In this discussion on Day 3 of our Bundanon workshop each member of the group was invited to reflect on how they came to be working with technology in their current practice (or not), and what this relationship means for them and their practice.
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Somaya Langley: So, I think my question, which we started talking about over there… but, for the sake of the tape about bodies… My question is how do we, or even do we want to try and bring this very body-focused work together with the kind of strap-on technologies we’ve got, or other technologies. And, if we do want to do that, what’s the next step that we can use, or that we can do in the performance space workshop in order to be able to bring that into play?
Catherine Truman: And my response was that I feel it’s important to begin to understand between us what brings us to this point about, I was going to say ‘making careers’, but I do mean everybody. I think it’s important to go back to the essence of why we do what we do in order to move forward. So I’m interested in that from everybody. Does anybody want to start?
Somaya Langley: Yes, well I can start. So, for me, going right back to when I started making electro-acoustic music… I have a history in music and a history in performance – orchestral performance – but it never really cut it. And it was only when I got to about 17, and we got access to the university music – like electronic music studio which was reel-to-reel tape recorders and pre-computer stage – and then we got to make tape loops. And suddenly there was this element of sound and of creativity that just was never there before at all. Yeah, you could make up a little piece on the French horn and the piano or whatever. And I used to write them down as a kid. That didn’t really do it. And suddenly I think what really grabbed me is this other world, and you could create these new sonic worlds that you just couldn’t craft together from an orchestra, particularly with my lack of composition ability. Maybe if you were a great composer you can kind of create that new world, but with taped music and electronic music, suddenly you’ve got this whole alien sonic landscape.
So that really fascinated me. So that’s where I got to that point. But then you do all these pieces, and you make studio pieces, and we used to do heaps of concerts at university where you go into a room and sit down in a traditional concert hall, and there would be two speakers and that was the whole concert. It was 40 minutes of just sitting there, in this slightly…almost black room with two speakers. And it just seemed wrong, and it was still in that really traditional ‘we’re going to a concert’ thing, and there’s nothing there to see, and it’s like…it’s not enough. So I wanted to bring this performance element back in, and the easiest way to do that with electronic music is just to grab a laptop and sit in front of people and go, ‘well now I’m a laptop performer’! And granted, maybe that’s got its own value to it, but it doesn’t do much for me. And so that whole idea of gesture and the ability to try and explain what you are doing with our hands. And then I kind of remembered back to, this would have been in 2000? ’99? So, yeah, maybe about nine or ten years ago. And I thought back to when I was a kid and I had this Greek aunt, or great aunt, or cousin… I think she was my mother’s cousin. And she was like the typical Greek thing, talking like ‘this’, but then she would get her legs going too. And I remember being a little kid and I think we were in Greece at the time, so I would have been about seven. And she was kicking me under the table every time she would get really excited about something. It was just like limbs flying everywhere. And I was like, okay! It stuck with me that there is actually a lot of communication in just these really simple gestures that come from bodies, or… It started with hands, because you do a lot of talking from here down.
So it came from a dissatisfaction with that box, and wanting to keep that sound world, but not having any kind of expressive quality that comes out of a lump of metal and plastic. And so once you had that and you start attaching things to you, and you’ve got sensors, and then you’ve got more of an environment to try and express yourself and communicate, but have the kind of sound worlds that you wouldn’t get from maybe a violin or another traditional instrument. And that’s kind of where I’ve got to.
And, you know, even that is still dissatisfying. I mean Jonathan was talking about feedback, that those systems don’t necessarily have feedback in them, unless you put feedback into them. So there’s all that haptic feedback stuff, so you have that physical force resisting within, if you do certain things like. For me, as a performance tool I could manage to get around it if I didn’t… It’s not essential for me to have physical feedback in there. If I was making an object for someone else, maybe I would want to make it so it’s more real world and it’s got the physics of the real world in there.
Catherine Truman: Encumbered?
Somaya Langley: Yeah, there’s still something there. You still know that it’s there. And so I think, because our senses… Our senses, the ones we are born with – our taste buds – they’re all so inbuilt that you’re not kind of annoyed that they sit against your skin or… So any of the tech that we are using, it’s kind of clumsy in a way because there’s always wires, or if it’s wireless then there’s extra bits that need to go together and there’s other problems with that. So I guess I’m still looking for solutions, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. If I was happy with the wires everywhere, and ‘this is great’, I wouldn’t be looking for other ways to have that body driving an experience, particularly a technological experience. But having said that, you know, we work with the tools we’ve got, and it’s like this at the moment. You just work with it until we have other tools, or you make tools that are packed together that are better than what…better than just the laptop!
Jonathan Duckworth: So it’s almost a stagnation possibly in some sense of technology, because they have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller. They’ve become wireless, but because they’re not still in a sensing the types of interactions that we want to do.
Somaya Langley: I think not.
Jonathan Duckworth: That might be to do with that dislocation between what we know about our bodies, and what may have been created in the ‘60s and ‘70s with gyros and all that stuff. And it hasn’t really been looked at again has it? The technology just seems to have shrunk in size. Somaya Langley: I think that’s been the main aim, like ok now, you don’t have to have a computer that fills a room, and now you don’t have to have a sensor in a bucket. You can kind of…
George Poonkhin Khut: Yes, I think it’s also economics, because the main drive behind the development and commercialisation of these technologies, and things like the automotive and nautical industries, which have got nothing to do with bodies, per se, in what they are measuring. And then we artists kind of seek out the kind of skerricks however we can.
Jonathan Duckworth: That’s a big question! Lizzie Muller: It is, I know, it is a biggie!
Jonathan Duckworth: I think I drifted into it from architecture, which was really about feeling and sensing the spaces that I was designing either for clients or doing for competitions and so on. And it was that need to see if I could amplify the experience of communication of what the essence of the building might be – an interior space, an exterior landscape.
Catherine Truman: Can I just interrupt; to whom did you want to express that to?
Jonathan Duckworth: I think both myself and for the clients, because the main tools that were use by architecture tend to be two-dimensional representations – sometimes still perspective views – and for the architect, and more so for the client, it’s sometimes very difficult to communicate the essence of a building; an experience of a space. So I was sort of drawn to technologies that might amplify that felt experience of space.
Lizzie Muller: Do you mean amplify the experience of the design for a space, or the actual space? Design for a space?
Jonathan Duckworth: Yeah. And so initially the way to amplify the experience of a design space was to use virtual reality and technologies which would cover your peripheral vision, would immerse you and perhaps give you a sense of presence in a space that perhaps wasn’t there, but you could communicate that. So I think from there that was my sort of introduction to technology, or information technology, in a way that… To see how you imagine spaces that you were creating for clients, and how striving to find an effective way of communicating what it was like to be present, what it was like to feel, what that space was like.
In a way, that sort of goal from the architecture side has pervaded all of the work that I do, which is how you might experience space, or a space. And that may be in a material sort of digital type space, or it may be a constructed space of some sort. But also what I have discovered along that process – or what I am attempting to try and discover through that process – is the phenomenon of felt experience. And what I find interesting about this particular workshop is that that’s what we’re exploring in essence. And it’s hard to describe what that phenomenon might be, what its essence is. And by describing what that phenomenon is, we might be able to understand how we are feeling as individuals and trapped in the space, with work, with a movement.
