PhD thesis online

Well, it’s finally happened! Three and a bit years after submission, my PhD thesis is online. I’m very happy about this – I believe that publicly-funded research should be open access, and mine is now available for anyone to read.

Front cover of Ollie Palmer's thesis

The thesis introduces the idea of scripts in computation, psychology, and performances, along with the philosophical absurd, and describes seven projects that I made which each explore different ideas about script, performance, and computation. It’s designed to be printed at A3, but at some point I’m hoping to make a website that houses all the same information in a more mobile-friendly and searchable manner (but don’t hold your breath, this might just be a pipe dream).

It describes the process behind the creation of the Godot Machine, Ant Ballet, Nybble, Scriptych, 86400, 24fps Psycho, and Network/Intersect. There are videos to accompany the research here on this website.

Abstract

‘Scripting’ in architecture is usually associated with computer-based design programming. However, this narrow usage belies a rich vein of concepts intrinsic to architecture and authorship. This thesis frames scripting as a critical mode of computation, performance, and design process. It does this through seven projects that explore relationships between technology, society, and the philosophical absurd. Works include films, performances, programmes and installations produced independently and collaboratively with experts from scientific and artistic fields. This thesis asks: how might an expanded definition of ‘scripting’ act as a critical methodology for performative architectural design?; how can this methodology mediate between, and comment on, technology and society?; and what is the relationship between scripting, authorship and agency? Computational scripting has been explored in depth by a number of practitioners and theorists; performative scripting has been examined within the context of theatre and artistic practice; this study adopts an expansive definition of scripting that embraces each of these approaches whilst simultaneously proposing scripting as a critical design methodology. Furthermore, the thesis introduces the philosophical ‘absurd’ as a framework for critiquing emergent technologies and their impact on society. In chapter 1, two projects (Ant Ballet, Godot Machine) are discussed as modes of diagramming absurd theatrical scripts. The ‘framing’ of these projects provides direction for further work within the thesis. Chapter 2 introduces two dance pieces (Nybble, Scriptych) which represent scripted performances and a novel computer-scripted feedback mechanism. Both are diagrammatic modes of presenting contemporary computing mechanisms. Chapter 3 then discusses two experimental computationally-scripted absurd films exploring the practices and impact of contemporary technology companies (86400, 24fps Psycho). Chapter 3 introduces a film (Network / Intersect) created through a novel design process imposing strict rules on the creation of work. It concludes by naming this practice ‘reflexive scripted design’, proposing it as the thesis’ main original contribution to knowledge.

You can download/read the thesis here.

No research happens in isolation, and I think that it’s only right to reproduce the thank-you section here for everyone who helped.

Acknowledgements

It would like to thank the many people who have, directly or indirectly, supported my work over the past few years.

Firstly, to my supervisors, Professor Stephen Gage and Professor Peg Rawes, both of whom have taken my research in wildly different directions, enriching and informing the way that I work. I owe much of the way I see the world (and make objects in it) to Stephen, and I consider myself fortunate to have been one of his students for longer than most. At the same time, this thesis would not be where it is without the compassionate, rigorous, and always enjoyable conversations with Peg, who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to nurture this work. I am truly grateful. The Bartlett has been a wonderful place to inhabit for the past eight years. I would like to thank the PhD faculty who work so hard to make it such a vibrant, inspiring, and intellectually rich environment – especially to Professor Jonathan Hill, Professor Barbara Penner, Professor Penelope Haralambidou, as well as Professor Adrian Forty, and Professor Murray Fraser.

A great deal of this work comes from a period spent at the Palais de Tokyo. I am immensely grateful to Ange Leccia for developing and running the Pavillon Neuflize OBC programme for sixteen years, enabling the development of over 130 artists, myself included; as well as to Dr Fabien Danesi for supporting my work, to Chloe Fricout for making sure it really happened, to Justine Emard and Justine Hermant for helping so much with every project, and of course, to Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel for inviting me to take part in the first place.

I would not have been able to produce this thesis, or the project featured in chapter two, without the Arts and Humanities Research Council: long may they support experimental practice.

Thank you to everyone who I have collaborated with over the past few years. It was a privilege to have worked with such wonderful people as Simon Valastro, Dr Seirian Sumner, Professor Jim Anderson, Max Colson, Heechan Park, Helen Floate, and Cesar Harada. And, of course, Abi, whose input can be subtly found woven throughout all of my work.

