The 13th and 14th of November 2015 the first FieldRobotics workshop was held in Falmouth, in Cornwall in collaboration with FoAM Kernow. Falmouth is a very unusual place. Despite its relatively small size the small town hosts a large university population. This gives the village a very attractive cosmopolitan atmosphere. FoAM Kernow has opened its studio there recently and has since developed a diverse and transdisciplinary program. Our workshop has extended its reach beyond the local community of creative practitioners, students and researchers to Bath, London and beyond. The town is particularly suited to start our workhop program, due to it’s varied and dynamic landscape, ranging from farmland to estuary, industry and domestic areas, but also because of its academic range from art and design to behavioural ecology and anthropology.
The aim of this first workshop is to have a large and diverse group of participants work in parallel teams on the design of an artificial creature or in Cornish jynnweythek godhviles (mechanical wild animals) for a specific place in the Falmouth area. This enables us to explore many different approaches fora diversity of viewpoints. The knowledge and insights gained will feed into the workshops in spring next year.
We start the day by going out along the estuary and we assemble into a large circle on an old graveyard looking over the water. Participants introduce themselves by a picture or a description of a place they feel close to or grew up at. So the landscape is the point of departure at all levels. About half an hour is used to connect to the environment on an emotional and physical level. From breathing we connect to the atmosphere, from our feet we connect to the Earth’s crust. From the sound-scape we connect to layers of history and from observation we try to take the viewpoint of non-human inhabitants.
Teams of six go out and spend the morning exploring the area across from Jubilee Wharf basking in sun light. Participants are looking for spaces, niches or microclimates where the landscape suggests a robotic inhabitant. Everyone is encouraged to also work by themselves if needed. This is allowed to happen organically. Theun’s team moves up from the graveyard and passes through narrow Cornish footpaths going places even our local team members have never been. After a while it becomes a muddy trail down a footpath drowned by a little creek that flows all the way down into a soggy reed bed along the coast. We stop to take in smells, try to determine plants species, explore textures, colours and the shifting spaces within the reed beds. Sitting in a field we exchange impressions for an hour or so before heading back to an amazing lunch of prizewinning bread and delicious salads.
At the ZedShed, a space next to FoAM Kernow’s office, the four teams gather to start exploring initial ideas that emerged in the outdoor exploration. Guided by fieldnotes and a series of themes for thinking about various aspects of wilderness machines, including: ecosystem role, lifespan, behavior or reproduction, each team gets their creature more into focus. The design session aims towards a first basic sketch and description of a creature or entity that can be presented to the other teams. Each team collects their materials and the day ends with four portraits of jynnweythek godhviles, hybrid creatures sprouting almost like mythical beasts from Cornwall’s techno-ecological landscape.
As the participants gather with coffee and tea in the morning they are treated to a detailed presentation by Ivan Henriques about his work building advanced plant-robotic systems and symbiotic machines. It brings into focus the many technical challenges that are part of creating such custom made hybrid entities and leads to interesting questions about imagining bodily functions that may be very distant from human experience. To show the other end of the engineering spectrum Theun shows some Youtube clips of the Japanese phenomenon of Hebocon, which are robotic sumo tournaments for the ‘technically ungifted’ where ‘crappy robots’ with swinging plastic arms on wobbling boxes take each other on in hilarious duels. This should put any nerves of participants about our technical skill-levels to rest as teams gather for a day of prototyping. Intermingling and collaboration on all levels extends the exchange of ideas and matching skills.
Teams work for an hour ripping apart robotic toys, skinning mechanical hamsters, glueing electronics to vegetables and harnessing electricity from mud. In this mayhem, mechanical organs are sketched, bodies take shape only to dissolve again and biographies of unknown hybrid species are pencilled into notebooks. Whatever results from this surge of assembling and connecting is presented by teams in short updates. The ideas is that the updates can bring out unsolved challenges to the whole group and solutions can surface from all sides. In practice it helps teams to get to grips with their projects and get a clearer picture of what they are constructing. The last hour of prototyping now starts before the creatures are introduces to their outside habitats. Suddenly various parts get connected and improvised bodies and systems materialize.
The weather isn’t perfect but everyone is eager to get outside and see their creature being introduced to the environment. In the rain we go for the first opportunities available: the harbour at Jubilee Wharf. It is reminiscent of the festive christening of ships that are freed from their docks. Each team lets their creature go free. The extended machine created by Amber’s team whose metabolism is integrated with plastic waste is set free in the harbour first. While it gently floats across the surface, the bubble blowing entity made by Judith’s team and the cuttlefish-machine from Ivan’s group also take a cautious plunge. They are cheered on and pictures are taken. Theun’s team lets their stringy being roam free at the side of the road. It’s colours clash somewhat with the neatly kept municipality shrubs, but a poem helps bringing the creature into context.
Participants gather for a closing round of impressions, comments and suggestions which will help refine the next workshops in the project. A massive clean-up effort gets the space back to it’s original state. Theun will take the sketches back home to make them into detailed drawings (like botanical illustrations).