Catherine Truman: I often ask myself why I went to that workshop. I definitely wanted to be involved in it and I think the driving force was more the people who choose to work with technology rather than the actual technology itself. To find out more about how they were thinking, about the body in particular and how they were juxtaposing that, how they were integrating that, how they were relating that to the body. And that did give me a lot of insight. I just remember an intensity of working mediums, really working the mediums, to try and express something, and…
Lizzie Muller: You mean at ‘reSkin’?
Catherine Truman: Yes, it was a lot about the process of making something happen. There wasn’t a concentration on the actual concepts so much as it felt to me more about immediacy, and I felt also that the technology offered an instantaneous thing that I’m not used to with the way that I work, and with my thinking about the process, too. So the timing, my timing, my choice of timing and the materials and techniques I choose give me a sense of timing, and allow me to engage with the concept quite differently from the way that these people work. My brain fried as a result, and I got sick. So that was really interesting, but I would still say that it was a very positive experience.
Lizzie Muller: Why?
Catherine Truman: Because I wouldn’t be here now if hadn’t begun to engage. Because I think it’s really important to engage with what the current thinking is in terms of how people want to express and engage with something so human. And for me, it feels like we keep on stepping over the essential all the time; that actually it’s simpler than we think and we keep on trying to find ways of finding an answer and things that take us to places that we think we haven’t been to before.
Lizzie Muller: You mean us as human beings?
Catherine Truman: Yes, with each other and separately. And I mean about the body, finding out about each other and ourselves, we keep on stepping over it all the time. I just mean by that, I keep on wanting to bring it back to the essential all the time.
Lizzie Muller: What’s that?
Catherine Truman: Knowing yourself a bit better; having a bit of a ground to stand on that you can feel yourself on. You can rely on yourself. That doesn’t mean I don’t embrace change or anything like that, either. It means quite the opposite; that if you – and I’m no guru at this, this is a lifelong journey. But if you accept that nothing is permanent and that you will never really know anything, it can be very scary. But if you begin to become familiar with that, it seems to open up – in my experience – a whole lot of other ways of thinking. And some feel more comfortable than others. And the technology – I’m not afraid of the technology, I just don’t kind of understand the use of it yet. I don’t understand…it’s not integrated with the way we are yet, and if we don’t know the way we are and we jump ten steps ahead I think there’s these huge gaps there.
Lizzie Muller: When you talk about the technology, are you talking about digital technology? Catherine Truman: Yeah, that maybe it’s concentrated on that.
Somaya Langley: Can I ask a question, and it might sideline us a little bit, but we can bring it back… What we didn’t get to talk about was your response from the Backpack Project, and a couple of people have said these couple of words… And that’s just one way of… I mean George said it’s kind of like suit, and it kind of is. And that’s one of the points, but I’d be interested in hearing, like in relation to…
Maggie Slattery: Yes, can I ask a question about that piece? Is the weight of the backpack and the nature of the backpack and ear things important?
Somaya Langley: Some of it, and some of it not.
Maggie Slattery: So would it say enough for you if it was an MP3, the sound bite on an MP3, a light thing that…
Somaya Langley: If there wasn’t a backpack and there wasn’t cables hanging out of it…some of that’s really intentional. No it doesn’t need to be heavy as it is…
Maggie Slattery: Is it as much about the people looking at you as what you think? Ok, well that makes…
Lian: Because you’re putting on an identity aren’t you? I mean you’re assuming an identity for this purpose.
Lizzie Muller: Is it also kind of…you’re being forced to be a performer? The intention of that backpack is that you wear it in a city street where it’s actually a slightly risky proposition because (a) you’re performing in front of other people, because they don’t know you’re part of an artwork. This is me… but don’t know you’re part of an artwork. You are. Therefore your entire relationship with the whole world is changed because you’re taking part in something and no one else knows that. Wearing a backpack is intended to make you look a little bit suspect, like a possible terrorist because of the London…and it’s the reference to the London shootings and the arrests and all those things that happened to people who happened to be wearing puffy jackets or rucksacks at the wrong moment in time. And it’s true, there’s definitely a public transport stare that you get if you look a little bit too… I mean if you put them in a hijab and make them wear a backpack with wires hanging out the back of it, the response might actually become too intensely dangerous. So you are putting yourself in a dangerous position in actual fact because you could wearing that, as evidence has shown, be arrested for that fact. You’re also putting yourself in a position where you are experiencing suspicion from people around you. And so the entire field of where you are moving becomes part of the artwork, and then this..What’s in your headphones is what draws your attention to that experience. That’s my reading of your work…
Catherine Truman: Even walking around here, first of all I felt so at odds with this landscape, not at odds when you walk through this building, but when I started to walk actually along the verandahs there, I thought ‘shit, they probably think I’m going to blow up the office… I think I better move away from here’. Lian: There’s a certain anonymity though to the whole set up as well. Like, for me, I don’t register that kind of set up as being frightening – maybe that’s missing the news story or something. But if I saw an empty pack on a train station I’d be much more inclined to go, ‘what’s going on there’; but if it’s on a person, it’s the whole bomber thing’s not, it’s quite mild.
Lizzie Muller: It was very much of its time I think, that work, because there was a moment, especially in England, or in Europe, when it was like a constant joke. If you were wearing a backpack, everyone would be like ‘careful you don’t get arrested’. So, it did work in a very particular media environment
Maggie Slattery: So are you saying this is a work that’s not your work; it existed somewhere else?
Somaya Langley: No, it’s my work, but it’s a very direct response to a particular time and place, and events.
Maggie Slattery: Ok, because I found it was really interesting, I had forgotten all about that, and I had known…I remember last time we were together actually you talked about that. But, anyway, the putting that on, the weight of it meant that I didn’t walk in my usual way and my movement was changed by that, and I was brought into a sound field which became the main entry into the experience. But it’s the backpack and there’s an association with going somewhere. So I set off, but I wasn’t going anywhere. So, again, the coordinates of the whole experience were sound, which is exactly what happened in Jonathan’s experiment. For me it was the sound coordinates – it happened putting on these, so that was the experience, and then I knew because of George…finding George behind a door (laughter)…that I could interact with different sorts of spaces.
George Poonkhin Khut: I think that’s…really, for me, in terms of interactivity, that idea about you can make an object and its appearance is dependant on your reactions, and that you’re exploring consequences in a way. So you have this space where you can explore the consequences to being with it in different ways.
Catherine Truman: Would you talk a bit more about your relationship with technology?
Catherine Truman: What’s cthonic?
