On The Aesthetics of Gravel...

...'loam or manure'? The Living Garden was given a 'cool' reception from the Royal College of Art (RCA) and I was asked to write a critical evaluation on the following basis:

"Describe the 'Living Garden' installation as it actually appeared in the MA IMM Degree Show, with a proposal concerning a developed version and how such a development might manifest itself as an installation in a future exhibition."


The following essay, written in 1995, was my response to this request. Note, in this text 'Garden' (capitalised) generally refers to the idea, the scheme in its entirety (described in the Book, here), while 'garden' (initial lower case) refers to the physical landscape that was constructed at the RCA.


A Glossary & Gallery of some of the few remaining images I have of that time (1995) is included below - including what I dubbed the 'Barbecue of Reflection'...


(click underlined headings below for sections)
00 - Introduction
01 - Project Aims and Background
02 - Development
03 - Realisation
The Conservatory
The Garden
04 - Critique
Keys and Viewers
05 - Park Management
06 - A Stroll Through the Garden
The Echoing Tree
Maps & Guides
On the Aesthetics of Gravel
07 - Future Development
Figures 1-5: Summary of digital processes from creating a Living Book to Visiting a Garden
Glossary & Gallery



In September 1995 a physical landscape was built within the Royal College of Art (RCA) as part of my MA course in 'Interactive Multimedia'. The aim was to demonstrate the ideas behind my MA project the Living Garden - a multimedia memory bank set in a natural, physical landscape which aimed to provide an interface simply enough for anyone to use for certain types of personal communication.



Project aims and background​

"How is the value of a digital 'asset' defined?"; "what is an authoring tool?" and "who is an author?" These were some of the issues which lay at the heart of the Living Garden, an attempt to raise questions about the prevailing definition of digital multimedia as a 'product-based' activity - an activity which is largely defined at present within a commercial consumer-based publishing framework.

To these ends, I proposed a scheme with a social (rather than market-led) purpose called the Living Garden. The Garden identified how a range of computer-based technologies, tools, interfaces and behaviours could combine to establish a cultural 'memory bank' to provide the means through which individuals could communicate in a variety of ways. In highlighting a different way of using multimedia technology, the aim was to open a debate about current and future directions in what - disturbingly for such a new field - is already becoming a conservative area in which to work.

Although elements of polemic, parody and metaphor within the Garden as a scheme were central to the project I felt that the 'reality' of the Garden - in terms of researching and understanding the relevant technology to see if this alternative place could be built - was a critical and vital point if the questions it raised about applications and uses of technology were going to be truly pertinent and not mere speculation and guesswork. General points about the uses and abuses of technology could otherwise have been made in the form of a science-fiction novel or a social diatribe.

So even though the Living Garden described an alternative model for using digital technology, the issues this raised related very much to the reality of the multimedia development today. However, rather than accept the current form and functionality of computers and software authoring packages (along with their implicit assumptions) the development of the Garden as a scheme involved outlining new forms of authoring tools and fresh ways of interacting with a 'computational' environment. In a sense, I had to define and build what I saw as a 'computer', rather than just use what was available off-the-shelf.

Clearly, this was a 'big' Garden, which operated on many different levels. In terms of developing the project this posed a number of problems. How could one communicate the richness, diversity and ramifications of the scheme in simple, easy to follow manner? The architecture that I devised and defined as the Garden (in the sense of the theoretical interplay of technology and behaviour that could realise the scheme) was ultimately in fact very simple, but the variety of ways that individuals could tailor the system also made it very powerful.

What follows is a description and critique of how the project was presented during the MA final exhibition period of 'Circuit' (the Royal College of Art - RCA - end of year multimedia course exhibition in October 1995) with an analysis and conclusion which focuses on the different intellectual, academic, practical and administrative factors which combined to form the shape of the Living Garden.



I had had an opportunity to encounter the practical, technical and market-based realities of multimedia development within the early part of the course, working on the Milia D'Or winning UnZip - the 'UK's first fully interactive magazine on CD-Rom' (an interesting story in its own right...) at IPC Magazines. With this experience under my belt I intended to make use of the opportunity which I believed an academic MA course of study offered of being able to critically challenge its own frame of reference during the latter stages of the MA.


