Interview with Jane Prophet
Finsbury Park, 11th of December 1998.


Nina: Can you tell me a bit about your proposal and what you're going to be making, and if you've developed your idea since you wrote your proposal, that would be quite interesting as well.

Jane: Well what I'm going to do is essentially a new piece of work although it can be seen as a continuation or part of a series of pieces that I've been working towards or working on over the last three years - so it's about ... it's toying with ideas about the Cyborg body or the Cyborg identity really, not body, the Cyborg identity... and it's a little bit unresolved at the moment. I was very keen on doing a night time projection in the windows at Lux, because the way that I've been developing a current piece, in this series, was to make something that looks like a sort of graphic novel or a photo story - and this is a CD-ROM piece ...

Nina: I haven't seen that yet ...

Jane: Right, well looking at the Lux windows I was really struck by the fact that - looking at their dimensions as much as anything else - they were like four pages in a comic book, or potentially four pages in a graphic novel with these kind of dividing areas or strips between them ...

Nina: Oh right yes ...

Jane: So I was quite interested in showing my current piece of work, the CD ROM, somewhere in the gallery or near by and then for the window making a new photo story narrative.

Nina: So that would have been a changing projection that told a story?

Jane: Yes, the idea initially was to either have the turning of the pages or the playing of the animations (because the animations play over the top of the pages of image and text) either you could trigger those by stepping on very clear areas outside on the street with sensors or it would play through a bit like a video.

Nina: Yes.

Jane: There is an issue with this though, because of the long light days in the summer here, so, one of the things I've been really interested in doing and really scared about doing are some very large scale digital prints - there's a couple at the other side of the room that are taken from the interface that are small scale iris prints ...

Nina: Oh right, I was going to ask you whose that was ...

Jane: At the moment I'm considering making four very large prints that go on the same windows that are stills. There's a number of things about that appeal to me, one is that all of the photographic type imagery that I'm using are ready made images from Photodisc stock photo libraries - and that's because I'm very interested in the kind of intrinsic narrative - when you look at those images they're designed for a certain audience. They speak of a certain kind of economic and social structure, and in the context of the fact that they are images about health and medicine, it's a very particular kind of privileged environment and medical institution, or series of medical institutions, that they are kind of describing or mapping.
That might sound as if I'm doing something that is quite clearly and cleanly anti private medical care or something - that isn't really what interests me. What interests me is that when we think about the Cyborg identity or a hybrid identity we think about new medical technologies, then things are very messy and blurred and people have a very mixed set of responses to... you know... when is a person a person and how far do you go before you're a machine? What does it mean to augment your body - to extend your life? What are the economic factors, what are the ethical issues around that? It's very very complicated and there are some interesting fractures of identity that people seem to experience when they've had transplants or whatever. It's as much about those kind of, if you like, personal, emotional economies as it is about a financial economy.
So, maybe the sort of financial economy is pretty much on the surface and in the CD ROM is the backbone of the narrative of how two characters from different sides of the tracks end up meeting, because of their very different financial situations, and one gets the others donated organ - heart.
So, at the moment it's a bit unresolved - using these large scale images opens up another approach which I'm quite keen on. I'm very taken with those huge transfers that you get on the back of double decker buses ...

Nina: We love a photo process! (laughs) They're great - you mean the ones that are 'holey'? So you can see out of the bus ... so you'd be able to see out of the gallery?

Jane: Absolutely, but they'd actually make the gallery quite dark, and also they do seem to be like a mesh or a hole - it's almost like the inverse of the print process in a way - where the print is always about these dots ... and then ... you know I was so into Pop Art when I was a student it was the first really ... well I was just really turned on by it all - the theory, the ready-mades the whole sort of approach, the conceptual angle. The concepts behind Pop Art really interested me and I think that has never gone away, it's probably what got me interested in installation really.
So this is an opportunity for me to branch out and do something new and it's really scary to think that I'm going to do my first set of stills for my first London show - well pretty much first London show and ... um ... Yet is seems that's going to happen ! (laughs)
I am really excited about it and Photodisc are sending me their new CD ROM. So, what I wanted to do was make an interactive narrative, which is now make four panels. I don't want them to just be these bizarre things that exist in isolation there's got to be some kind of narrative dialogue between them and the CD ROM. This could be like the background story or it could be two other characters that are somehow part of this narrative - that we haven't met yet or whatever.
So, I'm kind of going to hold back on structuring the narrative until I see all the new material from Photodisc ... because the way I made the interface for the CD ROM is I made in effect 24 stills, 24 pages and I made them because I was traveling a lot and I took the thumbnail printouts from the Photodiscs catalogues with the intention of designing story boards for animations, where these images formed a very small part of the overall animation and instead I just started making up stories about characters that I kept seeing repeated in the photographs. So, I know that when I get the thumbnails, having an over active imagination, I'll start making up stories. So, I don't know what the story is yet because I want it to be partly lead by the material.

