Interview with Artist Alan James Burns – Silicon Synapse
by Phoebe Moore
Artist Alan James Burns chats to No More Workhorse about his new piece Silicon Synapse and his wider artistic endeavours.
A VIRTUAL REALITY AND PSYCHO-ACOUSTIC INSTALLATION IN THE HISTORIC CARNEGIE LIBRARY, SWORDS, FINGAL – 13 November – 15 December 2019
Can you start by describing Silicon Synapse to me?
Silicon Synapse is a multi-sensory artwork and experience that brings the viewer through various environments both physical and virtual. It explores genetic engineering, technology and evolution. The artwork itself delivers a narrative that replays an argument between nature and technology about the sustainability of their relationship and their future as a couple. This all plays out in a dialogue about procreation and genetic engineering. Technology wants to morph and mutate but Nature wants to let things take its course and not move too quickly within the evolutionary process.
Do you recall was there anything specific that prompted the creation of Silicon Synapse?
In my previous artworks, I had worked with multi-channel immersive audio and from a learning perspective, I wanted to move into immersive visuals. I started to work a lot with inner dialogues and then combining these with technology; it began to make sense then to make the perceived inner dialogue in this work come from technology itself.
For most of my artworks, I try to create immersive experiences that take people on a journey. Ultimately I wanted to create a journey that doesn’t really give you a moment to stop and think but one that all consumes. What I really try to achieve is an artwork that allows you to feel. I love working with multi-channel audio specifically as it can physically touch you. As in, sound waves move through space and bounce off your eardrum. This effect kind of consumes and empowers the participant.
Why did you choose the Carnegie Library in Swords as the location for your piece?
Fingal County Council Arts Office are the main commissioner of the artwork. We started off wanting to create a multi psychical and virtual space experience. The Carnegie Library came up as a possible location as Fingal County Council are developing a new Swords cultural quarter which will launch in 2024, the Carnegie Library will form part of this quarter. On the lead up to 2024 Fingal Arts want to create an audience for artworks and experiences before the quarter launches. I became excited to work with Carnegie because of its ability to create a journey for the participant: all of the multiple rooms have their own atmosphere together with the historic nature of the building itself. I love the building with all its dusty walls, scuffed carpets, cobwebs and everything. Figuring out the balance of how all of that could work was really important to the development of the piece. We spent a lot of time designing the rooms we really tried to maintain the setting of the building and also to emphasise certain aspects of it.
Was it your first time working with Virtual Reality?
Yep, it was my first time working with Virtual Reality. I had done bits and pieces but this was my first time creating an entire artwork using it. Working with VR is very difficult, it’s a different language compared to what I would have been used to in the past. What I like about it is it’s very effective at creating environments and putting people into a virtual space. VR gives you a freedom here that other visual mediums can’t. It creates environments that are very engulfing for an audience, it can be very powerful. You have to remember to let these environments breathe, giving an audience room to enjoy them rather than over saturate the participant with too many things that are going on.
I’m interested in the concept of the ‘lovers’ argument’ between nature and technology. This argument takes place as an audio dialogue during the journey.
Could you comment further on this and about what is happening or being said in this narrative?
So Technology, who’s very youthful, is kind of feeling existential and is a little bit afraid of not living forever, it, therefore, tries to encourage its partner nature to procreate and to create a new entity. Nature, however, is not as eager and is more reluctant and wants to slow down the process. Nature doesn’t want to end the relationship entirely but is not yet convinced that the speed at which things are happening is necessarily mutually beneficial. The narrative is written by the writer Sue Rainsford and the entire dialogue is performed by the actor Peter Corboy.
A Short Section of the Dialogue:
Technology: Something we make together, something calibrated, not an offshoot not some contingency
Nature: Now you want to expand and envelop yet some other new entity in its entirety. There are other ways for you to produce, generate, innervate, enterprise.
So nature kind of wants to take a step back?
Yes, per se. At the end of the piece, the dialogue becomes more of a monologue whereby the two entities kind of become one. This is an extract taken from this moment.
“And while I’m wakeful
this is not how I’ll survive
this is not what it should feel like, to be alive
and this is not what I thought any part of me would look like
felled unto segments.”
What is your own relationship like with technology, is it quite good or do you think you’re a bit of a technophobe? How would you describe it?
I think I have a very good relationship with technology. Lots of my artworks are quite tech-heavy. The novel and developing nature of Technology allows my brain to process new ideas and artworks. It allows me to create, produce and learn with it. I can’t do coding however, I have to get other people to do that. But I mean, technology gives me a career, so many of my projects heavily use it, so yeah I would engage with it a lot. My relationship with it is a pretty positive one.
Do you come from an artistic background, for example, did you study Art at university or did you begin your career in a different sector?