My original plan was to develop and describe the ideas behind the Living Garden in book form. This, however, appeared to present difficulties within the framework of the MA, and after the interim assessment I resigned myself to realising the scheme as an 'exhibit' within the Circuit show which would form the back-drop for a public exhibition and an academic assessment of work on display. Fellow students Peter Robinson, a Fleet Street football and FIFA’s one-time official photographer, along with student Patrick Power offered to help with the ‘gardening’, and the practical aspects of realising the landscape.

The main aim in terms of developing the installation was to tell a story of what the Garden was and how it worked - in essence to maintain the narrative structure of the original book. With this in mind, the installation aimed to:

  • Explain concepts behind the Garden as an intellectual scheme

  • Encourage real interactivity within the exhibit by encouraging a walk-through in which the different ideas behind the Garden would be revealed, one-by-one

  • Establish the concept of place - the Garden as an architectural system

  • Introduce tension between the installation and other exhibits at the show - the sense of 'here' and 'elsewhere'

  • Explode the 2D screen-based computer monitor as the de facto standard interface for multimedia by proposing a physical landscape (a garden) as an alternative

  • Provide practical examples of simple authoring tools and messages

  • Develop a Living Garden World-Wide Web site as a reference point for the project (see: The Living Garden (at www.livinggarden.net).

  • Introduce some elements of fun

Clearly, whilst a book provided a means to control, highlight and develop on these themes in a controlled flow, actually building an open installation to achieve these same ends presented something of a challenge.




There were two main parts to the installation; first, an 'information room' (dubbed the Conservatory), which lead through into a mock-up of the type of garden which might form part of the scheme.

The Conservatory

The role of the conservatory was:

1. to introduce visitors to the concepts of the Garden. This was attempted through:

  • the book of the Living Garden, which described the scheme in detail

  • text panels which briefly summarised the scheme

  • explanatory leaflets which could be taken away

  • printed postcards carrying the Living Garden image of a tree with contact names and address of the project team

2. outline the technical mechanisms which could make the garden operate (and so emphasise that this was not just a fantasy or a polemical piece of conceptual art) through:

  • schematic diagrams which illustrated the authoring and message retrieval processes in four panels

  • mock-ups which showed how a range of special-purpose, easy to use mono-medium authoring tools might look and be used

  • creating and displaying objects which demonstrated the range of different forms that the Key for any given message could take. These included a photograph, a locket, a ring, a book, a prosthetic (which could be inserted into a human body), and a piece of fruit (an apple in this case) - something which might be chosen if a message had a urgency; the recipient of the apple (the Key) would, in this example, have to visit a garden before the fruit rotted away in order to be able to retrieve a message

3. provide the opportunity for visitors to author a message by using a working example of an authoring tool for recording a sound message using a Key

4. to serve as a gateway into the garden area - an interface between an explanation of the Garden and a physical manifestation of a garden environment itself

The Garden

The garden - as a physical space - served the purpose of 'exploding' the multimedia interface, removing it from a 2D-based computer monitor, and re-representing it as a 3D-physical world in which one operated through time. At its simplest level, information is found within a garden simply by going to a certain place (or being taken or guided to a particular location).

The elements that were realised in this part of the exhibition were:

  • Working examples of Viewers - the Garden's mono- and multimedia replay devices - with the Echoing Tree (for the replay of sound-only messages), and the Pool of Reflection (a Viewer for replaying single or series-based images)

  • Examples of Living Books (the generic name for messages within the scheme) - in the form 'content' that was created for both the Echoing Tree and the Pool of Reflection

  • Guiding mechanisms - the Water Bug, the map, the idea of navigation by 'voices in the air' and a reminder about the 'organic' relationship between inanimate machines and living humans.

  • Physical pathways which represented general navigational issues (and metaphorically elements of 'choice')

  • The compost heap, a metaphor for the need to recognise the way in which digital technology develops, is superseded, decays but provides the basis for new growth

Physical landscapes within the theoretical Living Garden scheme would be made up of very many gardens spread throughout a country to ensure that local access was available to as many people as possible. Since each of these might also be developed differently in terms of ambience, character and 'meaning' this meant that the garden within the show needed to have a generic feel, rather than identifying a unique location.

