Q&A: Alternatives – Proboscis (part 2)

THIS IS PART 2 of the Q&A ‘Alternatives’ interview with Alice Angus and Giles Lane of Proboscis. You can read Part 1 here.

Proboscis word cloud (640)

Q&A icon 04 (70)What is your opinion of the current state of the three main pillars of the contemporary arts system in the ‘developed world’: the museum, the biennale and the commercial gallery?

Giles: My connections with museums are rarely in a fine-art context – most recently I have collaborated with museum professionals in the ethnographic and anthropology fields. Like universities (or any historical institution, really) it seems to me that museums are both fundamentally important (socially, intellectually, culturally) and at the same time currently questioning their purpose in a changing world. Looking at the long-term rather than the now, it seems to me that such long-lived institutions provide continuity across generations. There is a danger, however, that trying to become ‘fit-for-purpose’ in the immediate context of the Now could cause confusion and disrupt the crucial continuity that they have traditionally offered.

The biennale?

Giles: We rarely engage with festivals or biennials as either visitors or exhibitors. I think they often work best as marketplaces and promotional venues – which makes them great places to network and make contacts, meet new people, catch up with old friends and colleagues, have spontaneous encounters and so on. Conversely, the kinds of opportunities they offer for new commissions are often time-constrained and feel insubstantial or lack real depth of engagement…

And the commercial gallery?

Giles: I have almost no contact with the commercial art world – from my outside perspective, it seems that they function as a highly refined marketplace that, through their direct commodification of artistic practice, are relevant almost exclusively to those people who are interested in buying and selling art as a business.

Being in Common (640)a

More generally, what are your views on the exhibition as the primary format and mechanism for engaging with visual art?

Giles: The primary focus of our own practice is in direct engagement with places and/or people and in the creation of systems (often digital) that others can use to present their own creations. So, exhibitions tend to be something we don’t place a great deal of importance on. We have exhibited work, but mostly ‘after the fact’ – more as a kind of documentation of the process. They can be very useful as focal points for stimulating further discussion or as ways to introduce non-participants to the kind of work we do. However, they are no replacement for the primary activity of engagement and co-creation that is our process.

Alice: We have tried, in our projects, to create new forms of exposure and dialogue mixing social, artistic and technological research with everyday living. We think of the process as the artwork (an approach well-defined in visual arts practice since the 1960s and more recently within the realm of Relational Aesthetics) and it is often difficult to either ‘re-stage’ work for gallery exhibition or to prepare a single product or object. However, many of our projects do result in events, objects, interventions, public art works and other pieces that are exhibited. Most often in non-arts spaces, public places and outdoors. We also create objects that are exhibited as part of a process of engagement.

Pallion 02 (640)aCan you give an example of such projects?

Alice: The project ‘Pallion Ideas Exchange’, for example, involved us working with the Possible Futures Lab of the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway University of London and a community group in Pallion, Sunderland to map out the knowledges, resources, skills and capabilities for responding to, and effecting change in, their community. The outcome of this was the establishment of Pallion Ideas Exchange, a group of people working out of the local community centre on a regular basis. As part of our work with them we co-designed a series of simple ‘tools’ that could be used to help do things like identify common problems and solutions, and share them online safely and  with self-confidence.

Giles: Once again, it was our status as artists and our role in co-creating and co-designing solutions, tools and techniques that helped them devise their own knowledge network. That network both brought people together, strengthening community cohesion, and introduced new opportunities for skill sharing and creative expression.

Alice: The tools use very simple paper-based formats. To make these tools available to anyone for use in their own community, we designed generic versions and collected them into a Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit’. The toolkit is free to download and everything can be freely adopted and adapted under a Creative-Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike license.

Handbook (640)

You work with a wide range of groups both in the UK and overseas.

Giles: Yes, over the last decade or so we have worked with different communities and groups in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Papua New Guinea as well as in the UK.

Alice: Yes, and with very different kinds of groups – from grassroots communities to scientists and policymakers. For example, working with a very different community for the project ‘Visualise Lifestreams’, Proboscis was invited to collaborate in a critical and creative dialogue with scientists from Philips Research Laboratory.[1] Philips proposed that the theme for our joint dialogue would focus on personal health monitoring. Over several months of conversation, conceptual refinement and prototyping we developed an experimental response to the problem. Our ‘Lifestreams’ project translated our relationship to digital data (about health) from the ephemeral interface of screens into something that encompasses the tactile and material, producing a more emotional – and subconsciously emotive – experience: an artefact or ‘Lifecharm’ 3D printed in a range of materials (plastic, metals, ceramic and glass).

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Lifecharm process

“The collaboration with Proboscis led to the generation of many different ideas. While this is an exploratory process with an element of playfulness which may be disruptive to our working practice, it does afford the opportunity to view research in a totally different way.”

David Walker, Senior Research Scientist, Philips Research 
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Giles: In contrast, last year I began working with a group of villagers in a remote part of Papua New Guinea to explore new ways for them to record and share their traditional local environmental, ecological and cultural knowledges. Over the next few years we aim to co-create a toolkit to help them preserve, protect and bequeath the things they value to their descendants as well to share those aspects they wish to with the wider world. A toolkit that is appropriate to the situation and the conditions they live in while being forward-looking in terms of  emerging media, practices and communications systems. In this project, again, we are concerned not so much with making artworks as with bringing our artistic sensibility and practices into a process of working with people from an entirely different culture to co-design ways to share things that we and they value.

Along the way artworks may emerge as a result of our creative practice, and these may be suited to showing in museums and galleries in much the same way as the artefacts from ‘Lifestreams’ have lent themselves to being displayed in a couple of recent exhibitions. But, for me at least, it is the story of how and why we work with people and the different ways in which these stories can be presented that offer the most compelling aspects of our practice to be drawn from our work.

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THIS IS PART 2 of the Q&A ‘Alternatives’ interview with Alice Angus and Giles Lane of Proboscis. You can read Part 1 here.

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[1]  The term ‘Lifestream’ describes a chronologically sequenced set of documents that acts as a journal of one’s digital activity. The term was coined by Eric Freeman and David Gelernter at Yale University in the mid-1990s; such data sets are also called social activity streams or social streams. You can learn more about the creation of Lifecharms in this video by Proboscis.

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Images (from top):
Proboscis word cloud
‘Catalogue of Ideas’: a pack of playing cards created during the project ‘Being in Common’ (2009), which invited people to expand and alter their understanding of ‘common space’. Themes in the pack range from water to human rights, environment to conflict and physical spaces to media.
Pallion Ideas Exchange logo
Pages from the ‘Neighbourhood Ideas Exchange Toolkit’  (you can download the booklet for free here.)
Stages in the development of a Lifecharm from computer modelling to finish artefact. (You can view a video about this process here.)
Indigenous Public Authoring in Papua New Guinea: (left) conversation, Reite [photo: J Leach] (right) TEK Notebooks – ‘Reite na Sarangama: Stori, Ples, Masalai’ (Reite and Sarangama: Spirits, Plants and Places)

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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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