Susannah Thompson, 'Viral Transmission' (The Map, 13, 02/2008)

Craig Mulholland talks to Susannah Thompson in the run-up to a series of exhibitions showcasing a major new body of work, Grandes et Petites Machines. A re-edited version of his new film ‘Peer to Peer’ has been commissioned for MAP and can be viewed on

Susannah Thompson: For the last year or so you’ve been working on a series of exhibitions, Grandes et Petites Machines, which consists of concurrent shows at Sorcha Dallas and Glasgow School of Art, as well as a more extensive selection of work at Spike Island in Bristol. Grandes Machines is the tern for the monumental history paintings of the 19th century French Salon but I’m guessing there’s a pun or double meaning in there? Can you expand the title?

Craig Mulholland: It developed very early on, since I knew I wanted this show to be more ambitious in scale and I liked its potential to be read descriptively. Literally, the exhibition is a collection of large and small works. The majority of the ‘Grandes Machines’ of the French Salon tended to focus on the physical mechanics of human struggle or violent revolution usually set against the crumbling architecture of authority.

I wanted to create a body of work that meditated on radicalism or revolution whilst highlighting its complicity with power hierarchy in relation to the various agencies of its dissemination as art. Here the Petites Machines of the title could refer to the thwarting of any radicalism by collusion.

ST: There seem to recurrent interests or themes which crop up in your work, such as economics, surveillance culture and Foucauldian theories of power, particualry the idea of the panopticon as a metaphor for society at large (as discussed in Michael Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish). Can you say something about how Grandes et Petites Machines relate to previous works such as: RFID at The Changing Room, Stirling, 2005; Bearer on Demand, Transmission, 2005; Plastic Casino, Sorcha Dallas, 2004?

CM: The film works make fairly direct references to the panoptic eye and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish lent direction to the faint narrative thread of the new film, ‘Peer to Peer’. Besides identifying with many elements of his theory, I’ve always found the motifs to be very applicable to visual art. I’ve always been aware of the irony in using digital technology when attempting to find a mode of resistance. Like a lot of users I’m very anxious about the internets expansion of the panoptic ideal of automatic self-governance, through its use of cookies and other consumer profiling and tracking devices. I’m interested in how the increasing infiltration of digital technology into our concrete world has a tendency to transform human agency into a resource. I think this is what lends the show its quantitative/qualitative dialectic and why it pivots between concrete and virtual zones.

ST:-Your work brings together what, on paper, could be seen as fairly dry, academic interests with almost bombastic drama and poetry. How do these elements come together in tour work?

CM:-I tend to do a lot of drawing initially which is often obliquely directed by philosophical, theoretical and literary material I’m reading at the time. This becomes synthesised through a lot of improvisation with materials and in recent years usually directed by an animation or video project.

ST:-There are lots of references, both direct and indirect, to art, music and literature in your work. In Grandes et Petites Machines there are illusions or references to Vertoz, Kubrick, Britten, Kraftwerk, Goya, Epstein, Suprematism, Futurism. Which do you see as most influential or significant?

CM:-In terms of irony and deadpan I’d probably say Kubrick and Kraftwerk. I’ve found in conversation that Kraftwerk’s work is often misread as a form of uncompromising technological determinism. I find their relationship to technology to be more ambiguous; I’ve always thought their ability to convey a profound melancholy, whilst using parody and complicity, hugely inspiring. The stage design and video montages of their fairly recent world tour have been a major influence.

ST:- Your exhibition could be seen as a contemporary revision or parallel to 1913 Russian futurist opera Victory Over the Sun in terms of the way you have brought together a musical score, paintings and literary texts to from a whole body of work. Can you say more about this?

CM:-Once I had a focus I invited Glasgow-based artist Laurence Figgis to work on a libretto for me. I presented him with a few key musical, lyrical and pictorial themes, and we met periodically to edit his writing and set with the developing musical score. Laurence had written a short script in response to my previous Plastic Casino exhibition, using the futurist opera as a model. As I had since been determined to repeat our informal collaboration in a more integrated form, this operetta of sorts seemed ideal. The vague narrative of ‘Peer To Peer” is intended to hint at the means of its own production and of the show in general.

