(29 pilgrims, 29 tales)
Interview with Sarah Wedderburn, for the Tate's newsletter
Bankside News 6 August 1999.
Sarah:First of all tell me a bit about yourselves and your background as artists?
Karen: We met at Edinburgh College of Art where we were both doing degrees. So we met about ten years ago. We had our first collaborative show in 1995 in Edinburgh, and since then we've done about three or four projects using video, the internet, performance, live art. We both studied in London to do Masters, so that's how we came to live in London, and we've been here more or less for about seven or eight years.
Sarah: Which college did you go to?
Karen: I went to the Royal College, and Nina went to Chelsea.
Sarah: That's interesting - does that mean you were collaborating but from different places?
Karen: Well no, we did that before we did our first collaboration.
Sarah: Do you work separately as well?
Nina: Yes, sometimes.
Sarah: Is the form of this piece close to what you would perhaps think about doing at other times?
Nina: Probably the strongest link is to one of our first pieces which is called A Hypertext Journal, where we followed the route that Boswell and Johnson took on their journey to the Western Isles. We made a daily travelogue on the internet, and it was looking at how visual artists might use the media of the web as a site for production, rather than just as a place to display work. So that's a project that probably most obviously links to this.
Sarah: How did you link up to the Tate for this project?
Karen: We were approached to apply with a handful of other artists, so we put a very brief proposal together.
Sarah: And was it based on Chaucer?
Nina: The proposal - yes. That was the initial spark.
Karen: It has evolved quite a lot from the original proposal. For example, Canterbury is no longer such an important destination as it was at the beginning.
Sarah: It's more people's personal journeys...
Sarah: Well it's interesting that you've had two literary sources, with Boswell and Chaucer.
Karen: Yes, well we're quite interested in history, and I suppose looking at how technology maybe alters what our experience of history could be - yes, how it mediates ideas about history and experiences of history.
Sarah: How do you think it does?
Nina: Well, with Boswell and Johnson we were interested in thinking about what would be a contemporary version of a travelogue, and how that might extend out.
Karen: A travelogue in a literary form is a linear trajectory with a beginning and an end, which is the antithesis of hypertext or hypermedia on the internet.
Sarah: What does that term mean?
Karen: Hypertext means a non-hierarchical, non-linear assemblage of information. The web is a hypertext environment, so there is no hierarchy there. You can move very freely...
Sarah: ...sideways and up and down...
Karen: Yes, through groups of information which may or may not be related to the origin of your point of entry into that system, which is your web link.
Nina: So, quite literally, it describes the words that you might click on which would link you to another document; so nothing becomes a straight reading - you are able to leap out and go to other related material.
Sarah: So, for example, you might be following the trajectory of Boswell and Johnson, but people might be able to make links right across the journey via the net.
Nina: People were invited to send us suggestions as to what we could do on our journey, and we followed up suggestions that people gave us...
Karen: So we were quite literally beholden to the audience in that piece. We did actually do a lot of what they asked us to do through their E-mail requests.
Sarah: Were you on foot?
Nina:No, were driving. We had a car.
Sarah: And in terms of conventional exhibiting, how did that one resolve?
Nina: That piece existed purely on the internet, and as almost like a month-long performance when we were actually travelling, so we made a very conscious effort to talk to people as we were on the go and to show them the website and describe what were doing. So it's a mixture of live art and an internet document, but which was evolving as we went along.
Karen: At the time it had a lot of coverage because of its relationship to journalism and evolving hypermedia journalism, and also through television and how it links to the internet, and the potential for interactivity. But for us it was an experiment, because it was such a radical change from our own practice because we were used to galleries before and video pieces, using new media but not in that interactive way. And this extends that research into how it changes our practice as artists who allow your audience to control your work to that degree.
Sarah: Can I just go back a step? Allowing the audience to change the contents of you work, what actually exists in terms of the work. Is there a visual element to it?
Nina: Hypertext Journal is a big kind of sprawling website which has some visual parts to it - photographs, perhaps, that we took on the way, or little animations that we made, or grabs from video. But it also has little sound excerpts from it, so interviews that we did with people.
Karen: Text, also.
Nina: There were pages that were done specifically for individuals. So we traced somebody's family for them, and it has images that we put up for them. But it also has something akin to a diary that we wrote each day. So it's quite a mixture of things which are all linked and meshed together, with links back from the end to the start and out to other places.
Karen: So very few people would ever have the same experience. In a sense, the metaphor of the journey through that site, as well, exists in that very few people will have the same experience moving through that site because it is so vast. It's not organised as you might organise a commercial site. And also, because of things like the very intimate relationship we gained with very few people, there were lots of surprising things that occurred. When people talk about the internet, and World Wide Web, and global information culture, they don't really realise that in an instance like this, what really mattered was the handful of people who got very involved by the project and were very moved by it. So there were these very intimate points of contact with the audience which is something in common with this project as well, in that you try and create a forum of people to do something quite intimate within something which actually, on the surface of it, is the inverse of that.
