Geekosphere goes public

Experimental and digital making are being brought into the public realm by the Crafts Council in collaboration with galleries in Liverpool and Norwich, Veronica Simpson reports.


Words by Veronica Simpson

On a warm Wednesday morning in June the first-floor exhibition space of Liverpool's Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) is filled with plastic tubs of water and ziplock bags containing dense, brown plant sustaining fibre, as well as about 50 assorted schoolkids. Not your usual art-gallery scenario.

These youngsters are learning about aquaponics - an underwater-farming system that supports both fish and plant growth in a virtuous cycle.

It's all part of FACT's mission to educate and inspire the public to engage with the world of art, craft, cutting-edge science and technology, and experimental making.

From the FACT exhibition Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing, a build-your-own prosthetic hand (from 3D online blueprints), and display
From the FACT exhibition Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing, a build-your-own prosthetic hand (from 3D online blueprints), and display

Meanwhile, in a back room of this FACTLab sits digital artist-in-residence Radamés Ajna, a Brazilian who is trying to get two mobile phones to talk and gesture to each other. A high-pitched white noise occasionally bursts from one of his phone 'bots. So far, the other doesn't appear to be talking back. It's a work in progress, he says. But over the months that FACT's Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing exhibition in Liverpool (until August) and then at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery (next month to January) goes on, Ajna hopes that many visitors - from schoolchildren to artists to local techies - will be inspired to learn more about coding, electronics, experimental plantsmanship, robotics and how to combine any or all of them in creative and unexpected ways.

But it doesn't end with the FACTLab. Spread through FACT's gallery spaces are other craft and technology-rich displays combining the poetic with the pragmatic. There's a project to build your own prosthetic hand from colourful, 3D-printed components downloaded from Desktop Prosthetics' online blueprints, which is both playful and purposeful (masterminded by DoES, a Liverpool community of experimental makers, the exhibition is helping 20 local children in need of prosthetics to design and customise their own vibrantly hued limbs in all the colours of the rainbow; these are being created live in the exhibition space). Raspberry Pi artist-in-residence Rachel Raynes has created an interactive display of plant and human-centric robotics offering a vital, easy-to-fabricate, link between animal, mineral (Raspberry Pi's computers) and vegetable.

Rachel Rayn’s plantcentric interactive attracts attention
Rachel Rayn's plant-centric interactive attracts attention

Artist Will Shannon and Turner-Prize nominated architecture firm Assemble have been harvesting the rubble from a group of Toxteth houses Assemble is regenerating, and incorporating the found bits of marble, brick and plaster into cast concrete fireplaces and mantelpieces in a live factory installation; these will be inserted into the houses once refurbishment is complete. And 'visible mending' artist Linda Brothwell has been delving into the history of Liverpool's Polish community and finding ways to incorporate their traditional crafts - paper-cutting and lacework - to 'repair' the lettering on some of the city's iconic buildings.

A schedule of workshops and creative interventions across the city offers Liverpudlians many ways to get involved. For example they can create their own musical instruments from wooden logs and electronics (run by maker collective Owl Project); design their own Robot Greenhouse with Raspberry Pi; hack their own superpower into a prosthetic hand, using FACT's 3D printers and facilitated by the aforementioned DoES; or learn how to code.

Practitioners - established and emerging - can attend FACTLab's various Show and Tell events, where Liverpool's technologically engaged makers share their method and inspirations. In this way, the kind of rich collaborative processes and outputs common within the experimental making and crafting sphere are brought out of the online world where they have so far flourished - largely off-radar to the wider world - and shared with the general public.

This exhibition has been jointly developed by FACT with the Crafts Council and Norwich Museums. For the Crafts Council, the show is part of its mission to expand both public and practitioners' concepts of craft to embrace the digital age; for FACT, it's very much about turning the Liverpool community on to 'object-based learning' says curatorial coordinator Lesley Taker, mindful that many state secondary-school pupils in Liverpool won't have any hands-on making experiences (thanks to former Education Secretary Michael Gove's downgrading of arts and crafting subjects in the school curriculum). She says: 'There's a concentrated programme around schools in Liverpool making sure that art isn't left out. So we have integrated it into the core subjects, like technology.'

Will Shannon and Assemble’s Concrete Workshop
Will Shannon and Assemble's Concrete Workshop

The challenge of designing an exhibition that showcases the individual artists/makers, themes and outputs while encouraging people to get involved was given to artists Simon and Tom Bloor. They have come up with a rough-and-ready aesthetic, equal parts laboratory, gallery and workshop; huge pegboards act as partitions, displaying both artistic output and the tools used to create it; screens offer mini-documentaries explaining the meaning and the methodologies.

In one corner sits the motley array of concrete-encrusted equipment that was used to fabricate the fireplaces; cheap and cheerful benched tables highlight the areas where hands-on activity takes place; the show's printed material and exhibition text is presented in a special typeface inspired by machine manuals of the Fifties, developed for the show by graphic designers at Birmingham studio An Endless Supply.

Independent curator Lauren Parker (formerly of the V&A) worked closely with curatorial consultancy Thirteen Ways, FACT's education and outreach team, and the Crafts Council to ensure a richness of scope and experience in the show. All in all, the Build Your Own exhibition isexemplary of the kind of collaborative making it espouses and an accessible and exuberant invitation to get involved in 21st-century making.

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