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Conversations with April

30 Aug

Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s work sits between art and design; advanced technology and engineering. Their ongoing investigation into materials, and the political systems in which they exist, result in works that question use, value, and our increasingly symbiotic interdependence with the world of technology. In their studio, we discussed their new commission for Jerwood Visual Arts, ‘Giving More to Gain More‘ (2014), a series of LED sculptures that emit words and phrases taken from email conversations with the manufacturers of the lights, based in China. The result is a manufacturing ‘pidgin’ language; odd, a little eerie, crossing cultural and geographical divides, but linked by a strange specificity.

Giving More to Gain More (2013)

Giving More to Gain More (2013)

 

Basia: This piece seems quite different to your previous works. 

Revital: For us it’s always a natural progression from the other works – I’m interested to hear why you think it’s different?

Basia: Perhaps because of the focus on language and text, and the vernacular of manufacturing, rather than the process itself. What seems to be thematic in your work is the transportation of objects or materials out of their ‘usual’ habitats, and representing them way that alters our understanding of their use, or presence in our lives. This focus on language is more ambiguous in terms of use and value. 

Revital: This language came out of a previous work, called ‘75 Watt‘ (2013), and another, a wolf in a forest – ‘Nowhere a Shadow‘ (2013). We ordered all these LED lights for those projects, but there was something peculiar about the language of manufacturing, which we increasingly found fascinating.

Tuur: Our main focus is on materials and production. And that’s very broad. We made a piece with a pigeon – ‘Pigeon D’or‘ (2011) [a bacteria that makes pigeons defecate soap] – which was very much about biology as a material, but also the cultural, political and ethical consequences of using biology as such, in the context of mass manufacturing, but also in terms of synthetic biology.

In this instance, it was the language of production that intrigued us, and when we as artists think about these processes, we don’t think of them as purely technical. We consider them as cultural and political processes too. In ’75 Watt’, we were intrigued by the product being made, but as much by the bodies on the assembly line, too. It goes back to Frederick Winslow Taylor and the ‘efficient movement’, and time-motion studies by the Gilbreths.

At the time, we were doing a lot of work in China, and often via platforms like Alibaba.com, which are very much contemporary platforms for global mass manufacture. It struck us that this language that emerges is a pidgin language. We saw this piece as a way of reflecting on the ideas of what ‘making’ might still mean as an artist where outsourcing has become a process of making art.

 

Alibaba.com

 

Revital: It’s a reality of our work, because we use so many technological materials – they all come from China. I mean, you can get anything there. So many things are impossible to find here, but one email through Alibaba.com and 20 people want to talk to you about LEDs. There were also so many conversations around the materials themselves, which have such a specific nature. Descriptions of light, specifications, colours, letters and numbers and specs – super technical things. The only way to get these materials is to go through these conversations. That’s our manufacturing reality at this moment.

Basia: Is it related to a language (if you can call it that) like spam? A pragmatic language that occurs at the intersection between people and technology? Standing in front of your installation, the words and terms change according to where you position yourself, your body mediates the communicative element of the technology. 

Tuur: It’s a nice analogy. It definitely has many parallels. These words do go through a natural process of filtering – the people optimise their way of talking to you, in trying to get you to buy something.

Revital: Although with spam you have the sense you are just 1 in a million of copy-and-pastes, whereas here it so quickly it becomes a personal conversation.

Tuur: Yes, spam in its algorithmic nature is not like this. All the words displayed in Jerwood Visual Arts are taken from conversations we’ve had with the manufacturers of the LED lights they are displayed in. These were from April, that was her name. Obviously these are just snippets of longer emails, which we were considering to display in the gallery, but we chose not to.

Basia: They feel abstract, in a way in a word game can be – there’s a playfulness to them. Where language is usually clear to those fluent in it, words immediately recognisable, here there are long periods of not-knowing, as the words shift and reassemble. Is this also significant in the context of the cross-cultural conversations being had,  typical of many manufacturing exchanges between China and elsewhere?

Tuur: Another thing I was thinking of, when you mentioned technology and spam, is that it might well be that some of these conversations have been automatically translated, through Google or something else. A few years ago we made a work inspired by Turing, and how he defined artificial intelligence, and how central language is to our definition of humanness and human intelligence as opposed to a machinic knowledge. We made something like a music video, where we took lyrics from ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles, and passed it multiple times through online translators, eventually back to English. In the end, we got this strange, new, poetic computer understanding of language.

‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Beatles?’ (2007)
Video, sound , 04 minutes 54 seconds

Revital: With this work, we were really interested in Alibaba.com, and this marketplace. Before the website entered our lives, we always wanted to see materials. The ideal is to go to a shop, to see and touch, and think with the material in your hand. But if you want to work with more technological materials, then it’s just not possible. So, you have to put your trust in Alibaba.com. You are never quite sure if it’s reliable, but once it becomes a part of your life, it’s like an Aladdin’s cave of materials. Everything, everything.

Basia: So it’s a portal into an infinite market place, and I wonder about the ethical dimensions of this. What is the consequence of this unfettered, unlimited access to materials? And I think this relates to a wider question about the consequence of China’s position as exporter to the world.

Tuur: If you go to Guangzhou or Shenzhen, to these electronic markets, they’re so vast. Physically having been there, it helps to understand how it is possible that there are thousands of companies manufacturing every little thing, producing masses and masses of it.

Revital: It’s probably not going to last there. It’s already moving towards Vietnam and Cambodia, and the ethical implications of that are very interesting. I wouldn’t say we have a direct answer, but that’s why we are so fascinated in working there, and working in that context.

Tuur: I think in terms of the ethics, the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that however much we think that something is ethically complex, we will always be implicated within it. What we’re trying to do with the work is partly to explore this ethical dimension, but always to start with the acknowledgement that we’re part of the process. In the piece we’re presenting at Jerwood Visual Arts, there’s an interesting reversal. We did a crazy amount of hand-work on the pieces, welding them all together, and then soldering them. In some ways, it’s the opposite: the instructions came from China, and we did all the manual labour.

Revital: But we also put work into illuminating these sentences from a young Chinese girl working in a factory, we wanted to giver her presence. She’s not just an anonymous service provider.

Tuur: When it comes to these ethical questions, and especially biology as a material, in the context of industrial production, I think these ethical implications are very profound. For example, in ’75 Watt’ we wanted to represent contemporary factories in China, in which actually labour conditions are very reasonable (although of course it’s very difficult for me to comment on that). But we didn’t want to find a sweatshop, where people sit on the floor. Although they exist. Because that would have made the work very different, and perhaps less interesting. It’s important to keep the ambiguity at an ethical level, because it’s there that we as artists keep on working and looking, walking that path.

Basia: Could you talk about how this work fits into the broader trajectory of your practice?

Revital: It feels like each project gives birth to the other (with many links). And they come together in a few different routes, which for us make perfect sense. With this commission, we wanted to pursue this language because of our earlier work with the translations of ‘Yesterday’. It’s been cooking for a while. But it is also relevant to the work we made where we assembled various technological objects and removed all the minerals from them, casting them back into a mineral form. It’s about taking apart an industrial, electronic product and exploding it, exploring the people who assemble it, the minerals that allow it to be, the places through which it comes.

H / AlCuTaAu (2014)

 

Tuur: It’s about seeing the systems that underly these modes of production as political. ’75 Watt’ came out of a quote from a handbook of mechanical engineering, which says that an average labourer on an average day can produce 75 watts, average. What we liked about that was the tension between biology and technology, a tension between the biological body on the assembly line, that can not be quantified and characterised, and cannot be understood by the same logic of engineering which it’s really relying on, the quantification, characterisation, standardisation. It cannot fit within this larger system of production. The pigeons are similar – synthetic biology is a branch of technology and science, and the people we were working with had the same sort of ideals – to standardise and characterise biology to form part of a more reliable system. That, somewhere down the line, is a capitalist system. So, these political systems are underlying modes of production, with regards to biology and technology, whether at the scale of the human body or the assembly line, or bacterial production, or urban ecologies.

 

75 Watt (2013)

 

Revital: It’s about exploring the system of manufacturing when the engineering logic is removed. When there isn’t a clear use value or end point.

Hi-low tech: Shelley James, Platonic solids and quasi-crystallography

26 Aug

Let no one ignorant of Mathematics enter here.  

or

Let no one destitute of geometry enter my doors.

(Variations of the sign that hung above Plato’s academy)

In August, I met with Shelley James and, in the prismatic glow of her contribution to the Jerwood Makers Open 2014, we talked about her ongoing exploration into Platonic solids, Euclidian geometry, quasicrystalline structures and visual perception.

Physical forms, for James, are dense, layered, complex things suspended within a wider, less visible or knowable world. Linking philosophies of form and spirit via intensive technical processes, her shapes, installed in Jerwood Visual Arts, are deeply contemplative and beguiling. What follows is an edited transcript of our exchange, with additional links, images, footnotes and further materials for thought.

