Interview

Title

Creating live encounters between people and the landscape (and between artworks and audiences) with Field Broadcast

Author

Rebecca Birch  Rob Smith  Marialaura Ghidini 

Date

18/09/2021

Project Title

Field Broadcast

Keywords

Text

Marialaura Ghidini: What brought you to start Field Broadcast in 2010?

Rob Smith: It grew out of both our practices as a shared interest in working directly with the landscape. And also from an interest in what the potentials of working with digital technologies were for making connections between artists and audiences, and between artists and artists. There was a lot of opportunities for developing new things on these platforms which at the time seemed new. I’d also been working on projects where I was using digital sensors and deploying them in remote locations. For example, I did a project called Windscale where I placed an anemometer with a video camera attached to it on a Martello tower in Jaywick in Essex (UK).

Rebecca Birch: Yeah, that was a year-long installation that linked to desktop wallpaper. You could download the app and then your desktop displayed the latest information from the anemometer on the Martello tower. The number of pixels in the image was responding to the wind speed…

R.S.: As it got windier the image became more grainy. I remember specifically having a conversation with Rebecca where you said: “Wow, it’s really exciting because you’re there and you’ve got this image on the screen and you can see that the sun is setting in the image, and then you [audience] look out of your window and go: ‘Oh my goodness, that sun is really setting!’” You would get that sort of sense of the moment, of the connection of lightness, and also of the intersection of physical and digital spaces. That was really key in starting the conversation about Field Broadcast, wasn’t it?

R.B.: And I think the place also. Because Windscale was installed at the beginning of the year, and at that time I was living in many places. I was partly living in Sussex, then I went to Holland, and then I was living at my sister’s house — I was kind of homeless that year. And despite this, Rob’s work at Jaywick travelled with me. It was a constant, and I found it amazing that I was connected to Jaywick even in Holland. Rob was also developing other versions of this software, and the Field Broadcast software came out of that work.

M.G.: It’s a very nice genealogy!

R.S.: On a more personal note, I characterise my practice as being more based around Land Art and site-based practices than digital practices. My genealogy is in Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson starting to use film as a medium to create a connection between the gallery and the site; or in Gerry Schum’s TV broadcasts; or in Chris Welsby working with the film camera as an apparatus for exploring the temporality of the site. These are the kind of spaces where there are intersections between the development of a technology, which doesn’t have to be digital, and creating new relationships to a particular site, and to a particular landscape. It’s the technological apparatus that becomes a creative medium for building these relationships.

R.B.: As for me, I was working with landscape work and making video documentaries based on location. I was constantly dealing with the question of how to translate the immediacy of the encounter between me and another person on the camera, and in the showing of the film. So I was playing a lot with different performative forms to show films, but also with installing films in a particular way to try to get that location into the showing mode. So Rob’s direct feed from a location was responding to a lot of things that I’d been looking for. Also, in terms of facilitation, I’d started organising a project called Micro Performance, which was a series of small encounters with individual artists, artworks and performances at tables in pubs and cafes that were open to the public. I was playing with the intimacy of encounter, and encountering artworks in the public, in daily life. And Rob’s software was interesting because it could bring something to this.

M.G.: It sounds like the perfect combo of interests and expertise.

R.B.: Yes. We had also known each other for almost 10 years before. And we gradually realised that there was more and more going on in our practice that was connected.

M.G.: The project nurtured artists’ interactions with their surroundings. Can you tell me more about how you explored such interaction — also in relation to your exhibition programme?

R.B: We were very clear straight away that what was exciting in the idea of Field Broadcast was that the work would be from a field, and that was the invitation we gave to every artist for the first programme — the title was simply Field Broadcast because we didn’t know we would carry on with the project! We thought of this field very much as an actor within the work, and we thought of the location, the weather and the site also as actors (now we would probably call them more than humans). So the artists all started with the field, and it was very interesting because they travelled to specific fields for reasons that were often quite personal. We intentionally didn’t invite artists who necessarily worked outside or with locations in this way. So it was really an invitation to just step outside the comfort zone: we give you the kit, the dongle, the expertise and the help to do it.

