Sarah Whatley

Since our first workshop in Coventry we have been active in telling more people about our network and it is generating a lot of interest and excitement. The idea of ‘error’ seems to be appealing and captures the imagination, particularly for those working within the arts community. Sita and I presented the project at the recent Digital Echoes Symposium at C-DaRE, Coventry University, on March 4, a day that focused on the theme ‘(Re)Collecting the Past: (Re)Making the Future’. The project was presented within a panel that shared a number of new or emerging projects. Sita and I scoped out the work on the network so far and both of us were buoyed by the curiosity showed in the project by the audience, who were a mixed group of academics, practitioners and professionals drawn from the arts, digital humanities and cultural heritage communities. Themes that we discussed resurfaced during the course of the day in several conversations and clearly chimed with a number of attendees’ experiences. The list of words that seem connected to ‘error’ continues to grow… ambiguity, glitch, malfunction, ambivalence, risk, noise, failure, uncertainty, mistake, bug, unexpected behaviour, fuzzy..… As Tim Barker noted, it still seems to be the case, that ‘the condition that marks the post-digital age may be the condition for error’ (2007).

Yesterday I attended the Symposium ‘Beyond Jewellery’ (co-convened by Birmingham City University and C-DaRE) and was intrigued by Di Mainstone’s keynote talk. Describing herself as a ‘story teller’ and ‘movician’ who builds body-centric objects and sonic devices in collaboration with dancers, musicians, engineers and more, she talked of existing ‘in the grey bit’ – between established practices – and shared some of her fascinating inventions including Sharewear dresses, wearable musical instruments and much more. Talking with Di, I was pleased to hear how intrigued she was by the idea of ‘error’ as a creative opportunity or strategy – something I hope we can continue to discuss. Whilst aware that she is not working with error or glitch as an aesthetic and her inventions serve no straightforward utilitarian purpose, some of her projects provide a creative resolution to engineering or technological ‘errors’. For example, her ‘Atmospheric Railway’ wearable interactive electro-mechanical instrument (designed in collaboration with digital musician Adam Stark) offered a 21st century artistic reading of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s passionate folly and engineering failure, the Atmospheric Railway; a rail system powered by forced air and blighted by cracked and damaged leather seals, and devoured by rats. Her website describes her ‘Atmospheric Railway’ device as creating atmospheric soundscapes, which are activated by the journey of traveling objects (ball bearings) through a system of tubes. The bearings ricochet off bells causing them to chime. The resulting sounds are harvested (via microphones) and fed back into the room as a series of atmospheric echoes. The user (or movician) can then sculpt the pitch, mood and intensity of the resulting soundscape through the manipulation of a soft module, which is embedded with movement sensors.

I am now starting to see the creative potential for error and ambiguity everywhere I go, but there are times where ambiguity can be frustrating. On the London tube recently I spotted the following notice and wondered whether this was a deliberate or unintentional breakdown of the relationship between the logics of language and meaning: ‘Exit right door only on Saturdays’.


Barker, Tim. “Error, the Unforeseen, and the Emergent: The Error and Interactive Media Art.” M/C Journal Vol 10 Issue 5 (2007).

Sarah Whatley, Coventry University