Not waving but globally drowning

When did Stevie Smith’s drowning man realise he had been much too far out all his life? Just as the waves lapped over his head the final time, as his final breath bubbled up through the chill water?

We are a drowning world. Arctic ice is diminishing year by year. If it all undergoes a phase transition, London would be entirely submerged, and all the levees in Holland wouldn’t save the Netherlands. It’s D-x, but we don’t know xxactly which breath we are on – not quite our last, not yet.

We chatter about it.

Arctic Ice Chatter on Twitter
Arctic Ice Chatter on Twitter

We run campaigns for action about it, increasingly galvanised by activity online – think The Future, Occupy, 350.

But despite all this chatter, we do little to ameliorate climate change. While some flat out deny climate change, they are just a vocal minority. Most of us know that our actions – burning fossil fuels, deforestation, consumption of resources, global trade, flying – all add together to a future global catastrophe. Yet we fail to act – both in global policy decisions, and in our daily lives. Life now is too good to want to change it for the sake of tomorrow.

There is an unseen consequence to our online activity. Computers use power. Making them requires mining, fabrication, shipping. Communications cost carbon. According to the comically named Tweetfarts: “The energy it takes to send a tweet generates .02 grams of CO2.1 With 500 million tweets sent daily2, a total of 10 metric tons of CO2 are emitted per day.”

It can’t be denied that the online chatter raises awareness. The next step is action, for if we fail to act, isn’t all this activism actually adding to the problem rather than helping fix it?

Water is key. Not only is it an impending threat, it is also ironically also a diminishing resource. Alongside the threat of submersion, London faces a drinking water crisis of gargantuan proportions: by 2050 the city will be 350 million litres of drinking water in deficit – if it’s not already an urban sea bed. And water itself – or at leas our use of it – adds to the problem. In 2009, five percent of US carbon emissions were down to treatment, transport and use of water by humans. That’s the equivalent of 62 coal-fired power stations.

Tiny icebergs float in a bath. Tiny people huddle together as the ice retreats under their feet. Some will certainly drown. Those unfortunate enough to be on the smallest iceberg are the first to go.

The melting is now inevitable, but there may be a chance to slow it down, buy a few more precious minutes. Their fate scrolls above them. Like Tinkerbell, if only enough people make enough noise their existence might be saved – for just a little while. Maybe long enough. Show you care.

Floating. Floating. The sky was blue, the waves lapped around his toes. Life was good, no need for change. The current carried him further, the tide rose. Perhaps if he’d realised sooner he might have swum ashore.

Frontend webdesign for New Atlantis sculpture

I’m making an interactive sculpture for the Enlightenment Café’s New Atlantis immersive theatre show, running at The Crystal in London on the 19th-25th January. The sculpture explores how our awareness of ecological problems might impact on our survival as a species.

In previous posts you’ll be able to see how the electronics and mould-making for the sculpture have progressed. I’m now seeing in the New Year by doing some frontend design for the screen that will show data from Twitter and a countdown to the next deluge of water, which will happen after a set amount of time, if a Twitter target is not met for a number of tweets with a certain hashtag. To delay the deluge, and the consequent faster melting of the icebergs underneath the tap, the audience can tweet at the sculpture so that the discussion hashtag reaches its target before the deadline.

My paper designs gave rise to the following:

I settled on the design in the bottom left hand corner
I settled on the design in the bottom left hand corner

And now I’m half way through making it digital. I’m using as the bootstrap template, the Bootbundle “Counter” Template from Blacktie. This is just the static page with the counter. Now I need to add in the dynamic stuff from Node Red and to play about with transparency for the Twitter feed at the bottom.

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 19.42.58
And here it is in digital form half way through the creation process

I still need to name this sculpture..! Answers on postcards please…

How I learned to stop hating and love old electronics – or, making a servo work with a Raspberry Pi by cannibalising ancient motherboards and creative use of the CRT monitors that have been cluttering up the studio

I’m going all guns preparing my sculpture for the New Atlantis theatre show by The Enlightenment Cafe. It’s opening on 19th January at The Crystal in London, UK. Having made iceberg moulds and delivered them to the UCL ice physics laboratory, the next step is to create a hot water boiler that responds to water-related activity on Twitter.

This involves some playing with electronics…

I unwrapped my “christmas presents” from myself gleefully yesterday morning. Electronics to play with! A Raspberry Pi! Cables! A servo!!

Except not everything was there… In fact, there were no jumper cables, and there was no Raspberry Pi B+. And to make matters worse, the 7 inch screen I ordered arrived broken – crucial wires having been sliced through before it was bunged in a package and sent over to me.

cable cutter... not impressed with the ebay service
This is not a serviceable screen.


Woe. Woe is me.

Having fortified myself with tea, I decided to see how far we could get with an old RPi (Model A, rev 2) and the cables we already had.

Thus, I made command central. All systems go.


