Climate Commons: literature, climate change and activism
Readings by Tony White, Hayley Newman & James Marriot
Wednesday 19th June 2013 at Proboscis Studio 6pm to 8pm
NB – Proboscis studio is NOT wheelchair accessible
Book a free place on Eventbrite
Tony White’s latest novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South is published as an exclusive free ebook by the Science Museum, with an accompanying exhibition that runs until April 2014. Described by Marina Warner as ‘a bold novel-cum-manifesto, a prophecy, satire, and warning,’ Shackleton’s Man Goes South was inspired by – and explores the implications of – a forgotten science fiction short story warning of climate change that was written in Antarctica in 1911 by atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson. Flipping the polarity of the Shackleton myth, White tells a new story about Emily and her daughter Jenny, climate change refugees who are fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it, in a hot world rather than a cold one.
Alice & Giles invited Tony White to curate an informal studio event where some of these ideas could be explored further. White will be joined in Proboscis’s studio by two other authors: the artist and activist James Marriott of Platform, a London-based arts, human rights and environmental justice organisation, and performance artist Hayley Newman, who is committed to working collectively around the current economic and ecological crisis.
James Marriot is co-author with Mika Minio-Paluello of The Oil Road (Verso), an extraordinary book tracing the concealed routes from the oil fields of the Caspian Sea to the refineries and financial centres of Northern Europe. The Oil Road maps this ‘carbon web’, guiding the reader through a previously obscured landscape of energy production and consumption, resistance and profit.
Hayley Newman is the author of a new novella, Common (Copy Press), which chronicles one day of her self-appointed artist’s residency in the City of London. Taking us to crashes in global markets, turbulence in the Euro-zone and riots on hot summer nights, Common opens up the City through richly imaginative stories and empowering political actions.
Readings and discussion will be chaired by curator and interdisciplinary innovator Bronac Ferran.
April 21, 2011 by admin · Comments Off on In Through A Dark Lens – The Proboscis Effect by Bronac Ferran
IN THROUGH A DARK LENS – THE PROBOSCIS EFFECT
A Critical Text about Proboscis By Bronac Ferran
Creativity and innovation proceed in cycles rather than in some remorselessly forward trajectory. It is only over time that we can see the significance and importance of some projects and initiatives and particularly within the arts and cultural world, there are many different lenses and perspectives which we might take on work which we may wish to call contemporary.
In this text I respond to an invitation by the Proboscis Co-Directors, Alice Angus and Giles Lane to consider their work through the lens of collaboration and partnership. I approached this task aware that often the most critical developments happen below surface, in cyclical and indirect fashion. I was intrigued to explore how far one might consider this conceptually as a counterpoint to the increasingly predominant use of short-term quantitative analysis to assess value within the arts and concerned that such an approach is highly inappropriate for research-led practice (and indeed sometimes also for practice-led research) both of which activities may primarily be focussed on exploring new spaces, opening up dialogues and experimentation in form and media whose value can only become visible over time.
I have long been concerned to argue for value (and in particular symbolic value) of not for profit research-led or research-active creative organisations. John Howkins, a guru of ‘Creative Economy’ thinking, who had indirect influence on the new Labour Government‘s policies in this area from 1997, has recently shifted his focus to the term ‘Creative Ecology’ in which he outlines a more holistic approach to this area. In his book Creative Ecologies – Where Thinking is a Proper Job he argues that “attempts to use ecology to illuminate creativity has hardly begun, beyond using it as a fancy word for context”. In this essay I hope to build some layers onto this observation drawing on the work of Proboscis whose engagement with place, space and locality working with variable types of media provides the context for this text.
Proboscis describes itself as a non-profit artist-led studio “focused on creative innovation and research, socially engaged art practices and transdisciplinary, cross-sector collaboration”. Since its formation in 1994 it has made many ‘journeys through layers’ as is more fully described below. One consistent aspect has been that the work has engaged with numerous different agencies and communities, spanning and bridging private and public domain; always integral to their practice has been the development of publishing and storytelling initiatives using print and networked media processes with a primary concern for combination of image, word and text.
