Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead are an artist duo based in London. Exhibiting in major gallery spaces since the 1990’s, their works are imbued with a humanistic depth, rarely found in contemporary new media art. Interlaced with the coding behind many of their installations, video pieces and net-based works, is the intention to affect.
Readers are encouraged to click on the hyperlinked titles of the duo’s works below. This will take you to Thomson and Craighead’s website and an online version of the majority of artworks mentioned in this interview. In this way you’ll be able to experience some of their irresistable pull, in the comfort of your own home.
I’ll start off by asking some easy questions. What’s your favourite colour?
Jon: That’s not an easy question. I’ll say blue as well.
Are you right handed or left handed?
J: I’m left handed.
A: I’m right handed.
Where did you both grow up?
A: I grew up in Aberdeen and then went to Art College in Dundee.
J: I grew up in South Croydon (London) and ended up doing a foundation art course, in Epsom. I went on to do a degree in the midlands and then Dundee for postgraduate study. That’s when I met Alison.
Do you remember if there was anything in particular that made you decide to go to art school? Was it through exposure to an artwork or a certain artist?
J: I can identify it to a particular moment, but it wasn’t so much an experience of art. It was actually more just being at school, ending up doing art as an option in secondary education and then having a bit of an epiphany when I started drawing. Even at that age of fifteen or sixteen it was a transforming experience, because it made me see things in a different way.
A: I can’t remember. Perhaps it was a way of opting out that was really exciting…I’d thought I was going to be a lawyer.
A: I mean I always liked art and I thought I could do something that I actually liked.
J: You did do a day at law school though.
A: Yes, I did a day at law school; I enrolled. Then I realised it wasn’t going to work out, so I did a bit of a runner.
What were your initial interests at university?
J: Initially – on foundation – I did a lot of textile and graphic design, but understood quite quickly that I was interested in fine art. By coincidence Michael Archer was working at Epsom in the art history department. He was doing a thing called Audio Arts Magazine, along with Bill Furlong. It was a tape cassette based publication. I was given to him as a tutee (because I was working with sound) and he asked me lots of difficult questions about what I was doing as an artist. I was only seventeen or eighteen, and probably still trying to get my head around Magritte or something. He really pushed me in a way that I found very difficult at the time but have benefited from ever since. Moving into my degree at Leicester Polytechnic, I did a lot of video and because of that I went to Duncan and Jordanstone College of Art, which had a great post-grad course called Electronic Imaging.
A: I was on a really traditional drawing and painting course at Duncan and Jordanstone, but I quickly became interested in computers – I didn’t really know they were computers at the time (the one I began using was called a Quantel Paintbox) – but it all seemed very exciting. So I started sneaking in on the post-grad course more and more, and it was great because I got to meet people who’d come from all over the world to do the electronic imaging course, it was amazing. You’d get Swedish performance artists and really established designers and visual artists and industry people all working together. It just seemed like the most exciting thing ever.
Was the transition from being interested in art to becoming exposed to discourse – and the idea that it’s a specific site you can situate your work in – a bit of a shock?
J: Well because there was not so much formal teaching during my degree, I got stuck into the Deleuze and Guatarri of the time – I guess late eighties – who I suppose was Jean Baudrillard. I was also reading Frederick Jameson and quite a lot of leftist theory and post-feminist theory. I only understood it within my own capacity as a student at the time; to this day I have a very partial and scattergun understanding of philosophy and theory. But, because there were a few of us who didn’t have much else to do but make work and talk to each other, we started to talk about these ideas as a group. Dundee was a much more practical course where I learned a huge amount about sound and video post-production and the whole of that year became very rooted in learning skills.
A: For me it was a bit different, because I was there for four years and so I had more time, but what would happen was older artists would come and do the electronic imaging course and they would kind of become my tutors and say ‘you should read that’ or ‘why are you doing that’. It was really good for me because I got a more rounded education.
What was your first piece of work together?
J: It’s a little bit hard to answer definitively because when we first started working together we would do things for each other. So Alison might make a work, which
I’d do the sound recording on, or the sound design. That’s how it begun though, with video.
A: That’s pretty much what it was like working with video in the early 90’s. You couldn’t do something by yourself, because you couldn’t physically carry the equipment. So you’d tend always to work with a team. If one person was making a work they’d be the director, lets say, but then you’d have about four other people.
J: You’d have a Portapak video that you could hardly carry, so you’d need two people: one to hold the camera and the other just behind trailing a cable and carrying the portapak. We were using what was close to broadcast quality for the time and it was heavy. It was still the days where a VHS home recorder would be really big.
