Networks done three ways

Feral Trade Couscous. Image: 2010.avfestival.co.uk

Feral Trade Couscous. Image: 2010.avfestival.co.uk

I originally wrote this article for Line Magazine‘s online edition. I reproduce it here partly for the sake of self-promotion and partly to say that Line’s ‘Alternative Strategies’ issue is available now, and their Edinburgh Art Festival issue is coming soon.

The network is one of the most fruitful concepts pertaining to contemporary artistic discourse, broaching as it does ideas of design, social intervention and institutional polemic. The questions asked by network-based projects highlight a number of dialectical struggles central to our understanding of current art practices: between the tangible and the intangible, the embedded and the reflexive, between site and sprawl.

Luke Healey opens up the debate with four British-based artists known for their experiments with business, transport and telephony. In a nod towards interconnectedness, answers from each interview were used to set questions for others.

1. Kate Rich; Feral Trade Network

 The Feral Trade Network, a grocery import-export business in which goods are moved by means of the excess luggage allowance of artist Kate Rich’s artworld contacts, has now been in operation for around 8 years. Using the ingredients sourced via these peregrinations, Rich has set up a number of temporary cafés, the most recent of which was installed at Edinburgh’s Collective Gallery. 

How did you come to a network based approach?

It was motivated by the changes that I encountered in the coming of the digital age, predominately the way e-mail changed communication networks…I was looking at a way to test those e-mail based social networks: can you use them to run freight? What is their load-bearing capacity? I was also working at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema, stocking the bar, and trying to find a legitimate source of coffee. I was looking at Fair Trade and had a lot of problems with the aesthetics of it and the stories behind it. At the time, a friend brought me back some coffee from El Salvador, where she had been working, and I began to think about the possibility of sourcing coffee by using e-mail based social networks. Also, from the start, I saw it as a way of rendering social networks visible, without making them harvestable – in opposition to the way something like Facebook works, which gathers and then takes away information, selling it to third parties. The Feral Trade database, on the contrary, articulates the relationships that circulate around me – my personal and professional relationships – in a way that can’t be chopped up and sold.

What is your problem with Fair Trade?

A classic Fair Trade item is a package of coffee featuring a picture of a farmer – usually called José – holding up the coffee and smiling, and there’s a testimonial saying something like “Thanks to Fair Trade I’ve been able to pay for my kids’ education.” José probably didn’t grow those actual beans. Why should he be smiling for you? You can see him, but he can’t see you. Why are you being invited to make a moral judgement on what he does with his money? Also, he’s got no chance of finding out where your money came from, so he can’t make the same moral judgement about you. It’s an insult to call this process “fair” or “equal exchange”. It’s colonising a word in a really presumptuous way.

I’m colonising the word “feral”: “fair-all”. With my database, you get a picture of the farmer (the real farmer) with the courier and hopefully the receiver holding up the product and smiling like an idiot too. With the Fair Trade coffee pack, it’s like the farmer exists in a vacuum – what about the people they do business with, the freight service? My system puts equal attention on all these hidden aspects of the trade network.

How do the cafés fit into the way you perceive your practice?

I’ve done four cafés in total, but I’m still unsure of the café as a medium. With the main project, the Trade Network, there are no spectators – you’re either buying, selling or carrying. There’s no need to explain the concept, it’s just action. In the cafés, people will walk in and ask ‘what’s this about?’, and I’m a little uncomfortable about that. They come close to being consumers, which is a word I never like to use. The buyers of products in the Trade Network generally have to labour as well, which dispenses with the idea that you can be involved with something just by paying your way into it. The cafés maybe lose that aspect.

Is it important to you that your practice also has a strong visual identity?

Yeah, because that’s how the project will work on people. The maps I produce to illustrate the history of the Trade Network’s activity are something that everyone can access and understand: Kate Gray’s 10-year old son was looking at them and commenting on the number of coffee shipments that had taken place. They’ve got a long way to go, but if a ten-year old can read them then they’ve got potential. The database has been sucking up data for 8 years, and we’re just starting to recognise how it can be visualised in really interesting ways that I’m not yet technically able to do. At the moment the limitation of my project is that it really works best when I’m there talking to people, so it’s sort of all about me. If I can get the visualisation, I’ve got a way that it can communicate quickly and effectively without me there.

Does the Feral Trade Network have any affiliations to the slow food movement?

