Interview between Susan Collins and Sean Cubitt

Originally interviewed for Fourth Door Review's green cultural review to be published in 2008

Susan Collins
Head, Slade Centre for Electronic Art
Slade School of Fine Art
University College London


Sean Cubitt
Professor of Media and Communication
Director, Program in Media and Communication
The University of Melbourne


October/November 2006

Sean: The Chinese seem to have come to landscape quite early - certainly by the time of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) when the idea of a private retreat from the troubled world, and of landscape as an aid to self-cultivation seem deeply entrenched. By contrast the Europeans seem to have been reluctant to enjoy landscape for itself.

Though there are works like the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry as early as 1412-16, according to the art historian Martin Warnke, the European tradition in landscape is marked by its politics – by allegories and historical associations that invariably overwrite the landscape as such with claims to patriotism, ownership, control or religious belief, a tendency which postcolonial writers also see in the exotic landscapes of early explorers, and ecologists see in wilderness photography. Which if any of these traditions most closely resembles what you are doing with Fenlandia/Glenlandia?

Susan: If asked where it comes from in terms of what it relates to historically then I do see Fenlandia and Glenlandia as coming out of a European Landscape tradition. In a sense the work is deliberately trading on convention – or rather the perceived convention – of how a Landscape image might be composed. However instead of historical allegories, the layers embedded and woven into this series are technological.

One layer is that of technology embedded seamlessly into the landscape. With Fenlandia the work is looking out and recording the minute changes in the view over a reclaimed land of sluices, ditches and drains. With Glenlandia the view is instead of Loch Faskally, a manmade loch that services a hydro dam in Pitlochry, the water levels in the loch rising and falling according to the demand for electricity.

A second layer is embedded into the construction of the images themselves: tight horizontal weaves of pixels with each second or moment in time – as represented by the pixel - moving inexorably forward continually overwriting the image of the previous day with the broad black band of nighttime interrupting what at first appears to be a very familiar landscape view. A further layer is that of the remote viewer, with the piece most often experienced at a distance and mediated by a screen - the frame.

Another aspect of the work is that of endurance, scrutiny and repetition. The calendar structure of the work does relate to much earlier works such as the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry or Bruegel's paintings of the seasons, however whilst these works foregrounded the customs, labour or agriculture of the time, in Fenlandia/Glenlandia people and animals are depicted by stray pixels, often present but abstracted by the process itself. What becomes visible instead are slight fluctuations and variations in light and movement and the enduring, underlying architecture of the landscape itself.

The images are saved at two hourly intervals leading to a collection of over four thousand archived images for each location over the course of a year. Working on these has for me rekindled a respect and interest in Monet, in particular works such as his haystacks and Houses of Parliament series exploring the effects of time on light and colour, and Cezanne whose Mont Saint Victoire landscapes explored the same subject repeatedly but without repetition.

Susan: Something that concerns me is the irony in a sense of working with technology (as I do) and yet still having concerns about the environment and issues of sustainability. It isn't something that I address directly in my work - though issues of the relationship between technology and landscape are clearly embedded in Fenlandia/Glenlandia (and the hydroelectric dam at Pitlochry is a major source of renewable energy known as 'power from the glens'). Whilst on the one hand increased connectivity to remote and distant places and landscapes via the Internet could lead to less need for actual travel there is no evidence that it has (if anything the opposite is said to be true) and even though there are possibilities for solar powered cameras

(I am exploring the possibility of using gprs solar powered IP cameras for future projects) this still is unlikely to offset the carbon emissions (not to say the non-recyclable waste of outdated products) generated in the manufacturing process itself. Thinking for instance of artist and musician Jem Finer's notion of a post-digital practice I wondered what your thoughts were on how to reconcile the profligacy of the ever new (technology/manufacturing) with the idea of a recyclable, sustainable future practice.