Proboscis was first formed by Giles Lane and Damian Jacques as a partnership to develop COIL journal of the moving image which ran through to issues 9 and 10 launched as a joint issue in December 2000. Alice Angus joined the partnership in 1999 and began leading some significant projects including the seminal Topologies initiative which was formative in terms of what was then known as collaborative arts practice and funded through the Collaborative Arts Unit at Arts Council England where I then worked, interfacing successfully and in a ground-breaking way between contemporary art practice and the Museums, Libraries and Archives services in the UK. The breadth of this project which ran between 1999 and 2000 added many layers to Proboscis and as is noted below, was shaped by an ideology and set of aspirations which were fully admirable and still unfolding now, in a considerably harsher climate in terms of arts and other public funding.
Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh rightly wrote that “naming the thing is the love-act and the pledge”. With the choice of their name the organisation certainly pledged itself to a high degree of engagement with environment and context.
As Wikipedia tells us the word Proboscis was:
First attested in English in 1609 from Latin proboscis, the latinisation of the Greek προβοσκίς (proboskis),  which comes from πρό (pro) “forth, forward, before”  + βόσκω (bosko), “to feed, to nourish”.   The correct Greek plural is proboscides, but in English it is more common to simply add -es, forming proboscises.
& ‘In general it is an elongated appendage from the head of an animal’ and ‘the most common usage is to refer to the tubular feeding and sucking organ of certain invertebrates such as insects (e.g., moths and butterflies) worms (including proboscis worms) and gastropod molluscs.
Seeing Proboscis and its life cycle as a kind of organism is curiously appealing. I am not sure if it is predominantly elephant or butterfly – or even mosquito… perhaps all these things. Or maybe it’s the Proboscis monkey, swinging from tree to tree in the wind.
On initial encounter with their work I had felt immediately the extensive and expansive qualities of the imaginative terrain over which Proboscis sought to roam not least because of the multi-partner/multi-agency nature of the Topologies proposal. Giles himself was making a fascinating bridge between research in academia with strong commercial connections (working as he was part-time developing a publishing imprint in Computer Related Design at the Royal College of Art at time when there was an ongoing research partnership with Paul Allen’s Interval Research) as well as growing Proboscis as an independent arts agency. In terms of how and where and why they proceed in certain directions extending their range of enquiry, engagement and investigation, their presence in various contexts seeming partly intentional, partly collaborative and always based on an underlying agenda that has critical intervention at its core.
It is at perhaps at edges of collision and collusion between public and private spheres, policies and desire, that what I wish to name the Proboscis effect has been most active.
In probing Proboscis over the past twelve months looking closely at their core ethos and expression in various permeations I have sought to do more than simply referencing the collaborations and partnerships with which they have been involved as this narrative is already substantially documented on their very useful website.
What I have sought to do is to try to decipher the underlying systems and motivations that drive the process of development behind the course of Proboscis’s work. In setting out to do this I thought I should also confront and re-evaluate my own set of perceptions and assumptions about their work in order to gain some new understanding from the process of dialogue and interaction that this project has deserved. I have therefore been developing a set of informal ‘dialogues or infusions’ with Giles and with Alice to absorb their current preoccupations and conscious that they work (as I tend to do where possible) in collaborative and reflexive ways. So it has become a critical aspect of doing the text to destabilise my own existing conception of what Proboscis is and, in so doing, I have hopefully begun to understand what they might do next.
It has of course been interesting writing this against a backdrop of Arts Council England’s major review of their regularly funded portfolio. In 2004-05 along with then colleague Tony White we had made a strong and in the end successful pitch for regular funding for the Proboscis team as part of a larger series of arguments relating to the shifting nature of cultural practice, the growth and emergence of interdiscipinarity as an innovation layer and the fact that there were arts development and production agencies (in this case, the Arts Catalyst, onedotzero, Forma Ltd) and some artist-research organisations (like Mongrel… and Proboscis) which were as significant to the emerging arts infrastructure as orchestras and ballet companies were to the established performing arts canon or galleries to local authorities and the defined visual arts. I had felt that it was the right time to make this case to help these often small-scale organisations to get funding for their core costs so that they could avoid having to make countless small project applications which drew on time and energy and also we argued successfully for the benefits of providing a core allocation that would enable these essentially innovation focussed organisations to prepare the ground for their next phase of development through periods of research and development, travel and experimentation that would inevitably result in valuable new work over the course of the following few years. Making this argument in terms of policy criteria of excellence and innovation and in the context of building multiple partnerships with arts investment (as often these agencies were being highly entrepreneurial leveraging many new kinds of partnerships with other sectors nationally and internationally, batting well above their weight) was effective and allowed for growth and adaptation over time.