Sarah: Is the website still in existence?
Karen: Yes, but it's unchanged. It wasn't archived. It was left, and is and will be the piece for ever.
Sarah: OK, so I'm going to ask you a kind of boring question. As artists, who are existing in a commercial environment, how does that work for you? How can you exploit it?
Nina: We don't fund our work in that way. We fund our work through grants, so we pre-fund the work in effect. So, as with this project, we'd put in an application or a suggestion and people would decide to fund it as an event. So we don't operate in that environment.
Sarah: And there are no multiples, or anything like that.
Karen: It's not really something we've had to deviate from them. I guess there's the potential to do that.
Nina: It's just a different way of approaching having to fund work.
Sarah: I can identify with what you are doing, particularly at this moment, because as a recent discoverer of the internet I'm tracking someone who's walking the Appalachian Trail, an East End Jew who has recently become an Israeli and is on a journey of personal discovery. He has a little machine which he can attach to the mouthpiece of a public telephone and it just disseminates his messages.
Nina: Technology has come on quite a lot since we did ours. Ours was one of the first journeys of that kind, but since then it's almost become a kind of accepted genre on the web, so a lot of people follow different journeys. It's quite interesting that you're following somebody's journey. But you can see what we mean about the intimacy of it maybe.
Sarah: Absolutely, because he was in Washington looking for good music, and I sent a message through about having found Muddy Waters jamming in a basement one day in 1975 and I wrote a piece about this, and it went to everybody, because he sent it on! I'm very aware of those extremely interesting tensions between the personal and the universal.
Nina: And that's something we really hope will come out with this piece as well. Obviously for the 29 pilgrims it's going to be quite an intense personal thing for them, because that's going to be broadcast. As you say, it's looking at the tensions between those things, between your story going out to one person and then suddenly going out further than that.
Sarah: Have you got 29 pilgrims now?
Nina: No, but we will have! The auditions are next Friday and Saturday, so we won't have a list till after that....
Sarah: OK, so that gives me the back round to the project. Now can you tell me about it directly, and about Chaucer and how he came in.
Nina: Well, the initial inspiration for it came from just reading in the brochure prepared by the Trustees of Borough Market that the original pilgrims started from Southwark, and I guess because of our Boswell and Johnson project we thought that was something we should look into.
Karen: It has a kind of anecdotal infamy which is quite useful.
Sarah: Yes. I've gone through forty years of 'knowing' it, having studied it at university and so forth, but never till I opened it the other day has it struck me just how fresh and funny it is. It's quite hard to access in a way.
Nina: There are other interesting crossovers in that obviously that's a work of fiction, whereas we're actually going to get the pilgrims to go on this journey, and it kind of reflects what we were saying before about our audience being involved in the piece, so in a way, whilst we can be seen as the authors and the artists who are producing the work, it's very much dependant on each person doing their bit of it and being very creative about it. So it looks at how a piece of art work no longer relies necessarily on one person being the creator.
Sarah: You're almost like co-ordinators, puppeteers without strings.
Karen: We will work with the pilgrims to make their pilgrimages successful; and not just in a practical way - we'll help them to realise things that they intend to have in the piece. Hopefully there is that element of genuine collaboration; and it doesn't come over as if we're trying to mould them.
Sarah: How does it work financially for the pilgrims?
Karen: They get their interview expenses and their travel expenses, so it doesn't cost them anything.
Sarah: What about interaction between the pilgrims? Is there any, or is each isolated and referring back to the audience in Borough Market?
Karen: Well, there's a possibility that some pilgrims will go together, so there'll be some small groups of pilgrims. They might be families or groups of friends. Then obviously there'll be a dynamic there between them, even if they only produce one tale, between five of them.
Sarah: And they would count as one?
Nina: No they'd count as five pilgrims...
Karen: They'd be five pilgrims, but they might only produce one tale.
Nina: So, as in Chaucer, there are a few people that you don't get to read a tale by, but you know that they travelled with the group.
Karen: But on the evening before the day event they will meet for a drink in the evening, and at the end of day event, in the evening, when we have this feast in Borough Market, they will obviously have a chance to discuss what they've done.
Sarah: And will you record that discussion?
Karen: Yes, that will be recorded, although at the moment we're not intending to broadcast that social event in the evening fully. Because it's a kind of an intimate reward for those pilgrims that have made the pilgrimage.
Sarah: And are you able to give me any indication of the sorts of journeys that people are planning to make?
