Collaborative Tea-Drinking

When Samantha and I started working together as two.5 it never occurred to me that the collaboration would become defined by the digital tools we use to communicate. Living on different continents, we’re working in different time zones, different cultures, different social spheres. We met in St Andrews a decade ago, and lived in a shared flat for maybe five months. Since then we’ve rarely lived in the same country and never in the same city. Still, Samantha is one of those people I vaguely assume I see most days for a cup of tea, even though the last time that happened – in person – was six months ago.

We’ve always been supportive of each others’ creative work, so our ‘everyday emails’ have often included attachments of drafts of stories, scripts and photos. When I moved to Newcastle and started an MLitt in creative writing, Samantha moved to Bristol for an MA in film production; she adapted and filmed one of the short stories I wrote for my MLitt dissertation. Like most of our generation we’ve ended up more comfortable with mobile phones than landlines, email than fax, google than yellow pages.  Whenever we’ve been in different countries we’ve adapted how we’ve stayed in touch – more letters and emails than phone calls. Booking in for occasional Skype calls. Then we both got iPhones and began to experiment with the ever-changing opportunities to text and call on-the-go for free with Facetime, Viber, Heywire and Skype.

I’m no luddite, but I see my writing and the projects I run as existing primarily in real-world scenarios; the physical experience of being resident in a place and responding to it as a writer, printed books, face-to-face conversations, things you can hold in your hand. I use a paper diary to plan where I’ll be and when, I write the ideas with a biro in a notebook before I type them onto a laptop. I can’t speak for Samantha, but I’ve always enjoyed seeing her photos as printed materials, watched her prepare for installations in specific venues, heard her talk about the different between a film viewed in a cinema and one downloaded onto a computer. I don’t describe myself as a digital artist.

When we began collaborating – working together to produce original creative work – these everyday means of communication started to change; they became integral tools to producing the work. I still use a notebook for planning my own work, but projects planned as part of two.5 begin existence as a string of emails and viber-texts bounced between the two of us. More recently we have began using google docs in order to keep up to date with joint funding applications, and ideas which previously would have been bounced across by email are starting to trickle into that format too. I’ve been published in a variety of online literary magazines and I’ve been involved in the editorial side of one of them – Friction – but I’ve rarely written specifically for the web. Our first collaboration, Dirty Laundry, has been exhibited as a work-in-progress across at Cargo Collective. After going through the experience of putting the first couple of stories up, I now instinctively write them in a blog post format, pre-thinking how the line breaks and dialogue are going to display, making a mental note of my use of italics so I can re-insert them when I copy and paste from my Word .doc into the webform.

As well as changing how we work, the collaboration has also changed our personal relationship – we no longer plans visits to see each other; we talk about funding applications that will allow us to work together in person. One of us can’t say they’re going away for the weekend without the other checking their diary to see how that impacts on upcoming deadlines. When I’m late in posting a story in response to Samantha’s photoshoot, I hide from video chats. The things that were once a way of keeping a friendship present are now subsumed as working tools.

We started The Peripatetic Studio as a response to discovering that our only consistent workspace was a digital one. Our shared studio is the two.5 blog, where we chart the collaboration. The gallery we exhibit in is online. Our conversations flitter between emails and texts, turning into something searchable, documented, copied and pasted.  Learning this as we learnt how to work together led to a lot of conversations about how the space you work in impacts on what you produce, and The Peripatetic Studio was born from those conversations. It was designed as a way of opening our conversation up to a wider audience, using the accessibility and reach that a web-based forum such as a blog provides. It is, therefore, more than a little ironic that we have ended up turning The Peripatetic Studio into something for a real-world environment as The Peripatetic Studio Broadcast, an installation-piece touring with The House of Curious Engagements this summer. It was also the first of our projects to involve external deadlines- to get the application in, to turn it around, to have everything ready for the first tour.

Samantha was shooting in Brooklyn, but the night before I was writing the final draft of the script in Newcastle. I couldn’t be there in person to make amendments and add in material during the shoot, in the same way that she couldn’t be there in person to help me carry the TV off the train in Bristol. We had to rely on Dropbox as a way of sharing files for the first time, and the frustrations of slow upload times and 3GB limits when you’re already losing to the clock cannot be described. The time difference between the UK and the USA became a hindrance, as did the inability to watch footage together, to see what the other was thinking from their body language, to fight out details over a cup of tea.

We survived, we met the deadlines, neither of us actually exploded into a small puff of resentment. But working on something outside of the digital sphere was difficult for me because it couldn’t be shared with Samantha in the same way; for the first time, I felt alone within the collaboration. The best part was turning the information and draft blog posts the other artists had sent us into the script that was used as the basis for filming. I was in Newcastle, with all the information gathered in via email collated into a google doc, working on my laptop from a chair in my bedroom. Samantha was in New York, also working on her laptop in her bedroom. We both had cups of tea. We were also connected via an internet phonecall (Viber). I had my phone on the arm of the chair, on speakerphone, and I was typing away in the google doc, Samantha was watching the text appear in real-time; something we’d only just discovered was a functional part of that interface. For maybe twenty minutes we barely said anything- I typed, she watched, but I could hear small, occasional sounds such as her putting her cup down or kicking something off the bed. It was the digital equivalent of being in the same room as each other, with Samantha looking over my shoulder. Knowing that I was being watched as I typed made it feel that the act of writing became a performance (Samantha told me it was very soothing to watching the lines appearing). I also felt that I was pre-editing to what I thought Samantha might say, because she was watching- that I was producing something different to what I might if I was writing it by myself then sending it to her for comments.

Turning The Peripatetic Studio into The Peripatetic Studio Broadcast made me think not so much about how the digital tools were changing my writing processes (although, as a side note, I’ve subsequently started ‘live-writing’ via Google docs with Kris Anderson as part of our joint writing residency at the Baltic), but how using the digital tools for work rather than pleasure was impacting on my personal life.

The Peripatetic Studio Broadcast, in case you’re wondering, is a whimsical take on the primacy of television in the home and ideas of what’s newsworthy. Displayed in The House of Curious Engagements on a small, old-fashioned TV, it’s a re-working of The Peripatetic Studio blog posts in the style of a 1980s local news broadcast. Our anchorman, Alex Dunbar, will be familiar to those of you who have seen set 9 of Dirty Laundry. Over the summer it’ll be touring with The House of Curious Engagements, and we’ll be posting the accompanying blog posts which provided us with the meat of the script over the next few weeks: it’s entirely devoted to discussing the relationship between place, process and product for The House itself and the other artworks on display inside of it. In a metatextual-tastic fashion, this is the first of those blogs.

For more information about Viccy’s work please visit her website. You can get in touch with her via the two.5 email address: viccyandsamantha@gmail.com