George Poonkhin Khut: It’s like underground, under the earth; from the earth. Yeah, and I think that really connected to my interest in altered states of consciousness, and hallucinogenic drugs and how that connects to the shamanic traditions of taking those drugs to get into altered states of consciousness, or nausea or all sort of things. And through that altered way of being in the world, there’s something about that connection. And I just had an instinct that I really wanted to work with this more. I’d spent many years just frigging around in home studios with tape recorders and little moog synthesizer, and guitar pedals and four-track recorders, just making weird little abstract tape recordings and things like that. Or setting up some tape recorders with these little drone things up around a space. And there was a really emotional space for me that was created by those sound designs that I wanted to share with other people. It was like, you could put these things around and suddenly you transformed the space and people are transported into a really different dimension of being in a place, that was tapping into their unconscious fears or desires. Or there’s a sense of mystery and possibility that there are other layers of reality parallel to this one that touch on people’s lives.
And I pursued that through art school, which was quite difficult at the time. I tried to maintain the electronic music practice but it never kind of fitted, really. So I worked with video, which had similar qualities that you could do things like slow down time, exaggerate colours and take in strange little details or fragment images through a space, and create again an altered sense of reality that was somehow intensifying some emotional dimensions of what you were feeling. But at the same time, I was feeling deeply frustrated by the lack of physicality that all these gave, especially as technology became more and more computerised and your whole way of playing with things just got reduced to six buttons on a little black box, and a tiny little LCD display. And just that endless messing around with getting permission to use bits of equipment, or to borrow things or hire things. So then I went into doing woodcarving and chainsaw carving, and pottery and oil painting; and just wanting these really physical, visceral kinds of things because there was this kind of other worldly thing but I knew it had to be deeply connected into some sense of my reality. It may not be a normal reality, but it’s definitely a reality, and not just about a fantasy of other worldliness.
And so I had that time, and then after a few years of this I realised I actually really still missed that space that I could go to in the electronic music, and to some extent the electronic imagery. And I was reading about things like bio-feedback and just by way of the kind of this idea of fringe media and of these different media practices, like people using subliminal imagery in advertising, or flashing little words up on TV shows and little whispered things, and reverse lyrics on records…and all that sort of stuff. And even though it was mythological and fictional, a lot of it, there was an appeal of there’s something in there that I was kind of drawn to.
So I got to bio-feedback by way of this interest in fringe / cult media, and it struck me that biofeedback was a way that you could connect something quite physical, in terms of changes in your brain and your nervous system, with this kind of electronic space. And then from there, after spending a few years in my doctoral research doing this bio-feedback work, realising that so much of it was dependant on vision and sound, and increasingly feeling like I would really like to have a go in my practice at getting rid of vision altogether. Because I had realised sound and vision were both distal perceptual modalities about things distant to you, and with this bio-feedback interest it was about things inside you. And so how could I cut out all of that and try and find a whole new way of working that was about proximal sensations, which is like touch and feelings inside your body, and connecting that to the bio-feedback. So the bio-feedback is about taking things you can’t yet sense and giving you some clues, and some little trainer wheels to help you sense those things. So in clinical bio-feedback they might use it so that you start to be in tune with when, say, a panic attack is coming on, or you feel like your heart is racing and you can tune into that and know that you can also slow it down, or do things like that. So I was thinking how could you then create an aesthetic that was around things like touch, and things like that. Yeah, I think that describes how I came into it, and where I’ve taken it up to now.
Catherine Truman: And have you ever felt satisfied?
George Poonkhin Khut: Occasionally. I made a piece called ‘Pillow Songs’ which was kind of like a prelude to all this, before I was interested in the bio-feedback. And that was a series of electronic soundscapes across six CDs, and now kind of mixed a semi-random way I programmed different playlists for different days, and you’d lie down on these beds in these dark spaces and you just go into this kind of state of reverie, and you’re half asleep and you’re lying down as well. And I enjoyed that intensely. And then I have had moments, a few moments with that cardio-morphologies piece, where I intensely enjoyed that, and personally at a physical, sensual level, intensely. And I think the biggest buzz I get out of it at the moment in terms of reward that makes me want to go on, is just seeing how it animates people experiencing it. And there’s a sense of delight that some people have that I think, ‘oh yeah, if I can have more of that, that’s great.’
Somaya Langley: But the technology is always the bit that lets you down. The idea is there and the concept is there and it’s great. I mean, George and I went out to Garth’s studio, maybe a couple of months ago, and we were testing out a few sensors. And one I’ve never tried before is this galvanic response sensor where it responds to sweat. And we weren’t getting anywhere, and I felt like I was trying to put myself back into past memories to build an anxious state and trying to do it. And then George walked behind me and I was like ‘aaaagh’, and nothing! So, ok, maybe the technology isn’t working, and then we stick it on George; and I am pulling the hair on his arms and the data’s going wild. And I have really dry skin so I wasn’t…it was kind of another thing with added water…it just turned out that in my body, those sensors are useless.
Lizzie Muller: Yes, you say that in your own experience the technology always lets you down, but it’s not my experience, that’s not my experience as a curator of other people’s art practice. I would say that usually it’s the ideas that let them down. When something is bad art…all the art I have seen out there, I’ve seen bad technology all the time, but I have never thought to myself, ‘oh they were let down by the technology there’. I’ve always thought to myself, ‘they relied on something they shouldn’t have relied on’; the idea wasn’t strong enough to find a path through whatever technology it needed in order to make itself manifest.
Somaya Langley: From a maker point of view, maybe if I think about it from an audience point of view, yeah I agree with you. But from a maker point of view…yeah that backpack project could have been done quite differently. I wouldn’t have stuck a laptop that’s gonna completely overheat in a backpack. If I’d had other means of doing it…so maybe it’s not necessarily the tech that lets you down, it’s the tech that you can afford, or the… There are things that it’s just a constant hack job, really.
Lizzie Muller: But yes I also think, just to put another perspective in there; a lot of artists I have spoken to work with technology find that engagement with technology and its limitations and its failings the most inspiring part of their practice. And David Rokeby is another great example of that to me. Personally I find the product of his struggles with technology totally compelling as art.
George Poonkhin Khut: But his work is very much about the technology, whereas I wouldn’t say my work is about the technology. It’s like classic new media art practice where it’s a critique of how technology…
Lizzie Muller: I would say no greater sense than yours, actually, personally. I mean, having put them both in a show next to one another, to the degree that one’s experience of oneself is mediated through technology, your art work is work that allows you to reflect on that and then, like David Rophy, for example, makes… I don’t know if you’ve seen those works ever, but the works in Venice. I think it’s called ‘Taken and Seen’ – three views of the San Marco in Venice; one where everything moving is taken out, one where everything still is taken out, and a third one I can’t remember. And what you get basically is three animated pictures, which are just about human perception. And he would say- and I would probably agree with him – that all of his work is about human perception, and human learning. He would never say it’s about technology; he’s always used technology as a way of enquiring into the nature of human perception and human learning.
Somaya Langley: But I feel that, from a maker’s point of view, when I did that ‘reSkin’ workshop I spent a week in silversmithing, whatever, metal studio. And I’ve never done anything with metal in my life, and it was just so rewarding to just… And it was still that exact same feeling that came back the minute we got to clay. You just can’t do that, and I think it’s maybe…
Lizzie Muller: You can’t do what?
