Tully Arnot & Microcontrollers Filled with Human Air - Art Collector

Tully Arnot, Kite Self, 2011 Video (still). Photo: the artist.

An interview with artist Tully Arnot By Joel Mu

We started this conversation because we bumped into each other at an art opening in Berlin. Every artwork in the exhibition was using a computer or mobile screen and the exhibition was mainly made up of artworks by students from the UDK-Berlin. I know you still have social connections with the art academy – whose class were you in and what kind of art were you making in 2012?

I was there for the final semester of Klasse Gregor Schneider. Halfway through he left and we had Nina Canell and then Timm Ulrichs. I think Ulrichs was actually one of Schneider's teachers when he went to art school. It was a bit fragmented, but an amazing opportunity to learn from three generations of amazing artists with very different perspectives and practices. At our first class with Schneider everyone had to present their work, even if they had nothing prepared. He would really interrogate the students about their work, tear their ideas apart in these epic crits that would run from midday to 3am – it was serious and intense and confronting in a way that I’ve never experienced at other art schools. Coming from Sydney, I was making very light-hearted sculptures, kind of like visual puns and uncanny reinterpretations of objects. There was a lot of humour and playfulness to it, which was pretty well received by Australian audiences, but not really by the people I met in Germany. At the same time as studying at UDK, I took part in a residency at a place called Culturia in the outer eastern suburbs. It was a pretty bleak winter so I ended up using the opportunity to teach myself Arduino [an open source computer company and project that designs microcontroller-based kits for building digital devices] on YouTube. Learning about electronics and coding allowed me to create much more complex projects, and this was a big turning point in my practice.

Before he left, Schneider curated a show of his students, for which I made a kinetic breathing carpet. Two fans were embedded in an old carpet, with a pocket of air underneath. They were programmed so that one would suck air in for about 30 seconds forming a mound, then the other would completely deflate it. As well, it was designed to run on batteries so that as the day progressed the breaths would get more shallow until it finally died, and the carpet returned to an everyday object. This work developed my playful ideas towards something more resolved and melancholy. It had humour but it was pathetic. Learning new skills with technology allowed me to create more complex works, but the experience of working at UDK also pushed me to develop a stronger emotional complexity to my work.

Tully Arnot Teppich (Carpet), 2012. Microcontroller, fans, carpet, plastic, electronics, batteries, air, 150 x 150 x 20cm.
Installation view, Doublings, Kunsthalle am Hamburger Platz, Berlin. Photo: the artist. Courtesy: the artist

It’s interesting what you say about humour and what happens when the same artwork is presented in a different cultural context. Which work are you thinking about when you say ‘emotional complexity’?

Humour becomes really interesting when you think of it internationally. It's such a global and uniting concept, to joke around, but within that each cultural approach is so unique and idiosyncratic. The Germans definitely also have a strong sense of humour, but it's incredibly different to the self-deprecating and larrikin approach that we have in Australia. Before, I meant that the carpet is emotionally complex, but maybe it's not! Overall, that work was one of the first where I started to deal with humour in a more absurd or nihilistic way – pairing it with absence or longing. Berlin was of course a big influence in this but also my time there coincided with the death of a close friend and I guess this had a big effect on how I was thinking as an artist. The tension between the playful aspects of my work and the deeper or darker ideas, to me, reflects the way we try to negotiate the more complicated parts of our lives, and how we try to understand the world. So with my work I think sometimes humour is a good way to welcome an audience, and get their guard down, before confronting them with more sombre or serious themes.

Schneider has a work,
Man With Cock (2004), it's a sculpture of a dead body with a garbage bag lying over, but its got an erection - something that naturally happens after death for some people . So you have this serious intense sculpture, which is also humorous in a teenage-boy sort of way – with a big dick poking out of the guy’s trousers. And the immaturity of it, to me, makes the piece even more engaging than if it was just a body. My first big work after Berlin was Bottle Song (2013). It came about drinking beers and playing with electronics in the studio and was initially quite a silly object. But it also became a homage to this friend, and more generally a meditation on loss or absence. I built a bunch of circuits that had small-programmed computer fans rigged up to microcontrollers. The fans were placed on the mouth of empty bottles so that when they switched on, the air would create a low tooting sound. The piece was developed for Installation Contemporary, at the first Sydney Contemporary Art Fair at Carriageworks, and I had about 100 of these bottles in a giant room just resonating with this very three dimensional and physical sound. When I've exhibited one or a few, it really is just a fun little object tooting away, but with this mass of sounds that you could walk through, it became incredibly moving and mournful.

