Leeds Creative Labs

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Half Way Hajj

Last week all the groups involved with Leeds Creative Labs, together with the organisers and a few other creatives met to recap and share their experiences. I’m working on British Experiences of the Hajj pilgrimage and have introduced the project on this blog earlier. The informal presentations and discussions were really useful, and helped as a form of reflection.


Overall it’s the processes, how people collaborate, what roles do people take, what are the types of ideas, and how do people get there which are more interesting than the concrete results.


Randomness & Play for Creativity

As Imran records,  we noticed that change and randomness was being used in the creative process. I think this is twofold – firstly it’s used as a type of “oblique strategy” – a way to get out of any boxes and encourages creation, and secondly it’s a reflection of free form play, like the form of play children take.  For our project I used chance and randomness in the form of Markov Chains to create new phrases which I’ll outline now.

Markov Chains

With 17 transcripts of British pilgrims interviews, I parsed the text to extract just the voice of the interviewee. I think put this through a markov chain generator and created entirely new, but human sounding sentences.

The way this works is like the following. Take two sentences:

1. “I hope this makes lot of money”

2. “Always hope this makes sense”

Then using groups of 3 words together, it looks at what other words are there and comes up with a new sentence.

{[“I”, “hope”, “this”]  [“makes”], [“hope”, “this”, “makes”]  [“sense”]

3. “I hope this makes sense”

Example generated sentences:

“Mecca from this particular angle you could see that he had a doctors kit with him and did a lot of luggage, and we were just glad that  I have to say, when you just say, you know for me, thats the first one, you should go because youve been on Hajj, its almost like the severing of the apron strings”


“Are you asking for the Umrah there were people in my group didn’t want one each and I said. financial reasons, the level of excitement for all of us to go together but because of sheer numbers and volume of people coming through and having to cope with all these new experiences.”


“Hajj one time, being Hajj in one time is one of the big globalisation taking over and… as in, he is religious, you know, in this country. nothing, no tents and it’s open field.”


The transcripts come from audio files. I looked at a couple of audio / oral history sites, and liked two in particular:

Sounding the Underground

Here the audio is linked by category and place, and allows comparisons between places.  Of particular note is the ability for users to add their own notes, and the curators generate a new interface for these

Sonic Memorial

This has a number of wiggly lines which when clicked on you can hear the audio, and it shows the themes of the clip. Clicking on the themes allows the user to hear other clips around that theme.

For our project I think both could be looked at – they encouraged contribution from users and linked together the material, encouraging users to create their own narratives.

What I’d love to do is to timestamp the transciptions with the audio to create works which  are “supercuts” – so you could have all the audio of just people saying “Hajj”, or even forms of sentences:“[gerund] [determiner] [adjective] [noun]”  “unlocking the human story”


A number of mapping websites were looked at including ESRI Story Maps.

The take home point from here was that a site could be geographical in focus – and have embedded video and audio. Maps could be shown on each section, or be the focus, an aid for navigation etc.

Reflection Apps –  Mappiness

We discussed using mobile apps when on the Hajj. Something like the Mappiness project could easily be done – to encourage people when they are on the pilgrimage to share how they are feeling, where they are, what they are doing etc.   Foursquare also allows people to check into places.

The take home point here is that new technologies could be used to interact with users both on the Hajj and interested in it, with a locational component.

Conclusion & Processes


This was a bit of a reflection upon the discussions and a small set of ideas presented.

In the future we looked at and will look at the following:

1) Augmenting existing digital exhibition on the Hajj for British Museum – with the constraints of working with WordPress within the University.

2) Design process – identification of actors and users.

3) Design mockups of future interfaces and projects

4) Look at feedback  / encouraging interaction of material with users.

Project proposal: Digital Archive/Research Platform

Project proposal: Digital Archive/Research Platform

Venezuelan State TV, 31 January 2014. President Nicolás Maduro presents an image photographed by workers in a tunnel in Caracas' underground where they claimed to have seen the face of late president Hugo Chávez.

Venezuelan State TV, 31 January 2014. President Nicolás Maduro presents an image photographed by workers in a tunnel in Caracas’ underground where they claimed to have seen the face of late president Hugo Chávez.

Original ideas (skip to “Meeting 1” if you want to fastforward to the conversations with Ian…)

While exploring the visual culture of the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela, I have amassed an archive that traces the visual saturation and ubiquity of Hugo Chávez’s political career and the commemorative strategies that have been created since his death last year. I’d like to find a way to work with this material in a more collaborative and experimental way.

