Can you tell us a bit about your background in the creative industries?
Where to start! I originally trained in Aeronautical Engineering, and worked for British Aerospace Military Aircraft. Later on, I retrained in Industrial Design Engineering (MA at the RCA), then worked as a researcher in Computer Related Design (RCA), which became Interaction Design, then the Design Interactions department at the RCA.
During the late 90s I started to make electromechanical installations, which began to appear in art galleries, museums, and expos, often associated with brands who were just getting their heads around the idea of experiential marketing. Then, in 2003 I took a step back to examine the qualities of my work that seemed to excite an audience, and brand managers. The project that emerged Chromo11: Engineering The Thrill was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, and resulted in a modest publication The Taxonomy of Thrill.
In 2006 Tussauds Studios (the creative studios behind Madam Tussauds, Alton Towers and Thorpe Park) bought thirteen copies of the taxonomy for their Creative Directors. Since then I’ve been consulting on the development of new attractions, from initial concept, through to launch and marketing. This work is at the commercial end of the spectrum of my practice and I still build experimental rides and installations, which inform my commercial work, often funded by bodies like Arts Council England and NESTA, or working with universities like the University of Nottingham, who pickup on the technological developments and challenges that my work creates.
One unusual aspect of my work is my expertise in affective computing, and my working knowledge of physiological and neurological monitoring. This really came about as an unexpected development to an appendix in The Taxonomy of Thrill, where I revealed a formula, The Walker Thrill Factor, which could be quantified using biomonitoring. Since then, I’ve been performing experiments to quantify Thrill for nearly 10 years, which I conduct as public performance, in my character as “the world’s only thrill engineer” (coined by The Times)
What did The Times mean when they named you that?
Engineering is a highly objective practice, thrill is a highly subjective state. The idea of engineering thrill really captured people’s imaginations - the idea that something so subjective could be engineered. Ten years ago people were still excited by the idea of Disney Imagineers bringing magic to a project. I’ve just tried to demystify the magic, and make it applicable across the Creative Industries, and beyond. This is one reason my Thrill Engineer character wears a boiler suit (I’m an engineer - not a scientist) shirt and tie (I’m a thinking professional).
The Thrill Engineer not only captures the imagination of the public, but also brands wanting to communicate the excitement of their products and services. Nissan’s “Built To Thrill” advertising campaign was based on my Thrill Engineer character and my Thrill Laboratory (the institution behind the Thrill Engineer). In character I’ve worked on marketing projects as diverse as designing international sex experiments for Durex, to testing babies eating raw ingredients for Ella’s Kitchen.
My onscreen work as the Thrill Engineer also attracted the attention of the TV industry, but they usually prefer my more general characters as either “an Experimental Engineer” (which I adopted for my Channel 4 series The House The Fifties Built) or a more classic “Aeronautical Engineer”, which gave me kudos to present Channel 4’s Terror In The Skies, and more recently BBC Two’s Coast.
Being a presenter, a professor, a Research Fellow and an artist in your own right, how do you balance your roles, and do they inform one another?
An actor I work with from time to time once told me “it’s about your audience, it’s always about your audience”. The institutions and different industry sectors I’ve built partnerships with, and profiles within, only exist because they add value to my projects - which place audience entertainment as a highly valued commodity - and because my projects bring value to them in return. Understanding value flow is critical in forging and maintaining relationships: from getting a client international media coverage in return for being able to conduct a novel experiment, to making sure award winning academic papers result from research with Universities. But equally, making sure an intern get’s excited by the insights they gain working on a new installation, can be extremely valuable - to us both. It’s only natural that within such a large and varied network that different partnerships will lay fallow from time to time, but I hope I have enough of a track record that partners know I’ll turn my attention to them again.
You're going to be talking about the value of entertainment - why is this an important topic to discuss?
I’ve been asked too many times “the project is certainly entertaining, but does it have wellbeing implications or medical applications?” This is often because my projects deal with understanding and affecting people’s psychological states, or use medical monitoring equipment. It doesn’t seem to matter that entertainment, just one product of the Creative Industries, is one of Britain’s biggest international exports. Economic benefit is usually good enough reason for products and services to exist, but entertainment is somehow felt to be frivolous. So, I’m going to reflect my own work to see what social and cultural value it has created, and ultimately link this back to public wellbeing.
What do you hope people will come away with from the talk / what sorts of discussion to you hope to provoke?
If you place the entertainment of an audience as the objective you value most highly, then value in other areas will evolve naturally. If you value other objectives higher, and attempt to use entertainment to try and achieve them, then value will dwindle. Audiences are sophisticated.
Transdisciplinary working and inter-industry partnerships ensure value and flow can be created. But the creative practitioner needs to maintain themselves at the centre, forming these relationships, and directing the action; follow a project idea without distraction from partners.
Book tickets now for Let Me Entertain You and join us afterwards for the preview of new show the Human Futures Exposition.