Material Information: INSULAE and CU SOON

By Charlotte Kent


The coastline of Great Britain measures 11,072.76 miles according to the Ordinance Survey. Or, the CIA Fact Book declares it measures 7,723 miles. Then again, according to the World Resources Institute, the length is about 12,251 miles. Whether planning to trek the borders or sail into shore, these variances present a problem that was famously articulated in “How long is the coast of Britain? Statistical self-similarity and fractional dimension” by the mathematician B. B. Mandelbrot, known for his work on fractals. Making matters worse, he opens the essay informing us that “Geographical curves are so involved in their detail that their lengths are often infinite or more accurately, undefinable.” I’ll either be walking until the ends of time or for some uncertain period. Not great for planning the excursion to East Quay Watchet, itself on a harbor marina, to see Vertigo, an exhibition of works by Nye Thompson dealing with the variety of issues presented by the technologies of mapping and communication. A generous curiosity about such strange phenomena helps navigate the peculiarities that Thompson’s work lays bare about the systems we use to get around and connect in this age of information.

INSULAE (2019) follows the coastline of Great Britain as presented by Google Earth. Snapshots taken by satellites are then tidied by proprietary software using a form of machine intelligence, making these composite images. Thompson stitched together thousands of them to create a seven hour loop shown on two screens so that viewers observe different sides of the maritime island. An image, like a map, often appears as a kind of island, independent, isolated from the people, places, systems, or social norms from which it derived. But, aesthetics are politics. Every cultural object designs a world that then posits a set of beliefs to engage across time, but that presumes a critical audience willing to attend to the details and construction of the artifact.

The poetics of INSULAE stem from Thompson’s managing her extensive research to create a juncture of air, water and earth, as well as satellites and receivers, that lure us into contemplating these systems. The slow pan along the coastline has a gentleness that brings to mind watercolor painting, once popular for capturing daily life. Its transportability and color convenient for depicting the happenstance and momentary in the same way people today pull out their mobile devices for desired snapshots of the world they encounter. These mapping softwares typically have us gazing down upon the world, as if we were not a part of it, but a cloud floating… which we have become through our largely uninformed participation in the “cloud”-based infrastructures of the information economy established by these transnational tech companies. Thompson would have us infiltrate these opaque systems and see them for ourselves.

The detailed landscape and color included in the composite rendering of navigational software are examples of the false sense of accuracy these systems provide, one easily confused as truthfulness. This is not the world. These synthesized images offer the world not as it is, but as it is given us to see. Why are there no clouds in Google Earth? Occasionally wisps appear, missed by the programmatic purging of the software. Clouds are nebulous and liminal, somehow able to associate with mountain peaks, evaporated water, and an endless sky. Now made singular, the cloud references the information and surveillance systems whose energy demands contribute to increasing climate change, privacy threats, and troubled international politics. But we see neither clouds nor the cloud. It’s easy to take the map for the territory, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze said decades ago, but maps are ideological contrivances so quickly naturalized that we forget there is more to the space than what is designated.

An “insula” is the Roman word for island and “insulae” were tenement dwellings for the middle class and poor inhabitants of Ancient Roman cities. It’s a strange connection between geographic entity and socio-political grouping that Thompson’s title subtly tweaks to address the contemporary. The celebratory fervor of Brexit’s isolationism attempted to limit immigration but also alienated the nation from crucial global discourse and transactions. Maps establish borders, align a political worldview onto designated areas, picture the planet according to ideological needs. These are then communicated to us.

Thompson spent four years trying to understand how our messages get from one computer to another, from one side of the island to the other, from this continent to that one, bouncing up and down, to and from satellites littering our very cloudy skies. What do those satellites see from their high perch? CU SOON are a series of electronic ‘postcards’ that Thompson sent to satellites orbiting the planet. The message travels one way and returns, scrambled, reassembled, with both on view on small screens within the installation. Hello says one postcard with an image of a satellite station against a blue sky; the return message is glitchy in magenta and greens, with granulation from the noise introduced into the image’s translations across space, time, systems and devices. The scrolling video on the rear projection screen reveals a jagged yellow line, which turns out to be the radio signal visualisation of the postcards travelling through space. We observe the material transmission of the communication system.

CU Soon installation view

When I was little, I delighted in the cards I received from my mother when she was traveling. It contained past, present and future through the picture of her locale, the stamp impressing the card’s movement though postal systems, her message of her various activities and hints of stories for when we were together again. The worn card materialized its movement across space and time and provided my over-active imagination with the fingertip sensation of its journey since it had left my mother’s hand. Years later, an early email service somehow deleted years of our messages to each other and I was crushed. Though virtual, those emails had embodied our connection. Our electronic circuits are material, both as matter, having impact, and being significant.

Many satellites are defunct. No longer in use by the companies or governments that sent them into orbit, they litter our skies, circling until they crash down. Some still function but inadequately for such high levels of power and a certain cadre of artists and renegades put them to more creative use. Thompson provides a glimpse of access to an infrastructure on which we all depend but have little knowledge, rare access, and no ability to impact. These systems are material to us, but not we to them. Thompson inserts herself into this information corridor to reveal a power imbalance that matters. In this, she performs a kind of institutional critique by stepping into the admirable lineage of mail art.

Often considered a kind of proto-net art for its adoption of the postal service as a mass medium that connects a global community, mail art appears with modernist and contemporary movements looking to circumvent established circuits of art world markets. An emphasis on exchange and collaboration, the movement promoted accessibility and democratization of artistic materials. No salon juries or regulations. No cultural or social capital required. No strictures to confine the creative impulse. Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and the Italian Futurists mailed works, but it was New York artist Ray Johnson in the 1950s posting small collages and drawings to critics, collectors and other art world notables that established the practice, becoming known as the New York Correspondence School. "Mail art has no history, only a present" said Johnson, punning on the gift of word and image. With postcards, the public yet private offering cultivates the sender’s playfulness to manage the openness.

Mail art was a popular movement across the globe from the 1970s to 1990s. Editor Shozo Shimamoto included mail art into AU no. 46 (September 1981), a newspaper of contemporary Japanese art activities, to map his international correspondents and show the global span of mail art. Some argue mail art waned in the 1990s when the internet provided an alternate collaborative space; others suggest that Net Art extended the practice of democratizing dissemination through the open-access bypassing of institutionalized channels of art. Thompson reinvigorates these histories, lineages, connections.

We maintain the border between the virtual and the tangible, the earth and sky, land and water, but a close look always blurs that distinction. Connections of all kinds are necessary to recognize and appreciate the hybridity of our contemporary. Thompson’s work is to soften the false boundary surrounding the digital as something different, and over there. It is here and everywhere. So are our material, “real” relations within the environments where the digital percolates.