Crossing the Threshold: An Interview With Mat Collishaw

Collishaw was one of the key names in the YBA movement that came up through Goldsmiths in the 1980s, along with fellow artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Sarah Lucas. He continues to be a driving force within the contemporary art world, exhibiting regularly in Britain and beyond.

His exhibition at Blain Southern, ‘The Centrifugal Soul’  – a breathtaking zeotrope of birds of paradise and bowerbirds in the midst of mating rituals – has just finished its run. However, I am sitting on the sun-drenched terrace above Collishaw’s home, a converted pub in south east London, to talk about Thresholds, his current exhibition at Somerset House in association with VMI Studio and the University of Nottingham.

Michele Baker: Let’s start by talking about the exhibition itself. Can you tell me a little more about Thresholds? What does the piece involve?

Mat Collishaw: Thresholds is a VR project. It’s quite a specific virtual reality project, involving a lot of other sensory stimulation, such as haptic interaction. The warmth from the fire is created by a heater, and we are also bringing smells in there, as well as, of course, the scene outside the window.

I work in a lot of different media anyway; paintings and laser scanning, for example, so VR was an obvious thing to work with. Though I am not really a techie person, this medium can give you a 360-degree full immersion in the image, obviously something that needs addressing if you’re an artist, I think.

But I wanted a project that was interesting as an idea, not just a magic forest with unicorns and little elves running around, or a documentary film. I wanted to make something that was a concept, because I am a conceptual artist, although my work is very accessible.

MB: So where did the idea come from, of exploring the history of photography through this new medium of VR?

MC: I was talking to the photojournalist Pete James in Birmingham, we were having a curry. He pointed out that the building across the road was where this first major exhibition of photography took place and not a lot of people really knew about it. Not much has been written about it.

This is the birth of all image-based technologies that came later. Clearly, this is a profound event so I thought, ‘ok, so if we use VR technology, the latest cutting edge technology, to go back to the birth of that?’ There’s quite an interesting parallel that can be drawn.

However, if you’re trying to evoke what people’s reaction was to this medium when it was born, that is virtually impossible, because we look at a Henry Fox Talbot photo these days, they look like little muddy drawings and people have images and films on their phones which are very easily accessible. But if we are doing VR then people are going to be impressed to a degree, so you’re going to get a similar wow factor while you’re experiencing these photographs from the 1830s.

Inside VR Simulation - Thresholds Mat Collishaw Exhibition | VMI Studio

Inside the Thresholds VR Simulation

MB: Clearly, there’s a lot of historical detail here. As you say, not much has been written about it. What did you have to do to unearth all the information necessary to pull this together?

MC: We went about finding out as much as we could about the original exhibition. The actual building has been demolished, but it was designed by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, the guys who did the Houses of Parliament. The King Edward School was a precursor to that, a kind of warm-up act. It was a neo-Gothic building which was quite new at the time, very early Victorian era. It is a very affluent, high-performing school, one of the highest in the country, which is why they got this amazing building there.

The exhibition we are recreating was by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, so it wasn’t a photography exhibition. it wasn’t an exhibition of the arts at all, it was of science, comprising a lot of scientists showing their latest wares to their peers and to the general public as well. The Talbot photographs, too, were considered science.

“I do not profess to have perfected an Art, but to have commenced one; the limits of which it is not possible at present exactly to ascertain.”

– W H F Talbot, 1839

Nobody really knew what this new medium was going to be. Talbot himself divided his selection of 93 images up into 4 different categories, based on the processes used to make them, rather than the subject they depicted. Only a few of them are what we know today as normal photography, basically, a camera taking pictures of trees and buildings and stuff, the others were solar microscope photos. There were a lot of what later came to be known as photograms, which is just the laying of botanical specimens on paper and exposing them to light to get a very detailed impression.  Then, there were lots of copies of prints and engravings and paintings on glass.

Talbot saw photography as a means of reproducing imagery. As part of the industrial revolution, mass production was a big thing and that’s what he wanted to achieve. Photography did that, disseminating the image by thousands.

