Cassini remembered; the first anniversary of the spacecraft's grand finale

The voyages of the Cassini spacecraft and Huygens probe to the Saturn system are something I have followed since before the launch in 1997, until the very last day of the mission in 2017. On this day last year, Cassini finished it’s mission and dived into Saturn’s atmosphere, sending data for as long as it could. This final course of action was chosen as the grand finale to preserve the pristine nature of Saturn’s moons (to avoiding leaving debris floating around.)

I have followed Cassini most of my life, and still shed the odd tear of joy over the hope it’s always given me, its images, all that data… and sadness that a scientific experiment I’ve looked at in awe for so long is over. It’s given me so much hope because, as it prepared to launch, I was an unhappy teen just escaped an unpleasant home life, getting a grant to go study biomedical science. It launched when I first graduated. Cassini represented everything about the potential and excitement of science to me, what humans can achieve when they aren’t being asshats to each other, and everything optimistic about exploring our universe. I know it sounds strange, but the mission’s been a constant as I’ve grown and life has changed for the better. It deserves to be remembered for all the wonder it’s created in the world.

Cassini & Huygens live on in data. Here is the Morse code art I made to remember it. It encodes goodbye messages to the Cassini spacecraft & Huygens probe, and a goodbye-for-now to Saturn and 23 of it’s moons. (There are also Morse spelling errors and correction sentences encoded. Because I’m a human, not a space robot.)

Find out more about Cassini and it’s legacy at saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

The Little Things Add Up - a Morse code drawing project about everyday ableism

TLTAU is a small Morse code-drawing project about spoonie life & everyday ableism. It turns the small unpleasantries people say to disabled and chronically ill people into art, to show how it all adds up (because it does add up to a pressing weight over time.) Using Morse code as a set of drawing rules, I transform small phrases into spirals. Periodically, I collate the spirals into collages to show how the feeling of unwelcomeness in a world designed to privilege non-disabled people grows over time. You can find out more about this project here - I’ll be updating that page with each spiral (with a translation) as it’s made.

The first 12 little things.

Image Description; a pattern of 12 spirals made of black & grey dots and dashes (representing morse code) around black charcoal-like smudges.

I’ve been experimenting with Morse code as a set of generative drawing rules for some time, wanting to use this as a way of venting things that are hard to say, or difficult to talk about. Morse code is particularly appealing to me for a project of this nature, because it can be converted into sound to make art that is accessible in both visible and auditory media. I also hope to experiment with making tactile Morse code art, using methods like laser cutting/engraving dot and dash shapes, or making raised marks with puff-paint or paste. I’ll update the project page as I go, to share how I get on. You can also read about how I use Morse code as a drawing method here.

 A single spiral - Little thing 11; I don’t like being around people in pain, I don’t want to absorb their bad vibes.   Image description; a pattern made of black & grey dots and dashes (representing morse code) around a black charcoal-like smudge. The morse coded words are “I don’t like being around people in pain, I don’t want to absorb their bad vibes.”

A single spiral - Little thing 11; I don’t like being around people in pain, I don’t want to absorb their bad vibes.

Image description; a pattern made of black & grey dots and dashes (representing morse code) around a black charcoal-like smudge. The morse coded words are “I don’t like being around people in pain, I don’t want to absorb their bad vibes.”

Some of the little things are eye-roll inducing - so many chronically ill and disabled people get told we’d magically get better if only we ate more kale/goji berries/went vegan/did yoga/tried meditating, that it’s just farcical (check out the hashtag #shitabledpeoplesay on twitter, and you’ll find many variations on that theme.) Some are highly degrading; people assuring me they’d kill themselves if they had chronic pain devalues my very existence, as if my life is not worth living. Others are more insidious… The suggestion that other people’s taxes ‘pay’ for my accessibility is often trotted out because to many people it seems reasonable to suggest accessibility places a burden on the public purse. However, ignores that 1; disabled people pay taxes like anyone else 2; a person’s worth does not depend on how much tax they pay/use in services 3; accessibility benefits everyone! People with pushchairs as well as wheelchair users find ramps helpful, many sighted people still find captions/image descriptions useful, and I sure see plenty of non-disabled people using lifts and escalators instead of the stairs.

