My current research interests are shaped by the continued work of my doctoral studies and by my practice as an artist, curator and producer. I would broadly describe these in three overlapping themes: the political potential of design objects; the role of temporary art and architecture out in the space of the city, and the improvisational creativity with digital and electronic tools, all of them connected by different explorations and understanding of the idea of intervention, in process, technology and space. These interests have been developed through my practice as an artist and through my creative production as Artistic Director at Artengine, and continued through to my current research work.

The political potential of design objects

Architects make things that bring people together. The analogue and digital drawings and models we produce are ways of assembling engineers, technicians, inspectors, clients, politicians, tradespeople, community activists, citizens, scientists and others, many of whom also have their own things to place alongside the architect’s drawings and models. Together these things form a kind of architectural assembly organised around the issue of transforming some specific part of the city (or not as yet built upon landscape). This is the political dimension of design: the process of making objects, embedded with potential for action, which bring together a diverse range of people, each with varying interest in the object, as well as the present and future which that object represents. The assembly around these things determines the formation or reformation of the world around us. If we understand political processes as those by which we collaborate and contest the organisation of the world we have in common, then this making of political things places architects, and the artefacts of their production, as key actors in political life. 

In my research I seek a deeper understanding of how the things architects make participate in politics, and ask how we can leverage these political things to contribute to a more robust and dynamic political life. Specifically I am interested in how ambiguity may facilitate this, so in this way I am interested in the poetic dimension of political things and the political dimension of poetic things. How can open and ambiguous qualities of objects assemble and connect people, not always in harmony and agreement but in productive and agonistic dialogue and discourse. I began this exploration in my early graduate work as I considered how the notion of uselessness was found and produced in architecture. The Staircase to Nowhere, which appears in my art and design portfolio, is the result of these early explorations and many of the key questions then drove my continued research in the pursuit of a PhD. Part of my doctoral research will be connected to the design and making of political? poetic objects for the space of the city, and is deeply interconnected with my second research theme.

Temporary and informal art and architecture in the space of the city

The consideration of temporary and informal interventions in the city began with a number of projects at Artengine as we explored the potential of different technologies to add layers and experiences to the city (see for example). In 2009, I collaborated with the Canadian chapter of Graffiti Research Lab as we examined how we could intervene in the city with interactive projection mapping projects. Since this time, I have developed and produced projects that explore the transformation of the architecture and public space of the city through sound and light. Most significantly, we undertook a large multi-artist commissioning project called We Make The City! We Are The City!, where I developed the critical and creative framework for artists. Each project required the participation of people in the city to explore the materials of the public spaces at its center.

Through this work at Artengine I began to understand how the material, legal and political elements of the city intertwined, but also how they could be transformed on a temporary basis. Through my doctorial research I will investigate the entangled life of objects in the city and the political forces they exert. To do this theoretically I have engaged with the work of political theorist Bruno Latour, and in particular his set of ideas and explorations from the massive publication and exhibition project he produced with artist Peter Wiebel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.[1]  In it, Latour puts forward the idea of an object-oriented politics, where objects are welcomed into the political realm as actors. This is an exciting theoretical proposition for designers, and I am interested in extending his project along with others like sociologist, Nortes Marres, and computational designers, like Carlo Disilva.[2]

Drawing on the work of Latour, as well as Marres and Disilva, I am building a set of tools to interpret the political forces of objects in the city. These interpretative tools will form the empirical framework for the study of the political potential of certain spaces in the city. The emerging aspect of my research questions is about how counter mapping tools might serve to represent the temporal and informal qualities of public space. I have also begun to explore the potential of game engines, particularly those that can be ported to mobile devices, as a method of organizing different research on phenomena in the city. The mapping prototype, which I am currently calling an Action Information System, draws on the design and making, as discussed above as poetic instruments used to test the informal boundaries of the city and the map. The ideas around the potential of game engines for mapping is in its inception, but I hope the explorations will develop new possibilities for participatory mapping and community action.

Digital Making and Improvisation

Distinct from the research trajectory I have undertaken in my graduate studies, has been my in-depth exploration of improvisation and digital making. This began in the late 1990s with the use of analogue video equipment and exploring the limits of the video image as pure form, using feedback and routing to transform video technologies into visual synthesisers for performance. As imaging technologies advanced I searched for ways to combine digital tools into real-time image manipulation environments. Through the early 2000s I built a significant creative practice focused on improvisational image creation collaborating with musicians and theatre performers building generative projects for live performances, installations and several holographic prints. The highlight of the period of my practice is certainly my collaboration with Scotiabank Nuit Blanche and the CN Tower in 2009 for the installation of the lighting system on the tower which I synchronised to a city-wide radio broadcast.

In 2005, I began my work as the Artistic Director for Artengine. In this position I continued this thematic interest as my community of collaborators expanded and creative digital tools diversified. Through experimentation in our media lab, our knowledge-sharing structures and our public programming I have been particularly interested in the relationship between the making of custom digital tools and the mastery of existing ones. I have brought these interests forward into my teaching and continue to explore through a variety of approaches to making the space between the creative as an author of structure and a master of an instrument or tool.

[1] Latour, Bruno and Peter Wiebel. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

[2] See: Nortes Marres’ Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and Carlo DiSilvo’s Adversarial Design (The MIT Press, 2012).