Unaccompanied Yield (1)

Tony Kemplen in conversation with Rebecca Shatwell

ĎThe vision I have for the Web is about anything being potentially connected with anything.It is a vision that provides us with new freedom, and allows us to grow faster than we ever could when we were fettered by the hierarchical classification systems into which we bound ourselvesí. (2)

ĎTodayÖ A Library, a museum Ė in fact, any large collection of cultural data Ė is replaced by a computer database.At the same time, a computer database becomes a new metaphor that we use to conceptualize individual and collective cultural memory, a collection of documents or objects, and other phenomena and experiencesí. (3)


RS: Encyclopaedia Mundi is a new form of database.A constantly evolving collection of hundreds of images from the internet generated from an absurd series of software programmes, that process information from a collection of eighteen souvenir objects.Could you describe this series of processes and translations?

TK: The sort of software I am using includes programmes for translating data from one form to another. The first process that youíll see is a sonification programme that takes an image and makes sound out of it.That particular programme (vOICe Ė seeingwithsound.com) was developed as an experimental aid for blind people, where a head mounted camera would give a sound picture of what is in front of them.The sound from that is used as the input to the next software process which is a speech recognition programme.This is something that Iíve been interested in since they first became widely available about five or six years ago, and what really intrigued me was the sort of texts that are thrown up when they are given sounds to work with that are different to the slowly enunciated speech that they are meant for.After a minute or two the recognition process stops and the computer chooses the last word that it has recognised for the final stage, which is to search the internet for images using that word as a key word.It will potentially download up to several hundred images.

RS: So these images are then collected to make up the Encyclopaedia Mundi database?

TK: Yes, through this process the computer is building up a database of text and image (text that it has recognised and images associated with it).If itís already used the same word in one day it will skip it and choose another word, so you donít end up with lots of duplicate files.There are no restrictions placed on the search, which uses the Google Image Search Programme.

RS: One of the key themes of the work is the parallel you have created between the internet as a search engine and medieval Cabinets of Curiosity as another system of classification.What do you see as the relationship between the internet and the Wunderkammer?

TK: Cabinets of Curiosity have been of interest to me for quite a few years. Iím interested in what happens when things are classified in ways that you wouldnít normally do in everyday life.Cabinets of Curiosity were exclusively assembled by rich Princes as a way of trying to understand the world by labeling, classifying and establishing control over the object and the civilisation it represented.This notion of an obscure collection just seems in a way to be similar to how we use the internet, where we can gather text and information from all over the world.Encyclopaedia Mundi plays on that parallel of historical and contemporary information gathering, classifying and cataloging of data and objects.

RS: Your approach to the collection of objects draws parallels with the acquisition of objects for the Wunderkammer.The eighteen objects which provide the starting point for Encyclopaedia Mundi were collected from charity shops in Leeds, Lancaster and Derby.

TK: Yes thatís right.There were various categories which were used by the Cabinets of Curiosity owners Ė such as naturalia, artificialia and orientalia. Iíve focused on a particular subclass of objects which Iíve called charitabilia, that are items donated to charity shops which look to me as if they may well have been souvenirs from foreign holidays that people have disposed of.The idea of using eighteen coloured cabinets is loosely based on the collection of Ferdinand II at Ambras near Innsbruck where there are said to have been eighteen cupboards, colour coded to show their contents, such as green for silver, red for clocks, yellow for coins, that sort of thing.

RS: Iím interested in the association between the original charitabilia objects and the images and texts that result from the software processes.As the work is so processed based, any concluding connection between them seems to be rendered absurd?

TK: Yes, it is very much a process based work, rather than being outcome driven.The database at the end consists of short texts that have been recognized from the images of the objects, it also has folders full of images that relate to those texts, but thereís no real, direct connection between any of those things.

RS: So how much control do you have (or want to have) over the ordering of the collection?

TK: The thing at the centre of this collection isnít me, itís the computer.Although obviously I organised the structure of the software and set it up to do it, I donít feel that Iím the controlling force in it.†† Iíve set up this process and Iím basically just leaving it alone during the exhibition.Once the Encyclopaedia Mundi starts you canít stop it.Itís constantly trying to wring meaning out of these objects, which they donít inherently have.†† But itís so desperate to try and make sense of its surroundings that itís throwing up images and texts which donít visually seem to have anything to do with the objects.The Encyclopaedia Mundi is highlighting this human need to find meaning in everything, and constantly refers back to the internet as a vast library to be grazed or browsed.

RS: In addition to the installation there is the Encyclopaedia Mundi website, which adds another layer of classification, how does that work?

TK: If you log onto www.encyclopaediamundi.org, youíll see the most recent collection of images that the software has found, with the most recent texts scrolling the screen.So there will be some kind of notion of the database being available to search online.

RS: As a new media installation, Encyclopaedia Mundi draws on pre-existing, commercially available software packages.So in a way you are using the technology as a kind of found object or readymade?

TK: I donít write software, all the software I use already exists, Iím not a programmer.I am interested in software doing things unexpectedly, that itís not been designed to do. The first software I used was speech recognition and speech synthesizer software in earlier works such as the audio CD Avocado/Avvocato (1999).This was a site specific work made in response to a domestic environment; I worked with some significant objects in the house (which happened to be a large number of avocado stones and the European Working Times Directive).I reset the entire text of the legal document using only the letters a, v, o, c, a, d and o, and the results were read out by an Italian speech synthesizer (Avvocato is Italian for lawyer).

RS: Youíve also worked in the past with redundant technology and exploited the restrictions and parameters of the technology itself, like in The End, for example.

TK: Iím quite happy for work to develop depending on what technology is available and what I can do with it.I was in the Redundant Technology Initiative first show and the redundant technology that I worked with was old record players networked together (No Overall Control, 1997).The record players were wired together in such a way that each one was controlled by two other decks, leading to a chaotic system in which cascades of switching combinations worked their way through the system.The End (Site Gallery, 2002) was constructed from plug-in electrical timers, of the sort widely available in DIY shops and supermarkets.Nine plugs with nine leads plugged into nine timers in nine sockets were connected to a neon sign reading ĎThe Endí. The neon light is due to light up in 1000000000000 years.These low tech works were certainly about setting up things which are destined to fail.

RS: Flawed utopian schemes come across in other works, like Polyglot for instance?

TK: Polyglot (Ikon Gallery, 1999) used thirty six animatronic parrots to illustrate the failure of the artificial language movement.I made a classroom of the parrots, arranged on perches, and literally tested them to destruction.†† Tannoy speakers shouted out the names of several invented languages, Esperanto, Interlingua, Ido, Volapuk, and the parrots repeat them back amongst themselves, the speech becoming ever more distorted until it ends in a meaningless babble.The whole cycle is then repeated with another language, in much the same way as humans have continued to come up with fresh ways to aid communication, which despite the high intentions seem doomed to failure.

RS: In addition to failure as a theme, your work is often explored through imperfections and glitches in technology.

TK: Although Encyclopaedia Mundi is designed to operate online, I have also looked at offline possibilities, so that if a glitch occurs Encyclopaedia Mundi will search its own database of perhaps ten thousand images instead of the internet.†† It is this idea of imperfections in systems that interest me, and the thought that the work is not necessarily always doing what we think it is.


 1. Unaccompanied Yield is the only two word anagram of Encyclopaedia Mundi

2. Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web, Texere Publishing, 2000, p.1

3. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, 2001, p.21


Rebecca Shatwell is New Media Curator at Pavilion.