That Black Box on Kensington Gore

I’m currently working on an “index” or documentation of 10 years of the Design Interactions Department (Royal College of Art) which I hope to finish soon (ie: before December). Much gratitude goes to Nina Pope who was the one who suggested it in the first place and allowed me to retrieve whatever flotsam and ephemera was left in the studio. I still have many people I want to write to and I confess that I originally meant to finish it by September, but it has taken me more time than expected and I am also now in Singapore working on other things. But since this is already coming after the graduation and there are no real deadlines except the one where I throw in the towel – I thought I should exercise due diligence, and do a little more digging into the wider history of design education as well as other courses which have since ceased to be, such as the Environmental Media course which was intrigued about some time back (but found not very much information about it online)…

I had never been to the Special Collections prior to this, nor was I particularly enthused about the College Library with its considerably short opening hours whilst I was studying (Imperial’s library was very close by and I had access to it 24-hours). I suppose the thing is that I wanted a more general library at the time but the RCA Library collection does seem quite… idiosyncratic, as is likely to become the case with any modest-sized library of about 70,000+ books (in comparison with an extreme example, the British Library holds 170 million books). As a result, I’ve always felt that the RCA Library is more like a kind of place you wander into and encounter some pictures in an old book that you’ve never seen before – rather than a comprehensive place you could go to find any specific book in a university course reading list.

With the present difficulty of entering the college outside of term time without a pass (now becoming a real schlep with all the signing-ins, waiting to be collected, etc – despite ostensibly working on/for the college in some capacity!), I was determined to MAXIMISE MY LIBRARY EXPERIENCE! FIND ALL THE MATERIALS! SEE ALL THE BOOKS! And so scoured its lending shelves quite thoroughly for interesting, rare or antiquarian finds! (In this one respect, I recommend the very first section to the right on the ground floor. One usually might not think to go there as there are no books on the right wall which is the only wall you can see, but the left wall does hold what are probably some of the most expensive books which are hidden out of view. That one wall seems to be holding the bulk of the variously large and oversize books – where you will find gems such as an ORIGINAL 1904 edition of Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur).

Never did I think that one day I would actually read a book about the Royal College of Art from the context of a former student looking at its history. Several years ago, when I first entertained the thought of further studies, I began copying the statements issued by universities and departments to potential students into my wiki. Don’t laugh, but I was so serious about applying to RCA that I actually pasted a statement from the RCA prospectus onto the front page of my wiki: “The criteria for acceptance by the Royal College of Art are talent and potential, along with the commitment and the ambition to make a difference within an art or design discipline”.

If this is the statement issued by the university to the student, then what is the equivalent of the statement issued by the monarch to the institution which seeks to be a royal university? I mean, what makes the college so “royal”? There is in fact the Royal Charter that the RCA received in 1967 which made it a university (which I must admit I had not read before):

Royal Charter: Our objectives are ‘to advance learning, knowledge and professional competence particularly in the fields of fine arts, in the principles and practice of art and design in their relation to industrial and commercial processes and social developments and other subjects relating thereto, through teaching, research and collaboration with industry and commerce’.

Emphasis above is mine, but what is interesting is the repeated mention of industry and commerce in the charter. No such mention of industry and commerce is in the call to students, but I suppose the state of industry and commerce in the country is less the prerogative of the individual student and more that of those who are steering the college.

In former Rector Christopher Frayling’s book on the History of the Royal College of Art, Frayling writes that “it was clear in late 1970s that college was becoming test-case pour encourager les autres” – with the Undersecretary for Higher Education threatening that it might receive “less recurrent grant” in the future if the RCA did not respond enough to National needs and priorities as per its Royal Charter. In Spring 1981 a visiting committee also reported that although the RCA may be “thriving”, “it was neglecting its duty enshrined in Royal Charter” by not having enough links to industry and not making the revitalisation of the British economy its ultimate priority.