R.S.: That first instance was very much about enabling the artists to go into a field and produce a work. The software then acted as a mechanism that enabled them to do that, and to connect with and reach an audience. With Field Broadcast, we thought very much about the field as a blank unit, a tabula rasa within the landscape. It’s interesting that everybody’s idea of what a field was was different. I think this comes back to the coming together of Rebecca’s and my practice, in the sense that it really brought the human element into the work and the ways in which human interactions are shaping landscape.

R.B.: We were talking of the field as almost an alternative to the white cube. You Rob, and the artist Charles Danby, who was really involved in the conversations at the very beginning, talked about this a lot. But most of the other artists didn’t think of the field in this way. For most of them it was a culturally loaded space, and it was very much in the tradition of landscape work. In terms of the nurturing, we got excited by the fact that some of the artists we worked with for Field Broadcast (2010) really responded to it, and then continued to want to use the software in their own works.
Artists responded to Field Broadcast as an opportunity that was helping them to shift the thinking about their practice and to try things out. Because of this, we started to construct the situations more intentionally. We ran a field trip, which was a research project, where we just invited five artists to come with us to a particular location for a day and everybody could use Field Broadcast. There were people like Sarah Bowker Jones, who has a materially-based sculpture and painting practice, who turned up with materials from her studio and played with them outside.
We also did a project with the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham (UK), Caddy Life (2013), which was a kind of residency/professional development workshop. There, we spent a day playing with the technology with different artists, and did a field trip with everybody just experimenting with the software. So we also got interested in Field Broadcast as a kind of pedagogical tool to push people out of their comfort zone.

R.S: We could see that there were potentials in it. And it was also by having conversations with artists (particularly in Caddy Life) and throwing questions back to them — like: How would you want to use Field Broadcast? — that it became a reciprocal process, which then fed back into our own practices and into the project. For example, in Field Broadcast (2010) there was just one pop-up window where there would be a single livestream. Then an artist asked us: “Why do we just have one window and we can’t have multiple windows popping up on our screen?” 

R.B.: Or, “Why, can’t we have specific shapes and dimensions?”

R.S.: At the time we had a 4:3 window, and artists were asking to have a 16:9 one, or a tiny little one on the corner, for example. By opening the space to conversation, and I guess by us being artists as well, there was a responsiveness within the project that made it a really productive and exciting space to be working in.

R.B: And we did this by just inviting artists who we really wanted to talk to! [laughter]

R.S.: I am still working with some of them, like Matthew De Kersaint Giraudeau. There is a sort of legacy to these conversations.

R.B.: And there were artists like Bram Thomas Arnold and Dan Coopey who were involved in the previous projects who we invited for the next one, which was West in 2011. West had a much smaller number of artists and it was much more focusing on a romantic idea of the field: looking west to the sunset. It was pastoral, as Rob said. The first time we collaborated with Dan, Rob created a custom software for the animation he made. While, the second time we had a bigger budget and were able to offer a bit more time and more experimenting. If the first time, Field Brodcast came off the cuff and was quite loose, afterwards we started to really craft it, and craft the broadcast, and work to find ways to have more budget to spend time with artists developing stuff. So yes, that’s how we nurtured I supposed.

M.G.: As curators of the project, did you have a structured programme whereby the popping-up of livestreams was arranged by you, or was it more random?

R.B.: We knew when things were coming. For Field Broadcast (2010), we were on the phone with artists, or in the field when they needed it. We also had a parallel testing stream, so artists tested their streams before going live. With time, we changed the way we facilitated the project to work with artist more closely. In Field Broadcast, there were 33 artists — a bit of a ridiculous number! While later, we had less artists and there was always one of us who was in the field with them (except when they were really remote, like one who was broadcasting from Canada in West). For the programme Scene on a Navigable River (2014), we were just in one location where we were in residence for a week with the artists who came with us. So we always knew what was going on — for the first one we had a spreadsheet. We curated randomness, if you like!

M.G.: Nice way of curating.