Finally, I would like to thank my family and friends: to David Roberts and Amy Butt, for rescuing myself and my work more than once; Danielle Willkens, whose talent and generosity knows no bounds; Bernadette Devilat and Felipe Lanuza, for so much help; Anna Ulrikke Anderson for consistently championing my work; Craig Nunes, for introducing me to the absurd many years ago. Thank you to my family, for their consistent support. Mum, although I don’t want to admit it, you were right. Maybe I will be an artist after all.

And finally, thank you to Amy, for inspiring me – and making it all worthwhile.

One final thanks that wasn’t in the thesis itself – thank you to Dr Kevin Walker and Professor Penelope Haralambidou for such a rigorous examination, with one of the most fertile, enjoyable, and memorable conversations I’ve had.

One man and a gun

Note: This article is cross-posted on Medium.

Recently, the research and development company Battelle released a video of what is claimed to be the first non-ballistic anti-drone gun, the DroneDefender. The video has garnered much attention in both traditional and social media. Here I am going to explain why the DroneDefender is effectively a comfort blanket against a messy and uncertain future, a symbolic weapon hiding behind a convenient cowboy archetype.


The Battelle DroneDefender ‘in use’. Image from promotional video.

The DroneDefender

Battelle released two videos to promote the DroneDefender. The first is a glossy dramatisation of a drone being spotted, and disabled by an alert security team. The video combines action shots and PowerPoint-style infographics, and is clearly designed to sell the concept to military, state and private security forces.

Battelle DroneDefender main promotional video

The second is the B-roll (first seen on Motherboard). This is the unedited source footage, before the vignetting, graphic overlays and quick cuts had been put in. It struck me as an odd choice of videos to make public, as it clearly reveals the constructed nature of the main promotional video. In this regard, it is more honest. The DroneDefender is not FCC certified, so the video is a simulation. The B-roll makes this absolutely clear, from the security guard struggling to keep up with a drone clearly being piloted from elsewhere, to the shaky footage and retro pans and zooms. (The ‘this is a simulation’ message doesn’t always make it onto web articles, which often present the device as an item available now, or very soon.)

DroneDefender B-roll

The threat

In the video, it is implied that this is a one-man ‘solution’ to the threat of drones. This threat is wholly unimaginative: it hinges around the idea that the most nefarious use for a drone is the hobbyist taking unauthorised videos or photos of a secured area. Whilst it is true that the majority of civilian drones are likely to be used for photography (or even elaborate selfies), and the ability for anybody to buy a piece of equipment that allows them to fly a camera above anything does raise real privacy and security concerns, there are further issues that have far more material consequences.

Raffaello D’Andrea showing drones working together. 21 minutes into the lecture he talks about collective behaviour, learning and the threats that drones pose.

There is much laudable research going on with drones at present. Teams of researchers at ETH are actively working on control systems that enable drones to work together to achieve larger goals than a single drone could achieve. Raffaello D’Angelo and Gramazio Kohler’s teams have programmed drones to collectively throw and catch balls, build walls, and more recently, build a rope bridge. Marshmallow Laser Feast programmed drones to dance. All of these have potentially far-reaching impacts on a variety of industries.

At the end of his lecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2012, drone pioneer Raffaello D’Angelo instigated a discussion about ethics and drones. At present, he said, cheaply available commercial drones can carry approximately 2kg. This has increased significantly from the amount the first ones could lift, and will surely increase over time. And, at present, the software to enable drones to work together relies on external computers and control systems, but there is no reason to believe that the hardware and software will not be drone-mounted in the future.

Which means that drones pose two security threats:

  1. 1. Drones carrying ‘payloads’ such as explosives
  2. 2. Swarms of drones working together to kidnap people or steal things

Both are hypothetical at the moment, although the company Mountain Drones claims that it will soon use drones carrying explosives to instigate avalanches, and there have been numerous reports of drones carrying ‘payloads’ of contraband across borders and into prisons. And surely it is only a matter of time before a Hollywood film features a swarm of cooperating, net-wielding drones swooping down to kidnap a high net worth CEO…

How would the DroneDefender fare in the above scenarios? In short, terribly. The DroneDefender has a 30º field of operation, and a 400m range, and essentially works by jamming the signals between the drone and its user and the drone’s GPS signal. In most instances, this causes the drone to simply land at a safe speed, so that its owner can retrieve it (there are tales of drones being launched from yachts, losing their wifi signals and ‘safely’ landing in a watery grave). However, in the event that somebody has strapped explosives to a drone, the last thing that one would want to do is force it to land – particularly if the explosives were contact-detonated, or worse, programmed to detonate in the event of losing signal.

