British artist-technologists Invisible Flock and Indian creative studio Quicksand have collaborated on a global artwork connecting strangers
“What is your worst habit?” I get distracted and check my phone when people are speaking.
“Describe a place that makes you happy?” The fields with long grass and wildflowers in the sunshine.
“What are you going to do today?” I’m going to catch up on work after seeing my mum, then bake cookies.
This intimate conversation is taking place between two strangers thousands of miles apart, part of Duet, an artwork created via smart phone app. It is one in a network of daily exchanges being recorded around the world over 100 days between June and September.
This is the second run of the app, properly known as Duet – Chapter Two, developed by British artist-technologists Invisible Flock and Indian creative studio Quicksand. On signing up, participants are matched to a geographically distant partner. Each is posed a question daily, and their responses are shared. With travel and personal contact limited, this slow conversation with a stranger offers a flight of the imagination.
“You get a little glimpse into someone else’s life, without any of that noise and baggage you get with social media,” says Victoria Pratt of Invisible Flock. In 2017, Duet ran for a year with about 1200 users in India and the UK developing complex long-distance relationships.
In lockdown, with projects cancelled, the two studios have relaunched Duet as a global system of reflective exchanges. “It’s a really important time to be connecting with other people and cultures,” says Pratt. “The anonymity takes a lot of the pressure off sharing something you really want to vocalise.”
Based out of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Invisible Flock have produced engaging, environmentally-focused, tech-savvy artworks for over a decade. They work slowly, often in partnership with environmental scientists and NGOs.
Artists’ engagement with the environment is often irritatingly superficial. Ben Eaton, who co-founded Invisible Flock with Pratt, says it’s time for the art world to move on from merely raising awareness to develop more meaningful engagement. “We don’t feel it’s enough for us to point at things anymore. To use the crassest of examples – pointing at a melting iceberg – it feels a bit late to still be doing that.”
Instead Invisible Flock have developed data gathering tools, such as Open Field Recorders, for use in the forest habitat of Siamang gibbons, an elephant migration corridor in Aceh, Indonesia, and the Oulanka National Park in Finland. The data goes first to scientists and conservationists, and some is translated into artworks.
Sound recordings of six trees housing Siamang gibbons form the basis of The Sleeping Tree, which should have premiered at the (cancelled) Brighton Festival. Scans of the trees hover, projected, in clouds of water mist while recordings, from equipment so sensitive you can hear the sap flow, play in real time.
At Oulanka their Finnish partners are capturing sound and environmental data over a full cycle of thaw, flood and freeze. Invisible Flock have translated it into Out From The Flood, an evolving data visualisation accessed online. A stylized version of Oulanka can be explored like a video game constructed according to real, changing climactic information. By coincidence, recording started shortly before lockdown: repeat visits will allow users to observe the changes to sound and emissions pollution as, for example, flights recommence.
Out From The Flood will continue to evolve online for a year. “The tricky thing is, we don’t necessarily know how the data is going to behave,” admits Eaton. Accepting unpredictability is part of the Invisible Flock ethos: “It’s really important that nature doesn’t perform for us,” says Pratt. “You know, it cares little about us. It goes on.”
Out From the Flood launches on 7 July (outfromtheflood.com)
Duet – Chapter 2 can be downloaded free from the App store