Sneeze Diary

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Sneeze Diary

Ben Barker

7th March 2013

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 12.49.17

At Boring conference this year, Roo Reynolds spoke about collecting things. Among the curiosities one project particularly stood out, Peter Fletcher’s Sneeze Diary, ostensibly a record of every time he sneezes, but as he explains, it’s more than that. My interest centred on a couple of things.

Impartial Record

The sneeze diary creates a random, almost completely impartial record of a daily life. It scoops the mundane, the exceptional and the frustrating up into the same timeline to be reflected on side by side. I did some work on this with the watch camera a few months ago exploring non-partisan interventions that help understand the impact of all experiences, be they strong or weak, positive or negative. Typically we’re only good at capturing the strong positive experiences, it’s hard to critique such a skewed record.

The religious associations with sneezes gives them a resonance the camera doesn’t have, whilst being self-generated seems to makes it less of an imposition. As a caution, I wonder how long it takes before it begins to feel like a voluntary action, a reaction to boredom. In the same vein Peter has ways of managing his sneezes when it’s not convenient, say when he is on the toilet or away from his notebook.

Memento Mori

It’s also a momento mori. Forcing reflection by interjecting into your routine, lifting you from the moment and up into the larger narrative of your life. It asks you to remember both the moment and the journey, like stars on an ocean voyage. As Peter says:

This act of counting, and documenting, not only acts to highlight, intensify and enhance the experiences that accompany a sneeze, but also the events that fall between the sneezes, giving me a more profound understanding, even than I had before, of the simple joy in the passing of time

It’s a beautiful piece of design. Peter talks about how over time, it starts to seem unnatural when he sees someone sneeze and not make a note, and that’s the final proof. It’s a habit changing intervention, that reaches beyond the moment you sneeze and out into an exploration and reflection on what it’s like to be you. It’s an enhancing behaviour.

Once I had been counting sneezes for a short time, I became disturbed when I saw someone sneeze, and then not look closely at their watch or mobile phone and take out and write something illegible in a notebook. Witnessing people sneeze and then not record it has come to feel unsettling and wrong, as if they are losing the sneeze, letting it go to waste. Does this mean I am enhancing my life by counting my sneezes?

My own sneeze diary is an inelegant system, I just make a new evernote note for each sneeze. I have thoroughly enjoyed doing it and can’t imagine ever stopping. I love having this parallel, awkward record of my existence, that captures me next to radiators or at the kitchen sink as often as it finds me doing something memorable in the traditional sense.

As a side note, with evernote you get heaps of meta data, which is a point worth raising. Is adding extra meta data more loaded than an idea this elegant deserves? For the sake of this record I’ve added the date, but suspect it perhaps detracts. This may be the only place I don’t agreed with Peter though, the rest is poetry.


Sneeze Diary: #1-31


#1 / 25th Double. Central line, just out of Boring. Pizza for dinner?

#2 / 28th Hereford Arms, Gloucester Road. Friend through to the finals of the Game Lab.

#3 / 30th Cold morning at the studio. Working on the advent calendar.

#4 / 30th Just had a peice of chewing gum. Selling my iPhone on the forum.


#5 / 3rd Double. Exactly midnight, editing Playable Cities document to send to everyone. Bit of a cold.

#6 / 3rd Part cough. Watching David Attenborough in Madagascar, laughing about dating an egg.

#7 / 18th 3 in quick succession. Making Saturday coffee, empty day stretching out before me.

#8 / 24th Double. Walking down stairs past Christmas stockings. Dry warmth and green/grey carpet of my parents house.


#9 / 2nd Double. At home, putting washing on the radiator. Festive hangover, no strong emotion.

#10 / 10th Part cough double, chewing gum induced. Laptop into bag, drink with friend cancelled. Free evening.

#11 / 19th Single. At home, morning before Playable City award announcement. Went to the mirror to watch myself sneeze.

#12 / 19th Delayed double. Making coffee, discussing the guy who thought the whole household was unemployed.