Nina: The next question was going to be how does this relate to your existing practice but maybe you could talk about how the idea for the CD came out of work that you had made before?

Jane: Yes ...

Nina: In a way, you might want to also link this to the next question - which is would you count yourself as an artist who works primarily with new technology - which I think you would?

Jane: Yes, well it's interesting ...

Nina: Maybe you could talk about the two together ...

Jane: The question about whether I see myself as an artist that works primarily with new technology is very important to me at the moment - it has been for about eighteen months because ... well the answer is yes but it's not for want of trying! In that I've been quite outspoken about my dislike of technology based shows of 'genre' shows like that - I see them as being incredibly preposterous actually - you know you just get this variety of work that's all sort of put together because it happens to use a computer, it's so arbitrary, so non-conducive to a broad critique of the ideas and I'm so sick of being at mine, and other people's private views and people saying to you 'what sensor did you use?' rather than someone challenging me or having a discussion about the idea - I would really rather not be an artist that primarily used technology, BUT ironically that is the work that I get funded. Now, there is a whole body of work that I would like to make that is made without the use of, or without the obvious use of technology ...

Nina: laughs ...

Jane: ... and I hope I get to make some of that next year or the year after but ... it's interesting because it's a very double edged sword because I think that the electronic media artists' community is a very supportive community and in itself, within it's own dialogues, it's a very critical and engaged and intellectual community and I don't think that's the same, actually, in painting and sculpture ... you know I think there's a real kind of lack of any articulation amongst artists about their work. Now, on the one hand why should they have to, it's interesting that when you work with 'new media' you constantly have to justify yourself, it must be a bloody nightmare if you're not used to doing that, I don't know how you deal with that really. I'm really drawn to the technology because of the debates that it threw me into, I think, and the questions that I had to ask about what it meant in terms of authenticity of images, what it meant in terms of the physicality or the reality of an image or of a body of work.
But primarily, when I think about the work I make with new media technology I see very little difference between it (other than hopefully it's more mature) and the work I made when I worked in installation and performance when I was a student and the reason for that is that for me at the center of any piece is the idea, is the concept.
The concept is still for me very much about having an interest in popular science, or scientific discovery which I think you can say artists for hundreds of years have been responding to developments in physics, astronomy whatever ... but also, in what it means, what the position of an artwork is in a wider cultural landscape and so you know, who the audience is and what they're doing and how their behavior or response to a work changes the meaning of the work, and where the work's sited.
In terms of performance ... well I always think in terms of Internet projects - even ones like Technosphere which has been on-line for three years ... Technosphere's only there when you're there, in a way. I mean I know it is 'there' but for me there's something about the Internet that's really performative, even with a kind of project that might not change - there's a really performative, sort of live sense that you get when you're on a site and then you're off the site and as far as you're concerned it's all over - the curtain's down.
So, for me the technology was just a kind of way of continuing to explore the issues and ideas that I was exploring in performance beforehand.

Nina: Do you think you enjoy learning new techniques as you make new work? That's something that I know I'm drawn to ...

Jane: I think it's a very double edged thing with me ... um ... I have a 'nerdism', I have a kind of affliction which is a fascination with new things, but it's interesting because I'll get nerdy over ... well at the moment I've got a nerdism going on over Portuguese Fardo music and I'll get like that over cooking certain kinds of food. I mean some people call me 'inspector gadget', because I do have gadgets but I'm not one of those leading consumer types - my mobile phone's older than anybody else's I know, it does what I want it to do ... and I suppose I like it when I learn something that ... in itself it may not be that exciting for me to make a 3D model and animate it - but, it might make me suddenly think about 3D models in a different way or it might make me think about space differently. So I get sucked into it for those sort of reasons but I'm very very picky, I'll only learn the bare minimum of what I have to learn and of a piece of software I'll only learn what I have to learn - I won't learn everything, I won't go through the manuals, I'll just pick out what I have to learn.

Nina: I think that's quite interesting, because I think that's quite a 'female' trait too ... well I know both Karen and I approach new technology in that way, you know we are not interested in knowing every single thing about it - we're interested in knowing what we need to know to make that piece ...

Jane: I have no need to be an expert ...

Nina: mmm.. I love an expert! But ...

