new materials: concrete


Over the last few weeks I’ve been researching and testing ways to create concrete blocks from my own custom moulds for a new piece of work entitled ‘Deep Repository’, as part of my residency at Florence Mine. The aim is to develop a simple system for creating marked ‘gravestones’ for digital media – an absurd apocalyptic archive, allowing someone to encase a master copy of a work (eg dv tape), knowing that it should in theory survive armageddon, even if the technology to play it back doesn’t.

The work was inspired by a twitter conversation with animator David OReilly, who was wondering what to do with old digibeta copies of his films that he no longer needed. Suggesting that rather than throw them away he should pass them to a proper film archive, I also offered to encase a tape in carbonite – a reference to Han Solo’s fate in Empire Strikes Back. Whilst my current approach to creating an ‘archival tomb’ has been to ditch the fictional metal alloy in favour of the more readily available concrete, my unfamiliarity with the material itself has been a key obstacle.

Working with digital media, its not so often I actually get my hands dirty, although the recent Moston Small Cinema build was an exception that perhaps gave me some confidence to attempt more physical projects. I have never worked with concrete though, and I was unsure how to mix it, and whether it would allow me to mould text. My first mistake was to trust an expert, who convinced me to buy mortar as it had a finer aggregate. I felt excited as I poured my mixture into the two moulds -one milled mdf, one lasercut ply – both featuring text cutaways. However, the result was a grainy crumbly brick that failed to render any text effectively enough from my moulds.

Disappointed, and unsure whether it was material or the mould design, I decided I needed to have a crack with the real thing, and nipped off to B&Q for a bag of quickset concrete. I also did some research into alternative methods of marking concrete, placing wooden offcuts and plywood letters in the base of my plastic tub moulds, and making plates for stamping impressions into the surface. The results were much more positive. The concrete set much faster than I anticipated (making stamping tricky), but it formed around the mould well, even taking the shiny sheen of the plastic tub on some surfaces. Removing the wooden text pieces was tricky, but I was pleased with the impressions they had left. I felt more confident I could develop my mould, and that concrete would work as the medium.


Another materials test experimented with text sizes and material thicknesses, using lasercut birch plywood moulds that I made at Fab Lab Manchester. I also decided to test the feasibility of incorporating QR codes into the design, in order to explore the possibilities of interfacing with the marker through a smartphone, as with ‘digital gravestones‘.

cutting notes:

  • 3mm ply – speed 19 / power 100 / freq 500   (adjust speed to 17/ 18?)
  • 4mm ply – speed 12 / power 100 / freq 500

I created both relief and impression moulds testing different font sizes. The results were mixed. The QR code also looked nice, but wasn’t functional, either to a camera or as a rubbing. Text was defined in some parts, broken in others, and this perhaps had something to do with the concrete mixture itself. It seems that in order to use text, I need to be working with larger font sizes, better spaced.

The final Deep Repository Module will hopefully use these techniques to render *some* information on the surface, whilst entombing the digital media within. In addition, the design will house an accessible usb drive via a waterproof connector, enabling a copy of the media (though not the master) to be viewed, either via laptop or digital screen.



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