In a way I feel like the dissolution of avant-garde courses such as Environmental Media in the mid 1980s foreshadows that of the present day situation. Of course, these are two different situations, but the point to be made of both is that there has always posed a great difficulty in quantifying the value of art and design education. I suppose this is why a design school prospectus is always sure to have lists of graduates who have made it big in the industry or with their own commercial success stories or commercial companies. And an art school prospectus is going to write of the big international museums, fairs, and prestigious galleries their graduates have gone on to show and sell work at. How else do you quantify success? With significant HEFCE education funding cuts in the UK, the pressure is definitely on to “prove” that funding education is still a good investment.

For example, the strategic plan 2010-2016 by current Rector Paul Thompson stated outright a goal of “Expand(ing) the programme of Master’s courses to advance new developments in design and art, ensuring twenty-first century relevance”. As to the metric used to determine the success of this particular goal, the intended outcome was to be “a 50% increase in student numbers to approximately 1,500 by October 2014; this will be caused by additional recruitment to existing courses, combined with recruitment to new courses that have been successfully validated”. Strategic plan 2016-2021 envisions four new research centres and ten new postgraduate taught programmes and the student body will consequently have increased to between 2,300–3,000 by 2021. [You can read the strategic plans here on the list of RCA’s Corporate Publications]

Personally I would have expected “increase in student body” to have been classed under “Finance” goals from the beginning – instead of under the goal of “Relevance“; it comes across a little disingenuous when phrased as such. Only 5 years away and an expected 200% increase in the student body from 2011? I really don’t see how massive increases in student numbers will directly ensure twenty-first century relevance; it will instead increase the college’s income from tuition fees and reduce its dependence on HEFCE funding – which is a perfectly legitimate goal for the college.

Also, I find it problematic when I see statements like “unified, customer-focused approach to the delivery of academic and operational services” and “value-for-money” bandied about. Is this how one must write or speak in order to be understood by funding bodies? But what happened to the human poetry of intellectual curiosity that should be the foremost driving factor behind art and design research excellence today? I’m not really comfortable seeing a document that is being disseminated to students and stakeholders entirely wrapped up in jargon that may not be universally understood.

And it is not just this issue of quantifying value, which we see when a document is expressed entirely in business jargon. To speak of terminologies, I suppose the bottom line of programmes like Environmental Media and Design Interactions was to some extent, an insistence on ambiguity. Ambiguity in its materiality in the former, and ambiguity through its materiality in the latter.

An account from Frayling’s “The Royal College of Art: 150 Years of Art and Design”: “One reason why conceptualism, minimalism and performance art never developed solid roots within the existing Fine Art schools was that from 1975 onwards, the Department of Environmental Media had been created to teach the more avant-garde students who were emerging from post-Coldstream painting, Sculpture, and Film courses. This catch-all Department started life as “the Light Transmission and Projection unit” under Bob Hyde, rather uneasily sharing studios with Hugh Casson’s interior designers. But as the unit came of age – and in particular, as it proved to be more expensive than anticipated, with increasing use of video (or rather “time-based media”) – no one seemed to be sure whether it had more in common with Stained Glass (coloured light) or Sculpture (spatial art).”

[…] “In which case,” yelled the Glaswegian, “you’re like a surrealist painter trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture… If you’re not a dialectical materialist you’re not in the picture at all.” At that point he stormed out of the room, muttering about the secret police.”

At Design Interactions, the goal as I understand it, was that tutors were trying to guide us towards the production of a work that might only be partially contextualised within our world, presenting itself ambiguously as a physical object from another world within our world, simultaneously juxtaposing multiple ‘realities’ but crucially never allowing total escape from remembering that we are still from our own reality. Doing so would allow the work to transcend plain commentary into something more uncanny? More perturbing? Something supposedly more effective in stimulating the audience into a deeper engagement with the work and issues at hand.

The issue of ambiguity lies not only in the reception of the work but also each individual artist/designer/technologist who produces the work. How confusing that must be for anyone working OUTSIDE of the discipline looking at it, especially if the confusion arises for those trying to determine an institutionalised metric for calculating the efficacy of the works. Equally confusing it must be for artists or designers with a more malleable ‘voice’ – it is certainly not for all. My issue with the production of works (particularly in the case of student works, if I may be honest) was that sometimes as an outside viewer I simply could not read what the designer/artist’s intentions were. Whether a work is capable of concealing and revealing its position at the same time may be dependent entirely on the viewer’s common knowledge and shared understandings with the producer of the work, so the onus would be entirely on the viewer whom the author has no control over. In a sense then, the work doesn’t really end until you see what comes out from the other end (ie: the engagement of the viewer), leaving us with the problem of the black box that we have yet to unpack…

As this is getting quite long, I’m going to stop here for now and move on to… an anecdote about another black box!

