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The University of Southampton

Setting the scene for new disaster management

Published: 8 August 2013

Global internet outage, a virus outbreak and global warming are just some of the hypothetical disaster scenarios set to be created by an unusual collaboration between researchers at the University of Southampton and newly-appointed Leverhulme artists-in-residence.

The ORCHID programme, based in Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University, investigates how human and software agents can effectively work together to collect the best possible information from a disaster environment. The team have been exploring the use of unmanned autonomous systems (UAS) fitted with audio-visual equipment that can improve the response of emergency services and populations to disaster management.

Now the research group has been awarded funding to appoint two new artists-in-residence – Steve Beard and Victoria Halford – who will challenge the researchers to imagine new disaster scenarios that UAS technology may have to respond to.

The money to fund the artists’ work has been awarded by the Leverhulme Trust, which was established in 1925 under the Will of the First Viscount Leverhulme to provide resources to support scholarships for the purposes of research and education. The Trust provides funding for research projects, fellowships, studentships, bursaries and prizes across all academic disciplines. It aims to support talented individuals as they realise their personal vision in research and professional training.

Head of ORCHID at Southampton, Professor Nick Jennings said: “We are delighted to have Steve and Victoria on board to help us expand our outlook with regards to our research into the use of computer-driven UAS in managing disaster environments. By offering a creative perspective and striving to make the previously unknown visible, Steve and Victoria will challenge us to think the unthinkable and explore the effects on our research of many different kinds of alternative futures.

“Some of the scenarios that emerge may go beyond the expected to take in what at the present time appears science-fictional.”

The team has already considered a range of scenarios – some hypothetical, such as the London 2012 Olympic Games being disrupted by fire or floods, and some real-life situations, such as the Haiti earthquake and the Fukishima nuclear disaster – but is keen to expand on these to help shape awareness of the conditions in which UAS may have to operate.

“Steve and Victoria will provoke us to explore what the future may look like and the likely changes of operating computer-driven UAS within it. By mobilising the imagination of artists, we intend to gain access to novel scenarios that will help future-proof the development of our research,” said Professor Jennings.

Steve and Victoria have previously worked collaboratively to make art films about accidents. They challenge explanations that emerge from scientific accident investigation with alternative narratives. By merging fact and fiction, with alternative histories and projections into the future they create visually compelling, intellectually rich works of art that have been described as documentary fiction and cine-essay.

At the end of the project the pair will create a film sequence modelling hypothetical disaster management narratives generated by the disaster scenarios. Using an off-the-shelf UAS, the film sequences will be the first example of ORCHID’s research being disseminated in an unconventional and engaging way.

This visual work will be part of a public event staged by the John Hansard Gallery , based at the University of Southampton, at the end of the artists’ residency. In 2009, Steve and Victoria featured in the John Hansard Gallery’s ‘Dark Places’ exhibition, where their film ‘Voodoo Science Park’ explored the secret geography of the Health and Safety Laboratory, Derbyshire.

The project will also involve collaboration with colleagues at the University’s Winchester School of Art who will mentor the artists.

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