#13 / 22nd Big double, cathartic. Leaving work to do tax return at home.

#14 / 24th Single. Holding a full cup of tea, required some balance. Packing bag for training at Leyton Orient ground.


#15 / 2nd Nasal double, directed at carpet. Drinking an Erdinger, editing detective interview.

#16 / 5th Double, chesty. Lying on my side, 6.30am wake up for filming at BBR.

#17 / 4th Double, throaty. Night before going to India. Closing laptop, heading home.

#18 / 5th Rapid double. Packing for India, thinking about linen shirts.

#19 / 5th Single, just taken off out of Heathrow. Using the inflight seat to seat messaging service.

#20 / 11th Double, in Afgan airspace. Tired, watched The Help, nearly cried.

#21 / 11th Single, over Eastern Europe. Watching Brazil.

#22 / 11th Cough-like sneeze, single. Heathrow airspace, the City and the City.

#23 / 12th Single, muffled by a developing cold. Writing Mind film questions, thinking about new world wines.

#24 / 12th Single. Realising the event is paid.

#25 / 13th Single, Ill. Checking the map of Africa.

#26 / 25th Single, cycling. Fake Nike trainers and a sunset. 6-0 at football.

#27 / 26th Single, expecting a second. You’re so smart and I can’t wait to see you

#28 / 27th One sneeze, kicked out of pub. Drunk, Cheese.

#29 / 28th Single. Bacon sandwich and horror films.


#30 / 3rd Single. Waiting for the 78, about to buy a kilo of sausages.

#31 / 5th Double. First sunny day in March, thinking beyond lunch.

#32 / 5th Three part single. Beer on the stoop, and a medicinal airwave


Siren Diary

We extended the idea for our recent trip to Unbox in Dehli, to make a micro version over the four days of festival. We called it the siren diary, and an alarm went off at intervals through out the four days. It was fairly unsuccessful as people were so busy, so we changed to become the sirens ourselves using a video camera. We hoped to start conversations about how people reflect and build on experiences, how we manage the passing of time and what it takes to shake up a routine. Here are some of the responses to the question, “what are you thinking about?”

Perhaps the nicest thing we heard was a girl who for every term throughout her 4 years of college used a different perfume. She saw it as a way of separating and remembering the stages in her life. It’s another beautiful intervention, giving episodes a specific smell and acknowledging them as descrete periods, strung together to form a whole. It makes standing at the dresser applying perfume an act of understanding, a smile at times passing.

Locating and Revisiting Experience

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Locating and Revisiting Experience

Ben Barker

21st February 2013


Recently we’ve talked a lot about how memory and place relate, in part following on from our thoughts on Memory, identity and the network. The discussion also formed a starting point for our Playable City submission. We have been exploring ways to let people create a new history of the city, to record and share the stories they have lived and are living.

One inspiration was Austerlitz, Seabald’s excellent novel where the titular protagonist unravels his forgotten past through travel, searching for his identity by crossing the globe as if it was his brain, examining the cities of crumbling synapse. It paints an idea of our environment, the city, as a Wiki about how we got to be the way we are, where we can walk the streets and be reminded of the ingredients.

James Bridle draws the network as the 5th dimension, that of memory:

“The network is not a shared consciousness, but it is a shared memory (and a shared experience if it makes sense to say that our experiences are just memories)… It is a recording device. It is a recording angel, but a curiously passive one. “

This passivity is important, more than ever there is an imperative to be agent in how we remember. What do we give and what do we get back? The network defies time too, at last years Serpentine Memory Marathon Douglas Copeland talked about how eras have been flattened in our networked age, platforms like spotify don’t care about when.

“Our lives have lost their narrative threads. The internet has bent us to it’s will quicker than any other technology….all eras co-exist at once.” 

The collective memory has become as available as our own, the function of memory on identity is being separated and tested. We rely on the network to tell us what we are like. This Is My Jam Odyssey refers to a years personal listening as an epic journey of exploration, and it is. The network knows we want, perhaps need, to be reminded of what we’re like. Bookcases aren’t about storage, but a granular record of what we’re made of, and this is a continuation.