Somaya Langley: The same hands-on making stuff when you are working with technology. Part of it is ‘ok, I’m not getting a signal from here to here; ok, go back, unplug things, rethink through’…so you are back in your head.
George Poonkhin Khut: What about when you are actually mapping sounds and laying down the sounds and deciding how to filter it and what pictures to use?
Somaya Langley: It’s better.
George Poonkhin Khut: That’s a sensual process though isn’t it?
Somaya Langley: Yeah, it’s better, but it’s all the building and attaching objects together that’s kind of really…
Lizzie Muller: Also, you watch someone like Greg (Turner) code, is quite similar to watching someone interact with material. So it does depend on your level of fluency with the medium you’re using. It’s not just a quality of the medium intrinsically.
Catherine Truman: I think this is a really common argument that happens between the boring old art and craft debate all the time: comparing visual art craftspeople, the monopoly on ideas and how to express them.
Lizzie Muller: How does it go, this idea?
Catherine Truman: Well when people talk about craftspeople they normally think about people that aren’t really concentrated on expressing anything in particular beyond the material and the technique and the skill. And when it’s judged from a visual arts point of view those skills and tools and traditions and all that stuff, aren’t really valued, through that perspective.
Somaya Langley: I agree with you.
Catherine Truman: It’s common, it’s not a new argument, it’s an old argument, and it often gets slighted, which is what I’m doing to it now, probably! But it is an interesting argument that needs to be updated every five minutes.
Lizzie Muller: And updated for technology as well, for digital technology. Because it seems to me that within the new media or digital technology world, the same argument is happening again with a whole load of people saying ‘it’s not about the technology’; dismissing that whole element of engagement with your material, the craft involved in that, the hours of time, the reason you chose that material. And it’s just raw for me because I am having a fight with someone I’m trying to write a grant proposal with, and she keeps saying it’s not about the technology. And I’m like, of course it’s not only about that, but how can you say it’s not? It’s like saying that making that clay thing is not about the clay.
Somaya Langley: I don’t entirely agree with you coming back to talking about my fluency with my particular medium. The last time I used clay I was 12 and I’ve been using computers since I was 18. And I have no decent craft clay skills, and my computer skills are ok. And I just don’t get that satisfaction out of hanging out at the computer and plugging little bits in. And occasionally it’s ‘ooh cool, what’s this’, but I just don’t get that ‘wow’ from doing it’. And it’s not necessarily about me not having that language.
Lizzie Muller: So can you reflect on why you’re still with it, since I don’t think that’s necessarily a common…it’s not universal.
Somaya Langley: Because at the end I still really love what I first went into do, which was to make those new sound, or experiences rather than objects. Writing music is an experience, or seeing a big video projection is more of an experience, and you can make those other worlds that people can be a part of.
Maggie Slattery: Do you get to what you imagine?
Somaya Langley: A bit of both; these days I’m not as hard on ‘it’s supposed to go this way, and it’s never going to go this way’, and I kind of let it take its own path a little bit too. The backpack project; yeah that internal sound world was kind of as I imagined and maybe more. Because I watched a few people come back from that and go ‘whoa, ok’, and I didn’t know that it affected other people so much as I felt, that I imagined it had potential to affect people. So sometimes, not always.
Maggie Slattery: As you’ve all been talking, I’ve been thinking about… I don’t know if you know about the experiment a guy named Bach-y-Rita, a neuro scientist. He was working with a woman who had some sort of an injury that destroyed the function of balance, so the vestibular function. And they devised an electronic device that puts sensors on her tongue so that she was able to learn through feedback through her tongue where she was in a space. And the first time that she wore this was only for 20 minutes, because the experience would have been just unbelievably overwhelming for her. And during that 20 minutes she was actually able to go from sitting to standing without falling over, and all the various things that were happening to her. Interestingly, they didn’t know about this when they took the device off of her, for the next 20 minutes she was independently able to do those things, even though that part of her brain was completely destroyed. So then the next day they did 40 minutes and they were anticipating that for 40 minutes later she would be independent. But of course, it wasn’t 40 minutes, it was something like two hours. And that gradually built up to the point where she in life maybe interacts with that sort of feedback once a year. So that to me is just amazing.
Lizzie Muller: Can we get research on that?
Maggie Slattery: Oh I can get those details for you, I’ll put them up on the board. So when I asked you about what you imagine, is it possible that there’s something in this limitation that is absolutely still beyond what we can imagine? And what would happen if we imagined beyond… So, for example, with your backpack there are things happening, say, in brain mapping that are just unimaginable, you know? And with the interactions with George’s work and …
Lizzie Muller: Since you’re speaking, I might just give you an invitation. It would be really interesting to hear from you as well, because you’re a kind of wild card in the bunch. Not having a kind of current art practice, and then I remember when we got together the first time you weren’t sure what you were doing here but you were open. But it did make me think at the time, and I didn’t think it was the space to ask you the question why you had accepted… In fact we can even take the question back, why Catherine wanted Maggie to be involved, why Maggie said yes.
Maggie Slattery: That’s my answer, because I was invited!
Lizzie Muller: Well maybe Catherine can answer that first part, and then you can explain why you wanted to be involved.
Catherine Truman: First of all I was really very excited to be asked by George, and I was excited by the pathways that you’re following through the ‘reSkin’ – even though you didn’t do the ‘reSkin’ – but that interest and your tenacity – I was very impressed by George’s work, his tenacity…
Lizzie Muller: George’s tenacity; seriously, here’s to that!
Catherine Truman : Yes, thank God for that. My passion for Feldenkrais has come through a survival mechanism. It’s enabled me to survive through difficult circumstances. I can still remain connected to my work and who I am while I’m working through Feldenkrais. And Maggie was a big part of that. And I have experienced a number of different Feldenkrais practitioners through my training and in my advanced training, and it’s not because Maggie’s in Adelaide, but I’m interested in her left-of-centre thinking about the work, and her ability to…
Lizzie Muller: About the Feldenkrais work?
Catherine Truman: Yes, the Feldenkrais work. Her ability to create a set of conditions where you feel you can come into it yourself, even though she’s responsible for the direction, or putting the boundaries out in a way. With those boundaries I’ve always experienced a lot of freedom to take Feldenkrais in lots of different directions. And I thought that that approach would be pretty useful for this process; that everybody would feel not like they were being preached at about what Feldenkrais is, but given an opportunity to experience the kinds of possibilities it offers when you overlay it on something. And the kinds of thinking it can allow, the kinds of freedom it can allow with individual input. And we’ve had lots of discussions over the years and I think where we take the work together has got a lot of potential too. So I was interested in that combination between us. And she said yes!
Lizzie Muller: What’s that?
Maggie Slattery: Well I’ve just called it that and it happened when I started working in the architectural practice. And something Catherine knows about me is that I’m really familiar with not knowing what to do! That’s probably where I know the most, if you know what I mean? What I don’t know. So it’s a place that I feel as if I’ve lived strangely all my life. So it’s a condition I’m not going to reverse out of. But what happened when I went into architectural practice…which is insane because I have mo architectural training…
Lizzie Muller: Ignorance really is bliss isn’t it?
