Archive for the Shift Time Festival Category

Coming Off Shift

Posted in review, Shift Time Festival with tags , , on August 5, 2009 by suetortoise

Last night I went to the final debriefing session for the Shift-Time Blogging Project. Time for a final look back at the festival, and a look forward to where the project might take us next. (I am not going to talk about the problems with the Project during the festival, as they’ve already been addressed in depth in Is Shrewsbury Talking.) This piece is aimed mainly at the Festival and Project organisers, so feel free to skip what’s below the cut  if you’re not interested. Continue reading



Posted in review, Shift Time Festival, Uncategorized with tags , , on July 14, 2009 by suetortoise

I was so much looking forward to The Weather Man triple bill at Theatre Severn on the night of 11th July. Having already had a taste of the first item, Arjen Mulder’s fine essay In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes read by Geoffery Streatfield, I knew I was in for a rare treat there. And so it proved. ‘My  soliloquy’, is how Arjen himself described it. A good word for what was more lyrical than a lecture: a lively, challenging thinking-piece delivered with the professional skill of a very good actor, without any of the ideas and resoning being drowned in stagecraft.

I am delighted to see that the full text of Arjen Mulder’s essay is now on the Shift-Time website. It’s worth downloading and reading. Not just reading through once: there are so many thoughts, ideas and challenges packed into the words that it takes more than one or two readings for them to unfold fully in your mind. Try reading it out loud, as we heard it read so effectively on Saturday night – read it to your partner, to the cat, to the bathroom mirror. Savour it slowly and carefully, at a walking pace. And then take time to think.

Follow the Voice, a short film by Marcus Coates is funny, fascinating and very noisy. Everyday noises: human and mechanical, speed up, slow down and evolve into the natural sounds of beasts, birds and other creatures, which themselves speed or slow. To compliment the soundtrack, everyday things and people in the everyday world. Recognisably the world of Shrewsbury, for those of us who live here, but not a tourist view of the town. It could be any town, anywhere in Britain. Kids in the playground, a supermarket checkout, an office printer, a pedestrian crossing…. The visuals too are speeded or slowed. The effect of the bizzare sounds and the temporal distortion is to make familiar sights very strange, to bring out the details we take for granted – and above all to make them funny. (I loved the way the food shifted and jiggled about as went along the conveyor to the checkout.) Some food for thought and a fresh viewpoint, but this is not a difficult, deadly serious piece of work: it’s warm and human and full of broad humour. Light, loud, crazy and terrific fun. (Read more about it here.)

I wish that the film had been shown at the beginning of the evening. It would have been a perfect starter, light and amusing, leaving the audience ready for the rich meat of Arjen Mulder’s essay. As it was, the noise and humour of the film washed away the feast of ideas far too soon. We went out into the interval relaxed and laughing, but no longer thinking.

* * *

I deliberately did not want to find out anything about the Opera North production in advance. The Weather Man, by John Binias and Paul Clarke provided the second half of the evening. A chamber opera for spoken voice, baritone and string quartet. I wanted to come to it fresh, without any preconceptions. I know that I’ve never really managed to appreciate opera, particularly not modern opera, and I was hoping that this might be a first for me, one I could understand and enjoy. I did try, I really did. But I failed. To me it was mostly tiring noise. The string quartet (conducted by Dominic Wheeler) working hard, but producing a largely tuneless soundscape, the male voice singing (Robert Poulton) and the female voice narrating (Sarah Belcher) often drowning each other out or being drowned out by the strings. As a visual accompaniment, we had Robert Poulton moving some chairs around. Why? Everyone gave their best: singer, narrator, musicians, conductor all working tirelessly and professionally. But I was lost at sea. I’m sorry, Opera North, I’m obviously a Philistine. If this was great music, I can only apologise.

