The Forever-do Project & Collaboration

The Forever-do Project explores the idea of `fishing’ into data sets generated by coordinated behaviours. The aim is to catch coherent patterns of data and represent them in visual artwork. Nets, traditionally a fisherman’s tool, are also the link between the art and science used in Forever-Do . In theoretical Computer Science, nets are instruments for the analysis and design of systems, distributed in time and space. The strength of these nets is their explicit representation of fundamental situations of coordination and concurrency among system agents. Agents can be computers and/or human beings. Nets were introduced as formal Computer Science tools by Carl Adam Petri in the nineteen-seventies, and are today known as "Petri Nets". One of Petri’s examples, the `Bucket Chain’, is a simple explanation of coordinated behaviour between firemen extinguishing a fire, as they carry water from the tank to the fire using a chain of buckets. This sequence explains how the coordination of behaviour and flow of data in time and space can be represented with nets. The Bucket Chain is the main source of inspiration for the Forever-Do Project.

Meeting within the context of the JRC, and in response to the Big Data question, we (artist Jill Townsley and computer scientist Carlo Ferigato) realised that `process’ holds an important position within both of our working practices. Research around the design of communication systems, and the emphasis on the process within the art object (definitive beyond subject and object), presented some common ground. Articulating our processes offered a rich dialogue and exchange of creative thinking, identifying important key words beyond process, such as system, time, space, flow, coordinated behaviour, repetition, difference, unfolding, folding, choice, resource, selection and transfer.

These key words offered a common language in which to articulate the possibilities of reading across our respective fields, in order to develop an artwork that had some correspondence with coordination and communication (as identified by Petri Net theory). Put into a slogan, we became fishermen, fishing across disciplines into the sea of big data sets in order to extract coherent patterns and procedures, pertinent to Petri Net theory, that could be visualised as art. From this we have developed two symbiotic artworks the Forever-do Game and the Forever-do Installation.

Towsnley Bucket chain
Fig.1: The Bucket Chain

The Forever-Do Game

Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence. (Bourriaud, 1998)

The Forever-do Game is a socially relational public artwork or happening, in which people `flow’ around a physically networked space by following a set of instructions. This activates coordinated interactions between players, who meet casually at random places in space and time. The game mirrors the theoretical construct of a `Bucket Chain’ network, a simple form of Petri Net system, positioning the Game within today’s digitally networked age. The socially co-ordinated nature of the rules-based system, that the players travel, is in itself a socially related construct. A construct that rationalises data flow, making visible the hidden nature of all data flowing within our big data systems. This presents us with a symbiotic relationship between scientific theory and art practice.

The first manifestation of this work was played during the Milan Digital Week in March 2019, in the Palazzo dei Giureconsulti, near the Duomo, with the collaboration of the MC3 research group on concurrent systems at the University of Milan Bicocca. The game is repeated for the Resonance III festival, with further digital possibilities developed in collaboration with artist group Otolab, and the application of Radio Frequency Identification tracking (RFID).

The Forever-Do Game 1 – Milan Digital week

Townsley figure 2 and 3
Fig 2 & 3. Two boxes with different instructions on the lid (there are 6 sets of instructions)
Fig. 4. Players in the game
Fig. 4. Players in the game


Fig. 5. Players of the game and the box towers
Fig. 5. Players of the game and the box towers


Townsley Forever-Do mat_image 3

Townsley mat_image 2_web

Fig. 6 & 7. Image of towers around a mat. Data towers that represent a random yet coordinated event.

Visitors to the Digital Week in Milan were invited to participate in a live variant of Carl Adam Petri’s `Bucket Chain’, an example of a simple Petri Net process. Armed with brown or white boxes containing an everyday object; a knife, a fork or a spoon.

Participants travel through the meshes of a physical (yet invisible) net, moving between coloured doormats placed on the floor. When individual’s meet at a mat, they open the box to compare the contents. Depending on the 'local' circumstance around the similarity or difference of those contents, players encounter one of two consequences:

  1.      They continue to flow around the game: this happens when their compared objects are different (non-repeated) – then the objects are exchanged and the Forever-Do continues.
  2.     They stop and exit the Game: if the objects are the same (repeated) then players are asked to leave their boxed object behind, placed on a tower at the point of coordination.

In this way a `casual flow’ happens, when non-repeated coordination occurs. Objects are exchanged and continue their journey, independent of player or box. Alternatively, when repeated coordination occurs (people meeting with the same objects), the flow is halted and boxes build up around the mats. Over time the number of boxes in the towers are gathered randomly around the mats, forming a sculptural installation. The installation makes visible a poetic data trail of coordinated human interactions, recording the incidence of two people meeting at a mat and find that through random chance, their boxes contain identical objects.