Sean: The bizarre thing about digital technology is that it returns us to the epoch of built-in obsolescence which otherwise we think of as the prerogative of the gas-guzzling 50s. Like electricity before it, digital media have been sold on the hygiene model - they appear clean, fast, modern, compared to the inky-fingered pre-digital. Yet digital media leave a bigger ecological footprint than photomechanical media, for example. A film camera has a longer life, uses fewer heavy metals in the consumable film strip, and there are well-established recycling projects for retrieving silver and other valuable metals from used film. Digital media on the other hand use stacks of heavy metals, and have a tendency to get thrown away, or sent for recycling in unregulated offshore sites which end up deep in toxins as a result. This without thinking of the environmental impact of manufacture. The famed 'immateriality' of digital media is mistaken: their environmental presence is extremely material. How exactly do we square this unpleasant truth with the lure of the digital? There used to be the argument that the digital economy would reduce the amount of face-to-face business, and therefore transport costs; but the digital era has coincided with a massive increase in air travel and general mobility, so the theory doesn't work. Even the theory of tele-cottaging as an environmentally friendly road is given the lie when you look at the comparative costs of heating a hundred-seat office or one hundred separate houses. To add to this, there's Paul Virilio's more sociological critique of 'grey ecology', the idea that we have polluted the foundational experience of distance by dragging the world to the size of a windshield, and framing its disembodied simulacra in the electronic windows of domestic interiors. Environmental accounting of digital media needs to include the costs of recycling heavy metals as well as the carbon costs of plastics and energy consumption, factors that even the environmental movement has trouble digesting. Part of Virilio's answer seems to be slow media - he talks about his passion for still lifes for example. In some ways the slowness of Fenlandia/Glenlandia is a response, at least to this problem of the grey ecology (grey because, Virilio says, speed erases colour): its slowness suggests that there may be other ways to appreciate the difficult, even tragic relationship we humans have with our environment. 

which leads me to my question . . . .

The prints you derive from Fenlandia/Glenlandia are artworks in themselves, still moments form a slow evolution of the image. Just how distinct are they from the pixel-by-pixel live version? It is hard to descry exactly where each new pixel arrives; and for most of the time, other than the brief moment when a pixel does come in, the image is actually still. In one way this suggests a disruption of the usual form of the interlaced scan of video imaging; one that makes the viewer aware of the temporality of the medium as much as the time of the landscape. On the other, its liveness, and the trace of liveness, suggests a much more realist kind of aesthetic, a proof of the presence of the camera in the landscape it records. And I do very much like that dialectical relationship between the self-conscious medium mediating, and the unselfconscious immediacy of the pixel in the moment it arrives, a spot of light with a one-to-one relationship with the world beyond the gallery. The prints though, lovely as they are, don't have this dialectic. Are they records of the record? Pure documentation of a process which is already a kind of documentation? Or are they in some way also articulated with the landscape - in this sense like echoes of Monet's series paintings?

Susan: So interesting your/Virilio’s concept of a grey ecology, as one of the things that gets revealed through this slow pixel by pixel process is colour – the black of nighttime made up of many blacks; pink or blue sunrises, with many kinds of yellows, orange, ochres and greens in between. There is a still from Fenlandia captured on January 1st 2005, a thin sliver of a steely grey day with a streak of pink (made up of many pinks) depicting the threshold of daybreak. Both versions, the live still and the still still have something distinct to offer. The colour, revealed by each individual pixel, seems to be evident to a greater degree in the prints. The large format ones exposing each individual pixel in the way only a projection or larger screen would be able to match, and the smaller ones concentrate the colour and when lined up together the prints seen sequentially give another sense of time, revealing all sorts of shifts and changes – from the thinning and widening band of nighttime throughout the year – to the full moon that Glenlandia has occasionally captured and which appears as if a white comet streaking through the night sky but is in fact the moon slipping through the image over time…

The live transmission by contrast focuses more on ‘the moment’ the ‘where is now’ - often mesmerising with its slowness and this concentration on following the one moving pixel. I like your idea of the ‘arrival’ of the pixel, that makes it feel almost conversational, and in a sense the finding of the moving pixel, the moment that is ‘now’ can have a sense of personal discovery about it being so unspectacular and modest in scale, and - referring to something you said earlier – almost tragic as in a sense revealing the hopelessness and the lie in creating this live window to another place. Each pixel’s arrival simply serving to remind us how distant it (the place in the image) really is.