R.S.: On the technical side, the pop-up window was actually triggered by the artist pressing a button in the field. There was a socket that was a single variable that would tell all the other sockets on the network whether it was live or not. And when it went live every other window went live on the network. In that sense, if the timing slipped, there was a bit of leeway that allowed for the moments where the network connection failed, or we weren’t quite ready, or various other contingencies that we encountered. We didn’t go: 1, 2, 3, go!

M.G.: Field Broadcast put a stress in creating a connection between the natural environment and the screen. Why was it important for you to explore such connection? 

R.B.: Initially, for the reasons we talked about earlier in relation to our own practices.

R.S.: At that time, we were interested in the live encounter, and in understanding what this liveness was. Within the live encounter — at that moment when you press the button in the field and you know the audience members, somewhere else, are receiving this broadcast on their screen — there is this brilliant sense that there’s a whole material network of things that suddenly clicks into place. There is the artist in the field with the birds, or the cows, or the tourists, or the rain, or whatever is going on there, and then there is the computer.
Something that was also very present in the apparatus was the Wi-Fi dongle because, back in 2010, the network connections were rubbish and low bandwidth, so there was always a chance that it might break. There was a slight uncertainty within the live encounter. It was the sense of the network: the transmission of that signal through the phone network, the connection into the broadband system and then out into people’s desktop computers. And then there was the audience’s reception, sitting wherever they might be — whether in the home, the kitchen, the cafe, wherever they were receiving the broadcasts. In those days, it was always to a desktop computer as well, and not a mobile phone — I didn’t even have a smartphone when we first did this project! It was the excitement for this live space, and the way it brought lots of different things into place, that allowed us to explore the field as a performative space, and the screen as a physical space for the reception of this collection of things.

R.B.: We also had a lot of questions about remoteness. This whole material network that connects us and many other people together to a remote location. I guess, in a sense, it relates back to histories like Land Art and: “Oh, I take a plane and I’ll go out to a desert and make an artwork that you can’t see unless you travel for ages”. It’s something that only exists in the space of imagination because so few people witness it. So it’s to do with immediacy and the transmission of a remote location through the broadcast. That was really important to us: “How do we engage and understand remote locations?” It’s funny because now it feels like it’s obviously connected to climate questions, like: “How do we bring people into contact with remote locations without destroying them, or without all travelling?” I’m still thinking about the way we understand landscape, and the way we can understand it in its transmission: “Can you see it? Can you experience it differently?” I guess Field Broadcast was that thing of: we’re all together in this and we’re using this together.

M.G.: Various curators working on the web have termed the process of working across online and offline spheres as an act of translating, bridging, and transitioning; terms that often stress the disconnect between them. What is your view on this in relation to the activities of Field Broadcast?

R.B.: As Rob has just pointed to, I think it’s not a disconnect. It’s much more that all these spaces are part of other spaces. Right now, you and Rob are in my studio room — we’re here together in my room for me, and in your room for you. So these spaces are not separate.
I mentioned that when we started Field Broadcast I was skating between different places for a year, and that was the first time my computer desktop really became a kind of my studio office, the space that I inhabited and started doing everything on. This laptop became essentially my home and my domestic space. And then Rob’s work came, and Field Broadcast came. It’s even more the case now. Finally, with Field Broadcast we were broadcasting to people’s mobile devices, which are bodily extensions now, but they’re not part of us.

R.S.: It’s interesting because now we use words like entanglement or interrelationship, but at that time, we didn’t have this sort of language — we were still finding it. So there wasn’t this separation between the online and offline. It’s difficult to talk about Field Broadcast without thinking about where you were at the time when a broadcast arrived. Particularly because one of the most important elements of Field Broadcast was the ping, this noise that it made as the broadcast came in. When we were looking at re-archiving the project, I realised that just hearing that sound jolted me back into a different place and chimed lots of memories about particular locations, either being in the field or times where I sat at my kitchen table receiving broadcasts. There was a real enmeshing of those online and offline spaces, like a montage of places.

R.B.: Yeah, we thought a little bit about montage. Field Broadcast was about bringing together the space that’s both the receiver and the broadcaster. The receiver was really important in the sense that it would be into a domestic space. Field Broadcast also went into offices and interrupted someone giving a conference paper because they hadn’t disabled the software. Those works were received in so many different ways and there were so many different versions of them that we cant’ know. We can only know the version that we received.

