Unfeasible Symmetry
Jen Southern & Jen Hamilton

Distance Made Good

First published in a-n Magazine October 2003.

Over the past eighteen months we have collaborated on two new installations. The process of collaboration has led us into blizzards, across rivers, around swans, through forests and over golf courses as we attempted to discover how our geographical distance is linked to cultural difference.

The journey began when we were commissioned by The Gallery, Stratford-upon-Avon to make a new work that linked Stratford-upon-Avon with its sister city Stratford in Canada. In Canada there were three Shakespeare theatres, a river Avon, a gallery called The Gallery and even swans that are taken down to the river in spring in a 'Swan Parade'. That we were both called Jen added to this unfeasible symmetry, one we've been trying to understand ever since, in the original exhibition and in a new work for the Dunlop Gallery, Sherwood Forest, Canada.

We travelled to Stratford, Canada initially to explore the place and to find shared ground. There was a three-day blizzard; we soon realised that walking around a place with our heads down, eyes scrunched and hands deep in our pockets wasn't getting us very far. Exploring on foot was important to understanding the place. When we visited Stratford, England the heritage sites were all so clearly marked and preserved, the experience so packaged for us as tourists, that it was difficult to tell the real from the simulated.

It was then that we decided to work with GPS (Global Positioning Systems) devices that use satellites to pinpoint latitude, longitude and altitude, and would allegedly tell us where we are in the world. During a journey GPS data from specific points can be linked together to create a GPS drawing (see www.gpsdrawing.com).

Using locations that share names in Canada and the UK, we have explored the identity of places that afford a specific tourist image through one historical figure. The namesake location in Canada becomes not just a reflection of its colonial past, but often serves to reflect on the impossibility of a place in the UK being authentic or original. Situationist walking practices and Foucault's idea of Heterotopias were informative and influential to this work, as was Emma Posey's exhibition catalogue essay 'Memory Maps'.

We eventually chose to work with people living in these cities, who revealed the logistics of the towns in a way we could never achieve as visitors. We asked them to make GPS drawings of their everyday journeys, in contrast to simultaneous tourist walks we had made. These drawings, translated into physical installations created a temporary third space that exploded the myth or idea of a place that is associated with its name.

We work through expanded online conversations, with spatial and temporal gaps between replies. Research gets filtered to a shared 'sketchbook' website with links to other sites, books, artists and images. We type. A lot. But it is practical experiments that are central to our practice. We devise tasks, or objects, to make simultaneously which we then scan, photograph and describe in order to question our presumptions and processes and to clarify direction.

It is physical distance that prevents us from collaborating face-to-face but in using email it is often the differences in our perceptions as individuals that are greater than the geography. It is precisely these relationships, between geographical and cultural difference, that we are attempting to explore. Our use of GPS thus becomes a kind of perverse science, expressed in installations of quasi-surveying tools and methods, which attempt to understand cultural location through an essentially dumb technology that only ever gives us spatial location.

Establishing a shared area of practice in which collaboration is key has been exciting. When your practice is interrogated and expanded by a collaborator living about 5,000 miles away it is both highly productive and very frustrating. What makes up for adjusting to each other's thought processes and the timelag are the times when we independently come to the same conclusions or make the same conceptual leaps – and find a moment of unfeasible symmetry.
'Distance Made Good' at The Gallery, Stratford-upon-Avon, was reviewed in a-n Magazine, September 2002.


Beside Ourselves, Sometimes by Kris Cohen

Walk by Annie Gerin

Satellites by Derek Hales

Distance Made Good by Annabel Longbourne

Memory Maps by Emma Posey

Distance Made Good: Installations using GPS to chart local topographies by Hamilton & Southern

Unfeasible Symmetry by Hamilton & Southern

Copyright Hamilton, Southern & St Amand 2008.
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