Thomson & Craighead - Interviewed by Martin John Callanan

[Thomson & Craighead / Beacon / 2005-2007]

Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead are london-based artists working with video, sound and electronic networked space to create gallery and site-specific artworks and installations. They have exhibited widely from Tate Britain to The New Museum in New York, and are among the leading UK artists using communications systems and technology in their work. UK artist and Vague Terrain collaborator Martin John Callanan recently spoke to Thomson & Craighead about their creative practice.

Vague Terrain: You just completed a commission for the new British Film Institute (BFI) building on London's Southbank. A railway flap sign displays internet searches being committed in real-time by anonymous users. Considering the public location did you take any precautions to avoid displaying certain searches; or did BFI foresee this as an issue?

T&C: Yes to both. The work BEACON exists in a variety of forms - as an online work, as a data projection of text straight onto what's usually a gallery wall, and as the railway flap sign you mention at BFI Southbank. We also want to make it a shortwave radio broadcast but have yet to muster the resources – to be honest, making the railway flap sign was its own struggle because the technology is almost obsolete and hence very expensive.

The searches BEACON draws from are made available by an aggregate search engine pulling from a variety of the most used English-language search engines and is delivered either 'unfiltered' or 'family filtered', so when the work is shown in public spaces we use the family filtered feed.

That's not to say things don't slip through from time to time, and there's nothing much we can do about unsavory or profane combinations of individually benign words, and this was a concern reasonably raised by the BFI. However, for the most part BEACON behaves, and if need be we filter elements out ourselves from time to time, especially to reduce the background noise of software agents bombarding search engines with email addresses, phone numbers and spurious repetitions of search terms. What we aim for is to glean mainly genuine searches typed by humans.

We have noticed that the fear of profanity slipping through the various filters BEACON uses can make people very sensitive. For example, while installing the work at BFI the search "typical herpes scrotum pictures" came up and caused a small panic, yet all the words used were medical terms that wouldn't be censored on television or even by the more conservative standards set for radio broadcast! Ironically, perhaps, in another work of ours called Decorative Newsfeeds our use of syndicated RSS news is seldom questioned in the same manner, even when the news tells of the worst horrors in our world.

VT: There are obvious reasons to filter certain words in a public place. Your work isn't diminished; the online version being unfiltered gives a [more] true portrait of how we [as society] are using/searching the internet.

T&C: Ideally, we would always show it without a family filter because part of the conceit of the work for us is that BEACON is a silent witness, showing a snapshot of ourselves to ourselves, warts and all.

VT: I understand this was only a temporary installation - where is it now?

T&C: It's at FACT in Liverpool until early 2008, after which it goes to New York we hope for an exhibition at Artists Space called "The New Normal", which then will go on tour.

VT: When did you start working online, what was the first Thomson & Craighead online venture, and why choose the net as the medium?

T&C: The first work we made online was in 1995 and called Short Story. It was an experiment in hypertext but also used images, which had only recently become supported universally by web browsers. It looked at how making optional links between things might change a narrative thread - unfix it, if you like. In the case of Short Story we offered a way of navigating between mixed-up extracts taken from an old edition of the St. John’s Ambulance first aid manual and the screenplay of Reservoir Dogs, but in a most rudimentary and limited way, so that in effect you could simply jump between one of two parallel threads, either by clicking a text link or on the picture on any given page. You have to remember that back then the web was just beginning to be widely used having only come into the public eye a few years earlier. We were all just getting used to it.

Soon after, we became compelled by what already existed online rather than uploading our own stuff, and we began to think about linking to other people’s 'live' data. This was when the homesteading homepage culture of HTML 2.0 and 3.0 was burgeoning and was the province of modest animated graphics and anodyne synthetic MIDI music. We saw the usage and reconfiguration of this data in online works like Altitude and Weightless as being within the artistic traditions of appropriation and the readymade, except that on the web, if you are simply linking to existing resources rather than downloading them, the appropriation is different and slight. Perhaps 'accessing' would be a better term than 'appropriating' in this context, yet in our minds it clearly follows on from this prehistory.