At the same time, I’m interested in web interfaces that respond to the general status of contemporary visual culture. It’s a platitude to say that today we produce more images than ever before, that digital image production no longer requires professional technical skills. Traditional media is reproduced and embedded across digital channels and social media ad infinitum, producing memes, repurposed content and new interpretations along the way, like http://chavezhugs.tumblr.comIt’s this context that I’m interested in.

The surge in visual material has led to a vast, global(ised) image world where traditional archival technologies are experiencing a complex transition from material to virtual storage. So this project aims to transform a personal archive into a interactive website

This web-based interface that would function as:

  • Interactive and collaborative digital archive of visual material of the Chávez era
  • Space for realizing curatorial/investigative projects: public-facing, e.g. temporary, archivable digital exhibitions and annotated encyclopedias of curated images.
  • Platform for disseminating research


The site would approach the image in broad terms, understanding the visual as a multi-modal experience where text, image, and sound are interconnected.

  • Visual (jpg images taken from the web, generally low-res)
  • Audio-visual (clips downloaded from YouTube)
  • Textual (pdfs or text)
  • Digital (e.g. gifs)


  • Online image archive: search and browse facilities
  • Research publication hub: Site to publish journal articles with additional visual material included in research but not in the journal article
  • Visual-encyclopedia: Analytical commentary on key images
  • Virtual exhibition: interface for viewing for curated material by guest editors
  • Sign-up sheet: to create database of subscribers (to be used later for call for proposals for virtual exhibits)


  • Networked-international team: the website will need different user profiles to provide access and editing permissions to members


Meeting 1: Devonshire House

“I’m feeling lucky… coeherences, faultlines, rules of engagement”

Our first meeting, like others on the CCI program, was a way to get to know each others’ interests.

Screen capture of part of the image archive.

Screen capture of part of the image archive.


Ian and I had a really fascinating conversation about the productive possibilities of entropy: the idea that considering my archive of images of Chávez or related to chavismo is already unorganised, then how could this internal (controlled) chaos be manifested in some way in the way the website would operate and of users’ experience of it?


We talked about various options: using collaborative, emergent metadata that users could add to images in order to create a collective taxonomy of the images that would base search criteria on personal (subjective) perception, yet would add to the images by making them more available to multiple search criteria. We also discussed, in this context, the possibility that the images could exist in many places simultaneously: that is to say, rather than the physical storage that is associated with tangible archival spaces, these images –as a series of binary codes that have no physical original- could float interstitially as multiple presences that emerged when called upon (by search criteria).

Slot machine?

However, during the conversation the chaos/entropy/randomization of the images was also something that we considered as an overriding format for the website; i.e. that the user would enter the site and have a function similar to Google’s “I’m feeling lucky”, which would produce –much like a slot machine at a fair- a set of images that the user would/could then associate in some way to create a reading of those images that would then be filed in a separate category.

This option would certainly work for an informal and fast-moving guest-curator experience, but it reduces agency on the part of the user.

The meeting certainly left me with things to think about…

Rules of engagement / assets

Ian’s terminology provided an interested (curious?) insight for me on how the language of combat and gaming is perhaps present in ways of looking at web-based architectures. I had confessed to him that this is what I find especially complex: how best to organise such a lot of information/what sort of structure or entropy to provide for it to be

Negotiation of chaos:

The notion of chaos is probably not as useful because there has already been a pre-selection of visual material that I have done over the time I’ve been accumulating this information, so that poses questions I need to answer:

  • What are the criteria I’ve used to select the images?
  • How has this impacted on how I’ve organised them?


Meeting 2: Leeds Art Gallery Café

“Semi-organised entropy… looking for emergent meaning in an unstructured but curated superset”



work in progress…

This meeting was really key to finding a way to give shape to the ideas and basically establishing the rules of engagement so that the user experience with the prototype interface would be:

– unpredictable but not entirely random


– controlled without being dogmatic.


Users would be invited to take part by “admin”; i.e. participation, like the images, would be curated.

“Admin” (me) would select a group of initial images (“assets”) from the archive and upload them onto the system with initial metadata.


