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Dr. Simon Bowen

I am a ‘designer-researcher’ – a designer (interaction design, largely) who also researches design and its application (often through its practice). I’m based at Open Lab, Newcastle University, supporting PhD students with their research projects and conducting cross-project research into the value and impact of collaborative projects centred on digital making.

My personal design research combines participatory and post-critical design strategies to explore human-sensitive applications of technology. See the research section of this site for more details and a list of publications. (Or my Academia.edu profile page. And there’s my LinkedIn page, too.)

I am also a published photographer and my work includes landscape, architecture and travel. And In 2015 I began exploring the interactive potential of spherical panoramic photography for engagement in heritage sites. See the photography section of this site for a selected portfolio, galleries and information on picture sales.

Finally, I’m a terrible blogger, but I occasionally post the odd piece of news or share some idle musings below.

Many Makings in Heckington St. Andrew’s Church

One of the projects that has followed on from the Sound Spaces project in Liverpool has been to undertake a similar creative project, focussed on a particular site, in collaboration with arts and humanities academics, creative businesses, and those associated with this site. In this case: the 14th Century Church of St. Andrew in Heckington, Lincolnshire and the team of parishioners pursuing Heritage Lottery Funding for its preservation and development; my previous collaborators John Bowers, Tim Shaw and Magnus Williamson; and the Liverpool-based creative business Draw & Code and architectural illustrator Allan T. Adams.

Speculative Rood, part of the illuminations exhibition

The church has exemplary medieval gothic architecture, a rich history, and particular, if not unique, spatial qualities. It is also a place of particular significance to the parishioners we worked with, and somewhere they want to encourage others to engage with and use as a cultural and social resource.

Across two weeks of intensive creative work on-site in Heckington, separated by three months of planning and development in between, my collaborators and I developed several artworks that engage visitors with the site, its history, and the community around it. This culminated in a public exhibition and performance on 29 April, with several artworks remaining in place for the coming few months.

We have only just begun documenting the work:

The exhibition has also attracted some local press attention.

Layers of the Old Dock

Lord Mayors' visit to Layers of the Old Dock, Liverpool ONE

image by Gareth Jones

This is an interactive artwork I made with Tim Shaw and was one of the several pieces that resulted from the Sound Spaces project with John Bowers and Stefan Kazassoglou. Sound Spaces was an investigation, through making, of various intriguing locations across Liverpool in 2015. One of the places we visited was Liverpool’s Old Dock, which is largely unseen to passersby being underground in the foundations of the Liverpool ONE leisure and retail development. Anyone can visit The Old Dock by booking onto one of the free guided tours offered by National Museums Liverpool, but I wondered whether 360-degree spherical photographs, layered with images and sounds evoking the site’s past and present, could engage passersby above ground. I worked with Tim Shaw to create a first prototype, which attracted sponsorship from Liverpool ONE to develop and install the piece for two years. The artwork went live in April 2017, some of the first visitors being a convention of Lord Mayors!

The piece is intended to be viewed on location in Liverpool ONE. But the image below gives a flavour of it.

Screenshot from Layers of the Old Dock

Layers of the Winchester Mystery House

I visited the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California yesterday – a house with many rooms and many stories. The site is packaged with more than a whiff of the Hollywood haunted house spin. The house designed by spirits. The labyrinth built to confuse evil spirits with doors and staircases to nowhere, winding staircases and secret passages. The house of paranormal phenomena, where you may still feel the presence of Sarah Winchester and those spirits she thought never far behind. And a house where all the explanations given inevitably end in ellipses “we’ll leave you to make your own mind up folks…”

The Winchester Mystery House
But the Winchester Mystery House has many more layers than this. It is an architectural pattern book of Victorian style. It is a monument to the many labours and crafts that produced it. It is an antidote to rigid design and ‘logical’ buildings (although Sarah Winchester applied different logics in its construction). It is the satisfaction of a previously frustrated architect’s desire to build. It is a physical manifestation of Sarah Winchester’s psyche and how she sought to deal with the tragic deaths of her infant daughter, husband and others close to her. And it is an attempt to make this conundrum engaging to modern visitors through ascribing mystery and intrigue, and the answers we append to all those ellipses.

What is so fascinating, though, is that the house is all these layers and others all at once. And is no different to anywhere else in this respect, simply a vivid example of this layering. I loved it.

