Oolong’s Zoo

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Ghost of Margaret Thatcher

Party @ Trafalgar Square

Some time around the middle of 2011 I had a vision of a puppet I could make, of the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. Although she was not yet physically dead, her spirit had been haunting the political landscape of Great Britain for some decades. You couldn’t see her, but sometimes this cold and oppressive presence would make itself felt, and you just knew that she was there – whispering in the corridors of Whitehall, stalking the nightmares of the children of the 80s.

posted by frm at 15:25  

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Air Point

Usually, at Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival, the May Queen makes her way around the hill, visiting and ‘awakening’ performance groups representing the classical elements – Air, Earth, Water and Fire. In 2011, it happened that nobody put themselves forward to run a group for the element of Air. It is notoriously the hardest element to represent through the medium of dance and costume anyway, what with it being invisible. For Beltane 2009 I had been in an Air performance group myself, which was a lot of fun, but .

The May Queen at Air PointFor this year I volunteered to try something a bit different, and do an Air Point without any performers at all. Instead I decided to create a sculptural installation – a sort of giant horizontal dreamcatcher, spiralling down in a tornado shape in the middle.

So I took a bunch of super-thick withies that I’d found dumped in the street one time, made a great big circle out of them, twisted around and held in place with wire and string.

Then I took an enormously long strip of white cotton, about a centimetre wide,
from the Beltane stores. With help and tuition from Emmie Creighton-Offord, I set about wrapping it around the ring of withies, making soft knots as I went. These are barely knots at all, just the string looped back around itself after it goes around the frame, but as long as they are in tension they stay in place well. This technique would serve me extremely well later, when I came to make Hati the giant wolf puppet.

The basic pattern is that shared by dreamcatchers everywhere, but to give it a spiral twist I made sure that each knot was over to one side, rather than in the middle between two knots of the outer ring. To allow it to pull down in the middle, I made sure the line was slacker and slacker as I approached the centre.

Emmie contributed a normal-scale dreamcatcher to hang from it, and so did Sacha Harrison, one of the White Women assigned to the element of Air, with added decorations. I extended the spirals of the main net beyond its bottom with a sort of converging double-helix, and hung one of the dreamcatchers from the centre.

My main role at that year’s festival was as one of the official photographers, so I had the opportunity to capture this image of the installation at the moment of the May Queen’s blessing.

Unfortunately, while I was off speed-editing my pictures from the night, a pair of drunken punters stumbled into the sculpture and destroyed it. Still, my mother taught me at an early age about the concept of ‘art for the gods’, which is always destined to be destroyed, and it is hard to imagine a more apt example.

posted by frm at 10:32  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kenneth Mark II

Does this control box for my wave-based interactive animations count as a sculpture? I’m thinking it just about does, even though it’s a far cry from the sort of thing I normally include here; either way, my main post about it is over on my generative art blog

Kenneth knobs

posted by frm at 12:25  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Third Giant Puppet: Hati the Wolf

The Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh has more often than not featured a pack of wolves in one form or another – the Wild Hunt, hounding the spirits of Summer,  is one of its recurring symbols, and for me has been one of the big highlights of the Samhuinns I have attended as an audience member.

The Wolves in 2010 were largely metaphorical, more lupine humans than humanoid wolves, but they still tore the vitals from our fantastical-animals Summer Troupe. This year the wolves were less numerous, but wolfier – just two of us with giant puppets.

When I started thinking about this year’s festival, I found myself with an unusually clear vision of the puppet-wolf I wanted to make. A lot of my art comes out of doodling to see what emerges, so when I do have a persistent creative vision, I tend to feel like I owe it to myself to make it happen. Pleasingly, this year’s Samhuinn was even more puppet-based than last year’s, with one large group of puppeteers where usually there are several separate performance groups. Here’s a gallery of puppetry photos from the night, and here are some photos of my puppet-making process.

My wolf would be mounted on a backpack frame, like my previous puppets, but this time the head would be a couple of feet above and in front of my own head. I had a collection of much thicker bendy sticks than our usual withies – presumably also willow – that I found in the street one time, and these would be my main construction material. They’re strong, but they have a lot of give in them, so the puppet has a great deal of movement in it – freed from the traditional bamboo skeleton, it bounces around of its own accord and takes a moment to settle back down after any sudden movement. It has its own rhythm, so the operator needs to work with its impulses rather than trying to control every motion.