I have a huge respect for Adimaral FitzRoy, all too often still overshadowed by Charles Darwin, as he was in his own lifetime after the voyage, and yet who was the intelligent, responsible and innovative captain of the Beagle, who achieved the impossible, in a very small vessel in the most dangerous and inhospitable waters, battling deep depression, the elements and enemies in high places. A man who did so much more besides, and got so little thanks for it. A tragic genius and a great man. While the narration of The Weather Man provided the gist of his life, it was hard to hear and to understand, and there seemed to be a slightly mocking tone throughout. I came away as sadly disappointed by The Weather Man, both as music and as biography, as I was utterly delighted by the two pieces that preceeded it. I wonder what other people thought of this opera?


Posted in review, Shift Time Festival, Uncategorized on July 12, 2009 by suetortoise

Umerus in St Mary's
If you are a mechanical lifeform built of plastic electricity conduit, then God is a genial and ingenious Dutch gentleman named, most appropriately, Theo.

For nineteen years, artist-engineer Theo Jansen has been slowly evolving his walking Strandbeests made of piping. He brought Animalis Umerus to Shrewsbury for the Shift-Time Festival. Last weekend, he was demonstrating Umerus in the Quarry Park. Yesterday he gave us an illustrated talk in St Mary’s Church, where his beests have been on display for several days.

Theo explained how he started developing his series of creatures from a material that is cheap and easily available — Dutch children use offcuts of the sand-coloured plastic conduit for blowpipes. As Theo demonstrated, a twist of paper makes a good missile. Theo Jansen’s excellent and informative website,, is well worth visiting and has a lot of videos, photos and essays about his creatures and his other creative work. (The TED talk video in particular, covers a great deal of the same material that he presented in St Mary’s yesterday.) So I’ll leave you to visit those links for yourself if you haven’t yet encountered the Strandbeests.

The Small Beest One or two things were made clear that I had not grasped from what I’d heard and seen online, or even from watching carefully in the Quarry Park. The first was the basic action of his creatures’ legs. The structure is something along the lines of a pantograph: the circular motion of a crankshaft at the top of the leg, passing through a two dimensional arrangement of twelve linked tubes, moves the point at the bottom of the leg in a complex motion – when Theo places a pencil where the foot normally goes, the shape is a loop with a flattened base. The relative lengths of the tubes that deform the circular crankshaft motion into the up-down-along stepping motion of the Strandbeest are what Theo calls his “Twelve Holy Numbers”, derived after months of computer evolution: using a program to try random combinations  and make further combinations of the most satisfactory until the best possible stepping action was reached. I’d been puzzling over this locomotion since I first saw Umerus, and watching the demonstration yesterday I suddenly ‘got it’ at last — and of course, like so many good, clever ideas, it is simple once you’ve seen it.

 But what else is going on in besides the walking action? Piston ‘muscles’ (one tube inside another) are a fairly obvious next step. That introduces a need for compressed air into the design. Umerus sports a long row of plastic lemonade bottles and a maze of flexible tubing to store the air and take it around to where it is needed. How to trigger the muscles is the next puzzle, and here Theo’s solution is very ingenious indeed. He has designed a simple switch — still made of his ubiqutous plastic conduit and tie-wraps. A flow of air at the signal pipe blocks the flow from the output pipe. He calls these switches ‘Liars’ as they do the opposite of what they are told. When three are connected together, suddenly there is a small dynamic system chattering noisily to itself as it pumps air around. Strandbeest detail 32From simple switches he has moved to more complex systems where combinations of Liars can make the beests respond to an obstruction, raise a sail to catch wind, sense water, count steps to calculate their position. Suddenly there is a simple brain at work, as well as muscles and nerves. And the beests are still evolving.

Theo Jansen hasn’t only made Strandbeests. He showed us video footage of a light-operated painting machine, early, computer-dwelling lifeforms and a wonderfully funny film of a student prank involving the release of a large ‘UFO’ over Delft causing considerable consternation in the city. And after the talk, he was happy to answer questions about his work.

