Remaining Useful Life
R.U.L? Are you Well!?
Harun enjoyed punning around with the theme for this Stranger Fictions session, blending the sounds of colloquial greeting with a topic from his previous life working in the field of predictive maintenance: Remaining Useful Life. This term had come up in an early conversation between Harun and myself about research and engineering (a curious premonition of the group discussion that emerged during the Mentorship session in Cork, that had us speaking about purpose, meaning and death in relation to research). We'd been talking about impressions people might have of science and technology research from outside these fields, versus the lived experience from within these fields.
“People outside of science and technology”, Harun mused, “have a false impression that everything is understood, under control. But in the field, everything could fall apart at any moment, the screws are loose. I know how easy it is to make a mistake, to skip something, to trigger an unintended consequence. This issue transgresses every field. But it is the specific subject of one particular field in technology called predictive maintenance or condition monitoring, the goal of which is to test and assess the remaining useful life of a system or piece of technology. You can do this through 'destructive testing' where you systematically try to break the device by various means, or you can take a 'non-destructive testing' approach, which is a little less violent, more of a 'destruction-by-neglect' approach”.
Harun suggested an accessible introduction to this whole area for the generally curious: No Highway in the Sky, the 1951 film featuring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. Harun also shared a couple of research papers with me, to introduce the vocabulary around predictive maintenance, and to help me get to grips with the language and concerns of the field. (PDF 1, PDF 2)
Once again we were wondering about the relationship between everyday life and technology research. And we were by no means alone. As the 2018 autumn turned to winter, Anne Kelly, the Gallery Curator at the National College of Art and Design on Dublin's Thomas Street, was also asking fundamental questions about the future of making (call it poeisis, techne, art, craft) in the 21st century. Bringing together examples of art and design practices of making to explore these questions, Anne had curated a contemporary art exhibition called Infrastructures of Now at NCAD Gallery. I had been invited to show a recent work of mine called Holes (a Portrane Sequence) as part of this exhibition, which is what brought me into conversation with Anne.
In the process of preparing for this exhibition, Anne and I had a chance to share our broader ideas and research with each other. We realised pretty quickly that the concept of Remaining Useful Life had a poetic force that went beyond the fields of science and technology. So when I put it to Anne that perhaps we could run a session of Stranger Fictions within the exhibition space around the theme of Remaining Useful Life she was immediately on board. On a grey day in early November, Anne, Harun and myself met amongst the artworks of the Infrastructures of Now exhibition to open up this theme together. Once we starting thinking with it, the phrase Remaining Useful Life seemed to resonate with everything. Below is an excerpt from that initial conversation. It's noisy and reverberant, and features the mechanical sounds of Dublin-based artist Tom O'Dea's robotic drawing installation.
A little detour for a moment, but one that has a peculiar resonance with the theme of becoming sensitive to the remaining useful life of machines. In the weeks leading up to this session my laptop broke. Completely. I began to think I was tempting fate by dallying in this topic. Many other things seemed to go awry, email communications caused confusion, relationships strained, things generally seemed to fall asunder. A run of bad luck. But even during the actual Stranger Fictions session on Remaining Useful Life, artist Tom O'Dea's electronic mechanical art work (pictured above) stopped working. We witnessed the final moments of its life, drawing patterns on the gallery floor, and heard its gurgling, mechanical swan song (you can actually hear this happening in the 'seeding the session' audio piece below). In the midst of all this nuisance, I noticed a post on social media about a phenomenon called Mercury in Retrograde. This is where the planet mercury appears to move backwards in the sky over the course of about three weeks. Many websites recommend that you do not attempt to do anything involving communications and to avoid working with or upgrading electrical equipment, as these were likely to break down. And how! A word to the wise.
Scrolling through twitter one day, in absent minded preparation for this session, I came upon a tweet by a woman called Claire Varley who had posted an image of the trouble-shooting guide from her newly acquired fridge. The technical writer of this trouble-shooting guide demonstrated heart-melting levels of machine-empathy by translating the fridges noises phonetically. What may have sounded like death-rattles to the uninitiated (tell-tale signs that the remaining useful life of the device was soon to be up!) were helpfully translated as “normal”. It was this tweet combined with Harun's experience as a predictive maintenance engineer that helped us to devise the constraints of the writing prompt for Remaining Useful Life: A Data Sheet (PDF), generic enough to assess the RUL of, well, anything.
The RUL session took place at the end of November, in the fish-bowl like environment of the NCAD Gallery, with its sheer glass wall rendering all our activities visible to the passers by on Dublin's Thomas Street. We had our share of vocal yet transient admirers. Settling amongst the art works and objects of the Infrastructures of Now exhibition, we were primed to engage in a material conversation about the realities of Remaining Useful Life. Our group was a mix of art students, EDGE fellows, artists and teachers. Anne and Harun set things in motion, speaking about changes in the tools of making over time and the inevitable 'death of machines'.
One of the first observations from the group was an idea that by attributing life to machines, and usefulness to life, we are generating 'cruel couplings' that shape and inform our relationships, our emotional life, and our attitudes towards the environment and other forms of life.
If you have the time, let this session play in the background of what you're doing, every now and then you'll be drawn into the conversation. If you want to try the pseudo-technical writing exercise, you can download the RUL template here. In his introduction to the exercise, Harun explains that RUL is now a start-up, a spin-out company by the Editor-in-Chief of JASPERS (SF#1). Open up the template as you listen, Harun will explain the various sections. Or you can skip to read the completed Data Sheets in the slideshow below. Whether you choose to simply listen in on this session or try your hand at responding via the RUL Data Sheets, these conversations will leave you with a deeper appreciation of the complexities and ‘cruel couplings’ of life, machines and the pervasive nature of technological thinking in contemporary research and society.