As time has gone by it seems more and more like we are making artworks that look at whether live information (live data) can be considered to be a material at all in artistic terms, and whether it can be used to make artworks, much like charcoal or video might be. More recently, we've been exploring how globally networked communications systems interact with global time zones and the physical space of the world in works like Light from Tomorrow and an animation we are just completing now for Animate Projects and Channel 4 called Flat Earth where we have constructed a narrative out of publicly accessible satellite imagery and fragments of blogs taken from around the world. We are calling this 'desktop documentary'.

VT: Have you managed to keep your early work online?

T&C: We archive and document what we can on our website. For example, Short Story is available in our list of 'More web specific' links.

VT: I started experimenting online in 1996/7 - I have effectively lost all my work from before 1999 as it was hosted in free accounts provided by my dial-up provider, and all the offline copies are on fragile CD-Rs, encoded in an early proprietary format that is no longer supported. I now store my work more wisely, transferring it to new media, keeping it alive. I often wonder to what extent preserving and actively archiving work and keeping it accessible is relevant, and what other people do in this regard. A book, for example, has to be stored correctly, at the right humidity and temperature, copied, and even translated as it ages. This process of preservation is far more evident with digital media as technology changes rapidly. There are two issues: the technical challenge of adapting and porting work, and the preservation of work for historical and contextual reasons.

T&C: This is a perennial problem for us, and most acute with the works that use other people’s live data, because we cannot control what others do and so their resources that we use eventually expire. We think of much of the early web-based work we made as site-specific and as such, the way in which browsers and the world wide web evolve over time will most likely render them obsolete in the near future. In general, that's fine with us. On our own server we have some older works that we continue to maintain and update (e.g. CNN Interactive just got more interactive), and others we are simply leaving to decay over time (e.g Pet pages).

The passing of these works shares much in common with performance art: in the end any trace will be documentation only, and as you suggest books still are one of the most persistent objects at an artist's disposal. This is why we made a small monograph in 1995 with Film and Video Umbrella, London, covering some of this early stuff.

In the case of our instructional works (e.g. Decorative Newsfeeds, Triggerhappy, Weather Gauge and BEACON) we can take our cue from the conceptual artists of the sixties, and reduce each work to a simple manual of instructions - some drawings and a few notes alongside other documentation - so that if anyone wanted to in the future they could remake works using contemporary technologies. In the meantime, we also try our best to migrate works to newer platforms, store videos in cool places, keep drawings outside direct sunlight and even make archived simulations of works, where what was live data initially is recorded and integrated into offline databases. Short Films about Flying is an example of the latter method, where the live camera feed from Boston Airport in the USA went offline, so we now run the work using recordings taken of these resources. There is a limit to what we can do, of course, and we wish sometimes we had more resources to fix our older work and look after it, but there just aren't the hours in the day.

VT: William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace, is recently quoted in an interview as saying "I have become convinced that it is silly to try to imagine futures these days." Does thinking about the future, dreaming of possibilities, play any role in your work? Can/should we think of the future?

T&C: The American baseball player Yogi Berra is often credited with saying 'the future ain't what it used to be' and that's true for our work, because we tend only to look at the history of the future as a means of understanding our present. This is because we believe we are all occupying a moment of significant technological change (and jeopardy) right now and are trying to understand it as artists by exploring or referring to historical parallels. It seems that from these moments of change that the more ideological and utopian movements have emerged in our past ­– Modernism, for example, with its willful rejection of the old (the past) in favour of the new (the future). On a number of occasions our work seems to have referred indirectly to these ideological and technological shifts, most markedly in our template cinema work (Short Films about Flying and Short Films about Nothing) where we make a bunch of live stuff gleaned from the web look like movies: in effect, we use the syntax of cinema as a way of making a data visualization of sorts and it's our hope that by pitting these two antithetical modes against each other, each will in some way illuminate the other.

Earlier this year we also played with the future by making a short video about impending climate change for a video blog curated by Shane Brennan called New Climates. In this short video we present a news report about high winds hitting London as if it was some science fiction speculating about the future, only to reveal it is in fact a real broadcast from early 2007. All we did to change it is add a bit more wind to the soundtrack. As much as anything we were interested in the sensational diatribe employed by newscasters these days, where everything is spun as unprecedented disaster.