As an example, below are the first 6 little things in this project;

  1. Do you really need that stick?

  2. Don't call yourself disabled.

  3. I'd kill myself if I was you.

  4. It can't hurt that much.

  5. You just want the attention, you're not really sick.

  6. You look too young.

And below are three spirals with the morse code played as sounds. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep this project going for, but one thing I am sure of; when it finishes, it won’t be because I’ve run out of little things to add… The well of everyday ableism never seems to run dry.

The Insecta Deck; life evolving on the card table

It's week 36, & I'm 36 card designs into my Insecta Deck project to create my 2nd transformations poker deck. So it seems like an opportune time to review work so far, as I start the final stretch; making the court card, aces, & joker designs...

The Insecta Deck 7S card design being made, featuring metallic shield bugs drawn in polychromos pencils, & a rough edit. Shadows under each creature will be added to the designs after all the insects are drawn, in the final edit; this ensures consistency across the deck.

The idea behind Insecta is different to Cryptic Cards (although I do plan to make further camouflage/mimicry themed transformation decks.) In Cryptic Cards I was asking 'what would happen if moths evolved to hide on human-made materials, like playing cards?' For Insecta, I'm imagining card tables as a habitat for different types of insects, living in symbiosis with players.

Twelve playing card designs from the Cryptic Cards deck, with moths painted camouflaged onto every card face.

As climate change and habitat loss threaten many species of life on this planet, insects are not immune from extinction. Despite their multitudinous variety, many species will be wiped out before humanity is even aware of them. While this should give us all cause to fight for change in the way we (individually and collectively) treat the planet & it's many intricately connected habitats... We also need hope. We need to imagine ways to thrive alongside other living things, without their destruction, otherwise we loose hope, & can become apathetic. So the Insecta deck is my future expression of hope, my imagining of sharing a small niche with insect life.

We like to think of 'natural' biodiversity-friendly environments as pristine forests, or unpolluted lakes. But go and spend 10 minutes on a disused railway siding, & you'll find it teeming with life! From empty lots to sunken ships, humanity leaves a lot of new ecological niches in its wake, & nature is resourceful in filling them. What if we're creating niches that provide unexpected opportunities for new symbiotic relationships? What if we invited other forms of life to join us in our daily activities, and... What if that life stayed for a game of poker? Insecta Deck imagines insects from four different taxonomic orders that have evolved to provide a colourful form of card pips, in exchange for a sheltered niche in casinos and at card tables.

Below is a peek at some of the designs so far. The best is yet to come, so stay tuned for the court cards in the next few weeks. If you want to be the first to see finished artwork, timelapse videos, & get studio peeks, please consider supporting my Patreon.

New page for artwork from the Connecting Brain Tumour Narratives project

There's a new page & archive for the Connecting Brain Tumour Narratives project here, which also shows all the pages in the handmade book from the residency. The book contains artwork relating to stories from brain tumour pateints, their families & friends, and scientists researching brain tumours. Details of both the exhibitions, links to all the organisations involved, and more artwork images can also be found there.

If you get a mo please check it out.

'Connecting Narratives; Ink Game #2' - An 11 x 11 array of 121 ink patterns, made of mixtures of two colours of ink - pink and blue - representing the more than 120 brain tumour types arising from two cell lineages (neuronal and glial).

For the final exhibition in this residency, ink patterns were mounted on perspex circles velcroed to a wall, which exhibition visitors could move around in order to group patterns with like features (an analogy for histopathological categorisation of brain tumours.)

Morse code as a method for drawing

This post is adapted from an earlier piece that can be found here. My most recent drawing can be found on this site in the Morse code gallery.