Tully Arnot, Bottle Song, 2013. ATTiny45 microcontrollers, programming, fans, electronics, steel, glue, tape, beer bottles, air, sound, dimensions variable. Installation view, Sydney Contemporary, Sydney, 2013.
Photo: the artist. Courtesy: the artist

I remember seeing a version of Bottle Song at Firstdraft in Sydney and then the more expanded version at Sydney Contemporary. Do you have a lesser-known work that relates to this thematic we’re discussing?

Following on from that piece and thinking about sound some more, I put together a video work Thoughts of absence, absence of thought (2014). I was thinking about the clichés of artist talks, the problems with talking about art and so on, and at the same time I was inspired by a YouTube video of Peaches Geldof which edited together every time she said 'like' during an interview. So I took an interview I did with Das Platforms, and just deleted all the footage where I was speaking – leaving this supercut of silences, breaths and thoughts. I expected it to be pretty light hearted and funny, and it is in a way, but it’s also quite sad. The studio lights reflecting off my eyes makes it look like I’m about to cry, most of the time I’m looking into the distance – and you only notice these things once you isolate those silent moments. In one way I look stupid standing there not saying anything, but then this abstract feeling of what I’m thinking, what I’m not saying, comes through.

Tully Arnot, Thoughts of absence, absence of thought, 2014. Video still. Original footage by Nick Garner for Das Platforms. Courtesy: the artist

Now you’re living in Chongqing and before that in Beijing. How have you adapted personally, socially, politically, artistically?

The main motivation for moving to Chongqing was that I knew it would really displace me, force me to confront how I work and function in the world. There are more people in Chongqing than all of Australia, but it's still largely unknown outside China, and that really just blows my mind. It's a fascinating city that's massive and modern with skyscrapers and monorails and all the high-end shops of international cities, but it's inland and has never really been part of global trade or commerce so everything is quite locally focussed. There are barely any westerners, a lot less people speak English than in Shanghai or Beijing and so on, and it creates a unique environment that feels both like a futuristic city and an old village. How I have or will adapt politically or artistically is built on my personal or social engagement with Chongqing – which has often been quite challenging. In China there's more pressure to start a family young, there's a lot of competition for jobs (as an artist or otherwise), there's a lack of government funding for art (and welfare systems and health care for low income earners are extremely limited), even things like travelling overseas are really difficult (you’re required to have savings in your bank account, equivalent to what my friends here make in 1 year), and so you have all of these things that are in direct opposition to what you need as an artist, and the freedoms and privileges that you get in Australia. And then of course you have an alternate version of the Internet so access to information is sometimes difficult.

So as I'm making friends I've also been sensitive to these inequalities and trying my best to listen and learn more about life here. With my work, I'd say that stepping back and passively observing has influenced my practice. My most recent show, at Organhaus in Chongqing, presented a series of projections, of 14 or 15 subtle gestures, idiosyncratic hand movements of people I had met here. My Mandarin is awful so as I follow conversations I'm usually following body language, and I wanted to try and communicate these extremely human and abstract bodily utterances. The footage was filmed before the person knew the camera was rolling, I’d set it up and discretely hit record and just continue chatting as though it wasn’t filming. Doing this, I was able to capture movements that were a lot less conscious and expressed an authentic nervousness or thoughtfulness, which wasn’t filtered by an awareness of the camera. Since living in China, perhaps I'm trying to remove my voice from my work and represent other people or create works that audiences can bring more of themselves to when they're trying to interpret them - and the openness and ambiguity of this work allows quite diverse readings.

Mute, solo-exhibition comprising 8-channel video, installation view, Organhaus, Chongqing, 2016. Courtesy: the artist

I searched online the exhibition you mentioned and it seems your recent work is less focused on robotics and the AI world-view, at least visually. What are your current interests?

It's still definitely about technology, social media, and our relationships with AI, but I wanted to approach these ideas without directly using technology. The exhibition that we bumped into each other in Berlin, yes it dealt with technology and how things are mediated by screens, but above everything it seemed more focussed on the aesthetics of technology - videos presented on iPhones, exposed cables running between things, I vaguely remember a person lying in bed watching YouTube. It was a pretty good show, but I think the use of technology didn't actually do anything to add to underlying technological themes, or present that human-technology relationship beyond a simple physical interaction. Sure, a lot of our life is mediated by screens, but how does this affect communication, relationships, language and so on – how does it affect our lives when we aren't online?