I’ve referenced Tom Armitage’s Ghostcar before and it goes someway to answering the question of how we geolocate and revist memories in a meaningful way. It’s built on FourSquare, the most notable locational service and a very digital tool in a physical, messy reality. The beauty of ghostcar is it closes the loop, asks you to actually be there. Tom Loois’  Blank Ways is an app that shows the places you haven’t been, what Matt Ward describes as the spaces of mental calm, the unused storage, it’s a poetic highlighting of how memory and location are interwoven.

The memory structures of a city are a journey of surprise, we don’t always know the recalled experiences that will jump from a bus stop or broken sign. At it’s simplest, the network requires us to know what we want to remember. Facebook reminds us of holidays and parties, twitter of our sharable thoughts (it’s well worth keeping a tweets I didn’t send.doc as a personal record). We don’t visit physical spaces to journey backwards so often, but if we did, could we equally describe a return to childhood haunts as an ‘epic journey of exploration’? On a recent trip to my Grandparents soon to be sold house, I was surprised by the number of memories awaiting me, one in a steep stair case, another in a half dug pond. The image of it all being bulldozed and lost forever suddenly seemed a much more personal violation, a loss of data. Our experiences are intricately linked with place, but we haven’t reconciled locations temporality with our new networked realities.

So it’s from that space, between the networked collation of experience, and the stronger sensory reactions evoked using location that we approached Hello Lamp Post. Documenting and sharing these spacial memories as they change, before they change. Tracing them onto the network. The infrastructure of the smart city provides the skeleton of a low tech network that we hope will allow us to explore that.

We’ve won the Playable City Award!

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We’ve won the Playable City Award!

Ben Barker

21st January 2013

We are excited to announce that our project Hello Lamp Post! has been selected for the Playable City Award. It’s a real surprise, we still can’t quite believe it. When we saw the quality of the shortlist, with work from so many names that we respect, we never imagined being chosen. We’re thrilled and can’t wait to get working. Big thanks to Tom and Gyorgyi for their work too.


We’re also really grateful to the judges for their comments, some of which are below.

Imogen Heap said: ‘I love this for its whispers on the street, guardians in dark corners, humanising our cities’ appendages whose eyes and ears now have a voice. Vessels for an ever evolving conversation, connecting us together. They were there all along!’

Tom Uglow said: ‘Hello Lamp Post! stood out with a potential for both art and play using existing urban furniture. It points to a future made up of the physical objects already around us, the ‘internet of things’, and the underlying complexity is made simple and easy for people by just using SMS for this project. Poetry and technology combine to create subtle and playful reflections of the world we live in. It filled me with a childish delight.”

Claire Doherty says: “We were enchanted by this proposal and particularly loved the way it challenged the prevalence of mass-entertainment and spectacle, revealing an invisible ‘soft city’ – the exchanges and incidents that create a city’s social fabric. It’s rare to find a proposal which combines those intimate exchanges with the humour and playfulness of Hello Lamp Post!”


Clare Reddington, Judging Panel Chair says, “We were really excited by the applications we received and by the comments and questions from audiences about the short-listed entries.  The judges had a difficult decision to make but have selected an unusual and innovative project, which responds perfectly to the theme and seems very apt for Bristol. We will certainly have some challenges to make sure the project reaches as many people as possible, but am sure people will respond with curiosity and warmth and I am very much looking forward to waking up some street furniture this summer.”

We’ll keep you updated as the project develops, and look forward to developing the ideas and building the project. Thanks for all the support during the shortlisting process.

The Santa Scores Advent

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The Santa Scores Advent

Ben Barker

5th December 2012

This year our advent calendar is called The Santa Scores. It is the only advent-calendar tv-listings site that picks a film from that day, and then rates it for Christmasiness, against other films that are also on, but on different days. 