After drawing generative patterns using fairly arbitrary combinations of dots & dashes (read about those here, or watch me drawing here), learning to draw in Morse code seemed like a natural progression… And although I resisted the urge to follow that progression for quite a while, I have now fallen down that encoding-drawing-rabbit-hole. I taught myself the rules of Morse code, and developed a way to draw in it. These generative drawings are not intended to be translated; I’m drawing them as aesthetic pieces, which may or may not be linked to information/data accessible online. But I want it to be *possible* for anyone to translate the code in these images (in the unlikely event anyone wants to), because I’m a dork. So… here we are. 

  [Image description; A pattern of light & mid blue dots & dashes on a navy background, spiralling outward from a central white & grey circle with a white dot above it, wrapping around more white & grey circles. It encodes a goodbye to the Cassini spacecraft, Huygens probe, Saturn, and 27 of it’s moons.]

Morse code is a way to encode information as a series of dots and dashes, and I was already aware of a couple of characters via the International Morse code distress signal SOS (…- - -…). It’s been around for over 160 years, & Morse code is still used by radio enthusiasts (often referred to as CW (for ‘continuous wave’.) Speed of transmission is limited, and thus abbreviations like PLS, ENUF, etc have been used in Morse code since long before SMS. However, if I’m drawing someone else’s words, I only use abbreviations where they do. I’ve included a list of Morse code characters I use as an image at the very end of this post, and you can listen to/read the characters here/here.

 

  [Image description; an irregular shaped pattern on a white background, made of dots and dashes in shades of light and dark green, spiralling clockwise outwards from and around green circles. It encodes words about forests.]

Finding a drawing method

In Morse code, one unit is defined as the length of a dot, and dashes are 3 units long. There is one unit between each dot/dash in a character, 3 units between characters in a word, and 7 units between words. I represent the spaces between characters and words visually, as well as the coding dots and dashes. I’m not fussy about dashes being exactly 3 dots long. I use a light and a dark tone of the same colour; one for characters, another for spacing marks. This hopefully makes it easier for anyone without full colour vision to distinguish coding & non coding markings. It’s easy to work out which colour is coding characters because spacing colours only occur as a series of 3 or 7 dots.

Using mid blue for characters and light blue for spaces, ‘My name is Immy’ looks like this;

  3 lines of mid blue dots and dashes interspersed with light blue dots, representing Morse code.

I’m appending punctuation that comes after a word e.g. full stops to the end of the preceding word, and punctuation before words e.g. opening parentheses to the start. So the words ‘Hi, I’m Immy.’ including the punctuation marks look like this;

  three lines of mid blue dots and dashes interspersed with light blue dots, representing Morse code.

And that’s it. A simple set of rules. Now I’m trying to make my Morse code drawings more interesting…

Drawing in layers

The six rule-drawings I make are made from dots and dashes in layers around black shapes, like the one below. They don’t encode words, and follow small sets of rules that use randomly generated numbers to decide where to draw shapes or dot-dash layers. I like the way these images often having irregular shapes, and I want to replicate those shapes in my Morse code drawings. (You can watch a video of the drawing below being made here.)

  A pattern of multicoloured dots & dashes, wrapped in concentric layers around hollow black circles, on a white background. These dots and dashes do not encode anything other than an arbitrary set of rules used to draw them.

My method is to draw spiralling outwards around a central shape, with further shapes added at the end of a sentence or paragraph. I work from a starting point around the shape where the Morse code can be read from. Below are five starting points followed by the encoded word ‘hi’; this illustrates the variety of starts I’ve used so far. I’m not sure which I like best tbh.

  five light blue circles with a dark blue border, with light & mid blue dots and dashes representing Morse code around them. There is a black dot above the first four circles.

Here’s an early ink drawing that encodes the poem ‘To know the dark’ by Wendell Berry, and uses starting point #4 from the examples above;

  A pattern of light & mid blue dots & dashes on a navy background, spiralling outward from a central white & grey circle that looks like a moon. It encodes a poem which you can find  here .

I am exploring what patterns and visual effects I can achieve using this method. Remember my aim isn’t to make art that should have words/data read from it; I’m trying to turn words/data themselves into visual art, and to sometimes hopefully lead people to the information behind the picture.

