me that there is life after a phd, and these sort of explorations are what I could have to look forward to.

Posted on Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 10:04AM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , , | Comments2 Comments

An answer to Linkrot? 

I’ve been on the search for a way of creating QR codes which don’t route via another server before sending the user to the correct url and  I think I may have found one. Up until now, I’d been using i-nigma who I think are pretty good, until I noticed the url that the code generates is not exactly the same as the one I type into the box. Look at the pic below and compare the web address with the source that is being generated, you'll see it goes via i-nigma first:

Kerem Erkan who has developed his own QR code and 2D code generator may be the answer. His site generates a range of different graphical tags, not just QR codes and he has quite a good range of functionality in what you can link to, for example iPhone app urls, or things like Encoding the last tweet of a user, as well as the usual browsing to urls etc. He has a good comments section and is quite fast in his replies. I asked him this question:

Hi Kerem,
I notice that you’ll be moving your QR code generator to a new domain in the next few months. Will the codes created today at this url, still work once you do that? Am I right in assuming that qr codes generated on your site actually have additional info, in the 1st few characters of the url that routes via your servers before out into the big wide world? How will this be maintained long term?

 His answer a couple of hours later was:

 “The codes generated on this generator are not bound to this site. When you generate them, you are done with this site and they would continue working even if this site would completely vanish from the internet.”

 It almost sounds too good to be true! I guess, time will tell, so I’ll start generating my QR codes here see how things go. The site also has excellent information on what to do with QR codes and the differences between different graphical tags.

Posted on Monday, May 9, 2011 at 02:54PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , , , , | Comments3 Comments

Linkrot in QR-codes, or any graphical tags for that matter...

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problems with keeping urls alive, and one of my readers raised a very valid point in relation to this that I hadn’t really considered properly when it comes of creating QR codes. I really should have thought of this much sooner, so many thanks to “FreeRangeMom” who flagged up this issue and is keeping me on my toes.

I had naively thought that the url generated by a QR code generator would only have the url I plug into it. This is not the case, it actually routes to your chosen website via their servers. This means that one then is beholden to the server that generated your code for the longevity of it, so then one needs to ensure that not only the server on which their content is hosted is maintained, but also the server which generated the QR code as well.

This then got me thinking about url shortening for QR codes. It has been considered good practice to use a url shortener like or, but if you think about it, this just compounds the problem. Url shorteners do mean that there are less characters to encode in your qr code, meaning less errors are likely to occur whilst scanning. However, url shorteners also mask your ip by redirecting it through that of their service. So… if you use a url shortener you need to hope and pray that their server doesn’t go down either, otherwise you’ll get what is known as Linkrot, defined by Wikipedia as “all URLs related to the service will become broken.”

There are also issues on where the url shortening service is hosted, for example is hosted in Libya, which, given the current policitcal instability, may not be the best place to host anything right now.

So, in my opinion using an url shortening service for your QR codes is NOT actually a good idea. A better idea would be to own a short domain name dedicated for QR code linked content & set up file naming conventions which enable as short a name as possible for files without confusion or duplication of names.

As for using QR codes and the risk of linkrot there, the only way to avoid that is to create your own QR code generator and then maintain hosting for as long as you want your links alive. There are open API’s which enable coding of QR code generators, but I need to learn a bit more about them before I can comment.  This is a real problem for artists using any type of graphical tagging, because if theyr’re anything like me, they’d much prefer to be making works, rather than sorting out technical problems and getting out of their depth with code.

Posted on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 03:46PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , , , , , , | Comments1 Comment

Getting busy with dissemination

Lately I’ve been tending to the dissemination of my research, and I often feel like I’m always in need of more time, just to get things done! I’m in the process of adding the final touches to presentation of Tales from the Maker, which will be presented at the EAD (the European Academy of Design) Conference in Porto on Thursday the 5th of May.

I’ve been invited to speak about TOTeM at openMIC Mobile Innovation Camp on the 19th of May, which is taking place here in Dundee and looks really interesting!

Recently I’ve also had a paper accepted at ISEA2011, which will take place from the 14 – 21st September in Istanbul. Its being co-written with Chris Speed, a colleague on the TOTeM project, which is great!  With this, its starting to look like September is going to be a very very busy month indeed with events happening at the same time in Turkey and Australia! (the logistics of being at opposite ends of the globe to  be sorted out later…)

I am presenting two papers, Print the Code > Code the Print, and Tagged at DCA at the end of September in Melbourne at the Impact7 - Intersections & Counterpoints Conference. Related to this, I’ve also been collaborating with the University of Victoria for an exhibition space to show my artworks in the Coded Moments series as well as some older stuff from Signals in the City, opening on the 6th of September, as part of the Month of Print, happening in Australia throughout the whole of September. For this last bit I really have to thank the organisers of IMPACT and The Print Council of Australia who have been very supportive and have been so helpful in promoting my work to exhibition venues

Its about good research, not good art 

This is what my supervisors keep saying to me, that a phd in art practice is still about research first and not art. I can’t bring myself to agree. What would be the point of doing it art-based then? I think it has to be both. My supervisors also say that after 5 years most phd research is out of date anyway, and a phd is really just a space to learn about research. Yes, that makes sense, but some art doesn't lose its point after 5 years, 50 years or even 500 years. So the products of a phd in art practice, the dissemination objects, the artworks themselves surely have the potential to remain powerful even when the research is old and out of date.