Nina: We can give you some examples of ones that have come in that we like. But we wouldn't want to include one that doesn't end up happening.
Sarah: Perhaps then I could just have some examples, and I'll refer generally.
Karen: Well, somebody wants to go round the M25. Somebody wants to spend the day in a prison. Somebody wants to go to a part of France which is reputed to have the body of Jesus buried there.
Nina: Somebody wants to go to a hypermarket in France.
Karen: At the moment there are quite a few local ones.
Nina: A few people wanted to go and visit the place they were born. Somebody wants to visit a famous footballer. So there's quite a mixture of different interpretations, which is nice.
Sarah: And could you tell me a little bit about the structure of the event and how it's going to work?
Karen: Well, on the evening before we'll meet for the first time, and that will be just an intimate get-together. And over that night, the whole thing will have to be set up in Borough Market. There will basically be two wings: one side of the market will have the appearance of a live TV studio, of a large conference-style event, with a big screen, smaller monitors, a filming area, cameras, all the usual ephemera. Then the other side will have the place where the feast will be prepared for the pilgrims when they return. So there'll be a cook there, and all the equipment for that, and a table and place settings and lighting, and that will go on during the day all the time while we're in the broadcast studio.
Nina: So each pilgrim knows what their time-slot is, and they have to make sure that they're available at that time to broadcast their tales, and it might even be that they're trying to get to their destination at that time, so they can say, 'Well, I've just arrived, and I'm going to tell my tale from...'
Karen: In Borough Market there will be a lot of this coming up on the big screen. There will also be graphics which explain where geographically the pilgrims are, so there'll be TV graphics and a lot of different kind of mixing going on - live mixing and also mixing of the pre-recorded footage. And this will all be visible to the audience - the audience who come to Borough Market will move around that and watch it happening. And Nina and I in that instance are the kind of hosts for it, in that we will introduce things on the TV channel, as it were, which is the broadcast on the web.
Nina: So all of this is then being fed into a work station and is being streamed out onto the net, so you'll be able to watch the day's events as a webcast. Are you familiar with that as a technology? It's basically a way to watch video on the web, live. The website itself will be a mixture of things that we've already put up, things that we choose to upload - so some people may have given us a transcript of their tale beforehand, for example. So as they tell their tale, we'll upload their transcript, and then an audio stream will go out of them telling their tale. So for people who don't come to the market, they'll be able to see the day's event unfolding on the web. And then that site, after the day, will become an archive where all the tales and all the imagery from the day is collected.
Karen: But I suppose unlike a TV programme of the event, you will be able to see on the webcast a long shot of the entire event happening, so it's like a transparency of the event being made. You'll be able to see the studio in Borough Market as a whole, you'll be able to see the edges of the set, the cooking going on on the other side and the preparations for that. So it's almost like a transparent TV broadcast.
Sarah: Will you have concentration on different elements in the market as well,so you'll be able to go in and look closely?
Nina: Yes, and that's what we'll be doing as the hosts, you see. So we'll say, OK, we've got a ten-minute gap now before the next pilgrim comes in, so we're going over to look at how they're getting on preparing for the evening. Or someone's come in who we've met through our research - perhaps you've come into the market, and we say, right we're going to talk about Bankside News and how this is related to it. So we'll haul people in spontaneously as we go through the day, and in a way that again refers back to the original, in that they had a host who travelled with them and came up with the idea of them telling tales...
Sarah: And gave them a fantastic meal!
Nina: So that we become a sort of cross between the Host and Chaucer, potentially.
Karen: Around 7.30, all the pilgrims should return, and have their feast in the evening. And at that point we think the broadcast, or webcast, will stop. We're looking at ways that we might allow people to be part of that feast, because we haven't quite decided in our own minds whether we want that to be a public spectacle.
Sarah: The feast will be prepared by somebody local?
Karen: It will be prepared by St John's in Clerkenwell, the restaurant...
Nina: ...really because of what they were trying to do with British food, which is a parallel with what we're trying to do by coming up with a modern day equivalent of something that has traditional associations.
Karen: And they want to cook the food in Borough Market, so it doesn't just kind of arrive on a trolley. It will be cooked very visibly on a kind of big grill.
Sarah: Just going back to the paradox between the very intimate, the personal enthusiasm, and the universal, what do you think the psychology of this is; how does this change the way people react and interact, using this technology for a work of art?
Nina: I think it comes down to it being a personal experience. The thing you were describing, about your interaction with this person who's travelling - I mean I don't know whether he would actually call that a work of art -
Nina: In our case we were producing it as artists, that was our intention; and people were able to have a kind of intensity of experience with that which is possible to have in a gallery situation, but in a way it would be a more remote experience, because you would never be engaging with the artist directly. Do you see what I mean?