The coloured doormats act like nodes in a giant network. Receiving the flow of information (as people and boxes move from mat to mat) enabling coordination (places for human interaction). Doormat nodes, that mark the place for the coordinated behaviour that either rests the player, the box or the object from the flow of the game, or, moves them on in order to continue the journey – the Forever-do .

As the box-towers grow, data may be extracted from the game in many different ways. The piles of white and brown boxes could be interpreted as binary code. The number of boxes clustered around the coloured door mat also give that mat an integer value. From this data, new digital, conceptual and physical constructs may be developed. Reorganised data is used to form a new sculpture: the Forever-do Installation. Alternatively, a new event or happening could be derived as presented in the Forever-Do Game 2. In other words, a new fishing expedition can begin.

More generally, the gathering, reorganisation and extraction of information, as presented in the Forever-do Game installation, is indicative of the way data flows today. Data (collected in a myriad of ways) flows forever through our digital systems. Systems and data unimaginably vast in form, yet invisible in time and space. This data can be organised and extracted in whatever way society chooses: it can be reorganised and extracted to help us do great things for humanity, such as understand diseases; or it can be used less responsibly, to smartly target us to purchase more mass-produced goods.

The Forever-do Game 2 – Collaboration with Otolab – Resonance III Festival

The game is extended for the Resonance Festival through collaboration with the artist group Otolab. Intangible elements, held in the process of the game, such as the movement of the boxes, are now made more visible, by tracking the ‘casual flow’ of each box, from doormat to doormat (nodes), using Radio Frequency Identification tracking (RFID). This provides a wealth of additional data; information that can be represented through graphical representation. This enables even more categories of identification, classification and representation. Offering the viewer a multiplication of formal `data’ gathered from the `casual flow’ of boxes carried by people playing a game.

The tracking and visualisation tool created by Otolab, extends the reach of the game from its local administration, through to a much larger web of connectivity. The digital tracking and data representation will be streamed across multiple platforms; on screens and projections within the space of the game, and an open-source website. A live stream will also screen in the UK at University of Huddersfield’s Phidious Lab, located in the new Barbara Hepworth Building for Art Design and Architecture.

Presented across these analogue and digital platforms, the game propels its human participants on a global journey that mirrors a ‘casual flow’ of data. It also works to make visible a physical link between human interaction and data flow. A symbiotic relationship placing the individual within the data whole – presenting the consequential referral, of self to network, and network to self. In this way the Forever-do Game defines its DATAMI as an organic consequence of cause and effect within a greater and ever flowing whole.

The Forever-Do Installation

“Contemporary art escapes the present not by resisting the flow of time but by collaborating with it.

It produces artistic events, performances, temporary exhibitions that demonstrate the transitory character of the present order of things and the rules that govern contemporary social behaviour. Imitation of the anticipated future, may manifest itself only as an event not as a thing”.

(Groys p.3)

The Forever-do Installation takes its structural form from an unfolded Petri Net, as symbolised in the `Bucket Chain’ network. The unfolded two-dimensional graphical depictions of the `Bucket Chain’ structure is contorted in three-dimensional space. The nodes are a joining point for the bamboo canes that make up the body of the Installation.

Jill Townsley drawing
Fig 8. The Bucket Chain and its unfolding in space and time

 The Installation also has colour flowing through its network. The colour moves through the shape in a way authorised by data from the Forever-do Game. The coloured doormats in the Game (red, blue, yellow and black) translate into colours flowing through the Installation. Places of meeting within the Game become nodes in the Installation. A binary code from the box-towers, deposited by players at a coloured mat, authorise a system of flow through a node:

  •     Brown box – flow goes straight-on
  •     White box – flow changes direction

Collective player coordination and interaction (in the Game), becomes data, that authorises a system based modular structure (in the Installation). A structure that interacts with a building, separate to the action of the original communication between people. This is a multiplication of data, shifted through material (animate and inanimate) and moved through time, space and place.

Jill Townsley Forever-Do Sculpture


The Karl Friedrich Gauss Laboratory

The siting of the sculpture at the Karl Friedrich Gauss Laboratory is important to the development of the overall Installation, its structural form and its concept. The relationship between the site and the form is indicative of an installation rather than a stand-alone object.

The Laboratory was built specifically as a Test Facility for Humanitarian Demining Technology, within the then JRC Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen. It was built in 1999 to test and evaluate equipment used in detecting landmines in humanitarian operations, often following wars. Its most important use was in developing UN Mine Action Standard test methods for metal detectors. Adam Lewis, from the JRC, worked on the development of the research lab and co-authored this explanation:

“The objective was to provide a facility, which could be used to establish a basic signature database of anti-personnel-mines and to allow validation, verification and benchmarking of equipment.