Finally as a physical space marked by a border, the garden was clearly something other than a piece of computer hardware, highlighting our questions about the use, design and appropriateness of existing multimedia platforms for every possible end.




Did we realise the primary aim of the installation, to explain the concepts behind the garden? The answer to this question appears - generally - to have been 'yes' in terms of the exhibition as a public event, but 'no' in terms of the project as an assessable piece of academic work.

In terms of the public event; as 'curators' we were able to serve as guides to the exhibition, explaining reference points, answering questions and leading visitors through the garden (but not necessarily down the garden path), establishing the flow of ideas and narrative which built a picture of what the scheme was supposed to represent. The installation served its didactic functions well, although - as a whole - I never felt that we successfully established a unifying aesthetic, which was important in defining an overall identity to the project.


In terms of communicating the ideas, however, many of those who wanted to find out more about the Garden did so directly as a result of being able to read the hand-outs and text which had been produced. Because they felt that they were approaching the work with some knowledge of its reference points and could engage with it on a much more even basis to discover more. This was real interactivity - it just illustrated the point that the process does not necessarily have to be mediated by a computer.

Having sketched an outline of the garden as a scheme, four simple diagrams provided the means to illustrate the technological mechanics which sat behind the scenes of the Living Garden (the online versions, here, being less attractive but showing the principal). As well as the text and illustrations the visitor was able to get a feel for the way that the garden would function by using the working model of the authoring tool which had been devised.

Interestingly, whilst the book describing the garden was read (in part) by a few dozen visitors, it was probably the least 'visible' element on show.


One of the key ideas behind the project was that the design of authoring tools should be considered in relation to who is an author, and what that author wants to record. Rather than depend on a software package which has to be tailored in various ways to capture and produce multimedia content, a theme of authoring within the Garden was that this would be a process based on a whole series of specialised - but simplified - authoring tools. For example, to record an image, there would be devices ranging from the Living Garden equivalent of a disposable Kodak 'Fun' camera to a professional Nikon SLR. Such tools - the political theory of the garden argues - would also be made available both publicly and privately. This aimed to question the idea that an authoring tool - by definition - is something like Macromedia's Director, and an author - necessarily - is someone who learns who to manipulate such software. As a definition, this prevailing view seems as adequate as describing a writer as 'someone who uses Microsoft Word.'

The working example of the authoring tool that was chosen for the installation was the Sound Pipe. This was essentially a drainpipe-like device which provided the means for any visitor to record, replay, re-record (if necessary) and then commit a voice message to the Garden. A token - called a Key - provided the means to uniquely identify any message recorded using this tool, and worked in a manner somewhat similar to a cash card operating a service till.

The aesthetic of the drainpipe seemed to strike a reasonable balance within the installation as a whole. The allusion of water-as-information, draining into the adjacent garden, was picked up by almost everyone, and the municipal look of the piping used gave a feel of a public utility that might be found on the high-street.

Keys and Viewers

The physical form of the Key worked less well, being based on what was instantly recognisable as a 3.5" jack-plug. Each jack-plug had been fitted with a different value resistor which provided the means to uniquely identify it (as a 'Key') to an IBM-compatible computer hidden behind the partitions. A message recorded when a particular Key was inserted into the drainpipe could therefore be associated with a unique resistance value - a value which was memorised by the computer alongside the digitised voice recording. In this way, the jack-plug as Key provided the means to create a working mechanism which could represent a unique message, rather than actually holding a copy of it - the message itself being recording on the hard disk of the hidden computer.

When the same Key was inserted into the watering can within the conservatory (an analogue of one of the Garden's Viewers) the messaging process was simply reversed. An interface attached to the same computer measured the resistance of the Key that had been inserted, and by matching this value against an internal database table located, retrieved and re-played the digitised sound message via a speaker in the spout of the watering can.

The beauty of this demonstration was that it showed how one simple process could support a variety of different messages. These Keys did not simply recall 'here's one I prepared earlier' versions of the same message - they actually allowed anyone visiting the show to record their voice, take away a token of this message (in the Key) and retrieve it when they wanted to via the watering can. This illustrated the point that even though a common authoring/retrieval (pipe/watering can) system served all messages it still provided the means for almost anyone to create a unique personal message.

