The apocalyptic anxiety of
Thomson & Craighead’s
Party Booby Trap
War, nuclear waste, the apocalypse. The human genome, dread.
Thomson & Craighead’s new show at London’s Carroll/Fletcher gallery, Party Booby Trap, isn’t the cheeriest prospect. Their back catalogue explores, among other things, how subjective individual experience continues to be – even in the face of our now almost-universal access to information, as supplied by the internet and contemporary technology. They also interrogate the value and authority of social systems like money, or time, which on the surface provide us with structure and order. Tackling questions like these, the artists’ collaborative practice might seem intimidatingly intellectual.
This exhibition also fronts as particularly heavy going: drawing on end-time prophecy and the Book of Revelations; the sonic similarities between bursting balloons and artillery fire; the mapping of the human genome as a backdrop for two wars and the fall of a state; six years of Mondays.
However, the gloom, plus any worries about impenetrable theory, dissipates quickly between my 8.30am Skype interview with the duo and a lunch-hour’s surprisingly blissful immersion in their challenging and important show.
Thomson & Craighead’s remit is twofold. On the one hand, they confront society’s predisposition towards blithely accepting the familiar as natural, and on the other, they dispassionately challenge our ability to view anything dispassionately. Which is to say they reject any pretence of an objective viewpoint, instead acknowledging that we can only understand the systems that govern us from our position within them: knowing they can’t see the wood for trees, their turn their focus on the forest’s ecosystem.
The duo’s process, it turns out, is anecdotal; ideas, bits and bobs gathered from travel and reading inform time in the studio. “We like to be in the studio,” says Alison Craighead over the Internet from Rome. “We like to make, and we like to play. It could be that one of us starts doodling, or starts playing with stencils and doing some bad watercolours, but from looking at them a dialogue starts.”
This dialogue is expansive, simultaneously occupying a micro- and macro-viewpoint of the world. Party Booby Trap expresses this awareness of the human experience throughout – playing on the paradox of our capacity to understand things, without ever really knowing them.
Humanity has become oddly stretched; consensus opinion has it that we’re currently entering a new geological epoch – the anthropocene – where regardless of the impact we have as individuals, or even civilisations, the environmental effects of our actions will be felt across geological time; and will be too huge for us to fully understand. And so, for the first time in the Earth’s history, a species able to rationalise and comprehend its own insignificance finds itself changing the biosphere. For the worse, as well.
Taking this into account, it’s no wonder that apocalyptic visions are finding a foothold in contemporary culture. A mood of worry is probably the only reasonable response. This troubled atmosphere finds its voice across all the works in Thomson & Craighead’s show. With Stutterer (2014) they engage with the confusions of scale, impact and time that lie at the heart of humanity’s self-image. Stutterer uses the smallest parts of us as a frame through which to view a recent and significant period of geopolitical change.
The human genome is comprised of a code of more than three billion base pairs of DNA molecules. It’s basically incomprehensible, but at some fundamental level DNA is divisible into one of four camps, as a type of nucleobase: cytosine, adenine, thymine or guanine. The Human Genome Project was an internationally funded research initiative that sought to map the complete human genome; to order the three-billion- long series of C, A, T and G that makes up our DNA, and by extension issues the genetic instructions that control all of our organic development. The project took 13 years, from 1990 – 2013.
Stutterer draws at random from an archive of film from this time, issuing an uttered word beginning with one of the four letters that makes up the billions-long string of repeating characters which itself describes the code for the human genome and runs simultaneously with the footage. If allowed to run and run the project would, after 60 or so years, complete the sequence of the genome in a mad and relentless string of words that, through circumstances of their initial utterance, paint a portrait of the 90s and early 00s.
Thomson & Craighead use this thirteen-year interval as a framework, a start and end point. Archive footage from within the intervening years describes more than a decade of quite considerable change. These fixed points of beginning and end additionally grant the artists the opportunity to dispense with the fallacy that time is linear; the pre-programmed words (500 currently, but more being added to the database as and when) in the television footage are randomly drawn upon as the sequence unfolds, so that chronology is dispensed with.
Instead, Stutterer plays as something more akin to memory, where an arbitrary trigger (in this case one of four letters) prompts free-associative flashes from the depths; as with memory, some supply their own context (archived news footage where words like ‘terrorism’ explain themselves when spoken over footage of a plane) and others float in a chronological void.
This way of viewing memory – as a confused jumble, rather than filed neatly in chronological order – is a bit unpleasant. Thinking in accordance with linear time provides a logic, a way of comprehending our existence as a narrative, the story of our lives. This system of understanding is culturally reinforced, by the significance of a first memory, or the in description of important events as ‘milestones’ in a life lived. Rejecting this institution exposes us to a difficult, but illuminating, formlessness. The evocation of a disordered consciousness, highlighting our familiarity with the free-associative, exposes the jumble of our minds and at the same time underlines how external time, as a system, really is. It makes us question time. As Craighead says, Stutterer can be seen as a kind of clock. “It doesn’t tell you the time, but it maybe tells you about humans and what happens in that time period.”
Clocks are elsewhere in the show as well; opposite Stutterer, A temporary index (2016) counts down the innumerable seconds until repositories of nuclear waste, desperately entombed deep underground in concrete around the world, have degraded to the point that they no longer pose any sort of threat. In some cases, this is millions of years. An esoteric branch of research is dedicated exclusively to the challenge of warning future civilizations about the dangers of unearthing these repositories. “One of the big deals about nuclear semiotics,” says Jon Thomson,
“is how information is preserved and transmitted into the future. Religion is one of the better mechanisms.”
There’s a grim joke here; the idea that a “nuclear priesthood” could exist to establish cultural taboos against visiting certain contaminated areas is undermined by Thomson & Craighead’s own treatment of the Book of Revelations – the wildly vivid Biblical foretelling of the Apocalypse. The artists have broken its colourful adjectives and imagery
down and, with the help of a perfumer, designed a scent, Apocalypse (2016). The aroma of the end times, it’s cloying and not a little bloody. Sweet also, and with a distinct minerality. It’s a reduction of one of the fiercest myths – and motivators, for generations of God- fearing Christians – into the basest of contemporary commodities. Scent, says Thomson, “Is a very emblematic product for a certain type of commercialism, or a certain capitalistic tendency within our current environment.” Each highlights the other as absurd, the fear of the past commodified as the junk of the present.
There’re more apocalyptic prophesies in this show, and there’s war. Discordancies and similarities: burning houses and Self Help jargon, bursting balloons and conflict. What ties it together, and what redeems if from total grimness, is the absence of any sense of moral authority on the part of the artists. In fact, the only bum note comes from a small print, the war on terror (2016), which jumbles that famous slogan up into a list of absurd anagrams – the implied criticism, extending the nonsense of the words to the war itself, is a little too explicit to fit with the rest of the show.
Without casting moral judgment Thomson & Craighead risk coming across as nihilistic, but in fact the opposite happens. Even nuclear waste is treated baldly, as a fact of the world. Crucially, the symptoms and possible effects of the anthropocene are held up to the light as they need to be discussed: both as an incontrovertible fact of the world, and from within. “We see ourselves as participant observers,” Thomson says. “We’re not trying to offer dictates or doctrine, or be didactic in any particular way. We’re just trying to share information and then create frameworks which we can perhaps all critically engage with.”
Party Booby Trap runs at Carroll/Fletcher, London, until 15 May