Maggie Slattery : It’s scary! So anyway, the only thing that was possible was this dance, this relationship that I have with John where we get together and our minds, you know, the feeling that it’s greater than the sum of the two. And we got through this first year of intensity where we were working and getting paid a lot of money, and it was just this creative process, you know, of second minding him all the time. Quite amazing. So I know that that’s something that’s possible, and I’m interested in that with Catherine. And I have entered into her artwork through Feldenkrais and that’s been incredibly intimate and just indescribable. So I am interested in that. So I guess my hope was that there would be some second, third and fourth minding going on here of which there could be a value which I can’t imagine. And it was great today in your project – I really needed to have a second minding relationship with that project, that experiment.
Lizzie Muller: And now after two workshops, can you talk a bit about… Do you know more about why you’re here and what this is? What’s the relationship between this process, this whole project and your practice in life and making…
Maggie Slattery: I can’t say a yes to that, although it feels as if there are many more stars in the sky, and there’s going to be some constellations recognisable out of all of that. And what I trust is that there’s relationship; I feel a relationship with exactly everybody here and it’s on every level. It’s intimate and emotional. Somaya Langley: Thank you – thanks for sharing (laughter).
Lizzie Muller: Can you say, whilst you’re there. I’m just interested in the technology thing as well, because the body thing is very obvious with you, and I think really the expertise that you’ve brought to this is really phenomenal. But the technology – where are you with that, in that part of this conversation?
Maggie Slattery: I have more compassion around it, I’m less alien to it because of this experience. And the experience with the technology yesterday was really rich, not what I had imagined. So I feel as if I’m a participant in this alien world. Which if I’m really honest, is not that alien in a way, because when I went to live in America it was all the new music formatory time and there were wires everywhere, and things happening, and there was all of this soundscape. And I was working in theatre, so the need for sound that created a space for a theatre was there in my life. And I was married to a musician who, instead of having a bloke’s shed, had a music room that was just wires everywhere, every kind of synthesiser. And he was making music for film, and I love music for film; I have just such a deep love for that. So this has sort of brought me into that where I see it as a movement aspect of that that was only expressed…so this is pre-Feldenkrais.
Catherine Truman: Can I just throw in a little observation, that it’s been fantastic to find. It actually doesn’t seem to matter what we do, what vocation we have; it’s all the same. When we’re thrown into an environment like you have to draw something, or you have to go out into the bush and respond, everybody has similar reactions, and interferences or fluidities. It doesn’t matter what training you have done either, what level you’re at in terms of theory. So it’s interesting about that in terms of an audience to your work. It’s good to discover that we all don’t know, but that we know a lot.
Lian Loke: Just picking up on Maggie’s thing about that invitation, being invited into art works; doing that and allowing you to play, to put aside all the normal ways of doing things and just trying to suck it in and slow down for a change. Yeah, I mean the going out for bush walks, just in being given the invitation or permission to just engage more deeply with that space. It’s away from your normal way, putting aside all these things, being called to that very basic ‘where am I now’; being present.
Lian Loke: I always feel like I’m in the wrong garden plot or something! And , you know, a little seedling that got misplanted. Looking over the fence, soil looks good over. Yeah, I sort of lived with that split of… I don’t know whether it’s the right side of the brain, being creative, and also being intellectually smart, you know? And having that academic side; as a child having an academic side very encouraged and there were other sides where I go do a few dance classes here and there. That was about it, actually, the creative side. I did my own dressmaking; that was one way of being expressive, which became my primary mode of expression. Through dressmaking and making things out of cloth and so forth. But for a long time I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I went to uni and studied electrical engineering.
Lizzie Muller: How did that happen Lian?
Lian Loke: How did that happen? Well it’s those things about what you’re born into isn’t it? So my dad’s an engineer and my mum’s a bio-chemist, and so I was quite coddled as a child. I lived at home until 23. So I’m a bit of a later bloomer. And they were the choices; certain choices are encouraged and certain choices are made a bit difficult, or frowned upon. I was a good girl, and I enjoyed studying. But yeah, I wanted to go to uni but I can’t go and do fashion at UTS, because that’s just a ‘mock’ course; ‘you’re not going to study fashion design at university’. And then with the art, I didn’t do art at school, I didn’t have a portfolio. I couldn’t draw and other fashion schools require that sort of portfolio entry. And so lots of reasons why; so ok, it always became this other current outside whatever was my formal training. The current was really vital actually to my sense of existence and wellbeing and sanity. So, I always had that current that I needed to be in. If I don’t do anything creative for a while I start to go a bit insane…existential crisis! So it’s there but it’s always been this battle of how do I bring that into the forefront of my life, basically. So it’s always been a fringe activity, so yeah… Do I need to go through my whole history? (laughter)
Lizzie Muller: It would be interesting to know, because you’ve had the power of choice for a long time now, but you seem to be drawn to technology, you’re interested in technology. And I suppose going right back to Catherine and my initial question, that question ‘why technology’?
Lian Loke: Well it’s inescapable. I just see it as inescapable because it’s become… I mean digital computerised technology is all around now and it’s just this overwhelming drive. It’s just through history, basically, always this continual inventing of new things. And digital technology’s becoming really pervasive. So I feel a kind of obligation to actually engage with it at some level; to be part of the making process and visioning process that you can create more humane ways of utilising it, essentially. So, not that I’ve done anything concrete, but I guess doing my thesis was trying to bring in more experiential ways of understanding my body, creative expression and that kind of stuff, that I’m hoping can end up being a resource for making different forms of interaction, or…
Lizzie Muller: Do you see technology as being part of that creative current? Because the way you’ve just described it, technology has up until now been part of this mainstream current that you were… Lian Loke: Yeah, well, because as an engineer you are working always with new technologies, or old technologies. And then when I started working at university it was about teaching how to design software systems and that kind of stuff. So it’s always just been there, something that I know about, but I haven’t actually done anything particularly creative with it. I just know about other people doing things.
Lizzie Muller: But you’ve been endlessly creative with other material. So it’s interesting because you’ve done so much creative stuff, and you keep saying you keep trying to finds ways to bring creativity to the forefront of your life. But I’ve watched you over the last couple of years – from a distance (laughs) – and there’s been a lot…you’ve been performing twice/three times a year for the past three years.
Lian Loke: Oh yeah, I manage to sneak in little bits and pieces.
Lizzie Muller: You’ve been constantly making costumes, and you had a 40th birthday party that was the performance event of the year in Sydney. So I kind of think to myself there’s a lot of creative activity going on, but none of it is technological.
Lian Loke: No, I haven’t found out how to do that, so I better get some lessons. But also, part of the problem for me is that most of the creative applications around it use the mediums of sound and video, or imagery, which I’m not actually skilled in. I don’t have any particular craft in that. What made my costume stuff come along here, it’s another medium that these things can be translated into, that digital technology has facilitated in some way; that could manifest through a different medium or variety of medium, media. Not just the sound and vision. Which is sort of interesting, you made that point about could you get rid of it as well.
