May 6, 2020

During these uncertain times, SMoCA has invited artists and staff to utilize our blog Inspire as an outlet to make meaningful connections by sharing personal reflections and insight into their practice.

Squidsoup (from left); Anthony Rowe, Liam Birtles, Ashley Wilkie, and Daniel Pearson.
Photo: Charles Darr

Entry 4:
Curator of Murmuration, Julie Ganas, interviewed Liam Birtles and Anthony Rowe from Squidsoup, asking them to reflect on what went into creating this monumental artwork and what it means to them in this uncertain time.

Julie Ganas: What is Squidsoup’s philosophy (how do you approach artmaking)?

Liam Birtles: The term ‘philosophy’ rather suggests a grand schema or belief system. I think we are somewhat uncomfortable with that. However, as with all artists there are a set of recurring themes and interests within our practice, notions, and concepts that are continually discussed and reoccurring.

Core and underpinning all is the notion of immersion, the work as an encompassing and consuming experience, an intention to remove from one space to take somewhere else, to take on a journey, in this there is an acknowledgement of the experience of the work, of presence, of arts use and consumption.

Our use of complex technology can obscure the emotional immediacy of our creative process, however our intention is always abstraction and expressionist (this connection is perhaps most apparent in our live gigs), yet searching for emotional immediacy.

The framing of technology is perhaps the one we don’t like to admit or acknowledge, in some ways we try to hide our technologies, yet we see technology as medium, material, and materiality, as much as chemistry is part of painting, technology affords us control, multiplicity, repetition. Engineering and technology represent a view of the world that sits in often stark contrast to that of arts practice—the clash of cultures and perspectives leads to new ways of seeing. . . .

Oddly, given that technology is so concrete, so present, the closest we get to a subject for our work is liminality, the unformed and emerging, the between state, that point of transition and threshold. 

Anthony Rowe: I think it’s at these boundary positions that interesting things happen though. At a pure tech level, what we do is not particularly groundbreaking, but I think we’re finding fresh ideas at the boundaries—between technology and art/experience certainly, but also at the boundaries between object and environment, between installation and performance, even between performer and audience.

Also—this is more about out process than our philosophy—from my own perspective, it feels like there is a switch in my head. We’re all constantly rummaging through ideas, and occasionally something will float by that I see as truly interesting. At which point, we start to dissect it, work out how it could be made and so on. During this phase, we begin to understand more about what it is that we find interesting and worth pursuing. But without that initial spark, there would be no point for us.

JG: Can you talk through the process of how Murmuration was designed and assembled? What about a murmuration of starlings actually inspired you?

AR: Starling murmurations are not a particularly rare thing here in the UK countryside—both Liam and I have seen plenty in our time. If you have seen one, you’ll know: what is not to be amazed at? These are natural phenomena that are stunningly beautiful, dynamic, unpredictable. And they look so right. They represent very decentralised control, yet there is clear emergent behaviour—thousands of individual starlings all controlling their own position independently, yet in concert with those around them.

Images of starlings’ murmurations also possess stunning granularity and texture that is utterly beguiling, and that at best we could only allude to in the project.

LB: The way behaviour emerges as form, the teasing and guttering dynamism and fluidity, the continual reconfiguration as in the attempt to land, its defensiveness, tentativeness, an empathy with the individual birds, the notion that each of their individual choices were a contribution to the whole, emerge as a whole.

There’s also something unique about the sound, a multiplicity of points of sound, individual flapping clapping tweeting becoming one. . . .

JG: How did you go about creating the form?

AR: The form was a combination of multiple parameters. At the outset, we knew we wanted a dynamic flowing form, and we knew—or thought we knew—what works and does not work in terms of form defined by the multiple suspended orbs. A previous project, Wave explored the idea of a progressively disintegrating suspended 3D form. We wanted the shape (although static) to feel very dynamic—hence the connection to the murmuration and the idea of a dynamic form made of flowing energy forces frozen in time.

LB: A series of pencil sketches drawn over print outs of the space, adjusted against the physical limitations of the space, a response to the notion of the canyon [the pedestrian street down the side of SMoCA], we had in mind the movement of a murmuration, a whipping up of a form, swooping from the front and dropping over into the canyon, reminiscent of fluid trapped between the building, breaking up and over the flat surfaces.

As we began to discuss the practicalities of suspending a volume of lights and speakers, the practicalities and limitations of wiring, tensioning all exerted and influence on the designs of the form, the avoidance of lorries and audience, all became factors in that murmuration, distant but real existential fears resulting in form. 

AR: As you can see in the early renders, there was a struggle to get the aesthetic right, the feeling of natural flow in three-dimensions, that was both a response to the site (the very specific SMoCA architecture) and to the medium we were working with. There were also the practicalities of designing a 3D form when the site was 5,000 miles away from our studio. And there were few accurate plans of the site, so the first step was to build a virtual SMoCA.

JG: Why did you decide on the three different phases throughout the cycle of the piece?

