I wanted to deliberately move away from the hermetic space that media / digital art was creating for itself – the Lab – and to set up an independent contemporary art practice that was networked and moved across spaces, enclosures, archives and galleries. Therefore I needed to find a way of working with others that was neither exploitative nor driven by serving another discipline or field.
Neal White runs the Office of Experiments, a research platform that “works in the expanded field of contemporary art.”
The Office, which employs methods of fieldwork, collaborates with a range of partners including scientists, academics, activists and enthusiasts to explore “issues such as time, scale, control, power, cooperation and ownership, highlighting and navigating the spaces between complex bodies, organizations and events that form part of the industrial, military, scientific and technological complex.” White is also a professor at Westminster University, London.
This interview, conducted via email in June and July 2016, was set in the context of the “What is a Media Lab” project and aims to address questions of artistic practice, labs and the (post)studio as an environment of critical investigations of technological and scientific culture. Another interview with Neal White, conducted by John Beck, is published in the new edited collection Cold War Legacies (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).
Can you start by describing what the Office of Experiments does? It seems that the office is a special type of space that carries the legacy of modern institutional form par excellence – not the artist’s studio with its romantic connotations, nor the laboratory with its imagining of science, but the office as an organizational site. How does calling your project an “office” affect the type of knowledge you produce?
The Office of Experiments makes art through a process of collaboration in which all of those who undertake research, make or apply thinking to a project can be credited. We bring together artistic forms of research with experimental and academic research in the field, undertaking observational analysis, archival research, road trips, building platforms and prolonged formal visual studies that reflect the complexity of the subjects we approach. Our approach is to build a counter rational analysis or account of the world in which we live. To move this away from any poetic vision, we draw on ideas from conceptual art, and disciplines such as geography and science studies, architecture and political activism. We also look at physical space, data, and the material layer which connects the observatories and global sensors of our contemporary world; the interface between the technological and material world.
Having some formative education in Digital Arts (an MA in 1997 and experience running a successful art and technology group called Soda in Shoreditch, London in the late nineties and up to 2001), my experiences collaborating with others is critical to how I work now, and to the work of others that interests me. I wanted to deliberately move away from the hermetic space that media / digital art was creating for itself – the Lab – and to set up an independent contemporary art practice that was networked and moved across spaces, enclosures, archives and galleries. Therefore I needed to find a way of working with others that was neither exploitative nor driven by serving another discipline or field.
Having opened conversations in 2002-3 with John Latham, the now late British artist, I was introduced to the Artist Placement Group. I was strongly influenced at this point both by Latham’s ideas of time/temporality (as applied to institutions) as well as incidental practices, and I applied those in an instituent form (Raunig) as Office of Experiments. The Office was therefore the solution to working collaboratively as an artist in a critical way, so that credit would be spread, and all those collaborating within each project get something out of it – whether as art or as an academic output/text – that is relevant to their individual discipline.
I was initially attracted to the term “office” because it holds some idea of power, bringing to mind a government department or Bureau, but is also instrumental – something that I felt was and is increasingly asked of art (evaluating audiences for funding etc). However, “office” alone does not work, it is too close to that which it is critical of, so it is only when used with the term “experiment,” and the ideas of experimental systems (Rheinberger), which were also key to my work at this time, that an agonistic dichotomy comes to the fore. This works for me, as we could say the terms are counter-productive. The name undermines itself linguistically (as Robert Filliou put it “Art is what makes life so much better than Art’). In this respect, it serves the ideas that shape our research, to create a form of counter-enquiry that can hold to account the rational logic of hard scientific enquiry, ideas of progress, and the ethical spaces of advanced industry and science.
The link to post-studio practices and discourse is a thread that runs through your projects. Can you talk a bit more about the other sorts of institutional spaces that your work has engaged in?