Unfortunately photography inside the house is not allowed, but I took several outside.

Laminal Panospheres

I’ve just come back from an intensive four-day workshop at FACT in Liverpool, working with Kinicho (a company specialising in kinetic/3D sound engineering), three researcher-practitioner colleagues from Newcastle University (Tim Shaw, John Bowers and Tom Schofield), and several people who signed up for the workshop which was part of FACT’s Build Your Own programme of activities. We visited several fascinating spaces across the city to make various recordings, which we then used to produce several interactive works for public performance and demonstration. During this time I created an interactive, layered, series of spherical panoramic photographs which can be explored here: http://simon-bowen.com/soundlines/ (For extra interaction, use a smart phone or tablet…)

We intend to develop these works further for a public installation towards the end of October.

A Panoramic Peek inside Selby Abbey

I visited Selby Abbey last week as part of  research I’m involved in on interaction design and heritage sites, and made some spherical panoramic photos:

Norman arch at the main entrance to Selby Abbey

Norman arch at the main entrance to Selby Abbey

The site has a rich history including being one of the oldest Norman churches in the country (founded in 1069). But whilst I was there I learned that the building has hosted notable events more recently being the venue for Taiwanese superstar and ‘New King of Asian Pop’ Jay Chou’s wedding.

Panoramic Yorkshire book now available

After much of my usual prevarication I’ve finally created a book of 21 of my panoramic photographs of Yorkshire. I’ve used BobBooks rather than iPhoto. We normally use Apple’s iPhoto for our annual  books of family photos because the layouts are easy to populate and elegantly designed. However I wanted lay-flat pages for wide panoramic images spread over two pages (that is when you can open the book and not get the image squeezed in and out of the spine at the fold line). BobBooks offer this and printing on photographic lustre paper, which yields better contrast and deeper colours than traditional printing. The layout tools provided are a little clunky (compared to intuitive iPhoto), but worth persevering with to get the image quality.

I wrote the introduction and captions to the book for an interested audience, rather than just the family so that I could offer the book for sale, too (no profit taken – these books are expensive enough as it is). You can check it out here.

Panoramic Yorkshire, book cover

Better Health and Social Care Services by Design

I appear in these videos about improving health and social care services using designerly ways of working. These “Better Services by Design” videos are from a project of the same name I was part of during my work with User-centred Healthcare Design. They explain the opportunities and benefits of using designerly strategies and methods in improving health services, with examples from the two projects we worked with during the project. There are six short videos, beginning with the introduction below (follow this link, to see all six):

Better Services By Design: Introduction from User-centred Healthcare Design on Vimeo.

New Dog, Old Tricks?

The new Nikon Df camera was released recently, a camera I thought I’d immediately start to covet but have actually been somewhat underwhelmed by. I learned my craft on manual Nikon SLRs (a Nikkormat EL2 lost in a burglary and replaced with a Nikon FM3a) and loved the direct connection with image making enforced by manual selection of exposure and focus settings. Moving to digital in 2007, I still used most of my manual lenses and generally continued to set shutter speed and aperture manually. I’ve since acquired some auto-focus lenses (great for portraits) but continue to rely on crisp, contrasty manual lenses for landscape work.

So why don’t I love the Df as a return to the good old days? Firstly it’s big(ish). The FM3a is rather svelte by comparison, principally because it doesn’t need to fit a D4’s electronic gubbins inside it. Secondly, I’m not sure what you gain from using ‘manual’ dials to set exposure settings over using the front and rear command dials as I’ve become accustomed to (and you can use command dials with the camera to your eye much easier than the rotary dials). Thirdly, the sensor size – why 16 Mp on a camera aimed at photo-purists and not something larger like on the D800? And the clincher is the cost – not much change from three thousand pounds.

I would have preferred a camera closer to the ideals of the FM3a – basic metering, no auto-focus drive and manual exposure settings (alright, perhaps aperture-priority auto-exposure). And image processing components that provide the highest quality image for subsequent development – i.e. a high resolution sensor and RAW-only files. This would reduce the complexity of the electronics inside and place the camera back into the hands of those who prefer not to be distracted by details such as number, spread and types of auto-focus sensors, metering patterns, and ‘scene-based’ image processing algorithms. It would be smaller and cheaper, too!