Two.5 - Collaboration Adventure Postcards
"Cultural exchange is a radical act. It can create paradigms for the reverential sharing and preservation of the earth's water, soil, forests, plants and animals. The ethereal networker aesthetic calls for guiding that dream through action. Cooperation and participation, and the celebration of art as a birthing of life, vision, and spirit are first steps. The artists who meet each other in the Eternal Network have taken these steps. Their shared enterprise is a contribution to our common future."
Chuck Welch, Mail Artist
The mail artists of the 1970’s and 80’s were a collaborative group of artists, albeit working separately, corresponding back and forth by sending artwork through the postal service. The movement lasted in this form until the internet supplanted the postal service as a means for creative exchange. The internet is much more cost effective than paying for postage. It allows for faster participation and a broader audience. Artists can showcase their work without the need for a gallery, musicians can compose, record and stream it all online, and the internet provides innumerable ways for a writer to present their work. If you are looking to collaborate with another artist from another discipline, there are hundreds and thousands of eager creatives to choose from.
But, a lot of artists live in their own head, their own vision of the world rarely blends seamlessly with that of another artist’s. So, for many, the idea of collaboration is highly unappealing because it’s associated with compromise and conflict. As an artist it is important to be sociable, to be able to bounce ideas around with other creative people. We learn from each other and can pick up different angles to explore ideas this way. But, after much creative mingling, we might then retreat to develop an idea into an artwork alone.
What helps to make digital collaborations successful is the same thing that made the mail art movement successful; the artists are working with each other but at a distance. Retaining their personal space to develop their individual ideas, coming together online to share them when they are ready.
Two.5 is one such digital collaboration. Viccy is a writer based in the UK and Samantha is a photographer based in the USA. They have combined their talents to produce two digital books about their travelling experiences together, such as their residency in China. Their collaboration is not just limited to the web and not just a collaboration between themselves. On their travels they have interviewed and worked with a broad spectrum of people and used other collaborative, idea exploring techniques such as workshops, to shape their creations. Two.5 have chosen a path of collaboration, which many of us would fear to tread and we got a chance to follow them on it, for just a little while.
There are a few similarities between your work the Mail Art movement, particularly in terms of inclusiveness, collaboration and correspondence, not to mention the main formats used of writing and photography. Do you see your work as being a type of mail art and are there any artists from this movement that have acted as inspiration for you?
Samantha: The processes underpinning Dirty Laundry, our first digital art book, or our newest project Snap, which is in the work-shopping phase certainly have a mail art aspect to them. Due to our great distance geographically Viccy and I had to find a way to develop projects, build up ideas and create content while living our lives totally separately. The internet has allowed us to work in tandem, and using platforms like Cargo Collective, WordPress, and Tumblr we have something that equates to a shared sketch book online. Ultimately though, I feel that we work hard to bring all our different sketches together into a highly organized form. For Dirty Laundry, and the recently released Recollections we labored over not just the content but the experience of interacting with the digital book. I think we both are naturally interested in the form and function and one of the most satisfying elements of our creative partnership is delving into all the levels of a piece so that the final product reflects all our interests- intellectual, artistic, abstract and concrete.
Viccy: Our first major project together, Dirty Laundry, could definitely fall into that category as it had a time-lapse exchange structure that both held Samantha and my work apart and brought it together in a similar way. Samantha would post a selection of three images (from a staged photo-shoot) and I’d have a couple of weeks to respond with a story based on those images. One of the rules that grew up around it was that we couldn’t discuss the work with each other until we’d not only posted both sides of the work, but also written a blog post about the process behind creating it. Reading back over those posts is odd; I don’t remember writing most of them. It’s quite special to have that side of the work preserved, especially as it was the first year of our collaboration together so we were testing out and learning so many different things. I do remember the vivid excitement of when I’d finally get to ask Samantha questions about the photos, making the rules a kind of positive frustration.
However, our latest project, Recollections, has been very different as the main work was done when we were in the same physical space, first on the residency in China and then editing and work-shopping our pieces during Samantha’s visit to the UK earlier this year. Because we’re normally living in different time zones, on different continents, our communication with each other (usually through a variety of different digital correspondences) is a really intrinsic element of our joint process. We don’t usually have the luxury of sharing time in person, so we have to work hard to find ways to connect with each other. There’s still a lot of correspondence around the project but it’s mainly hidden and certainly not collected: administrative stuff rather than creative sharing.
