Closer, the Mount of Olives, the West Bank, the impassive trees of Israeli Jerusalem. Pixel by pixel, over 12 hours, the camera lays down the timeless landscape. Centuries of history in a single frame. Behind the camera is Susan Collins, British artist and Director of the Slade School of Art. In her echoing office, hidden beyond the neo-Grecian half-rotunda that ceremoniously fronts the Slade, she tells me the about the latest in a series of commissions that, over 15 years, have become an enduring illustration of her art.
The pieces place network cameras in remote locations, where they construct images one pixel at a time, from left to right, top to bottom, and then write them over again. The images might be seascapes, made in the time it takes for the tide to go in and out. Or they might be landscapes, recorded in just under a day. The Jerusalem camera sits atop Mount Scopus and, in a nod to Halachic time, which divides the hours of daylight into 12 equal periods, creates its landscape over 12 hours. The works are slow reflections; palliatives to the snowballing speeds of digital existence, the tones of their horizontal bands gradually encoding slow changes in light and movement through the day. “I choose my time frames according to the subject. The images that emerge – the image that’s emerging from Jerusalem – are timeless. They unify landscape in a single frame, which for me is a quiet response to a very particular situation.”
A gallerist looking for an easy label might describe Susan’s practice as ‘new media’. Susan would demur. “I work with media, but my materials are time, the network and transmission, and my subjects are landscape, seascape and the natural environment. It’s not about technology at all; it’s about looking over time, which is actually very old fashioned.” When Susan returned to the Slade in 1995 to create the School’s first programme in electronic media, eight years a Slade alumna herself, she had a vision that would, she hoped, quicken the interface of art and technology. The Slade she knew as a student in the 1980s defined its categories crisply. “The ethos was: ‘Well, are you a painter or are you a sculptor? What are you?’ I was neither; I was a very awkward student. Later, within a mainstream art setting, artists working with technology were either celebrated too much or denigrated. My whole idea when I came back to the Slade was that artists working with technology would be judged alongside others on equal terms.”
Susan resists the notion that her practice and leadership have already left their enduring mark on the Slade. The observer might disagree. Her forebears as Slade Director constitute a heavy mantle of eminent, male, establishment pedagogues: Alphonse Legros, Henry Tonks, William Coldstream. As a student, Susan likely passed Coldstream himself on the Slade’s sweeping stairway, and she feels his influence on British art education keenly. But she wears the mantle lightly and refuses to take sole credit for the integration of art and technology she has overseen: a wider cultural transformation, she claims, was at work. Similarly, not once does she mention that she is the first woman to be Director of the Slade and the Slade Professor of Art at UCL. Some truths speak for themselves.