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Reinventing Ourselves

This paper was originally developed for the 'reinvention' seminar held in Birmingham on the 25/10/03 . It was the first in a series called 'hothaus' run by Vivid.

To me reinvention feels like a grand term: something groundbreaking, in some ways in itself a contradiction (arguably you can only truly invent something once?), something maybe to aim for, a difficult status to achieve … a daunting term. Thinking through our own projects didn’t, at first, help me, I could think of lots of instances where we’ve reinterpreted or represented information or visual material but not actually reinvented it. Thinking through other projects more and more connected themes came up – reworking, recycling and most significantly re-enactment – a theme common to much of our work which recently we’ve been trying to address very directly (and I’ll say more about this later). Finally by thinking about all these other themes I realised the way I could most comfortably address the idea of reinvention was in the context of our own practice, this being the only thing we really do try to constantly reinvent by way of many of these other related ideas or themes.

In terms of representing I thought initially of two projects An Artists’ Impression of a Text Based Environment (1999 onwards) and Homemade Heroes (2002). In An Artists’ Impression we slavishly attempted the impossible task of constantly representing or in fact reinterpreting players descriptions of the objects and buildings they made in a text-based on-line game onto a real ‘scale’ model of the island environment we’d initially created on-line. With Homemade Heroes we approached sewing circles we found on-line to reinterpret our own text based descriptions of well known computer games characters without revealing to them the identity of their specified ‘super hero’. So, in both cases we used a familiar technique of representing, as a way to understand or question the ‘source’ material. To expand on this I’m going to talk about 3 projects and focus on how all of these look to re-enactment as a way of reinventing our own practice through the experience of producing particular pieces of work.

The first of these projects A Hypertext Journal dates from 1996 and was one of our first collaborative projects. In many ways it has remained one of our most successful pieces both in terms of the development of our own work and outside ‘acclaim.’ So, what was it and why do we now see it as so significant to our practice? In simple terms it was quite literally a month long journal written in hypertext on the web. This doesn’t seem now in any way remarkable or unusual – there are many models from the Guardian’s “Netjetters” to TV travel programmes and holiday photos emailed home to worried mums, which take this instant-journal approach. However, in 1996 the web, certainly in the UK, was a different place. It felt like you could know most people with an email address but, as yet, still-pictures were quite a new addition to the previously grey and text-based world of web pages. We began the project as a challenge to ourselves to reinvent what the (much hyped at that point) idea of interactivity could mean for our work. Early interactive art had taken the (to our way of thinking) rather lame ‘CDrom click-here’ approach and we thought there must be more at stake than this. As it turned out we ended up reinventing not only what interaction could mean for our work but most of what we then understood as the rules of engaging with our audience and indeed the idea of what making work could actually be for us. During our month on the road retracing Boswell and Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Isles we opened our ‘studio door’ at the stage of production, for the first time we made work live and we allowed our actions and to a certain extent our focus to be directed by a small but intense and enthusiastic ‘first level’ audience who followed our progress.

My clearest memories of this trip are those of confusion and frustration – but in a positive sense. With a couple of notable exceptions we were working in an unprecedented field and there were no rules for how the work should look or how the story should unfold. There was nothing to directly copy, only a previous model to reinterpret (that of a journal written a long time ago by two men) which gave us a structure and form to spring from but no real idea of where we should take it, the small steps we did take towards putting actual work rather than documentation onto the site may not seem that significant now but at the time they felt very hard won. Using current technology gave us a path through which to reinterpret an existing form. Writing a journal, even in its simplest form, can’t be conceived of in the same way when your readers look over it every night and email you back what they think. This brings me on to a point about old or new technology. Looking back over our projects we’ve always been interested in current technology and what that can offer, the small windows of creative opportunity set up by each advance before it becomes common place, widely used or accepted. We’ve never experienced the ‘if only the resolution was better’ effect or conversely the ‘but webcasting just doesn’t have the same feel to it as film’ scenario. For us, each new point along the line has its own interests and aesthetic and its own challenges. By mixing regular familiar forms like a mobile phone call or writing a diary with an unfamiliar or current technology we have been able to use this space to create an intimacy with our audience maybe enhanced by this temporary unfamiliarity. I’ll come back to this point with other project examples.

The second project I’d like to talk about was made in 1999 as a commission for the soon-to-be Tate Modern and was a one-day annual event in a short series commissioned as part of their pre-opening programme. Called /broadcast/ (29 pilgrims, 29 tales), the project took Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as its inspiration or text to reinvent – we chose this text as Chaucers fictitious pilgrims departed from the Tabard Inn, Southwark – a stone’s throw from Borough Market the designated site for the annual event. By re-approaching the idea of what a contemporary pilgrimage might be, but also, and perhaps more significantly, how a set of stories based on these journeys might be told using current ‘technology’, we devised the framework for the project. We then advertised for 29 modern day pilgrims who could make any journey of their choosing, secular or religious and we would support it. In return the journeys all had to be made at the same time and during a 24hr period and each pilgrim had to relay their ‘tale’ back to a live audience both at an installation in Borough Market and onto a webcast via mobile phone. Whilst they travelled across the UK and beyond, Karen and I ‘hosted’ what resembled a very long live chat show installed in the market with 29 remote guests. Footage on the webcast cut between us introducing each pilgrim then playing footage from their interview, explaining why they wanted to make their trip and going over to a live audio stream from their various destinations over-laid with imagery we’d gathered with them prior to the journey. At their destination most pilgrims were alone delivering a personal tale via a current yet familiar technology (their mobile phone) but these stories were in turn broadcast out to a diverse audience either in the market or more unusually sitting (often also alone) at home listening via their computers.