 

How did these shapes evolve? 

My research at the RCA was on visual perception, and the ways in which the brain processes information from the eyes in order to understand space. This led to my exploration of how to suspend structures within glass. I wanted to create a special trick with the eyes, because with this medium you can find patterns and structures that are apparently floating, or you can replicate one set of patterns to appear as if their facets are multiplying – the optical and material qualities of the glass can be manipulated to create a confusion in the brain. And so I developed various techniques for doing this.

I realised that in order for this to operate really strongly, the patterns needed to be perfectly regular. Otherwise you shortcut that illusion and simply make a narrative. I developed a technique for layering very precise patterns within the glass, which involved working with a glass blower, but I also used classic printmaking tools, for example an Intaglio technique – where you cut away at a material. Together we worked out how to build up layers with these pocketed parts of air inside each one.

Elemental Symmetries, 2014

 

Elemental Symmetries, 2014

 

If you look at the forms closely, you can see there’s an embryo, then another layer, and then the next layer has some printed effects on it, so it’s mixing additive and subtractive techniques together.

In the past, I’ve mostly worked with curved surfaces, and I’ve spent a lot of time observing how they create a ripple and magnification effect. Here, I wanted to deal with patterns and archetypal forms but also the metaphysical, metaphorical, philosophical side of such forms. It’s about the essential, about our experience of the world. I developed another technique to cut them in to perfect shapes – slicing them from a cylinder into something else. I worked from an old book on geometry, which gave me the angles between the Platonic solids. They are sort of the ideal sculpture, because they look so beautiful from all ends.

Platonic multiplications

So their combinations with themselves and with each other give rise to endless complexities, which anyone who is to give a likely account of reality must survey.
The Timaeus, Plato

Using a milling machine and a CAD programme, I ensured that all the forms were facially regular, and then I used the same technique they’ve used since Egyptian times to smooth each piece of glass using grit. You rub the glass over the grit and it slowly wears away, gradually using a finer and finer grit until you graduate to a pumice wheel, to perfectly smooth the surfaces.

How do you see them?

I suppose what was paradoxical about making them was that although they are very technical and time-intensive, each one actually relates to one of the elements, and so I spent a great deal of time thinking about that, too.

This one, the dodecahedron is aether, the divine; this one is an icosahedron, and these are water, fire, air, earth [pointing to each shape]. I found as I made each one, I kept thinking about these elemental qualities as well. They started to have a strong emotional resonance, more than just a technical quality. My hope is that they transcend their material, technical presence to offer some way of thinking about other dimensions of our experience. That’s why I like working with print and materials, because at worst, they need to be well made. But if they transcend to something else, then that’s fantastic.

The knowledge of which geometry aims is the knowledge of the eternal. 
—Republic, VII, 52.

And why is a dodecahedron aether? What is the relationship between the geometry and metaphysics?

Plato and some of the other Greek philosophers were trying to work out the distinction between what they could see, and what lies behind or beneath the visible. They understood that there must be more than what we can visually obtain in the world. They were trying to get to the essence of what we were seeing and perceiving, and they felt that by looking closer at forms, and phenomena around them, they could identify particular shapes which had a philosophical and material resonance with what they were observing.

Plato’s idea was that our view of what we see is like a sheet, thrown over some divine reality which is just beyond our gross mortal ability to see things. A sheet thrown over a rich, fabulous, extraordinary world, and all you see are these shapes poking out. These Platonic solids are as close we can be to seeing behind that sheet. They described the elements via different shapes: a cube is solid, it has an up and a down, cardinal points. An octahedron is air, and it has a kind of forward motion, it has a movement to it. Fire is pointy, fire creates prismatic effects, it’s sharp. Others are mobile.

[Plato wrote most about the solids in Timaeus (c.360 BC). Earth, a cube. Air, an octahedron. Fire, a tetrahedron and water, an icosahedron. According to various sources, these related to the sensations or visual phenomena of the matter itself. For example: the burning heat of fire is sharp, like tetrahedra. Or, the flowing form of an icosahedron, which pours and tumbles, fluid-like.

Of the fifth solid, aether, Plato wrote:

that ..the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven.]

They began to question: why is it that the stars stay up there? Or, where do we go when we die? What is beyond this realm? They looked at starfish, hands, and deduced a five-fold logic from these forms. It’s related to a five-fold symmetry – celestial. I was reading about those metaphysical, poetic qualities, and so I found myself investing some of these qualities in the work as I developed them.