In previous work I have resisted making stills or artifacts from live or installed works as I felt these would only operate as documentation and not stand alone as work in themselves. For me these (Fenlandia/Glenlandia) prints are different – with each image a complete work in itself. It may seem contradictory but I think the reason why they work independently is almost precisely because they don’t have the dialectic that makes the live work so compelling – this urgency of the ‘now’. They offer a different kind of engagement, more a reflection on time, landscape and observation itself, which in itself yes I do see as sort of digital echoes of Monet’s series painting.

Sean: The way you speak of the 'live still' makes me think again about the genre of your work, and whether I wasn't jumping the gun in suggesting that it is landscape. In certain ways it seems to me to resemble just as much a still life. On the one hand I'm thinking of Cézanne's apples, the struggle there between form and colour, as he tries so hard to separate each apple from the others, but at the same time to capture every motion of light over their peel, so much so that they are in perpetual danger of melding into one another. But I'm also thinking of the Dutch still lifes, with their mortality, and in particular the prevalence of the *memento mori*.

The newspapers are full of our contemporary equivalent, only this time it's not each person's mortality that worries us, and begins to form the basis for a kind of new morality: it is the sudden realisation that the planet, or at least our species, is mortal, and that global warming may not just change everything: it might end everything. But Fen/Glenlandia doesn't seem overly preoccupied with that sense of imminent doom. It seems more like Cézanne: a moment of piety, of perception of the meticulous constructions of beauty that go on everyday just below the threshold of our normal perception. Isn't it odd that we need machine prosthetics to make us perceive our own green world again?

Susan: I think you are right that Fen/Glenlandia doesn't seem overly preoccupied with a sense of doom. Although some of the images can seem quite grey or melancholic there is something simply reassuring about the relentlessness of these images that just keep on coming. Day follows night, night follows day spring leads to summer, the routine and rhythm is well set (and beyond my control).

Your reference to Memento Mori and Still Lives however made me think of the previous hang at Tate Modern which had a Memento Mori section. There was just one screen based work in it, a 'moving' still life of a bowl of fruit by Sam Taylor Wood. It is a simple work, a timelapse video showing the decay in the fruit over time, first shrivelling and then growing furry mould and then like clockwork starting all over again. Every time I entered this room the viewers always seemed to have flocked to this particular work turning their backs on Picasso, Hirst, Head, Caulfield and others in the process, mesmerised by this image moving, decomposing over time.

What do you think it is that is so compelling about watching a process that anyone who has ever thrown away a moulding orange or grape knows so well? Is it a morbid fascination for decomposition? Or the magic of seeing the process framed and revealed so vividly, explicitly?

Timelapsed images hold their own fascination revealing as they do those things that we are aware of and yet happen too slowly for us to consciously observe. Fen/Glenlandia is in a different way a timelapse work, but one caught within a single frame. If there were a relationship that could be sought with Cézanne it would be in that sense of the constructed image, this intense observation that in spite or because of its objectivity builds up and then breaks down the form only for it to be reconstructed in the viewers brain. The viewer in both cases required to be active not passive in making sense of and locating the image.

For me the work is also a making visible of this process of observation - and yes this isn't exclusively about landscape. I have a work currently transmitting from the interior of a Haunted Manor house, The Spectrascope. Here the power of suggestion in the work becomes key as the viewer is asked to make sense of the inevitable fluctuations in light and other interferences that occur in the image.

There is something else in returning to such an apparently simple act of observation and that is to bring one to a point at where art quite naturally meets science. It was this premise that formed the basis of my collaboration with architect Sarah Wigglesworth for a visual art component for her Classroom of the Future (a science classroom for Mossbrook Special School, a primary school). We installed a wildlife surveillance system into the classroom (which borders a small lake), however as well as the relatively high technology of a multi camera surveillance system which feeds both live and recorded footage of the wildlife outside the classroom onto large flat screens built into the floor and wall, we also built a camera obscura into the classroom in order to simultaneously expose and demystify the original video form - one that requires no machine as such or electricity just lens, mirror, light in order to transmit an image from the outside in.

