Introducing our Artist in Residence, Rachel Rayns!

Liz: We talk a lot here about making, designing, and how computing is just as much a creative discipline as it is a technical one.

What’s this? Read on to find out…

There’s a weird dividing line in many people’s heads between creativity and technology. I hope that the projects we show you on this website demonstrate that there shouldn’t be. That dividing line puts the idea in the heads of many tech-oriented people that they aren’t any good at being creative; and vice-versa, it gives many creative people the impression that technology is not for them. This isn’t good for anyone, and it’s something we’re working to address, from school level right up to proper grown-ups.

On Tuesday I found myself in a meeting with Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England, talking about the Pi’s potential as a tool for artists. We’re seeing more and more artists using the Pi in installations; it’s ideal for this sort of use, given all the exposed GPIO which can be used to sense things, drive things and make objects in the real world interactive, as well as its ability to drive 1080p HD displays. And, of course, it’s cheap: being able to buy a Pi for $25 means that adding computing to an installation is suddenly brought within the budgets of even garret-dwellers. At school level, we’re trying to make it clear that computing is creative – when it comes down to it, it’s all about making things, whether they be programs or robots. Without design-focused digital creatives we’d have no games industry, no CGI, no graphical user interfaces and a very boring computing environment. If I could, I’d rebrand the Computing GCSE as a GCSE in building robots, installations and wearables, and writing games. Takeup would increase tenfold overnight.

Rachel (who was presenting at that Arts Council meeting on Tuesday) has been with us for a couple of months now, but we’d been unable to announce her arrival until she’d finished work on a separate project. That’s all done now, and we thought you’d like to learn a bit more about her and why she’s with us: over to you, Rach! (We are introducing Rachel with a self-portrait-with-pie from one of her recent photography projects. Serendipitous, no?)

Rachel: Hey everyone!

I’m Rachel Rayns. I’m an artist and maker based in Norfolk, UK.

I am not a traditional artist – I can’t draw or paint (much to my annoyance). Within my work I like to investigate how we use and react to technology; I mostly make films and machines!

At university I developed a specialisation in really technically complex films – I would use a 16mm camera and shoot one alternate frames and then CAREFULLY rewind the film and shoot on the frames I hadn’t done first time round. I had my artworks and films shown at the Whitechapel Gallery, the London Short Film Festival, Glastonbury Music Festival and many other galleries and events.

16mm Films, Rachel Rayns

While I was at university, I collected film cameras and made online tutorials for developing your own colour celluloid film (one of which compared developing film to making a pie – which is where the picture at the top comes from!)

After I graduated I founded Soup Lab, a not-for-profit art organisation which focused on how new and old technologies could work together.

Soup Lab ran a space in Norwich from Dec 2011 to March 2013 with a full darkroom, editing suite, motion picture film lab, gallery and offices. I directed the space and curated the programme.

The ceiling-mounted stop-animation camera rig for Rachel’s film 2D Dreams, which was chosen to open the Straight 8 Festival and proves that duct tape is the force that holds the universe together.

Making-of shots from 2D Dreams

I had heard of Arduino, I had even owned one, but I never really did anything with it. Then I heard about the Raspberry Pi and like lots of you, pre-ordered one. It sat on the shelf for a while while I thought about what to do with it, and eventually I decided to make a super-duper hydroponic gardening system, that panics and tweets when she needs water and hosts her own site, showing off photos of her flowers when they bloom. Zoe is a robot in a romantic relationship with her garden: when she and the garden are happy (when the garden is growing healthily and the plants are watered) she posts pictures of their connubial bliss, but when the soil is drying out she takes to social media to ask questions about how to improve her relationship with the plants. Now I have built most of the mechanics of the machine – but I will be asking for your help later on to make it go!

Zoe Star’s innards. Note Pi.

So, now I’m working on more Zoe Star machines with different functions: humorous devices from alternate realities!

I am all about getting people to start doing things. I love running workshops which involve using materials people haven’t tried before. In the past I’ve run workshops at Tate Modern and Brighton Photo Fringe. I have also give talks and sit on panels discussing makers, artists and technology – last weekend I was at the Victoria and Albert Museum talking about Pi, art and creative tech, and talking at the Elephant and Castle’s first Maker Faire with Tim Hunkin – eep!

Rachel’s most recent interactive workshop/exhibition at Tate Modern, where attendees hacked celluloid film.

So, what’s an artist-in-residence, you’re asking? An artist-in-residence is usually invited into an organisation to create art which responds to the work the organisation does, the physical space they’re working in, or even a particular project.

I will be working on the Zoe Star series and exhibiting Raspberry Pi projects in a number of places (including some room the guys have freed up especially for display at Pi Towers), but I’ll also be creating tutorials for this site, and setting you some challenges for you guys! I’ll be working on documentation aimed at artists in helping them getting started with technology in their practice, seeking out artists already using the Raspberry Pi in their work and making sure you guys know about it; and I’ll be representing the Raspberry Pi Foundation at art events and helping the rest of the team run workshops whenever needed!

We sent Rachel to represent us and talk about the Raspberry Pi at the Athens Video Art Festival 2013 earlier this year – she mailed me this to prove she was really there…

I’m currently working on a bunch of projects, including preparing for an awesome new Minecraft project with the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology and PrintCraft - I’ll have more news on that soon. I’m also running a three-session workshop programme to make your own Zoe Star machine with my help at the Victoria and Albert Museum in late November and early December – so keep an eye out for that! And I will be working lots on more Zoe Star projects with some lovely folk at Norwich Arts CentreWriters’ Centre Norwich and Cambridge MakeSpace.

This is Rachel’s bike, with its handmade, laser-cut basket. You can see why we thought she’d be right at home with the Foundation.

When people ask me what I’d like to do when I grow up, I say I would love a little studio – somewhere to be making all day, where I could also run workshops and have chats with interesting people. So, actually, I am already exactly where I want to be! I had never thought of becoming an engineer before spending time around Raspberry Pi and hackerspaces – when I was at school my appetite for hacking and making was seen by teachers as a suggestion that I should be studying art. Engineering was never on the table – and I don’t want to drop the gender bomb, but I do wonder if it’d have been the same if I’d been a boy with the same skills. I wish I’d had the opportunity when I was choosing my first degree, and if I return to university I’d love to study on the Innovation Design Engineering course at the Royal College of Art.

I am super happy to be here. If you have any questions let me know and I’ll try and answer them!

Liz: thanks Rach! If you live in or near London and you’d like to meet Rachel, learn more about Zoe Star and talk to her about what she’s doing with us, she’ll be at the Internet of Things Meetup in EC2 on July 16 (that’s next Tuesday). She’ll also be answering your questions in the comments here: so get commenting!