I got in touch with VMI through a PR organisation that they had also been working with, and we started to put all of the information that we got on the original building into the recreation they were making on 3Ds Max. We were getting advised by a gentleman called David Blissett, who is the expert on Charles Barry – he’s writing the definitive biography at the moment so he was able to advise us as to what kinds of stone and what kinds of wood they would have used.

Thresholds VR Exhibition | Mat Collishaw Interview for Michele Baker, VMI Studio

Moths hover around the candlelit chandeliers inside the Thresholds VR simulation – a poignant warning about the threat of the image

We also went to the King Edward School building as it exists now on its new site, and looked at lots of old drawings and plans that Barry made for the original building. This allowed us to get a lot of dimensions and basically quite a good idea of what the original building we were recreating looked like.

At the same time, we had several photo historians, Greg Hobson from the National Media Museum; Pete James, who is my main partner on the project; Larry Schaaf, the world expert on Talbot; Brian Liddy from the Bodleian Library. They started to track down the original 93 images we had on the original catalogue list.

“These beautiful images are not only records of scientific triumphs but evidence of the first steps in shaping a new type of vision.”

– Larry Schaaf, 2013

They’re all over the world, these pictures, and a lot are locked away in vaults because they’re very light sensitive. You can’t really access them because this was before Talbot had refined the process and managed to fix them against light.

When we had done that, we needed to ask permission to use them, get them scanned and then get these copies so we could introduce them to the model that Nick and Ed were building.

Through our research, we also got to hear about the Chartist demonstrations that were happening in Birmingham at the time. When I heard about this, I thought, ‘ok, here is a great opportunity to put this exhibition in some historical, social, political context’.

MB: Yes, the Chartist demonstration taking place outside is a fascinating aspect to the exhibition. And there’s a parallel with current anxieties about technology, isn’t there?

MC: The Chartist riots were very bad. There were people armed with swords and sticks, smashing windows and burning buildings down, lots of attacks and fights with the police. Lots of people were sent to hang. It was really quite serious.

The Chartists wanted representation in Parliament, they wanted the vote. But they were also suspicious about the technological innovations that were happening in this exhibition, as well as elsewhere, because the technology was potentially taking their jobs away from them, through factory automation, the industrial revolution. So they weren’t altogether happy with what was happening in science at the time. We discovered letters from Talbot to John Herschel expressing his concerns about these demonstrators out on the streets smashing things up: What if they attack our exhibition?

“I am afraid our Birmingham meeting will be greatly discouraged by these events, if indeed it takes place at all. A Chartist interruption into section A would put fly to all the sciences.”

– William Fox Talbot in a letter to John Herschel, July 1839

This fear of technology continues to pervade the popular consciousness now. The growth of automation and artificial intelligence technologies are threatening countless jobs that we are not certain how to replace. So these concerns echo back to the time of similarly unprecedented advancement during the first industrial revolution, those concerns highlighted by the Chartists. And it’s those echoes I wished to explore with Thresholds.

That’s why the Chartist demonstrations came to form a part of the Thresholds exhibition. From within the cosy, somewhat affluent setting of the exhibition room simulation, participants can hear the protest chants from outside permeating the refined atmosphere. This element imbues the experience with tension; the scientist and gentleman surveys new, revolutionary technology inside, whilst the working man cries out from the street against the threat of that very technology.

Chartist Demonstration Birmingham

A Chartist demonstration: Engraving of the Gathering of the Unions, New Hall Hill, Birmingham, May 1832

MB: Technology has come up as a theme in your work before. I wonder, then, what your attitude is to bringing tech like VR into the art world. Does it have a legitimate place?

MC: I am not particularly enamoured with technology in general, not least with the notion of virtual reality casting its shadow over the art world. That being said, I am not sure that VR can actually compete with the lived experience of art. The gallery experience is meditative, almost church-like. You wander and engage thoughtfully with the works around you. There’s a sense of physical connection in the gallery or exhibition space. Can this subjective experience really be translated to a simulation? I don’t think so. Whilst the threat of automation in industry is quite real, I think the art world will survive the ravages of technology.

