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In Conversation with It's Our Playground 08 September 2017

Ahead of their forthcoming solo exhibition Artificial Sensibility, curator Tom Godfrey caught up with Camille Le Houezec and Jocelyn Villemont from It’s Our Playground to ask them a few questions about their practice and what to expect from their exhibition…

I’m interested in this term ‘hybrid learning process’ that is referred to in the exhibition text. How are you considering Bonington Gallery’s own context of being a gallery situated at the heart of an existing learning environment?

The show is titled Artificial Sensibility in reference to artificial intelligence. It echoes the way we seek to find a sensibility in everyday interactions with our technological devices, and the way they are more and more precisely trained to mimic human behaviour.

The starting point of the exhibition is ‘image recognition’, a process used to identify an object or a feature in a digital image. A toddler will only need to see the image of an apple a few time before naming it, whereas a machine will have to inspect hundreds of apples in order to identify it. Both the human brain and the computer rely on the shape, the color, the pattern of a thing to recognise it. We find it interesting that humans create machine learning processes based on brain function. The show focuses on how the flaws of these automated techniques can lead to misunderstanding, create confusion or even poetry.

The prints hanging from the corrugated sheets of plastic within the exhibition have been made using stock images bought on the internet. These pictures of natural elements have been superimposed in order to produce big collages which might actually trick recognition systems.

As artists, there is another way of learning that we like to use : collaboration! This exhibition is built around the idea of a collaborative process as a way to generate complex artworks.

Given the location of Bonington Gallery, an exhibition space situated on a university campus, we thought it would be a suitable context for the show.

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The generative result of ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘confusion’ feels an appropriate theme to explore within an art-school where these positions are cited as being advantageous in the early development of work.

Could you talk in more detail about the comparison between how a machine and a human might perceive and (mis)recognise an object? And how this could be a potential analogy for how we view artworks?

Like artificial intelligence, we have to train our senses from the early stage of our lives to perceive and recognise objects and people precisely and to name them. The way we feel emotions, the way events orientate our actions have a direct impact on our behaviours.

We strongly believe sensibility, education, taste, intuition influence the way we perceive events, trends and we can stretch it to artworks. Emotion, intuition, sensibility is exactly what still separate us from machines. In an art school context, misunderstanding, confusions, or even mistakes are considered positive experiments, these can make you take ways you would not have taken, make choices you would not have made.

Now imagine an art-teacher robot, we guess it could generate very relevant questions in a critical review setup and it could also teach you facts : names, dates or historical context.  The computer program will describe the shape, colour and possibly identify the object or art piece, but it won’t be able to teach you how to look at a work of art, nor how to interpret it. What interests us in the context of the show is when the computer creates a gap between what it ‘sees’ and the actual object, when the machine’s deduction leads us to consider the object (or artwork) differently. As long as the human will not be able to teach machines how to express feelings, subjective matters, you will need a human brain to interpret its failures as poetry.

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It’s Our Playground is a practice that straddles that of an artist and a curator. The side-effect of this appears to be that you treat materials and artworks in equal measure, and often in quite an irreverent way by positioning other peoples artworks within environments that you create, and not necessarily in ‘optimum’ conditions that a lot of artists might aspire to.

Can you talk about how you ‘treat’ other peoples works, and your attitudes towards this?

Our attitude towards curation comes from our experience of dealing with images of artworks or documentation of shows on our website the same way artists have appropriated historical facts or artistic practices in art history. From the beginning of our collaboration, we created a setup where we could experiment freely, publicly, and independently.

As artists, we consider the exhibition as a medium and we treat other artists’ artworks as precious materials displayed in what we consider being interesting/relevant conditions for them, environments the artists themselves would not necessarily have thought about. We prefer thinking about our projects as new contexts for the artists and artworks we like and respect, a way to give a new point of view on artworks we do not consider unequivocal. It is important, as an artist to show your work several times in different places but we can be sceptical when it comes to what is considered ‘optimum condition’ which often means an empty, bright, white walled space. These conventional, often commercial spaces are far from being problematic but we believe our role as artist is to challenge these and try a different approach, imagine new things.

Most of the time, we come up with a specific context and present it to the artists, to determine which piece could work in such exhibition.

Very often and when possible we dedicate budget to new productions. To be honest we consider our practice as being often close to collaboration in many ways and at every stage of the working process.

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Can you talk further about the collaborators that you are working with on this exhibition?