Last year our advent calendar reviewed pre-packaged high street sandwiches. This year we’re asking what gives films a festive feeling. We’ve been scanning the TV listings for you. Every day we’ll choose a film that looks like the most Christmassy one on and then we’ll review it for Christmasiness. You can exploit this information as you choose.

From an experiential perspective, we think the “Christmas feeling” is very interesting. It’s a weird compound emotion – a mix of apprehension, nostalgia and suspension of disbelief; synonymous with feelings towards family, reward, comfort and pop mythology. Though it must be unique for everyone, a lot of people understand it as a concept and have had personal experience of it. When it begins is very subjective, and the subtlest of details can trigger it – Christmas lights going up, decorating the tree, or other tropes and rituals – including, we suspect, certain films. We’re keen to find out which movies have the best chance of triggering a ‘festive cascade’.


What does remembering feel like?

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What does remembering feel like?

Ben Barker

2nd October 2012

Since first talking about memory a few months ago, we’ve been playing with a few things that explore its role in how we reflect on experiences, and how we remember. We’ve recorded the podcast with Neuroscientist Izzy and the smell camera is coming along well, more to follow on that shortly. In conversation, it has also become a defacto measure of an experience’s worth. Below are some of the other things we’ve been fiddling with.


Hour Day Week Month Year

The site asks you to recall an event after an hour has past, then a day, a week, a month and a year. It started as a space for us to test the methods we use to remember, and to try new ones. Now we’ve given it a user login and a bit of a face lift so that anyone can use it, and we’d love it if you tested your own memory. There is some advice on the site for different approaches you might take. We’ll soon be adding email reminders for when it’s time for your next recall.

How does a memory decay?

From the memories that I currently have in process on the site, I’ve found strong visuals, faces and the colour of things are easy to recall. Yet the sequence of events is easily muddled and any conversation that took place is much harder to bring back. I’m currently doing a number of variations, one where I list everything I saw in space, another where there is a sequence to events. I’m beginning one where I break it down by senses, a control of sorts. A year down the line, I’m hoping for a time capsule quality to the memories, that revealing them will be surprising and there will be traces of change in the way a memory has evolved, like Munch repainting his Sick Child. I have an image that a memory will eventually decay down to it’s essential element, the bit that will be both the reason it remained and the thumbnail by which I know it.


10,000th Day

We joked about the fact that no one celebrates their 10,000th day, then a quick calculation showed I’d missed mine, which I found surprisingly disappointing. To help others avoid the same loss, I built a php calculator to figure out when it was, based on a given birthday.

Then I started to obsess over what I did on my 10,000th day. It’s likely that we remember more than we realise, but unlike the systems we compare our memory to, our concept relating is poor. Which means the events of that day are probably stored, but the date does not evoke them. With a little work I was able to figure it out. This got me thinking about what role technology plays in memory recall. With my past all backed up on servers and hard drives, I became detective, no longer responsible for my past, but rebuilding it bit by bit from the traces I had left behind. The moments when I had left a digital mark.

This led on to a line of thinking about how our collected digital memory might look in the future. Do we need a new, centralised digital archive? Are we happy that our past (like our identity) has become so distributed across information structures? When we finally give it all to technology, what does our memory look like?

How much of your 10,000th day can you remember? What technologies helped you to do it?

Searching for mine, I went to twitter first, which revealed where I’d been a a day after and a few days before. My emails showed what I’d been working on, I checked my bank statements to see if I’d spent any money in the pub in the evening, but that was the day before. My calendar was blank. I checked facebook, nothing. Then I searched lightroom for the date. That was it, taken and uploaded to flickr, pictures of a bike I’d bought for my brother, a check of my text messages later reveals, the day before. So that was it, I’d gone to the studio, as my emails show, worked on mock-ups for a website, (although the only file created that day was a download of a mySql database), visited our upcoming exhibition at This Way Up. Then went home, cleaned the bike, took pictures and uploaded them. I can remember some of the parts, some I’m filling in from habit. The only part that gives me a physical pull back to the moment is uploading the pictures to flickr. Perhaps the most pleasurable part of the day? I thought it would be more immersive but it just felt like pieces that didn’t make a whole. There was no sense of self, no surging back of the past. I just knew what I’d done, plainly, more memorial than a visitable idea.

