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 project consisted of four collaborations, with each lasting four months and involving a team of at least one maker and one medical and/or scientific academic. These pairings stimulated learning and innovation through a focus on the body, materials and processes.
A video about the pilot project is available below:
One of these collaborations was between Dr Thrishantha Nanayakkara, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Informatics, PhD candidate at the Centre for Robotic Research Nantachai Sornkarn, artist Les Bicknell, and designer Naomi Mcintosh. The project was titled Squeeze fold bend and expand – structural memory in deformable objects where the academics and artists developed new approaches to understand how physically hard structures can sometimes exhibit soft or fluidic behaviours. The team believes that the secrets lie in the way deformation and formation have been interpretted, both academically and artistically.
On the Centre for Robotics Research's website, Thrishantha gives the examples of rat skeletons as exhibiting structural memory. He explains: 'rats are rodents with a rigid skeleton. This helps them to keep some identity to the rat shape of the body and to keep the internal organs safely placed. When they squeeze through a narrow gap, parts of this rigid skeleton passively deform and push internal organs to re-pack without damaging each other. Maybe the rat actively regulates the antagonistic muscles to allow deformation. However, once the gap is negotiated, the skeleton reforms its original shape without the rat having to consciously place each piece of bone in its original shape. This structural memory of such complex structures with so many degrees of freedom is a great biological inspiration to design future soft robots.'
The collaborative project examined soft robotics using visual thinking as a way to solve problems. The team specifically developed the idea of change and adaption without compromising functionality, exploring the idea that a form takes the shape A, then when it becomes B it has the ability to return to A. Les and Naomi applied these structural ideas to their own creative practices.
The conceptual thinking behind Les' work is the idea of 'bookness'. He sees the book as a form and symbol of power and knowledge, a tool which communicates directly and is understood in these terms. In this project, Les sought to reposition the book's context and redirected its purpose to challenge the notions of its form and content. The book, for Les, then becomes a question rather than an answer, a collaboration in the mind and hand between maker and reader/viewer asking 'where does a book begin and end?'
Naomi creates body-related jewellery by combining digital making processes with handmade techniques. Surfaces are manipulated to create sculptural objects. The works become ‘wearable drawings’, capturing volumes and transforming 2D surfaces into 3D objects. With precise geometry the pieces investigate how volumes, patterns, planes and forms are seen. Movement is crucial for Naomi's practice as the relationship between the body and objects is explored. During the residency, she produced a series of folded and layered wearable paper structures using natural dyed laser cut paper and wood.
Through lateral thinking and interdisciplinary collaboration, the team developed a unique way of exploring, extending knowledge around current soft robotics through model making. Les and Naomi set out to challenge and expand their practices by exploring ways of controlling movement and articulation of objects in order to build new structures. The functionality and manipulation of these structures will be framed and enriched by knowledge of soft robotics.
Throughout the residency, the two artists focused their energies on developing a number of specific forms that explore particular ideas such as translation and rotation, variable stiffness and multiple forces. Alongside the supervison of Thrishantha and Nantachai, Les and Naomi participated in a workshops with PhD students in the Centre of Robotics Research, making sctructural models from paper and card. The artists introduced their practices and, by doing so, began to understand the students' projects as well.
The workshops explored questions such as 'why making would and could contribute to the way that those in Informatics work?' and the question, ‘why are you here?’ Answers included an interest in psychology and a curiosity in how designers think and create their work. The students tested how the structures Les and Naomi built can affect environments, for instance by moving them in a tank of floating particles and observing how the particles move, leading to ideas about working in negative space and the idea of searching for a place of not knowing.
Les Bicknell works with paper, wood, metal, stone and cloth. He also prints, stitches, folds and designs.
He researches, enjoys archives, connects with people, communities and place and believes in change. His work can be found in collections at the Bodelian Library, Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, MOMA, New York Public Library, Yale Centre for British Art, the Bibliotheque in Paris, the Rijksmuseum, and the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence.
He teaches at Camberwell College of Arts, Norwich University of the Arts and online at the Open College of the Arts.
Following a BSc at The Barlett School of Architecture, Naomi Mcintosh went on to do an MA in Design at Central Saint Martins. Utilising architectural processes and methodologies she has developed a 'wearable architecture' exploring the potential of CAD/CAM technologies and materials such as wood and acrylic.
She explores her interest in the perception of space around the body by creating wearable objects with sculptural qualities. Her jewellery has been shown internationally, recent exhibitions include Collect at the Saatchi Gallery and Made at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.