The May Queen at Air PointI made the head from the same thick aluminium wire I used for the tapir‘s head last year, and gave it something of a skeletal appearance by binding it in white cotton strips – offcuts from a t-shirt factory, I think, found in the Beltane Fire Society stores. I’d used the same strips for my giant dreamcatcher-style sculpture representing the element of Air at this year’s Beltane, which is a story for another blog post.

Once I had mounted the head on the sticks, I started thinking about how to make it as visible as it should be, and I hit on the idea of helping to hold and bring out the shape of the wolf with more of those cloth strips, using the same sort of crude knots I’d learned for my Air sculpture. After some thought, I concluded that I needed to cover the sides of it and the head with some cloth. I left the back open, a decision I would regret slightly in the torrential rain of Samhuinn night.

Hati's mawI decided I wanted to be able to control the jaw so that it could snap at things, howl and so on, as seemed appropriate. I achieved this with a hinge similar to the one I used for last year’s tapir, with springs to keep the jaw shut and a string to open it at will. I mounted the string towards the back of the jaw, so that it also afforded a good deal of control over the whole head and the body it’s attached to – pull the string back towards the body and the jaw alone opens; pull it forwards and the entire puppet stoops. The springs are pretty loose, so the puppet chatters to itself.

Hati's eyesThe eyes are illuminated with the same kind of cheap push-on lights I used for Mashi‘s eyes, and Tara the tapir’s brain. I mounted them on wire, with several extra pieces of gaffer tape for stability. The lights are pretty unreliable – they were flickering off when they got a knock, before I put them in – but in the end they made it through the night without any problems.

Hati meets the Cailleach. Photo by Raini Scott.

The front legs are made from strips of the white cotton, plus a sheet of muslin for the upper part. They are attached to paws made of wire and bound in cotton, with claws made of Fimo Air Light and coated in PVA glue for shininess and waterproofing. The paws are attached to sticks of bamboo for control. Inspired by careful observation of Muppets in action, I made sure that I could control both arms with one hand, with the sticks crossed over, leaving my other hand free to operate the mouth and head.

The fangs are made from the same air-drying clay as the claws, while the rest of the teeth are just torn-up tissue paper and PVA, formed around a little cone of plastic sheeting and then immediately removed. This technique allowed me to make as many teeth as I wanted very quickly.

One of the bits that I left till last, in case I ran out of time, was the hind legs. These aren’t really part of the puppet; I just sewed tubes of muslin around each of the shoulder straps, hiding the incongruous blue plastic. Then I cut a series of slits at the bottom of the muslin, and using PVA I very quickly formed the ends of the cloth into little claw shapes.

Here’s the finished puppet in action, indoors.

And here are some clips from the night itself: clip 1, clip 2, clip 3.

SamhuinnI was hugely impressed with everyone’s puppets in the end. My co-wolf Zoë did me proud; Ross’s three-person ice giant was a wonder, with its disembodied head and articulated hands on mighty poles, as was Darren’s one-person murder of crows; Helen’s lion, Frank’s pirate, Karin’s firefly, Kay’s moth queen, Morag’s Kali, Neil’s headless hobbyhorseman, Judy’s nightmare and Franzi’s tree were all things of beauty.

Many thanks to everyone in the group – and to all the photographers who took great photos, and everyone else involved as performers, tech, stewards or audience members. I had one of the best nights.


Summer puppets. This and previous photo by Chris Scott



posted by frm at 15:40  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Second giant puppet: Tara the Tapir

For the 2010 Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh, I co-organised a group representing the role of the spirit of Summer, doomed to fall to the wolves of Winter, by means of a carnival troupe of mediaeval-style musicians, fantastical animals  and basket-bearers distributing flowers and cake, glitter and bubbles. I led the puppeteers together with my friend  Hannah Werdmuller, and Andy Glowaski organised the rest. (more…)

posted by frm at 14:42  

Friday, June 10, 2011

USB Sugru Tiger

Photo of the sculpture

I’ve been looking forward to making USB sculptures out of Sugru ever since I got to play with a couple a little of the the stuff at the Maker Faire in Newcastle last year. My hope is that it will prove at least as resilient as epoxy putty, which is remarkably strong but quite brittle – usually an epoxy USB sculpture will survive being dropped, or kept in a pocket with keys for a long time, but I have seen the occasional part crack off.

