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An Artist's Impression

Essay - An Artist's Impression


This text is published in the book The Visual Narrative Matrix (Ed. G Coulter-Smith, published by the Southampton Insititute, 2000, ISBN 1-874011-09-5)

Intro

One hot afternoon in August, I was typing away at some admin. on my computer when a peculiar sensation came over me - the kind one used to hear described as having someone walk over your grave. Oddly, I had no doubt as to my response to the sensation - I experienced an overwhelming desire to log on to our MUSH, Island. It was around 4 p.m., and our next regular slot on-line was not until 6. We'd planned our studio days like this in order to encourage new players - and that was just about everyone on our MUSH - to come on-line when we were, in order that we could guide and help them around. Word was getting around of these slots, but it was still very early days for Island then, and one would rarely meet anyone on one's solitary walk along the Village Green or Promenade. So, I rather surreptitiously opened up my Telnet window and immediately connected. As usual, I found myself on the Promenade - the so-called 'home' I had built and set for myself on the MUSH. I immediately typed in the 'who' command, expecting to be alone for this irregular visit. I was shocked to find a player, Barney, who had been logged on for only 3 seconds longer than me, and was innocently strolling along the Promenade towards me.

Rather than dwell on the origins of this incident as some kind of on-line psychic synchronicity or whatever, we want to use it rather to introduce the most resonant layer of An Artists Impression (AAI) for us - what, after writers such as Iain Sinclair, could be termed its 'psycho-geography' . This constitutes the underlying structure of the work - the necessary virtual topography on which to encode the MUSH - and, for us, the emotional content of the project.

Island's early stages

Soon after we conceived AAI, both the MUSH and the gallery installation became sites which would embody our pasts, specifically in the form of representations of places familiar to us. In the MUSH, the limitless void with which the software provided us was 'mapped' using textual descriptions drawn form our memories. In my case, I tentatively began to trawl my adolescence in a seaside town for a geography I could encode as a skeleton for the MUSH, in Nina's she began to build from her childhood in rural Cambridgeshire. In hindsight, the rationale in terms of our work's development, seems clear - but at the time, we can remember the palpable emptiness after deciding to run our own MUSH - what on earth would we put in there? There can't be many gods - and that is the MUSH terminology by which you are known if you run one - so tentative in their omnipotence as we initially were.

Gradually, however, our interlinked memory maps were encoded - a time when the often overwhelming scale of the project became apparent, as we struggled with learning MUSH code from scratch and with the parallel literary and expressive difficulties of describing these sites as we remembered them, yet in a way which would enable MUSH navigation by players.

Nina worked on several homes she had lived in, a Village Green, and a new housing development, while I described and coded a windswept promenade; the childhood home my parents sold some years ago; and a pier on which MUSH players could arrive: Somehow we knew our MUSH must be an island - it must have edges, parameters, a sense of arrival from afar.

Between these two settlements we decided on a long, long walk, punctuated with a high mountain range and loch. The void of the empty virtual space began to fill up, but with a geography which had never before existed, created as ours was, from places both glimpsed and inhabited, from disparate times, sited in disparate relation to one another: A home that no longer was my family's, but which I could still - and forever - experience, described, as it is in our MUSH, exactly as I remember it; a landscape or a certain view preserved in memory, uneroded by the passing of real time.

Just as our memories of these places are not 2 dimensional or simply pictorial, nor are their virtual reincarnations on Island. As the player moves through the MUSH's 'rooms' (the technical term for an interlinked MUSH space be it interior or exterior), their computer window displays an ever-changing scroll of text - a house has as many rooms as its author or encoder describes, and it can be furnished with objects which any player can see and even handle or use. Using verbs like these to describe this purely text-based interaction - essentially that between keyboard typing and MUSH code - may seem , from outside MUSH culture, preposterous - but the physicality of the MUSH experience is vivid, and is often what first-time players remark on first.

Lynn MacRitchie, reviewing our MUSH in the Financial Times recently, said of it: 'I have one of those rare moments when perception shifts. I realise I have entered a non-existent but nonetheless very real space, and I am not alone. The sense of moving around in a shared imaginative experience is so powerful that it becomes physical"

This sensation, rather than fading as one becomes a seasoned MUSH player, actually becomes heightened with MUSH fluency in our experience, accounting, we suppose, for the huge popularity of MUSHES themed along the lines of sci-fi, sexual encounters or war games, but also rendering the most simple MUSH interactions compelling. In particular, we would cite a conversation in a Pet Shop built on Island, between the owner and a visitor: The shop's code was comparatively advanced, with various quirky objects for sale, but rather than chatting about these virtual pets, the visitor looked upwards and began a conversation about the non-existent, uncoded ceiling repair he felt the shop needed. Without pausing, the shopkeeper responded with an explanation, and the DIY repartee that followed would not have been out of place in B & Q on a Sunday morning. This may seem a banal and trivial incident, but it's typical of the consensual imaginative space constantly recreated and sustained by MUSH players.