Testing the method

I’ve initially used poetry to test my method, and words I love from people I follow on social media (with their permission), as in the first piece below. It’s an ink drawing of a Twitter thread by Guilaine Kinouani (check out her recent TEDx talk on epistemic homelessness here.) However, translating a text longer than ~2000 characters (with spaces) into a single pattern creates very large drawings. This lead me to experiment with making each segment or sentence of a text into an individual small drawing and collating the smaller works into a grid. I’ve also started using digital drawing, which allows me to make bigger pieces that can be easily stored. The second image below is the first 9 tweets from this thread by @coffeespoonie, translated & drawn digitally.

  A pattern of orange & pink dots & dashes on a dark red background, spiralling outward from a central white & grey circle with a white dot above it, & wrapping around more white & grey circles. It is a Morse code version of a twitter thread by  @KGuilaine  that can be found at  https://twitter.com/KGuilaine/status/909855275984793602
  9 patterns of light & dark green dots & dashes on a white background, spiraling outward from a central brown blob that looks like a coffee drip. The patterns are arranged 3 x 3. It is a Morse code version of the first few tweets of a Twitter thread by  @coffeespoonie  which can be found at  https://twitter.com/coffeespoonie/status/895007499782377477 ]

The look of markings in my digital drawings prompted me to combine my brushpen drawing technique with Morse code. I love the feel of the drawings I’ve made in brushpen, like the one below. However, they’re extremely time-consuming; so I expect to use a mixture of digital and ink in future Morse code drawngs. I’m also experimenting with combining Morse code drawing with other generative drawing techniques such as overlapping circle rules, and with pencil and ink drawing. Some examples are below.

 a brown and green colour pencil drawing of a conker (a horse chestnut seed) in its shell, surrounded by a clockwise spiral of made of grey dots and orange dots and dashes which gradually change through brown to dark grey.
  a pattern of multiple overlapping circles in different shades of blue, surrounded by cobalt blue and light grey dots and dashes winding clockwise around it. At the bottom right under the pattern, there is a black date stamp that reads ‘18 JAN 2018’
 a circular spiraling pattern of ink brush marks going gradually from purple to red from the centre outwards, with small white dots and dashes painted over them.

A final word; why it matters to me to draw this way

I resisted making drawings that encoded words for a while. But today it’s more important than ever for artists to find a voice through their work, and frankly I need an outlet… Ever catch someone complaining about “all those people having all those children they can’t afford”? Hi. I was one of those children. Part of why I need an outlet is having all that “those people” shit chatted at me (again.) I recently talked to school students about becoming a scientist & artist. I grew up in a single parent low income family, and I talked about what it was like when my physics teacher told me I’d never be a scientist, because “girls like you from families like yours never do anything useful.” That is demonstrably crap, and always has been, but children like the one I was still get smacked in the face by it, and I still hear it.

Here in the UK, it’s not hard to find blame being shifted from the people who’ve trashed our economy, education, & NHS for their own profit to “those people”. Who is being othered and described as “those people” varies, but can include refugees, migrants, Muslims, millennials, anyone on state benefits, anyone poor, and disabled people (which includes me.) I’m so very tired of this nonsense, but it is for all of us to look individually at what we are angry about, and what we can do address it. And I’m an artist, so I’m going to make art. Angry art. I’m not quite sure where this will take my Morse code drawings yet… But if I go to paint a house and the house is on fire, don’t be surprised when I paint the flames. I know some people don’t think art should be political, & all I’ll say to that is; art history called and it wants some words with you… ‘:|  Anyway, that is my content warning; not all my drawings might link to poetry, happy threads, & rainbow unicorns. 

Thanks for reading.

  an irregularly shaped pattern on a white background, made of dots and dashes in shades of red, aquamarine and dark purple, spiralling outwards from black circles, with further dots and dashes inside them
  a list of Morse code characters I use as an image - a more accessible list of Morse code characters can be read  here  or heard  here .

a list of Morse code characters I use as an image - a more accessible list of Morse code characters can be read here or heard here.