Why is the Royal College of Art black?

It never occurred to me to google for a picture of the architecture of the school until I first personally visited it for an open day, but knowing on paper that it was in the grand old Albertopolis area with a long history with the South Kensington Museum, I actually expected it to be less… harsh and BLACK. One might imagine that this was meant to make the building stand out in the area – however, it appears the truth is actually quite the opposite!

The Royal College of Art royal college of art The Royal College of Art

Images found on flickr by Chmee2, typeoneerror and Vicky Teinaki

The Darwin Building (Grade II listed) was designed in 1961, some years after the great Smog of 1952, which purportedly contributed to the demise of up to 4000 Londoners. This was also just before the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 banning black smoke emissions and requiring urban residents and factory operators to use smokeless fuels. Even in 1962 there was a significant fog which killed around 750 Londoners due to the extreme levels of pollution caused by black smoke (burning of coal, etc).

So in the 60s, the other buildings in the area such as the Albert Hall and the V&A Museum’s terracotta design would have been covered in decades of thick black soot. Therefore, the RCA had been specially designed to have a “black brick and black concrete fondus” (both of which were rather expensive at the time) to suit the fabric of Albertopolis!

The entry on Historic England (the public body tasked with preserving and listing historic buildings/monuments) also makes this clear: “Reinforced concrete clad in dark red-brown brick intended to complement Norman Shaw’s Albert Hall Mansions, then uncleaned, on the other flank of the Royal Albert Hall.” In appearance, it is so dark as to appear black or grey from certain angles.

A couple years after its construction, London decided to clean up in the 1970s, perversely leaving the Darwin Building as the only outstanding sooty black building in Kensington Gore…

Tilemill – Conditional Label Placement, Pseudo 3D Building Effects, and Polygon Patterns

Tilemill is an excellent tool for map design and development, which really provides ease of use through CartoCSS. For me, I think it is very accessible for designers/artists who might not have a clue about arc/gis but just want to design a map decently. Today I’m finalising the maps for my Paris Postdated project so I sat down to figure out a few things…

Conditional Label Placements

Microsoft Excel

I read a guide suggesting this method, which works. The funny thing is that I have not gotten it to properly “not overlap” in the past, and by setting it to “text-allow-overlap:false;” this usually results in NO LABELS at all. And in the end, sometimes I just want ONE or TWO labels to be done in another direction.


Solution: Created a new column called dir, and when dir = 1 it will be aligned to NW instead of NE.

Pseudo 3D Effects


Pseudo 3D effects can be gotten for buildings as well. If my data had building heights (which sadly it does not) then I could multiply my height value by the actual height of the building! In other words, instead of this:

#building { building-height:5; }

you could actually have this (where “height” is the field in for your building height):

#building { building-height:[height]*5; }

Basically, values drawn onto the maps can be derived directly from attributes in one’s data source. So there is some room to be inventive in how you map out the values. Seems to work for a number of fields such as marker-width and marker-height and building-height. Probably works for directions/orientation of labels if your data has that…

Polygon Patterns

Another way in which to add texture to the maps is overlaying a pattern file over polygons. You can make your own, or alternatively Subtle Patterns has a whole bunch of useful patterns which are very suitable for overlaying onto your maps.

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There is a list of Compositing Operations (comp-op) available, including plus, minus, color-dodge, color-burn, invert, etc. You can use this to composite the pattern layer over the original colours selected, so the colours can be still fine-tuned live, along the way….