We recently held a Car Boot Sale on Island - our motivations were both social and technical - and there was a tangible urgency towards its end, as people struggled to sell off the last items from their stalls, or buy the final few burgers from the food stall.

During the first exhibition of AAI at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, anonymous new visitors would often log-on to Island, and Nina or I, logged on all day, would travel over to welcome them at the Pier. On occasion, they would, probably for reasons of inexperience, simply panic - unable to move or speak - and log off. A few such snubs in an afternoon could really take their toll, and left one feeling like a child exiled from a playground game.

And so to return to the synchronous encounter on my MUSH promenade with Barney: It was a sensation -that of the previously private, hermetic and precious space of memory which I had mapped in our MUSH - being affected by the presence and interaction of an uninvited other, that was so uncanny. For all I knew, Barney had been there many times alone, but on that occasion it felt as if we had collided, as if some freak psychic glitch had tricked us into sharing something that was hitherto only mine.

Artistic Background

Perhaps oddly for a collaborative partnership, much of our past work has utilised auto-biographical modes of enquiry and representation, and perhaps even more relevant to this piece, has reconstructed memory in some sense. The performance and video work Homespun (1997) saw us revisiting past places and rituals, for example: For a week, we both returned to our childhood homes to record two daily video works, which were exchanged every day via the post, spliced together and broadcast simultaneously in two galleries close to our homes. Each video was both performative and documentary - the daily rituals to be filmed - for example a story telling session with our mothers and nieces, or a rural walk - were agreed upon before-hand between ourselves, but the urgency of the gallery broadcasts necessitated that we worked with only one 'take' for each film and that it remained unedited. Nor did we see what each other would film - how the other would interpret our verbally-described scenarios - until receiving our daily video package from the other end of the country. This work, like Island, also revisited our pasts from the present tense: As adults playing our younger selves, we placed ourselves in scenarios familiar from anyone's childhood or adolescence, acting or re-enacting them. But those around us - our families, and the locations around us, the houses, fields and beaches were not playacting, had aged and changed. As in AAI, fiction and memory, public and private, past and present coexist within the work

The web site we made to accompany this work, and which was updated every day, contained a series of lengthy transcribed interviews with our families on subjects that were at the heart of Homespun. Conversations ranged from domestic - the banality of misremembered bathroom suites or carpets, to romantic memories of wedding days. Now, with the rise of the docu-soaps attention to the minutiae of the everyday, this site doesn't seem as relentless as it did then, but in hindsight , it's inclusion of unedited, ordinarily private texts, its intimate collaboration with others, its acknowledgement of the mundane all seem somewhat like precursors to Island.

Collaboration / Audience

We'd like to now talk in more detail about collaboration, which, as well as providing the foundations for AAI, has underpinned our practice for some time. Obviously, as a partnership we work collaboratively, and have for nearly 5 years. Whether the discipline and dynamic of this has shaped us so decisively that it has influenced our choosing repeatedly to collaborate with yet more people, or whether in fact our ideas simply demand to be collaborative, we don't know.

Projects such as Homespun, and A Hypertext Journal, our live on-line travelogue from 1996, rested on the collaboration of small numbers of people who either were, or became via the project, closely involved. It is this intimacy that is central in fact to our belief in the use of technology, and in particular the Web, as a space for art. Each one of these collaborators not only contributes to the content of the piece, but becomes what we could call our 'primary' audience, a group for and to whom the piece of work speaks intimately.

In 1999, both our main projects -/broadcast/ for the Tate Modern - a live event and webcast of 29 pilgrim's tales, and An Artists Impression have involved creative collaboration with a huge number of individuals. From a technical point of view, Island was only possible with the generous input of Alan Schwartz, an American programmer we met on-line, and who eventually visited London to help us programme some of the most complex features of the MUSH. But we'd like to concentrate more here on the collaborative cultures from which Artists Impression evolved, and how this notion relates to both us as artist/producers and to our idea of audience.