It was then important we felt to consolidate an emerging sector that was in many ways ahead of the curve in terms of arts policy. One can argue for strategic (and perhaps then) symbolic value by citing the significance of arts organisation x as the key agency for xxx (e.g. disability arts or public art) but at the same time when it comes to interdisciplinary research-based practice it can limit an organisation greatly when it becomes too specifically defined by a primary funder as there to deliver something in particular – ie to be the instrumental infrastructural agency to do something that mirrors a policy… this particularly applies for organisations like Proboscis which exist on opening up challenging and redefining the spaces between categories, fields and form and indeed establishing and activating critical and significant tensions or gaps between arts funded agency and the arts funding agency itself. These significant gaps are often where the best interdisciplinary practice lies – not representing anything but heralding stuff to come, shifts that will eventually mainstream over time.
On the Act of Interpretation and Analysis
My overall sense since being invited in early 2010 to write an essay about their work particularly from the viewpoint of the range and complexity of partnerships they have made and held during the past decade and a half of their existence as an arts organisation, has felt like I have been staring at tracks in the snow, looking at something which is already formed and fully crystallised and not that much needing of further explanation. And in addition to this, in seeking to assemble some kind of overview or extract a narrative that condenses and crystallises anything definitive from their ongoing processes of enquiry I have held a burden of doubt about the ‘realness’ of what I have set out to do – a belief perhaps that ultimately the work that has lain within the Proboscis shadow speaks for itself, that the documentation of their processes has been carried out in an exemplary way that can benefit little from tacked on interpretation, exegesis or explanation.
At the same time, and with a sense of an organisation engaged in an ongoing process of ‘adaptive becoming’, I felt it could be useful to move towards a perspective on Proboscis which allows us to see their work as a whole, holistically I suppose – as opposed to a series of distinct projects, which is how often their work is discussed or perceived. I was hoping to define a pathway or journey through their layers – perhaps move further along the path in the snow. In a text they produced for the Paralelo, Unfolding Narratives in Art, Technology and Environment publication in 2009, they cite Katarina Soukip, writing in the Canadian Journal of Communication:
‘the new Inuktitut term for internet, Ikiaqqivij or ‘travelling through layers’ refers to the concept of the shamen travelling across time and space to find answers’.
For the past decade and a half they have had a central place along with other organisations that may be broadly described as working within the media art or trans-disciplinary circuit in the UK and Europe with a primary role in respect of ‘the ecology of learning’ to use Graham Harwood’s term. In another essay which I wrote in 2010 for LCACE I spoke of their unique and pivotal position in terms of art/technology/academic/commercial networks – one of the reasons they were invited by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council to become an Independent Research Organisation in 2004 which has been written about in detail – see Sarah Thelwall’s Cultivating Research – where she accounts for how “Proboscis has built its artistic practice around a research approach and in so doing has collaborated with a number of HEIs over the years including the Royal College of Art, London School of Economics, Birkbeck College, Queen Mary University of London and the Institute of Child Health“. Thelwall’s text summarises the range and nature of the Proboscis partnerships inside and outside Higher Education and the economic and other factors influencing their success in gaining Independent Research Organisation status from the EPSRC. She also reflects on the processes of layering I have mentioned above:
‘Proboscis have always developed and maintained a very wide and diverse collection of organisations and individuals they collaborate with. They purposefully bring together organisations as diverse as the Ministry of Justice, Science Museum & Ordnance Survey. This network is built around the delivery of projects but is by no means limited to the parameters and timescales of the projects themselves. It is common to see connections made in one project resurface some years later as what might appear to be a tangential connection to a new piece of work’.