Umerus, impressive though it is, has some design faults that Theo wants to correct in the next Strandbeest. With its complex uppper-parts, Umerus is a bit top-heavy and inclined to topple over, but a creature with two linked bodies should give more stability and allow one half to look after the other. There’s a major weakness in the crankshaft – it broke a few times while in the Quarry Park – and that needs a re-think. No doubt some more innovations will be being tested on the broad, windy beaches near Delft over the next few months. The God of the conduit creatures shows no sign of running out of ideas or enthusiasm, and enjoys passing on his delight and his discoveries to the rest of us. Long may he, and they, thrive!

Is Shrewsbury Talking?

Posted in Shift Time Festival, Uncategorized on July 11, 2009 by suetortoise

As we get towards the very end of the Shift Time Festival, I am beginning to wonder what has happened to the Blogging Project. In particular, what has happened to its stated aim of ‘getting Shrewsbury talking to itself’?

Oh, I’ve already got a lot out of it personally. It’s provided a kick in the pants to get my own blog up and running , replacing my old Tortoise Loft website (I was planning to do this anyway, but the Project brought it forward by at least a month or two). I’ve been grateful for Pete Ashton’s practical help and advice and answers to my beginner’s questions. The Festival has provided something specific and time-critical to write about, photograph and get very much involved with. And it has been great fun doing the Festival photos and articles for the blog. The kind of brain-stretchy challenge that does me good. 

I would almost certainly have wound up involved in the festival in some way if the Blogging Project had not occurred (probably stewarding things), and would have been attending at least some of the same events, but it would have been a more passive involvement. I wouldn’t have pushed myself in the same way to communicate, rather than just take part. The organisers can show a pretty impressive body of work that has been created on the various blogs, and on Flickr, to justify their Arts Council grant.




The previous post was a part of the Project. A meeting time and place was arranged, the people involved gave up their time after a busy afternoon of rehearsal. I worked hard that evening to get it online as soon as I could, so it would be of some service to the Project and to the Festival. I transcribed, editied, wrote and re-wrote to make it as good as I could make it. When it was done, I immediately emailed the Project Manager, and a few other people for good measure. Not because I was trying to get publicity for myself (I’m not that fond of the sound of my own voice), but because the event was happening this evening, Saturday 11th, and I assumed it would be good if people could read my piece before the event, and then attend if they thought it might be an interesting evening. (I think it will be. I’m not just saying that — I want people to hear this performance at Theatre Severn because it’s going to be really worth hearing.)

The Blogging Project on the Shift-Time site has (as I write this) not been updated since last Sunday. (I’m not on Twitter, but I can see that even the most recent Twitter comment is from before I went to do the interview on Thursday afternoon!) In a few hours, the event I am talking about will be over. Where is everyone?

One could almost suspect that nobody from the Festival cares about the Project as long as they can justify the grant. I hope that’s not true.

I like living in Shrewsbury. I’m proud to be a citizen of this town, although I wasn’t born here and I don’t intend to die here. Part of the attraction is that interesting things happen in Shrewsbury: talks and lectures and exhibitions and music. We get free events in the park, in the museum or in the Square — lots of things throughout the year. I know most of these events have the aim of attracting people to Shrewsbury as a holiday or as a day-out destination. I am lucky — I get to see them too. Because of this, I believe in doing my bit in return, when I can. Whether it’s helping lost tourists find their way around the town, talking to people about things that are going to happen, places they can visit, volunteering for a bit of stewarding at a Darwin event or being more actively involved in something else that’s going on.

Writing the last blog post was a part of that repayment. And nobody knows it’s there (except the very few people involved in the Project who have bothered to look, and perhaps one or two of my own friends who read my blog, but who are not local and so wouldn’t be potential audience for this evening’s performance). I’m not the only person who has been doing a lot of work for this Project. other’s have done even more — Martin Smith, in particular, has been giving us terrific coverage of the events. But who is coming in? Who is being brought into this from outside?

Did the organisers of the Project really think that you could get a bunch of people to start blogging about the Festival, most of them starting from scratch, and that they would automatically link into a new, vibrant social-network hub for Shrewsbury? Er, isn’t that expecting a lot? However good the writing and photos and videos are, however hard these people have worked to create interesting material. These things take a lot of time, input, hard work, organisation (and possibly money if you want someone to co-ordinate things in Shrewsbury properly on a regular and frequent basis).

