Trains, Facebook and freedom of thought

Trains, Facebook and freedom of thought

As Ben Peppiatt and Stephanie Bickford-Smith launch their new artwork HistoLyrical on, we caught up with them to find out a bit more about what they’ve been up to… As artists, what does a typical day in your lives look like? That isn’t a very easy question to answer – that’s why we do … Continue reading Trains, Facebook and freedom of thought

As Ben Peppiatt and Stephanie Bickford-Smith launch their new artwork HistoLyrical on, we caught up with them to find out a bit more about what they’ve been up to…

As artists, what does a typical day in your lives look like?

That isn’t a very easy question to answer – that’s why we do what we do! It usually involves us cycling somewhere. We have a studio in Copeland Park in Peckham so we can be found there most days. It is a shared studio so we often have a mix of designers, illustrators, photographers and artists around us from all over Europe. If we are at the research stage of a project we like to get away from the studio a bit more, moving around different locations and galleries looking for inspiration. Sometimes it’s better to think on your feet. We just bought a car so we are hoping to widen our research adventures out of the city!

Ben Peppiatt and Stephanie Bickford-Smith adventuring!
The possibilities for new adventures!

What was the biggest challenge in working collaboratively with each other and with a wider group?

We know each other very well and can directly communicate our thoughts and ideas with one another which can make for exciting jumps in thinking. It becomes hard when you then have to work out how to communicate with others you don’t share quite the same connection with. It can also make it harder for either of us to hide our uncertainties or frustrations from each other if something isn’t quite going to plan.

The structure of this project and its connection with a group of younger people has made for some meaningful insights, especially in regards to online behaviours, that have given the project a real sense of purpose. When you can discuss your research and ideas with the very people you want to connect with then it really gives the work a focus and motivates you to move in the right direction. But we have realised that it is a real challenge getting participants to engage with your work, especially a varied group. People will often engage with your thinking and what you are doing but then don’t quite come through in the end – especially when online data is concerned.

Doodles from Ben Peppiatt and Stephanie Bickford-Smith
Doodles from Ben Peppiatt and Stephanie Bickford-Smith

What is HistoLyrical?

HistoLyrical is an interactive moving image experience where users can recall snippets of Facebook activity from the lead up to the EU Referendum vote. These snippets scroll across footage shot from the window of some of the most scenic train journeys in the UK. A range of content becomes jumbled together, complementing and clashing in equal degree, with the intention of creating a meditative experience punctuated by moments of disruption and distraction.

HistoLyrical is intended to offer a more contemplative experience of social media, raising a debate around the impact that it has upon our ability to think clearly.

Social media platforms such as Facebook are designed for consumption rather than contemplation. As a social platform this may be appropriate but the website is increasingly becoming more like a media publisher.

Through its news feed design it pushes us to keep scrolling, creating a hysteria of instant feedback. Digital disconnection encourages users to become more extreme in their expressions – look at the recent revelations in Facebook’s moderation criteria, where death threats are merely considered as emotional outbursts. Serious current affair stories and breaking news sits next to trivial and novelty content like cat videos and selfies, undermining our ability to process serious issues. Whilst fake news, echo chambers and targeted adverts have turned political campaigning into the wild west.

This behaviour and use of design is not unique to Facebook and we are seeing it translating across into more traditional sources of news and media with newspapers creating online platforms that keep us clicking through content. A very recent example is an article that was presented to me through the news feed notifications on my phone. It was a Telegraph article about the recent London Bridge attack ending with a click-through link entitled “Next up in TERROR IN LONDON” like it was some kind of television series. I didn’t ask for this piece of content to appear before me but it draws you in with sensationalist headlines and keeps you clicking through more pages. With extreme events it is important not to allow emotions to influence your thinking but when we are bombarded with such relentless content it can be hard to stay level headed. I have now disabled the news feed on my phone.

Stream of unconsciousness from Facebook activity
Stream of unconsciousness from Facebook activity

How did you choose the moving texts?

The moving text comes from a collection of different British residents’ Facebook Activity Logs in the week preceding the EU Referendum vote.

For the average person, the frantic pace of social media means that moments often happen in a spin and disappear in an instance. So we became interested in trying to capture a moment of recent history and how it unfolded online.

Facebook was identified by the collective of young people as the main source of news and information they went to online. With Facebook increasingly acting as people’s gateway to the internet, it seemed like the right point of focus.

For us the EU Referendum is one of the most significant events in our lifetime and a perfect moment to try to capture. The vote laid bare stark divisions in British society. Despite having the technological ability to connect with a far wider demographic of society than ever before, almost every level of society is oblivious to what is happening elsewhere. To us, good conversation skills – listening as much as talking – are a bedrock for contemplation.

Thinking poses
Thinking poses

How did you engage with technologists to make the work?

The Innovation Lab and subsequent ideas sessions with different creative technologists helped give us an idea of what was possible in terms of hardware and software. The lab gave us a whirlwind of virtual and augmented reality, data collection and DIY interfaces.

In our practice we believe it is important to remain informed of what is technologically possible but this thinking should not control and constrict the ideas process too rigidly. Ideas should be given the space to breathe – however unrealistic they may first appear. At the same time, you can’t just do a lot of creative thinking, then turn to a technologist and expect miracles to happen. A collaborative process is necessary, where casual conversations work to develop a project – so that ideas can be sufficiently explored without falling too far from the mark.

Ultimately for the realisation of this project we had numerous conversations with a range of technologists as the project developed, eventually realising the building of with a good friend and previous collaborator, Marcel Helmer. If you are an artist or designer who can’t code, then if you find someone who can and with whom you can work well with, nurture that relationship because great things can happen!

How has this experience impacted on your practice?

Prior to our commission with, our working relationship was focused more on one supporting the other on our different projects. Working with was the first commission we approached as an official partnership, giving us an opportunity to formalise and develop our working relationship.

As individuals we have never worked on a project with such a technological focus. From working with different creative technologists we realised that the basics principles of human behaviour still apply to the digital world.

What’s your favourite train journey?

From our filming for this project, the journey from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh was breathtaking as we encountered mountains, lochs, fields and sea with the sun shining for the entirety of the journey. It was an older and smaller train than most and we could really feel the mechanics of locomotion working – it was the sound recordings from this journey that were used to produce the soundtrack for

Mapping journeys for HistoLyrical
Mapping journeys for HistoLyrical

How do you personally contemplate?

In keeping with the project, we both find that travelling on trains is a great time to think – the perfect balance between scenery and people watching. Natural landscapes like coastal or woodland walks also provide us with the perfect headspace – listening to the sea crash against rocks and branches brushing together in the wind is mesmerising.

On a day to day level we both find the peace for processing our thoughts in gardening and cooking. These everyday tasks have the perfect balance of action and monotony to allow the mind to rest and wonder.

Train journey by Ben Peppiatt and Stephanie Bickford-Smith
Train journey by Ben Peppiatt and Stephanie Bickford-Smith


Want to know more?

Hop on board the HistoLyrical journey 
Take a look behind-the-scenes at the development of the work