I studied fine art in DIT for my BA and in IADT for an MA. I have been Dublin based and creating artworks for the past 10 years but its only in the last four years that my practice has started to really grow and I’ve kind of found my feet in how I produce and make works.
So I haven’t come from any other background but I have always been interested in the human mind and that inner dialogue as it’s my only constant in life. I use art to explore and learn, it’s the way I navigate my way through life. I see a massive parallel between new technology, which uses a pattern of visuals and audio and the inner dialogue whereby speech and experience is also in this audio and visual system of patterns. There’s a parallel between these two processes which I like to explore in my work.
So there is a lot of psychological inspiration behind your work?
Yes, I’ve worked in the past with psychologist Claire Howlin from UCD, particularly for my cave based project Entirely hollow aside from the dark. Silicon Synapse was created with consultations with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre’s HUMANIT research team who aim to understand the impact of machine intelligence on human behavior.
Your piece in the caves sounded really interesting, could you tell me more about it?
Entirely hollow aside from the dark was a previous body of work that maps consciousness onto the inside of a cave. It used an audio system of 32 audio speakers. I developed it over the past three years with writer Sue Rainsford and composer Ian Dunphy. It was first commissioned by Fingal County Council Arts Office, who also commissioned Silicon Synapse, for Resort revelations in 2016.
The latest showing of the artwork was in Creswell Crags Cave in the UK in September 2019. For this one, I developed a new version which portrayed Mother Earth going through a mental health break down because of the environmental impact on her body. I worked with psychologist Claire Howlin to parallel the environmental crisis to mental health issues. For example, we made a parallel between the build up of plastic on earth to the build up of plaques in the brain. These plaques build up, clouding the brain and can lead to mental decline. Mother Earth in this artwork experiences her mind ‘clouding up’. One thing that clears plaque is sleep. She needs sleep to wipe away the plaque or plastic build up so that she can regenerate and recoup. This naturally led onto silicon synapse and its multi-sensory experience which takes more of a look at genetic engineering and how technology can change the idea of nature and what it is to be alive and to be human. Looking at transhumanism and the growing hypothesis that the human race might transcend and morph with technology.
I’m interested in your own efforts to engage with the climate crisis through your art, could you tell me more about this?
In my art, I’m trying to engage more with the crisis in various aspects. My previous cave project engages with it headfirst as Mother Earth is personified in the piece. Silicon synapse underpins the theme with existentialism, looking at how the world is evolving.
In a more everyday level I try to create as sustainably as I can, sadly Art isn’t very sustainable. We produce so much, we overproduce. I try to recycle and upcycle my materials as much as possible. I was exhibiting around Europe a lot this summer (Silicon Synapse went to Milan and Brussels) and I travelled mostly by sail and rail. When working with Creswell Crags Museum the artwork encouraged them to further evaluate the sustainability of their products and business, they have since started to wean single-use plastic out of their shop and cafe. I am also starting to write more sustainable production practices into my funding applications, for example, the production team for Entirely hollow aside from the dark at Creswell Crags were funded by Culture Ireland to travel by land from around continental Europe to the UK.
Who or what are some of your biggest artistic influences?
I’ve a number. The Power of Ten is a video directed by Charles and Ray Eames from the 1970’s. This has influenced a lot of my work. It’s a ten minute video that journeys from a person’s hand right into outer space then it zooms back to and then into the hand at a molecular level. You begin to notice that the depths of outer space and the depths of yourself become visually the same.
Hacking Darwin is a book by Jamie Metzl that influenced Silicon Synapse a lot. Metzl believes or hypothesizes that in the future having intercourse might be seen as being unsafe and that humans instead might procreate using technology. He advocates that we should get on top of this as once this happens an imbalance will be created whereby the rich could be able to make a super race: engineering their child to be better at sports or better at maths or whatever.
In October of 2018, two babies were born in China which were genetically engineered before insemination in order to be more immune to the HIV virus. Nana and Lulu were their pseudonyms. It was done in secrecy and was highly unethical and condemned by science and the world as a whole, but this topic, genetic engineering, is what the book is about and it has influenced a lot of Silicon Synapse.
Also Beckett’s Not I is a major influence to my work, if you’ve never seen it it’s amazing. Out of everything I have said that’s the one that I would recommend most. It’s only 10 minutes long and on youtube. You should definitely see it.
Do you have any future projects planned?
I have future fields that I want to explore and I have been fortunate to get a bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland. I really want to explore the area of augmented reality, which is when you are still engaging with reality but through an augmented way. You still see the environment you are in but with an overlay of other digital stuff, kind of like Pokemon Go!
Well I’m very excited to see what comes around the corner!
Silicon Synapse is being shown in the Carnegie Library in Swords until the 15th of December. Tickets can be bought online following this link http://siliconsynapse.net/