The way that they play and manipulate the light makes them appear  form-less. It’s not that they are visual tricks, but our understanding of the space inside the shape is unsure and full of doubt. They are malleable, according to where you stand in relation to them. And that’s perhaps the essence of these metaphysical elements: you’re never quite sure of what is in front of you, and your position to these things is always changing and mutating. 

Precisely. It’s about trying to express that fragile equilibrium. I used microscope lamps to display them, and I wanted to think about how the presentation reflects this wider chain of fragility.

Is this part of a wider series?

The Jerwood Visual Arts commission allowed me to delve into this properly for the first time. I had been working with a crystallographer on symmetry, but inside curved forms, because they give all sorts of rippling uncertainties, depending on scale and position. This funding allowed me to explore new territory. This was the first time I’d made anything like this.

How might you develop this way of working in the future? 

I’m hoping to depart from Euclidian geometry, where the forms are confined in the world of fractions and angles from Greek geometry. I’d like to explore the next generation of math and crystals, quasi-crystollography. They’ve just discovered it thanks to new technology, and there’s a subtle variation of the five-fold shape called a quasi-crystal, for which Dan Schechtman received the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 2011. It’s looking at irrational numbers, which never repeat again in infinity. They have a whole mystery and mythology about them.

Electron diffraction pattern of an icosahedral Ho-Mg-Zn quasicrystal

[The notion of an ‘aperiodic crystal’ – a form that is irregular, or without translational symmetry, was first explored by Schrödinger in What is Life? (1944).]

 

What I’ve been surprised by is that expressing geometry like this triggers a poetic response. I am wondering – and its never been done before – what happens when we put this new kind of geometry into optical forms. We don’t know what we’re going to get yet.

 

 

 

Conversations overhea(r)d

21 Feb

The sound I think it makes is, is that whispering sound, to me it sounds, it almost sounds, um, uh, what’s the word I’m thinking? Um, like historic, not historic, but, um, oh: a legend, it, it sounds like a legend, you know, when you think of a legend or something way back in the past you get that, that, it sounds like that to me, like this legend or somebody’s, this whispering sound: it’s a legend.

Hannah Rickards

**

I’m sitting in what feels like a dark, warm box. There’s no one else in it, and I’ve sunk into the ground on a beanbag. A loudspeaker stands in each corner of this box, or den, and ahead is a monitor through which Chris Watson’s voice is walking me down a Kielder forest path. The trees are dark. We come to a little stone bridge, and Watson’s voice dissolves away, the monitor fades to black, and the space plunges into darkness.

**

I went home and started reading about ravens. I came across a photograph of them roosting on an abandoned US Nike radar dome. I read Edgar Allen Poe’s magnificent narrative poem, The Raven (“But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only/That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.”) In numerous books and journal articles, linguists have tried, with various strange, gnarled compositions of letters to evoke the raven’s rich and textural voice. Robert MacFarlane uses gorrack gorrack (they always seem to be circling above him in his books) and anonymous experts on Wikipedia write their own attempts. Prrk Prrk. I found a YouTube video called ‘Raven sounds creepy, ungodly‘, which might be one of my favourite film titles ever.

Manet's illustration for Poe's Le Corbeau, published in 1875 and translated by Mallarmé

**

In February 2014, Jerwood Visual Arts announced that one of their two Open Forest commissions would be awarded to Chris Watson and Iain Pate’s remarkable proposal, to reinstate a raven roost, using ambisonics, into Kielder in Northumberland, the largest man-made forest in Europe. The other commission was awarded to Semiconductor, who I wrote about here.

**

In early February, before the announcement was made, I had a conversation with Chris about his proposal.

You are inviting people to come deep into the Kielder forest, to stand and listen to the sounds of ravens returning to roost. How do you imagine this will unfold? 

The ravens come to roost at the end of the day, and although they are quite independent creatures, they do assemble en masse, and from a bioacoustic point of view, it’s believed that they exchange information about food and resources. In my proposal, while standing there, you’ll gradually lose what for most people is their main sense – vision – and I’m hoping that all the dark connotations of the forest, filled as it is with folk stories and myths and legends, will return to people while they are standing there.

The accompanying walk into the sound installation is also very important. You’ll walk up trails, through the mixed deciduous woodland, and then slowly enter the valley of the river Cottonhopesburn. There’s a mature conifer plantation, and by that point you’ll be into the darkest part of the forest, and it’ll loom all around you. We wanted it to be there because the sound changes, the acoustics of the forest change.

