>>In Conversation - text


Suspended Disbelief by Helen Sloan
The site-specific work of Susan Collins

Stroking, fondling, scratching, scrubbing, sneezing, coughing and dripping water are just some of the virtual projections which inhabit the work of Susan Collins. Transgressing art convention, each of the works appeals to the viewer directly to touch or peer at it closely. These pieces suggest real, sometimes tactile objects and events. The works are sometimes funny and nearly always point out the absurdity of everyday situations by their juxtaposition with other unrelated contexts. The history of modern art in itself holds many examples of this kind of grouping of seemingly abstruse objects and contexts. However, the twist in Collins' work is the use of projection. Projected sounds and images have the ability temporarily to transform a space or an object outside of its original context without altering it physically. It is this suspense which is the principal device of Collins' work.

The pieces are essentially a form of virtual reality, but without the cultural baggage associated with VR. There are no supernatural avatars; representations of 3D spaces such as other-worldly alien or spiritual landscapes; virtual art galleries; or walks around celebrity houses. Collins' terrain centres around the everyday encounter; day to day living in the commuter belt or a seaside town; and the chance meetings we have with complete strangers. The work is suggestive and asks the viewer to project their own narrative around each situation. Like still photographs or an incidental but well observed scene in a film, Collins entices the viewer to become immersed in the before and after of the projections. It is about the kinds of situations, familiar to everyone, that provide a combination of amusement and embarrassment. The work is economical, using every aspect of the projection and location whether it is a railway station, foot tunnel under a river, a nightclub or even an art gallery. All these contexts are worked carefully into the viewer's negotiation of the work.

On entering Collins' work (and it is immersive), the viewer's personal space is challenged. The average and comfortable 45cm of empty space around the body when in close proximity with people, and the usual nothing but the most minimal of conversation are immediately thrown into disarray in the work, whether it is by the breaking of the beam of an electronic eye or by using the body as a projection screen. All the implications of the anti-social act are there and a lot of the details, but it does not happen in reality. As a projection is not real, the viewer is asked to substitute their own experience on to the piece which is driven by the viewer as an individual and the work's suggestion. Projections are invested with further mores - we are not supposed to break beams or we interrupt the lecture or performance, and the notion of the body of the audience becoming a projection screen is almost unthinkable; at least, before the introduction of electronic interactive work. All these qualities deepen the immersion of the viewer in the pieces and allow a completely new social space to open up with a new set of rules and regulations. It is permissible to be groped by a projection of a hand and to splash about in a virtual puddle.

Every piece constitutes a performance which takes place in a living space, with its own established social rules and context for the people inhabiting it. It is the conflict between the actual space and the space created by the work which facilitates the myths which have grown out of the presence of the pieces. During Pedestrian Gestures, when it was shown at Nottingham Railway Station in 1994, delayed passengers became irate as, what they believed to be, the BR tannoy was broadcasting sighs, coughs and groans. And yet at other points, the work punctuated the passengers' day with an intriguing and witty happening. In these contexts, as people become attuned to two part advertising, people try to surmise what it is for. But it is not subliminal advertising - it is an attempt to release the subliminal self in the most impersonal of contexts and spaces. When the piece was shown in a nightclub environment, a "kissing corner" was introduced with the suggestive animations of hands, mouths and eyes together with groans and sighs. Introductory Exchanges, in the Woolwich Foot Tunnel underneath the Thames in 1993, had people believing that there were sheep in the tunnel as they tripped an electronic eye connected to a recording of sheep baaing. Others thought they heard footsteps or water dripping in the tunnel. One viewer was so struck by the puddles projected outside the lifts at either end of the tunnel that he relieved himself into one of them.

There are numerous anecdotes around the work and while they are a mixture of negative and positive reactions, the work always achieves what it sets out to do. It draws the viewer's attention to the bathos of everyday situations without making them totally nonsensical. And like these events, the work can only function with a viewer's performative response. The audience becomes a part of the work and their individual reactions can change how a piece is read at any one time. The work is an open system which has to be closed by the audience - the viewer response is therefore crucial to the modus operandi of the system.

In the gallery, the context is still exploited. This is an arena in which many practitioners and theorists suggest that it is no longer possible to be vanguard, but Collins exploits and undermines the shock value which has been invested in so many artworks of the 20th Century. Touched for the Landesmuseum, Linz, and Zone Gallery, Newcastle in 1996 and AudioZone for V-Topia, Tramway, Glasgow in 1994, invite the viewer to become the projection screen and be stroked, groped and scratched by a projection of a hand. Inversely, sound headsets provocatively encourage the viewer to touch other large projections with strategically placed interactive buttons both from body parts and computers. As with the outdoor work, these pieces give the responsibility back to the viewer for the innuendo and context of the projection. In this way, the work questions the central role of the artist, and the often forgotten one of the audience, in the contemporary art gallery and the institution's place in the history of performance, photography and video.

Every Dog Has its Day, shown at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery in 1995, put museology under the spotlight by highlighting the process of taxidermy and the subsequent storage of collections. Video coverage of the taxidermy process was hidden in boxes interspersed with objects from the museum collection including a stuffed dog which once belonged, as a live animal in the real world, to a dignitary of the town. Although the work seemed at first humorous, and this is true of all Collins' work, the dog came to signify something more serious. Its exact provenance was unknown suggesting the forgotten histories and heritage held within all museum and gallery collections.

The new work for Brighton's BN1 + Lighthouse, In Conversation, is an extension of the devices in former works, and in particular Pedestrian Gestures, in that it opens the system between the work and the audience further by using the Internet. A hidden surveillance and audio system with microphone on a Brighton street is available for access by anyone connected to the Internet or, of course, from the street itself. Using this system together with some visually projected pointers, people in Brighton are able to have dialogue with the Internet users. The Internet is well documented for its projects which create microcosms on a trans-global level and this project is no exception in employing this device. Its difference is that it maintains the intimate level of communication set up between the Internet user and the screen while operating completely outside of the screen at one of its stations. Conversely, it does not operate on the enormous scale of digital performances and installations to date created using the Internet. It maintains the intimacy and suggestion of small scale social interaction which is central to Collins' work.

Puddles and fluids are a recurrent feature of all the pieces including In Conversation. These are drawn from Collins' reference to the short story The Interview by Primo Levi (1). Elio, a night shift worker, is on his way home from work one evening and as he makes his way down a dark alleyway a voice, which appears to come from the floor, asks him some awkward questions which follow a peculiar logic such as how we digest, wash, gestate and at what age clothes develop on our bodies. Elio feels confusion and embarrassment throughout the encounter, and these feelings overcome any surprise or curiosity he may have when he realises that he is being questioned by a brown alien splodge on the floor. The splodge is in turn left in a predicament when it needs Elio to light a match in order to ionise the air for take off and the return journey home.

What Collins and Levi have in common, beyond the puddle or splodge, is their desire to point out the absurd without making it ridiculous. They do not wish to add to the body of science fiction overrun by twee examples of aliens confused by our habits. Our cultural development, social spaces and interaction are interrogated seriously in Collins' work by the introduction of other arenas and rules which exist in a combination of real and virtual space. Virtual reality and the Internet have suggested potential for other spaces, but they have most often been transposed to computer or headset as a literal attempt to render 3D space, or through the creation of closed systems they represent another environment entirely. Collins remains fixed in a fascination with the real world and uses the virtual to investigate why we act, interact and speak in the way that we do.

(1) Primo Levi trans. Raymond Rosenthal, The Interview in The Mirror Maker, Schocken Books, New York, USA, 1989