A single disabling agent with a 30º field of range would likely have minimal effect on a swarm of drones. In the video, the drone is disabled at approximately a 15-metre range. This means that a second drone flying parallel 7.75 metres away— or about one and a half car’s lengths — would be immune to attack. In any case, the designer of a drone-swarm would likely build in redundancy, so that a few drones could be disabled without adversely affecting the eventual result (much like the redundancy in swarms of insects, mesh networks and networked drives). One man armed with one gun, able to down one drone, would have little effect.

So the DroneDefender is only an effective weapon if our security guards are trying to stop one hobbyist pilot from flying a photography drone into a restricted area, within visible sight of security guards. (Other issues: ensuring the drone gun is charged and accessible; that the staff are trained in its use and protocols; that the drone is sighted before it enters the restricted area.) All in all, I would argue that the DroneDefender fits a very specific niche.


Cowboy speculation

In recent years, technology has been a major driver of change in the economy. With increasingly widespread aprehension of technologies that represent an uncertain future — from Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musks’ claims that AI could be ‘our greatest existential threat,’ to worries about children being unable to hold conversations — it is clear that we are facing societal challenges that have not been faced before.

I believe that the majority of people see this new technology as a fait accompli — that is, that they have no control over its direction, and that in many cases it stands a very real chance of taking their jobs.

These fears are mirrored in the fragmented wars that the West is fighting; there are no clear narratives, and uncertain enemies and alliances. We have been trained to be alert for dangers and threats which may not exist, to perpetually think that something terrible might happen.

The Battelle DroneDefender

If the DroneDefender is not effective as a literal defence mechanism, its symbolic value must not be overlooked. In the video, we see a ‘hero’ figure shoot a drone out of the sky. The drone represents an uncertain, unseen enemy, and a technological future we can’t control. It is no coincidence that the DroneDefender, which houses no ballistics-delivery-system, is shaped like a gun. Battelle have resurrected the cowboy archetype, the lone hero standing up for freedom, wielding a large weapons and restoring order.

Clint Eastwood

The cowboy is a definitive American archetype. A lone hero, his origins are in stories of King Arthur, and his roots can be traced to Greek Stoicism and Homeric warriors. Early Hollywood liked cowboys because they gave rise to simple stories of good and evil, and the character stuck. They allow an audience to root for a single character who they imbue with characteristics they believe in. They come with pre-made enemies, characters who are undeniably bad, who can be killed with a single shot in the middle of town at high noon. More often than not, the hero saves the day before wandering off into the wilderness, presumably to repeat the feat in town after town.

This story is compelling because it is simple. A man holding a gun that shoots down a drone is simple. The reality of the issues that he is really facing is anything but simple. In an age of networks, the narrative of the cowboy-saviour having an ability to halt the waves of unwanted progress, or being able to definitively disable an enemy no longer holds true. Perpetuating this archetype as a feasible solution to fragmented and abstracted problems is not productive — except to those who profit from selling weapons disguised as heroes. The DroneDefender is more King Canute than Clint Eastwood.


Note: For more on the topic of simplified narratives in the face of overwhelming complexity, see Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake or The Power of Nightmares (where he applies this argument to a much larger set of geopolitical issues).

Also see ‘The John Wayne Syndrome’ for a brief exploration of the origin of cowboys.

Moai

One of my favourite items in the British Museum is the Moai. It is in the Living and Dying room.

Moai in British museum. Photo from Bytes Daily.

I spent a few days on Easter Island in 2005. It’s a funny place – technically part of Chile, and about half the size of the Isle of Wight, and formed from three volcanoes. It’s the most remote island in the world. Most of the three thousand residents live in the town. There are wild horses.

Moai, Easter Island

Moai on the east coast of Easter Island. Photo by Ollie Palmer.

Easter Islands’ stone heads were carved by tribes who lived on opposite sides of the island: the Hanau epe (Long Ears) and the Hanau momoko (Short Ears). Both wanted more heads to prove how much better they were than the other tribe. The construction of the heads led to the deforestation of the island, and used so much of its resources that there was widespread famine, and a huge population loss. It is an example of how an entire culture can lose perspective.

The moai in the British Museum is from the Short Ears side of the island. It would have originally been painted red. It is called Hakananai’a, which translates as ‘Stolen or Hidden Friend’.

My favourite part of the statue is not the fond memories it evokes, but the plinth it stands on. Over the years so many people thought it would be hilarious to touch the sign that says ‘Please do not touch’ that, although it has since been removed, its outline is preserved in greasy fingerprints. It’s like a footpath which emerges on a patch of grass; but this time from lots of people doing the same joke.

“Please do not touch”

Further reading:
The BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects
The Cult of the Birdman, the religion that developed following the famine
Easter Island Statues