George Poonkhin Khut: Those distal things?
Lian Loke: Yeah, so that’s kind of an open question.
Lizzie Muller: Just to finish on that Lian, because I’m just so intrigued by you, I just wonder if this had an impact on that?
Lian Loke: This project?
Lizzie Muller: Yeah.
Lian Loke: At this point, it’s sort of raised or opened up the horizon. I sort of see this group as, I guess, a collection of people with a common vision.
Catherine Truman: Which is?
Lian Loke: Well I mean there’s lots of different…
Catherine Truman: I thought you were going to say one sentence… (laughs)
Lian Loke: Well what is it for me? It’s about valuing the more experiential bodily modes of existence, and finding ways of either bringing them in or enhancing them in your practice, and then also put out to the world in various ways. Which is new. I mean, in this kind of circle that’s also crossing over artistic practice, research domains. It’s just bringing in lots of vision of a whole lot of things. Whereas when I was dancing, we had a group of us that was doing some really interesting work on the fringes of all sorts of explorations, but that was solid in that domain. This one has the possibilities of reaching to lots of places.
Somaya Langley: Ok, so tell us about how you became involved with [electronic art]…
Lizzie Muller: I can feel the question on the edge of George’s mind! Can’t work a blog or manage your computer or…technology. Technology can challenge, and because I came to technology through science, and I came to science through the experience of trying to get a job when I left university. So I did English literature when I was at university, and I wanted to be a publisher and work in literature. And I ended up just by stupid coincidence working for a scientist, a neuroscientist, and she was just a very powerful woman who exerted a lot of influence over not only me, but also Tony Blair! She was an incredibly powerful personality, and she was a Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, which is like a public standing science place. And I was just really compelled by her.
At school I had an interest in science that had been kind of incompatible with the British system of education, which is… At 16 you pick, are you science or are you art? And that’s pretty much how it goes because you do three or four A Levels if you’re smart, and then they’re almost always directed towards either humanities or maths and science and very rarely cross over, which is a massive failing of the British education system. And then you just go straight from that into whatever degree you’re going to do. So I dropped science, and also I was never very good at maths and whatever, although at uni I did get As at maths, but in the not very good sense; I wasn’t very competitive. I didn’t like it. I just remember that I did have an interest in science when working for this woman, having graduated.
And she said to me one day, you should be inter-disciplinary, it’s going to be the thing that dominates the world for the next 15 years. If you can manage to be inter-disciplinary you’ll be successful. And I was like 21 and like ‘oh interesting, inter-disciplinary’ (drawls). And I was working for her as her PA and she took me around with her when she did radio interviews, and this was a very interesting world this woman moved in. And it’s about the brain and consciousness and memory. And I thought, you know, a lot of these things are actually reasons that I’m interested in literature – entering into different people’s consciousness and understanding what memory is and all those things, they were like in fiction for me. And the book for me was very much a virtual world, but I didn’t make that connection until much later on. And so, she had said ‘be inter-disciplinary my son’, so I thought fair enough, I’ll give it a go. And she got me a job at the National Foundation for Science and Technology for the Arts, which was a new initiative that Tony Blair came up with. It was supposed to join together for the first time these different fields. So I just had a job as this researcher and that was it.
So I was like, what shall I do, what shall I research? And someone said to me Stellarc, have you seen his stuff over here? It’s crazy. And someone else said Wayne Macgregor; you guys know him, he’s a famous dance digital technology guy. And I’m seeing a pattern; everyone I was sent out to research, or people mentioned to me, were people doing incredibly innovative things with technology through their art practice. And I just became very interested in that as a phenomenon. And I was going out with someone who lived in Cambridge, and we wanted to live together. I remember one day we were sitting at his house and I was like ‘wouldn’t it be great if I lived here rather than down in London’. And it’s an hour away and was always a big challenge, we never saw each other except weekends. And there was this job in the paper, a Digital Arts Producer for a venue in Cambridge. And it was four days a week, and it was a proper salary, and I thought I’ll never get it, I don’t know enough about the digital arts. But I applied and got it.
From then I was just propelled into a world that I’ve never been able to get out of again, and haven’t wanted to. And since then I have post-retro fitted a reason for all of that which you could say was an origin or you could say was a consequence. But the book had already seemed quite limited to me. I remember that while I was working for this scientist I took a month off to volunteer for the London Festival of Literature, and I remember hearing all these writers and listening to them and being kind of bored. And I’d never been bored by writers before, or authors, but I was already saying…the book just seemed a very limiting format to me. Already at 21, and just having done a literature degree, there was something…
When I did my degree I did a video production and I did a bit of socio-linguistics, and I sort of dabbled at the edges of a few other things. And I obviously was already feeling confined by literature and needed to move beyond it, and I was never going to be able to devote my life to it. And also, the other thing I discovered – like retro fitted onto it – was that there’s a great joy I think in inter-disciplinary thinking, in being allowed to talk to scientists and musicians, and think about what the relationship is and making those connections. And I think what it probably is, is that I don’t have a very deep…my mind doesn’t work in a very deep specialist way; it works in a much broader connections way. I’ve always been into making connections between things rather than becoming an expert in one thing.
And my PhD was about that as well, taking three different fields and seeing how do they go together? And kind of recognizing that about myself, that I was more connective than specialist, was kind of useful. And realising there were fields in that and technology. And also one of the reasons I wanted to do this PhD was that I started to think there’s a lot in technology that’s ignored; like I would look around and I’d hear from people, even then, it’s become impersonal or mission. I hear people saying all the time ‘it’s just the technology’, and ‘I hate the technology’, and this constant pushing down. And at the same time having a massive, all-consuming civilization-wide love affair with it. And it seems to me like a pathology; that the only way to get out of it is to really engage with it.
So what is it about this thing that we love, and that we hate; what are its real frustrations. And to admit that tools and human beings have this intimate relationship that goes back to the very reason why we’re humans and not monkeys. In fact that’s the reason why monkeys are monkeys, and not other kinds of creatures. The brain and evolution is the relationship between man and tools, I think. I think the tool is the reason our brain developed the way it is, why our body is the way it is.
Catherine Truman: We had to free our hands.
Lizzie Muller: Exactly, we are tool creatures; we make things with tools and that’s our relationship to the world, through tools. And I’m very passionate about acknowledging the fundamental importance of those tools for our identity. Because it seems to me that pathology – that fear, hate, love relationship – comes from a constant trying to believe that we were formed this way and that we control them, as opposed to acknowledging that we and they formed each other. And that’s why I’ve always loved people like Latore, who give tools agency, and refuse to understand the sociology of the world without also understanding the chairs and the doors and the buildings.
And so to me, I feel like I’m fighting this fight to champion… And it’s not all that I love technology. This is probably a story I told you all at Campbelltown; having had repetitive strain injury, I’ve got a very miserable relationship with my computer. And as a new media curator there’s a great expectation on me to do a lot of net art, always expecting me to curate online, and I don’t go there. Unless I’m going to write something useful I don’t go to my computer and I don’t even like writing people emails or letters or… So I don’t love technology, but I just want it to be dealt with in a rich and robust way.