Way back at the inception of AAI with a small web site commission for the BBC in 1997, we began researching MUSH culture, spending a lot of time in some of the most established. Most are based in North America, despite the genre being actually invented in the UK, and several have many thousand players on-line at any one time. We, as visual artists, were primarily motivated by a desire to understand exactly why people were so compelled by this most impoverished interface. How could a scroll of often hackneyed-sounding text on a screen account for this? Could this space, or this experience, be visualised, and if so how? How were players experiencing their own narrative in the space?

MUSH culture

We spent some time interviewing seasoned MUSH players about their habits, soon realising that MUSHES, though often used and run by professionals from the computer industry, were equally frequented by schoolchildren, Texan housewives and Californian gym instructors. Every player, with their MUSH persona or personas, had to learn MUSH code from scratch (it bears little resemblance to other computing languages) - essentially MUSH was an amateur, self-taught culture where the only currency that mattered was skill, and how this could contribute to the experience of the MUSH for everyone. This initiated a quandary for us: Not only was the project embedded in a text-based interface - fundamentally a challenge to our visual sensibilities - but how would we or could we generate art with relevance to this very particular MUSH culture, but which did not simply appropriate or satirise it?

The situation was made more difficult by our research revealing the increasingly bizarre motivations, personas and habits of some of the MUSH players with whom we communicated. Without going down the path of judging how these players rich fantasy lives interfaced with their various realities, it was, for a period, difficult to focus on our own interest in MUSH culture when what we called 'the dark underbelly of the Web' was revealing itself all around us.

Our first attempts at MUSH playing were fraught with the embarrassing silences, strings of typos and navigational blunders familiar to anyone who has ever attempted it - our familiarity with computers, and fluency in programming languages such as HTML seemed to account for nothing - though perhaps we should also stress here that neither of us have ever been computer-game players either. Furthermore, our early attempts to increase our navigational awareness of some of the MUSHes we were playing by mapping and drawing the spaces, revealed only that most of these spaces were topographically impossible- and that it's also very difficult to draw and use a keyboard at the same time. In short, we were very low in the pecking order of these spaces, what we previously had considered our skills were disabled or irrelevant - we were amateurs, with a steep learning curve ahead of us.

MUSH culture also enjoys some of the other hallmarks typical of a self-taught, intrinsically collaborative culture. For example, knowledge and skill is generously shared between more experienced players and beginners as we were then.

At this stage, we realised it would be very easy to create a piece which, from outside the culture, poked fun at this archaic, fantasy-filled corner of the Web, affirming many of the stereotypes widely held about the sad, socially-dysfunctional people involved. After all, we could probably bring the piece across into an 'art' culture, to people who very probably had never and would never experience a MUSH firsthand. Yet our interest in the workings of MUSH culture - its generosity, its currency being a skill we would need to work hard to acquire, the still-elusive reason behind how it engaged the imagination - guided us to realising we wanted instead to create our own MUSH, one which existed on the same playing field as all the others, which could evolve as any other. More importantly, our players could become the 'primary audience' we have prioritised in other projects, generating and affecting content within the work and thus intimately engaging with it.

We also decided it would be a MUSH where players would be encouraged to build : Many themed MUSHES disable this function in order to concentrate on role-playing and gaming - and that, beyond the settlements we initially built, there would be very little restriction on this building. At this early stage, we genuinely had no idea how Island and its community might evolve, and our decisions were based as much on idealism as naivete. What also excited us was the very real possibility of producing a MUSH where the players ( who we considered our audience) possessed creative (i.e. coding) skills which outstripped our own as artists or makers. Previous work we have made, such as the on-line travelogue A Hypertext Journal, clearly shares this tendency to try to question the status of both artist and audience within the generation of meaning.

Gallery Installation

Concentrating here on the MUSH, it's easy to play down the role of the gallery installation of AAI, which evolved in tandem with the MUSH, each informing the other. As we said before of our early interest in existing MUSHes, the visualisation of these spaces repeatedly confounded and eluded us. Looking back, we can see our need to use a physical, analogue mediation of an ephemeral, virtual experience in past work. Despite our long-established web site, we have often struggled with our work being represented only virtually, and have repeatedly tried to somehow articulate experience mediated by technology or the lens, in installations.

