In conversation with... Heath Bunting and James Kennard
Heath Bunting and James Kennard are two of the UK's most well-known net artists. Based in Bristol, and with a track record spanning some 20 years in physical and virtual art, their work spans and addresses a range of social, technological, physical, political and cultural issues.
Bunting and Kennard's latest work is currently taking place at Bblackboxx in Basel. Focusing on the role and socio-political perception of the mobile phone in society, they are running a series of urban survival sessions for “mobile phones and their human companions”.
Given the supposed freedom of mobile phones, their piece at Bblackboxx has a focus on migration and the concept of physical borders. It features a scheme for refugees to take photos - with their mobiles - of their originating country, to bring back and show to others. It concludes with the showing of a film of the journey taken by asylum seekers from north Africa.
We spoke with Heath and James just before they set out to Basel.
Please introduce the project: how you have developed the idea, and the background to your thinking regarding the use of mobile phones.
JK: The Bblackboxx project emerged from a workshop we gave in Rowsley for the Tracing mobility programme. The objective was to take teenagers supposedly caught in a virtual trap, playing computer games compulsively and out of touch with the physical world and re-integrate them, using their own pervasive means to wean them off digital in a controlled manner.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 was the big game at the time, and in contemporary first-person shooters, one often finds oneself controlling a secondary object within the game world, for example a UAV helicopter (Battlefield Bad Company 2) or a remote-controlled car or boat (Grand Theft Auto series). At the same time as these playful virtual actions take place, the western military are conducting drone strikes with lethal effect in a few unfortunate countries, sitting at workstations, flying their slightly more complex but never the less disembodied virtual objects and a secondary (or third) world environment, map, or 3D terrain. Putting the body in harm's way or inviting others to put their bodies in harm's way has become increasingly difficult, and young peoples' ability to manage risk has been questioned.
Mobile phones and other pervasive media were regarded for the project as the medium between their virtual identities (which had been criticised) and the physical reality of the participants, and offered as their avatars, subjected to risk and destruction, going beyond the bodies of their owners now in physical space as well as the virtual. We aimed to play computer games in the Peak District, turning mobile phone and iPod avatars into pilots conducting search and destroy missions under the command of their teenage counterparts. They were subjecting their virtual identities to risk (“Oops, I drowned my phone, all the memory leaked away in the river, what am I left with, I've lost my profile picture, its the end for me, goodbye”) in a similar way to their physical identities.
Computer game aficionados - almost everyone under 28 - could very easily fly the militaries drone strikes for them. So there starts to be a confusion between where all these things are happening, the skills and intentions that feed them.
HB: I am fascinated as to why people give up their liberty to feel part of something. Why would people walk around with tracking devices, when being geographically illegal? Why would people share all their relationship information with powers intent on disrupting their collective activities? Why would people carry remotely operated microphones enabling 25-hour audio surveillance of themselves and others?
When did your own relationship with / use of mobile phones start, and how has it developed?
JK: My mum bought me a phone when I started my A-levels. I then inherited old phones until I bought my first one last year. It was the cheapest in the shop (£20). I have had the same number for 10 years. This makes me happy.
HB: I had my first phone in the early nineties when i was an Internet consultant working in London. As they were still rare at the time, I had a competitive advantage and could insist on working remotely by phone, instead of attending meetings. I could basically spend all day hanging out in London, answering the phone occasionally and getting paid £100 per hour. When everybody got one, I switched to not having one, which also affords me a competitive advantage.
Does society have a complimentary or dominant relationship with mobile phones? Are we now owned by our mobiles, rather than vice versa? Is it the right relationship?
JK: I personally see the mobile as a tool particularly in the light of my recent work with them. Some of the kids in Rowsley were quite happy to see their phones drowned, although how much that was to escape the oppressive cul-de-sac of virtual entrapment and how much to justify getting a new one, I'm not sure. I sensed a degree of ambivalence towards it all, but that might have been a general vibe. Of course it's a trap, but maybe one people are all to ready to buy into to avoid existential collapse or worry about domestic drone attack. Mobile devices can be used or good or bad like every technology - it depends on what you want.
HB: Most people are conformists and intend to be owned, controlled and used by the majority - its seemingly easier to follow the crowd - the mobile phone is the rod to beat and be beaten by.
Your piece for Bblackboxx includes an activity where tourists at countries of asylum origination, take photographs to bring back and share with refugees. In your view, how has the ubiquity of the mobile phone enriched and helped the lives of asylum seekers and migrants?
JK: We might not have time to contact and acquire media directly from tourists in other countries, and I've yet to discover what the phones mean to migrants, although Boycottlettes is bringing a sculpture they made of phone cards which they accumulated over a year of phone calls to their partner. The fact that the phones must be hidden in the woods outside the detention centre, a desperately precarious life, says it all.
“As with every technology, it's a good idea to smash it to pieces sometimes and look to the horizon
to try and remember who you are.”
Your piece includes "clothing and homes for mobiles". What are your views on the physicality of mobile devices? Are they too utilitarian? In your view, what does your perfect mobile look like?
JK: The clothing is to make something fluid and precarious a little more stable and reassuring and practically speaking, woodland-proof.
With your “adventure training for mobiles and their companions", are we becoming too precious about our mobiles? We wrap them in phone covers, and hate the prospect of them being damaged - the antithesis of a truly mobile device. Do we need to re-establish what a mobile phone should be - how we use it, carry it, work with it?
JK: As with every technology, it's a good idea to smash it to pieces sometimes and look to the horizon to try and remember who you are.
What will visitors expect from your piece?
JK: Fun, drones, stones, phones.
Finally, what is your idea of a perfect mobile phone?
HB: A perfect mobile phone is nothing more than an unexpected street smile from a sexy passer-by.
Heath and James' piece for Bblackboxx runs from 4th to 13th August in Basel.