Sarah: Absolutely. But there's something else, isn't there, about a sort of leeching of psyches into each other.
Nina: Yes, there's a kind of shifting of choices that enables that interaction, and is not to do with geographical position or happening to be able to go to a certain gallery. Because those people who linked to us very directly for The Hypertext Journal, did so through a quite tangential series of coincidences. It came together in that they had a very personal connection to that journey already, so for example, one person's family name was already mentioned in Boswell and Johnson, and there was a sort of knock-on effect once we'd connected.
Sarah: How did he make the link?
Nina: Through an accidental email which was sent out under my name, which I didn't know about. So the whole thing started as a big accident, but slowly fused together as this very intense, personal experience.
Karen: And he was acting eventually as a sort of go-between between his mother, between what she could remember of her heritage, and us. And she wasn't on the internet, but he would phone her up and say, look, they're in somewhere or other, do you want them to go and look for something... And she would say, oh yes, I remember so and so. And he would type it to us on the email, and we'd go and make this research for him.
Nina: But that's a combination not just of the fact that we use technology, but also of trying to leave our process open, and to also to reveal our process at the stage of production to the audience. So it's a combination of using technology to do that but also being open to those chance things, and being able then to be channelled forward into a kind of meaningful relationship.
Karen: Also, because we work collaboratively, and are not just one artist, it's kind of important to us that there's a deconstruction of the 'artist-as-genius' myth, which is not really part of our practice. It's not about a grand answer which we are imposing on a piece of work; they're very much questioning pieces of work which are open-ended, and whose conclusion always surprises us as well. That's what's important about the practice that we've developed - that each piece brings up something new which we didn't anticipate, through being as open and transparent as possible.
Sarah: Politically it's interesting. People talk a lot about the dangers of the web, perhaps to the exclusion of this community of human beings that it's also suggesting.
Nina: It did start very optimistic. There was a careful etiquette in how people used it. It was very controlled in the beginning. I think that's broken down now to a certain extent because there are so many people using it. It's a more unwieldy thing to get your head around now. When we first did that journey project, there was still very much an optimistic feel to that kind of communication.
Karen: Yes, and perhaps there was less categorisation on the web, in that you were very likely to find our site through using search engines at that time by just typing in the word 'Scotland'. Our site would have come up around the first twenty. Which is incredible now! If you typed in the word 'Scotland' now you would get literally millions of sites before you got to a site by a couple of artists. But at that time, everything was in a mixed bag. So it was very interesting that people could arrive at your site genuinely thinking it was a tourist site, or anything. It could fit into any format.
Nina: Karen did a search on salmonella, completely unrelated, one day, and one of our pages came up where she'd made a joke about salmonella in a diary page, from that project. That kind of chance was lovely.
Karen: Because our site has been up there for so long now, comparatively, it's very entrenched in the search engines. Because there are these freakish instances where it still appears, very high up on the search engines.
Sarah: What routes might people reach this by? Tate?
Nina: Yes, Tate website, and also there's a growing interest in webcasting as a technology which in a way parallels what we were doing then, in that it's still quite new. It's still very unclear what the content for that will be, so this is quite an experimental project.
Karen: Because it's very common to watch webcasting in America where your internet access is free. So you have it on in the corner, like a television programme. Whereas in this country it's not free at the moment. But there's a lot of interest in it as open access broadcast.
Nina: And obviously because we've been working on the web quite a long time our domain has lots of different projects on it, and it's quite well known within the community of web artists. So some people would come and find this as part of that world.
Sarah: And will webby people who aren't into art be interested in it as part of webcasting?
Nina: Oh yes, definitely. And also people who are not interested in art but have always kept in touch with us from other projects, just via being related to technology.
Sarah: How did you get interested in technology?
Karen: Well, we used computers in a conventional art school way, when we were in London - not when we were in Edinburgh, but latterly. We both studied printmaking, so we used to use computers to generate images, and from that came an interest in using them in a more conceptual or integrated sense for the production of our work, and that made us review the whole place that technology has in our practice.
Sarah: Yes... You can't really get more conceptual than something that's in the air like that, can you?
Karen: But I think in some ways we have got a peculiar place within both technology art, if there is such a category, and fine art more generally. Because I think you will find that there is a great clique of web art, as it's known, which is a very activism-led, hacker-led enclave, which we definitely wouldn't fit into, because there's lots of tradition in the work that we do. It's an age-old thing to revisit history or to revisit the idea of the journey. These are ancient themes in art. So in that sense, we don't fit into a very straightforward cyber-chick mode. People have quite often tried to shoehorn us in there, and it doesn't really work. That's not what really matters to us.
Nina: Spangly silver tops not us!
Sarah: You don't work with a gallery at all?