Then, we’ll cross a small stone bridge, quiet, and over the next fifty minutes, the piece will evolve. By that point, I hope that people will be tuned in to the natural sounds of the place. The idea of the piece is that the arrival of the ravens will be seamless with the already existing soundscape of the forest, and so darkness is innate to the whole process. After the piece finishes, people will be led out by torch light.

And what’s your own history with the ravens? Are these birds that you’ve recorded and listened to before? 

In 2007 I had a commission from Bergen, in Norway, to make a piece celebrating the centenary of the famous norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg. He famously documented local folk music, often writing it down in the cabin at the back of his house, which was a place where he was very much influenced by birdsong. The birds found their way into his pieces, but not in the way that they did in the composer Messiaen’s work, where he tried to imitate birdsong, but rather that Grieg was definitely influenced by his surroundings, and the voices of the ravens were prominent for him. In Norway, ravens are very powerful totemic birds. Like in the story of Odin suggests – where the Norse god sent his two ravens across the world to collect information for him – the Norwegians still have a lot of respect for ravens. They’re unique in that they span both the animal world and the spirit world.

Edvald Grieg, The Raven’s Wedding, from ’25 Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances’

Later, almost out of coincidence, I was travelling in Ethiopia, where the white-necked raven are often found nesting in the stone-carved churches in Lalibela. After that, I was recording a festival in Timkat, and I learnt from the local people that ravens are also regarded there as powerful spirit birds. They kept cropping up! I went to a sacred mountain in Japan, where I did a residency at the Kitakyushu centre for contemporary art, and there again there were fascinating stories about ravens. Here in this country, there are ravens in the tower of london, but nowadays they have to clip their wings apparently if they fly away, the monarchy will fall…

18th century Icelandic manuscript depicting the god Odin with his ravens, Hugin and Munin

In a lot of places they’re seen as birds of evil omen, particularly in Scotland, because they would stalk the battlefields and feed on the carrion of dead soldiers. Much earlier in Scottish and Norse mythology, they were also seen as birds that would carry the spirits of dead people into Valhalla.

But under all this rich mythology and legend, and on a much simpler level, they just have remarkable voices.

Studies of their voices suggest that they demonstrate ‘object displacement’ – that they can communicate about things distant in time and space, which only bees, humans and ants are proven to do. To return to the mythology, and particularly the Odin narrative which has circulated from as early as the 5th century, early cultures imagined that ravens were able to reap information, and to retell it. It seems as though myth might have quite accurately prefigured what science would later confirm.  

Quite often, folklore is surprisingly accurate, and based on fact, because people generations before us were much better at listening. To give an example from my own experience: when ravens find a food resource, whether it be a grain store or a dead animal, the next day there might be 20 ravens back there, but never more than the amount of food that’s available. They are obviously sharing information, not only about the location of it, but how much there was. That’s incredibly sophisticated, like the waggle dance in bees. Ancient societies could obviously hear the rhythms of their voices, and interpreted that something more complex was occurring.

Time is a key element in your proposal too: mythical time returns and bleeds into contemporary narratives; ancient time, and the cyclical time of the ravens returning each year to roost all gives a powerful sense that we are only fleeting visitors, temporary in this world. Your proposal seems to emphasise this.  

That’s a very good summation of my thoughts, in many respects. The whole point of the piece is that from the moment people cross the bridge into the raven roost, by the very look of the place – the tall mature trees, and because the speakers are placed high-up in the canopy – it will sound like ravens in the halls of Valhalla. It will have a cathedral-like acoustic. I hope that it will send a tingle down peoples spines, that it will activate an innate sense within us, an animal instinct, of being in the dark, being rather at a disadvantage, but hearing the birds that have been in the forest for thousands of years, having a conversation directly overhead. At first, you might be anxious, unsure, but you re-emerge slightly altered, along with others, collectively, and then go and resume your normal life. I like that idea of a changing process.

It feels like the kind of listening you are encouraging – an embedded, close-listening of the landscape – is an ancient practice. Today, we’re completely submerged in sound, but it’s very hard to listen. 