I also think I like the way Sugru feels after it’s set, more than I like the cold, stony feel of epoxy putty. It hardens to a firm but rubbery consistency, with whatever surface texture you imprint on it – or a smooth sheen, if you polish it with water.

Like epoxy putty, it sets on its own over the course of about a day; it sticks firmly to anything when you first start using it; it gives you maybe half an hour to an hour of good working time; and if you’re not careful, little bits will end up setting in a slightly different position from where you thought you left them.

To make this tiger I used an unusually small flash drive, two googly eyes, a pipe cleaner and almost a whole 5g sachet of orange Sugru. I also used just a little bit of black Sugru. Since each 5g of Sugru starts setting from the moment you open the sachet, I took the opportunity to use what was left over to enhance the grip of my camera with the impression of my fingers. Then I made a cat.

Note: commissions are always welcome.

posted by frm at 22:40  

Friday, June 3, 2011

My first giant puppet: Mashi

I’d been vaguely wanting to try making puppets for years, but apart from a couple of days working on Big Man Walking in 2009 I’d never really had the opportunity – until the 2010 Beltane Fire Festival, when Morag Patterson announced at the open meeting that she would be running a group of Red Puppeteers.

In the context of Edinburgh’s Beltane, Red stands for vitality – for the chaotic, unrestrained aliveness of our animal selves – much the same energy that the Horned God stands for in some of the world’s ancient religions. Sexuality is a part of that, and humour, too.

I went to the first meeting of the Red Puppeteers with no idea what I was going to make, but I came away with an image lodged firmly in my mind – a horned goddess, bug-eyed and maybe a little addled, partly inspired by the cave painting at Trois Freres that is sometimes known as ‘The Sorcerer’.

On reason I was particularly drawn to puppets in the Beltane context was that Beltane – spectacular as it is – doesn’t always make it easy to see what’s going on. Having puppets even a head and shoulder taller than the crowd makes a big difference, but I decided I wanted to make something big.

Once I had a rough idea of the dimensions I was going for, it was time to build the skeleton – two bamboo poles attached to an old rucksack frame using gaffer tape; two cross-pieces, slightly longer than the gap between those to give space to attach limbs; and one more vertical for the ‘spine’, to which the head would attach.

Body full-length

Most of the shape outside of the frame came from withies – thin sticks of willow that become bendy when soaked or steamed (and bendier still if you ease each one in with soft back-and-forth bends along its length. They then firm up in their new shape when they dry, making them versatile, lightweight and relatively strong.

Minotaur 1It makes sense to start with some of the main lines of the puppet before filling in any of the details of its surface – indeed, sometimes the lines are really all you need, as Ross Flemington‘s minimal, sinewy minotaur puppet demonstrated. Most of the impact comes from the overall shape and the movement, especially in low light.


The sections of the limbs for most of the puppets started with rings of willow attached to bamboo canes with willow cross-pieces. With these stuck in place, further withies are added to make a strong, stable structure.

There are many ways to attach sections of limbs together. Perhaps the simplest is to drill a hole through the bamboo (with gaffer tape around it to help prevent splintering) and connect them with cable ties and/or wires. Another technique is to make two half-circles of wire and attach them – interlocked – to the ends of the ‘bones’. I wanted to restrict Mashi’s knees to one axis of rotation, so I held those joints together with nuts and bolts. I found that the nuts would slowly work themselves loose, a problem I was later told can be avoided by doubling up the nuts.

The head, antlers and hands were mainly made of chicken wire and papier mache – which allows finer detail than willow, at the expense of added weight.

The biggest technical challenge for me was the legs. These are often omitted from big willow puppets, or at best they are vestigial – which makes sense, since the torso typically starts just a little way above the puppeteer’s head, and most people want to control its arms using their own. I decided to have arms hanging freely (but bent at the elbows) instead, allowing me to have legs capable of dancing, walking or spreading.

Hip jointThat was the fun part – legs that just walked stiffly would have been too easy. I wanted ones that could swivel outwards and upwards, but always kept the knees at an appropriate angle. The answer was hip-joints made with wheels from an old desk – rotation around their base allowed them to move up and down and walk, while the movement of the wheels themselves allowed the squatting action. Since they are still constrained on one axis, the knees always stay upright as long as you stay within their normal range of movement, so that walking and other movements  could be controlled completely from the feet.