In all of this it should note that our minds ability to edit and store only the important details is vital to our sanity. The case of Jill Price highlights this. There was an interesting piece on Channel Four recently too.


A Definite Trace

All of the above got me thinking about how camera phones have changed the way I use photography. They capture a more constant stream than was possible before, to be searched through later like digital madelines, jerking us back to the unremembered. Before camera phones I hadn’t photographed in this way, forgetting the aesthetic and building a chronology of identity. The feed doesn’t have to be temporal either. It could be location, habit or even emotion based.


Tom’s GhostCar, is a FourSquare account that takes his check-ins from a year ago and visits them in the present. His ghost is walking the streets of Britain. It is a beautiful example of location as the relational concept. As Tom puts it:

It gives me a visceral memory: reminds my bones, my heart, what they felt. (That, for reference, is my defence against nostalgia. This isn’t just about nostalgia, because you might not like what it makes you feel. It’s just about remembering feelings; stopping to pause and remember the passage of time).

“It’s just about remembering feelings.” This is a point we always push, it’s not about the best bits, we only know our lives when we sense all of the experiential range. So when looking through my instagram, I felt frustrated by the inevitable positive spin put on my memories by the desire to capture me at my best. I was guilty of doing what Perec criticised the news for doing (taken from Matt’s recent post on Performance).

The daily papers talk about everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.
What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

Georges Perec, Approaches to What? 1973

Am I aware of the passing of time if I don’t have the tools to acknowledge the habitual?

At the same time as reading this I had set myself a challenge to remember every day. It was surprisingly easy, to take a moment and log a bit of data. It also meant I did more individual things, to ensure days became easier to deliniate. Again, as Tom said,

The moment I fired ghostcar up, I realised I needed to start giving it better data so that it’d continue to have meaning a year in the future. So that’s a strange, interesting takeaway: changing my behaviour because I want the fossil record to be more accurate.

In combing this thinking with my new use of photography, my call to action went from ‘I want to remember everyday’, to, ‘I want to be reminded of everyday’. So I put together the watch camera below. A camera, a timer and a flash memory drive. It takes a picture every ten minutes and it goes everywhere I go. A trace of the mudane, the melancholy and the habitual. A reminder of the passing of time, but also a route back through the sequence.

Wafaa Bilal, the NYC artist did a similar project where he had a camera implanted in the back of his head. He was exploring surveillance (his images were immediately available online) and the things we leave behind (the camera was in the back of his head) and many people have done 1 image a day.

It also works a non-prescriptive documenting of an individual, like Pete’s beautiful map of a year. A graphic of what a you, behaves like. We’ve talk about this element in our work with Lambeth Collaborative recently. This is more side-effect than intention. I should stress, the images are only intended for me. There is no suggestion that a record of persons life is interesting to anyone else. They’re only appearing here as proof.

This is clearly a beta prototype, more about surfacing questions that refining an object. How much of a role should aesthetic and composition play in photos? How aware should I be when the picture is being taken and how aware should others be? Where should the camera be located, clearly watch level isn’t quite right. I’ll deal with these as prototyping continues, glasses seem the the obvious next step. There are plenty of other issues too, such as privacy, editing and how we revisit the images. Is instagram the place where I should naturally be encountering these photos?

For now though, I’m more conscious of how a day is made up. I’m always near a laptop. I go to bed far too late. It’s the routine bits that jump out.

As I was posting this Chris noted the Autographer which looks really interesting.

Memory Podcast

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Memory Podcast

Ben Barker

11th July 2012

The Podcast:


In this second podcast we talk with Isabel Christie, a neuroscientist, about memory creation and recollection. We ask:

Without memory, or the ability to recall it, is there any value in experience?
Can you be something other than the collection of memories that you have?
Are memory and sentience the same thing?