Lian Loke: There’s…it’s not an argument necessarily, but our acknowledgement with these technologies. They’re still in their infancy, and various tools evolve over time until they get to a point where they work in lots of ways. They do their function, they’re functional to use; like a pair of scissors – I don’t know whether that can be evolved any further, but they’re things we’re familiar with. We still have a way to go I think in getting this…and because of the elasticity, the malleability of the technology as well, it’s…
Lizzie Muller: I was going to say, yeah. Digital technologies I think are a new class of tool, personally, and they’re new because they’re universal. It’s like, see chapter 188.8.131.52 of the PhD, but up until now every tool has had a specific purpose. There are very few malleable or universal machines. The computer was invented in order to have the elasticity of the human mind and be applied to whatever job came in front of it. And because of that flexibility and its relationship to the human mind as a tool, as opposed to some other things like the pair of scissors, which is more related to the human hand. Anyway…
George Poonkhin Khut: It goes back to when I was talking about how I’d like to turn the Wii controller into maybe something like a rain stick …why would you do that when you can just have a real rain stick? It’s because the computer allows you to have this super magical plastic thing that can do all these bizarre transformations and they give you that…
Somaya Langley: But then because it can do so many things, you spend quite a lot of time going, ok, now I’m going to take that and I’m going to try and make it into a pair of scissors. And every time you go to use a pair of scissors, you don’t have to sticky-tape them all together before you can use them. They’re there, and unless they’re broken, they work. They work as a tool and you use it. And with a computer, I think it’s just maybe one of the problems that occur, there’s this elasticity available but the way in which we can mould it into the tool that we need for a particular function isn’t there yet.
Lizzie Muller: It’s never going to be finished, you know? The computer as a medium is never going to be finished.
Somaya Langley: No, but it’s still very much… Everything that I do is a hack job.
Catherine Truman: You were talking about – correct me if I’m wrong – the frustration of manifesting your idea clearly through the materials and technology that you have? There are people there that would concentrate on…maybe it’s an access to the skill involved or the time involved to do it?
Lizzie Muller: People have different relationships to their medium.
Somaya Langley: But you think about Word Press, and to code html is really fucking simple, and yet if you look at the code behind Word Press it’s a hack job. Every time you make a Word Press site it’s like someone has built a version of a tool; you still are hacking together all these things behind it.
Lizzie Muller: Do you use the phrase hack job as a bad thing, or as a good thing? Because for many people the hack job of technology…
Lizzie Muller: It’s inherently brilliantly…
Somaya Langley: I would just say both, but in this particular instance in a negative way, in that you can do these things, but for some reason… I don’t know, I’ve spent so many years working in IT, and every IT project I’ve worked on there’s a shortcut taken that you know is going to come back and bite you on the bum.
Catherine Truman: So it’s just not refined enough yet for you?
Somaya Langley: There’s just not enough time to do it, if someone programs something for you, you style a look and feel because you know you can get there quickly, but it goes back and it becomes a problem later, like…
Jonathan Duckworth: I just want to say with the cutting; using the idea of a cutting tool or shaping tool which you would use in your practice, Catherine…chisels and things that you would shape wood with. In a sense, it’s also been replaced by a computer which can machine any shape or form. And the question is what has potentially been lost by allowing the computer to do that?
Lizzie Muller: Or gained?
Catherine Truman: There’s lots of… I look into that technology and talk to people who use it. One in particular in Canberra, a man who has actually embodied the tool. He has worked out how it works and he’s taken it apart, literally, and put it back together. And he’s worked out the little nuances of this particular machine he’s got so he can manipulate it in ways that the company didn’t even dream of, to do what he can do now. When I look at the work that is produced from it, I see the tool that he’s used and the limits and the possibilities that the tool has. I don’t understand much of who he is through his work though. I understand more about him through his attitude and the way he has engaged with the work, the machine and its processes. That’s more interesting to me than the work that’s being produced. I don’t know what that says?
Lian Loke: It’s a pretty extreme level of procreation though, taking machines apart and just really getting to the…
George Poonkhin Khut: Yeah, an image that came to me in terms of being a maker, and the level of feedback, immediate feedback you get about, and reward you can get. There’s like a continuum and you could put something like painting or drawing or carving at one end; and then you could extend that out a bit further to something like ceramics or printmaking, which has quite a number of different stages before you ever see the final product. And then you could extend that out to architecture, which is not just a long time, but highly mediated by so many other external factors.
Lizzie Muller: Or filmmaking.
George Poonkhin Khut: Filmmaking. And then somewhere along this continuum you get new media art practice where you’re inventing basically algorithms and software and dealing with new technologies.
Lizzie Muller: Yeah, and it’s certainly not that it’s absolutely always at the most extreme end , and it can even sometimes be very close to the… If you think about someone like Stein, Michelle’s work at Steim – very intense textures behind it, but the interface is…
George Poonkhin Khut: Yeah, but I was just thinking about that in terms of… because I’ve had moments of intense unhappiness in this practice as a kind of body in front of a computer and managing a project.
Lizzie Muller: It fucked your back!
George Poonkhin Khut: Yeah, that and a whole lot of other things.
Catherine Truman: It fucked your back – thanks IT!
George Poonkhin Khut: Yeah, it just struck me that there’s a thing about temperament and at the moment I’m going to try and see this through a bit more. And I’m committed to it and I’m sure I can find a way to adjust myself to it and to adjust it so it’s not so unhappy or… But I think it’s about understanding that some of these things just take a long time. And I’m becoming more comfortable with that. And some people would say, it’s taken you six years, that’s insane, just move on…but it’s like, well…
Lizzie Muller: Who can become a master in less time than that? Who becomes a master of the violin? But I think also, from where I’m sitting, the unhappiness with the technology, the feeling that it’s not refined enough, like… I think that’s a perpetual relationship with the media of the world. And if we were finished, if the world was done, what would we do? And that’s the case in everything; I mean, we need to improve the health system, we need to improve education, we need to improve my cooking, we need to improve lots of things. And digital technology, its youth, how young it is is really quite questionable, because there’s prototypes of digital technology that go back into the 19th Century and even earlier than that. But also, even then the automaton…it has so many roots and tentacles all the way back through history to the earliest tools. I think the genealogy of technology makes it tricky to call it ‘new media’. But I also think it’s not the only thing that has trouble with bodies. Digital technology and IT get a bad rap for their relationship to the body, and we all know why, because we all…
Maggie Slattery: You know what this reminds me of? It’s the story of evolution; we were hanging, and I don’t know how it all happened, but we really had to come down to the ground, because that was the only way that the cortex could grow, the frontal lobes to develop. We needed to free our hands for that, but the price that we paid was phenomenal. Childbirth – we know that women died; they just died, died, died, died because their pelvis took a long time to reestablish a shape that could birth a two-footed being.
