Jen Southern:
Skylines

If my phone is on, I have to assume that Google and the CIA, or whoever, know where I am at every moment. Our grandparents perhaps, on the other hand, still remember times when locations were only communicable by letter delivered on horseback a month later. This whole historical (and philosophical) span of capabilities is encompassed in the research of Jen Southern, a sociology and new media arts academic at Lancaster University. But since Southern is also an artist, it is the evocations, associations, disruptions and meanings of the subject (location and movement) that form the real core of her inquiry.

Queens Hall Arts has devoted both its ground and first floor gallery spaces to this absorbing exhibition that surveys Southern’s artwork from 2001 to the present. With great economy it packs in her diversity of methods and media, ranging across video, GPS apps, installations, social experiment, printing, textiles and walking. Oh and flying, too (she earned a pilot’s licence as a way of making more art).

Included here are satellite-tracked walk routes stitched into a wall-hanging, actual flight-paths taken to map out shapes in the sky, video-game screen-shots printed onto fabric and made into garments, filmed navigation experiments, and multi-coloured box-kites hanging from the ceiling.

The central floor-space of the main gallery on this occasion is left unoccupied, implicating the viewer him- or herself as a focal point in the contemplation of movement in space, and subtly extending the process of co-creation that features in much of Southern’s practice. The eye is drawn up, down and around the full volume of the place, echoing the airborne re-orientations that run through several of the works.

It is the layers of back-story that give each piece its depth. The suspended kites, for example (Searcher, 2015) are modelled on those with which airmen downed at sea in WWII could launch the antenna of a radio to call for rescue. Printed onto them are images taken by a camera attached to a mountain rescue dog during a training exercise, and superimposed on these are the GPS tracks of the scent-based route taken by the dog when searching for a casualty. Aerial images shot from the kite itself have been added too. The kites were flown at a public event in the Lake District, so that participants could “inhabit” the pull of the wind, the hunt in the hills and the sending of signals, in a physically embodied melding of concepts and viewpoints.

Unruly Pitch (2015) brought digital tracking technology to the ancient and enigmatic no-rules annual “Uppies and Downies” mass football event in Cumbria, one of the last such traditions still kept alive today. The game has unspoken codes, a fluid geography and no time-limit, representing a curious combination of unmapped chaos and collective purpose. In collaboration with Chris Speed, Chris Barker and Anaïs Moisy, Southern used GPS devices to log the movements of a number of the players, and then integrated elegant visualisations of the resulting tracery with all-angles video footage of the event, a printed map and engravings on a replica ball. The exhibited work presents the phenomenon as an experience rather than a spectacle, and marries the mysteries of handed-down ritual with those of space-age surveillance.

In ways such as these, each piece in this exhibition contains a richness of meanings that repays some research on our part to uncover and offers a fitting survey of Southern’s practice. One new item (Aviatrix, 2016) has been specially commissioned for the show, featuring re-worked imagery from a recent flight over the Tyne Valley. Situated by the lower gallery’s long windows, it connects the inside to the outside, helping our imaginations to convert landscapes to maps, to route-data, and back again.

The ways in which we re-present space, and share experience of movement, have changed in some radical ways within just a single generation. Jen Southern publishes research on co-mobility, or “being mobile with others at a distance”; but thanks to her creative imagination and a good programming choice by Queen’s Hall, it is clear that sometimes the best way of presenting socially resonant results is through richly textured art like this.

The exhibition Skylines continues at Queen’s Hall Arts Centre until 19 November 2016.

Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Beaumont St, Hexham NE46 3LS.

Images courtesy Jen Southern. Photos: Dominic Smith

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Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.