Our video and digital work has always located itself in an often documentary realism, hopefully rendering it capable of an intimate relationship alongside its paradoxically global affinities with t.v and the web. The transparency of the processes of making within our past work has also lead to an almost performative element to any making we undertake, evidenced in the first exhibition of AAI at the I.C.A, by our hobby-like work shops where we worked all day.

A physical visualisation of Island was certain at the project's start. What was problematic for us to resolve was how this interpretation would be. Clearly there was a central problem in how we would physically represent the almost constant changes we hoped would be occurring in the MUSH as players built - but this tension between restraints of time and human capability versus the seemingly limitless possibilities of technology, has always compelled us. In Homespun, the work mentioned earlier, it was just this which gave the piece much of its impact, as the daily, urgent production of the video and web components eliminated opportunities for revision. It became clear that , in An Artists¹ Impression, we would need a resolution where this urgency, the sense of a limitless task, could be embedded in its process of realisation. A further question we set ourselves here was how we could realise what would inevitably be our subjective interpretations of textual descriptions from the MUSH. Unsure of how players would build, we became very conscious of the notion of interpretation through craft or skill - something we had previously- perhaps unconsciously - avoided in earlier works. Such a basis for practice could ,of course, be seen as particularly problematic in a collaborative partnership, and , when scrutinised, our past work has been constrained by us to eliminate awareness of such subjective interpretations.

Now, the project¹s virtual and physical manifestations seem so appropriately paired that it is difficult to remember the struggle to find this match. It was eventually with the consideration of the currency of craft within MUSH culture that we began to look at possibilities of realising our model using the aesthetic and skills normally associated with model railways.

Very rapidly, we located other parallels too: the potentially limitless development of our MUSH echoing the long-term building projects of model railway layouts (the principal layout of the Kings Cross Model Railway Club, who we subsequently made contact with, has been in progress for over 20 years); the amateur enthusiasm motivating both model and MUSH cultures; the acquisition of skills through personal contact being of primary importance in both cultures (albeit via on-line relationships in MUSH); even the status of both as somewhat archaic and arguably obsolete traditions. (MUSHes have looked the same since they were invented 20 years ago, and require low-end technology - similarly railway modelling inhabits a cultural timewarp.) Added to all this was the importance of our status - or lack of it - as newcomers to both cultures. As with our learning MUSH code, we would need to acquire the skills necessary to build our model, on an equal footing as anyone else.

Returning to our earlier points regarding collaboration, it was very important to us that we could make the piece from within and in a sense for this culture, and through visiting model railway clubs and fairs, and making contact with enthusiasts we began to realise our model.

Throughout the exhibition at the I.C.A, the process of making continued in public alongside the MUSH activity, with gallery visitors witnessing the models¹ daily development. Many had no idea of the on-line activity generating these changes - there were no on-line computers available for public access - but this audience was augmented by the other groups & individuals we had nurtured, whose status was not as passive gallery goers - They included the on-line MUSH community (many of whom were not aware or interested in the model) including our co-programmer Alan Schwartz who used our MUSH to develop complex interactive coded objects, and the railway modellers, who even took part in an I.C.A gallery talk. The fact that both the MUSH and model railway cultures we collaborated with are both overwhelmingly masculine is not being ignored by us here- its just that it would probably take another hour to discuss this alone!

Feedback

Our daily presence in the I.C.A gallery enabled us to witness how the project was functioning on many levels. For example, we had initially worried over the possibility of becoming irrevocably behind in our modelmaking, with on-line building escalating unmanageably. But instead, what began to evolve was a self-regulating system whereby, because of the time which a player needed to invest to build on-line (and many our players were newcomers), the MUSHes evolution was luckily at an uncannily similar pace to our modelling skills.

Temporary on-line events such as the Car Boot Sale cited earlier clearly could not be modelled in the gallery, and though the inevitable slippage in interpreting the on-line activity was one of the exciting and unpredictable aspects of the making process, we wondered about this loss - the hundreds of narratives being constructed and experienced by individual players that were eluding us; the many visitors who did not return and didn't leave a trace in the form of a building. In the I.C.A though, we began to witness how the model functioned as a trigger for narrative trajectories among gallery visitors, that in many ways compensated us for those inevitably lost on-line. For example, on viewing the model's car park - the site of the Car Boot sale - we overheard many visitors invent and share commentaries on what had happened there or could. This collective imaginary space seemingly created by the model extended to archetypal associations with landscape also, with many visitors clearly relating to it as a utopian vision.