This positioning within an ecosystem of connected and interdependent elements which may combine and recombine over time seems an integral aspect of ‘the Proboscis effect’. This is very much a distinguishing element of their work – a specific way of working, in porous and co-operative ways, engaging with locality and often with habitat.
The advent of Arts Council England funding changes now announced, which have swept through the ecosystem of digital media organisations in this country with desperate disregard for preserving and sustaining knowledge within a still developing sector – reminds us to suggest the importance of finding ways to recycle and re-embed these elements into a broader cultural ecology. In this sense Vilem Flusser’s words about waste come very appropriately to mind:
‘Until quite recently, one was of the opinion that the history of humankind is the process whereby the hand gradually transforms nature into culture. This opinion, this ‘belief in progress’ now has to be abandoned. …the human being is not surrounded by two worlds then, but by three: of nature, of culture and of waste. This waste is becoming ever more interesting…’
Somehow this seems appropriate in many ways to Proboscis preoccupations. They have separated themselves from dependency on ACE life rafts for floating media practices and now have set themselves new agendas, new partnerships and new horizons engaging even more closely with critical social challenges from global technological waste to employment of young people from disadvantaged contexts in London.
The Partnership Domain
As noted above many of the projects which Proboscis have generated and fostered have been formative in terms of exploring and building transformative connections between variable and separate fields, particularly between artistic research, academic research, commercial R&D and the public domain. The projects which they have worked on and generated over the seventeen years of the organisation’s existence have had an exciting range reflecting broader shifts within cultural practice. In addition to conceiving and shaping various projects Proboscis as an arts organisation has defined itself during this time as a vital critical space for understanding the emergent nature of collaborative practices, from research through to the public domain and as an agency through which documentation and discourses around these processes has been facilitated and enabled. What it has also most critically done is to provide a space for documentation and critical reflection on these processes – their significance has partly been to find a way to make the temporal or temporary processes of collaboration stable in terms of existing in accessible documentation over time. As their website now rumbles with tag-clouds and twitter-feeds it continues to grow in an organic fashion, as a responsive and collaborative space enabling expression of differences within an open and common domain.
Why does this matter?
In considering patterns of collaborative arts practices in the past fifteen years, often emergent work has been primarily time-based with documentation of the practices secondary to the event of the work itself. Simultaneously when we speak of interdisciplinarity what is commonly implied is the construction of spaces for dialogue and exchange, for things to be ‘in formation’, contingent, open and process-based.
In viewing the work of Proboscis through the lens of interdisciplinarity and collaboration across different arts and other disciplines over many years and recognising the high level of intention with respect to formation of high profile partnerships which have in a sense redefined ‘the public domain’, one recognises a consistent line of enquiry: the probing of interstices, the construction of new interfaces, the drawing of connecting lines, tracing points of relation through dialogue and through process. The process is never mechanical but somehow organic and collaborative – as traces are made, they may also be erased. Or they may be retained held in the act of publishing, drawing or commissioning critical texts. These traces gain longevity and new emphasis also by means of citation (for example the high degree to which Proboscis’s work has formed part of PhD theses and other types of reports) a fact which may carry little weight in relation to arts funding assessments but may in other important ways (particularly if viewed longitudinally) reveal value, especially intellectual or symbolic value as noted above.
In referencing a latency I am also signalling how in the nature of research based arts practice only by looking at developments over time might one truly realise the value. At times something may be in germination stages lying low in order to succeed but hard if not impossible to measure. These stages are in my mind at least the most important stages and ones most deserving of subsidy.
As noted above and looking now in hindsight at how the life cycle of the organisation we know as Proboscis has evolved we see many layers embedded over time. The projects have moved through moving image, film, locative and other mobile media, software, performance, carnival, workshops in making, storytelling and narrative, diy and open access publishing, photography and psychogeography, art and science, art and health, artists books and libraries, archives and community memory, folk-tales and archaeologies of place, open public data, art-industry, art-ecology and design/co-design and many other things. Within all the projects has been a set of disparate connections – sometimes with other artists, sometimes with scientists,sometimes with companies, sometimes with academia – and often with groups working in similar fields, as part of a set of network connections – producing an identity which is both fixed and process-led.
Somehow in these spaces between specificity and hybridity and tracing and erasing the Proboscis effect adheres.