Using one age old CRT monitor as a workbench, I used the other – normally used for video editing – as a makeshift screen. I literally lost track of how long we spent looking for cables to hook up these bad boys. Finally, hanging onto these hulking brutes of useless electronics through international relocations has paid off. Jun (my incredibly helpful other half without whom I’d not have got so far yesterday) – and his vast stores of seemingly irrelevant and outdated gear – has been vindicated.

But it’s not just Jun who hangs onto old electronics – I have been lugging old bits of redundant crap around the globe too. Including this old motherboard.

HOW OLD? I got this baby from a skip outside my department at the University of Cambridge in 2006.

This old motherboard which was the source of the final component we needed – female adapters for my cables so we could link them up to the RPi.

Ancient tech on a shiny new RPi
Ancient tech on a shiny new RPi

Et voila!

All that remained was for me to hook everything up


Rigging up the servo
Rigging up the servo

Do a bit of programming – you can find some details of how Jun and I got it working on my New Atlantis hackpad – and suddenly you have a servo getting its groove on to the tune of Twitter.

New Atlantis Sculpture – Servo dances to Twitter beats from Kat Austen on Vimeo.

“This video shows two steps in getting a servo to respond to Twitter. First, we’re rigging it up and testing its response by varying the PWM-MS values. Then we hook it up to a Node Red script that scrapes Twitter for #water and #fail at the limits of the PWM-MS values – and it’s grooving to Twitter’s beats.”

The Node Red json files for this can be found on my github repository for New Atlantis.

Finally, I’m struggling with a name for the sculpture. In a wanton fit of sentimentality and punnage I went for Melting Hearts – but I hate it. Suggestions gratefully appreciated.

Icebergs hit London

After a fantastic 2 weeks working with prop maker and mould guru Ben Palmer at his Berlin workshop, I took the three iceberg moulds via plane and train to London, to UCL’s Ice Physics lab. Here they’re growing and freezing under the stewardship of the un-frosty Ben Lishman.

Ben is researching friction in ice, which should help engineers and climate modellers work out where ice will flow and how it will behave. It’s a tricky topic, he tells me, because the properties vary depending no only on the temperature of the ice but also on what’s in the water. I’m hoping the next month of iceberg production will help inform his research by providing new data on friction between ice and silicone in strange shapes!

You’ll also notice that there’s a water boiler lurking in these photos. A vital part of the forthcoming sculpture for New Atlantis, I had a delightful hour in Nisbett’s catering supplies in Shoreditch working out flow rate from the water boiler, and its tap stability, with a very amused, helpful staff member (who asked not to be named).

Making icebergs is the tip of the iceberg

I’m thrilled to be the artist for The Enlightenment Cafe’s New Atlantis show. It’s set in the near future, with humanity on the verge of a water crisis – just my cup of tea!

“The year is 2050, Miami has been abandoned due to rising sea levels, water austerity is hitting a drought-ridden London hard and the CEOs of two major energy companies have been imprisoned for historic climate crimes. Presiding over these developments is New Atlantis, an organisation set up to guide Humanity through the most pressing issues of the 21st century, from Climate Change to protection of water resources.

But there are those that would stand in the way.”

I’m making a multimedia artwork for New Atlantis’s HQ at The Crystal in London. It involves icebergs – well, miniature icebergs – and the internet…

NA Sculpture_bath_2

Ultimately, the icebergs will be made in silicone moulds that I’m going to supply to the ice-wizard Ben Lishman at the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, who will be making a stock of frozen bergs – 3 icebergs per show – in the UCL Ice Rooms. I’ll be delivering the moulds next week, so I’ve been making them over the last week and a half.

First, I made the iceberg from clay:


Then I made a mould out of silicone. I did this with the invaluable help of Ben Palmer, a prop-maker and animatronics engineer for films like Inglorious Bastards and Alien versus Predator. He has been incredibly helpful and ever so kind in sharing his wealth of expertise with me around mould-making and fabrication.

Once the mould was made, I took it home and added crushed ice and water.


photo 1-2

Made an iceberg

photo 2-2

Populated it with a little person and a car

photo 1-1  photo 2-1

And watched it melt

Iceberg melting #2 from Kat Austen on Vimeo.


Now I’m onto the next 2 iceberg moulds

photo 1-3

Although I left them overnight and they cracked in the cold, so I’m patching them up before taking them to Ben Palmer’s workshop to make the moulds.

photo 2-3 photo 3-1

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed in the small 3D illustration above that there are lots of people on the floating icebergs. Making those is the next step, along with simultaneously continuing to program the modules that will scrape the internet looking for activity relating to water. Then I’ll be programming an arduino to operate a tap, and then it’ll all come together. Watch this space…

There’s one issue though – the ice is melting rather quickly. I’ve spoken to the marvellous and knowledgeable Alan at Ice Creations and he suggests supercooling the bathwater, possibly using dry ice (ooh chemistry!). So I’ll be doing some tests with that asap.