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Interpolate: BA Graphics research project, Sheena Calvert tells us more about their trip to Canada

Written by Grizelda Kitching
Published date 11 December 2018

Interpolate is a research collective made up of a mix of Camberwell BA Graphic Design academics, alumni and current students. It aims to act as a non-hierarchical space that allows its members to question themes of language, typography and graphic design. Initiated by Sheena Calvert, Contextual Studies tutor, BA Graphic Design at Camberwell and Tracey Waller, Programme Director for Graphic Design at Camberwell and Chelsea, Interpolate’s members are: Sheena Calvert, Tracey Waller, Jack Clarke, Will Eels, Charlie Calvey, Ben Ibbotson, Maria Than and Jemima Schejbal.

In September of this year, Interpolate attended the DEL (Digitally Engaged Learning) conference at York University in Toronto, Canada in a trip funded by a teaching and learning fund award, from Camberwell, Chelsea, Wimbledon and UAL.

Interpolate members standing in a line
Interpolate members

We caught up with Sheena Calvert, who explained a little more about the group, how things began, their focus and their exiting trip to Canada:

Please tell us a little more about Interpolate: how did it begin? 

The Interpolate project came about as the result of a discussion between myself and Tracey Waller around 4 or 5 years ago. Tracey showed me a room full of unpacked letterpress type, in the basement of the ‘old’ Camberwell building, near the letterpress area. This metal type, of which there were hundreds of unopened packages, lay dormant, having been stockpiled many years ago. Tracey had long wondered whether there was any way of investigating it as an archive, with a view to opening up an avenue of research which relied upon an intensive interrogation of the objects themselves: mining their potential as physical evidence of systems, codes, stories, images, and so on.

Later on, at the National Theatre Café, and elsewhere (whenever we could catch a moment or two, away from teaching and running the course), we discussed ideas for a larger project which would take such an approach and explore typography, language and everything in between, but always emerging from, and returning to, the letterpress room at Camberwell. This is where Interpolate was born. The word seemed to capture something of the spirit of what we wanted to achieve: an interrogation of typographic and other design practice, which introduced ‘something else’. We didn’t want to do something which relied on known processes, but to use the platform of ‘interpolate’ to create new knowledge: the unexpected. Interpolation interjects; adds something new, and (hopefully), brings something unexpected to the story, through an intensive process of both thinking and making: simultaneously. We did this through examining our assumptions and thinking/making differently.

A circular table with people drawing mind maps on it.
Interpolate workshop

Quote: “To interpolate means to insert something into something else. It also has the sense of corrupting as it alters that something. In mathematics, interpolation is a method of identifying new values within the range of a discrete set of existing data points. Throughout our research, workshops and writing we consider material language, typography, and code, both digital, analogue (or somewhere in-between), as the context for various act/s of interpolation.”

The original packets of cast metal type (hundreds of them), became one of the central objects in our first workshop, along with un-distributed letterpress forms, taken from the letterpress workshop at Camberwell. We wanted to see how a material examination of these objects could facilitate questioning, and open discussion.

We are led by the following thought, which came from the first workshop we did, and where Hannah Lammin, associate lecturer on BA Graphic Design, offered an interrogation/response to the workshop. Hannah eloquently stated the main driving approach which underpins all that we do:

“Both interrogability… and interpolation, involve a certain interruption of practice, which would allow us to step back from our habits and become aware of the technologies we use and our way of interacting with them”.

What is your focus, your ‘research aim’?

Interpolate is a provocation, a project, and a proposition. Interpolation is a mathematical term referring to the production of new data points between two existing variables (Human/Machine, Speech/Writing, Digital/Analogue). In a literary sense, to interpolate means to insert something into something else. It also implies corruption, as it alters that something. Interpolation as a method of interrogation sets up a new dynamic, introduces an irritant, and asks probing (sometimes unsettling) questions which unpack the assumptions that underpin our practices and pose meta-questions about technology, human agency and language in its broadest sense.

The Interpolate research project and series of workshops, make connections between typography, language, technology, and human agency, via both critical dialogue and hands-on making (code/letterpress/other). It reaches out and asks probing questions about the discipline of graphic design through the lenses of other subjects, whose ways of proceeding are related but often radically different. These include critical thinking, philosophy & the humanities, poetry, critiques of technology, science and coding.

Interpolate seeks to expose what’s hidden within practice, for example, the ‘substrate’ of binary code which sits beneath the visible world of screen and digital production, and the materiality of language itself (speech/print/writing), which allows communication to happen. It uses old technologies in new ways and new technologies in collaboration with old ones.