While I am happy to do my own thing on my own blog, and will still be writing the remaining two (or maybe three) articles about Shift-Time that I have already said I would write, and definitely still want to write, it does feel like I’m talking only to myself on these pages. By the time my blog has established its natural readership, the Shift-Time Festival articles will be lost way back in the blog archives, as will this rant about my frustration.

You are welcome to prove me wrong. The Comment link is at the foot of this article.

Evolving a Scientific Performance

Posted in Interview, review, Shift Time Festival on July 9, 2009 by suetortoise

Geoffrey Streatfield and Arjen Mulder

In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes is the first part of The Weather Man triple bill, to be premiered at Theatre Severn on the 11th of July, as part of the Shift-Time Festival.

Written by Arjen Mulder (on the right in the photo), an Amsterdam-based essayist, lecturer and media theorist with a background in biology, it will be performed by Geoffrey Streatfield (left), who is an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The piece is directed by Maggie Love.

I met up with them in the Lion Room of the Lion Hotel, in Shrewsbury this afternoon. I had arrived in just time to hear the last few minutes of the rehearsal, and I was very impressed indeed. When I had been told that the lecture was to be read by an actor, I had been very doubtful – would this  be a way of dumbing-down the science, of adding ‘entertainment value’, making the audience ‘feel’ instead of making them think? When I was given an advance copy of Arjen Mulder’s script, I was more hopeful – there was plenty of thought-provoking material in it – and when I heard Geoffrey Streatfield reading the words, and saw him working with Maggie and Arjen on how to bring them to life, I realised that this was going to be something very good indeed.

I asked Arjen how he’d felt about having someone else reading his work?

“When Anna Douglas asked me ‘Can we use an actor?’ I had no idea what it would be like. And it has been very strange hearing it like this, for the first time, and thinking: Oh, that’s my piece. but it’s come to life in a different way.”

Had he adapted his writing style?

“Well, of course I would normally be writing in Dutch!” He laughed. “But if I was giving a lecture I would not write everything down exactly beforehand. I would make many notes and I would have my slides – the typical lecture style. But for this I had to write down every word, and that made me think more carefully about the words and how it would sound.”

I commented on how well-written the piece was, and asked Arjan if it was originally in Dutch?

“No, I wrote it in English. But all thanks to Laura Marsh who edited it. Not to change any of the concepts, or any of the arguments, but to make the language strong.” 

Geoffrey Streatfield added: “And because it is so well-written, it is actually quite dynamic as a performance piece. It is engaging. And it manages to open up the world of evolutionary theory. Most importantly, is is something that you can feel passionate about. I like that it’s more about the modern understanding of what Darwin’s work was, rather than something that just exists ‘in history’; that you have the history mirrored by what contemporary thinking on evolution is.”

Had Geoffrey learnt something about evolution from reading the script?

“Oh yes, I’ve learnt a lot. For instance, that the cells in a kidney have the same genes as all the rest of a body. It’s all in there. I didn’t know that.

“What I find too is that every time I’ve read it, something else has come out. Which is normally the test of something that’s interesting. That’s why it’s such fun doing Shakespeare, because you can do it every day for a thousand years and still engage your imagination. Every time I’ve gone through this piece today, different things have emerged. The significance of different discoveries. It starts meaning different things. And because it’s directly related to our own lives, to our own bodies, it’s not just an abstract. It’s about us.

Maggie Love, the director, is also the Darwin Community Arts Fund Co-ordinator. She mentioned that they had held a series of debates for schools before Christmas: on natural history, robotics and genetics. “And it was the genetics debates that raised the most questions from the students. That was the one that they got the most excited about.”

“Yes, biology is going very well at the moment, extremely well.” said Arjen. “Especially with genetics in the last twenty years. It’s getting more and more simple all the time — and far more complicated!

