Read:Code:Make 2: From Ideas to Prototypes

Welcome to our second post about the Read:Code:Make programme, a collaboration between the Surrey Library Service, artists Helen Scalway, Louise Scillitoe-Brown and Russell Jakubowski and makers Matt Prior (from the Surrey and Hampshire MakerSpace) and Artefacto. In our first post, we introduced the artists and how the project came together. In this post, we’ll discuss the creative, coding and making part of the project.

Once the project started, we had a couple of meetings at the Guildford Library to discuss ideas. This was a very interesting part of the project where artists explain their ideas, showed sketches while makers conveyed available technologies and bounced ideas to try turn the artists sketches into interactive 3d installations.

Russell had a clear idea from the beginning, inspired by the idea of the ‘writers block’ (or artists block!) and the following text from Frank Herbert Dune:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

And it was a question of how to make it (and code it!).

Helen was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published 200 years ago, and the experience of the monster while lost in woods. The challenge was how to create an interactive work that alluded the feeling of loss and isolation the monster experienced while lost.

Louise had a different approach, instead of being directly inspired by a book she was more interested in exploring how the library is changing and evolving, from analog to digital. Looking into questions such as ‘how is the proportion of borrowed physical vs digital books changing? or how are some physical publication disappearing? (literally being pulped). The ideas was to transform the answer to this questions into tridimensional works that referenced this change.

Artists also had the opportunity to visit the Surrey and Hampshire Makerspace.

Here is Louise’s impression:

“It was very interesting to visit the makerspace and was most pleased to find that such a facility exists locally, particularly access to laser cutting and use of band saw and pillar drill – I have made extensive use of these before – the Raspberry Pi and related boards look totally baffling, but I have listened to what Carlos, Matt and Helen have described of the possibilities and am working on a few ideas at the moment – watch this space!”

Whilst Russell thought:

“Great to visit the Boiler Room with Matt and see such mind teasingly useful tools for making. With your ideas and help I feel inspired to move towards new and interactive possibilities”

We asked artists three questions, firstly, how did they find the creative process?

Russell said:

“Thoroughly enjoyable, it has stretched the envelope of my work. The help and advice of an experienced code writer has given rise to something I would not have made on my own. It exposed to me to new component materials, processes and techniques. To quickly establish through dialogue with Matt what would be reasonable and possible enabled us to make a robust plan of action and the Beta testing of the idea was vital.
Also, our group meetings were really inspiring, having all 7 of us in the same room together was exciting. It saved many thousands of email words. Though the meetings did stretch on I suspect that time was saved in the long run because we became a team and got to the core of what we were doing.”

While Helen stated:

“I worked for months on this. First I had to decide on the book but for me Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ was an easy choice.
Some of the photos I used for the piece were taken near the Alps where the story takes place, back in February 2018. I’d taken dozens of photos, including some in blizzards at night. (The snowflakes were moving fast so the images turned out blurred and useless; it’s really hard photographing a blizzard when you are in it).
When I got home I plunged into hours and hours of digital experimentation to discover how best to exploit the most useful photos. Once I’d decided on a set of five dioramas it was then a case of trying to push each one forward through a process of creation and selection. I worked both digitally and hands-on with a sharp scalpel. My small studio rapidly filled up with a confetti of cut-out card as I manipulated the dioramas into being.
At every stage I was stimulated by the regular meetings arranged by Helen Leech, the Library Manager. It was great to meet up with the other artists, Louise and Russell, and Librarians Helen and Annalisa Timbrell. Annalisa’s notes documenting the early meetings provided invaluable reminders of what had been said.
The sense of working in such a mutually supportive, intelligent, creative and above all generous set of people was wonderful – I came away from each meeting raring to get back to the studio. I work with many artists, but I’ll miss this group! “

While Louise thought that:

“Discussing the development of the artworks with a group of librarians, technicians and artists has been a positive experience. By articulating our ideas and receiving feedback, interpretation and ideas on how a piece could be realised or developed, refines the work and helps it evolve. Pushing my own ideas into reality, experimenting with basic electrical circuits and using materials and methods that I had not previously tried has all fuelled my practice.”

Secondly we asked artists, What was the most exciting thing about this creative process?

Helen said:

“Undoubtedly, the first thing was the sheer buzz of teamwork. I loved this aspect. So, many thanks to visionary Helen Leech and her staff for getting the whole thing off the ground.
Then, more specifically, the opportunity to work with light behind the dioramas. I was so pleased to see the effects this nuanced and changing light produced – it was wonderful to work with Matt and Carlos and to see them make such magic happen in my work. Russell was also very helpful indeed. It was a load of trouble but a much bigger load of fun. To me, the lighting was transformative and has opened up all sorts of thoughts for future possible work.
And last, the moment when I saw the installed work. Matt and Carlos had again given so much time and effort and between them had wrought wizardry, a miracle.”


“The most exciting thing about the process is two fold – Realising that our idea could work during the Beta testing definitely made the neurons move. And switching it on in the library and seeing it work was a truly joyful moment. Doubly so when library staff member Nat looked at the piece for a while and then said “That is a thing of beauty”
But now the work is done and the most exciting thing is what I am going to make in the light of what I have learned. The future, that is exciting.”

And Louise:

“The most exciting aspect of this project as well as working with other practitioners was working in a different environment with new materials and opportunities.”

Louise Maelstrom being built
Finally, we asked artists: What was the biggest challenge?


“The most challenging moment happened like this. The separate boxes containing each diorama were made, the lights had been installed and tested and the boxes sealed for final presentation. Sealing them took a day in itself. So I breathed a sigh of relief and went off to France for a week, thinking, my part was done. Then… while I was 600 miles away an email arrived from Matt to say the l.e.d.s in one of the dioramas had failed. Oh lordy lord, my heart did sink. Then another email arrived from Matt. He had opened the boxes, restored the light, redesigned the way they were closed so they could be more easily repaired if necessary in future… wonderful!
It was an absolute roller coaster but thanks to Matt, the piece works. All my gratitude, Matt.”


Seeing this the day before the work was due to be installed

Facing the fact that I would have to prize the whole piece apart and maybe start again. As it turned out I was lucky – the engraved acrylic didn’t break and I was able to clean the text panels. The housing was a write off. It took 3 days to completely reconstruct it. I made it from plywood so I could use mechanical fixings and avoid glueing it to any of the inset text panels.
Another tense moment was deciding exactly which acrylic sheet to go with. We’d done experiments, but it could have all gone wrong if the red sheets had proved to be too opaque. There was some trial and error making the code work and getting the sensor to function the way we hoped, but Matt resolved these issues. However, just in case – we have an access panel – so we can plug a laptop into the Arduino and refine or change the programming if necessary.”


“The biggest challenge has been ascertaining what was possible and securing Matt’s time to build the work, when the three artist were on a relatively steep learning curve and Matt was juggling the interpretation of each of our ideas and learning the code and other technical details necessary to achieve the anticipated result, as well as re-building the artworks when aspects of these pieces did not work as hoped.”

Until next post in this Read:Code:Make series, when we’ll tell you all about Helen’s Frankenstein-inspired dioramas, Russell’s ‘Writers block’ and Louise’s Maelstrom and Cabinet of curiosities.