The collective is a mixture of BA Graphics Tutors, alumni and current students and is non-hierarchical – what is the importance of this?

Interpolate deliberately collapses the hierarchies between staff and students by bringing all together within one space of intensive dialogue. As a teacher, I find being in the classroom with students and learning alongside them, invigorating. We very rarely get to remove the distinction between staff and students in a really meaningful way, and I believe this is a shame. By working so closely with students, staff and alumni on Interpolate, I have come to a much better understanding of their concerns, approaches, and motivations as people. It’s been deeply inspiring in terms of the kinds of debates, discussions, and exchanges we have had over time. I genuinely believe that the mutually supportive context which Interpolate represents – one where thinking and making are integrated, the separations between theory and practice collapse, and in which everyone’s voice is respected and valued – brings out the best in everyone. This kind of collaborative research, undertaken together, where we learn from one another, and share freely and without the usual hierarchy between those who hold information and those who receive it, challenges us to rethink the very foundations of education itself.

How did the trip to Toronto come about?

Maria Than, a student on BA Graphic Design, is entirely responsible for initially running with the proposal and responding so enthusiastically to the call for papers, which was titled ‘Edge Effects’, and had a lot of correspondences with what we are doing in Interpolate. She drove it forward in the most proactive way. She drafted the proposal, then we edited it, and in it went.

When we received the news that it had been accepted everyone was very happy, but then came the issue of funding such a trip. I was less than optimistic, but Tracey Waller made enquiries and we were incredibly fortunate to be funded by the college, for 7 of us to attend the conference. In short, it was team effort, and we were very grateful for the funding.

A circular table with a mind map on.
Interpolate workshop

What lectures did you attend as part of the DEL conference?

They were not so much ‘lectures’ but conference papers, workshops, and other kinds of activities, themed around such questions as how ‘the digital’ is used within education; how knowledge is formed within digital spaces such as the internet, who creates that knowledge, and on behalf of whom and how AI is changing how we create work and what it means to be a conscious, creative, autonomous human ‘agent’ in an age being shaped by the growing influence of machines. The topics were very contemporary, and often highly political. It was a fascinating mixture, and very thought-provoking. We found we were not the only people examining some of the most fundamental questions about the role of binary thinking, code, human agency and the ethical questions which arise from the times we live in; sometimes called ‘The 4th Industrial Revolution’.

What workshop did you run?

We have created a method for developing ideas and inspirations for new Interpolate workshops. These start from an observation: we usually build our creative practice on the known variables of, for example, digital/analogue, human/machine, speech/writing: sectioning them off from one another. However, we rarely examine how these pairs form our thinking and lead us to pose things in terms of the oppositions between them: this or that, one thing or another, something versus something else. These are what I would call ‘adversarial’ pairings, where one thing often dominates, erases or negates the other. We asked participants to let go of these oppositions in thinking and, using the physical object which lies in the centre of a circle, consider how it offers a departure point for disrupting/dissolving those distinctions. Participants were invited to walk around the circular tables, and for 20 minutes, thinking (and writing) about anything and everything which might lie between these pairs. We then gathered the circles, which formed maps of these interrogations and captured the thought processes of the participants, and we plan to examine them to find new ideas. In Interpolate, the aim is to interrupt the binary (either/or) narrative, and (as Hannah Lammin posed it), to create new insights through bringing ‘interrogability’ and ‘interruptibility’ into the heart of our practices. The workshops were a way of introducing other people to our methods.

Will this link with York University continue?

Yes, we will most certainly be continuing the link. I have strong connections to York through Michael Longford, who is the Director of the Graduate Program in Computational Arts, and so we will be pursuing further collaborations with them, as well as hopefully applying to attend the next DEL conference, in Texas, USA in 2019. We plan to bring more people into Interpolate, and the project will continue and develop over time and in response to changing members and the questions they bring to the table.

What is next for Interpolate?

More workshops, including silk screening some of the diagrams taken from the circles produced at the Teaching and Learning conference in March of this year. Working with sound as a medium, with David Bracegirdle and Graham Barton. We will also create a letterpress manifesto of the main aims of Interpolate, and possibly using this to recruit new people to the project. We would also like to try and bring in speakers and workshop facilitators on such topics as emotional typography (Sarah Hyndman), and post-truth typography (Emma King).

For more detail on Interpolate’s other research sessions visit their website, built by member Jack Clarke:

interpolate.org.uk

Instagram: instagram.com/inter_polate