A: What was good though was that you learnt to work in teams. I think if I hadn’t done that, then I wouldn’t be so interested in collaborating. But, early on, if I needed to do anything, I needed to work on other people’s stuff and they needed to work on yours.
In terms of how you both collaborate and use technology, there seems to be a fluency there that makes your work easy to take in. I think the ease with which you utilise and function in both those processes translates to the viewer, allowing complex ideas to be digested. For instance, I can engage with your work without thinking about how difficult it was to produce, unless I want to. This is important because I find the foregrounding of process in ‘new media’, ultimately leads back to the apparatus or software used and that’s usually the last thing I’m interested in. I suppose I’m saying you’ve removed that distraction.
J: That’s good if it seems that way. We strive to make things seem simple; then to almost sneak up behind you and be a bit complicated. So, we do try to find quite singular gestures, which then proliferate in complexity rather then just having something super complicated in front of you that makes you walk away.
When did you start looking at the Internet?
J: From around 1995-96. The reason we were looking was because we had very little money, we had no studio, and we thought of the web as a conceptual space where you could try things out. You could create diagrams and networks of things and test ideas. Then we got interested in the idea of a hyperlinked environment and what that meant when you see it distributed across the whole planet.
Some of your early work seemed concerned with questioning the Internet. For example Dot Store could be looked at as an investigation into the nature of e-commerce. I’d also noticed that in both Rachel Greene’s and Julian Stallabrass’ books about that time, they seemed to situate you within that framework of artists like Vuk Cosic and Heath Bunting who were similarly interested in the Net. Was that something that you felt at the time?
A: Well we knew them all a bit. But, we never actually felt that we were ‘Net Dot’ artists because that was a very specific group.
J: Vuk was the person who coined it all – just as a bit of a joke really. It was him trying to stymie the art establishment, but at the same time commodify his activity. It seemed to be quite a strategic move on his part.
A: I think they were a bit shocked that we put work in galleries. There was a nod to what we did but it was a bit like [whispers] ‘They work in galleries’. The had a very strong identity and I think they all became very close. JODI are just fantastic artists aren’t they? They’re brilliant. And they were always a little bit more on the edges.
J: I think Dot Store is the most self-reflexive project we’ve made about the Internet or the web. But actually one of the reasons we made it was as a way of trying to archive a moment. It was just at the end of the dot-com bubble, when we were about to move into the first glimmerings of web 2.0, so we tried to make these really cheesy pieces of museum tat (apart from the tea towels which are better quality) as a way of creating a box of artefacts for future scrutiny. It was quite funny because the venture did make some money for a bit.
A: We went to this tech fair, with our tea towels and set up a stall. Can you remember what the name of it was?
J: I can’t remember.
A: Well, we had queues and we were completely shocked. It was really funny. We were run off our feet and came back with a wad of cash and half the tea towels gone.
And Trigger Happy was before, right?
A: Way before. That was about 1997. So actually, Dot Store was a little like the bookend for a series of works.
Would that be the point where web 2.0 comes in?
J: It came after, but for us Dot Store was more of a bookend for the whole dot-com bubble bursting. 2001 was the year that a lot of Net-Art programmes in museums closed down as a result.
A: The Walker arts centre shut its programme down and Steve Deitz left. But, I don’t know if we saw it as a bookend just for that because lots of things changed. We’d done a whole lot of work between 1995 and 2001 and sometimes there is a point where you have to stop, change and move on. We’d created our own full stop.
So at the initial point where you discovered the Internet, did Trigger Happy follow soon after?
A: Pretty Soon.
J: We made a piece called Weightless, which was a collection of chat-room transcripts and animated GIFS and MIDI files that played themselves out in random combinations. We made Trigger Happy at the same time.
A: With Weightless we were interested in making the web look a bit like television. I guess that led on to Short Films About Flying, and an interest in data-visualisation and it’s relationship to cinema. But, I didn’t know that at the time. I was just doing work and trying to understand what it was I liked about it.
It sounds a little like things moved from hypertext, to e-commerce and then to data-visualisation.
A: I guess we didn’t know that was what we were doing at the time.
