Invisible Flock’s artwork Sea of Voices was commissioned by Brighton-based arts organisations Blast Theory, Brighton Festival, Fabrica, Lighthouse, Photoworks and the University of Brighton as part of the RELAY programme. Frame and Reference talked to them about the experience of creating the work that appeared during the Brighton Festival.


Ben Eaton, Victoria Pratt and Richard Warburton are the Leeds-based collective Invisible Flock. They create interactive, technologically based installations but their arts background is primarily in performance, tipping the focus more towards the quality of the interaction rather than the technology itself. Responding to a call for submissions for the RELAY programme by Lighthouse, they responded with the idea that became Sea of Voices, working alongside Blast Theory to produce a work which dovetailed with The Otolith Group’s I See An Infinite Distance… and the arrival of The Boat Project’s Collective Spirit at Brighton Marina during the Brighton Festival 2012.


Ben Eaton describes Sea of Voices as, “an audio walk that takes you 2.7 miles. The whole idea is that  if you were to put a message in a bottle and throw it out to sea, what would your message say?”


An mp3 leads the walker along the coast from the centre of Brighton to the Marina;  along the way Invisible Flock entice viewers to peer through three prepared telescopes that deepen the experience. “For one hour and twenty minutes taking you along the coast,” says Eaton, “we frame that question, what would your message say? We put you in different positions to make you think about that, telling you stories about distance and your place withint it all and your relationship with the sea and at the very end you can send your message out.”


Tell us a little about how this artwork came together.


Ben Eaton: A bit more than a year ago we sat down as a company and wanted to shift the model by which we got work and got commissions. Instead of chasing any commissions that came our way we came up with a set of ideas that would be the work that we would try and make each year, thinking of it as seasons, I suppose. There was a bunch of them and a version of this, mainly the bouy as a solo piece…


Victoria Pratt: We originally wanted to put six or eight buoys in the water – before researcing how expensive that would be.


Ben Eaton: And so we had these ideas and we thought what we would try and do would  be find the opportunities for them. The call for commissions went out by Lighthouse and we applied with a slightly different version. There were some very clear parameters with the project. It was tieing in with the boat project and it had to physically move people from Fabrica on Ship Street to the Marina, which is 2.7 miles. It had to in some way travel across that distance.


Why buoys? There is something about bouys that represents a very old form of communication.


Richard Warburton: One of the strands is the idea that not all that long ago that if you had to send a message it had to be accompanied by a person. Now you just press enter and it goes out. Morse is a very early form of communication but we’d be using a modern form of communication to work with it, text messages. It’s linking, thematically, the idea of accompanying a message, to morse and then the very real type of communication we use now.


Victoria Pratt: There’s a mystique to them as well… these lights out there on their own in the dark sea. A lot of the piece talks about what it is when you’ve been out at sea and you see a light, and the marking of land you haven’t seen for months on end. There is also an emotional component where each buoy is different. Each buoy marks a different thing.


Richard Warburton: We work a lot with place and and we wanted a way for people to be physically able to interact with the sea. We wanted to be able to put part of the work in the sea itself and the buoy seemed like the best way to do that.  We had this realisation once when we were driving down here. It’s really funny because brighton really is the end of the country. You drive down this road and the road stops and then there’s the sea. We like the idea that on your walk you’re walking along and when you run out of land it continues out to sea. At night time the work still carries on six miles out to sea which we like and which is important to the piece.


When you put a flashing light out at sea you must encounter problems


Victoria Pratt: We had to get a marine licence for it which took three months to clear and there’s somethign like fifteen different maritime organisations that need to be notified and had to agree to let us do it. It had to be yellow and it had to be yellow flashing light because that means it’s a wreck buoy rather than a directional light which is red or green. So I think we’ve got a filter on it for SOS or anything like that.


Ben Eaton: Interestingly we thought there are going to be people out there thinking, ‘Why is someone flashing these stories?’ But it turns out that sadly Morse isn’t even a standard language any more.


Victoria Pratt: I think 90% oif ships can’t even read it now.


Is that kind of practical complexity part of the process? You do a lot of work in the public realm, so this can’t be the first time… 


Victoria Pratt: I’ve learned a ridiculous amout about the laws of the sea and it’s fascinating. I’ve done a lot of the project management stuff and that has meant talking to a lot of people about what they do in their everyday jobs to help me make this piece.


You’ve worked using text messages before. What’s so attractive about them as a form?


Richard Warburton: I think it’s because where we are now it’s a very fluent tool for most people. We only use the technology if it’s going to help the piece.


Ben Eaton:  A lot of companies making the type of work that we do spend a lot of time trying to use other platforms like Twitter or Facebook whereas actually the text message in of itself is actually an incredibly intimate tool for artistic expression as a writer. We did a little project for Opera North up in Leeds. Richard does the bulk of our narrative writing and spends a lot of time trying to finesse what you can communicate in a text message so it will communicate narrative and emotion. There’s something really interesting about how that now exists in people’s inboxes on their phones, about a work shifting from a public space to something which people carry the work with them. It’s interesting to think about what a text message can represent in terms of cultural space and we’re fascinated by the ease with which we can commucate with text message and how that can be used in our work.


You describe yourself as a collective. How does that work?


Ben Eaton: We worked together for  six or seven years as part of different organisations and different companies back up North. We come from a theatre and performance background and it got to a point where we wanted to be able to diversify out of those models – out of those funding models, but also out of those process models – to find ways we could talk to people in different ways. That was two years ago, so we’re quite young in that sense. Almost within two months we were full time as a company.


Victoria Pratt: I think we’ve worked together for so long as part of other organisations and we really didn’t like having job roles… We very much wanted to be a collective as in a group of friends who wanted to make something. And it really does break down quite naturally . But I think that also is up for grabs…


Ben Eaton: There’s no single artistic leadership. 100% of the artistic idea is worked out by the three of us.


Coming from performance background have you found it easy to move into the visual arts context?


Ben Eaton: It depends on the partner organisations. Brighton has been pheonomal. They’ve been really accommodating and much more understanding of the work than other more gallery based partners have been in the past. A lot of galleries have – and very rightly so – a very strong culture of communication, of how they communicate with their audience. They have a very strong set of comms policies about how they present information and how they get audiences in. Because we’re in the interactive world, I think it’s taken us time to find a way to fit within that or accomodate that. So sometimes there is a – tension is the wrong word; we have a very clear idea of how to do it and so do they.


And coming from the North, how has it been working in the South East?


Richard Warburton: Coming from the North, people down here don’t know how good it is. It’s amazing how much the organisations talk to each other. That doesn’t happen so much in other places. Everybody just communicates well with each other.


Bean Eaton: Yorkshire’s great. It’s incredibly vibrant. The Arts Council there are incredibly supprortive of us and always have been. And there’s loads going on. It would be interesting to do work in the South East outside of Brighton and see how that works, but here, as you say Richard, it’s been wonderful.


And I think we’re lucky especially in this project that there are six partners and you get the semse that they are partners who have already worked together before. So it does feel that you’re in this group of people who are communicating and talking. It moves really well.


Victoria Pratt: It’ll be interesting to see the audience’s response and see how that compares to audiences up North. A lot of our audiencesthere are often quite reluctant to do something that’s technologically driven. Whilst I think down here I think hopefully they will be pleasantly surprised that we just do it.


Sea of Voices by Invisible Flock took place in Brighton on 5 – 27 May 2012


Interview by William Shaw