Jane: ...absolutely! Don't we all! I'm quite happy to be in a canteen or a pub and for someone to be a fantastic 3D Studio modeller, and I'm quite happy - I have no shame in saying 'I'm not very good at 3D modeling - I really enjoy doing it and I make the most simplistic animations you've probably ever seen' ... and there's not one atom of my being that REALLY wants to be an expert 3D modeler, because to me I'm not 3D modeling to show off 3D modeling, I'm doing it to in order to transmit some other sort of idea ... and I don't know what that is about , but it's sort of everywhere. It's the sort of 'Blue Peter' approach - I don't like things to be shoddy though. My animations are simple but they're not shabby and there is a difference ....

Nina: But there's also a difference I think between knowing enough about something to be able to work with someone who is an expert at using it as well - which I think is something ... well you've worked say on Technosphere in collaboration with lots of people ....

Jane: I think that's a really good point - I mean I work collaboratively a lot actually. It's interesting this CD ROM it looks like I've worked with half of London or something, but in fact lots of people have been very generous and done relatively small things um... some people have done huge things like Graham Harwood but in the main it's really my piece. It's really that art school thing that you're meant to do everything yourself has gone on with that project and it's made me analyze that more and decide it's rubbish actually ....

Nina: Little bit controversial there Jane!

Jane: Well, Nobody really believes that Leonardo Da Vinci carved his own marbles, everybody knows he didn't do that ... you know ... they're still his ... and for me especially, or for any artist who's working in the late 20th century, or the end of the 20th century, with all the radical art movements that have gone before art is so much more about concept than craft now and I'm certainly not interested in making pieces and then ignoring or denying or not acknowledging the collaborators - which maybe someone like Da Vinci was - I don't know, maybe it was the people who paid for his work that covered up who really made it or the people that assisted him. So, I'm not interested in trying to pretend that I made these pieces on my own when I didn't but I see nothing wrong with it at all, I see very very little difference between me working with 3D programmers or modelers or whatever on an interactive piece, or any kind of piece and ... you know the Chapman brothers having a studio of assistants, it's part of the same process.

Nina: OK, moving onto the concept of the award, how did you or do you feel about being nominated for the award and more generally about the concept of an arts prize. I mean this is quite interesting in relation to the fact that you were on the short list for the Cap Gemini Award ...

Jane: Well, it's very ... I thought quite a lot about this when Gordon Selley and I were short listed with Technosphere for the Imaginaria award and it's divisive but the art world is divisive, applying for commissions is divisive it's all nepotistic but if you really think that some part of the art world isn't then you're in a nice lucky place (both laugh!) or you're on some sort of very strong drug.
So, there are things that are uncomfortable about it but I am not uncomfortable about being in a competition because I think we're all competing all the time and I also think that there are different ... you can compete and do it with some kind of integrity and I think that it's not possible for me to imagine judging an art award ... the process of judging an art award as being without subjectivity. I mean, I'm not saying it's totally subjective but it is highly subjective and partial and that's really the way it should be.
So when, in the case of the Imaginaria award, I saw the work of the other short listed artists I genuinely felt that whoever won I was going to have a good feeling about it - I felt everyone who had been short listed and all the work really merited being there - there were lots of other pieces that would also have merited being there and my interpretation of that was that, you know, any kind of panel is going to come up with a partial reading, how can they not? So, I didn't think that they were necessarily the best pieces of digital art in Imaginaria but it was an interesting selection and it covered a broad range.
It's interesting the kind of psychological or emotional dynamic you go through - I mean I felt that we never had a chance, to be quite honest of winning that award - because we were the only web based project and I think that politically it was ... if you were going to take a political view and try and guess who was going to win it was going to be Alexa Wright ... who it was ... politically her work was the most understandable and yet very digital and incredibly accomplished. I'm not saying that is why it won though, because I think it could have won for all sorts of other reasons as well. I think it would have been very odd if an Internet based piece won the very first digital art award in this country though ... it would have been very radical, and Britain's not ... well it's very radical in terms of the work that's made but it's not very radical in terms of the institutionalization of that work. Which is why this is the first year we've had a digital art award.

Nina: So, what do you think .... obviously the difference between Imaginaria and this award is that Ulay are commissioning new work rather than it being an acknowledgment of work that has already been made ....

Jane: Well I think that's weird as well in a way ... what I think about that is ... the thing that I think is lacking in both awards (and what marks them apart from the Turner Prize) is that this is not recognition of a body of work. You could say that Ulay was in terms of how artists were nominated, because presumably artists were nominated on the basis of their previous work ....

Nina: Yes, but then short listed on the strength of a proposal ...

