User Preferences: Tech Q&A With Philip Beesley

Saint-Exupery Field

Each week we chat about the tools of the trade with one outstanding creative to find out exactly how they do what they do. The questions are always the same, the answers, not so much. This week: Philip Beesley.

The Creators Project: Who are you and what do you do?
Philip Beesley:
I am a designer who is experimenting with special qualities of architecture, looking at how buildings might behave in the future. This work is asking some basic questions: might buildings come alive? Might they respond to us, and care about us? How might they take care of themselves, and contribute to the environment? The answers to these questions involve much technical craft, along with some poetic speculation.

What hardware do you use?
Our studio has invested in digital fabrication equipment that allows us to make a range of prototypes and mechanisms in mixtures of materials. We also work with many specialty contractors that can handle multiple materials and custom electronics. Full-strength digital modeling tends to play a prominent role, but at the same time, traditional hand-crafts, machining, and simple rendering, drawing and writing form a core. Along with heavy data storage, we have lots of handwriting and sketching in notebooks.

What software do you use?
We use software tools that run from data collection through design and manufacturing. We particularly emphasize tools for visualization to prototyping and testing. This includes writing, image processing, video production editing, two- and three-dimensional design, specialized digital fabrication, and custom electronics and interactive simulations. Project management and online collaboration tools also play important support roles.

If money were no object, how would you change your current setup?
I’m struck by how our working environments keep changing, so I would build a generous fund and invest in friendships with specialized consultants that could increase our flexibility and depth. Some specialized gear could open new doors for us—we’re quite hungry for large-scale prototyping that can handle metals and combinations of materials. In combination with that, integrating tissue fabrication equipment would allow the living systems we work with to gain momentum. This implies in-house machinists and mechanical engineering, with enough space and mechanical servicing to be able to easily set up new industrial processes for test runs. Finally, three-dimensional black-box theatrical space could support exploring the way our environments can perform and be perceived.

Hylozoic Soil

What fantasy piece of technology would you like to see invented?
The ‘Emotiv’ brain-system tracker that allows thinking to control physical actions is already in the market, so I don’t need to dream about that, it’s here. Similarly, we’re at the early stages of three-dimensional tissue engineering, using biodegradable scaffolds and living cell fabrication and deposit systems, and so we can speak about those operations with increasing confidence. However, being able to freely position a variety of chemical compounds in space, in a spectrum of states from dispersed gases through liquids and solids, free from the distortions of gravity, and with the ability to turn on and off their reactions, is still far from a working reality.

Along with these material fabrication systems, we dream of being able to track the impacts of the forms we make—I could imagine sensitive, expanded visualizations that track clouds of reactions falling far beyond the skin of each body, akin to the radiant auras that medieval painters pictured. Sensing gear that could track the outward rippling impacts of each element, combined with control systems that can freely manipulate the intermeshed relationships of each form would allow us to work with increasing precision within complex systems.

Is there any piece of technology that inspired you to take the path you did?
I worked with early music synthesis instruments—arrays of Buchla and Moog modules, and a Synthi peg-board interface while I was a young art student at Queen’s in Kingston. The setups were quite unruly, with piles of nested cables and rows of device boxes, but the subtlety and density of compositions that those systems could make were really striking. I think I developed courage for diving into forest-like tangles from that experience. A much earlier piece was a home-made strobe light, from when I was a child yearning to play heavy rock music. It was made from a light inside a box, with a motor spinning a plastic food-container lid with a hole cut into it. That wildly blinking light at pre-teen parties probably encouraged a lot.

What’s your favorite relic piece of technology from your childhood?
I still have a pocket microscope that my father gave me, along with a couple of folding rulers that my grandfather used to use. They are incredibly elegant tools, and they are far from obsolete. I suspect they also have quite emotional qualities—for me, the sense of parents encouraging curiosity and exploration is embedded in those things.