At this time webcasting was very new outside of academic experiments and much hyped occasional pop extravaganzas and this ‘novelty’ of the medium really inspired the experimental structure for /broadcast/ in the same way as hypertext had done for us with the journal. /broadcast/ built on what we had learnt from A Hypertext Journal and helped to us to really focus our ideas of how we could develop different ‘circles’ of audience for our work. In many ways in terms of the most ‘intimate’ circle of our audience the project reinvented this very idea as the pilgrims were not only in the work but you might argue were the work. The experience of collaborating with so many individuals on a project was both inspiring and exhausting and certainly influential on our future practice. Again, we felt as though we were working without any real precedent we could point to … we would describe it as a ‘little bit like TV’ a ‘little bit like radio’, ‘quite performance based’ etc, etc. All of these accurate, but only in part – using webcasting gave us a chance to reinvent for ourselves the actual scope of what we could call our practice.

If we skip forward by three years we come to the next project I want to look at, TV swansong, which we developed in 2002. An interesting ‘by product’ of A Hypertext Journal was that we appeared in a BBC Horizon programme which looked to the possible future of TV. Called Long Live TV, TV is Dead the programme tried to address what might happen to our ideas about narrartive and interactivity through our TVs and (as the programme makers correctly projected) many of the influences on the structure of TV would come from the web. At the time we had no interest in their agenda, but in retrospect, and particularly in relation to our later project TV swansong, the facts that we were trying to reinvent our own practice and they were trying to reinvent TV were not completely unrelated. In many ways, when we came to make TV swansong, we had more idea of what we might be getting into than on previous occasions. Webcasting was now at a point where it was much more ‘available’ as a technology for artists to use and viewing figures for some highly publicised events had crept up into the hundreds. On TV in the UK the Big Brother phenomena was just settling down and UK viewers were starting to get used to the idea that their cosy national Sunday night shared TV conversation maybe on the way out.

Like in ’96 when we made A Hypertext Journal lots of artists seemed to be approaching this territory and we wanted to see what it might mean for us – how might TV be changing and what might webcasting offer as a particular means of artistic production and distribution? This time we decided we’d like to approach the area with some other artists – still with the same open ended, experimental approach but we wanted in a way to speed up our ability to process what we’d learn from the project and we thought we might be better off doing this in collaboration with a small group of other artists whose work we were interested in. TV swansong looked to TV itself as an inspiration and site for reinvention but we never claimed that it (or in fact webcasting) would be the future of TV. Rather that it offered a particular window of opportunity for making work in this specific medium around a common theme. The ‘brief’ that we asked all the artists to respond to was to look ‘at a site or situation made famous via TV’ although many of the projects did seek to reinvent the artists’ personal ideas of what TV or maybe more accurately broadcasting might be.

In the case of Giorgio Sadotti’s Virtual Bootleg – a live webcast from cameras attached to ballroom dancers in Blackpool tower’s magnificent ballroom – Sadotti wanted to reverse the traditional ‘viewpoint’ of the broadcast camera. He spoke of giving the power back to the performers who, as they danced, literally directed the cameras rather than having the cameras trained on them. Jordan Baseman’s The Last Broadcast looked to the 1976 film Network and its central character Howard Beale who threatens to commit suicide on air, as its starting point. Basemen re-wrote Beale’s soliloquies to be 'delivered' by an actor for the webcast looking to place the new work in the context of a very different broadcast environment. Graham Fagens’s piece Radio Roselle again took an existing broadcast genre (in this case pirate radio) and looked to how this might be transformed through the webcast. His DJ The Owner of Broadcasting played a set from the ‘good ship Roselle’ anchored mid way between Scotland and Jamaica. The set comprised of alternate records of Robbie Burns and Jamaican Reggae and with each new piece of music The Owner of Broadcasting downed another culturally appropriate drink of whisky or Red Stripe.

Chris Helson’s The Act took a more predictive response to the brief – switching round the idea of a famous site or situation to a soon-to-be-famous place. Working with the already incredibly current medium of rolling news he proposed to travel to the location of whichever story was top of the rolling news on the day of the webcast. Interested in the ‘performances’ of newscasters and the ever more ‘current’ status of reporting, like Fagen and Sadotti he looked to reinvent the role of the author in his piece – the source of the news. Based on a BBC World News report he eventually ended up travelling to Corihuayrachina in Peru and the remains of a ‘newly discovered’ Inca settlement. Broadcast live via satellite phone from the top of a mountain it had taken him four days to climb, his piece for me was one of the most moving and strangely intimate webcasts or ‘reports’ I’ve ever seen. Despite the lack of dynamic ‘news’ (he simply showed us the view from the top of the mountain and described what had happened to him) and maybe because of the clunky technology you felt really amazed at the sheer fact he had achieved the broadcast in a way that with TV I think one rarely feels any surprise about any more. His piece looked to reinvent the idea of what ‘reporting’ might be for him and, like much of the other work in TV swansong, it reflected both an old and yet currently very volatile type of story telling.

After a recent talk I gave about TV swansong , a student commented that many of the pieces in the project (despite its overall technical and contemporary ‘theme’ and delivery medium) look to a pre-television era for inspiration – to ‘light’ or even ‘home-grown’ entertainment. I thought this was an insightful observation and in relation to the idea of reinvention particularly pertinent. Often we find that to try and reinvent our own practice (never mind anything outside of that) we have to look beyond old or new technology and to popular forms of story telling or entertainment, forms which are always in a constant process of reinventing themselves.

Nina Pope 2003