One of the best things about being a creative right now, is that, with the benefit of digital media and computers, it is much easier for artists and writers to produce their own work online. The problem with this is, that often people don’t know where to go to look for good artwork, or even where to begin to look for it online. Having good work noticed is still a challenge. How do you tackle this?
Samantha: We are often discussing this very conundrum. Personally I spend a lot of time trying to let go of the anxiety around finding an audience for my art. If I find myself getting too caught up in worrying about who will see my work it diminishes my overall happiness and motivation. With that said, Viccy and I made a very conscious decision to self-publish a digital art book. Digital precludes us from many typical book fairs or book awards but it has made our work very portable which allows us to use our social networks to promote and share our digital art book. As with all business ventures I suppose artists must take calculated risks, utilize their networks and strive to capitalize on their strengths.
In my own practice, when looking for inspiration I find it very useful to aimlessly click around the art communities I’ve become a part of. Virtually wandering around the artist pages on Cargo Collective or Saatchi is very satisfying. I also dip into popular art websites BOOOOOOOM! and Juxtapose to see what trends are circulating. It’s not so much the quality of the art that matters as the excitement that comes from discovering something that catches your eye or imagination.
Viccy: We have a mailing list so people can sign up to be kept informed of our work, and interviews like this help spread the word. Two.5 has a Facebook Page and a Twitter account, but as with all these things they tend only to reach people who already know about us. I have a much larger following on my personal Twitter account and blog, so there’s some cross-pollination there. And because we work from separate countries and in different art forms, we’re introducing each others work to new audiences by sharing those networks.
In terms of how I find out about things myself, I read a bunch of different online literary magazines, and I try to support local real-life events. Most of those I’ve come to via Twitter. Earlier this year I did a live broadcast of a literary tour of Edinburgh via Google Hangouts for the Digital Writer’s Festival in Melbourne, which was fun: all their events were broadcast, I believe, which means they were accessible for people who couldn’t get there in person and I liked that idea. I also dip in and out of the new work that goes up on The Space, and I’m on what feels like a million e-newsletters that conglomerate things, like Arts Admin, Mslexia’s Little Ms, British Council, Arts Council, Creative Scotland, Scottish Book Trust, New Writing North, Unthank Books. If it comes into my inbox and I have a spare five minutes I read it, if I don’t then I delete it without reading it.
The best way I know of to get noticed is perseverance: if you’re still doing your thing – whatever it is – five years down the line, then you’re starting to gain the kind of experience (and hard shell) that means more opportunities will come up for you. That and being nice to other people; share opportunities, share knowledge and be generous if anyone asks for advice or help. That kind of attitude pays itself back with other people being generous in return. Stay in the game and stay grateful. That’s true both on and offline.
Tell us a bit about your experiences workshopping each of your digital books and if there were any real noticeable differences in responses you had from people in different cities. What was the most unexpected / surprising thing that you learned from these?
Samantha: I'd like to highlight how different our two books are. The first one Dirty Laundry is a collection of short fiction inspired by carefully composed narrative photographs while our second book Recollections is documentary style portraiture and landscape photography accompanied by a collection of creative non fiction vignettes. Generally people seem to take Dirty Laundry at face value while for Recollections we encountered a lot more questions about the methodology. Dirty Laundry evolved over a period of years during which time we were finding our direction as a collaboration and hammering out the concept for our digital art book platform. Recollections, on the other hand, was our response to a month long residency in rural South West China. I think that when people encounter the book they themselves are faced with the challenge of understanding a strange world full of unfamiliar characters, and thus are filled with questions about how we experienced the place and time we are reflecting on. For Recollections, the specifics of the questions may vary, but at the heart of it people are curious about our experience and how that translated into the book.