As we say, Pan exists to explore what value we as humans find in experience. We understand that the transformative quality of experiences define us as humans and constitute the major part of what makes a life. In exploring memory, we hope to better understand the role of memory recall in valuing experiences.

Oh, and the image above is of a synapse, the connection between two neurons in the brain. The strengthening and weakening of these synapses is called synaptic plasticity and it is understood that a vast network of these connections is what represents memory.

Here’s the direct link to the file: Memory Podcast

Memory as Measure

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Memory as Measure

Ben Barker

2nd May 2012

I can’t really remember the film Moneyball. I saw it recently, and I’m sure it was fine. I think Brad Pitt looked a bit waxy, a man did something with numbers. I suppose it saved me reading the wikipedia page for either or both of them. If a friend hadn’t asked my opinion, I would have forgotten it forever. That doesn’t make it a bad film, but in my estimation doesn’t make it a good one either, it left no legacy.

Is that system fair, and does it translate more broadly to experience?

A measure for experience might be memorability. If you can’t remember a month, a year or a decade, then it probably lacked profound, revelatory or stimulating experiences. This is something we touched on in our podcast a few months back. Though it could also be applied to any single experience as much as a period of time. Think back to any moment, how sharply do you remember its smells, encounters or the way you felt. What does your recall of it tell you about its significance?

There is the danger of making memory creation the activity rather than one of the outcomes, here’s Simon Amstell on that:

“I was in Paris recently with a new group of people… So she suggests that, at about three in the morning, that we all run up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. And I guess telling you about that now sounds a little bit exciting and fun, but at the time, I just thought, “but w-why would we do that? And then what’s the point? And then when we get there, then what will we do with our lives?” And I’m sort of analyzing what the point of it is, and we live that way [points the other way] and it seems a long way to go. And everyone else is just not analyzing, they’re just running and I’m running as well because of the peer pressure because I’m fun! And we’re all running and running and everyone else, I think, is just at one with the moment, at one with joy, at one with the universe, and I’m there, as I’m running, thinking, “well, this will probably make a good memory!” Which is living in the future discussing the past with someone who, if they asked you, “oh, what did it feel like?” “I don’t know! I was thinking about what to say to you!”

If he had of been “at one with the universe” like his peers, he could still have formed a lasting memory, however it wasn’t a transformative or meaningful experience for him, so he had to consciously encode it.

So how is memory formed? This is all reduced from Richard C. Mohs, PhD description at:

It begins with encoding of perception. Perception is a stimulation of any or all of the senses. The Hippocampus then integrates all those inputs into a single experience and decides if they are worth remembering. This is based on your state of mind, repetition and need. We are surprisingly in control of what we remember. He says “how you pay attention to information may be the most important factor in how much of it you actually remember.”
As one brain cell sends signals to another, the synapse between the two gets stronger. The more signals sent between them, the stronger the connection grows. Thus, with each new experience, your brain slightly rewires its physical structure. What is interesting is that we can either choose to try and remember something, or an experience can be sufficiently transformative that it demands to be remembered. First kiss, first airplane flight. First is a word that comes up again and again.

In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust made the distinction between habitual memory and what he called ‘memoire invoulontaire’. He took the view that ‘habit was anaesthetic to memory’ and that it ‘weakens all impressions.’ He even went as far as saying that it was ‘a second nature that prevented us from knowing our real selves’. The important distinction here is made between strong memorable moments, and the anaesthetic of memories encoded through habit. As A. E. Pilkington explains, Proust sees “voluntary and involuntary memory as recollection of identifiable events”, however Bergson makes the point in Matter et Memoire that ‘the two memories [may] run side by side and lend to each other a mutual support.’ So the challenge is not just forming memory, but memory of identifiable events and moments.

Can we use memorability as a measure of experience?

A reasonable criticism may be the fallibility of memory. We adapt our experiences to represent what we want, without subjectivity so memory is not a definte measure, however it is an indicator of richness of experience. We can ask ourselves what stands out, and in that sense the detail is less important, our remembrance, however skewed, is the measure of value.