Lizzie Muller: And a human head with this big giant brain…
Maggie Slattery: Even before that her pelvis was still half in the monkey form and half in upright, so it just took so long. And the price was paid in the body for this thing, for this evolution.
Lizzie Muller: And the price we pay now with asthma now because of pesticides. And our relationship with technology has always been one of pain. But I think where I wanted to go with that thought was, it’s not just technology that has a bad relationship with the body in human society. Philosophy has a bad relationship with the body. Visual art has traditionally had a very bad relationship with the body.
Maggie Slattery: Western philosophy.
Lizzie Muller: Yes, Western philosophy. But the body in Western civilization has had a bad rap for a really, really long time. Yes, we have an Adam and Eve situation going on here. Adam and Eve – and the bible really doesn’t like the body. And I think it’s really important to remember that as we are sitting here, because dealing with that is a fucking big question! But we can say we are compelled by technology; we are intrigued by it, we are fascinated by it, we live in a world that is surrounded by it, so we might as well deal with it. We sense a gap, being embodied people who are interested in the experience between these two things, and that small and at the same time large question that we as a group have chosen to work with. And it gives us clarity and focus…
Catherine Truman: It’s not a new question, but I think there’s stuff in here that’s new and we can tease out, but it’s not… I was just reading a really old article about Stellarc written in ’98 before I came over here, and his view that the body is obsolete, and that’s why he’s developed all this technology.
Lizzie Muller: His body is quite obsolete. (Laughs)
Catherine Truman: But that’s not a new idea, you know? We’re trying to do the reverse, that the body isn’t obsolete, that the body is driving the technology, that the technology needs to be driven by this here. This is all we’ve got really. So I think it’s the intimate and the personal that we tread over. There lies the answers. Sometimes I question, ok, we are scrounging around to find some more humanity in the technology, or we’re trying to adapt the technology to be more humane, or to be more fluid, more what we want. You once were a potter and a woodcarver, and you got great joy out of that. Why are you trying to make technology do these same things?
George Poonkhin Khut: It’s not really doing the same thing. I just knew that I did my final year in ceramics and there was a whole road laid out. It’s like love; it’s a marriage, and I could marry this person or that person and that such a choice would mean different lives. And I knew that if I went down this pottery road, there would always be this thing, like…calling me back. And I knew that a craft practice requires 100%, 110% commitment to try and see it through.
Catherine Truman: It’s like learning a language, I think. I’ve just spend the last twelve months learning a new language. God knows why; I think it was a bit to do with this project in a way. I knew the language of wood and I knew what I could make it do, and I knew I could still discover new things with it. But what I was most interested in… I’m not good at languages, by the way, I struggle with them, but I can learn a different kind of language with material, and with a technique, and with lateral thinking.
And yes, it took a lot of technology, but it was so simple. And I remember the day that I looked at what I had done and thought, that’s a very similar sentence, but a bit more sophisticated. And there it is in this new material, and it was a new technique that I made in wood. And a lot of people now have looked at the two different works, which are wood and this plastic that I’m treating like glass, heating it, blowing it, and they say I can see you in both. And that’s where I feel this is going. How can we be more authentic through the technology we use in that it doesn’t have to be unsophisticated, but at the moment it feels very unsophisticated. Somaya Langley: Are you also talking about getting to knew one’s own handwriting, so to speak?
Catherine Truman: Yes, I had to know…I had to trust that I would be able to get from A to B. I didn’t know what was going to happen in between, and I’m not going to stay at B, but there was a level of trust. And I guess that’s why I approach these workshops in that way, having built that.
Somaya Langley: Are you learning more about yourself?
Catherine Truman: Totally.
Lian Loke: But the self’s always sort of shifting too…
Lizzie Muller: Because you learn about yourself, and you change it. That’s your observer’s paradox in there – by paying attention to oneself, and trying to know oneself, you change yourself.
Maggie Slattery: But at the same time, I would imagine that when you recognise similarities, there’s something essentially new in these two very different materials that must go back into you, it’s something you can’t change and manipulate because you’re working authentically and honestly through process and then there is this piece that…
Catherine Truman: Something about continuity too.
Maggie Slattery: There must be something about you that you don’t know that’s shown to you in that piece…that you’re not playing with
Catherine Truman: There’s lots of new discoveries. It’s just about learning more about what being human means. But, you know, the sense of continuity that everybody would relate to. If you leave your computer for three or four weeks and come back to it…there’s a certain amount of alienation that you have to get through. And a way of being fluid with your words, you have to get to calm, calm. The medium is so fluid and so direct, if I even have a week off I have to have a day going through shit to get to that place where I am getting the right conversation happening, and can maybe I can go a bit further down that track…
Lizzie Muller: And that’s my experience with intellectual work or writing as well. You can have a week off writing something, you go back and you’re going to spend a day… It punishes you, it like an angry dog…
Catherine Truman: And this is stuff that we are engaged with and these wires and stuff. And people who are developing that every second as we speak. What we have in this room is obsolete already.
Lizzie Muller: I think that’s a really good point, actually. Our relationship to the technology that we are talking about in ‘Thinking through the Body’ is the technology that we have here now.
Catherine Truman: Yeah, it could be thinking along the lines of, we want to express these concepts, maybe we will have to make something new that doesn’t persist, which is probably what…
Somaya Langley: Yeah, I just want to add one thing, just to clarify my position. It’s not a love-hate relationship that I have with it; it’s kind of a frustration with some of those tools. But I do love the technology because I sleep with a laptop in my bed, and I won’t kick it out! It does have that ability to create these new worlds and these new experiences, but my frustration is that it’s not hands-on enough in a way that I want it to be hands-on. Yeah, I can sit there and solder, but that doesn’t give me this feeling that we got with clay.
George Poonkhin Khut: If you bring it back to that analogy with a relationship though. Is it like when you fall in love with someone, and you realise they’re never going to be a certain way. And you just learn to love them as they are. And it’s like I fell in love with someone with a disability, and they’re never going to have two legs, but they’re pretty special, and I wouldn’t swap you for anyone else!!
Lizzie Muller: That’s an analogy! George has spent this entire workshop trying to build that other leg!
Somaya Langley: But sometimes those tools do come, and these conductive fabrics and that change… And maybe that was something that was explored over the last few years. Some of these tools are more… I get really inspired by them because suddenly it’s not all through this little box, it’s through this stuff.
Lizzie Muller: But it hasn’t always been through that little box. That little box is a very small part of computer technology; it’s the user interface, and then a very specific user interface, not the user interface that most computer scientists in the world…
George Poonkhin Khut: Yes, it’s also a maker’s interface though, and we do spend long periods of time, even if we are making conductive fabrics or whatever, there’s so much engineering that is mediated through…
Somaya Langley: They’re much better than the primitive interfaces.
Lizzie Muller: But I think if you say when that new interface comes then it’s going to be more like what I’m after, that’s a hiding to nothing in some ways because I think what we have is what we have. I’m not saying that we don’t always try and make everything better in time, but I think the computer’s never going to be finished.
Note: Garth Paine was away sick for this workshop, and wasn’t able to contribute his story at this time.