In fact, this utopian idealism was generated equally by the on-line space, where, despite almost absolute freedom, players built tentatively and with a respect to the existing features we had not expected. Hence, most building occurred in the town, with a knitting shop and a pet shop to complete the wholesome seaside resort I had begun. Gallery visitors would frequently ask us if we had eradicated or not realised on-line contributions of which we dis approved, unable to believe that the model before them truly mirrored the on-line building. "Where was the airport, the helipad? they'd ask - 'That¹s what I'd build!" Not realising - or believing - that the dynamic of our MUSH community was not one of subversion or megalomania, but one of almost quaint conformity.

It may be relevant here to also mention that the names we gave the components in our MUSH from the outset, were generic. For example - the Promenade, the Bake House, the Main Street , the Pier. Initially this seemed like an accidental decision, but we wonder now if this contributed to the somewhat conservative evolution of Island. Did our refusal to actually name these ordinary places that were drawn from a specific geography only relevant to us, enable MUSH players to locate Island as an archetypal utopia in their imaginations, rather than an ordinary place The one stoke of subversion generated by the project so far, came on the last day of the I.C.A exhibition, in the form of an email from the self-styled IAT or Islanders Against Tourism:

Dear Sirs, Please find enclosed email received by me in error, I presume this most worrying document is meant for you, however I have taken the liberty of sending a copy to news agencies. Anon. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- To whom it may concern, We, Islanders Against Tourism (IAT) declare our intention to disrupt governmental and other organisations determined to destroy our island in the name of progress - ecological and cultural destruction thinly disguised as economic progress and tourism. Though some may find our measures extreme, we believe they are necessary to ensure the continued health of our community, free from the extreme ravages of tourism and structured economic development, often to the cost of the indigenous population (abilty to afford housing etc). Current and planned developments are, we believe, having dramatic and irrevesible effects on our environment. This must stop and we intend to ensure your compliance.

Therefore take note that we shall immediately begin covert action with the intent to undermine the image of a 'cosy community' that you are presenting in an attempt to attract visitors to our island, whilst removing or destroying structure servicing this 'progressive' activity. We provide this warning purely to save the costs of lives, and remind you that the resposibility for ensuring the well being of the population remains securely in your hands. Current targets, which will be addressed at random in the near future: New Rail Development This monstrous wound, severing virtually one side of the island, will be targetted continually until the developers re-construct the damage caused by this futile and worthless construction.

Specific Tourist Installations
We intend to take action against the caravan park, removing this bruise from the coastline of our island, a development, initaily only allowed by the corrupt activities of former town councilors, with undeclared relationships with the developers of this business. Toursit Dwellings Construction on the 2 holiday homes at the old quarry must be stopped and these structures pulled down. Failure to do so will result in these structures being demolished, with further action to be taken against other holiday homes on the island. IAT is committed to combatting activites intended to supply homes to foreigners whilst WE, the rigthtful occupants of this land are unable to afford land and homes. IAT will also be immediately commencing a campaign against vehicles with foreign number plates,

Visitors are requested not to leave valuable combustible items in their vehicles overnight. We demand that governmental bodies of our community consider our demands seriously whilst taking all necessary action to avoid injury and loss of life. IAT demands the immediate suspension of current commercal developments of our island, with the accompanying destruction to our environment, local culture and heritage.

IAT - via hacked email account

Whilst no further action has been taken by the IAT - and its leader has still not made themselves known to us - , it was a welcome example of what we hoped might eventually occur on Island -that is, the autonomous evolution of the MUSH community outwith our involvement. Just as hypermedia can distribute information without hierarchy, it can also dissolve temporal specificity. Our website Somewhere carries every project web site we've ever made, unedited and as accessible as when it was , in inverted commas, 'current'. In fact, A Hypertext Journal, from 1996 - despite its dated design - still sporadically generates email each Easter from inquisitive websurfers under the mistaken impression we are touring right now. Hypermedia can and does encapsulate content in an eternal 'now' - its archaeology only made visible by defunkt plugins or dead end hyperlinks.

Our intention is to leave our MUSH online indefinitely, and we would like to imagine it having the capacity to be forever populated by such groups as IAT -who might generate not only new building and environmental changes, but the microhistories of community activity which are common in more established MUSHes.

Perhaps, years after our model island has gathered a thick layer of dust in storage somewhere, I will once again have the sensation of someone walking over my grave as I sit working at my computer. And perhaps when I log-on to Island, I will find my Promenade unrecognisable, and Barney's descendants strolling along it.

Karen Guthrie, 2000