“Five hundred genes, that’s all you need, and four billion years. You can get evolution going. And then you can build all the rest.”

Geoffrey Streatfield laughed: “You just need some cells from a kidney, and anyone can get their hands on that!”

The triple bill: In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes along with Follow the Voice, a film by Marcus Coates, and the Opera North production The Weather Man, at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury. 7.30pm, Saturday 11th July. Tickets £15.00, concessions £12.00. Box office: 01743 281281,

I’m really looking forward to Saturday’s premiere performance, and will report on it in due course. After Shrewsbury, the triple bill will be at The Sage in Gateshead on 15th July and the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 17th and 18th.

Dance and Debate

Posted in Shift Time Festival with tags , , on July 6, 2009 by suetortoise

A short report on the rest of my weekend at Shift Time in the Quarry Park.

The Tortoise Project exhibition was a disappointment. There were seven or eight wickerwork tortoises, some undecorated, others decorated by young children with various bits of scrap. A couple had been decorated with some care, but overall it looked like a project that hadn’t quite got off the ground.

Dance 2

Over at the other side of the site, with a neat metal rig, three members of Blue Eyed Soul Dance Company were getting off the ground in fine style. Using ropes and flying harnesses, the dancers gave us a most engaging performance. Part dance, part rope-work, part mountaineering (they were climbing up onto the scaffolding in long Victorian costumes). They succeeded in integrating the aerial work into the dance with suprising grace and naturalness. Clearly a lot of hard work and experiment has gone into discovering the possibilities offered by the ropes and the rig. The natural result was achieved by careful planning, and the smooth grace we saw was the result of strenous effort and intense practice. All credit to them. The gentle, descriptive narrative that ran alongside the music and action added an extra dimension to the piece. It was a very fine performance, and fortunately the rain held off until it was over.

Repairs in the rain

In the rain, a few minutes later, Theo Jansen and his team were busy making running-repairs to a very dejected-looking Umerus, which was suffering from a broken crankshaft. Perhaps it knows that it is soon to be declared extinct and replaced by an improved machine with new capabilities?

Inside a very small, domed tent, the University of Wolverhampton’s Shift-Life team were demonstrating an interactive computer ecology, designed as a teaching tool for small children. The bright, colourful creatures and plants were projected down onto a cloth-covered ‘sandpit’ with watering cans to add water or acidity, a lamp to add extra light — and an ‘earthquake button’.Shift-Life The project is still in development and had a few teething troubles: by the time I saw it, visitors had overdone the watering, so the sensors were not responding, and the earthquake had worn out completely. But the display was vey engaging. The ‘liquorish allsorts with legs’ that were the system’s carnivores were a bit hit with the children.

Sunday’s main event was a three-hour-long series of presentations called Darwin Blast-Off. Five speakers given twenty minutes each to present an argument, with questions from the audience between. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, as I find there is often a distressing tendency to dumb-down and/or dress-up the scientific content of things when ‘Arts’ get involved in the proceedings. Forbit it that the audience should need to think rather than ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ — sorry, a rant coming on there. A subject I am sure to get back to again later.

Back to the actual event. What saved this one was the audience, which was not fooled by weak science and asked the deep and awkward questions the speakers were gliding over with their Powerpoint presentations. The three most obvious book-pushers got the shortest shrift, particularly James LeFanu. The final speaker, Sam Roberts, doing a research project into social networks and how they affect the number and depths of friendships, was the one who got the audience asking interested questions rather than awkward ones. A positive way to end an interesting afternoon. Rather a shame that the event didn’t provide the setting that a science fiction convention usually provides: audience and speakers meeting informally in the bar afterwards, to continue the discussion and spark further conversations. (Some loos nearer the venue than the far side of the park would have been welcome, too, Shropshire Council.)

All in all, a good weekend. More next Saturday — Theo Jansen’s talk in St Mary’s Church and then the performance of The Weather Man. More of that nearer the time. Meanwhile back to real life and all the other jobs I’ve put on hold for Shift Time.