“Think of it in the same way as photography; we’re right at the beginning [of VR], at the photogram stage. The motion pictures are still to come.”

– Gareth Harris, 2016

Aside from the question of whether VR has a place in art, I’m more interested in the role of the image itself, the progression from those early days when we were first able to capture an image from life. Photography has, of course, evolved; virtual reality feels like the logical conclusion of that.

Thresholds reflects on the ways that technology can change our relationship with the world, with a consideration as to how beneficial or malignant that influence can be.

The reproduced image has mutated as time has gone on, from a representation of the world ostensibly verbatim to a force for mass manipulation, as television and advertising clearly demonstrates.

Social media is the same. There’s this growing emphasis on displaying our every moment to the world, sometimes in a way that can be degrading or self-defamatory, whether implicitly or explicitly. People now try to portray themselves in a particular light to meet some prescriptive standard that’s set within the digital space of the internet. So where does the self sit within that? When we spill everything outwards into the world, we are left hollow.

Thresholds picks up on this idea in some respects. There is a large mirror mounted on the virtual wall of the exhibition room. The participants, however, cannot see their reflection – they’re rendered vampires, almost. Where am I? What effect has this virtual reality had upon my self?

On the ceiling of the exhibition room is a chandelier lit by candles, around which hover moths. I’ve used moths before in my work, and their appearance here in Thresholds is particularly pertinent. Flying close to the open flame, the moths are seduced by that which will destroy them if they stray too close. This draws comparison with our relationship to the image: perhaps these increasingly immersive iterations of the image are a destructive force about which we must be warned. Maybe there’s a moral message in there, a little reminder for the VR participants of Thresholds.

MB: The image is not a static force – it relies on this two-way interaction with the subject observing the image, and the action the image takes upon the observer. Was this notion of the ‘gaze’, this two-way interaction, a conscious consideration?

MC: The physical room in which the exhibition takes place is entirely white; plain white table and cabinet structures are placed to correspond with the virtual furnishings participants will see in the simulation. To look at that white room conjures up the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey – that very Kubrick bright white, and also the Georgian room (In the Arthur C Clarke book from which the film is adapted, the room is Victorian) into which the astronaut is placed by the extraterrestrials to simulate his ‘home planet’.

Participants in Thresholds, however, do not experience the Kubrick-esque white space whilst in the exhibition. They may have seen it from the waiting area outside though, before it was their turn. One can look into the room and see the six participants wandering around a white space, strapped into a VR headset lugging a laptop in a backpack. The participants are being viewed unknowingly – a somewhat vulnerable position to be in. Likewise, the waiting visitors cannot see what the participants are seeing.

Visitors to this exhibition are crossing two thresholds: that of the historical, and that of the contemporary. They are effectively time-travelling, and show up as these spectral avatars within the virtual space – you look at another participant within the simulation and they are a kind of ethereal, ghostly white shape. On one level, this is to stop people bumping into one another, but moreover, it highlights this sense of travelling back 170 years – a feat that this technology enables us to do, to some extent.

There’s certainly different levels of the image in Thresholds, and I suppose the gaze is a part of this. But it’s more about addressing the layers of reality upon which the image acts, and virtual reality is – of course – a good medium for expressing that. We are on the verge of another threshold in our perception of the world as mediated through images, to the point of total immersion in the image.

Mat Collishaw Thresholds Exhibition | VMI Studio

Photo credit: Graham Carlow

Thresholds is running from 15th May 2017 to 11th June 2017 at Somerset House in London, and subsequently at:

  • Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery 17/06/2017- 03/09/2017
  • Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire 09/09/2017 – 29/10/2017
  • Bodleian Library, Oxford  09/03/2018 – 15/04/2018
  • National Media Museum, Bradford  09/07/2018 – 02/09/2018

Further reading:

Mat Collishaw: Technology, The Abject, And The Divine

Thresholds: Mat Collishaw Exhibition At Somerset House

The Cultural History of Photography

Art History, Simulation & Architectural Visualisation in VR