It’s interesting. As I understand it, it’s all about eating what’s produced within a certain perimeter of you. While I endorse that to an extent – I don’t buy vegetables out of season, I shop at farmers’ markets – I find it really problematic. We’re in a networked world. We’re breathing and poisoning the same air as everyone else on the planet, and we cannot unlock now. Those in power are trading poisons and arms with their peers around the world, so for us as thinking individuals to decide to only eat what’s grown within a twenty-mile perimeter is regrettable. We need to stay in the international realm and assert our politics, rather than retreating, refusing to fly, refusing to drink coffee because they don’t grow it in Britain. We’ve been trained to act as consumers, and we need to respond by acting in a spirit of critical engagement. One of the other things with my network is that it’s almost impossible to see this bag of coffee as yours when you know all the details of its shipment and what proportion of it you actually purchased. It’ll be on the maps, it’ll be on the database – it brings out the collectivity in consumption.

Worcester Foregate Street station with entrance to MOVEMENT gallery. Image: initiativeandinstitution.net

2. Nina Coulson & Alex Johnson, MOVEMENT

 MOVEMENT gallery is a vital addition to the cultural life of Worcester, a city greatly affected by a diminishing arts budgets even before the latest round of cut-backs. Having worked together for years under the rubric Yoke & Zoom, Nina Coulson and Alex Johnson last year opened a gallery in a disused space on platform 2 of Worcester’s Foregate Street station. They have since shown work by Jacob Feige and Marcus Coates, and plan to move their project out onto the railways proper. 

The British rail network seems like a great untapped resource for curatorial projects.

Nina: We’re still in the process of realising how great it is because we’ve been in discussion with the rail companies for 5 years. As soon as we approached them they were really up for working with us. We’ve had to take it one step at a time; work on renovations of the space we were given. Marcus Coates’ talk in the waiting room was our first move out of the space and into the station. But taking our work out of the station and onto the trains is an idea with massive potential.

How do you plan to carry that out?

Nina: For each exhibition that we put on, we want to do artist talks on the trains. We’re taking our next project, an archive of work produced by Ida Baird on trips from Paris to Zagreb as part of her ‘Galerie des locataires’ project on the train to Venice, using hand-held projectors. I’ve been researching spaces on trains – there’s always little parts of trains that are unused and accessible – bars, compartments and so on. European trains have more domestic spaces in the form of the couchettes – you can literally have your own private gallery space.

Alex: We’re also interested in using the advertising screens that new British trains have. I like the idea of someone using one for a talk – they’re hardly used at the moment. And the restaurant cars are ideal for discussions and things. I like the idea that you can’t preempt or be prescriptive over who uses them.

What was your motivation for starting the project? Do you see it as a way of furthering your careers and connecting the practices of others?

Nina: What really motivated us when creating this space was that we were sick of these big art centres, top-down institutions that cost massive amounts of money to construct. An organisation called The Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) helped us set up, and their idea was simply to use as many empty rooms in stations as possible for non-profit making purposes. We really liked the idea that you could have, say, 30 or 40 art spaces across the rail network, and those artists could be communicating through the network physically, by meeting up and working together, and then you’ve got these many micro-spaces, as opposed to these vast palaces…

Alex: It wasn’t necessarily a tool for us, we were just seeing it as a means of questioning what art could do – as a way of dealing with certain challenges in ways that other forms of business can’t. We’re interested in the ideals of British Rail – the period when the railways were state-run. We’re moving ever more towards a socialist idea of railways; that trains are for everyone. Accordingly, a lot of the activities we run are free, it’s just about being in the right place at the right time.

Nina: We’re looking at the idea of the artist-led through a slightly different lens. A lot of artist-led projects take place in out-of-the-way locations, and unless you’re really involved in art, they’re not actually all that open to the public, however “open” the project is in the vision of its creators. When we’re open, we’ve got the door right open onto the platform and people wander in from the station. We hope that if this idea catches on we can make these sorts of small spaces more normal for people, more a part of the everyday fabric.

The idea of the rail network seems like a powerful metaphor for the democratisation of the arts, and it’s also an important figure in how people understand the economic make-up of the society they live in…

Nina: The way that the railways are run is something that nobody’s happy with. Through our dealings, we have a really interesting position in which we see the politics of the whole operation – the way that one organisation passes the buck onto the other. Also, a lot of people involved in running the railways are actively supportive of the original ethos of network rail, and want it to move, away from privatisation, back to being a public company.

Alex: Drivers and ticket collectors often come into the gallery too, and it’s always really interesting to get their perspective on things. People ultimately get what we’re driving at, and in return we try to make it as bread-and-butter as possible. We’re becoming increasingly part of the furniture at the station and in Worcester, which really helps when you’re trying to encourage people to come in and have a look.

Nina: We’ve asked guards to distribute leaflets on trains for past shows. They are getting increasingly to know about our work, and we’re seeing their own networks more and more. It’s interesting to move away from just communicating with the bosses to actually see the grass-roots workers and how they work. And we’re building up a bit of a mythology in this community as well: train people know who we are.

