Documentation Debt

At Mars College, where I’ve been studying and living for the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking about the term “Documentation Debt” and how it applies to artists.

In the business world, Documentation Debt is when you skip documenting things to save time, money, or effort. Over time, this neglect accumulates and becomes harder to fix, similar to monetary debt with compounded interest. The more time passes, the more the lack of documentation becomes a problem.

For artists, you are in Documentation Debt when you have shot the documentation of your work but haven’t actually published it on your website, or otherwise. It’s more likely with video than photos, since video needs editing, sound synchronizing, and titling. The files sit there on your hard drive, collecting digital dust.

I often say to my students: the documentation is the artwork. An overstatement, yes, but most people see the documentation rather than the physical work itself. Website views are cheap; museum shows are not.

Future applications: grants, residencies, shows all hinge on having solid documentation. We have to document our projects all the time and make them look aesthetically compelling as well as tell the story of what it is. It does baffle me that documentation is often not considered proper a line item in a project proposal budget. Artists have to pay expert photographers (often other artists) to set up a post-show studio shoot.

I have had to shoot my own documentation, work out trade deals with other videographers, do post-shoot color correction, sound mixing and other attempts to make something look semi-professional and save money. And, I’m not an expert. Documentation is just expensive and a pain to manage.

A case of Documentation Debt happened recently with an artwork that I did in Slovenia in 2022 called River Glitch as part of PIF Camp. I conceptualized and built this installation in a week, setting up eight of my dispersed sensor-sound players (Datapods) on the Soça River. We had a videographer onsite to help out and while they shot footage, I also rushed around and shot video on my phone just in case. Before my audience of 40 other artists came to see it, a surprise heavy rainstorm pummeled the river installation.

I panicked, and packed up, and trudged for a kilometer in the rain, drenched while the other event attendees were huddled under a rooftop silk-screening t-shirts. I was crushed as I had planned for an engaging installation event for my colleagues to see that afternoon. No one saw it but the journalist and the videographer.

The video footage that the videographer shot was sadly, unusable. Some sort of filter was on that made it look like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. My own phone footage was at 1920×1080 instead of 4K, and though I got enough coverage, there was by no means any planned shot list and the footage felt haphazard. I felt defeated and unmotivated to put together a video for the project.

The clips were on my drive as-was for many months, through 2022 and into 2023. I knew that the audio would be difficult to re-edit and would require studio recordings, and the footage would have to be cleaned up.

In October of 2023, I had just finished a successful project, called Poet Trees, which I had also shot loads of footage from. Now I was in some serious documentation debt. Two sound installations were now undocumented, save for some images on the my website.

I gave myself the goal of finishing it up over the holiday season. I buckled down and got videos of both of these works edited, titled and complete. It was onerous and took a long time, and the dark nights of December were perfect for this. There were some problems with my documentation — some shots needed stabilizing for example, but once I got these down, I had cleared my Documentation Debt for a little while, at least. Phew.

In the end, I was pretty happy with River Glitch. It’s a conceptually complex and strong piece and the footage worked out pretty well and the sound design felt strong.

Documentation Debt is a useful term for planning. Now I think before I shoot documentation, what will be my timeline for finishing it? Can I do in-progress works that are not expertly-edited? Can I show these to colleagues as I progress towards final installations and documentation? All of these questions rattle around my head as I plan for the documentation stage of the artwork.

Final video edit is here!



DIY Water Sensors Workshop

This write-up is a bit tardy, but that’s what happens when the holidays hit. In December, I hosted a DIY Water Sensors Workshop at Autodesk Pier 9 in collaboration with The Center for Investigative Reporting.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work at Autodesk, first as an artist-in-residence (2014) and for the last few years, running their Electronics Lab and more recently their Simulation Lab (VR/AR). For the workshop, we hosted a combination of journalists and members of the Autodesk community.

The idea for the workshop sprung out of my Sonaqua artwork. The project sonifies (makes sounds from) water quality by testing for electrical conductivity (EC), which is an correlates to pollution — the more heavy metals and minerals, the higher the EC. It’s one of a number of measurements that scientists make in the field, along with indicators such as pH and Dissolved Oxygen.

That’s a brief summary of the artwork and what I wanted to do was make basic module circuit available for anyone to use. We breadboarded the basic circuit and within a couple of hours, everyone was up and running, making sounds from water samples that they brought in.

Working with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) was valuable — afterwards, we got into a long discussion about data journalism. I was impressed with their breadth of projects and related works which include:

Sonifying the Seismic Activity in Oklahoma – tracks earthquake activity increases due to fracking

Wet Prince of BelAir – uses satellite data to find water-wasters during the big drought.

