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Meet the artist: Data Flow (River Lea)

Michael Takeo Magruder tells us about his experience of working with the Museum and its Curating London initiative to create Data Flow (River Lea), a new artwork commissioned for Secret Rivers at Museum of London Docklands.

Michael TakeoMagruder

Artist, Secret Rivers

17 July 2019

Data Flow (River Lea) is an interactive new media art installation that is generated from blending live environmental data and personal memories of the River Lea. The project was produced in collaboration with my long-standing colleague Drew Baker (a leading expert in cultural heritage and 3D visualisation), and originated when the curators Thomas Ardill and Kate Sumnall approached me about the possibility of creating a new artwork for their Secret Rivers exhibition.

Thomas and Kate were aware of my previous solo show called Living Data which included a digital media installation that was made from live environmental data and social media images related to the River Brent. They were interested to know if a new work along similar lines could be commissioned for Secret Rivers, so we began discussing possibilities and how such a piece could best relate to the main themes of their curatorial vision. Our conversations quickly and naturally expanded to include other members of the Secret Rivers team and I was able to spend some time at Museum of London Docklands to get a good sense of the area, the museum and its visitors.

Data Flow, River Lea - artwork image

Data Flow (River Lea) artwork by Michael Takeo Magruder

Around the same time that it was decided the artwork should focus on the River Lea, the new Curating London initiative at the Museum was coming online and seemed a perfect fit for our aspiration to instil a strong socially engaged element within the project. Getting the Curating London team involved really helped us to think about different ways that the work could speak to the many young people and families who regularly visit the museum. From these exchanges it became clear that we could look to draw data from the local community and engage Londoners about their personal experiences of the area.

As a result, Data Flow (River Lea) was conceived as a digital artwork that would draw from two distinct sources of raw data associated with the river; one environmental and one social. In short, we would create an ephemeral virtual river made from real-time environmental data linked to the actual river and local people’s personal memories of it. For the former, we discovered that the UK Environment Agency publishes online and freely accessible live data about the River Lea from 38 measuring stations spread along its length. This information – ranging from water level to flow rate – could be used to ‘control’ our virtual water. Regarding the social element, through the Curating London programme we were provided with a means to collaborate with various local groups. Focusing on families and schools, we sought to record personal stories and narratives about the river from people living within its proximity. These memories would be captured as images with accompanying descriptive texts, and would manifest in the virtual installation as random streams of ‘postcards’ endlessly floating down the river.

For the installation’s physical form in Secret Rivers, we decided to create an interactive digital projection displayed atop a low-lying and minimal white plinth. The projection not only changes according to real-time environmental data collected from the Lea itself, but also from people moving within the gallery through a webcam tracking system that is installed above the projection. As these external and internal factors change so does the artwork. Aspects of the work like colour, speed and size of the floating ‘memories’ shift in unpredictable ways. It is a truly ephemeral piece in which every moment is unique. Furthermore, as we’re adding more contributions to the artwork by running workshops with schools and families through the Curating London project, the piece will continue to grow and change throughout the Secret Rivers exhibition.

Participants during one of the Data Flow workshops

Participants during one of the Data Flow workshops

Docklands is a special place and I wanted its vibrant character to be reflected in the final artwork. The area is a great location for families and is close to so many residential areas. The Museum of London Docklands has done a wonderful job in creating exhibitions and displays that mix high quality art and culture in ways that are accessible and family friendly but without a sense of the content being ‘dumbed down’. This observation was further reinforced once I started working with Curating London team, and for that reason, I feel my original desire to give contributors a major and highly visible voice within the final art installation was able to be successfully realised. The project has certainly given participants a meaningful opportunity to be an integral part of my creative process, and I’ve found everyone has been genuinely excited to be involved.

It’s been a great experience working with the Museum and the Curating London project, and I’ve found our dialogue and workflow have been truly collaborative. When we first came together we had many different interests and remits, but it was honestly easy to find common ground and ways of ensuring that all our aspirations could be realised.

For me, the highlight of the project has been that it’s something by and for people of all ages – especially young children and students – as I don’t often work on pieces that involve such a young audience. When I was a child, I didn’t feel like there were any ways to directly engage with the cultural institutions I loved to visit. So with that in mind, it’s been quite wonderful to know my artwork has been a vehicle for that kind of meaningful engagement, and seeing the enthusiasm of those involved has been truly special.

Of course, working with young people and students has its challenges. These days there are various policies and procedures in place for working with such groups, and even though it is of course necessary, the regulations can sometimes make it difficult to provide a completely open experience for participants. We’ve fortunately been able to find ways to mitigate the impact of such requirements during the Data Flow workshops, and I’ve been really pleased to hear that so many participants at the family festivals and schools have loved being involved in the project. It has been particularly heartening to learn that so many of the participants want to visit the museum and see their contribution within the artwork and overall exhibition. And as a person who has loved art and culture all my life, I get it; imagine your ten-year-old self seeing something you helped make on display at a major London museum – that’s super cool.

See Data Flow (River Lea) for yourself as part of Secret Rivers, our free exhibition on display at Museum of London Docklands until 27 October 2019.