Saved events

Meet the Artist: Nye Thompson

On making 'Insulae' [Of the Island]

an aerial view of the sea
12 Apr 2021

Artist Nye Thompson speaks to us about the politics of island geography and national identity explored in her video installation INSULAE [Of the Island].

How did Insulae [Of the Island] come about?

I was initially invited to submit a proposal for a video installation to be specifically created for Level G - it was to be a joint commission between the Barbican, Lumen Arts Projects and Sky Arts 50 - and the theme was British identity in the age of Brexit. I wasn't actually sure whether I wanted to apply initially - the brief seemed quite a departure from my typical creative obsessions which tend to focus around network infrastructures and machine gaze. But after the briefing meeting I spent some time in the Barbican just staring at that big wall in Level G where the video was to be projected and absorbing the atmosphere of the environment. I remember it was hot and dry and I was thirsty. I started to idly daydream about water streaming down the concrete walls. I went away and deliberately didn't consciously think about the brief for a couple of weeks.

But in the back of my mind a number of ideas began to converge:

  • my streaming water Barbican daydream
  • the fact that I had been reading Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography where he talks fascinatingly about the political importance of sea borders
  • a lucky mistake I had made previously while playing with Google Earth where I accidentally generated a virtual journey over empty sea and found it strange and beautiful

I think I woke up with the fully formed idea of INSULAE in my head one morning - then I had to rapidly work out and test whether it could actually be achieved.

Can you discuss the logistics of such a project?

INSULAE was an extremely process-driven piece of work and quite labour-intensive. When I embarked on it there were a whole load of technical unknowns, and questions to be answered before the making of the film could actually begin. The process I evolved was actually a form of drawing. Using Google Earth I drew a long composite line that went right around the British coastline - close to the shore but never quite reaching it. I then set a virtual camera to journey along this drawn line a section at a time, generating footage as it went. All this footage was then brought into post-production to create the finished 6 hour film.

I wanted to create something with a low level of visual incident - something where nothing much happens for large periods of time and the viewer is just waiting

Can you briefly discuss your ideas of separation in relation to island geography?

The word 'insular' literally comes from the Latin word for island 'insula' hence my titling the work INSULAE (Of the Island). When you have shared physical borders with another country it's much harder not to acknowledge your shared cultural heritage and your interdependence.

How do you think our island geography impacts on our national identity? And in relation to Brexit, how much of an impact did it have on the UK leaving the EU?

There were a lot of complex and intertwingled issues at play with Brexit. When I think about the narrative of British identity so adroitly manipulated by the Leave campaign, it keeps taking me back to the sea. I'm thinking of an idea of Britain as a moated castle, I'm thinking of the sea as a mother protecting her favoured child from the Spanish Armada, I'm thinking of the lines 'this jewel set in a silver sea' and it's connotations of precious uniqueness.

And then of course there is a more tangible connection - the British Isles has a generous volume of safe warm water sea ports. Our island geography plays a key role in the narrative of British Empire and a cultural nostalgic remembrance of former power and prosperity.

Your work is ‘artificially beautified’ and the whole vision is digitally filtered. Why did you decide to do this? 

This Google Earth satellite imagery has the quality of looking like ‘reality’ but in fact it is a patchwork of data from different sources, processed, visually enhanced, artificially beautified and reconstructed by Google and the major satellite imaging suppliers. Some objects will have been removed or obscured behind the scenes at the request of governments with sufficient political clout.

INSULAE is a meditation on the sea within a particular social and political framework.

This struck me as having parallels to the way a popular historical narrative is constructed, assembled from multiple sources, enhanced but with key political agendas often obscured. One of the reasons I found working with the Google Earth sea footage so fascinating is that it is kind of marginal data - a place where people don’t normally look.

When you watch INSULAE you will see all these ‘data borders’ - lines where 2 or more separate sets of satellite imagery are joined together. And then there is a perimeter - another border - where the fairly high resolution imagery stops and becomes a blurred approximation of sea water. It was important to me not to alter the quality or nature of the footage - the colours, distortion, artificial borders and glitches are all products of the initial satellite imagery and the way that this has been handled and re-constructed at source.

Our island geography plays a key role in the narrative of British Empire and a cultural nostalgic remembrance of former power and prosperity.

What do you hope people take away from INSULAE?

My hope is that people will be able to take something from the work at multiple levels, whatever their age and degree of engagement with contemporary art. INSULAE is a meditation on the sea within a particular social and political framework. At the same time, it's a demonstration of the constructedness of this imagery which makes claims at representing reality.

But I also wanted to create a very particular experience for the viewer, something on a more visceral level. We are all so over-stimulated all the time - especially by digital media. I often find it quite challenging to give things or people my full attention, and I doubt that I’m alone in this. So I wanted to create something with a low level of visual incident - something where nothing much happens for large periods of time and the viewer is just waiting. I’m interested in that state of anticipation. Because then when something does happen - when something new glides into view - you are able to give it a much higher degree of attention, and I think there is something very emotionally rewarding in that.

INSULAE [Of the Island] was originally shown at the Barbican Centre in 2019 as part of the Sky Arts 50 programme.

Commissioned in partnership with Lumen Arts Project. 

 

While you're here

We rely on the money we raise through ticket sales, commercial activities and fundraising to deliver our arts and learning programme. It forms more than 60% of our income. Show your support by making a donation and help inspire more people to discover and love the arts.