Jane: Yes, and the final award will be given for one piece of work - which I think is not forward looking as a concept. It is like saying digital art is a flash in the pan and it doesn't have a history so you can't judge people on a body of work. It's odd to award a prize, for the equivalent amount of money as the Turner Prize, for one piece of work. I think it's even stranger to award that level of money for a piece of work that's commissioned and commissioned for such a minimal amount of work, commissioned at a level at which I would say none of the short listed artists would work to such a minimal commission outside of this award. You would be working with a much bigger budget, so in effect what you are doing is you're handcuffing your artists from the start. In effect you're saying produce a bit of work for probably, I would say, anything between a third or a tenth of your usual budget and for that you will get massive nation publicity, so in effect you're getting enormous publicity and a prize for a piece that in terms of your production budget can never be as substantial a piece of work as something you've made before. I think that's very odd ... and I think that is absolutely the fundamental problem with this type of award - that in effect the reason that there's loads of money going on the prize is that's what's going to get the publicity - Shock horror, 20 grand going to a digital artist and it's a woman! That's what's going to get the publicity not the work - because if this award was about the work more of the money would go into the commissioning process and less to the prize. That's my belief anyway.

Nina: So, just to irritate this even further!

Jane: Have you got a twelve bore? Could I just shoot myself in the foot!

Nina: What do you think about the notion of it being a women only prize, and do you see the fact that you are a woman as significant to your practice?

Jane: I think, I think it's totally understandable that it's a women only prize because of who the sponsor is. I think that politically it's sort of very strange that this award wasn't made ten years ago - when having awards for artists that were women was more politically in keeping with the times. I would imagine that Ulay advertises quite extensively in Cosmopolitan and other so called post-feminist magazines and therefore as a committed feminist it's very interesting to me that this is a women's art award. One of the things about the Turner Prize is that it has dealt with gender very badly and so some years in effect it has been a women's Turner Prize, some years it hasn't - they've really blown it haven't they let's face it on the gender front, without going into anything else.
I don't have a problem that it's a women's art award I don't have a problem that it's a digital art award, I don't have a problem that it's an art award, because although none of these situations are ideal this is the real world and the real world is highly divisive ... and in effect most art awards are men's art awards because no women are ever short listed for them ... I mean I don't know whether it's possible to look at the Nat West Prize or the Paul Hamlyn and just see proportionally what proportion of women have been on those lists for as long as they've been around - but I'm pretty willing to lay a bet (laughter) that there have been a number of years when the short list has been men only ...

Nina: Definitely, I think recently they've been more balanced ...

Jane: I think it's also very interesting that the digital art scene has a lot of very high profile, very dynamic very interesting women doing interesting work - Internationally not just in this country and I kind of wonder why that is really. There is something very empowering about being able to make your own work on your machine at home and you know - get on with it.

Nina: ... and do you see being a woman as directly significant to your own practice?

Jane: Oh, absolutely yeah, I do ... in all sorts of weird ways, in terms of the work I'm going to make towards this award and that body of work (ha ha) it's absolutely about a really kind of shifting sense of the feminine and of feminisation of technology, and that being really problematic. I mean I just don't buy into Sadie Plant's view that somehow it's all about bloody weaving and computers are female, I don't believe that. However, I do think there are elements about digital technology that are very appealing to women in the culture that we live in - but I see that as cultural not natural, there's nothing natural about it.
The interest with the body, and the cyborg and the cut body, the open body, the split body, identity, your relationship between identity and the body is for me, although it's broken out of the boundaries as a really focused debate, a debate that started in feminism and so I can't divorce those things. I'm not interested in wandering around with some sort of banner it's not about that but it's about a sort of ten year dialogue I suppose, which has it's roots in thinking about gender so ... and you know it would be really nice to think we don't need a women's art award, we don't need a digital art award but just to go back to that - whilst in my heart I wish that they were all redundant the fact of the matter is that we need these things - because actually they are still on the margins, unfortunately women artists are still on the margins, unfortunately digital art is still on the margins. Therefore the Imaginaria award the Ulay award whilst they may be problematic, whilst they may raise issues that we'd rather not think about and that we don't even agree with - we still need them, because otherwise there aren't going to be high profile exhibitions and awards for digital artists because they are not going to suddenly appears within Sculpture or appear within the Nat West - I mean are we going to get a digital painting in Nat West - I doubt it.
So, there's a real need for these things and I think that ... people say well these sponsors are getting in on the act because it's sexy and I think it is sexy, but I don't think it is nearly as sexy as it would be if they were funding something like another YBA award, so in a way I think they are sticking their necks out and I appreciate that. I appreciate that even though what you end up with in Imaginaria is getting slagged off by Adrian Searle who just thinks it's all a joke. The idea that as an artist doing these awards is good, I think, is also contentious and that you can get very bad publicity and that your sort of genre of work can get very bad publicity, but at the same time I do really believe that on some levels all publicity is good ...