The sensor data that would be derived was to be made available to the R&D community to facilitate the proving of data fusion algorithms by developers of equipment aimed to improve the effectiveness of civilian demining.” (ref 1)

The Gauss Laboratory building was constructed with as little metal as possible, to avoid spurious signals when operating metal detectors and ground penetrating radar. Giving this 'noble' building the exterior appearance of little more than a very large garden shed. Anecdotally, the choice of name was regarded humorously by the researchers, because a wooden hut, used for a very practical purpose is named after an exalted philosopher of basic science, Carl Friedrich Gauss of Göttingen. He was a great 18th-19th century physicist and mathematician whose ideas underpin the theoretical basis of technology like metal detectors and magnetometers.

Townsley Gauss Lab
The Gauss Lab

Townsley Gauss Lab Image 2


Gauss Lab Image 3


The Gauss Laboratory stands now in disrepair, unused, and due to be demolished next year, since the project was closed at the end of 2006. It became apparent, in part because of the laboratories own research, that the effort needed for the development of a sophisticated device, incorporating several different types of sensors, was much greater than had been expected. This required more money, money that might be better applied in other ways considering the broader socio-political contexts. In other words, the data flowing from the Gauss Laboratory, while productive of new understanding, also contributed to the shift of research away from the laboratory itself. A suicidal return of data that through its free flow destroys its point of origin, while still being indicative of good experimental insight. Today, the European Union continues to fund different aspects of humanitarian action on landmines, through its External Action Service.

The Forever-do Installation is sited here in response to this once functional, but ultimately, self-sacrificing building. The Installation engulfs the laboratory with a physical structure whose conceptual origins represent the invisible flow of data between the tangible and intangible. It infests the space around, blurring its silhouette and moving it further away from its functional origin. Yet at the same time it also marks the place of experimentation for the laboratory and the artwork.

Townsley Forever-Do Sculpture


Townsley Forever-Do Sculpture Detail


Jill Townsley Forever-Do Installation
Forever-do, JRC Ispra, Datami Exhibition, photos Jill Townsley

Nicolas Bourriaud (1998) in his book Relational Aesthetics refers to Maurizio Cattelan’s phrase of the `dolce utopia’, the idea of constructing `temporal spaces which permit for a while experimentation’. The essence of this idea has been very important to the development of the Forever-Do project as a whole, and is indeed central to the philosophy of the SciArt mission. From the very start, the commissioning body has been clear that the collaboration between artist, scientist and policy maker, is central to the overall intent. This has placed emphasis on the process of collaboration, practice and presentation rather than the final result. This is a brave way of constructing something that we may call `art’.

Within art history and critique there is still a great deal of consideration given to either the subject or object of arts practice. Despite a move towards process or systems-based arts evident since the 60s and 70s, the matter of object and subject in arts practice still holds the centre ground for critical discourse. There are increasingly many pushing against this, Bourriaud being an important figure. But, by thinking about art as a process or event, a relational, societal and social place is offered for authorship and realisation. This is not only the post-modern reform of authorship, deferred or shared, but authorship within the moment of a continuing process - the Forever-do.

This conceptual space made real through event also requires a temporal place, referring back to Cattelan’s ‘dolce utopia’, the idea of constructing temporal spaces (physical and conceptual). For the Forever-Do Game, it was the place of the Palazzzo dei Giureconsulti at Duomo in central Milan, temporarily occupied by Milan digital week. Milan Digital Week is itself a social construct, a temporal event into which interested parties (visitors and participants) occupy space temporarily. Visitors are in this way already complicit within the flow of events. The place of the FOREVER-DO Installation is also similarly contingent, built temporarily around a research laboratory now mothballed, out of step with socio-political convention and capital power, working in a way Groys describes in his book In the Flow as a:

‘temporary exhibition(s) that demonstrate(s) the transitory character of the present order of things and the rules that govern contemporary social behaviour’. (p.3)

An installation where the authorship is shared via data from all the people who played the FOREVER-DO Game. It infests the space of the Gauss Laboratory, overpowering it, just as data had a primal role in both forming and ending the research that built the laboratory. Or perhaps, the installation is protecting the memory of the Gauss Laboratory, marking its `dolce utopia’ as a temporary place of experiment.

Looking forward to a future from the 1970s, Petri outlined a path to help us all deal with our complicit role in society’s data communications. In a lecture entitled Communication Disciplines, he laid out a set of conceptual tools that proposed a new theory in communication system design:

‘…computer technology supplies us not [just] with a medium for artificial intelligence nor with a machine which may be used solely for computation, but with a medium for communication and for strictly organised information flow, a medium which may induce major changes in the modalities of co-operation between human beings’.  (Petri, p.171-172)

Using Petri’s twelve communication disciplines as a mechanism for analysis, it becomes evident that the choice is ours. The value of our data depends on how we reorganise and extract it. How we identify future compositions of need, or problems to be cancelled or solved. Addressing and naming those needs/problems correctly, in order to synchronise our behaviour, to model and delegate, authorise and copy it across our Big Data networks. To effectively support ‘co-operation between human beings’.