As a microcosm of the Living Garden scheme this model worked well, although there were one or two visitors who thought that the watering can was literally intended to be one of the play-out devices that would be used within the Living Garden. In these couple of instances some explanation was also demanded of us of the role of the adjacent garden gnome - an object whose purpose was decorous rather than functional, despite our attempts to develop an 'active' version which reacted to the name 'Jocelyn Stevens' (a former, formidable head of the RCA, known in the press as 'piranha teeth') by dropping its trousers.

One of the difficulties with the installation Key was that it was somewhat 'clunky'. As a mechanical device it had to be manually inserted into a jack-plug socket. Keys within the Living Garden itself would not contain resistors, but store a unique code - generated via the remote centralised multimedia database - uploaded onto them. Retrieving a message within the scheme proper would not, necessarily, require any kind of physical connection since information could be transferred locally via wireless telecommunications.

Establishing a feeling for this 'transparency' of operation - the way an automatic door opens when you approach, rather than having to pull down a door handle - was attempted. I had researched and identified an infra-red contender to serve as a Key, and had made approaches to Olivetti which was developing 'Active Badge' Technology, but unfortunately it proved impractical to obtain samples from the manufacturer in the time available.



Park Management​

The inevitability of those 'unforeseen circumstances' that will crop up in any public event also took a toll on setting up the installation. The drainpipe alone required a considerable amount of time and effort to develop in terms of building, programming and testing, and further difficulties were introduced because of the very late stage at which we were finally able to obtain the IBM-compatible computer requested. Unfortunately, the unit obtained not only lacked the necessary sound card, but we were told that the machine was also infected with a computer virus which we had to find a means to 'search and destroy' as the Course Technician was busy setting up his own joint project with one of the students - one of the distinctly Tom Sharpe-like episodes that added so much colour to the course.

Completing the installation was also delayed since none of the electrical mains distribution wiring that had been agreed for the project been rigged, which meant that a great deal of the limited time available to set up the installation was spent on practicalities such as buying mains extensions and plugs, laying cables and drilling access points, as well as purchasing a PC sound card and virus checking software. Although the drainpipe crashed on a few occasions (Sod's Law dictating that one of these was during the assessment walk-around) we did ultimately manage to make the device function as intended.

Once the authoring process had been demonstrated the visitor was shown a selection of other mocked-up (non-functioning) authoring tools, to reinforce the idea that a particular tool would be selected to create a particular type of message, rather than - as with computer software - a unitary package would have to be configured as a tool prior to its use. These included a simple stem microphone (to emphasise that sound recordings could be made through a variety of instruments - not just a 'drain pipe' - in different places; an author would not just be reliant on the drainpipe in the high street, for example). Several types of camera were also on display to illustrate that the Living Garden could incorporate messages based on a variety of media, not just sound recordings alone.

The final area within the Conservatory displayed a selection of Keys to illustrate the physical diversity that these devices might take. Although a jack-plug as Key had been used in order to build the working authoring environment, within the theoretical and technical model of the Garden the Key could be minute - since it only had to store a few bytes of information. The Key, remember, just stores a personal/record identification number - which links via the network to the record. It does not store the data of the record itself. This is somewhat similar to a cash card - which provides access to your banking records, whilst not actually holding the records on the piece of plastic.

The implications of this are that the Key serves not just as a token in terms of the mechanics of unlocking a message, but its form could also be related to the content of a message. Not only could a Key be secreted within a photograph, book or other object but its small size means that it could also, for example, be a prosthetic inserted into someone's body - an individual would literally carry a message around with them.

Again, in the context of a guided tour of the garden - in which a narrative could be developed and questions answered - building upon each explanation of the elements within the scheme generally seemed to work well.

