Long distance collaboration, experimental reading groups, and generating instagram pathways; an experimental art lab seeking to challenge our default approaches to digital working.
Starting in May 2020, Plugged in responded to the postponement of our pre-pandemic plans and the necessary shift in our approach to work. Before this, travel was a routine element in our collaborative and individual practice(s). It was essential for the patchwork of short-term projects, workshops and residencies that enable artists to make a living.
Critical of the sustainability of this nomadism, we were geared up for a practical investigation of mobile working, in what would have been the first iteration of our practice based research project, Restless Practice. Subtitled, Artist as Map Maker, it would have taken the form of a mobile residency, with an experimental structure of travel, workshops, public sharings and exchange. We planned to bring four international artists together to create new work in response to the creative, social and physical ecology of Småland; where travel would also act as a context to influence process. Having developed the project with Kultivera, Tranas since 2018, putting our research on an indefinite hiatus would have been disheartening.
However, the basis of Site Sit is to investigate the possibilities and limitations of site responsive practice; this combined with the consistent instability of freelance work, means that our ability to adapt has become a fundamental requirement. Shifting our focus was both a natural, and crucial next step.
At its core, Restless Practice, is an ongoing interrogation of the ecology surrounding productivity within artistic practice, where restlessness is characterised as both a productive and exhausting part of making. Whether this comes from generating ideas, starting projects, being in different environments, or meeting people/making new connections. These experiences simultaneously invigorate work, providing inspiration and opportunities, whilst also leading to exhaustion and burn outs.
As movement was replaced with stillness, these conversations turned to focus on the challenges, opportunities, and infrastructure that are/aren’t available to us, considering: how the tools we have access to in our homes aid or hinder creative practice; how we can sustain our disparate networks; how slowing down could become a habit, rather than an emergency break; and what happens when travel is not the solution to our restlessness?
In its simplest form, Plugged in is an intensive research lab delivered through digital platforms, it brought Site Sit together with four international, cross disciplinary artists (Sam Carvosso, UK; Fuji Hoffman, Sweden; Teddy Hunter, UK; and Marianne Vieulès, France) to reflect on their creative processes and develop new work. Taking place over three consecutive weekends from 20 May - 5 July, the programme explored digital tools, long-distance collaborations and relationships between physical/digital mobility through experimental activities such as: chat room free writing; video call presentations and crits; an Instagram live reading relay; real time group note mapping on padlet.com; re-publishing text and image on google maps, youtube, and IG stories; call and response walk exchanges; digital collage; collaborative video and sound editing; and multi textured reading groups, spanning across video calls, google docs and twine.
Winding through the affordances of these platforms, we took inspiration from selected texts and each other's perspectives to create an ambitiously dense and sprawling examination of art making, through art making. With the ultimate goal of producing a tool kit that outlines a series of strategies for long distance collaboration and methods for sustaining practice from the home, each activity was created to simultaneously aid this development, to inspire the artists in their wider practice, as well as acting as an articulation of our (Site Sit’s) shared practice.
One prominent method used throughout was text(s) as a starting point. Re-articulating academic writing/ theory into activities meant that artist-researchers underwent a practical investigation of the ideas and themes; putting theory into action. This also grounded discussion, setting the scene while creating a focal point to bind the group.
Our use of Pedestrian Provocation, by Morag Rose and Blake Morris, is a good example of this. Taking the form of a series of emails/ digital walk exchanges, sent back and forth, it contemplates the various roles artists occupy, ideas surrounding care and infrastructure, as well as the ‘generative potential’ of walking; seeing it as a tool for questioning access, togetherness, power structures and the imagination. We were inspired by their use of email as a space for both provocation, action and documentation, how this demonstrated their relationship between online and offline experiences, and how it enabled meaningful long distance collaboration.
It was a perfect starting point, and inspired us to develop a collaborative task that became the focus of a session. We created and shared this as a simple prompt, for anyone to try out. The steps are: find someone distant to collaborate with; go on simultaneous, separate ‘offline’ walks; return home and recount the walk (4 minute only!) via video call; and finally, create a souvenir/ interpretation/ documentation (in any form!) of each other's walk.
This acted as a soft collaboration, with making happening independently, but with someone else in mind. The souvenirs created were surprising and multifaceted, including a twine story, cassette tape, photo snaps, clay sculpture, drawings, and moving image. Being immersed in the text throughout the day, set the tone for making and sharing; bringing us together conceptually despite our distant physicality.
Texts also acted as the starting point for Reading Group Rethinking, a series of sessions that were configured around our partner organisations and three texts; selected by ourselves, Kultivera, and g39 Warp (Cardiff, UK). Here, texts/theory acted more like a backdrop, as creating a multi-textured experience was the priority.
Conscious of fatigue caused by prolonged video call engagement, we moved across different spaces/infrastructure, from laptops to phones, between public and private, text and image, working collaboratively and independently. Starting with the minimum requirement of any reading group, we shared the texts as PDFs via email to read in preparation, before activating each one through a performative live reading relay that moved across three instagram accounts; @site_sit, @g39warp, and @kultivera_tranas.
This gave the artists, as well as a wider public, the experience of, Jan Verwoert’s Just in Time, an extract from Exhaustion and Exuberance; An amotivational speech by Manuel Arturo Abreu; and the poem Torpön Island by Anthony Jones; delivered by the voices of the people who selected them. By moving to, and across, this social space, it also gave the artist-researchers the option to change their physical location, get comfortable, and relax into the more voyeuristic position of watching the live stream. Moving to the screen size and orientation of a phone contributed to a change in atmosphere, shifting our focus to one person at a time, rather than the multiple voices present in a video call.
We then re-joined the video call, disabed most features and turned to our keyboards to explore the texts through a guided Google Doc exercise. With just one mic on, and all cameras off, we were methodically directed through a series of questions that were answered in allocated boxes, building on and blurring each other's contributions to form and evolving anonymous discussion. Directions included; ‘Write one word in response to each text’, ‘Find a quote in one of the texts that links to this image’, ‘Do these texts inspire you to take action in any way?’, and more simply ‘add a GIF’. The final question invited us to comment on and edit each other's words. Only after we had concluded the reading group did we turn our camera’s back on to discuss this experience.
This multi-textural approach is characteristic of Plugged in, and is a strategy that enabled us to have a series of two consecutive days of online activities. This approach can go too far the other way, depending on factors like the number of people in a video call, how established the group is, and how much time you have. We pushed this beyond its limit in the public event Cool Down, which aimed to be both a dissection and extension of the Google Doc session, present alternatives to video call spaces, whilst sharing the wider activity of Plugged in. By being too ambitious, participants only had limited time in the twine and Google Doc spaces before returning to the video call, where conversation was difficult to make personable because of the large numbers. On a positive note being part of a wider group strengthened the bond of the artist-researchers and led to the realisation that you should never have more than six people in a video call!
Plugged in, and Restless Practice, will continue to evolve and mutate, with ideas shifting in relevance, to irrelevance and back again, as we remain in process, learn, read, reflect and do.
*Site Sit is the shared artistic activities of Lauren Heckler and Sophie Lindsey. Together they develop research, create artworks, deliver workshops and produce projects that examine site responsive practice. They are currently based in Abergavenny, a market town in Monmouthshire, Wales. Read more about their project here: kultivera.nu/pluggedin or follow them on Instagram @site_sit.
Plugged in was funded by Arts Council Wales, through the Stabilisation Fund for Organisations.