Tiny Creatures

Posted in review, Shift Time Festival with tags , , , , , , on July 4, 2009 by suetortoise

Captured ELF

Into Rowley’s House this morning, where I encountered the tiny twittering and bleeping world of ELF: Electronic Life Forms, created by Pascal Glissmann and Martina Höfflin of  the Academy of Media Arts, Cologne. Their website is: 

The exhibition is spread around a room that is far too large for it, but the individual solar-powered creatures, the photos, and the short video (which shows them in their natural habitat and after their subsequent capture by researchers) are delightful and worth a close look. I was lucky enough to have time to sketch one of the captive creatures. The exhibition runs until Sunday 12th July. Details at:

Anticipating Umerus

Posted in Shift Time Festival with tags , , , , , on July 2, 2009 by suetortoise

Inspecting the surfaceEngineer/artist Theo Jansen arrived from Holland with two of his Strandbeests today. Here he is inspecting the surface being laid down for the walking sculptures.

Unlocking the container

Watched by a tense Jon King, Festival Manager, Theo unlocks the big orange container.

A first glimps of the tightly-packed Strandbeests.

The door opens



Relieved Theo





They’ve arrived safely!


The small Beest was first out of the container, and proved quite happy to walk on the grass of the Quarry Park

The Small Beest

Umerus travelled in several sections. Here Theo guides the second of them out into the sunshine.
Umerus emerges

Working on Umerus
When I left the park, Umerus was being carefully put together. I’m really looking forward to seeing it in action on Saturday 4th July, and to Theo’s talk in St Mary’s Church on the afternoon of 11th July.

Under the Influence

Posted in Digital Art and Fractals, Shift Time Festival on June 29, 2009 by suetortoise

Crawling to the edge

I got fascinated by the idea of making fractal-based artwork after the Shrewsbury Darwin Festival’s third Summer Symposium in 2007, Batteries Not Included (which was held in conjunction with the Computer Arts Society). A great weekend of inspiration and ideas, but I assumed that fractal art required too much science for me to ever manage it.

By that autumn, I’d joined Flickr and discovered helpful people who made fractal art themselves, introduced me to some of the many suprisingly simple programs available, and encouraged my early efforts. Several thousand pictures later, I’m still fascinated and still playing. Joining Flickr led to me getting involved firstly with the Shropshire Community Flickr Group and through that with the Shift Time blogging project. So now I am  taking more notice of the up-coming festival than I might otherwise have done.

And here’s my latest digital piece (not quite finished in this picture: the sea and shore are only sketched in), which seems to have more than a nod towards Theo Jansen’s amazing walking Strandbeests, which I’m eagerly awaiting as this year’s summer Darwin event approaches, and the strange forms of Clinton Chaloner’s Primordial Soup. One thing leads to another thing: interacting with what we already have in our heads: inspiring, blending, sparking fresh ideas and images which in turn inspire other ideas…. What will come out of  Shift Time over the course of the festival? And what will come out week, months, years later, as the ideas flow and meld and their descendants pass on from mind to mind and into words, pictures, sound, movements, textures, feelings, colours…? New thoughts and  fresh ways of looking at old ones? Big ideas, little dreams? Who knows? Let’s find out.

Leaping Upward, Quantum by Quantum

Posted in Shift Time Festival on June 19, 2009 by suetortoise

Work in progress
The little garden on the bank of the River Severn in Shrewsbury, opposite the new theatre by the Welsh Bridge, looks more like a shipyard than a garden at present: with a large gantry, a tall crane and the sort of plant you hire rather than stick in the ground! But on closer inspection, the trees in the garden have been carefully protected with barricades, and the new Darwin memorial sculpture, Quantum Leap, is slowly taking shape.

There’s some complex engineering going on: the central support of  the sculpture is being bolted together, piece by piece, and the stones lifted into place with removable lifting rings.


Anatomy of a leap

They are working from both sides towards the middle. The final shape of Quantum Leap will be an inverted U of massive stones, so it could get pretty exciting as they approach the final few sections up at the top.

Growing up