Harwood, Wright, Yokoji, ‘Tantalum Memorial’, 2009. Image: asquare.org

3. Richard Wright; Harwood, Wright, Yokoji

 Since 2005, Harwood, Wright, Yokoji have worked in the medium of what they call “social telephony”, utilising telephone networks in order to explore and intervene in ‘the aesthetics of communication.’ Telephone Trottoir, realised in 2006, is their most ambitious telephony project to date.  

What exactly was the Telephone Trottoir project and how did it come about?

Harwood, Wright, Yokokoji did a telephone based project in 2005 called ‘Aroundhead’ which had as its premise ‘the head of Oliver Cromwell trapped in a telephone system.’ We developed a technique to allow staff based at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital to pass phone calls around, in this case messages from Oliver Cromwell’s head. It was quite a speculative project and most staff found it very amusing. Then we decided we wanted to expand it and try it on the public telephone system. We knew the Nostalgie Ya Mboka group who ran Congolese radio programmes on Resonance FM and thought they might be interested in trying it on their audience. I discovered that the Congolese had a practice called “radio trottoire” or “pavement radio” where they passed information around on street corners to avoid state censorship and the unreliable media infrastructure. We realised that this could be the basis of a good fit between technique and culture and called the project ‘Telephone Trottoire.’

Briefly, ‘Trottoire’ is a computer that phones up Congolese participants and plays them topical messages in Lingala. They then have the option to leave a comment and pass the message on to a friend by entering their phone number. In this way the network expands. We ran two versions and they were very successful, in 7 or 8 months growing from 100 to 1,800 users and recording 1,300 comments on everything from child witches to unemployment benefit to eating goats testicles. I think it worked so well partly because of the association with “radio trottoire,” partly because central Africans have adopted the mobile phone as their chief communication platform and partly because of the need for Congolese migrants and political refugees to have an anonymous mouthpiece.

How do you view your interventions in “social telephony” in terms of their relation to a given audience? 

Whenever we ran this project with a different audience we got very different patterns of usage. Some London school students passed the calls but didn’t make comments. Some young people from Southend made comments but didn’t pass them. Many people now using mobiles don’t know their friends’ phone numbers by memory so can’t enter them. So the “actions” engendered by these sorts of media art projects varies widely according to the participants. And there is hopefully enough flexibility in these systems to allow people to make their own use of it, rather than it being very focused as you might find in a commercially run service.

How do you see your network-based work in relation to the context of public or institutional display? Is it important to you to put out a legible visible product?

One problem we faced was that even though ‘Trottoire’ was so successful there was no easy way for people outside of the Congolese community to take part or appreciate it. Our solution was to create a gallery presence called ‘Tantalum Memorial.’ ‘Tantalum Memorial’ is an installation of old Strowger electro-magnetic telephone switches invented in 1889 which are triggered by the phone calls from ‘Telephone Trottoire.’

I would probably describe ‘Trottoire’ as an arts project and ‘Tantalum Memorial’ as an artwork. It is also important to remember that ‘Trottoire’ was built using free open source telephony software and basic computer hardware, not by using any fancy mobile phone apps, interfaces or gadgets. This technology allowed us to redesign a simple phone call into a form that hadn’t been tried before. I think this shows that even media that we think we know very well and believe is exhausted can actually still be transformed into a new media, and often using cheap, simple techniques.

‘Tantalum Memorial’ as an artwork is more authored and focused towards certain thematics (in the above sense, not in the sense of presenting a final point of view). I think they are two companion pieces which benefit from being connected together as different but related forms of media – not connected functionally or narratively or metaphorically but as a media system that can take the viewer through a series of structures, relations, traffics, conflicts, dependencies and ultimately ideas.

Where is the ‘political’ content of the ‘Telephone Trottoir’ project located?

‘Tantalum Memorial’ is described as a memorial to the 4 million Congolese who have died as a result of the Coltan Wars: civil wars in the Congo region which are fuelled by money filtered from the trade in Coltan – an ore used to extract tantalum metal which is used to manufacture mobile phones and other modern media devices. It is this war which is one of the reasons why so many Congolese people have left the country, the irony being that their need to keep their ties and communications strong by buying mobile phones also feeds into the conflict which created this situation in the first place. In this way we began to place ‘Trottoire’ within a set of complex and contradictory connections that included history of technology, politics of communication and migration. This is an attempt to use art to tackle complicated subjects like globalisation but not in the way in which a museum exhibition would approach it by presenting the audience with a fixed viewpoint or solution. Instead, it maintains more of a sense of the intense, unresolvable forces that feed back into each other.

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