Interview with Wendy McMurdo
Katrina Sluis is Curator (Digital Programmes) at The Photographers’ Gallery.Read full Bio
As her project Indeterminate Objects [Classrooms] screens on The Photographers' Gallery Media Wall, TPG Digital Curator Katrina Sluis interviews the pioneering artist Wendy McMurdo about the trajectory of her work since the 1990s and how debates around photography and digital culture have shifted.
You have been working with photography and digital culture since the mid-1990s, when you had your first solo show In a Shaded Place – the digital and the uncanny. What made you want to initially engage with photography on these terms?
In 1993 I went to Sheffield University on a Henry Moore Research Fellowship. I was given a desk, a small room and a computer. I’m pretty sure that this was the first time I had seen a computer in a studio - definitely the first time I’d come across one in an art school.
By 1995 - two years later - I’d completed the work that was to become In a Shaded Place.
I used that early computer to explore the ideas I’d been thinking about pretty intensively in the years before that, influenced by Donna Haraway’s book The Cyborg Manifesto which explored the boundary between humans and machines. Also very influential was the work that Sandy Stone was doing on gender, identity and online communities (such as MUDs) in her book War and Desire at the Close of the Mechanical Age. There was also a lot of writing at this time speculating on the death of the autographic image in the rise of allographic culture. This for me was all very interesting as it pointed towards a new relationship to both representation and photography which I really wanted to investigate.
At that point, all of these ideas however seemed to be embedded in theory and writing but not (yet) in the visual.
I remember seeing Sandy Stone perform at the Digital Aesthetics One conference in Sydney in 1996 - it left a huge impact on my 18 year old brain! At that time, in Australia, there seemed to be a lot of fluidity between photography and new media in art - to the point where one would major in 'Photomedia' - was this also true of your experience as an artist working in Sheffield and beyond? Or did you feel like you were a lone figure at your computer trying to tussle with this shifting ground of the photographic medium? I ask because today there seems to be much more of a gap between photography and media in photographic discourse - or else technology is treated as a given.
It was actually that tussle between photography (as it was then) and the digital that I found so interesting. There was a tension between these two things which I wanted to explore and somehow wrestle together. There was – at least as I saw it - a problem with photography, and I wanted to respond to that somehow in my work. I wanted to make the ‘shifting ground’ the central subject of the work. I actually found working within the constraints of photography (the single, static image) quite helpful.
Within the limitations of that medium, I could explore certain ideas to do with digital culture but also easily publish them (as opposed to a practice which included moving image or sound, or other practices more common within the field of photomedia) which were much more difficult to distribute at that point in time. Your reflection on the current gap between photography and media in photographic discourse is a really interesting one. I really do feel here that the discourse is lagging behind what artist photographers are actually doing (or wanting to do) now. There’s so much exciting practice out there now using CGI and VR for example. But – exactly as it was when I started out – there’s resistance, acceptance and then assimilation.
Considering your ongoing tussles with photographic representation, what do you think are the urgent questions or issues arising from today’s technological environment, and how has this changed (for you) since the 1990s?
That’s an interesting question and one that I’ve been thinking about recently because I’ve also found myself experimenting with different forms of production, using new software and different algorithms to generate work for example. I guess one of the questions now is how to place this kind of work.
The internet of course has opened up ways to distribute ideas and also sometimes to showcase work itself but to engage with the world of ‘things’ means finding curators, spaces and institutions who can support and show that work. The very ephemerality of digital practice means that it can be difficult to categorise and incorporate, but in its very nature, it does seem - to me at least - to perfectly capture the complex and layered Information age that we live in. However, it does mean really re-thinking the methods of dissemination and distribution. When I was starting out, I showed my digital and photographic work in the network of photography galleries that existed in the UK at that time. Where do emerging artists show new digital/photographic practice now? That’s the issue.
In your work you have moved between photography, video, film and animation. Does ‘photography’ still work as a meaningful category for you to engage with as it did in the 1990s? Are you a defender of medium specificity in a digital age?
Well, photography is clearly now something very different than what it was when I first picked up a camera and shot for In a Shaded Place, for example. Then, photography was really the only tool readily available to represent the real world (or rather, our relationship between the ‘real’ and the digital). Now, there’s so many different tools to do that and many of these are actually more effective in representing our lives in a complex and networked world.