Not to mention art is slightly different to research, only today I was talking to someone about art from the 1970’s and how people like John Cage are still relevant today in a range of media, art and technologies practices. This point about not needing to make good art for a practice based phd really bothers me. I take pride in the work I produce and want at least one person out there to think that it is good, whether its part of a body of research or not. This thinking has bothered me so much, a few weeks ago I went and spoke to another member of staff here at DJCAD in Fine Art for a different viewpoint. 

It was such a breath of fresh air and I felt very enthused and invigorated by our discussions. In terms of finding like-minded thinkers, my phd’s been a bit of a struggle because the department I registered to do my phd in, Media Arts & Imaging, which fitted perfectly with my thinking was disbanded in 2008, and quite a few people left. Even now I am not even sure what departments my supervisors are actually in, as the names keep changing. My phd is the last one to go through under the old Media Arts & Imaging banner, which hardly anyone dares speak of, so I am department-less in terms of creative discipline, and this also means I have little in the way of community close at hand. In my TOTeM work life I have been kindly adopted by Product Design, for which I am eternally grateful, but, love them as I do, I’m not a product designer and I think differently. Sometimes I do feel a bit like that proverbial square peg trying to fit in a round hole

When I met up with a staff member from Fine Arts I was so happy to hear her say that the art IS as important as the research. Its good to hear someone else at this institution advocating the value of the final artwork in research, and to know that not everyone here thinks the same way. She also went on to say (a little frustrated) how annoying it was that the academy is so geared towards the value of research over the value of art and how this can be counterproductive. Anyway, it gives me the confidence to challenge any notions that perhaps its ok to hide crap art by calling it research and in doing so, do injustice to both art and research. I’m in the process of starting to collect a body of evidence to support the thinking that in art practice based research it is just as important to create “good art” as well as “good research”. This will be part of my discussion of my phd thesis contextualising my methodology and dissemination of research, because in 5 years time, this research may not be very important or valuable to anyone, but the resultant artworks may be.

Posted on Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 08:12PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in | CommentsPost a Comment

Tales of Things at Oxfam's Curiosity Shop in Selfridges

For the past few months the TOTeM team has been busy working on a partnership with Oxfam to tag clothes donated by celebrities that will be sold or auctioned at the Selfridges Curiosity Shop in London from the 1st – 14th of April.

 The folk up here in Dundee have been making RFID wands to scan tags and the guys in product design working hard to come up with some very cool wands, which light up and look fantastic when in use, seen here, being used by Annie Lennox. When someone scans a tag, either with the bespoke RFID readers, or with their own smartphone, a video of the previous owner telling the tale of that piece of clothing is triggered and played on large plasma screens. We have donations from the likes of Beverly Knight, Kate Moss, and Colin Firth so as you can imagine, the stories that are emerging are really fascinating, like this one.

Its been a very exciting time for us all, and a big thank you to all the guys down in London who have been busy setting up the shop this week. So if you’re in London, take a peek in Selfridges downstairs. If you should feel inclined to purchase something, you can be happy in the knowledge that all the money raised will fund Oxfam projects around the world that support and empower vulnerable women.

The trouble with… 

The trouble with my grand idea of making print based artworks that link via qr codes to digital mobile media is that I need to keep jumping constantly between skill sets. What’s more, the combination of skills needed is quite diverse, and it really doesn't bode well for me encouraging other artists to work in this field. You see, I was hoping that I could forge ahead and show a path to others that wasn’t so scary for artists whose primary medium is not digital one. Now I’m not so sure that is possible… I’m not giving up hope, its just getting tricky.

I can’t say what my primary medium is because really I work whatever medium is appropriate for the artwork I am making at the time and that I have the skills for. This week I’ve been working in the studio creating a few more source cyanotypes; working out domain hosting so that the urls for the codes don't change, getting my head into fantastico (which is a shite interface for installing various things onto servers); been trying to improve some really ugly wordpress templates by editing the CSS files; and re-learning Premiere Pro after not touching it for about 5 years, in which time it feels like 10 new versions have been released and my skills were sorely out of date. Actually the Premiere stuff wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and thank god for youtube! I learn so much faster watching videos (even ones in Italian!) that I do religiously ploughing through my Adobe Classroom in a Book lessons (even if they are in English!). In less than a day I’ve reclaimed all the old Premiere skills and integrated them into CS5 so feel much better about things. 

Now to tackle learning Sound Booth, which I have never done, but I need to, because some of my prints will only be accompanied by audio. First nightmare I have to unravel is that my audio files are .wma (thanx Olympus!) and I am on a mac and they are unsupported in the Adobe SC5 suite for a mac… aarrrgghh! Nothing can be straightforward can it?

So, I’ve made a rod for my own back trying to be fantastic in very traditional art making processes as well as being at the cutting edge of emerging media/ mobile practices. Not sure I can pull off the fantastic bit, but I’ll try as hard as I can. The actual need for all the different skills is not the hardest thing, it's the mental leaps that one has to make when one is working in different media. For example, things not lasting and degenerating over time in an online world is not such a big issue, comes with the territory, but this type of thinking in a printmaking world is absolutely heinous! One of the joys of print is its archival stability (relatively speaking), and that it is permanent, and I’ve come to think like a printmaker in terms of my own art. How do I resolve the mental spaces of two very different ways of thinking? 

I think that the comment on one of my previous posts about making works with paper that also dissolves over time is an excellent solution conceptually, but as an artist and someone who invests so much energy into things, I’m not sure how to, or even if I have the courage let go like that.

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 07:32PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , , , , , , | CommentsPost a Comment