Exploring hand gestures implies a face-to-face method of communication, which is increasingly being replaced by text and instant message based interaction. I'm interested in how these almost superfluous elements of real physical conversation exist as a human counterpoint to online chat. I forget if was Sherry Turkle or Nicholas Carr (probably both touch on it) but they write about how conducting a Turing Test (to determine if an AI can convince a user it is human), that if it’s done via screen-based chat it's the easiest way for the AI to succeed – it's the most robotic or programmable. The irony of course is humans are actively choosing these less human methods of communication to interact with one another. In calling the show
Mute, I was thinking of sign language, but also how the word now relates to muted chat windows or phones, how a word describing an imposed inability to communicate has also become about deliberately silencing communication. So with gestures or subtle personal movements, you have this unconscious but incredibly important action. In a way, the movements that I captured would be complicated to program into an AI or avatar. But then by digitising and cataloguing them, perhaps I’m also taking a step towards integrating these actions into programmable behaviour.

Last time we spoke, you mentioned a recent work based on Chinese money and a trick. Can you talk about that work?

In 2013 during a residency at Shen Shaomin's studio in Beijing, I met a young artist who showed me a trick where you fold Chinese bank notes in a way that it would look from one angle like Mao was frowning, and then from another angle it would look like he was really, really happy. It's silly, but quite loaded and serious at the same time. It works with Australian currency too, but to manipulate an image of the queen feels a bit anachronistic. I had previously worked with money, erasing the ink on an Australian note so it became purely a sheet of plastic, and I was interested in how political this simple action was – it was breaking the law to do that, and actually incriminating the gallery that exhibited it for sale, as they would have been legally liable. So for this work, Happy Mao, Sad Mao, I took a 1 yuan note that someone had folded in this specific way, and attached it to a motorised surface that would automatically and endlessly alternate between the two positions – happy and sad. The artwork, to me, is unbiased – it's not really saying anything, but then for Chinese people maybe it's a subtle dissent, a tiny personal political action. I almost never made the work, I feel like I don’t have the right to really voice an opinion, as I don't have enough knowledge or experience with Chinese history. I’ll never know how it really is for Chinese people living in this political situation, but I guess I just saw it as capturing an artefact and representing this action that was once demonstrated to me, and I think it’s important to communicate this experience.

Currently, I don't have documentation of the work anywhere online, and it's complicated dealing with subjects that can be quite sensitive. Sometimes I'll show the work in presentations or one on one on my computer, but I've been advised to keep it quiet. I know people who have had exhibitions shut down here, or who have been arrested and kicked out of China and the last thing I would want to do is either seem ungrateful or ignorantly patronising of the situation, or to do something that would limit my connection with a country and people that I love. But then actively self-censoring the work makes me feel uncomfortable too.

Detail of folded 1 yuan note. Courtesy: the artist

Before we finish can you talk a little more about living in China and your latest work, Nervous Plants, and how this work references mass-produced and easy-to-use technology?

My experience of China is limited to bigger cities so I can only really comment on what I've seen at that level. Across China there's been a massive shift of people from rural areas to cities. Some of this is individuals pursuing opportunities and jobs, but also there was a government push to consolidate the population into a more contemporary, globally relevant urban context. In Chongqing especially, this urbanisation has led to a rise in city farming, as people apply their skills (often from generations and generations of farmers) to disused parcels of land. You'll see things like a tiny patch of vegies growing on a median strip between a highway, maybe some chickens grazing and crops drying on the concrete in the sun, with big neon billboards and cranes and construction overlooking it. At a more individual level, there's this kind of saturation of smartphones and mobile devices (as well as gaming) which is balanced with traditional spirituality. It's not uncommon to see someone with an iPhone 6S in one hand, instant messaging or playing games, and a set of wooden prayer beads or bǎodìng balls in the other. Perhaps this link between spirituality and technology is something I see in my own work. In one way it can be seen as a clash of old and new, but also they can both be seen as examples of longing and escapism which are heightened through our technological connections.

In my work, the new/old tension is explored more in the relationship between plants (or organic material) and technology. The
Nervous Plants series examines this but also looks at what we expect from everyday objects – how our relationship with things is affected by the interactivity, immediacy and interconnectedness we feel everyday with smartphones and smart technology. Through creating an interactive robotic plant, I’m really questioning our relationship with nature and static or passive objects. Recently I was reading about a smart cup that keeps track of how much water, you’ve consumed - which some people may find useful, but to me it seems like an absolutely unnecessary innovation. But then as we engage more and more with smart technology, will we end up engaging less with other parts of our world, or with each other? In a more human sense I'm interested in how this could affect the role of touch in our everyday lives. Perhaps the idea of physically touching something is evolving ... in the same way that it's not uncommon to say you were talking (or more ambiguously chatting) with someone, to in fact refer to instant message conversations, maybe in the future we will think of touching someone, via a touch screen interface, as a valid substitute.

Tully Arnot, Nervous Plant, 2015. Artificial plant, pot, servomotor, microcontroller, light sensor, 40 x 40 x 30cm.
Courtesy: the artist

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