Am I a defender of medium specificity? I can’t imagine not picking up the camera at some point when developing ideas for a new piece of work. It’s simply the easiest way to make visible the ‘out there’. From that point, however, I usually feel I need to feed this through other things – algorithms or filters – to better express what I’m interested in. I do think however that the particular conditions, restrictions and histories of photography (which since its earliest beginning, has closely mirrored developments in technology of course) are useful starting points for anyone interested in looking at the ways in which technologies shape identity. Ephemerality seems to characterize photography in the digital age. But then again, artists now are countering that by bringing photography back into the world of ‘things’. I think there will always be a need to ‘make’ things. Get your hands dirty.
Your body of work reflects a sustained engagement with the nature of technology, play and identity – frequently focusing on the imaginative lives of children. What inspired you to approach technologies such as robotics, AI and computer games through the figure of the child? How has the relationship between children and technology changed?
My earlier work posed questions about the way in which traditional play differs from play involving computational objects. The work also asked what impact so-called ‘nurturent applications’ - robotic toys, for example – might have on identity-formation in the young. Because these robotic playthings which were pre-programmed to hold conversations with one another, I began to think about the development of synthetic speech, AI and social robotics. According to Professor Alan Winfield, who is a founder of Bristol Robotics Laboratory, robots are working models of life. Robots can help us understand life - and indeed ourselves - better than we do at present.
I think reflecting on the ethical and moral questions raised by contemporary developments in robotics does tie directly into many of the issues regarding our evolving relationship with the technological world. Where are the edges of our worlds and when does reality tip into simulation for example? How do we measure and understand our complex relationships with machines and algorithms? These seemed to be questions thrown up by robotics, computer gaming and also in the work I was doing with children engaging with evolving technology. So, I found there were many links between all of these things. Everything seemed to be related.
This blurry line between real and simulated worlds also underpins your most recent project, Indeterminate Objects [Classrooms] for The Photographers’ Gallery Media Wall. Can you explain the inspiration for this work?
Indeterminate Objects (Classrooms) came originally – like most of my work - from direct observation. In this case, the starting point was listening to parents describing the pervasive effects of online building games (such as the hugely popular Minecraft on their children. Some parents reported seeing their children ‘building’ in their sleep, others watching their hands scrabble about to place bricks as if building in the real world. Adults, too, reported dreaming about these strange worlds made of virtual blocks as they spent hours assisting their children in their construction.
For Indeterminate Objects, I knew that I wanted to merge photography with the 3D rendering techniques employed in the development of simulated gaming environments. This collapsing of autographic and allographic techniques (lens based and CGI) is something that I’ve always been interested in and I wanted to use it here to better refer to the relationship of the invisible world of data to the concrete world of ‘things’ (the classrooms).
Slideshow: 'Indeterminate Objects (Classrooms)', production and installation shots
In Indeterminate Objects I really wanted to make a piece which posed the question: where does reality end and simulation begin? In the imaginative life of the child, this question is, I think, particularly complex. To do this, I decided to make a series of photographs of classroom interiors, where floating 3D visualizations would hover above each desk. As the viewer takes in these images, these 3D visualizations begin to move. As they spin and rotate, they cast simulated shadows on the classroom floor, which appear as real as those cast by the classroom furniture. Reality and simulation become as one.
I’ve experienced something like that after playing a 7 hour session of Civilization III! My final question is: What would you like to make next?
Yes. A feeling that is familiar to me too!
I’m now working on a new iteration of Classrooms, using similar themes, imagery and animations but experimenting in the new work with sound in the form of human and synthetic speech. I‘m thinking about it as a piece for the internet - I love the confessional nature of this space - but also as something that could be developed into gallery based presentations.
Wendy McMurdo was born in Edinburgh where she initially trained as a painter. She left the UK in the mid 1980s for the Pratt Institute, New York. While studying there, she turned to photography and on returning to the UK, began to work for the first time with this medium. After completing an MA at Goldsmiths College, London, she was awarded a two-year fellowship by The Henry Moore Foundation. The rapid proliferation of computers in schools provided the context for the development of her next body of work that looked directly at the influence of computers on early years education. McMurdo has exhibited throughout Europe in exhibitions such as The Anagrammatical Body: The Body and its Photographic Condition curated by Christa Steinle and Peter Weibel for ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany; Uncanny, curated by Urs Stahel for the Fotomuseum Wintherthur and Only Make Believe curated by Marina Warner for Compton Verney, Warwickshire, UK. In 2015 she was awarded a PhD by publication by the University of Westminster for her work exploring the relationship of children and photography to the computer.