Cicada Tracker – a project by WNYC & Radiolab using Arduinos to predict the cycle of 17-year cicadas



After a few hours, the breadboarded circuits were complete! I mailed circuit boards, designed in Autodesk EagleCAD to the workshop participants a few days later. There are always production delays, but they did get the boards in time for the holidays.

Photo credit, Blue Bergen, Autodesk

Movies about Water

A few days ago, I asked on Facebook:

What’s your favorite movie about water? We’re doing a Monday movie night at the Water Rights residency and I’m taking suggestions. Narrative or documentary, but not exceedingly lengthy.

78 responses! Here is the list, in order of posting, which has less than 78 because there were duplicates:

Blue Planet
Milagro Bean Field War
Riding Giants
Step Into Liquid
One Water
Force 10 from Navarone
Knife in the Water
The Abyss
Darwins Nightmare
Marvelous Resources
Dripping Water (Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow)
Into Blue
Even the Rain
Salween Spring (Travis Winn)
Glass-memory of Water (Leighton Pierce)
Old Man And The Sea.
Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Water Warriors!
The Swimmer!
Peter Hutton (various films)
Erin Brockovich
Paddle to the Sea
H20 Film (Ralph Steiner)
Point Break
Patagonia Rising
Step Into Liquid
Civil Action
Trouble the Water
Like Water for Chocolate
Guy Sherwin’s black and white film of his daughter watering shadows. Prelude – 1996, 12 mins
The Same River Twice
The Illustrated Man
Whale Rider
The Gods Must Be Crazy
The Big Blue
The Dry Summer
Joe Versus the Volcano
Water & Power: A California Heist
The Finest Hours
The Woman in the Dunes
Total Recall (first one)
“Water Wrackets” by Peter Greenaway
“Watersmith” by Will Hindle
My Winnipeg

Strewn Field Map @ SETI

I’ve been an artist-in-residence at SETIthe Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — for several weeks now. Many think of SETI as people who listen for signals from advanced alien life in the deep desert.

Of course, this isn’t even close to the full story. SETI is also doing amazing work in the field of planetary science: the stuff in our solar system

Why would SETI scientists be playing in our astronomical backyard in the quest for extraterrestrial life? …a couple of reasons:

(1) there is a decent chance of microbial life in our solar system, which certainly counts as “extraterrestrial” life, though not as exciting as an advanced alien species.

(2) if we understand how life began on Earth, then we can apply that knowledge to determine how life might originate on other planets.

Planetary data is ripe with amazing possibilities. My current artistic focus is to write custom software code which translates datasets into physical sculptures and installations. My first foray is meteorite impact data from SETI.

The scientist I am currently working with is Dr. Peter Jenniskens, who is one of the world’s experts on meteors and meteorites. And, as I have discovered, he is also interested in the artistic possibilities.

seti_peter_in_front_of_signThe 2008 TC3 asteroid was discovered on October 6th, 2008, heading right for Earth. Calculations were made to determine its approximate impact, which ended up being in Sudan just 19 hours later. The event was significant — it’s the first time we’ve been able to calculate the location of a “small body” impact with Earth. For all it’s importance, 2008 TC3 deserves a much better name. After all, even Lance Armstrong has an asteroid named after him.

Dr. Jenniskens was not only near the impact zone the next day, on October 7th but also led an expedition to map and collect the meteorite fragments. He worked with nearly 100 students at the University of Khartoum to find, geolocate and weigh everything they could find.

It is very unusual to be able to get an accurate strewn field map like this. Usually fresh meteorites hit the ocean or areas that are difficult to collect meteorites for various reasons.


I work at the Creative Workshops at Autodesk, and have access to their 3D printers. I printed out a model of the 2008 TC3 asteroid, at least one possible physical mapping of the asteroid that approximates its shape. Dr. Jenniskens got a gift of plastic that day.seti_peter_with_meteorHe later showed me the fragments of one of the meteorites. The crust has an amazing texture, which looks like baked clay. Inside, it looks like a regular rock, well at least to my untrained eyes.seti_scott_n_meteroitesOnto the datasets! Peter Jenniskens provided me which had the geolocation + mass of 639 meteorites that his team found. It is now my job to do something with this amazing information.

With my Bad Data series, I wrote custom software that translates the datasets into a map of vector shapes which I then cut, etch, mill or work with somehow on a CNC machine — laser-cutter, water-jet, Shopbot, etc.

I applied similar code to this dataset, creating this map. The larger circles correspond to more mass. It even looks like an impact, with the smaller fragments being shed off before the bulk of the extraterrestrial rocks hit our planet.

strewn_field_15scaled_no_notationIt will be a slog of testing with various materials before I get a final result that I’m happy with. I love this part — the back n’ forth playing with data and materials to get a final aesthetic result that is pleasing.

But, I did manage to squeeze out some tests on wood and have this result. It’s promising.