Where there was a problem was on those occasions when there were more visitors to the installation than guides, or when individuals preferred not to be guided as they wanted to have a quick look around by themselves. The major components behind the garden had been broken down into distinct elements, of course - an explanation of the concept, an outline of the mechanics, a working model in miniature, and then a mock-up of the real garden. Even so, the independent visitor missing the conservatory and the guides may well have been perplexed. However, whether a 2-D based solution would have achieved the same ends any better is open to question. It also misses the central point, anyway. The Garden was challenging because it introduced new reference points which - by their definition - would not be immediately familiar. That is it was challenging the use of a PC and 2D interface. To have used this technology to make the point would surely have defeated the whole point of the exercise?

The walk through the conservatory area served to outline the major concepts behind the Living Garden and demonstrated the key procedural processes involved in creating and replaying messages. It also led the visitor to the entrance to a physical garden.



A Stroll through the Garden​

The central purpose of the physical manifestation of the garden was to establish that the 'interface' to a multimedia system was one that did not have to be bound by a 2-D computer screen. This was a manifestation of the argument that the context for content has to be considered in terms of interface and communication design, per se, not only in relation to 'what multimedia technology can do' - something which the current development of the universal desk-top computer and most software tools largely ignores. For example, a full-motion, full-screen video can - functionally - be delivered on a computer monitor, but this is a very different experience than watching a film in a cinema. Whilst there are clearly uses and value in being able to see moving video etc on a computer screen, the experience of seeing Star Wars in 70mm at a cinema is different from that of viewing it in 15fps digital video on a 15 inch 256 colour monitor. And I know which I would opt for, particularly if I wanted to take my son!

This argument, relating to the appropriate context for content, served as the backdrop to introducing the idea of special-purpose multimedia 'viewers' in the garden area. The Living Garden authoring process - which simplifies and streamlines the creation of messages through the availability of a range of special purpose authoring tools is in effect reversed within a garden. Here separate (though linked) monomedia replay devices are found. The two examples developed for the exhibition were the Echoing Tree, which replayed sound messages, and the Pool of Reflection which reproduced still or moving images.

The Echoing Tree

When anyone sat on the seat beneath the Echoing Tree a light sensor triggered the replay of a single, randomly selected digital sound recording. The functional purpose of the tree was to show how one play-out device could be seamlessly tailored (via a Key) to replay the appropriate message for an individual, since the possession of a Key and the location of a Keyholder are all that is required to retrieve a message.

At the start of the week, the messages replayed by the tree were randomly selected from recordings that I had made (the light sensor was connected via a relay to the Macintosh ADB port which 'ran' a Director programme that randomised one of eight different sound recording messages. A long stereo out lead led back out from the computer to two speakers hidden below the tree to give the impression that the sound was emanating from it). The idea of randomising messages was to indicate the variety and kinds of sound-based messages individuals might choose to leave in a garden. However, a number of individual visitors sat down on the seat more than once - and therefore one person might hear two different messages. Whilst, in the Garden-scheme proper, the Key would always control the exact message heard, this randomisation within the installation risked confusing the visitor - 'does this tree simply re-play any old message then?', which led me to select just a single message on replay - a few lines from TS Eliot's The Wasteland.

This choice of this example of 'difficult' material was deliberate. In part it was chosen as it related to a discussion in the book of the Garden about the practical control and replay of material. But it was also used within the installation as it was an example of the "what is the appropriate manner for delivering 'content'?" question. The point that the installation aimed to make here was that why (rightly so) do we ask questions about the appropriateness of poetry falling from the branches of tree when the same critical faculties seem to be suspended when addressing 'content' which is currently being developed for ‘multimedia’ computers. In essence, the question that I wanted to address was 'are bouncing oranges and morphing tower blocks' - which were the subjects of another project at the Circuit show which I felt to be one of the more bizarre and less challenging do-it-in-Adobe-software-stick-it-on-a-PC-and-no-one-will-ask-any-questions type pieces of work - is stuff like this, more 'suitable' a subject for multimedia than singing-ringing trees?' The award of prizes at the show certainly seemed to say 'yes', although it is a difficult point to raise without 'sour grapes' being quoted back.

So the purpose of the tree was to serve both as an example of how a public multimedia play-out device can (technically) be transparently tailored to provide a personal experience, and to ask fundamental questions about what multimedia content is, and who and what it is for. Although this mixture of the literal and the metaphorical clearly presented challenges in terms of understanding the work, it was no more 'difficult' than providing a demonstration of how a television set works, but then asking what - in terms of content - should it be used for.

