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To Be Continued: Sensing Systems So Far

26 May 20 words: Eileen Pegg
photos: Tom Quigley & John Smalley

Technologist and digital artist Matt Woodham had spent months gearing up for his debut solo exhibition, Sensing Systems, at Bonington Gallery at the beginning of the year, which was unfortunately cut short by the pandemic. This page space had initially been blocked out for a retrospective look on a key cultural moment in Nottingham. Now, our Music Editor Eileen Pegg, speaks to the artist about how he has managed to assemble and reassemble the show in a new form…

Over a year in the making – and set to act as the crowning gem in the digital artist’s career so far – Sensing Systems was Matt Woodham’s debut solo exhibition, part of an ambitious six-week multi-disciplinary Arts Council-funded project. Known by most for his work creating visuals at music events under his Multimodal alias, Matt is a neuroscience graduate with a fascination for science and computation. Sensing Systems was the chance to showcase his interests in a non-commercial setting and offer an educational experience, spanning an exhibition, academic talks, hands-on workshops and a late night music event – but it was cut short.

 The exhibition closed two weeks early. While the last remaining slice of the programme’s pie has been gobbled up by COVID-19, another enticing alternative treat took its place in the form of a digital playground, using tech that has become one of the dominant platforms amongst the current live stream chaos.

“I grabbed the computer from the exhibition and took it home, creating a makeshift setup on a desk in our kitchen,” Matt said. “We made a live-stream version of the show for Twitch with a chatbot that allowed people to directly control the parameters of the artwork – like the interface in the exhibition.”

Sensing Systems was launched with a goal of “enticing the viewer into considering the mechanisms at play in the complex systems around them”. Skilled as a freelance web designer, taking the physical show online would have been a breeze for Matt. But even the act of doing so, reacting to an unfathomable change in our external environment, is strangely linked to the themes of the exhibition itself – switching the experience online on somewhere like Twitch was the perfect end that no one expected. 

“I even made a dark joke that the pandemic was an artwork as part of the project. The COVID-19 crisis exposes the fragilities of systems…it is caused by vulnerabilities in the ‘small-world networks’, which are ubiquitous throughout nature and our lives. Although the show’s overall aim was to celebrate beauty in systems, it simultaneously aimed to provoke acknowledgement of the place of humanity within them.”

It was an anti-climax not to go out with a bang

My gallery visit took place back in February, a time when the realities of the global pandemic hadn’t quite reached the tipping point in the UK. Whether seen online or in person, it was a sensory delight that could be enjoyed on many levels. His stylistic signature was evident: the interactive graphics projected onto the walls at Bonington took on the same futuristic, almost alien-like aesthetics as those in a club space. Those interested in the theory behind the programme would have been delighted by the light trails left behind by the swinging kinetic pendulums, etching a different mark at every circuit, and curious visitors with no prior context would no doubt have been left gobsmacked by the overwhelming experience.

Anyone wanting to be more actively involved had the choice of attending a symposium at Nottingham Contemporary and a workshop series sharing arts and tech skills hosted at Broadway.

“It was an ambitious task, striving to find parallels between those working across art and science – including astronomers, nanoscale physicists, system designers, computational artists and fine artists,” Matt said of the symposium. “The speakers had a short presentation followed by a panel discussion led by [astronomer and artist] Ulrike Kuchner. We covered a broad range of topics, including the pursuit of meaning and beauty, the use of simulations in science and art and, more broadly, how science needs art, and art needs science.”

The workshops were held in conjunction with Near Now, Broadway’s studio for art, design and innovation. Taking place in early March, they were the last hoorah for the programme before its premature closure, offering guests the chance to create interactive and moving art that followed the programme's theme. Ranging from visualizing sound with coloured fluid splattered across murmuring speakers to a lesson in AI software from Matt himself, anyone with enthusiasm was welcome to join and I was one of them, but at the last minute couldn’t attend – true to current events, I’d been asked to self-isolate. You couldn’t script it.

Our fit ‘n’ healthy photographer still made it down and the photo essays alone tell the story of delight and discovery from the eager attendees. 

The COVID-19 crisis exposes the fragilities of systems…it is caused by vulnerabilities in the ‘small-world networks’, which are ubiquitous throughout nature and our lives

“I highly recommend anyone with an interest in arts and tech in Nottingham to reach out to Near Now,” Matt said, noting the strong relationship they’d formed since his graduation. “I absolutely loved both of the days – there’s something so nice about being with a bunch of people in a room who are all keen to learn a new skill, helping each other and having relaxed chats while making something new together.”

The impact Sensing Systems had made already is clear, but it was dispersed. The ending ceremony event planned at Metronome on 20th March, but cancelled at the last moment, promised to act as the beating heart for it all. A hub attracting visitors from each previous strand and those interested in the themes to come together and experience it themselves. 

Alongside performances from Simone Salvatici, Will Plowman and Rich Wood, Matt was joining Throwing Snow for a debut collab, before Lukas Wigflex – who regularly invites Matt to provide visuals for his Wigflex events – took on the role of guest to close the show. It had been bookmarked by many people as a highlight night; Metronome is known for its high spec equipment that make tech-heavy shows like this a dream. 

“We’ve been in conversation about the contingency plans,” Matt reassures. “In the meantime, we are looking to create innovative community-building online AV experiences, thinking of ways to bring the bereft event goers together. We’re currently working with Wigflex on an exciting new project – keep your eyes peeled for more on that soon…”

“It was an anti-climax not to go out with a bang!” But with plans to reschedule, it seems we could be set for an almighty explosion, when the time is right.

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