SB: Your new video installation, ‘Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk’ is one of a number of projects initiated by Film and Video Umbrella as part of a wider set of activities entitled ‘Free to Air’, which is based around artists’ responses to the theme of ‘freedom’, and, specifically, in this first year, to ideas of freedom of expression. I want to begin by asking how you related to the theme, and what resonance it had with your recent practice?
SC: Before I saw the brief for 'Free to Air', I was starting to develop a project in Shanghai, where I had visited to research some new towns that had been built in the suburbs to relieve population pressure in the city. At that point I was interested in urban planning, how people’s needs are anticipated and how the architecture and the urban environment shape our sense of reality. The new towns such as Thames Town or the German-inspired Anting automobile town offer a better version of reality – where people’s place of work, and all their domestic and leisure needs, are located in one particular area. I was thinking about simulacra, where the copy becomes truth or reality in its own right. People needn’t go to Shanghai at all – everything is catered for. Living there gives them freedom to do and be what they want; but to me it also seemed quite artificial and restrictive; narrowing as much as expanding people’s choices.
When I got back to London, I started to think about other cities and the formative influence of the urban environment. I started to wonder to what extent we are moulded by the environment we live in: how it motivates us to behave in a certain way or to pursue a particular lifestyle; how we in turn construct our own beliefs and value system. I wanted to understand the way that space is organised: what are the forces at play that shape or regulate our public and private spaces? Also I wanted to consider the physical as well as the psychological restrictions that might be imposed on us as we navigate the city on a daily basis: to what extent are we overwhelmed by the architecture of the city or how we might feel empowered to effect change.
SB: London, in contrast to the new towns you were visiting in China, is a prime example of an unplanned city; one that has built itself up, in a largely unregulated way, through the accumulated influence of people who have come to it. Compared to what you might have seen in China, it’s a kind of ‘free for all’. ‘Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk’ highlights this freedom of movement, this feeling of chaos and flux. Underneath the surface, however, in certain parts of the video, you seem to hint at the presence of some kind of deeper, underlying structure.
SC: This came about from a feeling I often have as I walk through the city. Although on one level I might be venturing somewhere new, exploring the city on foot, I often feel that my every step has already been anticipated. On a personal level, I feel I can go anywhere I want to in London; but there’s always this feeling that something governs or directs my movements. On a micro-level. it feels like there is freedom but on a macro-level, when you zoom out, there is order, pattern and systems which sometimes are repetitive, restrictive and predictable. The piece instinctively references films like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi where you see the pulses and flows of people as they move across the road. When you look at large cities with large populations, and you observe them from a distance, people look like atoms, there’s an incredible order in the way they congregate, move and flow. I was interested in looking at what drives people to certain places. Why is it that they walk down a certain side of the road when the other side is totally clear? What are the motivating factors that direct people spatially and temporally?
At the same time, I was also looking into the development of the concept of freedom in European history. During the 18th century enlightenment, Voltaire said ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Freedom as an idea is hard to pinpoint; in a way there is no such thing as an absolute, unchanging freedom; it is always viewed in relation to something else. My idea of freedom is totally different to yours and in a lot of instances they may well conflict. The closest we might get to freedom is perhaps a space where all conflicting ideas are played out – that rather than instigating an order or a structure from the top, perhaps individuals will eventually self-organise themselves; just as some cities begin to take shape without planning: as space becomes place, as it develops organically its identity over time. I feel that within each individual there is a self-governing force, which structures our thoughts and hence influences our actions.
SB: It’s interesting you mention Koyaanisqatsi, and the way its use of time-lapse footage shows the city in a very different light. Sometimes when you speed things up, or slow them down, it reveals a more organic process in which order appears out of chaos. I’m intrigued also about the twofold nature of your title, ‘Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk’, and the interplay between those two elements. Tell me a bit more about that.
SC: At the time I was looking at surveillance cameras. The UK has the largest number of surveillance cameras of anywhere in the world. There’s a lot of discussion about whether we feel safer with them or without them. Richard Thomas, the information commissioner warned that ‘we are in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society’. I was interested in this idea of not being aware or in control, where your brain isn’t actively engaged in physical action and also of sleepwalking through life. How awake are we? When we’re meant to be awake, are we actually sleepwalking? I was questioning what is reality. There is a quote from a Chinese philosopher, called Zhuang Zi, who had a dream one night that he was a butterfly. In the dream he was happy and was not aware that he was a man. When he woke he didn’t know if he was then a human dreaming he was a butterfly or now a butterfly dreaming he is human. I became interested in the intermediate states between sleeping and waking and to explore the distinctions between them. This led me to consider meditation and other states of consciousness.