Maps and Guides

The garden area also included the bug, an intelligent 'knowbot' which I had built to highlight general issues about navigation and control - and also to introduce an element of fun and some showmanship to attract visitors into the garden.

The theoretical mechanics which I had outlined for the Living Garden scheme mean that the active garden environment becomes 'aware' when a visitor enters, what information is represented by the Key that they hold, and which Viewer's are currently available in an environment. All the information required to direct the visitor to the appropriate play-out device is therefore known, so a map - directing the visitor to the appropriate location in a garden - can be created.

Extending the context for content argument, a range of objects which could guide the visitor to a garden were on display. Perhaps an individual might simply pick up a flat dynamic map panel on entering a garden, for example, which would literally point them in the right direction. An overhead with a superimposed image was left on a wall within the installation as an example of this.

Alternatively exactly the same spatial/content information could be processed by the Knowbot which would - literally - act as a guide, taking the visitor to the right location. If the 'R2D2 connotations of the device built made the process seem strange and awkward, so much the better, as this was another example of attempting to elicit questions within a visitor's mind about why a six-legged robot wasn't appropriate - would the same mechanics realised in a human form be more acceptable? With the dawning era of organic machines this was an interesting issue. This was another example of a literal element within the garden - the robot - also having an iconic, symbolic meaning (as well as illustrating a functional aspect of the scheme). It was both guide and a question regarding what form a guide should take.

Alternatively the same spatial co-ordinates could be processed so that the visitor finds 'voices in the air' (broadcast from speakers hidden throughout a garden) could effectively tell an individual which path to follow. One of the questions that I tended to put to visitors was is it any stranger to use a robot to navigate an information rich world, than Windows 95 or the Macintosh interface based on a metaphor of a 20th century office desk-top?

As well as raising a few smiles, the compost heap, replete with keyboards, CD-Roms, floppy disks was well very well liked, although visitors of a more literal frame of mind saw it as being an 'anti-computer, anti-multimedia statement' rather than one which simply aimed to make the point about hardware, software and content all having a natural life-span - each element ageing and decaying but providing the substance for new growth.

On the Aesthetics of Gravel

As a group project, the installation was, however, also a reflection of a spectrum of views, with Patrick Power's belief that the garden was purely symbolic, to Peter Robinson's aspiration to build a lush and very real memory garden. This catalysed a good deal of fruitful debate but necessarily meant that compromises were made all around as to the final look of the garden. A good example was the way that the Echoing Tree was built from layers of papier maché taken from the Encyclopaedia Britannica - Patrick's idea for a tree of knowledge - which was then painted with a brown varnish to satisfy Peter's colour scheme, and establish an 'organic' identity for the garden: a not entirely happy compromise.

Since Peter and Patrick had also both been informed that their degree was in jeopardy they felt that their work and voice had to be very visible within the installation in order to pass. I then had to make fine decisions between allowing the team as a whole to articulate its voice, and ensuring that the overall design did not turn into something of a curate's egg.

Whilst the design of the installation certainly seemed to work well in terms of communicating the essence of the scheme, I do feel that the aesthetics of the garden in particular were compromised - in part, because of these anxieties about making a mark. Peter Robinson's additional involvement with Mr Klutch (another student's project) also made extra demands upon his time - ones which inevitably grew as the show approached.


This highlighted the constant problem (for us) that as with all the other CD-Rom, computer-based projects at the show only one part of Mr Klutch would ever be visible at one time (the current screen), whilst the 'completeness' of the Garden installation was very visible, all the time, and it meant that 100% of what had been planned had to be built. Many of the CD-Roms only had a few screens of information, but the examiners never looked beyond a few 'clicks'. Therefore, having still managed to build all of what we intended to - no minor physical, logistical or technical achievement in itself - to subsequently have just the criterion of 'completion' subsequently held against the garden was particularly galling.

Yet, this problem was part of this general issue of creating work that was both an exhibit and also - effectively - part of an exam. Peter and Patrick had both been led to believe that unless their influence was materially visible they might simply not get their degree. Much of the compromise in the aesthetics of the garden was therefore, a direct result in the compound nature of the Circuit show which was both public exhibition and individual test.