As a species, we’ve evolved with such sophistication because we’re good listeners. It was vital to our survival. What’s happened now is that we’re bombarded by sound and noise, and so we no longer get an opportunity to listen, or to interpret it. If you ring your bank, they’ll play music at you. There are constantly aircraft above us – helicopters, planes, computers, lighting systems. We spend a lot of time, negative energy, processing power, shutting these things out, simply to concentrate on our day-to-day life. But if you take people to a place where they can really open their ears, it becomes a very creative function. You start to tune in and it engage your brain in a different way – it stimulates the limbic region of your brain, which is linked to creativity, emotion and memory. So this isn’t a soporific exercise. It’s something we need. It’s not an artistic whim, we need to listen for our psychological health and wellbeing.

Quietness is paramount to creativity. A place to go and rest your thoughts.

Land art 2.0: a conversation with Hayley Skipper

5 Feb

Within Jerwood Visual Arts there are five proposals. From sawmills to ravens, to the tinnitus ringing in your ears amid a dense silence, each artist selected for the Open Forest has developed a unique proposal, the bones of a commission that could later exist somewhere in Britain’s forests. Using video, ambisonics, live performance and data drawings, the artists have created protean forms – suggestions of what might be to come. The commission is unique in that it straddles two very different environments, and in doing so raises questions about the places in which contemporary visual arts practice operate.

In the 1960s the term ‘Land art’ emerged, signalling a practice that existed outside the gallery walls. At that time, in the pages of Artforum and The New York Times, critics and artists alike spoke of their disillusionment of the commercialisation and insularity of the gallery. Ecological and environmental concerns activated a new anxiety and call for a new kind of outside engagement. In 1967, the then 22-year-old Saint Martin’s student Richard Long walked across a field back and forth, marking a track in his wake. The piece, A Line Made by Walking (1967) now seems to characterise the fine-drawn, romantic nature of much of the Land art that followed, a movement that often produced ephemeral works which could instantly disappear, engulfed or washed away, operating in a grey area between performance, installation and sculpture. Similarly, David Tremlett’s piece The Spring Recordings (1972) captured a snippet of sound from each of the 81 counties that make up England, Scotland and Wales. A close-listening on a huge scale.

In the catalogue for the 2013-2014 touring exhibition Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979 , the curators Joy Sleeman, Nicholas Alfrey and Ben Tufnell write that Harald Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form arguably encapsulated a significant moment in contemporary art, but that the show’s subtitle – ‘Works, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information’ – indicates a set of concerns shared by the artists who were moving their work out into the open. In this sense, Land art did not, and perhaps still does not, differ conceptually from work produced within the urban, gallery context, but rather it is characterised by an attitude to the outside world.

 

© the artist. Anthony McCall, Landscape for Fire, 1972. Gift of the artist and Spruth Magers Gallery, London

 

In the Jerwood Open Forest exhibition, it occurred to me that this might be a Land art 2.0 (forgive me the cliched term…), less concerned with large-scale material propositions, but perhaps evidence of a new attitude which incorporates the technological and visual forms of mediation through which we now encounter the outside world. In January 2014, I spoke with Hayley Skipper, the Forestry Commission’s art curator, who spends most of her time travelling between forests engaging in projects with artists, locals and visitors. We spoke about some of the ideas around the project, and what it means to present an artwork both in an urban setting, and in the deepest darkest forests…  

 

It struck me that what appears in the gallery has some relationship with Land art , but that the works build on and expand that artistic history, and are moving elsewhere…

I think the fact that we are only offering a £30,000 commission does have some sway in this. Not that you can’t produce a piece of Land art for that amount, but I think that does affect the sense of scale. For the final five selected for the Jerwood Open Forest, we wanted this to be a more public work than perhaps they would normally produce. It wasn’t a deliberate – we didn’t decide to ‘take the digital outdoors’ – but we haven’t been afraid to embrace new technologies. It’s actually quite a tech-heavy show. I think that does say something about where art practice is at. The artists are all in differing ways attempting to capture the immateriality of the forest, too. That seems to be thematic; that sense of something happening in a moment, of performance, of temporality – and how possible it is to capture things through film and visual documentation. All the artists have been thinking about the legacy of the work too, so in that way too it has brought in the history of Land art and how it does often live on through film, rather than through a primary experience of being there.

 

The artists don’t seem necessarily to be interested in ‘installing’ something into a place, but exploring how they might be able to change the atmosphere, or change the sensation of being in the forest.

Even with work that isn’t sculptural or land-based, well, anything at all in our culture now, not just visual art practice, it’s mostly all now mediated by devices, digital technology, visual media… We were trying to acknowledge the different spheres in which works sit, and travel. But of course, we are also conscious of our audience. We are thinking about how this commission sits within the various geographies across Britain, but it also wasn’t entirely about people going out into the forests, but also bringing the forest into the contemporary art milieu.