Map {

In addition to that, there is also polygon-gamma (which you can set to around 0.5-1 and which will help make polygons sit together more seamlessly) and polygon-pattern-alignment, which can be local or global. Local means its just for that polygon, global mean its aligned to the overall metatile instead of each of the individual polygons. Here is an example of Singapore with some patterns…

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Well that was bit tiny. Also, these are only very simple, design-related operations. I’m having more difficulties figuring out how to use PostgreSQL and PostGIS to clean up some stuff, but I thought I’d at least document the easy parts first!…

12 Pomodoros


Pomodoros in Rome

One thing that has really helped me reduce anxiety in the face of a mountain of seemingly insurmountable tasks is timeboxing, also known as “the pomodoro technique”.

A “pomodoro” is a 25 minute block of uninterrupted work time followed by a 5 minute break. During that 25 minute block I’m not allowed to do anything else other than that task. I apply the pomodoro/timeboxing to all activities — including time for emailing/correspondences, time for mundane things (showerodoro?), time for fun stuff (nanoblockodoro? arduinodoro?), time for food (lunchodoro? foododoro?)…

I know you’re thinking this is bonkers… but it works.

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I draw up a grid visualizing my day as a series of 30 minute boxes into which I can drop in my tasks for the day and my fun stuff for the day. The goal is first to break a difficult, complex task into small, manageable pomodoros, whilst never losing track of the bigger goals at stake. Next, I draw up a grid visualizing my day and available time as a series of 30 minutes and allocate pomodoros to these slots.

I can tell you it sure feels better staring into the YAWNING CHASM OF PANIC!!!

Some things I’ve learnt in the process of the last few weeks is:

  • Most of my writing-related pomodoros will take more time than I planned.
  • Most of my design-related pomodoros will take less time than I planned.
  • I find writing to be more meaningful work, but I dislike how I cannot multitask on anything else while doing writing work.
  • I find design work enjoyable because I can multitask and think about the things I’m going to write whilst doing design work.
  • Replying to email and correspondences needs actual pomodoros allocated for it in the day if I am to get any of it done. On most days, I will end up doing at least 2 pomodoros of emailing/correspondences.
  • Under pressure, I can actually design and lay out an entire 224 page book within 12 pomodoros.

And so folks, brought to you by the power of fastidiously squeezed pomodoros….




More information on the book here


More Tomatoes in Rome

I wish to add that I was very excited to visit Italy earlier this year to see REAL POMODOROS. I love pomodoros, but I actually absolutely hated tomatoes as a child. I have always been particularly intolerant of strangely textured foods, bitter tastes, or sour food. Tomato fell on the wrong side of unfamiliar and was usually sour so I would reject ALL foods with tomatoes or tomato sauce. I think I once even wrote a poem about HOW MUCH I HATED TOMATOES and stuck it on the fridge. To me that was the ultimate insult I could dish out to the tomato! In my mind I wanted to be a strange and cruel vegetable vigilante who would go into people’s houses and take their tomatoes out of their cupboards with my hand and smash them on the floor one by one because I hated them!! The only way you could get me to eat tomatoes would be if it was wearing a disguise! I guess my childhood experience of the tomato had been marred by substandard produce….

HOWEVER – these italian pomodoros are nothing but a thing of beauty! The smell of the vine is sweet and fragrant. It requires no persuasion, for pomodoros in italy are always a joy to eat! Sweet and juicy, after you eat these beautiful pomodoros, you will weep when confronted with the flat, dull, yellowish and tasteless tomatoes from the rest of the world… particularly the imported stuff we commonly get in Singapore…

Air Typing with Leap Motion + Dextype


“Dear G, I recently got the eagerly awaited LEAP MOTION in the mail, so I thought I would write you a touching and emotional first letter describing the magical moment in which I unboxed the Leap Motion – all whilst using the Leap Motion and some of the new typing applications that are available for the Leap and its apparently amazing gesture technology that we’ve heard so much about for so long now!”

Screen Shot 2013-08-05 at 9.06.29 PM.png

“Hmm. It’s okay, I suppose I just have to practice for a little while…”



“Nope, not happening. I mean I don’t even… What is happening here? Also, my arms are kinda tired…”

To be fair I didn’t want to spend that much time learning how to type all over again and this is the end of one pomodoro worth of faffing about with it. I’m sure I’ll find a more logical and less tiring use for the LEAP in time to come. Yes it works out of the box, but after that, I think we all need to sit down and be practical about what we can and should be building for it. And, AIR TYPING? Hmmmmm….. Maybe not my kind of thing.