Puppet scaleOnce it was operational, the puppet wasn’t hard to use – though having something taller than yourself strapped to your back is challenging when the wind blows! A trip up Calton Hill on a windy day convinced me to greatly scale back my original plans to cover most of the puppet in a skin of tissue paper and muslin, and in the end I only covered a few parts, mainly to emphasise the outline and certain features.

The night itself was a huge amount of fun – the crowd obviously really enjoyed the puppets, especially appreciating our presence at times when they couldn’t see much else going on. The interaction with the audience – something many groups avoid at Beltane  – was particularly delightful. One Italian punter proposed to Mashi, and a couple of little kids shook her hand. With six foot six of puppet over my head (all in all, Mashi is around 10′ 8″ tall) I was able to loom like never before.

I took her out again at the Meadows Festival just for fun, and to the Leith Festival with official endorsement from the organisers – dancing through the streets in the sunshine, freaking out small children, and so on. Since then, though, she was just been lying on the roof of my kitchen extension the storms the other week, when she blew all the way to the far side of the garden. Maybe it’s a sign that I should patch her up and take her for another spin…

posted by frm at 12:17  

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cloud9 – 3D haptic modelling

Lately I’ve been employed on a part-time freelance basis by a company called Anarkik3D Ltd., based at Edinburgh College of Art. I re-did their web site so it’s easily maintainable, running on WordPress, but mostly I’ve been testing the new version of their 3D haptic modelling software package, Cloud9.

I got into this because as a sculptor with an interest in computer graphics, I’d been wanting for years to try out a fully 3D, tactile interface for 3D modelling. Even in two dimensions the mouse is a poor interface tool for many things , most notably for drawing; no surprise, then, that it’s hopeless for sculpting. The 3D packages I’d used worked around this by using systems of 3D construction based on 2D views and interactions that bear almost no resemblance to sculpting at all, compensating for the inadequacy of the physical interface with elaborate systems for controlling every detail of what you’re trying to create. I’ve used less sterile packages since then, but they’ve still never felt anything much like sculpting.

Cloud9 works with hardware allowing 3D interactions with 3D models, enhanced by the sense of touch (which is what ‘haptic’ means). You move the controller around in space, and when you touch a virtual object, you can feel that it’s there. It’s designed to be intuitive to use, and it’s a far cry from the technical sophistication and precision of many 3D packages, partly because the creators have self-consciously made it ‘un-CAD-like’, aiming for such a gentle learning curve that artists and designers can sit down with little or no training and start making things right away.

On the whole I think it does a good job of achieving what it sets out to. The software is limited in various ways – it doesn’t allow you to control lighting, for one thing, and textures are limited to flat colours – but then, it is quite possible to create something in Cloud9 and then import it into Maya, Blender or whatever to do that stuff. Hopefully more of it will be included in future versions, though there is obviously a fine balance to be kept between adding features and keeping it simple.

Some of the most interesting possibilities of Cloud9 involve 3D printing of objects created – both company founder Ann Marie Shillito and student Farah Bandookwala have been creating some interesting jewellery this way. For my part I am equally intrigued by the prospect of combining this with 3D scanning to allow the physical sculpting of 3D creations which are then imported into a computer for further enhancement.

Here is a screenshot of a cat I made with Cloud9, because cats are my sculptural ‘Hello World’ examples – the thing I make when I want to be sure I’ve got some kind of handle on a new medium. Making this involved creating a sphere and then deforming it bit by bit in 3D to make it more cat-shaped. The amount an object can be deformed is limited by the number of triangles that make it up, so I had to periodically use the ‘Sub-Mesh’ function to add more.

Below is a sort of rough 3D sketch for a giant puppet I’m planning. This was fun to make, and some bits at least were easier than making a physical version, even a small one. I’d already drawn a bunch of sketches on paper – not something I often do – but it’s great being able to see it from different sides, and so on.

posted by frm at 12:48  

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Monopod staff

My staffI found my staff as driftwood on the beach at Helensburgh, the morning after spending a night in a police cell for protesting at the nuclear base Faslane.

I took it home, flaked off what was left of its bark, sawed off the rough ends and sanded it down. Then I stained it slightly with tea, and once it had fully dried I rubbed linseed oil in to preserve it, to bring out the colour and to give it a slight sheen.