SB: Often, our experience of a city turns us into quite passive receivers of information; or we can become so overloaded with sights and sensations that we switch off. Living in a city can free our minds, can stimulate us creatively, and bring a heightened state of receptivity, but it can also overwhelm us and inhibit us.
It’s noticeable, in your piece, that the passive, hazy quality of sleepwalking shifts towards something more like a state of trance – a more active, heightened perception. In a way, it’s another kind of ‘pull-back’, in which the camera lens pans out and lends a different perspective to the object; a moment of reflection. There is an echo of this in the work in the example of people who meditate, who we see towards the end of the piece. But there are other examples of people whose relationship to the city around them is characterised by a similar kind of drift between different states of engagement. Can you talk about the other people that are featured in the work?
SC: The figure of the security guard was important in that they are an integral part of a city but usually invisible and very confined, in their job, by time and space. They have to be in a certain place at stipulated times. I wanted to explore how they turn an environment that is highly structured to discover their own freedom.
SB: The security guard or night watchman is ostensibly doing nothing, but is in a state of constant alertness. When the city sleeps, there are always people out there watching over it. As you point out in the piece, many of the people employed in this job come from a country where their freedom was curtailed. In this dead time at work, when they appear to be doing nothing, they are free to think, and be more themselves.
SC: Most of security guards are busy doing business plans trying to work out what they’re going to do now they’re here. A lot of the guards are from Nigerian origin and are highly educated. I often find it really interesting to speak with them as they have so much to offer. They find themselves in a predicament here in the UK as they can no longer practice their profession, but rather than being downbeat about that they use this time to re-invent themselves. I find that really inspiring. The time they spend at work is a time of transition – using the imagination to engage with space and time in a different way, to take oneself out of a confining situation, to somewhere else beyond.
The most active group are the skaters as they’re physically asserting their presence in the streets that are normally dominated by traffic; they take over the space. They actually do it in total cooperation with the police – it’s a highly organised phenomenon, it’s highly regulated. There are certain rules: you have to keep within the front and end marshals and meet at a particular time and place. The skaters seem to be exercising their individual freedom of expression but what they’re doing is in fact very controlled.
SB: Superficially, it seems to carry an echo of the imaginative remapping of the city proposed by the Situationists. But it’s true that as soon as you get a large group of people participating in an activity it presupposes a need for planning and consensus.
There is a constant modulation and negotiation at work that lets people both enjoy their freedom and not have their freedom trespassed upon. Individual personal freedom is outwardly encouraged within the space of the city; at one level, London exists almost as a kind of playground for the individual. Becoming part of a group (like the skaters) is a way for us to have our interests endorsed and shared, but in some ways by doing things in a collective entity you’re also giving up a little bit of freedom. That seems to me a microcosm of how we rub along in the city: one person’s freedom may be an intrusion on someone else’s, and needs to take that into account. Freedom isn’t a fixed and transcendent commodity; it’s a series of exchanges. The nuances and ambiguities around the whole concept of freedom is something we wanted to reflect in ‘Free to Air’.
SC: I think by joining the group and by conforming to its rules of conduct the individual gets lost. Temporarily, they give over their individuality in exchange for group cohesion. As you watch them skate you can sense their exhilaration – of achieving something greater beyond that of any one single individual. What’s interesting is that they gain this by submitting their individuality to a larger collective. I was drawn to the skaters because of this swarming, something that was important in my earlier work, ‘Interval II’ – the enigmatic murmerations of the starlings over a Victorian pier. Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of difference and repetition offer an interesting frame of reference, in particular the notion of ‘swarms of difference’ where plurality becomes a unity in space and time.
SB: In addition to the skaters, who appear at regular intervals in ‘Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk’, we get lots of glimpses of people going about their everyday lives – people on buses and on tubes; lost to the world, switched off, dozing even. This is the ‘sleep walk’ that we talked about, in which people are revealed to be very much creatures of habit or routine. I’m interested in ‘sleep talk’. ‘Sleeptalking’ isn’t a phrase we use very often. How are you articulating this in your work?
SC: ‘Sleeptalking’ for me is a form of expression that implies getting closer towards the truth: the individual muttering something that in normal everyday life is suppressed; evading some process of self-censorship that happens when we’re awake. A bit like when, in a state of hypnosis, one blurts out something that is a truer expression of what he or she really feels.