Viccy: We workshopped very different material in each of the three cities, so it’s hard to do a fair comparison. From the perspective of the writing, at our first workshop, in Edinburgh, I got given direct inspiration to go on to write the piece from the camel’s perspective (thanks Alison)! In Newcastle we had a really good discussion on brevity and that led to several of the pieces being strongly cut and I think I got the necessary sense of ‘permission’ to let pieces be very short, which I already knew was easier to read on a screen but was struggling to cut back on my natural tendency to over-analyse and over explain. By the time we hit London, for our final workshop, we had a full draft of all twelve sections so a lot of the workshop was taken up by people reading the whole thing (printed out and spread round the basement space of the Canvas Café) and the feedback was more about the concept of the book and how we would introduce and describe it rather than an in-depth critique of works-in-progress.
Something that was unexpected for me was how much people loved our anecdotes about the residency. I don’t know if it was the content or the delivery (Samantha and I have been friends for over a decade so we make a good team for storytelling), but we got strong feedback to put ourselves in the work more. While that wasn’t what we wanted for Recollections – we didn’t want it to be a travelogue – it did lead me to write a greatly extended version that is going to be distributed as an e-book by Cargo Press in late August.
I also found it interesting that if a piece didn’t quite work, it was universally hated: people have different connections with different sections based on personal taste, but the weaker written pieces were instantly picked out by the people at the first two workshops. Which was great, because that showed me why the other ones were working and we had a really open space to try different approaches and techniques to bring the collection together.
Unfortunately, none of us at Redbird have an iPad so we haven’t been able to check out your digital books as fully as we'd like. Did you have a reason for choosing iPad only and are you planning on making them available on other systems / formats?
Samantha: When we received our first grant we discussed making a traditional printed and bound art book, but we jettisoned this idea fearing that our moms would be the only people to buy them. One of the advantages of the ipad is that we are able to make our books available all over the world for free. We were also driven by curatorial motivations- as a collaboration, we were working entirely digitally and once we decided to stay in the digital format we realized that much like a traditional book, the ipad allowed us to curate the experience of the viewer. Content on the internet is subject to all sorts of distortions, a screen can dramatically alter the colors, size and shape of a picture, compress the images to the wrong aspect ratio, and break the text up in a way which was never intended. With the ipad we can be sure that the viewer is seeing the piece as we intended. In the long term, we would love to make the app available on other tablets.
Viccy: We spent a lot of time debating it. In fact, our original intention was to produce Dirty Laundry as a limited-run artist’s book in print. Which led to a lot of debate over the relationship between the images and the stories and how they needed to be together, so that you couldn’t turn a page and not have the images anymore. We made loads of mock-ups and then ended up back at digital again: at the time, it existed as a draft version on Cargo. We chose digital because that’s how the creative work was produced and shared, so it was authentic for the pieces. It also made it easier to share from different countries, which better reflected our situation.
But it was important for us that it had the same kind of curated experience that you get with, for example, a physical exhibition. Which is how we came to design the template both Dirty Laundry and Recollections are published in – On The Same Page. It publishes the creative work in a curated environment – a free to download web app optimised for iPad. We raised funds to cover the production costs via Indiegogo, and our excellent technical collaborators Mel Ashby and Asier de Quadra built it for us. We were limited in our formats because neither of us has the coding skills to do the build ourselves, which meant we needed to buy technical help. And as neither of us is independently wealthy that meant raising money, so we set ourselves an achievable goal by making a web app rather than a native app and by limiting it to iPad. There was also a creative control element there too: we felt the size of the iPad screen was better for displaying the images rather than, for example, an iPhone.
We’d love to make them available in different formats, so if anyone is interested in funding that or publishing a different version then please do get in touch. We actually have an exhibition of some of the pieces from Recollections in New York soon – as part of a group show by artists who have been in residency at Lijiang studio in China. So you can buy prints of some of the photos with a shaped text-extract overlay at that.
Can you tell us a bit about your residency in China, the struggles you had with language and with getting around the country?