The original conception of the Living Garden was as a narrative text - the appropriate medium for which, I believed, was a book. The least appropriate medium always seemed some form of existing multimedia-platform, the choice of which would undoubtedly have created confusion as to whether the scheme was a real or virtual space. Modelling the Living Garden - a system which one is claiming does not have to be based on current multimedia technology - using existing hardware and software would, to say the least, be somewhat paradoxical.

Having been denied the opportunity to develop the Garden as a book at the interim assessment, and told to develop a 'real' garden, establishing this reality, the very physicality of this place, was essential. Whilst this may have been interpreted somewhat literally with bark and gravel, these - after all - were 'literal', true materials which did actually make the point. Most of the visitors to the exhibit who were led through rapidly saw the unfolding arguments as they walked through the installation that physical spaces can, and clearly do, also serve representational functions as well; in other words the physical garden was not just a metaphor, but a place which - whilst serving a function - could also be rich in symbolic resonances, too.

An unexpected feature of the use of real materials was the way the garden genuinely evolved over the week - fruit rotted, the paths became a much more interesting mix of gravel and organic material, the place grew and was shaped by those visiting it, rather than simply reproducing verbatim pre-recorded programme. Again, this embodied one of the concepts of the garden that the 'journey to unlock a message' - the particular choice of garden the time of day, of year and of place - and would all form part of the associative 'content' of retrieving a message.

Whilst these points were successfully communicated via a walk-through, the state of play during the project's academic assessment felt less like a guided tour than a pitch invasion - not by our fans - but actually by the refs and linesmen clearly uncertain of the state of play within the garden; or indeed what game we were actually playing at all. The combination of this with Patrick and Peter's perceived need to be voluble about the very real contributions they had made to the physical garden in order – so they understood – to obtain their degree, ensured a confusion and babble which was very far from the experience that the installation was capable of delivering.

A factor that should not be underestimated was the sheer anxiety generated by the long delay in being seen by the examiners with no indication of when assessment would take place. The Living Garden team were in attendance from 8.00am to 5.00pm before being seen by exhausted examiners - who were met by at that point by to put it mildly three somewhat nervous and fidgety gardeners.

That said, certainly my feelings about the exhibition as an event changed a great deal as the week went on. From being implacably opposed to the whole event, I found myself actually enjoying the period and the chance to tell people about the Garden, and discuss the project with a wide audience. It was also one of the few times as an RCA student that I had an opportunity to be within that institution, formally, and meet other RCA-based students and staff. The encouragement - and constructive criticism - from Daryl Richards of the Computer Related Design faculty, in particular made a great deal of difference to me personally. Without the show, encouragement from individuals like this and other professional visitors who wanted to discuss the concepts behind the garden would never have happened.



'Future Development'?​

I felt that it was premature to ask for the ideas behind the Garden - very much a work in progress - to be fixed in a public gallery at such an early point of development. This aside, looking back on what was produced within the show, I would certainly have made various changes in any future exhibit. The sheer physical volume of materials - gravel and bark in particular - used within the Garden presented major logistical (and painful chiropractic) problems, and is something I would avoid at all costs again in the future. The Echoing Tree for example would be signalled by a symbolic pillar with four or five leaves at its base - why bother covering it in papier maché at all? Similarly the Pool could have been realised in a much simpler way, such as that described above, being 'all done with mirrors'.

Any future exhibition of the Garden would also take place in a very different political context. If I had been a free agent I would have avoided anything involving Adobe's sponsorship the Circuit exhibition - with the power it was given to endorse and implicitly brand multimedia work as 'good' or 'bad' by awarding prizes purely on the basis of the Adobe-ness of particularly pieces of work. Given the Garden explicitly questioned the current range of authoring tools, one hardly expected encouragement or Kudos from Adobe, but it was a shock to find that there was so little encouragement and support for what we were trying to do within an academic institution. This unhappy combination of trial by trade show, public exhibition and examination hall proved to be a particularly hostile environment for a project like the Garden.

