Parallel practices is a project that has been running art residencies since its initiation in 2014 and aims to demonstrate the mutual benefits and value of collaboration between medical and scientific academics and makers. The project forms one part of the Crafts Council's Innovation strand and is supported by the university's Culture team.
The 2014 pilot programme consisted of four collaborations, with each lasting four months and involving a team of at least one maker and one medical and scientific academic. These pairings stimulated learning and innovation through a focus on the body, materials and processes.
During its second phase earlier in 2016, a longer six-month Parallel practices programme titled Learning through making was set up and allowed maker-academic collaborations more time to explore the benefits of their partnership. The programme give careful consideration to the pastoral and educational outcomes that were touched upon in the pilot project. One of these collaborations was between automata maker John Grayson and Dr Matthew Howard, Lecturer in Informatics, in which the project, titled Hacking the Enlightenment, explored the shared history of 18th century automata between science and craft.
A film about Parallel practices and its 2016 residencies is available below:
Hacking the enlightenment
For his residency, John was based in the Maker Space or, as it is better known in the Faculty of Natural & Mathematical Sciences, the Wheatstone Innovation Lab, named after Charles Wheatstone, a 19th century scientist, industrialist and general innovator in electronics and telecommunications. This new space, developed for students to synthesise technological thought with making, was set up by Dr Riccardo Sapienza and Dr Matthew Howard as a way to enable students to engage in messy making, risk taking and inventiveness, outside of their taught curriculum.
John shared the space with glass-maker Shelley James and both artists supported the culture of making by providing workshops in their respective disciplines. In parallel they used the residency to engage in a period of research and development in order to progress their own creative practice; John's practice specifically focuses on appropriating processes derived from the defunct tin toy and vitreous enamel industries of the Midlands, creating metal automata and narrative objects that satirise and critique contemporary society. His project Hacking the enlightenment explored synergies and movement between synthesising analogue and digital technologies within the realm of robotics and automata, and, by colliding analogue and digital worlds with the process of enamel making, brought innovation to the use and creation of enamel automata.
The first part of the residency focused on the development and delivery of two workshops in low-tech automata making. Students from undergraduate to doctoral level took time away from the academic challenges of their studies to engage in a very different kind of experience. By experimenting with cutting and sticking, exploring converting horizontal motion into vertical using kebab skewers as axels combined with cardboard cams and followers, the students made 12 simple automatons, and not being able to fully extricate themselves from the scientific field, set about making sense of it all by articulating the mechanical process at work using scientific terminology.
During the project John and the Informatics students were invited to join The robot atelier project by King’s Robotic Society. The society, run by students and for students, ran a project where members make a robot that is able follow a lines on the floor using a light sensor. This is a machine that uses infrared sensors connected to a miniature microprocessor, motor and wheels, which recognises and follows a black line painted on the floor. The atelier provided John and the students' illumination into the potential for this combination of sensors, code-able microprocessor and motors to be used as a means for audiences to interact with an automaton without physical interaction through a handle.
Inspired by this prospect, during his residency John explored the potential synergies between motion sensors and touch sensitive enamel. He worked with the students collaboratively to make an automaton that combined analogue and digital technologies. The concept was to make an object that is placed in a very public and prominent place in the university and can be switched on by passers-by. The Maker Space was transformed into an automata manufactory where students learnt micro engineering skills, mastering the use of piercing saws, files, taps and dies to cut threads, resulting in each student making an individual modularised brass automaton mechanism measuring some 50mm cubed. These mechanisms were then connected onto a single drive shaft thereby creating a complex mechanism. In subsequent weeks students worked together to bring their scientific knowledge to bear and devised ways that the movement can be set in motion using digital technology. With John's help and experitise in enamelling, students then experienced working in vitreous enamel in order to decorative and embellish the automaton.
As part of King's partnership with Somerset House and The Courtauld Institute in Utopia 2016: a year of imagination and possibility as well as UK Robotics Week at the end of June 2016, John participated in one of the Utopia 2016 lunchtime talks based in the Utopia Treasury in Somerset House. His talk, titled Hacking The enlightenment – knowledge exchange through collaborative automata making, discussed the relationships between analogue and digital automata, specifcially focussing on the themes and objectives of his residency at King's.
John Grayson is a designer, maker and academic. His practice focuses on appropriating lost or dying industrial metal manufacturing processes and bringing them into a contemporary craft context.
As an academic he has taught widely on Applied Art and Craft degree courses in the UK. His research interests focus on responding to historic industrial metal working processes as a means to bring new knowledge to contemporary practice. In 2005 he received an AHRC award to fund Making connections as part of Bilston Gallery’s Craftsense project. The project focused on creating a range of contemporary enamel objects in response to the gallery's important collection of Georgian enamels, as a means to engage new audiences by linking historic objects to contemporary practice. This lead to a subsequent commission for Craftbox and inclusion in Playing With Fire, a touring exhibition of contemporary enamel organised by the British Society of Enamellers and the Devon Guild of Craftsmen.
John’s dual role as a craft practitioner and academic has led to him playing an active role in supporting Professional Development within the craft sector. In 2007 he organised the Pushing boundaries symposium in collaboration with Craftspace. In 2006–8 he collaborated with Staffordshire Arts and Museum Service on Making Moves, a project to support early and mid career makers.