To give some concrete examples, OoE was founded when working on an experimental platform, which was based on the design of a planetary lander, but we designed it for ‘on earth’ exploration; Space on Earth Station (2006), with N55 (DK). Later, OoE challenged the ethical space of clinical research in a project that used restricted drugs to explore invasive aesthetics; ‘The Void’, in which participants’ urine is turned blue. Our aim with this project was to move the site of the artwork to inside the body. We then explored the history of psychopharmacology and the use of so-called ‘truth serums’ in psychology of torture by the US military. More recently, the Overt Research project made visible and navigable the concealed sites, laboratories, infrastructures, networks and logistical spaces of the UK’s knowledge complex, part military, part techno-scientific, a post-industrial complex. In Frankfurt, Germany, OoE acquired a piece of network infrastructure, – a cell phone tower in the shape of a palm tree, whilst we researched quantum financial trading networks and conspiracy theories based around Frankfurt itself. Currently, we are working on data from a globally-distributed seismic sensor used to monitor the test ban treaty on nuclear weapons. We have used the data (which is not straightforward to acquire) from this vast instrument to create resonant physical audio experiences around what we call hyper-drones. In many of the cases, projects lead to engagements with society and the public on subjects of concern, whilst also providing tools, resources and shared knowledge with other researchers, enthusiasts and artists.
Within the fields of art history and history of science, the studio and the lab can be seen as two key spaces of experimentation. In your view, what are the current forms that define the post-studio and post-lab in the contemporary context?
Starting with any lab today, we could perceive a hyper-structure (Morton) – that is, a lab networked to other lab spaces, and not something discrete or visible as an observable object in the singular. To this extent, labs are also entry points connecting physical and digital layers; they reveal regulatory and permission-based cultures in which ethics, health and safety, security, received opinion (Latham) and knowledge assert control. Therefore, the idea of a lab for art, or media art with any kind of techno-scientific logic, not only implies but actually enforces limits (Bioart so often falls down in these terms). Whilst a studio gives an artist working within the constraints of their ability/media a private space to think and work, I find both “studio” and “lab” underline certain kinds of limits and a tradition of building through a controlled approach to both the experiment and the process of experimentation.
In terms of the post-studio / lab, or the ‘social’ (Latour) framing of art in the contemporary field of relations and critical practices, experiments are produced through a scale of 1:1, but are also modelled in new ways. So this implies, that we not only need to find a new way to work, but a way to be present somewhere/somehow else.
If the projects we do at Office of Experiments explore space and time as dimensions of practice, then it is reflective of these shifts. Being made up of a group or number of individuals, we are arguably post-studio in form. Where we might be sited is fluid too, but we do share an enthusiasm for working together by being situated in fieldwork, exploring places and non-sites, as well as complex infrastructures, some which are legally ‘out of bounds’ or ‘off limits’. So we have often worked together to produce platforms for research in the field that include methods as much as architectural projects, as well as resources such as archives and databases, to enable our activities to take place.
Whilst the work we have produced is shown inside leading galleries internationally, as performances, video, visual artwork and installation, we have also produced a number of bus tours, installations, temporary monuments and projects beyond these enclosures, whether in public space, in the landscape or framed by urban and suburban life. So the spaces (or non-sites) we work in are also the places in which we exhibit the work, including across media – on the scale of 1:1.
However, I have wrestled with the idea of a scale of 1:1 since reading Rheinbergers work on experimentation, as you could argue that it does not apply to the non-material word we inhabit. Perhaps it is more accurate to say, I have been looking at contemporary forms of production, rather than simply experiments, to think about or challenge these models of working as an artist in a social or collaborative context. For example, what happened in the lab can now be modelled inside the computer, across the network etc. And what was fabricated in the studio for the gallery, can be outsourced and produced by artisans to a better standard, or scanned, modelled and printed, for display across a range of spaces – real or not.
Art has therefore been subject to a de-materialization that started in the 1960s (see Lippard), but as with so much of late capitalism and scientific and computational processes, it is no longer simply invisible but reduced to the indivisible, distributed and then reassembled. And the site of the reassembling is multiple, as are we.