We came up with a structure that would elicit certain responses to the three images that would be produced randomly once the user had registered:

— tagging images with metadata and thus building a collective archive

— being able to reject images, but having to explain why

— exploring the sub-set that emerged randomly from the superset by offering a more articulated response to it in approx. 150 words

Promoting entropy

Against the positive feedback that characterises starring, retweeting or “liking” content, we decided to give positive feedback (Ian would build this into the randomising algorithm that would make images appear in the “fruit machine”) to the images that users rejected. By weighting those images, the questions or problems and “dislikes” they elicited in users would make those faultlines more visible. Basically: more rejection = more visibility.


In the interim

After the meeting at Leeds Art Gallery, we went about our own tasks, Ian designing and programming the prototrype and me selecting the first batch of images.

This interval coincided with Venezuela’s Independence Day military parades on the 5th of July. These events were a firm fixture in the national calendar under Chávez: in fact, military parades, that also incorporated historical figures represented by people in period dress, would take place on several dates throughout the year. The state television coverage this year featured an image that really speaks to what interests me about the way Chávez’s image continues to be evoked and made present in public life.

The image (see below) also triggered different hyperlinkages in my imaginary that are never controllable but are just set off. It is this volatile effect that is so interesting, how our senses link up in our memory in unpredictable ways. The experience was a nudge I needed to reactivating a website that I had left inactive for over a year:

lb_1lb_1 copy

lb_2 copy

Follow Up (Pinter)

After the initial meeting, we had some time apart to work on our tasks that we had agreed. Some of the things that happened since the meeting was that Mark had set up an Evernote notebook for us to share the information / resources that we had been putting together / working on. This was a new way for me to share information. I had once set up a list and that was a collaborative thing, but to use a notebook and share images and text was a different way to do things, and evernote had a lot of great features, like being able to save the images from the posts directly.


Using Evernote as a collaborative tool.

We could use the images and text information to create the iPhone mock ups to try to envision the ideas we had discussed. We then planned our next meeting so that we could share the resources we had started to build and how we can put together the iPhone app and work though how we could use this as a starting point.

Collaborative Conversation

Today Mark and I had our first meeting, we decided to meet at the museum which was a really nice setting, especially for creative collaboration! I came to the meeting with an iPhone sketchbook, because we had initial conversations at the first meet up about what he was hoping to have for this collaboration, which was essentially a way to present the work of Harold Pinter – website, etc, app… to a varied audience (we talked about this too later) and so with that in mind I thought the app sketchbook would be a nice way to help us both to visualize what this could potentially be about.

Mark had prepared for me some initial information, videos, links, images about the work of Pinter so that I could come to the conversation with an understanding of the importance, varied and wide body of work he had done. This was very useful also because it put into scope for me exactly how much information there is – and how would this be possible to represent in an app.


One of the draft drawings of a potential screen for an iPhone app. This represents a screen where the user can use their camera to photograph a text from Pinter, and it would then search based on that photo (the text) and return search results of actors who had played in that production, wardrobe information, etc…

Mark had a great way to present some of that information in a timeline which was something I knew we had to include – we spent time discussion essential things that would be important for people using the app, mapping out and drawing possible ways to present it. This was a useful exercise for me to be able to see how a subject with this much background would be best represented. We also looked at it’s wider scope and application as an actual framework potentially for universities etc to be able to bring other subjects to be presented in a similar way.

It was interesting for me to meet up and discuss things that Mark had been visualising for a very long time, a project that he has passion for and to come into it and challenge him on seeing perhaps a different angle or alternative vision. I enjoyed asking him about who the audience would be, and how we could best address these different groups, what features would each group find most useful, and how would someone who potentially was coming to the app (maybe through taking a course?) who has no knowledge of Pinter’s work, be able to even use an app… things like this was addressed through a timeline of works, where you could scroll through and be able to see things right away without using any search terms.

We left this initial discussion with both having some tasks to get on with before our next meeting, screens to mockup based on discussions, information to present and some work to research for the next meeting where we would discuss and look at data visualisation in a more general way.

Partners in production

Arts Professional profiled the Leeds Creative Labs yesterday in a piece titled Partners in production, written by the labs’ very own Sue Hayton.

Sue discusses the 2012 edition’s wider impact on innovation within the University of Leeds, noting how the Pararchive project evolved into a much larger AHRC-backed initiative to research archives, collections and storytelling, that’s also commissioning work from local suppliers.

You can find the full article over at… artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/273/article/partners-production

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