The General Opinion

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Well, this has been floating in my drafts for a while.

The General Opinion is a collection of thoughts and ideas about art, provoked by carefully chosen prompts. Sometimes, these prompts are general, and sometimes these prompts are location or theme specific. The idea is to create a queryable collation of recorded thoughts, and later analyse them – the hope is for institutions and individuals to be able to use this in some way, as well as expanding an honest discussion about feelings towards art.

The description on the website, as written by Henry, says,

The General Opinion offers a place to share and discuss the role of art in each of our lives. It’s a dumping ground for opinions, thoughts, feelings and emotions about, or provoked by, art. Utilising the frenzied, sharing world of the internet and the opportunities of a democratic election, The General Opinion is a forum on art for anyone with an internet connection.
Please feel free to submit your opinions on art however positive or negative, long or short they are. We will be building up a database of responses that will be publicly accessible and will, in the future, be disseminated through campaigns, publications and as a downloadable resource.

Phase One
Initially, I was approached by Medium Rare to help create a system that attempts to start this discussion, ready to launch at their residency at The Clubhouse at The Exchange gallery in Penzance in November. After the mild success (i.e, it didn’t break) of The Clubhouse installation, the concept was later funded to be extended for SWARM in April, which also was at The Exchange.

From the beginning of the project, we agreed that a receipt printer would be the perfect output, with a website form being the input. It seemed to play on the conceived temporality of online comments by outputting a tangible sentiment in print, the value of a receipt being anything between the representation of agreement between yourself and a seller, and a token that gets lost in your purse.

I, myself, have had a fraught relationship with ‘hackable’ receipt printers in the past – Facebook archives from 2013 show this. I like to place this alongside an image of it working, a diptych of failure vs success (albeit 3 years apart).

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In its first iteration, the project consisted of a website running on Flask (a Python framework) and a receipt printer. The main interface, the page that faced the public during the installation, was a form of sorts and designed by Henry, displaying a random prompt relevant to art, with a textbox underneath. Also available was an admin area, where users (just Medium Rare and I) could update prompts and view the responses. The receipt printer was hooked up to a Raspberry Pi – significantly more straightforward than an Arduino – and placed alongside the computer, using the network to retrieve new opinions posted every minute or so. We didn’t gather a huge amount of responses over the fortnight, but it worked as a proof of concept. It was also an excellent opportunity to meet Rosie and Cat of Field Notes, a projects organisation group that organised the Clubhouse workspace.

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This iteration exposed some of the weaknesses of the project, mainly in the workflow, but also highlighted the need for projects such as this, and the expansion of this one. The General Opinion harks to The General Election, only we expose our collected entries to fuel honest and confident discussion about issues that are so subjective. Opinions are hard to quantify when the points of view are so humane and often contradictory in themselves, hence why we enabled free writing as opposed to a poll with prescriptive answers. I think, at the moment, we’re still considering how to regard this as data as opposed to a collection of thoughts. When we read or share the opinions, we are considering them individually, as opposed to collectively.

Phase Two
Months later, Medium Rare were approached to continue this project as a part of Swarm, an event organised by Field Notes and The Exchange to bring artists from Cornwall and Devon together in a day of workshopping, presentations and networking. We were pretty excited to continue this. We identified that we needed to make the system accessible to institutes/organisations/collectives/individuals other than ourselves for it to be valuable, which meant enhancing the user system, and creating events and locations etc that the opinions could be associated with. We also agreed that the installation itself could be stronger in its form, so the idea of ‘open’ polling booths emerged. On the agenda also was the printer itself, with more verbose printouts required and the general presentation improved with the aid of a laser cut box. The final addition, quite an important and exciting one, was to enable the user to draw responses too, and that these responses would be treated in the same way as the textual responses. Oh, and a redesign, though Henry was already a step ahead with that, and just required some pootling with the CSS on my part.

If the previous was a proof of concept, this was enforcing it, creating a reproducible format that could be used outside of the art world, hopefully leading to future funding. Though, we agreed to make the project as open as possible – open source, open access to responses via an API, available case designs – so seeing our format taken on and adapted would also be a success.

What followed was an exhausting but amazing month of progress, coming to a crescendo at Swarm. Many high fives were had.

Drawing was enabled. On the client side, I used fabric.js to free-draw to a canvas, then sent to the server as base64, decoded into a PNG using Python, saved filename to opinion record in database. The printer library supported the printing of bitmap images…
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I drew up a makercase box based on the measurements of our previous red shoebox to be laser cut with 3mm ply, and engraved with The General Opinion, along with cut-outs for power/ethernet cables. Jenny from cutbybeam laser cut them so beautifully.
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An exciting addition, two knackered XP laptops purchased from Smarty Pants at an absolute £teal. One wiped and reinstalled as Linux, the other dualbooted with Linux alongside XP (XP proved delightful for Medium Rare’s Riso printer) as the vessels of opinion at the exhibition. I chose Ubuntu as the distro, and used the WindowMaker window manager, as it is super lightweight. Creating a custom Chromium shortcut meant that the website could be opened with –kiosk mode at the specified URL. Pretty handy set-up-and-go.
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The booths! We opted for a polling booth style, with just the skeleton dividing the users from each other and those spectating. Although we could have evaded a booth structure completely in aid of openness, we felt it important to focus the user to the screen they were engaging with, as well as illustrating structurally the system we are subverting. Henry designed and built this structure using wooden dowling and copper plumbing fittings – the exhibition itself was the first time we saw it in the flesh. Thankfully, it worked perfectly, and was designed to be taken down and transported easily.

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Last minute live coding of the Pi. Unfortunately, the gallery’s wifi kept dropping out, cue panicked attempts to connect to Bt Wifi.
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The final setup.
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Swarm itself. The event was incredibly busy, but also so well organised, huge congratulations and thanks to Rosie and Cat of Field Notes. A buzzing (ha) day of meetings, reacquainting, participation and thought. Unfortunately, my phone went into deep hibernation due to lack of forward-charging, but I managed to take a few snaps. It was also exciting to meet other collectives, including but not limited to the talented ladies of Keiken Collective and WANK.
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Responses. We collected a great variance of responses from many of the artists, many unsure as to the purpose of our installation, but happy to oblige anyway. It was a treat for both ourselves and the users to reflect on others’ responses too, which made me feel that we were onto a valuable thing with the project. The honesty that came with the online-form format was striking, although I don’t doubt that some of these would include the same sentiments publicly, it served as a great forum for the day. Here are the responses.

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And now?! We’re resting, and plotting.