J: I’d say it was two things: it was in Weightless, which was this recombining of moving animations and the chat-room transcripts as subtitles in a movie, but also CNN Interactive Just Got More Interactive, which was a key piece for us. At the time, to take something as monolithic as the CNN website, which was one of the most visited websites of the moment, and then intervene on it and create this little console that would then soundtrack the news, just to reemphasise that it was a moment of infotainment, was something that led to Short Films About Flying. It was our interest in appropriating and using live information, and our interest in using the language of cinema, as a way of trying to examine what the Internet was about. That’s something that’s become embedded in our practice now. We’re very interested in clashing different languages together, to see whether they reveal anything about each other.
And was Weather Gauge around that time as well?
J: In my mind I tend to think of Weather Gauge as being like our more recent work. Because, rather then thinking about the web as an anthropological or cultural context, what it is doing is using live information as a material -it just happens to be that the web conveys it. So, it’s not really about the web so much, it’s more about the materiality of live data. That’s what we’ve got more interested in as time has gone on.
What’s interesting about that is that there’s still quite a humanistic aspect to your work. Whenever there is data-visualisation there’s always a personal engagement, or there’s always something physical at the other end. For instance I launched Weather Gage a few days ago and, as I was just surfing through things, I didn’t really read what it was about, I just clicked and opened it. So I wasn’t really sure what was going on, and then I understood what was going on and I discovered I could engage with it on a personal level. My girlfriend is in Brazil at the moment, and so I could sit there and know how warm she was and what time it was, hundreds of miles away.
J: Well that’s a good example of what I was trying to say earlier about something being simple to begin with, but perhaps belying a kind of richness or complexity.
A: We also wanted to make something that used the fact that it took a long time for lots of images to load up. But then, you know, broadband comes along and speeds everything up so it gets faster. Initially, instead of getting annoyed by that slowed down mode, it was about trying to use that to reveal something about the work.
J: We found weird anomalies when we first made it. When the data comes up on screen some of the columns usually show error messages. Often if there was an error it would be because there had been a natural disaster at the location, or sometimes it might be a war.
A: It’s also a re-visioning of the world. It’s a map of the world but you’re seeing it in a different restricted way. We have a perception about how we view the world as a whole, but actually the data presented in Weather Gauge is an image of, or information about the world as a whole.
J: And Horizon is the same thing really. Horizon and Weather Gauge both share a lot in common. It’s just that Horizon is more visually rich. We would have probably made Horizon at the time we made Weather Gauge, but last year was the first time we felt everything was stable enough for us to be able to do it. So a lot of limitation happens just in terms of network stability and computer stability when trying to make this kind of work.
A: It’s interesting because they’re a bit like useless clocks.
Are we talking about Weather Gauge and Horizon?
J: Well Weather Gauge is a bit more scattergun but it sort of is telling you the time, whereas Horizon is like a sundial because each time zone is like a comic book strip of updates. As day and night happen, the whole thing goes dark and light vertically. So over 24 hours, as we go round the sun, the night moves through different time zones. So if you encounter the work repeatedly, you actually begin to build up a relationship with it. We’ve noticed that where we’ve installed it.
A: You were saying that you related to Weather Gauge because your girlfriend was in Brazil.. It was the same with Light From Tomorrow. We had a friend in Tonga with the receptor, collecting the light readings, and we were in San Jose in California receiving them in close to real-time, and there was something really nice about the shared experience of making this artwork happen. We couldn’t communicate through the work but we knew that…
J: We knew that we all knew.
A: It kind of felt like we’d collectively got a pot-plant or something. I don’t know, it was this really strange …
So I’d like to talk a bit about Several Interruptions. I suppose I know how you came across all that footage of amateur underwater figures, but I was interested in knowing what made you look for that specifically. Was it something you were consciously searching for?
A: Ever since E-poltergeist or the tea towels – and I tell people that I know it’s stupid – but I feel like I have a relationship with the search engine. You know, if I’m depressed I go shopping with it. I also ask it questions, one of which was ‘how do you measure yourself?’ I don’t even know why that was important. Anyway, in my spare time, when I’m bored, I’ll just ask questions to the search engine and try and have a dialogue with it. That’s a bit strange isn’t it?
J: So through a random search you got to a YouTube video?
A: Well I think I was just looking for ways to measure.
J: My memory of it was that we were looking at YouTube as well, looking at videos of people watching their own homes burn down. If you go on YouTube you’ll see a lot of them. There are people with their video cameras on going ‘there it goes! That’s our house burning down’ and also lots of people going through the wreckage of homes that had burnt down as well. We were thinking about doing something with that material.
A: We haven’t done anything yet. It’s very clichéd imagery and difficult to work with.