It is vital to also consider the development of the Proboscis effect or practice within the context of recent intensive shifts with respect to how artists and arts organisations work within the spectrum of a broader creativity often, though not exclusively, technologically related. The most compelling work in this terrain has brought about a fusion of different disciplinary approaches and a combination of themes, fields and metiers into common and uncommon forms. This period of development has brought about also a shift within the nature of culture itself not just towards hybridity but towards open and collaborative works that engage directly with audiences or users transforming their position from user to co-producer, collaborator and joint agent within a process or design.
Proboscis’s work in the early 21st Century radically anticipated this layer which is now fully mainstream – of encouraging social innovation based on participatory processes.
In terms of how they approach collaborations and partnerships it is perhaps interesting to also consider the internal relationships which inevitably drive and define this kind of organisation. When one considers the identity of Proboscis, we recognise a pattern similar to the other organisations of similar scale and size. Often these organisations are indelibly connected to the personalities of their original founders. At the same time, when it comes to small-scale organisations the intensity of the human relations (the personality and behaviours within the group) often transfers to become the image of the organisation as a whole. Organisations form around and mirror the values and ideas of the people who form them. When people change the organisations inevitably change. But organisations evolve even when they have the same people involved who helped to develop the initial projects. In the case of Proboscis, its work has shifted and developed radically showing the various inputs and influences of the various people who have become involved over the years at project, administrative and consultancy level – yet it has also retained and maintained a consistency that is highly recognisable though perhaps difficult to define. Over many years they have brought in various skilled people to work on diverse projects which has provided an abundant network within which the organisation is situated and which they have in turn helped to generate and facilitate at various points and in various places. The workplace trainees who have been present in the office over the past year have been carrying and bringing a different, more youthful energy into the studio and as their voices grow louder as they are encouraged to express their views online and this has in turn shifted the pattern of perception of how and what Proboscis does. At the very heart though is the deeply creative core relationship of the two Co-Directors whose differing and complementary sensibilities suffuse all aspects of their work.
Garnering the Spaces Between
When it comes to unique organisations that are built on activating and ‘the space between differences’, in exploring commonalities and uncommonalities, in the energies that combine and force apart processes and practices – in other words, interdisciplinarity – it may well be said that change is the only constant and that inherent within the suggested Proboscis effect is the opening up of new relations from investigation of these tensions. I am suggesting this as it seems to me that implicit within any discussion about collaborations and partnerships is a belief system or set of values that informs and entwines with the nature of these connections and that what has partly distinguishes how Proboscis has been working in these interdisciplinary fields has been a set of principles or operating framework which has insisted on autonomy and independence of status within a broader assemblage or set of networks.
‘… But also, the value of dissent needs to be high enough so that dissent is not dismissed. How do you facilitate dissent so that it’s a strong value? Part of the concern in science collaborations is that there is a huge push towards consensus. So the dissent issue becomes very important’.
– Roger Malina
Achieving Effective Process within Asymmetrical Relations
The strength of the process was demonstrated most visibly in the pioneering Urban Tapestries project which Proboscis initiated and ran between 2002 and 2004 and which probably for the first time ever demonstrated the capacity of a small not for profit organisation to draw together a set of large institutional and commercial partners leveraging plural funding routes and most spectacularly to define the terms of engagement. This project not only prefigured the convergence of ubiquitous mobile computing and social media but also resulted in a series of community based activities between 2004 and 2007 – called Social Tapestries – which took R&D aspects from corporate and academic labs fully into the public domain and in turn revealed the significance of public participation in terms of any effective R&D with respect to social media – a kind of liberation strategy which displays eloquently the value sense underlying the Proboscis operation. Here is an extract about the project:
‘Urban Tapestries investigated how, by combining mobile and internet technologies with geographic information systems, people could ‘author’ the environment around them; a kind of Mass Observation for the 21st Century. Like the founders of Mass Observation in the 1930s, we were interested creating opportunities for an “anthropology of ourselves” – adopting and adapting new and emerging technologies for creating and sharing everyday knowledge and experience; building up organic, collective memories that trace and embellish different kinds of relationships across places, time and communities.The Urban Tapestries software platform enabled people to build relationships between places and to associate stories, information, pictures, sounds and videos with them. It provided the basis for a series of engagements with actual communities (in social housing, schools and with users of public spaces) to play with the emerging possibilities of public authoring in real world settings’.
