Interview with Thomson & Craighead on Belief

We interviewed Thomson & Craighead about Belief, the final work in the desktop documentary trilogy, following on from the AnimateTV commission Flat Earth (2007) and A Short Film about War (2009).


Love, sex, money, war and now religion – what inspired a focus on religious musings and assertions in your final desktop documentary?

For us, the whole 'Flat Earth Trilogy' has tried to take a wilfully inadequate look at what might be described as big subjects, and war and belief seem inextricably linked together. Obviously a 'short film about war' is a kind of impossibility, just as a thirteen minute video about belief is, but in making these desktop documentaries we want to at least infer the enormity of the subjects they glance at, while thinking more specifically about how information is mediated via the worldwide web and in turn how that then relates to us as individuals.

There must be thousands of videos under the ‘religion’ tag on YouTube you could have selected, can you tell us a bit about the process that went in to selecting the clips that make up Belief?

Well the tag or keyword in the work is, belief and not religion. From beginning to end, this work takes you through a trajectory that looks at supernatural belief, fundamental religious belief, belief as a vector for racism, economic belief systems, self belief, belief in the afterlife, cults, spiritualism, animism and belief as a meme in popular music. That train of thought comes out of a relatively short but intense research period where we and Steve Rushton sat down in Rotterdam for a week and just looked and looked and looked and looked at stuff while generating a collective chat log and discussion document. You are absolutely correct that there is a lot out there, as the idea of self broadcast and belief go hand in hand and it became quickly clear that we could either make a work that would be over an hour long or to pair it down to roughly ten minutes, which is what we did ultimately, not least because it is in keeping with Flat Earth and A Short Film about War.

In Flat Earth you use the Google Earth view to links the blogs, in A Short Film about War you incorporate the log of URLS and GPS location feed, and with the installation version of Belief you’ve created a compass to point to the location and approximation to each clip’s uploader - why is incorporating the location of the bloggers and vloggers an essential element of each film?

It is important to us because these works are about how information is distorted by its very dissemination online, but also how we individually might authenticate information as it comes into view when part of decentralised global communications networks like the worldwide web. In A Short Film about War we use the text log as a way of undermining the dramatisation taking place on the left screen. It produces a kind of double vision where you are seeing the same data visualisation simultaneously in two different ways. In Belief we use a compass for two reasons; firstly to remind us the web is a layer of information that relates ever more to our place in the physical world, but also as a way of placing the viewer at the centre of the work, thus making a direct spatial connection to each movie element and the viewer/artwork on a 1:1 scale.

You include footage of the American girl speaking about the Japanese tsunami, which was a viral sensation of sorts and the first time I’d come across footage in one of your films that I’d seen online before – do you purposely choose material for your films that is relatively unknown on the whole, and why did you choose to include this infamous clip?

You are right that we usually search out stuff that is less known so that when we include it in our documentary artworks it has a more neutral status. In Belief we decided to try shifting things a little by using some clips that already have a history and place in popular online consciousness, having been cloned and re-blogged many times already. To our minds the clip at the end of the work taken from one of the Heaven's Gate cult initiation videos is also well known, or was in the late nineties, and we wanted to represent this cultural tendency of things going viral and then being duplicated online, while creating a kind of seepage between the narrative trajectory of Belief and the wider online and physical world.

Belief feels the most critical of the three films, was it difficult to maintain a critical distance with this work or were you looking to be more provocative with this work?

That's a difficult question to answer. We don't feel much critical distance from any of the three works in 'Flat Earth Trilogy' nor to we wish them to have critical distance in the sense that some objective truth might be the product of it. As artists using documentary practices, we would rather be bringing the very idea of what documentary is to the fore, as something for us all to contemplate. What really is the difference between fact and fiction when both seem to inhabit each other so readily?

There is some wonderfully grainy VHS footage included in Belief giving the film much more of a personal, user generated feel than the other two works in the series. Can you talk about why you chose to make an HD film integrating this lo-fi footage?

Well, it is partly for convenience: you might as well make something in HD so that it can be played easily in places where that technology predominates, but it is also so that we could get some more detail into the Google Earth transitions. When you see the work in HD (it doesn't really get there online), each Google Earth move has a slightly more vertiginous feel than in the earlier works and as a contrast to the low-res videos, the (Google) earth feels bigger while each person in each blog feels smaller and as such, part of a larger more endless network of connections.

Now that you’ve finished the trilogy have you plans to make any other work using blogs, videos and images from the web?

Who knows? We are currently making karaoke videos out of unsolicited scam emails, and looking at the curious phenomenon of realtime statistics, but it would be interesting to come back to this way of making work in a few years time perhaps, because things will have changed so much by then.