J: Then for some reason – maybe because you asked the search engine how to measure yourself – we found this video of someone holding his or her breath underwater. I remember you said ‘hey come and look at this!’ and the thing we noticed was that the list of associated videos was massive. So then we just started looking at more, so I suppose it’s kind of arbitrary in that sense. We’re not secret underwater breath-holders or anything!
A: I can’t even swim.
J: Also at that time we were making A Short Film About War and it was just painfully intense: lots of research, lots of laborious stitching together of found imagery and google earth transitions in Final Cut Pro. I think we wanted to do something that was a bit lighter of touch, just to make us feel better. Then of course we couldn’t help but think in triptychs because of Bill Viola, albeit in a slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion.
A: When we get slightly giggly we make jokes about Mr. Viola.
J: A structure that we were happy to work with became clear very quickly: beginning with one clip, but then taking you through a whole selection of them and finishing with the breath being let out. Actually using each episode as an interruption but also the triptych format as a lateral interruption, and of course it’s a temporal interruption; that idea that you’re interrupting your life by holding your breath. It’s a documentary that shows you something about YouTube I think.
A: The recordings people do are really good. Also the sound’s incredible. All the audio from the video is the sound from the clips. We might have upped the volume or downed it, but it’s all the original sound. It’s DIY Bill Viola’s; it’s just like everyone’s doing it at home.
A: Jon is the best person to talk about that.
J: For some reason I drew the short straw on that one. [laughter] I’m not quite sure why. It was one of those things where it was a bit hard to share the work that needed to be done on it. It required such a tedious amount of accuracy that you couldn’t do a day on it here, a day on it there between each of us.
A: We tried that but we weren’t up to it.
J: Well we’d lose our places a lot of the time. It was a huge editing job and you had to be utterly systematic. You had to work out the scheme and then do it. It was about 5,600 edits, just to reorganise the movie.
Where you working on it every day?
J: No I aimed to do ten minutes of film a month. You couldn’t work on it for too long otherwise you’d get RSI [repetitive strain injury], so I’d do around two half days a week. That meant that I’d be able to get about ten minutes done a month. There are a couple of mistakes in there…but really not very many.
And how did you go about doing the editing?
J: I ripped a DVD and then split it into ten-minute segments. Then I’d go through each segment looking for specific words each time. So I’d find the word the, then edit it so that the beginning of the segment would be the word the, and the end point would be the beginning of the next word spoken. So if someone went ‘what the?’ and then a minute later someone said ‘hey come over here’ then that ‘the’ would be a minute long. Then I’d put a timecode number after it, so you’d have the word and then the timecode. It meant that if there were two hundred occurrences of the word the, then they would happen chronologically. So it’s alphabetical and chronological and by naming each edit in that way, I could get Final Cut to alphabetise them automatically and then re-introduce them in order back onto the timeline.
A: I guess the reason why we did it was just to make Jon crazy. It was some kind of punishment. [laughter] We were also interested in seeing if we could use it as a way to time travel through the film, but also a huge influence for us with this piece was the Oulipo movement.
J: They’re a literary movement, but it was a multidisciplinary group. So, you’d have mathematicians and scientists, but mainly writers, mainly based in France.
A: The most famous member would probably be Italo Calvino. Also George Perec, who wrote a book called The Void, which had no e’s in it, and another one that you could read from both ends as a palindrome.
J: They called these things constrained writing techniques. So in a way we were using some of the elements of the constrained writing technique only we were using a constrained editing technique. Using a system of classification to make a new work out of content that already exists.
Have you shown it in its entirety?
J: We’ve only shown it once so far
A: We finished it in the summer  in time for the solo show we had up at the Highland Institute of Contemporary Art. I thought no way are people going to sit and watch it all the way through. Then amazing numbers of people would do the full hour and a half. It was interesting because I remember people saying ‘oh you should show it in a cinema’ but I thought ‘well you don’t want to put people through that!’. You know, like it’s a walk in walk out thing. But actually, I do think people would sit through it.
If you had an unlimited budget and no spatial restrictions, is there a particular project that you’d like to realise?
A: There is. What we really want to make at the moment is a project called Belief. We want to do a desktop documentary following on from A Short Film About War andFlat Earth to complete our Flat Earth Trilogy, but this one would be about religion and belief. How they are mediated in web 2.0.
J: But, with unlimited budget I’d make Horizon with real time video. The way that it would work best is that if all the cameras were placed along the equator. So, to be able to distribute the cameras around the equator, create the work from that and then have control of all your sources, would be great. But, it would be expensive.
A: But, it’s an unlimited budget.