Later I mounted a screw in the top so that I could use it as a monopod. This would hold my camera still on the top, or indeed anything else there that has the same kind of thread as a camera – a 1/4″ Whitworth thread, which turns out to be incredibly hard to find in Britain, where all the nuts and bolts went metric years ago. I made a dragon with glowing eyes, about 6″ tall, to place on top.

My first attempt just involved drilling a hole and mounting a bare, topless bolt in it using epoxy putty. This turned out to be a mistake – the mounting needs to be strong enough to withstand repeated screwing and unscrewing, and this wasn’t, leading to my camera falling off and breaking slightly when someone jostled against me one night.

Staff screwMy second attempt used the camera screw and its plastic mounting from a monopod walking-stick I bought, whose manufacturers had made much the same mistake as me – it was originally attached to a feeble piece of plastic that broke almost immediately after I bought it; I took it back, got it replaced, and the second time, with great care, it lasted about a week. Still, the remaining mounting was sturdy enough, and with a large drill I made a hole in the top of my staff just big enough to accommodate it, and fixed it in place once more with epoxy putty. It has held ever since. The curve of the staff makes it easy to spin around in order to screw and unscrew it.

Two-sided snake staff shotLast year I realised that the staff would make a much more comfortable walking stick if it had finger-grips, so I started carving some into it. After I had been at it for a while I realised that the knot just above the grips I was carving looked a bit like an eye, and the snake design naturally followed.

It’s not easy to tell what kind of tree driftwood comes from, in general, but based on the opinion of a professional wood-worker I met, I think my staff is made of yew – the density of little knots suggests an evergreen, while weight and strength of the wood rule out most other varieties of softwood. I use the staff for hiking, supporting my weight when I have a leg injury, and as a monopod. It is so strong that despite its curve, it can hold my entire weight.

posted by frm at 10:13  

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wearable Art – Valravn of Samhuinn

Since getting involved with Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society a couple of years ago, I’ve got quite into making costumes. The blurry area between costuming and sculpture is particularly interesting to me, along with its close neighbour puppetry. For last year’s Samhuinn – a festival laying to rest the last dregs of Summer and ambivalently celebrating the arrival of winter – I dressed up as a sort of skeletal gentleman-raven, one of six Valravn embodying inevitable death. Fun fun. I made myself a top hat out of cardboard, silk and double-sided sticky tape; a cravat out of the same silk; and I re-tailored a plain woollen waistcoat from India, to give it a tighter fit and a collar of a sort that was fashionable around the end of the nineteenth century.

The biggest feature of the costume was the six-metre-wingspan folding raven wings we all made. I sat out of the design process for these, but we all chipped in practical work to help make them. The ‘bones’ of each wing are made of four lengths of plastic plumbing pipe, hinged so that they move in a pretty realistic flapping motion. One of the middle pair of bones on each side is longer, so that it’s possible to use it as a handle to control their motion, and there are little docks for these so that they can lock in place and leave hands free.

Attached to the bones are three different lengths of individual ‘feathers’, each one having a spine made of one or more thick wires, held in a sheath of black drill cotton, so that the wings extend almost two feet further than  the bones. The inner feathers are sewn together, but the outer ones are left separate, one of the notable features of corvid wings being the way the feathers fan out when they fly. Most of the work went into the feathers, I think – the basic design could be done much more easily without such extreme attention to detail. The wings probably warrant a whole post to themselves, with clearer photos, so I’ll return to them.

Valravn mask 1Each of us had a different mask, some very different, some with a similar basic design. Mine is built on a framework of thick, soft aluminium wire. Once I’d made the basic shape, I wrapped it in wet muslin (for grip) and built white Efaplast Light on top of it to create a bird-skull. For the beak – black, in keeping with real raven skulls – I wound wire around its curve, and wrapped it in thin black muslin, slightly transparent so you could see the shape underneath. To keep it in place and in the right shape, I coated the muslin with PVA glue. It’s held on with a strip of elastic sewn on each side of the eye.

For this year’s Samhuinn – tomorrow! – I’ll be wearing a large tapir puppet, about the size of a real adolescent tapir, part of a troupe of puppeteers and dancers representing the doomed vitality and movement of summer. More on that under ‘Tara the Tapir‘.

posted by frm at 11:30  
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