See also:
Leap Motion

Obsdocu, Artsciencepocketbooth, and Ujikajirecords

One reason why I’ve wanted to go away on residency was because it was hard to break the cycle of overworking. Now I’ve taught my last class for the year, but the crazy working still continues. So here’s an update of the “fun” work done this month (I’m not even going to talk about the commercial work I’ve also been working on…):

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A simple website for a crowdfunded documentary about one of my favorite Singaporean bands of all time, The Observatory. I’ve followed them and their various other bands for well over a decade, in the form of other bands as well, and they’ve dedicated so much time to their craft and music. I’m proud we have guys making music like this here in Singapore. The folks who are trying to produce the film are also friends of mine, and we’re seeking funding to make this documentary. Please donate generously if you would like to support this project!


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A simple website for a flash interactive onsite at the ArtScience Museum, part of the children’s section of the Andy Warhol exhibition. Visitors can take pictures of their belongings and it uploads straight to this site online. Visitors can also tag the pictures with their own keywords, although so far most people seem content to be tagging it with




handdrawn chinese words for ujikaji!
I’m also rebuilding an online shop for Ujikaji Records, run by my good friend Mark “Ujikaji” Wong. Ujikaji Records is a label/distro specialising in experimental music from Singapore/South East Asia, and they’ll be releasing a number of new digital releases soon and also a compilation of experimental music from Singapore soon (AS SOON AS WE GET ALL THIS UP!). This week, after building the above two sites in record time, I suddenly discovered the magical WordPress plugin known as Jigoshop and after one evening of tinkering I already had incredible results, and I’ve realised its certainly well within my ability to BUILD AN ENTIRE ECCOMMERCE SITE IN TWO WEEKS! OH YEAH, SO THATS WHAT I’M GONNA DO.

Don’t visit until next week!

Moodboard – Demons and their Sigils of Summoning, Occult Geometry, and Neon Spirits

As Arthur C Clarke says: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” These beautiful symbols have been making the internet rounds lately. In this form, they appear almost like circuit diagrams. I approve of this graphical style! Internet indicates that some of these resemble sigils in the Lesser Key of Solomon.

I put together some moodboards with similar artwork that I like.

In Walter Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, Civilisation is described as having been once destroyed by a nuclear war, and subsequently a backlash occurs against technology (which had led to the development of nuclear weapons), resulting in “Simplification” and the killing of intelligent people and burning of books.

Centuries after this event, there was an monastic order that somehow survived (a little bit like how monk’s would have lived in the dark ages) and the abbey was focused on preserving and copying these religious texts. Over the course of the book, we soon realise that these religious text they had hoarded and preserved were similar to mundane things we see in the present century – shopping lists, receipts, science notes, circuit diagrams. They had copied and memorised it as if it were knowledge from God although they did not always know what it meant, but this information had actually been the detailed knowledge and diagrams of the science and technology that man once had, but had chosen to forget because of the terrors of nuclear war…

Neon lights and the occult are something that seem perfectly matched as we move into an LED-lit era. Chinese funerals, temple festivals, and certain other taoist religious ceremonies in Singapore are also commonly festooned with intense, running neon light displays.

Yama, God of Hell, at Newton Circus Food Centre last year.

Here is more detail from Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, which was a somewhat indulgent and long-winded film with long tracking shots, but also lovely drugged out visuals with soft focus and mainly neon colours. Appropriately, the film is also modelled after The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which piques the interest of the main character just before he is unexpectedly and suddenly killed, and his soul seems to float through the feverish, neon-lit nights of Tokyo…

From SFgate: “Noé says, “The longest astral trip you can find is the one described in the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead,’ so I thought that book would be a great way to structure a hallucinatory vision for two hours.” To research psychedelic experience firsthand, Noé journeyed to Latin America.

“In the Peruvian jungle, I drank some extremely hallucinogenic ayahuasca,” he recalls. “Everything seems like it’s made out of neon lights. It would have been a lot easier if the designers had tried it themselves because it is difficult to explain these visions to people who never had those experiences.””