Always looking for new experiments, this time we wanted to involve other practitioners in the exhibition making. Rather than building the display and showing other artists’ work, we were interested in producing artworks with people who do not call themselves artists. We came up with the concept, a title and some ideas for pieces but we started discussing it with collaborators in the early stage of the project so they could properly be involved in the forms we would produce together. For example, Camille Garnier and Alex Paraboschi, both graphic designers made the double sided prints with us. We talked about Artificial Sensibility and what it could mean in the context of a show and decided that we would select natural elements which gave their names to colours and each of us would be responsible for designing the front or the back of the print knowing that these would hang from transparent corrugated sheets of plastic which would affect slightly the way we see one side or the other.

Collaboration is also a way for us to learn new techniques we are not familiar with. Benoît is a designer and founder and we were interested in working with him for a while so we thought this could be the opportunity we were looking for! The prints we produced with Camille and Alex needed hooks to hang from the plastic walls and we designed those together with Benoît. We agreed on these pointing shapes like computer arrows, human hands, crab claws and biface tools. For the show we also wanted to explore a more technological aspect, and invited Thibaut to react to the context. Being a creative technologist, Thibaut is very knowledgeable when it comes to, coding, web designing, new technologies, the Internet, he is also a musician and we thought this show would [provide] the occasion to work together once again (Thibaut has been working with us on websites for the past eight years). After weeks of discussions brainstorming we agreed that Thibaut would be working on a soundtrack, an environment inspired by the ‘noises’ of a thinking computer, an interpretation of the learning process we talked about earlier. Working with members of the family and friends (both Benoit and Thibaut are Jocelyn’s brothers) has been a great experience because it’s very straightforward; we understood each other well along the way and were able to take the project further.

You appear to work in the virtual and physical realm in equal measure. Could you talk about how you approach working in these contexts, the differences and whether you’d consider these contexts becoming more aligned?

Right after graduating we both moved from France to Glasgow and working online seemed like a great substitute to a physical space at the time. We started doing shows on our website as a way to continue working in a city we didn’t know without having to look (and pay) for a studio/gallery space. It was mostly a very good way to connect with other artists on the other side of the planet!

Then after a couple of years we had the opportunity to run SWG3 Gallery and get our programme funded and our online activity became more of a “subject” rather than a “space”. We started exploring the relationship between the virtual and physical realm with Dovble Trovble at CCA and www.itsourplayground.com in 2012 where we asked the artists involved to produce a work that would exist in both contexts at the same time.

It’s hard to disconnect our project from their online presence, and it is a reality for a great number of artists. Mostly because any project will find its way online and we like to think this step is a decisive one. For us, it is a starting point when we use actual exhibition views and artwork documentation from other artists as raw material to create new works and sometimes including the online potential of the exhibition in its concept (Screen Play at SWG3 Gallery, 2014; Visual Matter in Piacé, 2016; Reconstructive Memory at Galerie Valentin, 2016). Our recent web projects could even be seen as algorithm-based publications (cf Infinite Memories, Exhibition Gradient)

We do not see much difference between working online or offline, releasing a new website is as exciting as opening a show!

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I’m interested in the idea of ‘strategy’, particularly in terms of what you say about the online projects being a way of connecting with artists you want to work with, building a community and avoiding isolation.

There is a clear lineage between your early web projects and the more physically ambitious projects you are doing now, and there appears to be a number of relationships you have with artists that have galvanised over time, via repeat projects.

Maybe a fitting way to conclude this interview is to expand on the idea of strategy, in terms of pro-active ways that anybody can employ that can help expand context for what you do.

We both felt quite early on (while in art school) that unity was force! So we started working together feeling we could be more ambitious, do things faster. Obviously we both had very different practices, but we also had complementary knowledge and skills.

We probably started organising shows with other artists for the exact same reasons. We like the idea of learning from someone else’s practice, gathering talented people and have interesting (often challenging) conversations, building long lasting and strong relationships over work. Most of these relationships with artists emanated from exhibition projects rather than already established acquaintance as the Internet has always allowed us to reach artists we never met before but whom we liked the work of.

After a while, this “strategy” became the core of our practice. We rarely do things on our own; inviting artists, makers, writers, designers is now totally embedded in our work. And while our practice became more hybrid (being successively curators, producers, scenographers…) it can now interfere with different contexts and allow us to be more free.

Artificial Sensibility will open with a preview on Thursday 21 September 5 – 7 pm. If you would like to attend, please RSVP via email to confirm your attendance. The exhibition will remain open until Friday 27 October, visit the webpage for more details.

All images courtesy It’s Our Playground.

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