Susan Collins' work is
about making connections. Bringing two separate things together, engineering
links between people: that is the way her work operates. It is also about creating
the unexpected. Her works disrupt the logical everyday flow of life, the patina
of our routines, in often simple but beguiling ways. Furthermore, the connections
she makes involve us. They invite us to take part, or to recognise that we are
part of some form of exchange.
In an understated way, her work makes an important comment on the way technology impacts upon us. Like many artists using technology, Susan Collins is interested in delivering work in ways that would not have been possible a generation ago, in exploring what new techniques and resources can offer her. In addition she chooses to reflect on the way technology affects how we understand the world. Technology's effect can be seen in its capacity for crunching massive amounts of data in milliseconds, in smaller hand-held mobile phones with massive functionality, and in films where dinosaurs share screen-space with humans. It can also be seen in the way we relate to each-other across time and space, in our understanding of complex ideas, and in the way we use our imaginations.
It is easy to talk about technology in terms of hardware and software, to describe its impact in terms of innovation and new products. It becomes harder to talk about the subtle things like the shift of our conceptual understanding of what 'information' is or how a notion like 'distance' has meaning. The quantifiable things may remain the same: distance can always be measured, but the significance of being 'distant' from someone else alters irrespective of the consistency of the miles that separate us.
We can discuss many of these shifts in anecdotal terms, like the 'quality' of separation. For example, to our great-great-grandparents, when news travelled by ship, relatives living in Australia were on the other side of the world separated by the immensity of time as well as distance. A generation later, the telegraph reduced the scale of separation as, later still, did air-mail, but contact was often sporadic and the sense of separation was still great. With e-mail and cheap phone calls, there can be an easier continuity to relationships, irrespective of distance. It is no accident that 'connectivity' and 'connectedness' have become two of the buzzwords of the digital age. Phone networks fall over each other to offer a constantly superior connectivity; mobile phone companies and service providers promote themselves as connecting us to a community.
What they are selling is bandwidth or ways of organising and linking together packets of data, but the way they describe it is in terms of our social need for connection. Cornwall is no stranger to the frequent debates about connectivity: indeed it is frequently used as an example of the way an area can be both remote and connected. The peninsula has one of the best infrastructures for educational computer networking while it also has some of the most isolated communities and schools. Historically, it was the symbolic point of connection to the UK as the telegraph cable was laid from Porthcurno across the Atlantic and the first transatlantic morse code message was transmitted by Marconi from Cornwall. There are other ways that people have stayed in contact that enter local mythologies, too, and fishing communities have their own stories about ways in which information could be coded and transmitted.
Susan Collins has frequently addressed our sense of connection in ways that are both intelligent and poetic, commenting on it through sound and image, but also involving us in a connection that leads us to consider why we are feeling the way we are - to involve us through experience. In one of her most widely shown works, In Conversation, first staged in Brighton in 1997, passers by in the street found themselves exchanging words with people on the net who were viewing the street scene via a website. Extraordinary conversations often sprang up, with people in Chicago, Sydney and Berlin chatting to each-other and to bemused locals in Brighton. A large mouth projected onto the pavement gave the impression that it was doing the talking, like a medium in a sÈance, and people would gather round it to chat back to the international personalities. It soon became clear that where people were from, or how many people were contributing online at any time, was largely irrelevant. What mattered was that there was a totally surprising link between two places; between the very real world of the street and the rather un-real world of the internet site.
Some of her earliest interactive video installations, such as Pedestrian Gestures, first staged on the concourse of the Paragon Railway Station in Hull in 1994, started to demonstrate this before she began to use telecommunication or digital connections. In these works, passers by were enticed towards a sound and found a projected image, often a part of the body like lips or a beckoning hand, which teased or cajoled them. These works placed things in locations where they were not expected, creating a whimsical disruption of normality and order. They paved the way to her later work in which the challenge to what could normally be expected in a space became not just a voice or image but a portal to another space and to another community of people. In these earlier works Susan never orchestrated the situation so that people had to interact with each-other or with the work in specific ways: it was left entirely up to them. One of the things that was so effective about this work was that its spirit of playfulness would encourage people to participate, to perform to the projection and the watchers, or to be a receptive audience eager to be performed to. Without labouring her point in any didactic way she demonstrated that it was the social quality of the engagement that gave it its significance.
Transporting Skies takes the impact of connectedness further. As well as creating a space that links people on one site to other distant people it creates a connection between the worlds they occupy that is not just a reflection of information or of language. The quality of the sky, that is on the one hand so geographically unspecific yet on the other so particular to a particular place and time, has extraordinary resonance. The quality of the daytime light in the Cornish sky is legendary; the quality of light in an urban centre is resonant of a thousand films, songs and photographs. The connection that Susan creates by linking the two is a connection of metaphor and symbol, a sharing of the way we understand the world.
Susan has often talked about her work as interrupting or challenging a space. It does this of course, but in many ways it does more. It confirms for us what a space is. It connects us, certainly, to spaces that are distant from us, but it connects us even more firmly to the place we are in. It makes us see how we relate to each-other and how we relate to our own space. It gives us an experience that makes our understanding of the everyday world a little less predictable and a lot richer.
Director, DA2 Digital Arts Development Agency