Samantha: We talk a lot about the struggles we had with translation in the introduction to our book. Ultimately we faced a multilevel translation issue. We were trying to translate a foreign culture into an understandable framework. We interviewed many people trying to understand what life was like through the eyes of the people around us. However, interviews posed their own problems since we relied on an interpreter as an intermediary. This was further complicated by the fact that the locals primarily spoke Naxi while our interpreter spoke only Han Chinese. We traversed the countryside around our farm, took shuttle buses into the nearby city, and spent a week in the mountains all looking for people to talk to and yet everywhere we went we found ourselves trying to pick apart the levels of translation so that we could figure out what everything meant. Maintaining authenticity while knowing all our information was filtered through the lens of 3 sometimes 4 levels of language and culture translation became the greatest challenge. Throughout the project we contemplated the best way to convey what we were encountering in a way that would feel meaningful not just to our viewers in the US or the UK but to the people we were getting to know. We have always wanted to send our work back to Lijiang so authenticity in translation was of utmost importance and our greatest struggle.
Viccy: Samantha had studied Mandarin for a year a long time ago and had visited China once before but I’d never been and didn’t know a single character of the language, written or spoken. It wasn’t something we’d discussed in depth before going out to the residency, but I suppose I’d assumed the majority of our work would be observational and descriptive, and that Frog would be able to help answer some of our questions and be available to help us with logistical translation. Then when we arrived she was really enthusiastic about the work and offered to introduce us to people in the community and translate interviews with them. Which was an amazing chance to delve further into working with the community but raised different issues of fidelity as her Mandarin was, as she described it, at about the level of a 12yr old. And most of the older members of the community only spoke Naxi, and even those who did speak Mandarin did so with a thick Naxi accent. So sometimes parts of the conversation were incomprehensible to our translator, plus we were all working at speed- I was hand transcribing rather than audio-recording. And there was the level of cultural translation: certain concepts translate with pre-conceptions. Kind of amusingly, Samantha also acted as a translator between Frog and I to keep us clear on American and British vocabulary issues, which also extends into cultural assumptions.
As a writer, I was surprised how hard I found it not to be ‘in control’ of the language: the exact words people were using were important to me, and I worried about only capturing Frog’s voice and not those of the people we were talking to. However when I started transcribing my notebooks back in the UK I was really amazed at how much of the spirit and character of the people we’d talked to and the situations we’d been in came through in my notes. I usually work with fiction, so working with creative non-fiction meant Samantha and I had some long talks when we were editing the work on what level of truth we were able to represent, and chose the wording of our introduction carefully so that it’s clear it is a creative piece of work: we haven’t made anything up, but the way we’ve put together some incidents or images creates certain connections for our audiences that aren’t explained with, for example, captions on the photographs. It was important for us that the work was given the chance to stand by itself and that some aspects were left unexplained, so the audience has to work to find their own explanation.
Can you tell us about the worst and best part of your time spent in China and if there is one moment in that whole experience, which still resonates with you as individuals or, as a shared experience?
Viccy: Rice. As soon as I got back to the UK I bought a rice cooker, which I adore like a pet. I really enjoyed eating rice for lunch and dinner every day. That’s up there in the good resonant memories. The rubbish spilling out of the ditches and the plastics being burnt was a negative experience – the countryside round where we were was breathtakingly gorgeous, and the influx of modern packaging is starting to literally choke areas of the countryside. The characters of the people we met will stay with me too – working with Frog meant we got to have conversations and connections with individuals that simply wouldn’t have been possible if we’d gone with Plan A of observing and describing rather than interviewing.
Samantha: One of my favorite things about the residency was early morning in the kitchen with Grandma. Grandma was the matriarch of the Hé family and she was a tough old woman who had seen many hard times but was always quick to smile or make a joke. Grandma was typically the first person up in the morning. She would feed the pigs and the chickens and often she'd make the baba- a steamed bun that was served every day for breakfast. When I first arrived at the studio I was adjusting to a 12 hour time difference and serious jet lag. As a result I was frequently up with the sun. I would put on warm clothes and head to the kitchen, a room with one side open to the courtyard. There was a small hearth in a metal dish in which grandpa would light a corncob fire first thing in the morning. Grandpa would fill a giant kettle which perched on a three legged riser in the tiny hearth and heat the water for the tea flasks while grandma got to work preparing the pig feed, cleaning the woks and lighting the fire in the stove. Once the water boiled Grandpa would make a giant cup of tea and wander off. Alone in the kitchen, Grandma and I would talk to each other in a combination of terrible Chinese- our two accents skewing our words- and extensive hand gestures. Most mornings we went through this ridiculous routine together, flailing our arms, pointing aggressively, sounding our words out endlessly and laughing at each other and ourselves. Despite our lack of language we were able to share a lot and fundamentally there was a clear understanding that we shared a gregarious nature and a mutual fondness.