VT: Is history not a more circuital process - the same stories and events just repeating with different names (people and places) - than a linear evolution? Even climate change – it has been evident for a long time, human activity has expedited the process (considering what we have done, you could not conclude otherwise), and the heating and cooling of the earth's atmosphere is natural and continuous. That is macro, but even more micro events such as wars, and personal dramas.

T&C: That’s true, but once you get into the details, there is room for novel re-combinations of things, even uniqueness perhaps, whether it's the cyclical reworking of a fashion (for example) or the difference between one ice age and another.

VT: Can an individual create something new, or is the new subjective to the viewer's experience alone?

T&C: It's not really a major concern we have as artists - to create unique, original newness or to be avant-garde. We see ourselves more as practitioners who are part of an evolving context (contemporary art) and the work we make is more like participation in an ongoing conversation.

VT: It has gone unnoticed by most, or seen as a sign of progress by others: compared to 5-10 years ago, we as consumers (both literally & metaphysically) wait less for delivery, for information, or for something to be processed. This expectation of immediacy could be seen as devaluing what we already have - it removes the time for reflection or consideration. Could this, in effect, diminish our choice, instead of the perception of increasing choice?

T&C: The need for instant gratification is a side effect of contemporary living and perhaps one of the jobs artists have (if indeed artists do have jobs to do) is to find ways of slowing viewers down, and reminding them that spending time with things, and reflecting upon them may reveal more rather than less. In BEACON, for example, we have tried to strip things down to a simple immediate gesture: what you see is a search being made by someone right now (give or take a few seconds) and then you see another, and then another, etc. Yet the more time you spend with the work, the more the work opens out into the vast data landscape/portrait it is, and so the more complicated and multifarious it becomes. Yet in just a few moments it is possible to 'get' the work, f you're in a rush. So we're not necessarily sure that a need for instant gratification is problematic. It's just a problem when it is universally at the expense of any other level of attention.

We think your point about choice is an important one though because the less time you give yourself to see what something is, the less able you may be to see its limits, and if you don't see the limits of something then you might forget they are there and just never think to look beyond them. Social networking platforms like Facebook and MySpace do this online in albeit modest attempts at commodifying networks, by offering a way of experiencing the web as a series of easy to use templates in a singular 'closed' network (which already sits within the constraints of a browser in the first place), so users of these platforms end up having less choice about how they might wish to use the web or the internet at large. All this can easily be stepped in and out of and is free so it doesn't really feel like a closed network, but this could become way more difficult to move beyond in the future, especially if users voluntarily make sole use of these corporate spaces and get locked into the idea of subscription payments for them.

VT: One of the main themes within my practice at the moment is information versus knowledge. The internet today (or more explicitly digital data, digital networks and their interconnectivity) gives us unparalleled access to information - some say too much information. On a personal level, we are having to think about how to deal with all the information we receive, how to process it, judge its value, and use it. For example, if I read and replied/acted on all the email I received each day, I would have no time for anything else. How do I choose where to get my news and which newspaper to read when I have access to all the newspapers in the world, as and when they are printed? How do you handle the amount of information the world delivers you?

T&C: It's true - we are all privy to more and more widely disseminated information, especially through global communications systems like the internet, and it's true that much of this information is available to us all the time. We don't really perceive it as a new problem, just a clear iteration of an age old one. Humans have always been overloaded with information as organisms: we see more than we can easily assimilate whenever we open our eyes, and must decide what is useful to see and what is not from moment to moment - that's before we even consider our other senses and worry about how memory may interact with it all. In many ways we perceive the world as an endless series of fragments and when we talk about information overload, it's all really an extension of this. Being online and knowing every newspaper in the world is ready and waiting for you right now serves as a pointed reminder that we're overloaded with information all the time and at every level, even if we're just walking down the road to post a letter.

Please visit thomson-craighead.net for more information on Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead's work.

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