On the Daniel Langlois Foundation website (who provided funding towards the project) the language outlining what happened is different again:
‘What would freedom of expression be without the means to express it ? As fundamental as this concept is, it appears empty and abstract if you don’t complement it with the freedom to choose the means of expression. Today’s wireless communication networks offer novel ways to express ourselves. For the time being, these networks escape government or corporate control, which is why they are being used by many artists and activists to give this concept more concrete meaning’.
No doubt there were different spins to the narrative again on the websites of the different project partners – as clear an illustration as one might wish for of the pluralistic capacity of Proboscis during this 2002-2007 period acting as a broker, connector, and transdisciplinary catalyst. It is interesting that on the current Proboscis website, the ‘history’ section ends at September 2007 and before this that year Alice and Giles had visited Australia, Canada and Japan as well as taking part in numerous UK based events, conferences and discussions – being greatly in demand to un-layer and share tales of the Urban Tapestries and Social Tapestries adventures and outcomes. This work was intensive and significant with respect also to the broader history of collaborative media practices in the early years of this century.
The history of the period between September 2007 and now is also now still waiting to be written – and the turn which is now happening in relation to the direction of their work more explicitly revealed
Between Tactical Extremes
Taking further forward some of the ideological strands initially outlined in the goals for Topologies as well as running through the Urban Tapestries above, Giles writes currently on the Proboscis website about their forward programme for 2011 which will focus around the over-arching theme of Public Goods,
‘In the teeth of a radical onslaught against the tangible public assets we are familiar with (libraries, forests, education etc), Public Goods seeks to celebrate and champion a re-valuation of those public assets which don’t readily fit within the budget lines of an accountant’s spreadsheet’.
Showing this long-term commitment to core ideals, when I first met him in 1998, when commencing their Topologies project, Giles had written:
‘Public libraries are seen by Proboscis to be one of the UK’s most important cultural jewels, long-underfunded and lacking in support from central government. As sites for learning and culture they are unparalleled, offering a unique user-centred experience that is different from the viewer experience of a museum or a gallery’.
It is also ironic now writing this just after one of the biggest public demonstrations that London has known in the context of planned government cuts to the public sector and recalling that whilst the aim Proboscis had thirteen years ago was to add to the experience of visiting libraries by adding artists books into their holdings, the demise of the library system itself is now the battle along with devaluation and depreciation of many aspects of the public domain. Here one has a sense again of the uncannily fore-shadowing nature of many of Proboscis’s themes. Their antennae as sensitive collaborative creatures twitching often too soon?
In exploring the way in which Proboscis set out to work in collaborative ways over many years one notes a serious attuning to context, making events and initiatives which often involve deep localised engagement with those with whom they have chosen to partner whether in public or private sector contexts. Often these partnerships are sustained over many years as for example with DodoLab in Canada with whom they have a long-term relationship that manifests in different ways in different places addressing social, urban and environmental challenges through artworks, performances, interventions, events, educational projects and publishing using social media, the Proboscis bookleteer and StoryCube initiatives and others ways of involving and communicating with people.
Other relationships have been related to specific projects; almost all take place over at least two or three years following a series of research questions or over-arching line of enquiry which requires focussed time and many different manifestations. The techniques which Proboscis bring to the table in terms of collaborations have been well-honed in various scenarios – as are well outlined and documented on their capacious website. Connecting these techniques for group interaction and group authorship with technological and industrial change and a corresponding shift in the cultural and social imaginary has been a prevalent element and thread which has emerged throughout a series of interrelated activities.