Do you think it is machine prosthetics or simply the distance it allows us to create a reframing, a new perspective on the (over)familiar that enables us to see again?

Sean: The example of the unexpected colors emerging in Fen/Glenlandia suggests to me that there's more to it than a prosthetic arrangement. Anyone who's ever pointed a camera knows that the colors the machine sees are different from the ones we see. Digital cameras and screens are even less predictable; each brand has its own color gamut, and every individual machine its own aberrations. The idea of a prosthetic suggests that our devices are extensions or replacements for human organs; but the machines we use to observe the very big, the very small, or the frankly invisible aren't really like human perception at all. The photon counter on the Hubble, which is so like the process of Fen/Glenlandia, is one such, responsive to photons in a range of wavelengths way wider than human eyes can see. Radio telescopes and PET scans and electron microscopes and on and on: all these are machines that perceive in spectra we cannot and never will. It seems to me more a matter of machine perception as something quite distinct. Water Benjamin referred to slow motion cinematography as the optical unconscious; but today it isn't a matter of what we might be conscious of but aren't quite. It's a matter of a wholly different kind of - well, is it consciousness? Probably not, but something far more interesting. These machines, including the technical apparatus of Fenlandia, enter their own network of relationships with the natural world. It's not just that they obey the laws of physics in ways human freedom is supposed to be free from (to the extent that we can do things that aren't necessary). It's that they enter into a communication strictly between nature and technology that excludes or precedes human beings; and that has to be translated for us, for example by shifting the wavelengths to the visible spectrum, or translating the data into sound waves we can hear. In this way what seems to be so fascinating about timelapse is the automatism of the filming process in relation to the organicism of decay.

Because we human beings tend to define ourselves as not-repetitive machines, and as not-instinctual animals or natural processes, an art that confronts us with both of those in a single frame is like an image of everything that isn't human – but of course, the boundaries have never been very firm.

I'd like to think of Fen/Glenlandia as a collaboration of three partners, one natural, one mechanical and one human; and what is so fascinating is the attempt to make a democratic collaboration where each has its own voice, but each is capable of communicating and empathising with the others. Is that a utopian reading?

Susan: I think the idea of it as a collaboration makes sense, the three partners being entirely co-dependent in the making of the work – the human partner not only consisting of me, but all the other people (the hosts for the cameras, the commissioning agencies and the programmers) who help make it happen. I am not sure how actually democratic the co-dependency is however or whether there is any empathy beyond the seductive powers of these images themselves. I do find it extraordinary (and exciting) that what in many senses is such a cool, mechanistic (non empathic) process can produce such evocative and often stirring images.

For me I view this as another kind of ‘open system’. I have made works that I have thought of as open systems before, such as In Conversation (1997-2001), which required the viewers to inhabit and activate the work for it to exist. Here however the system is instead inhabited and activated by light, day, night, weather, movement of the sun, the seasons and all these variables that conspire to produce an infinite variety of unique images.

In some respects this would appear to make the work less ‘corruptible’ by humans/viewers than my earlier ‘interactive’ experiments where the potential for variable content was broad, but the actual range of user interaction would tend to be quite limited and often banal.

Having said that there are human interventions (beyond stray pixel appearances), which make themselves visible in the work. On Dec 20th 2004 in Fenlandia, the tree to the left of the image disappeared from view. At first I thought the camera had moved in strong winds however all the other markers such as the telegraph pole were still in the same position. I found out later that the tree had been chopped down because of subsidence and all the Fenlandia images thereafter have a bleaker, more abstract and less arcadian feel to them.

It is interesting that you mention Hubble. I have been thinking about a ‘mirror earth’ project for a while, a venture that would readily fit your notion of the machine as more than mere prosthesis. It involves the prospect of taking a gigantic mirror say 100 light years away from earth, which could then be viewed by a Hubble equivalent. If there is still life on this planet in 200 plus years time the idea is that this could literally become a live mirror/portal into the past, taking the concept of what it means to transmit an image of the natural world live in ‘real time’ to its logical conclusion…