 

Is there still a political dimension, in general, in the act of artists and artworks moving outside of the gallery? I’m thinking of the way the 1960s Land art movement was characterised as ‘in opposition’ to something. 

In many ways it’s a recognition of the artists who are operating outside the gallery, but also an encouragement to those who are – it’s a provocation in some way. Critical practice can happen anywhere, it’s just a case of broadening our understanding of ‘anywhere’. Part of the reason we have included the exhibition in the Open Forest format, is because we didn’t want to set it up as an exclusive thing centred around a rejection of the gallery. We wanted to operate in both those languages.

 

Is this a process you have worked with before?

I trained in Fine Art at Wimbledon in London, and then went on to study sculpture, so I suppose I’ve arrived at curating from a practitioners perspective. I used to work a lot in the outdoors, and I also ran projects with students which were all about taking the institutional capital of the university and transplanting that into the community, or into a wider environment. I’m primarily interested in that intersection. Like now, for example, I’m working with the fact that the Forestry Commission isn’t an arts organisation, but I’m exploring the exchange between the non-art institution and artists, and what they do, and how audiences experience that. That’s the theme that runs through everything I do. As a practitioner, it was precisely the negotiation part which interested me. I worked a lot collaboratively, and that very broadly is key to my role now, and to this project here.

 

A typical interviewer’s question, but I’ll ask it anyway: was there an artwork which first inspired you to work in this way?  

The moment that immediately springs to mind is when I first saw the Turner Prize on TV. At that point, I didn’t really know what it what was, but Rachael Whiteread had just finished her Artangel commission, House (1993). It just seemed to be to be such a radical thing to do; to make sculpture in that way, so completely rooted in its context, and yet still a formal sculptural proposition but which couldn’t be separated from its landscape and its context – and its time. I think that was definitely a moment when I realised, wow, art can do that. Art can stand alone and make a statement, for itself, about a time and a place. That was definitely a landmark. It still feels exciting, even thinking about it now.

Hugo Young, The Guardian, 25 November 1993:
“In the East End of London, Rachel Whiteread’s architectural sculpture, House, has been voted into destruction. House is a modern masterpiece. In it an ingenious idea is realised with great evocative power. Taking a derelict dwelling, Whiteread has turned it inside out by casting the interior in liquid concrete then removing the bricks. What is left is a monument to past domesticity, a coarse yet intricate edifice, alone in the space it once occupied with a hundred similar residences. It satisfies contemplative as well as aesthetic taste. Once seen, it makes you look at all houses in a new way.

 

House, 1993, Rachel Whiteread. Artangel commission, photograph by John Davies.

 

Since that time, do you feel that because we engage with culture through new and changing digital means, this has meant that we engage with outside spaces less, or differently? In your role for the last six years, have you noticed a difference?

I’m not sure. I think there is definitely something different in how we experience landscapes and the outdoors, and our notions of the outdoors, which is mediated through our cultural and technological consumption. On one level, I think that excellent television programming, cinema, digital projects which allow us a certain access to the environment when we are unable to explore them first hand actually expand our horizons. But there is also another dimension, which is on a more pragmatic level. I see many people arrive at the forests bewildered because their sat-nav doesn’t work, and they have no phone signal. They can’t ‘plug in’. But it may also be a big part of why people come at all, because they don’t want to spend an afternoon on the Internet.

You can read more about Forest Art Works, and other Forestry Commission projects here

 

A technological sublime: Semiconductor

24 Jan

On Wednesday 22nd of January I took a trip to Brighton to visit Semiconductor. Amidst sheets of data drawings pinned to the walls, computer screens, stacks of carbonised paper, bicycles and digital etching equipment, we talked about their proposal for the Jerwood Open Forest, which was exhibited throughout January and February 2014 at Jerwood Visual Arts, London. For more films, photographs and writing, visit their website.

 

What is your proposal for the Jerwood Open Forest commission, and how does it relate to the tower that is currently standing in the gallery?

We want to make a wooden sculpture – a two-metre sphere – created and shaped using data compiled from four different instruments from the flux tower at the Alice Holt Research station, in the South Downs National Park. We’d like to take the data and create something tangible with it. The sphere will be composed of triangular wooden tiles, and each one of them is inscribed with a different piece of data. Our installation at the Open Forest exhibition is a recreation of the flux tower, with video playing from the tower’s two cameras – one on the floor of the forest looking up, and one at the canopy looking down. The scientists use these to monitor leaf change, colouration, and mutation.