Re-drawing the Map
I developed a deeper understanding at first hand of the Proboscis effect when 2009 Alice Angus, Giles Lane and Orlagh Woods from the company were among a group of UK based arts technology and design researchers and practitioners who came to an event held in Sao Paulo called Paralelo with which I was closely involved. The event brought together individuals and groups working in three countries – the Netherlands as well as UK and Brazil – on topics and themes relating to Art, Technology and the Environment. Proboscis brought a beautifully honed process of group Social Mapping to the opening session of the event. This created a way of introducing individuals and everyone to everyone else with the plus factor that it gave form to the latent network connections that lay underneath, beside and across the topology composed on paper laid out on the ground. It was in many ways a characteristic Proboscis intervention inflecting the overall event with a collaborative and open-ended fluidity of approach with participants then returning to the map at the close of the event and in a ritual of consolidated iterative expression redrawing earlier lines, shifting to new points of intensity. This effect relies on an appreciation of ritual, of the act of drawing with the hand on paper, of making marks and leaving something that over time becomes a document of something that has now passed…
‘The development of new forms of expression is not something that is bound to happen, but is a matter of the choice and preference of artists. What is possible is the programmed creation of works. The artist is then creating a process, not individual works. In the pure arts this may seem anathema, but art thrives on contradictions, and it can be yet another way of asking what is art?…’
From first page of EVENT ONE, first edition of PAGE journal of Computer Art Society, 1969.
In their contribution to the book Paralelo: Unfolding Narratives in Art, Technology and Environment which emerged after the workshop in 2009, the Proboscis team also brought a singular simplicity (that held much deeper meaning than what was visible on the surface) to the project. Their text, Travelling through Layers, available also as a Diffusion eBook – holds in a small space a series of interleaving observations, images, quotes and commentary – all of which combine to build a narrative that stands alone or as part of the larger whole in this case the wider texts that make up the publication, a small microcosm of the broader Proboscis effect.
In Conclusion – The Latency of Glass?
As we enter into 2011 and shifts in political and arts funding scenarios, it seems to me that Proboscis are once again on the turn. Adapting to constraints that have emerged from socio-environmental contexts, they are taking a slower course. expressed in the lavishly vulnerable depiction of the disappearing markets in Lancaster which Alice has recently produced and the oft expressed commitment to providing tools and resources at low cost for others to access whilst wishing to do this by way of exchange and experiment – allowing social concerns to dominate technologies and allowing the reinstatement of hand and handi-craft into the Proboscis process.
It seems to me that with the usual fore-shadowing the organisation is now pointing towards a need for deep contemplation and reflection on what is currently in danger of being lost and following the ecological theme, seeking to ensure that we devise ways to recycle material back into the system. In some extent they are going out further to those margins and extremes, wanting to fuse together some new points of tension or heightened concerns. No doubt this will slowly and surely emerge.
And most importantly how does one articulate and measure value within these processes? What kinds of measurement can apply when one is talking about ‘effect’? What distinguishes their work from others who have moved into these spaces between the arts and other sectors? What has made them so effective in these spaces? And having moved in, developed systems of exchange and parallel processes with many other agencies, what has Proboscis gained and lost – what (apart from documentation on their website) might remain? Why do they move on? What do we learn from the textures and edges that their processes effect?
Their capacity to retain an integrity and critical edge whilst being involved in processes of exchange with many different types of partner organisation has been admirable; if as outlined in the 2010 Prix Ars Electronica Hybrid Arts text we might see hybrid arts practices as being fundamentally about an ontological instability or insecurity then in many ways the work of Proboscis throughout sixteen-seventeen years may be situated in this terrain.
Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s so far the best projects (and those which become most memorable) at least in relation to the broad field of collaborative and interdisciplinary arts practice seem to me to be those which tend to fuse together layers of different processes, systems and materials to form a new, highly charged synthesis that carries within it the tensions implicit in making something disparate whole. If broken or contracted, new edges will then emerge that redefine the boundaries of the whole.
Over time what is engendered and revealed are certain qualities manifest at both surface and depth – I describe these forms as having something like the latency of glass.
The Proboscis narrative has many of the properties of glass (fused to a point of stillness, yet with inner motion and capable of breaking to form new edges). If I have managed to identify at least one angle on their work using the perspective of the dark lens it is related to something Giles said in conversation in February 2011 about his interest in “exploring extremes and the points of tension between”. The photographic negative awaiting advent of light in the darkroom is another way of seeing this. Perhaps the phantasm of ‘true collaboration’ lurks in the latency of glass.
Bronac Ferran, April 2011