M.G.: Going back to what you said before Rebecca, I understand the idea of the desktop computer as a sort of home — everything is there and organised in a personal way, like a record of a life. But I don’t think the same would happen on the phone. Although it’s an extension of our body, it’s very chaotic. So the receiving of something at a specific moment in time and space, and being interrupted, is kind of difficult for me to imagine.

R.B.: In a way, this takes me to how Field Broadcast would work or wouldn’t work now. Now we have a culture of constant notifications; whereas, at the time, that didn’t exist. So, like you say, your phone is a constant interruption. It was different before: people were watching live TV on their computer. I remember we had a screenshot of the livestreaming that came when someone was watching the TV series Bake Off, and somebody being really astonished that it could interrupt live TV streaming or watching a DVD — that sounds so retro now! [laughter] I think Field Broadcast was interrupting a different mode of attention than being on the phone.

M.G.: I am interested in how curatorial projects explore and work with the characteristics and assumptions embedded in the digital technology we use. And as you say, by bringing artworks and the field directly onto people’s computer desktops, Field Broadcast generated a space of disruption of day-to-day routines. What did it mean for you to interfere with the desktop environment?

R.S.: Rebecca, this is totally your input into the project, the fact that the screen became the space of montage as the broadcast pinged in. This is because this interruption happened when Field Broadcast would ping and the window would pop-up on the screen and intersect with whatever else was on it — whether it was watching a DVD or Bake Off on iPlayer, or whether it was a Word document or your email. The window would appear on the screen, not filling it, but it was placed there as another window that would intersect as a montage with those other things.

R.B.: In a basic way, it was a window to somewhere else. It was a window that was a window.

R.S.: Everybody who received the broadcast had different stuff on their screen, different clutter, different activities going on. So everybody had a unique montage; everybody received a different version of a broadcast. The encounter with the artwork became multiple.

R.B.: The location became dispersed, which is something Smithson talks about with the mirror sites. In this respect, I remember when I was a young artists and I invigilated at Matt’s Gallery [London, UK] on Sundays. There was a reading room where there was the press release for the shows, and then you went into a closed door to the exhibition space. Some people would come in and immediately take the press release and go into the room; some people would come in, read the whole press release, and go into the room; and some people would come in, go straight into the exhibition room, and then scuttle out two minutes later to grab the press release. I was always really frustrated about this press release thing; that you wouldn’t look at the work without preparing yourself to understand the work. So, in terms of interruption, I’m quite interested in the encounter with the artwork when you’re not prepared. 

M.G.: It’s an interesting approach that one definitely does not have in a white cube situation. But that’s because the space makes people in the position of thinking that they have to be prepared mentally, in terms of knowledge, rather than to experience.

R.B.: There is another element to add to the idea of disruption. Field Broadcast was a light source — it filled the room of the receiver. I remember I was watching the broadcast of Bram Thomas Arnold for West. He was pitching a tent on a cliff side and it was getting darker, and the only light source in my room was the computer because it got dark as I’ve been watching it. That’s where these questions about the screen were important within Field Broadcast: how the screen could become something beyond a surface, how it could become tactile, how it could become a phenomenological or sensory experience. I’m still kind of curious in this. 

M.G.: Field Broadcast used its own software (outside the web browser) for each of the programmes. Why did you choose to work with a customised software, and what did you take into consideration when creating it? I’m asking this because the digital environment has completely changed, and with Field Broadcast you responded to artist’s necessities through customisation.

R.S.: The first important thing for us was taking it outside of the browser. Essentially, we needed to find a mechanism whereby, when an artist started broadcasting from a remote location, we didn’t have to make sure that the audience would be there at a particular time. In order for the project work, we had to step outside of that web interface and find a different way we could work in.

R.B.: What we were working with wasn’t really net art in that way. It was working with a computer as an entirely different space.