Nina: Speaking of which (laughs) as you know my piece is about encouraging the 'audience' to gamble on who the winner will be and obviously it's a lot to do with publicity and I wanted to ask you, at this stage, whether you have any reservations about me using gambling - I guess as a kind of lever to open up those questions?

Jane: No, I don't at all and there's two reasons for that I guess - one is that for various projects especially Technosphere I get a lot of publicity and I don't see a problem with it - it's meant that I've met really interesting people that have asked me difficult questions and made me think about my work that's a good thing - sometimes it's tiring but ... in terms of gambling, I was really interested in your project because one of the first commissions I ever got was to make a piece for the art casino at the Barbican, which was a show that was curated by Annie Griffin and was absolutely about raising the issue of what it meant to have a national arts programme funded by lottery, funded by gambling.
I was the only artist in that show to make a piece that dealt with compulsive gambling ... everybody else made works that included gambling, none of them really problematised gambling. Now, I think that's fine, there were some beautiful things in that show, I mean there were some amazing little moments and some amazing huge things; but interviewing compulsive gamblers was really interesting to me, I came out of that project feeling - I'm not anti-gambling ... that if you talk to a compulsive gambler that's gone to gamblers anonymous there are definite stock phrases that they come out with, they're not anti-gambling they just say that some people can't stop. It's not gambling that's bad ...

Nina: It's interesting because I'd actually forgotten that you did that piece - because in a way there's quite a difference between betting and gambling, isn't there ... because we were talking about betting shops earlier, and they're clubs in a way and perhaps not directly related to gambling per se ...

Jane: Compulsive gamblers, I mean some are just people who bet on greyhounds or whatever, and I interviewed a range. I interviewed compulsive gamblers that were addicted to casinos, fruit machine playing and greyhound and horse racing um, so, I interviewed a range of people and their stories were quite remarkable - hilarious and absolutely bloody heart breaking, but it didn't mean that I came out of that project thinking that gambling was some sort of sin, or that they felt that themselves. I think in the context of the Art Casino show at the Barbican and again with what you're doing the gambling is very very pointed, it's very much about drawing attention to an issue around funding and competition and art in the same way as the Barbican show was very much about drawing attention to (or it was intended to draw attention to) funding the art or funding a very upper middle class activity through the money from working class people, and Annie Griffin bought in a lot of people from the gambling community from gambling organizations that were pro-gambling to talk - and it was very interesting ....

Nina: I should contact her actually ... I was going to ask you if you had any gambling or betting anecdotes, but again we've moved right into that ...

Jane: Well I've got lots actually but there are two personal stories I'll use rather than recounting the stories from people I interviewed. One is that my father began his kind of working life aged seventeen as a flat race jockey in Hong Kong and when he was much older he went back to steeple chasing and he had a race horse and when I was really young I bet on the horse through one of his friends, and I won, it came in third and I won but I think from the age of about six we used to bet on the National through my Dad, you know he was quite into betting and gambling, and so the second story is kind of related to that and it's about a guy called ... um.. we'll call him Henry because that's his real name, but I won't tell you his surname.
Henry's one of the leaders of the Romany community and from when he was fourteen he drove a Rolls-Royce or a BMW and my Dad used to sell cars so his Dad would buy Henry's latest car and he was never stopped even though he was fourteen and driving because he looked kind of older. Henry was a keen gambler, I won't say compulsive because I don't think he was, but he couldn't write so he'd turn up at the showroom every Saturday and he'd go through the form with my Mum and my Mum would fill out Henry's betting forms and that meant that when he won she'd always get a slice ...

Nina: It's amazing the number of stories I've heard already about women actually going to place bets for people, they seem to become used as the in-between factor ...

Jane: So, I've never really been in a gambling shop, in a betting shop - I'm interested in the sort of ... well I've really noticed the change - the sort of opening up of betting shops which I think is very similar to the movement in pubs where suddenly pubs are better lit and there's big windows and sort of couches and I've noticed that suddenly betting shops you can look in which you could never do before and you know the marketing suits have got it right because I've nearly gone into the betting shop on the way to Finsbury Park Tube - I'd never have gone into one before because they always seem to be full of chain smoking sleaze ball men, not very nice looking men, but now I can see in I'm kind of fascinated.
Because I grew up in a family that was always betting I'm kind of fascinated as well, because I was never allowed to put a bet on ...

Nina: You can come to Ladbrokes with me ...

(Tape runs out)