The hardest part of the residency was the lack of indoors as we know it at home. The lake valley sits in a mountain range high above sea level. The sun was very strong and air was very dry. The temperatures would swing dramatically, raising to near sweltering at midday and comparatively freezing at night. The kitchen was room with three walls, our living quarters lacked any insulating, and rarely did we encounter rooms with heat. The lifestyle of the people we stayed with existed mostly outside, and while they seemed unfazed by the weather, I found myself constantly battling back sunburn, dust, burrs, and cold. At one point I bought a woolly hat and started sleeping in it to keep myself warm at night. The lack of walls also meant a serious lack of privacy. It was only when we left China all together that could Viccy and I talk to each other about our personal challenges while working in such a foreign environment.
Was there anything you didn’t manage to capture in your 4,000 photographs and 40,000 words?
Samantha: We only scratched the surface. Even with a year at Lijiang Studio I suspect we would feel as if we were still only scratching the surface.
Viccy: It was my first time being in China and also my first time working in non-fiction and working through a translator so there was loads going on that was very new to me. I think we captured an essence of our time there in our mad data-gathering rush, and I’m really proud of how we’ve distilled that down into Recollections. We had some really poignant experiences that I didn’t even try to write down, because I was only writing down things I thought would go into the artwork: if people told me a story they wouldn’t want shared, then I respected that. And sometimes you need to spend time looking at the world around you rather than down at the page in front of you.
You based your compilation style in Reflections on the common place book, which was a popular way of recording material in early modern Europe around the 1600s. The most interesting thing about these kind of books is what they tell you about the creators of them. When you were creating Reflections together, what did you discover about yourselves and how you view the world?
Samantha: I was amazed at how differently Viccy and I could interpret the same situation and yet in the next moment we would have exactly the same take on something. I also found being in a third space – home to neither of us – really highlighted the British qualities of Viccy against my American habits.
Viccy: I was fascinated with how different I found attitudes towards family, duty and individual choice while we were in China. It made me more aware of how I take contemporary Western attitudes for granted and apply those ways of thinking when reading historical accounts or accounts of other cultures. Seeing other forms of family structure taken for granted, and the assumption that you will put family before self – through every aspect of life – was really interesting. It also made me more interested in the assumptions we bring to what other people want from their lives and how that affects how we interact with them.
Being in an environment that was so completely different from everything I knew and having my normal ways of interpreting the world taken away from me – words, spoken and written – gave me a much higher level of sympathy with, for example, Chinese students studying in the UK. I also laughed a lot when some of our sign language turned out to be really different, for example Grandma Moon’s sign language for knitting was one-handed, more like crocheting.
Viccy, you read a lot of young adult speculative fiction, can you tell us a bit more about what it is that you gain from these books and if you’ve found that you prefer certain stories and archetypes as opposed to others within this genre? Are there similarities between what you like to read and what you like to write?
Viccy: A series I read as a pre-teen – the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce – has stuck with me my whole life: a strong female protagonist who is working out what it means to succeed in a man’s world when you’re a woman. And it included growing boobs and getting your first period and having crushes so it was an amazing instruction manual for those aspects of life as well as on how to improve swordsmanship and battle wizards in the desert. I’m in love with metaphor, and as a genre speculative fiction allows us to address real issues from a different angle. YA fiction has to be very heavy on plot, something which adult literary fiction doesn’t always master. One thing that irks me though is the prevalence of the idea that a girl has to chose between two men, must find love young and be pure, must doubt herself continually, and must be appreciated for her beauty and melt when men compliment her. A lot of the series which follow the same plot lines as high profile, commercially successful series fail to appreciate how damaging the stereotypes they’re putting out there are. I love writers like Ursula Le Guin, Tamora Pierce, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett who can world-build without reducing characters to nothing more than their identifying traits.
I think my writing sits somewhere between those kind of books and my other readings joys, which are books by people such as Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, David Mitchell. I’m a short story fan too – mainly by contemporary writers, and I think that’s a big influence on my work (pun intended), almost a counterbalance to the heavy plotting of a YA series.