R.S.: The way we approached making a software (and probably this was a good thing) was really naive. It was all about function, about: “Okay, how can we do this?” and checking if it worked for the project. As soon as we encountered situations where we were talking to people who actually made software, they would go berserk and say: “How can you be getting people to install this malware on their computer?” Because essentially this is what it was: a software that took that control out of the user’s hand and automated processes. It was really great that we could come to this software development as artists who wanted to do something. Whereas, if we came to it as software developers wanting to do something with live broadcast, we never would have arrived at this way of creating encounters through the screen. There was an opportunity there, in the position of where technology was at that time. There were dongles and mobile internet accessible with enough bandwidth that we could do the live broadcast from a field. I remember that, at the time, we used Flash Media server and Adobe Air to create the desktop application. 

R.B.: But it became increasingly difficult to deal with the software. Every time there were more hoops, and more complicated instructions to the point that now it would be impossible.

M.G.: Why? Because of software updates and their different requirements?

R.B..: Yes. There would be messages like: the unidentified developer, or you don’t have the permission, or it isn’t advised. Later, there was an Apple function (Appnap) that would put background applications to sleep to preserve battery life. In 2014, we wrote an app for the phone and, at first, we had problems getting it through the Apple Store approval process because there was no user interaction. So we had to add one otherwise it would not have had ‘value to the user’!

R.S.: Thinking about the distribution of the software, and some people being concerned about it being malware or about the messages the computer would give — like: “do you trust this creator?”, we were lucky. This is because we were sharing Field Broadcast with a quite specific audience who understood the project and how it worked. So there was a trust in the relationship with our audience, which is very different to a situation where you’re creating software that just goes out to an unknown audience who might be anywhere with no relationship with the developer. Our audience understood that this software wasn’t going to do something bad to their computer. This allowed us the freedom to use the software in a different way.

R.B.: It also put us in a quite funny position because, for a while, we where the ‘broadcast people’ to go to. There were various projects we would partner with, and sometimes we literally became just the tech people, which was quite a weird thing to do. There were quite a few galleries that asked us things like providing a solution to reach their audience online. I guess we could have ridden that wave… [laughter]

M.G.: What did it mean to engage with an online audience for Field Broadcast then? And also, who was your audience?

R.B.: This is an ongoing frustration of mine because, although you could make something that can be potentially accessible to many many people, it’s still a small audience. I guess our audience was quite art world. And my dad! My dad loved it. In an ideal world it could have been a different audience: an audience that doesn’t go to galleries.

R.S.: Field Broadcast, though, wasn’t about reaching massive audiences. At that time, it felt pretty great to be reaching the people we did.

R.B.: Actually, it was quite a good audience. In terms of performance work in a smallish gallery or in an artist-run project space, we had large numbers. In Field Broadcast, because we had such a large number of artists involved who each brought their own audience, some of the broadcasts went out to two-hundred plus people. So, yes, there was something about enlarging accessibility in terms of numbers and geography.

R.S.: There were also the broadcasts going out at the 4 in the morning with nearly no audience. But that was the beauty of it because that was the nature of the project. As long as someone somewhere was receiving it, it was great if those connections were being made. I remember one time at a talk at the Whitechapel [London, UK] when someone challenged us about accessibility. But our interest wasn’t in engaging more people, it was in creating new ways of encounter through the software, and the relationship between the digital and the field space.

R.B.: To add to this misunderstanding, I remember an instance, when we applied for Arts Council funding, and they got back to us asking what were the numbers of our primary audience. They said we only provided the number of our secondary audience, the online audience! [laughter]

M.G.: I remember those times! They were struggling with understanding audiences for online projects, and then they changed the criteria.
Going back to the technology you used, in which way do you think the digital landscape of live broadcasting has changed over the past decade? Does this impact the way you previously understood your work with Field Broadcast? I am very interested in the fact you stressed intimacy with your audience and trust, and I agree with Rob that this is quite different from the way we engage with the broadcasting platforms nowadays.  

