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.

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.

Proposition: The Anti-Camera

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Proposition: The Anti-Camera

Sam Hill

7th June 2012

(Photo courtesy of Russell Davies)

Cameras as Diminutive Relays

Whilst we’re waiting for Paul to ready himself for the second round of Paul’s Gamble, we’re kicking off a research project based upon a relatively nascent behaviour, practised by many folk to varying extents. It’s become a bit of a contentious bugbear in the studio, but I find myself doing it all the time. To illustrate, here’s a quote pulled right from the bleeding edge of contemporary culture, The Blair Witch Project (1999):

Doomed Teen #1: “I see why you like this video camera so much.”

Doomed Teen #2: “You do?”

Doomed Teen #1: “It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is… It’s not the same on film is it? I mean, you know it’s real, but it’s like looking through the lens gives you some sort of protection from what’s on the other side.”

I don’t personally take issue with video cameras being used as creative tools, or to document and share events with others. I appreciate (and actively condone) the importance of creating or finding mementos, which cameras do very well. The relationship between value of experience and the fallibility of memory is something we believe is vitally important to explore. The real issue is in the way cameras are used during salient, important events as a diminutive relay for experience. Camera phones being as ubiquitous as they are, it’s common at any public gathering – firework display, festival, parade or sunset in a beer garden – to see a forest of arms raised above heads, awkwardly waving miniature, two-dimensional proxies of the spectacle ahead. Everyone with their arm in the air is not looking at the point of interest, but their own screen, carefully making sure they are ‘capturing’ every detail for some assumed posterity.

The problem is, we become so distracted, busy trying to record these memorable events, that we’re actually missing out. Ironically, whilst making sure an imagined ‘future self’ has access to a tinny, shaky-cam approximation of what once occurred, we’re actually divorcing ourselves (our ‘current self’) from the moment, and any consequential sensory or emotional attachment.

The question for anyone who takes an interest in human experience is this: how might an individual find a way of living in the moment whilst also fulfilling the need a personal recording device appears to answer? We speculate this need goes beyond a social desire to share; it’s also to assuage a fear of forgetting – a concern that without the right prompts one cannot trust oneself to recall having been in such a place, and time, even when it seems so important.

Percolating Ideas

A few interesting things have come up recently – pub discussions, new applications of technology and ideas from literature, which have fuelled our development of what we’re calling the ‘Anti-Camera’.

Proust’s Madelines

In Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s epic novel In Search of Lost Time, the narrator describes the involuntary memory triggered upon tasting a madeline dipped in tea. He recalls having tasted the same thing in his youth, and this recurrence – like a wormhole through space-time – takes him back to that moment and other memories that followed.

The link between memory and smell/ taste is well researched; the olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system – an area of the brain closely associated with memory. We really liked the idea that a time could be ‘stamped’ in some way by a strong taste or olfactory sensation – and then recalled later by re-experiencing the same flavour.

Black Mirror: The Entire History Of You

A ‘solution’ of sorts was modelled in the third episode of Black Mirror, written by Jesse Armstrong and directed by Brian Welsh. A theoretical passive recording device would allow us live out salient moments without distraction, but still have them recorded to remember – or more correctly re-experience (The distinction between the two is quite interesting).  The program takes a cynical view of such a technology, and how it might have a degrading effect on our lives, but it prompts an interesting discussion on the role of technology in aiding or subverting memory.

Olly/ Foundry @ Mint Digital

The good guys from last year’s Mint Foundry did some nice prototyping to figure out how to interface smell-delivery systems via Arduino. They demonstrated how it was possible to release smell on demand digitally, and their experiments eventually led to Olly.

Piesse’s “Smell Organ”

Annoyingly, I can’t remember the source (a Bruce Sterling tweet?), but there’s an amazing entry in The Dead Media Project about a pipe organ designed by a French chemist in the 1920’s to “translate music into corresponding odors” – essentially an instrument that would play olfactory translations of classical pieces. The most profound aspect of this idea was the careful selection of which smell would represent each note, and how the treble and bass clef would complement each other. There’s a fantastically literal parallel between music and perfume’s high/ top notes and low/ end notes:

Look Outside, Y’all

So says creator Tom Scott:

@LookOutsideYall is a Twitter bot that checks Instagram once a day, a few minutes before sunset. If it sees that a good proportion of photos around London are tagged or described with sunset, then it’ll tell the internet that it, collectively, should go outside and take a look at it.”

All the news surrounding Instagram’s popularity and assumed value illustrates how preoccupied we are with recording moments in time. Tom’s project further demonstrates how often people are using their camera phones to capture beautiful, fleeting moments. The apex of any crepuscular event is short, but this is when we’re bowing our heads and fiddling with technology – choosing filters, finding signal, signing in, writing hashtags…

The subtle difference in Instagram however is it’s quasi digi-folk artistry – we use it creatively to express a sense of something to others, not as a way to jog our own memories.

The Descriptive Camera

We got quite excited when Matt Richardson’s Descriptive Camera began to hit the feeds. Here was a device that took the photo out of the camera – and it was brilliant. Matt’s description of the purpose for such speculative tech was as follows:

“As we amass an incredible amount of photos, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage our collections. Imagine if descriptive metadata about each photo could be appended to the image on the fly.”

This was a smart idea, and such an application of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk was inspired, but we thought the real beauty here was in providing all the qualities of a camera without the photo.

Make-Your-Own-Perfume services

It turns out there is an enormous mass-customisation market in personalised perfumes, which has made the science of fragrance composition accessible to consumers – and more transparent for us.


The Anti-Camera

The idea is this: the Anti-Camera doesn’t record anything, nor does it output any simulacra. Rather, it coerces our mind into recollecting the essence of a moment – something less tangible than an image can capture. The device is designed to tag a moment in time with a unique olfactory identifier code – a bespoke smell. Then, when wishing to recall the moment at their leisure, the user of such a device could recreate the unique smell.

Olfactory Composition

Initially, we thought it would be satisfactory to use a binary, 8-bit smell generator – i.e. 8 smells, either on or off, allowing 256 combinations from 00000001 to 11111111. However, this method would provide very little distinction between neighbouring, or otherwise similar smells.

Instead, we’ve been looking at creating olfactory identifier codes composed of three parts – a top note, a middle note and an end note. For example, combining three ‘magazines’, each containing eight note ‘cells’, would allow for 512 permutations. Modern perfumers have access to several thousand unique ingredients, so many further magazines could be used in different combinations, allowing practically endless permutations.


At first, we wondered if the anti-camera should still skeuomorphically conform to a camera-esque typology (weight, size, right-of-centre button etc.). There were the usual arguments for and against…

… at this stage we’re leaning towards making something completely different. Here’s an early concept sketch:

Next Steps – Prototyping

It’s early days and we’ve got a lot of theory floating around. Moving forwards we’re planning to get a few proof-of-concept models under way, testing to see if the idea will withstand some critical interrogation.