And what is the data evidence of?

The forest is actually ‘experimental’ – they are growing oak trees specifically for research purposes, which is a wonderfully romantic idea. The data we’re using is from the flux tower, which examines how much carbon the trees collect and sink into the ground. Climate science is always looking at this process – how carbon is taken out of the atmosphere and transferred. It also collects information on temperature, water and wind direction because forests actually create their own climates and wind systems. They’re called ‘eddies’, which is the flux.

Stills from the cameras attached to the Alice Holt flux tower, installed by Semiconductor at Jerwood's Open Forest, 2014

 

At the beginning of your practice, you were both creating large-scale sculptural works. Does this proposal feel like a return for you both?

After we left college, we didn’t have any space to keep making our large installations. That time coincided with the first generation of domestic computers, so we started looking at those, to see what languages we could develop through working with them. We soon started working with basic, very early 3D software, which suddenly offered us infinite space. That became our studio, and our new sculptural practice. Our earliest digital moving-image pieces were on an architectural, landscape scale. Now, we’re keen to re-introduce a materiality into our work. We want to feel things, although we’ve always played with the relationship between analogue and digital.

A theme which is prominent in your work since the early 2000s is translation, or conversion: taking one set of data and inscribing it into a different form, or making an image a sound, or a sound into an image.

The term ‘translation’ makes you think that it’s changing from one language to another, but it isn’t always like that. Scientific data becomes abstracted, and we are trying to feel the data. We’re trying to find a language through which to experience the data, through sensation. A kind of sublime.

In our early ‘process works’, we were literally translating sound into images. One piece was called A to Z of Noise (1999). We were using the computer as a third element in our group, which is why we called ourselves Semiconductor. We wanted to make the computer do things which were noisy and messy, to humanise it. In A to Z of Noise we used noise reduction, both for images and sounds. It’s supposed to clean it up, but we applied it to pure noise. We did the same thing to black leader, applying the reduction over and over again.

WATCH: A to Z of Noise (1999)

It feels like there’s a certain romanticism in your works. A lot of it is about making us, as bodies, more sensitive to landscapes – whether digital, material or informational.

It’s a kind of ‘technological sublime’ we realised. So many people presume science is fact, but a lot of the time it’s fiction. We don’t know, but they (the scientists) also don’t know. It’s an unfinished process. Ongoing. We’re interested in creating fluidity between languages and tools. Things don’t need to be so rigid and structured. We are playing with the philosophies of science. There’s so much data being produced all the time, and people assume it isn’t interesting just because it’s immense, and everywhere. But you can release it, or present it in a way that it becomes accessible, and experiential.

In our early work we were quite dystopian – we were dealing with things like earthquakes and climate change. But now we’ve found subtler ways to encourage people to reflect. A good example is the solar wind: it is deadly, and it can kill us (and it’s the reason we still can’t go to Mars), but it’s also awe-inspiring.

WATCH: Black Rain (2009)

Time-based media’ is a term which is increasingly used to refer to cinema and moving-image, and in many of your pieces, ‘time-based’ could refer to geological time, as well as cinematic time and digital time. Playing with time is a key way in which you re-situate your viewer into a greater schema, or system.

That’s one of the reasons we work with moving image. As soon as you play with time, in any medium, it becomes animated. With video you can get really plastic with time. Equally, as soon as you start working with sound, which we very often do, you immediately have something moving in time. You can’t have a ‘still’ of sound. There’s a piece we made called All The Time in the World where we took seismic data and reanimated the landscape it derived from. We used photographs, and then applied different processes to make them seem three-dimensional, and used the sound waves from the seismic data to animate the photographs. It was stripping things right back to the basics of filmmaking, in some ways.

 

Stills from 'All The Time In The World' (2005)

 

How do you see the world in which your works live in? You operate in many spaces, not exclusively the gallery.

We found platforms abroad, often at multimedia festivals where we seemed to share a language with other artists. When we were working exclusively with digital technology, the UK scene seemed to be a bit behind. Then we started putting our work online, from early on, and in that sense we were creating our own audiences. We started our own clubs, and invited musicians and other artists to do short performances. We released our work on DVD around 2001; and as far as we know, we were the first artists to self-release in that way. More recently we’ve returned to the gallery space, because it’s where our language comes from.