R.B.: Most of my encounters with livestreams now lay in activism, with activists streaming from climate camps. So the livestream becomes a space of witnessing, but also a space for a community. I followed a stream recently where people are on a roadside campaigning but they’re also streaming constantly, and other people are there on-site but digitally. In a way it totally connects with things we were doing with Field Broadcast. But I do wonder about why we didn’t get more political since the livestream very quickly became instrumental for activism. So I think we were quite naive in the use we made of it. Now it’s a way of watching, also other people doing things.

R.S.: Like watching other people playing computer games — I have three teenage kids.

R.B.: In the current modes of livestreaming there is something totally different to, for example, the history of television or other kind of broadcasts. Facebook Live will show the number of connections and the people watching. I think before it was more about intimacy — I don’t know if it was real intimacy or a recreational suggestion of intimacy — and here and nowness.

R.S.: At the time of Field Broadcast, there wasn’t really a prescribed method to work with live broadcast in the online digital space. There were different tools. Over the years, there were also various changes to the protocols, and you could see people negotiating how to use live streaming, and how to bring the livestream into the space the browser essentially. I think for us there was an opportunism: we were there at the right time when there weren’t these prescribed routes. So there was a space for creativity and trying out ways of working. If we were to counter this now, the current prescriptive way of doing things would be a problem.
I saw so many Twitch programmes through the pandemic, with their chat on screen and the endless stream of people tip-tapping on the side. That’s become the way of doing live broadcast because it’s a way of capturing data for the broadcaster and the companies involved. Now there is an expectation of how things should appear.

R.B.: Many things appearing on Twitch during the pandemic weren’t even live, they were just pre-recorded for live audience!
There is another thing that we talked about an awful lot at the time: liveness, and how to work with liveness. Sometimes our broadcasts were obviously live because there was a fuck-up. But there were other ones that were very very smooth. In this, there is a thing about the faith from the audience. So the question is: Would it need to be live as long as you have the audience faith? And, how do you win or lose the audience’s faith? Because in the idea of the livestream people have to buy into its liveness.

M.G: As you said, the Covid-19 pandemic has generated not only an array of broadcast exhibitions, but also a very different relationship with our surroundings — we have seen a very limited, if not almost nonexistent, relationship with public space as previously understood; a space of physical interaction, encounter, and negotiation. What was your experience of this in the context of engaging with online exhibitions?

R.S.: We sort of mentioned the Twitch livestreams and the fact that people were saying they were live events but they were pre-recorded videos just being streamed at a particular time. I kind of felt we didn’t have enough impact in the world of livestreaming! [laughter] I had the sense that people were coming to livestreaming without considering the physical or the material relationships we thought about with Field Broadcast.

R.B.: People have very short memories!
I quickly realised that I have no interest in online exhibitions, I was engaging mostly with performance work, or talks and events. And if I attended something on Zoom that was in conference mode, where you’re just being talked to like it’s radio, then I would just switch off. It felt to me, like Rob said, that people where not engaging with the materiality of it, or thinking about it. I really like Zoom though, and I have been experimenting with it, and Rob has been involved in it. Recently, I started a series of Zoom live fieldwork, called Rocky Climates, and we’ve been thinking a lot about the camera lens and looking through a lens with a bunch of other people looking online with you. 

M.G.: Last question. What is the role of curating online in today’s web? I am asking this thinking about the fact that the web has progressively become corporatised and dominated by the logic of commerce.

R.S.: I think there will be opportunities to find spaces in the cracks between, like it was for Field Broadcast. For us, it was a lucky coincidence of technologies and things at the right time that enabled us to do the project. Like Rebecca now, who is working with Zoom and finds an opportunity within that platform before we will move on to something else, because technologies change. It’s about digging into opportunities and being engaged with the technologies, and not just accepting what the technology companies are pushing us into. It’s about questioning that and looking into these spaces.
I am going to throw a little reading thing out there. Last week, I came across this principle for web design and software development called the Principle of Least Astonishment or Least Surprise, where essentially the software developers and web designers are advised to redesign something if it’s surprising to the viewer and make it so it does not surprise them. It’s a foundational principle that goes back to the 1980s, and it just seems to me to say: “Make generic, boring, uninteresting web interfaces”. By surprising this principle we can find some creative spaces and make something interesting online now. So I’m optimistic!