After-Life is a beautiful film by Hirokazu Koreeda where newly dead people find themselves in a waystation en route to heaven. They are asked to reflect on what their favourite memory is. All the characters are drawn from interviews with real people, put into the hypothetical situation. It’s interesting for the memories they choose, but also for forcing people to weigh their lives. If you were one of the newly deceased, what would you choose?

What other measures of experience might exist? Personality, appearance, values. All of these are surely products of memory, be it habit (the experientially bad kind), voluntary (actively remembered) or involuntary (excited by chance). The quality of memory that an experience generates is its only legacy. Taking the metaphorical deathbed* as being the bottom-line of life, will you congratulate yourself the endless hours of forgettable contentment or be glad of the memorable experiences and transitions?

*The moment when your memories are both the most valuable and the most worthless. This is a big question to address, for now ponder on this quote from Blade Runner:

Tears In Rain (Blade Runner – 1982):
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. [pause] Time to die.”

New Order Nosh-Up

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New Order Nosh-Up

Ben Barker

17th April 2012

Turning theory into practice is one of the hardest aspects of running a critical design studio. Having theoretical stand points and acting on them are two different things, easier to say what not to do than exemplify your beliefs through doing. We are working towards it thanks to the Critical Audit that Matt gave us a while back.

In that time I have always held in high regard The School of Life, in part due to it’s connection with Alain de Botton. Though in greater part, because it had a series of beliefs that it finds actual outlets for. Sermons, lessons, tours, feasts. All of the output is considered and consistent with their wider beliefs, which is not easy.

I went to one of the Utopian Feasts last Wednesday, where the menu expended a lot more time on the conversation we would be having, than on the food. A curated journey of discussion. The food was consciously all white, the idea being that conversation was the evenings colour. In my work with Innovation Unit we often facilitate discussion, and have very structured ways of taking them to conclusions. We typically use “tools” that are designed specifically for particular workshops, for example creating personnas to walk though the contact points of a remodelled council structure, or asking people to draw a specific role to express it in a different way. The challenges include making people confident that their ideas are valuable, keeping the conversations on track and turning discussion into outcomes.

The Utopian Feast was fun because we were a bunch of similarly minded people in a room, (in that sense it can’t fail) however I would have been excited to see how far our explorations into the Utopic society could have gone with a more structured facilitation. We were so worried about where we lived, what we believed and who had met AdB that we hardly had time to draw up new worlds. To be critical of the event, perhaps the ambition outreached the reality of middle class strangers in a room.

Regarding the School of Life as a whole though, the answer, or at least the next question, is in the name. How much is the school analogy a useful metaphor and how much is it actually a school? I think this is one of the bigger decisions in any design process, how much do you need to borrow the language of the existing, in justifying the new. The (up until recently) brilliant instagram wouldn’t have been anything if it didn’t build on the language of film photography and the history of analog image capture, and yet futures that restrict themselves with nowness are often berated. The School of Life’s skill comes from borrowing the language when needed, rather than burdening themselves with it. They live in a shop, they offer Sunday sermons and staff are faculty. It makes me want to clap.

‘Comfortable’ Podcast

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‘Comfortable’ Podcast

Ben Barker

17th January 2012

* – “Comfort” being a combination of 1) conditioning against trying new things, 2) repetitive routine, and 3) diminishing returns on similar experiences. Potentially also an incremental reduction of energy/ mobility due to ageing.

Sam and I recently discussed comfort and it’s impact on the way we live our lives; we are beginning a wider project that will explore it further. The recording was done to document our ideas and “possibly to share”, which has become “to share” (see below).

Flash audio player:


Here’s the direct link:


(edit: I think I mention Ted Hughes at one point, I was actually thinking of Simon Armitage – Sam)

Janet Cardiff: The Missing Voice (Case Study B)

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Janet Cardiff: The Missing Voice (Case Study B)

Ben Barker

25th November 2011

It might be ten years old and I’m definitely guilty of being that amount out of date, but Janet Cardiff’s audio tour at the Whitechapel gallery, The Missing Voice (Case Study B), is an enchanting aural dream through the back streets of Whitechapel and Brick Lane. In no way obsessed with historical details but instead a journey into the memories of the female narrator and the sounds of East London.

