A darkly humorous exhibition by artist duo Thomson and Craighead imagines the end of the world in a globalised and violent age
Party Booby Trap, the title of artist duo Thomson and Craighead’s latest exhibition, like many of their previous exhibition titles is a palindrome, read the same backward as it is forward. As well as an indication of the artists’ continued ability to appropriate language and narrative to form new meanings, it serves as a playful introduction to a show broadly concerned with the end of the world. Held at Carroll/ Fletcher gallery the show is a mixture of old and new work, spanning many disciplines to explore everything from the human genome to the apocalypse. Moving swiftly from the past, to present, to deep time, the artists observe and reformulate what it means to be human today in an increasingly fragmented, violent and globalised world. The subject is dark but a sense of humour is not lost, as gold balloons imprinted with the titles of 21st century military operations, like ‘Desert Storm’, ‘Urgent Fury’ and ‘Enduring Freedom’ hover about our feet, becoming the eponymous party booby traps as they burst and send loud pops and shocks across the room.
Working across video, installation, sculpture, online space and everything in between Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead’s work speaks to the digitally saturated reality of today, often documenting our world through the digital channels through which we now perceive it. While this art form has been more and more popularised in recent years, Thomson and Craighead have been delving into the Information Age since the early 1990s. “We have always been really engaged in working with digital material or technology,” Jon Thomson tells me when I catch up with the duo in the run up to their new show. “Everything else I just see as fashion coming in and out.” Their interest began by chance. Both studying Fine Art in Dundee, they found themselves on an unusual, experimental course set up by video artist Steve Partridge. Alison Craighead studied painting but would often sneak into the computer room to play on the Quantel Paintbox, a machine used for television graphics in the 1980s and 1990s. “If anyone had told me it was a computer I would have run out in disgust,” she admits.
When they came out of art school, without much money let alone a studio to work in, the web was just dawning and they began to see the egalitarian potential of online space. “We started using web spaces as a sort of studio or sketchbook,” Thomson elaborates. “Then the hyperlinked nature of the web became evident. We could see that it had a massive potential for information in the way we perceive things, in the way we engage with people and in the way we remember things.” From there they started to make work that considered the internet as a “cultural space, material space and a geographic layer.” Coming of age with an understanding of what life was like both before and after the Internet Age, they are able to represent the digital phenomenon as both the observer and the insider. They aim to create an abstract counter narrative to a digital, social history. As Thomson tells me, “we are in the peculiar situation where we existed before the web and now live with it. It has changed everything. It is an inevitable and important subject.”
Moving swiftly from the past, to present, to deep time, the artists observe and reformulate what it means to be human today in an increasingly fragmented, violent and globalised world.
Sitting in the centre of the gallery’s far room, their instructional art piece Stutterer (2014) exemplifies this effort to document an alternative social history or what Thomson terms as “a kind of documentary window.” Also making an appearance at The Lowry’sDigital Art exhibition late last year, the piece began as a Wellcome Trust commission. Talking to computational biologists for the commission, Thomson and Craighead became interested in the idea that a human genome could fit on a USB stick, “that now you can get your genome sequenced in a couple of hours and then could scroll through it and read it on your computer.” Looking at science through art, Craighead tells me, “we became really interested in the ways that both artists and scientists use looking and seeing, and how trained scientists can decipher an image, for instance a section of the human genome, and know what it means.” A meeting between art and science, through image, language and biology, Stutterer is made up of a bulky television set sitting in front of a projected screen. The projection plays out the 3.2 billion letters of the human genome code, while the television responds to each new letter through a collected video montage, taken from UK news clips spanning the thirteen years (1990-2003) it took to the Human Genome Project to complete the first DNA sequence. In essence they use the genome code as a music score to instruct a fragmented, ‘televisual portrait’ of a particular moment in time. “A lot of the work that we have made we think falls into the ambit of documentary,” explains Thomson. “Though Stutterer is an instructional and generative piece of software, it is in essence trying to offer a reflective mechanism that then apprehends a period of history.”
Other pieces in the exhibition are less hopeful about the state of humanity’s progression. On one wall a billboard style poster reads ‘The future will be boring’, referencing JG Ballard’s series of ‘advertiser announcements’ by putting a quote of his across an inverted image of the picturesque Scottish Highlands. In another new work A temporary index the pair take on a long-term project to look at the legacy of the world’s nuclear industry and the storage of nuclear waste across the world, using counters to reflect in seconds the time in which the nuclear sites will become safe again for humans. Ranging from a few decades to a million years, the numbers are presented vertically and doubled up, standing like totems, and abstracted so that the durations are difficult to make out. “Once you’re talking to nuclear people, you start thinking about time in a really different way,” says Craighead. “Here we are thinking about very deep time. Humans have only been like they are now for about 50,000 years and we are supposed to be looking after our own mess for over twice the time we’ve even been around. So we made these abstract totem poles in a way to try and deal with that.”
Coming of age with an understanding of what life was like both before and after the Internet Age, they are able to represent the digital phenomenon as both the observer and the insider.
In their piece Common Era (2016), a series of posters displayed along the long wall of the main gallery cheerfully depicts famous predictions of the end of the world in colourful hand-drawn lettering. “Starting from before now and ending in a far flung moment, they exist as a time frame and act on one another,” Craighead says. The crayon colouring-in style is meant to mimic the recently popularised mindfulness colouring book, in a clever effort to put our collective anxiety and preoccupation with our own end alongside a phenomenon meant to subside such anxiety. Adding to the feel of a kind of twisted party, balloons with the names of violent military operations hover below while a video displays women popping these balloons at the end of a corporate event. “This kind of horror is in the periphery of our vision all the time,” Craighead explains. “We wanted to think about how it impinges on our existence and how we try and shut it out.”
Perhaps the most dramatic reference to an embellished horror is their specially crafted fragranceApocalypse, a work made in collaboration with perfumer Euan McCall. Displayed in an opulent case, the perfume is based on words describing the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. Referencing such descriptions as ‘The opened earth, ‘a grievous sore’, ‘the blood of a dead man’ and ‘the smoke of incense’, it fills the room with an intense and lingering smell reminiscent of burnt plastic, “the scent to wear for a show about end days,” Craighead jokes. She explains that in some ways the piece also harks back to traditional artworks, “but rather than an altarpiece it is a chemical depiction of the Book of Revelation.” At the same time, Apocalypse is a luxury item fuelled by fear and destruction and “a wilful commodification of our own end times.”
There are many threads and concepts running through this vast, crazed and satirically ominous show, but the concept of time comes into their work again and again. As Thomson reflects, “If there is anything that connects these works together, it is large timeframes, short timeframes and the fleetingness and concerns of a human lifespan.” From the end of time, to deep time, to a documenting of time, throughout Party Booby Trap the artists twist and reconstitute concepts of temporality to draw attention, often quite comically, to our own short-lived existence.