Samantha, you studied Social Anthropology, which is really interesting given you’re a photographer. We've met with a number of artists recently who studied philosophy and there is definitely a link between making art and indulging in philosophical, sociological problem solving. What is it that fascinates you most about the people you photograph? What makes you push the button on your camera?
Samantha: Behind most of my work – documentary and narrative – is the exploration of awareness and consciousness. I've always been interested in these subjects and anthropology gave me the tools to think about the human experience critically. Art gives me the chance to approach existential questions on an abstract plane. Instead of working toward an explanation the goal becomes a feeling, and instead of focusing on the answer the emphasis shifts to the experience. Found or created, a portrait is a powerful tool for connecting us to the matrix of human experience. Often the urge to take the picture is reflexive, and the most exciting part is going back and looking at the pictures to see if that spark you saw in the moment is translated through the picture itself.
Some creative projects take a seriously long time to finish. How do you keep going on a project, what helps you to stay focussed and driven?
Samantha: Working with Viccy as a collaborative unit means that I'm expected to show up. The commitment to the work as part of our partnership helps keep things going when life becomes complicated or motivation wanes.
Viccy: Working with someone I don’t want to let down is a great motivator. Even if I don’t feel like doing something, I know I have an obligation to Samantha and fulfilling that is a way of paying respect. Having said that, Dirty Laundry took a lot longer than we expected, then we realised we needed to edit and share it in a different way and so what started out as a bit of focussed creative fun turned into a four year leviathan that saw us through the progress of getting grants from ACE and the British Council, designing a new digital platform, and raising £3K on Indiegogo. And we were both working full time on (paying) jobs throughout that. I think we’ve done really well at staying focussed and driven, in fact I’d say what we need to work on – and what we’re trying to do with our new project, Snap, is take a step back from our intimidating focus and allow space for creativity to breath and develop without the stress that builds up through the admin associated with getting grants and sharing work outside of the collaboration.
Can you tell us a bit about your latest project?
Viccy: We’re doing a (more or less) daily creative exchange on Tumblr called ‘Snap’: it’s snapshots from our daily life that we’re going to accumulate and then see where we want to go from there. The last couple of years have been exceptionally busy with crowdfunding and publishing two digital books so we wanted to take a different approach for a while.
Viccy, what are your preferred writing tools and what does your working desk look like?
Viccy: Moleskine notebook, pens stolen from hotels. My Macbook Air (bought with my first professional commission, so it’s very dear to me). I prefer a thin lined A5 page, nothing too heavy to carry around. I hate using my phone to make notes- it has to be handwritten or full-sized keyboard typing even if I’m on the go.
My working desk has a fringe of decorative junk – maybe it’s better to call them totems—but I’ll end up making camp in different zones around my flat depending on when I start writing a piece. I now share my study with my partner as I was using all the surfaces available in our flat and he had nowhere to work (he’s also a writer). I also love working in coffee shops: the background buzz helps me switch off and getting out of a domestic sphere helps kick writer’s block away.
Samantha, what are your photographic tools of choice and do you have a digital editing suite you prefer to work in?
Samantha: I have a Canon 5d mark II digital SLR that I use with a variety of lenses. Canon cameras and lenses are very sharp and most of the time I prefer the quality and color of the old Nikon and Nikkor lenses I’ve had since I was a teenager. When I moved to digital I bought adaptors that allowed me to combine the two different eras of technology. For color correction, cropping, re-sizing and those sorts of things I might use Lightroom or Photoshop. However, I work very hard to get what I want when I'm shooting. In most cases there is little to no cropping, or color correction.
Bonus Question: If you could travel back in time and visit anywhere as a tourist (photography is permitted) where and when in time would you go?
Viccy: Ancient Greece, when the oracle at Delphi was at its height.
Samantha: After all this art talk I would have to say Paris amongst the pioneers of Surrealism. Man Ray was my first great photographer hero, and the philosophical, and psychological underpinnings of the movement appeal to own worldview. I think artists often pine for a movement to be a part of and it would be amazing to see artists of various disciplines coming together with such gusto and verve.
You can find out more about Two.5 and download their art books from their website and peripatetic studio.