Cardiff’s work is filmic. The girl with the red hair, the overtones (and they are overtones not subtle or implied) of crime and romance. The beauty lies in the tension between the visual, which is real and makes physical demands on you and the audio track which is poetic and pulls you out of reality then dumps you back in with street names and warnings of danger. There are jokes that knock on the fourth wall (or one of the walls anyway) too, like a warning to cross the road carefully which is followed by the sound of a motorbike accelerating past.

James, not doing it for the first time, assured me that the experience hasn’t lost anything, even if it has spanned the change from diskman to iPod. It might even have gained a detective element given the many changes to the area in the ten or more years since it’s recording.

Cardiff makes you look in the streets for protagonists to play the roles in her switching narratives. Then serves memorable observations for you to attach to them, an idea that stuck with me went something like: ‘I look at the builders and wonder if they know that they are the creators of the city.’

At one point on the route I unknowingly dropped a lens cap. A man saw and was calling for my attention, but so good is the sound that I dismissed it as part of the experience. Only at the end of the street when I turned and saw him waving at me did I realise that Cardiff had completely woven me into her London.

The earphones empower too. They take you down streets you might otherwise avoid, into churches you did’t know you could enter and have you staring at strangers you would otherwise avoid.

The Whitechapel gallery describes the experience as a ‘twilight zone of aural hallucination’. It is.

Simple Games, Complex Personal Narratives.

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Simple Games, Complex Personal Narratives.

Ben Barker

8th August 2011

When a simple rule or a single sentence is enough to explain a game, it can often lead to its dynamics being richer and more fluid. I played one recently where the sentence went like this:

A person hides and all other players seek, then when a seeker finds the hider he joins them in that space until everyone has found it and done the same. Its called sardines and I had never heard of it.

My experience of it was heightened by playing in an old wooden mansion on the French coast in the pitch black of midnight with a sound track of the sea drowning out the informative shuffles of numerous investigations. The idea of being the last seeker in that black house with its multi-roomed basement, sprawling balconies, and creaking staircase leading to a separate annex was simply not an option. In other words, something was at stake.

The games appeal comes in what you might call its personal story arc. Each seeker is in a wrestle between needing the safety of the group to ensure they aren’t left alone at the end (a genuine fear) and the personal victory of finding the target. Within this there is so much room for loyalty and betrayal, honesty and selfishness, all morally acceptable because the game doesn’t say you can’t. In a sense the rules of the game are far more complicated than that one sentence, they are the rules of human morality, reconfigured on the fly in a heightened state of tension.

One moment stood out for me and encapsulated the experience.

We had been seeking for 30 minutes with no success. Then as paths crossed around the house, word started to spread that one seeker hadn’t been seen recently. A friend has become an enemy.

People began to group at the bottom of the staircase to the annex, it’s pitch black, frustration is beginning to show. No one really wants to go back to the dark basement or the shadow splattered garage. Whilst strategy is discussed I subtly rummage in the space under stairs. It’s deep and I feel a hoover, then a rolled up carpet, behind that is a mop, then something bouncy and hairy, under that there’s a forehead, eyes. I trace back over the still head, the shape of a female face, the hair in a bun.

Everything’s changed, I’m one of them. I’m suddenly an enemy among friends, my hand on the key. I have a moment to decide before others think to check the dark triangle under the stairs. Do I want to bring the group of seekers with me, effectively ending the game, or do I want to misdirect, suggest searching elsewhere, say that I know where they’re hidden, then hang back and dive into this cavernous alcove and become part of the select few. I scan the grey silhouettes of the seekers around me. I’ve searched side by side with a couple of them since the beginning. People are starting to fidget, my mind whirrs, decision time:

‘Guys, I’ve got an idea where they are.’