In any future exhibition I would also be free of the feeling that I had a moral responsibility for ensuring that all voices within the project team were heard equally - else individuals risked being sacrificed by the examination system. As 'Head Parkie' I would produce any future work by collaborating with individuals who had clearly identified roles within the development of the scheme.

This project, by definition a 'challenging one', found itself in an essentially adversarial predicament. The Living Garden's very raison d'être - to ask why multimedia is about product, who is an author, what an authoring tool etc, - brought into opposition with many preconceptions within the field. The installation was an unwanted diversion from a line of intellectual development and discussion - a thought experiment which was forced to be realised in physical form. Whilst I understood the limitations I was working within, I accepted the call to attempt to push oneself; as external examiner Alan Seckers said, to "have the courage to fail". Having embraced this challenge, and having apparently succeeded in communicating our message in large part to a majority of visitors I still feel bruised and disillusioned for making this attempt to simply ask questions which challenged the digital status quo.

Pragmatically - for an easier MA life and apparently more certain success - I could perhaps have chosen the 'safe' option of compiling something which looked like multimedia is apparently supposed to look. That said, I still feel that the intellectual journey I made by sticking to my guns - difficult though this was at times - was for me personally one that was very well worth taking. This journey was essentially about moving away from a place - today's conceptions of multimedia - in order to view it from a distance, rather than about head towards a specific destination. Within this framework, the Garden was – at least for me – an important achievement.

The piece above was (in written form) originally submitted to the RCA examining board in October 1995.
I learnt that I had been awarded my MA a few months later. Below, me celebrating back in the day...

Nick Wray celebrating the end of the Gardening season in 1995


Schematic of Living Garden Architecture

(with illustrations from original 1995 booklet)

Glossary & Gallery

Authoring Tools
– A means to record a message (see Living Book) -
The drainpipe worked (some of the time). It contained a microphone to record a sound message that was digitised on a hidden IBM PC, and generated a code that was recorded on a Key. Taking the Key into the Garden replayed the sound message from a hidden speaker in the 'Echoing Tree'. Well that was the theory, anyway...
Echoing Tree
– The Echoing Tree is a Viewer for sound only. It is a (real) tree, fitted with hidden loudspeakers, to which the Key holder is directed and under which they may sit. On reaching the Echoing Tree, a Key will trigger the replay of a particular message which is stored on a remote server (see Figures 1-5).
– A Key electronically holds the ‘PIN’ (an encrypted and unique identification number) which identifies a particular Living Book. The Key, its simplest form could be thought of in today’s technology as the chip on an ATM cash card. The key in itself does not need to store the message – just as a cash card doesn’t store money. The key simply provides access to a record stored remotely.
Living Book(s)
– The recorded contents of a message. A Key provides access to a Living Book in a physical garden. An example of a Living Book, can be found via this link. Living Books may be ‘read’ through Viewers in any garden. Examples of Viewers might include the Pool of Reflection, Stone Circle, Time Sail etc (see below).
Living Garden
– The Living Garden is an architectural scheme with communal public gardens as its 'buildings' and personal communication as its purpose. These gardens, along with underlying digital technologies, provide a place and context within which an individual can go to retrieve and listen to simple messages which others wish them to have. These messages are retrieved using a token called a Key (see Figures 1-5).
Pool of Reflection
– a lake, pond or body of water where a single image might be projected onto the surface of water. An example of a message as it might appear in a Pool of Reflection, which can be found via this link.
– a Stone Circle – a series of flat-faced, broken stones set into the ground. As a visitor walks past each stone, the Key could trigger the recall of an image on the surface of each stone for as long as the visitor (with their Key) is present. The representational image used is from 'Little Sparta' - the garden of the late Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay
Stone Circle
Time Sail
– an Obsidian monolith able to display both moving images and perhaps sound, too. (Representational image is 'Nuclear Sail' from 'Little Sparta' - the garden of the late Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay).
– a ‘play-out’ device (such as the Echoing Tree or Pool of Reflection, above) found within a Garden. Click below for a video of the Pool...
The Water Bug
– Illustrating a bot-cum-automated-Jeeves, which could guide a visitor through a garden to the appropriate Viewer. An example of a Water Bug built for the original 1995 shows can be found by clicking below...