ST:-As with many of your exhibitions, there’s a huge amount of work here in terms of quantity and a prolific multi-layering of ideas. Can you explain how you began to make the work? How did it materialise? Did the imagery or text come first? Which elements led the work forward?

CM:-Seeking to expand on areas of social control I’d touched on previous exhibitions, I was motivated by reading articles describing various experiments using classical music to control social behaviour. One such was the CO-OP grocery store chain which used piped classical music outside its shops to discourage youths from congregating and intimidating customers. Apparently, psychometric tests on this social group have shown that the classical repertoire is their greatest irritant. I saw this as inverse to the Beethoven-loving droogs of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, a film I’d referenced in the exhibition Plastic Casino. At the same time, I was experimenting with a music sequencer application called Ableton, which facilitates the use of virtual recording studio as a live instrument and is particularly popular with electronic dance musicians. I thought it would be interesting to compose a piece of classical music using dance music software, with genres such as ‘chipmunk techno’ stereotypically associated with ASBO youth culture. Central to the development of the show’s aesthetic was a premeditated choice of drawing and painting tools. Most of the aluminium works were made using similar techniques and materials to those used in electronic circuit board manufacture. The etched lines and capillaries seem both diagrammatic and illusionistic, whilst performing as odd autographic vector paths when animated. During production their increasing resemblance to smashed windowpanes, cemented the idea of presenting the work as a salon of aestheticised vandalism.

ST:-You’ve said that, formally, you want the concrete works in this show to look industrial rather than post-industrial. Can you expand on the reasons for this?

CM:-When images of the concrete works become animated in film their industrial and autographic aesthetic sets up dialectic with the post-industrial labour of the surveillance officer/politician character and the data processing of the film’s means of production. I want the autographic labour at the heart of my practice to look nostalgic and fantastical whilst being grounded by contrasting representations of more contemporary labour disciplines. I also want to make some parallels between the faux-liberal propaganda of our information-based society with its flexi-time wage culture and that of the culture industry with its art market. A series of paintings using pegboard refer both to the ‘clocking-in’ of labour time and early digital punch code, whilst resembling boarded-up windows. They are intended to imbue a sense of ennui, as though disabled or withdrawn by some quantitative plague.

ST:-In Bearer on Demand you drew on the idea of ‘vampiric’ processes of consumption to critique or comment on economic and political power structures of capitalism. In your film, ‘Peer To Peer’ the imagery is similarly viral, with plague imagery such as the operator’s plague mask and the use of repetitive phrases. Is this intended to be symbolic of the way you regard the dissemination of power, that is, the idea control is more effective when ideology is used to ‘infect’ the individual or the way individuals internalise the idea of power so that state control is more insidious and duplicitous?

CM:-I do believe in the idea of power being a form of viral information. The virus imagery of this work also stems from a similar process occurring in the studio- the works seemed to germinate from each other, with the direction thrust coming from the film. It was similar to the swapping of midi sequences between instruments when I was composing the music. I became very conscious of this early in the development of the work and besides its parallel with the subject it provided an obvious route to avoiding illustration. I allowed some of the music almost to generate itself, to lend it the appearance of infection, by some generalising force. This viral transmission is most apparent in the multi-screen video work ‘Rising Resistance.” It was created as an inverse to the sculpture and painting element of the show, Paths of Resistance and is an extension of the vampiric capital theme from Bearer On Demand. Here I composed a piece of music based around sound samples of stock market commentary. I was struck by the violence of the language, which integrates very aptly when appropriated for the rioting tripods and smashed images of the video, whilst offering the potential to comment on the commodification of the exhibition itself

ST:-You are clearly concerned with contemporary political issues. Are you attempting to be didactic in this work? Is there a specific message or caution you are trying to convey, or is the work a more ambiguous collage of images on a theme, in other words, a ‘comment’ or observation rather than a ‘critique’?

CM:-The theatrical aspect of my work, to a certain extent, insures against making an overly didactic information art. I intuitively seek to mask research, through the use of random synthetic processes during production. Crucially, I’ve learned to place great value on entropy as a liberating force, which I believe is evident in the tone of this work. If anything, the show seeks to convey an anxious impudence towards technological and bureaucratic advance.