AR: The three temporal elements (day, night, and dawn/dusk) were very much a response to the practicalities of the site, and of life on planet earth: sometimes it is dark and sometimes it is light. Light art struggles in daylight. However, the murmuration theme provided the solution here—murmurations occur mainly at dusk and dawn. As the work has a strong sound element (each of the 700+ suspended orbs has its own independent speaker, enabling us to physically ‘move’ sound around), we took the opportunity to focus on sound during the day, light at night, and both at dawn/dusk.

LB: Beyond the literal temporal aspects of Murmuration there was a physical scale to the proposed work that required an equivalent temporal scale. 

To be consuming and immersive we wanted it to be an experience that you could not take in in a single viewing, it had to be repeatedly experienced, each visit adding detail and understanding, a never wholly seen thing, hard to grasp, requiring effort to make sense of, liminal.

Effort makes Murmuration as an experience worthwhile, to have to wake early or stay up late makes it an experience to be earned, makes it an experience with complexity, subtlety, takes it away from being simply an instant hit.

AR: I think that side of installation art is often overlooked. The location, the journey that one has to take to experience the piece, and so on are all important factors in one’s experience of a piece of work. Going to see Murmuration, deliberately, at dusk (or even at dawn), hopefully adds to things, makes it more special, more memorable, and opens, or sensitises, the visitors mind to focus more, to try to understand the work, to really feel it.

JG: How were the orbs assembled and what is each comprised of?

AR: Technically, each orb houses a Wi-Fi enabled processor (ESP32), multiple LEDs, accelerometer, and a speaker. They are interconnected using a wireless network so they can communicate with each other—much like starlings in a murmuration. The units were designed and are hand-assembled by us. We have been through several iterations of these units, and development has been supported by numerous organizations over the last two or three years (including SMoCA, Salisbury Cathedral, SWCTN, and Culture Creative).

The whole system is effectively choreographed over Wi-Fi from a Raspberry Pi unit that sends out occasional commands; so that dawn starts on cue, and so on.

JG: Has Murmuration influenced how you approach future projects?

LB: I think it made us braver, impressed upon us a sense of awe and scale, it clarified process, it reminded us that we are not alone, there are people who enjoy the act of making, it changed our language, it showed us that we can include those we work with in the journey of creation, that they would be accepting of a sometimes messy and compromised attempt to express an idea, that this would not diminish the outcome.

AR: Yes, it is the most ambitious and structurally difficult and uncompromising project we’ve made so far. It seems we can do it (admittedly with some help!)—and if we can do this, then what is the next step. . . .

JG: What does Murmuration mean to you now? What does art mean to you in these uncertain times? What does it mean to be an artist now?

AR: We’re really thrilled that SMoCA has taken the work to heart, and it is great that it is still up and running. It is our only live project at the moment, everything else has closed down. And the live webcam has highlighted several things. Watching from here in the UK, it is both gloriously connecting and yet also distancing to watch the Arizonan dawn at lunchtime. The very site-specific work now has a global presence; the webcam is an interesting response to COVID-19.

LB: Art made as a way of living is compromised by its institutions, its culture of practices, its mechanisms, but it is essential, it is a way of thinking, unpacking the world, it is a cultural glue, the human things, the between. 

The danger in COVID-19 is that, life is reduced to the “essentials,” that it becomes function, I rail against life as function, against the notion of use and usefulness and efficiency, they are all the end of joy and meaning.

AR: Life is hard for most people right now. People seem to be either in far too short supply (healthcare and other support services are being driven into the ground) or effectively redundant (the rest of us being told to stay home and do nothing, because anything we do is not worth the risk of spreading COVID-19). It is a major cultural and economic spasm that has managed to target some very awkward questions about the financial value of life. As artists we are often seen very much as non-essential and, because only the essential has any currency at the moment, we are effectively irrelevant.

As artists we need to be questioning current thinking on all levels – it seems much is driven by blind panic and coarse political calculations. Our roles can be to question the bigger assumptions made, and also to highlight and feed the positive aspects of what is happening in communities, the humanity that is being given light, and the additional time that many people have—even if they often feel unable to use that time effectively. 

JG:  What is your fondest memory of creating or installing Murmuration?

AR: Whenever I think of Murmuration, SMoCA, Scottsdale, and Arizona, I get a warm feeling. Every time I see blue sky, my mind wonders whether the blue is as blue as the sky in Arizona. The support and friendliness we received from you guys, the staff at SMoCA, was unparalleled. It was a very difficult project, highly stressful at times, and with not a few hiccups and challenges along the way, all of which could easily have turned into big problems. But the can-do approach, whatever is needed to fix it, was amazing. It is a key project for us, and I’m not sure it could have happened anywhere else.

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the weather. Installing in November in T-shirts is a definite bonus. After Murmuration, we installed in Chicago, Glasgow, Durham, Toronto, and various other places that were all either sub-zero or exceedingly wet, or both.

LB: Mostly the people we worked with, the roof, palms against a sunset, the width of the streets, the smell of heat, the whine of the cooling system, the shape emerging as we hung the first lights, the joy of the first sound and light running down the canyon. The obvious joy in newness, in the complexity of our work, the faith in us, the support, the being cared for.

Murmuration design renderings

Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.
Murmuration design rendering. Courtesy of Squidsoup.

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