Artist of the Month

April 2019

Sophie Bullock

For April's Artist of the Month we've selected Manchester-based artist Sophie Bullock. We talk to her about her practice which explores political, technological and societal ideas through playful experiences.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your practice, how would you describe the work that you do?

I’m an artist based in Manchester with a studio at Islington Mill. I also work part-time in Liverpool for a social enterprise called PLACED where I run workshops and activities for communities to gather their experiences and knowledge of their local areas to inform and raise awareness of developments in their cities and towns.

My artwork shares political, technological and societal ideas through playful experiences. My ethos is to communicate complex policies, research and debate to people who these ideas may affect, but may not have access to through a lack of industry specific knowledge, complicated languages or lack of public facing opportunities to learn.

I like to transform a rigorous research-led approach into something more accessible and fun. By using a lighter-touch on heavy topics, the work offers the opportunity to start talking about something from a more comfortable starting point rather than feeling oppressed by the scale of a problem.

In recent works my cross disciplinary approach has included working with scientists to explore the ethics of advanced AI surveillance on our freedom of movement by creating a game of charades, I worked with children to ask them what they want out of their cities through animating their drawings, and I have been collaborating with academics to explore the impact that toxic work practices under neoliberalism have on our mental health through making comedic motivational PowerPoint presentations.

In short, my passion lies in communicating urgent socio-political ideas through games, fun and comedy.

Sophie Bullock, Citymation, 2018

What made you become an artist?

It’s definitely not something I always knew I was going to be. I wasn’t sure where I fit in creatively until I did my art foundation at New College Nottingham. That’s when everything started to make sense.

At the beginning I really struggled with the many set briefs to be completed to a short deadline. But with the help of some amazing tutors we realised that I needed to pursue creative ideas more slowly through research and experimentation, without needing to know what the end product would be. This felt liberating, and over the years I’ve loved the opportunity to work with loads of different people, from technologists, artists, communities, academics, architects and so on to create work that connects with people socially.

This feeling has only gotten stronger the more I’ve developed confidence in the way I work, and developing a passion for communicating concepts that I think are urgent to society.

Technology features a lot in your practice - is there a project you'd like to do but that isn't technologically possible at the moment?

Good question! To be honest I’m more interested in thinking more politically or philosophically about technology or using technology in the simplest way to convey the message. I work so much with technology and I think we need to be aware of our relationship to it and the impact it has on our mental health.

As a freelancer I constantly refresh emails to make replies and emails come faster which doesn’t feel healthy. And then studio work bleeds into personal life because my phone is in my pocket. My news app likes to send me notifications about horrifying events when I’m eating dinner. My calendar reminds me of applications I’m about to miss the deadline for. But it also connects me with my friends and family. It’s a complex relationship!

Technology has so many benefits but sometimes it’s hard to not to dream of going backwards to the simpler times of playing snake on a 3210.

Sophie Bullock, Gestural Syntax: AI Training, 2017

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

I think I’d like people to see that just because this is the way things are, that doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be.

For example, you’re struggling to cope with the stress of keeping afloat of work. Is that really your own failure, or is actually the fault it of a toxic work environment? Can we blame technological bias on the algorithms that went wrong, or should we actually be critiquing the human bias of the technologist?

I really enjoy having the opportunity to talk to audiences after displaying or performing work, and I’d like them to feel that they can openly join a discussion that doesn’t rely on complex languages or expertise. I like to create work which connects with people’s lived experiences, to demonstrate the link between ideas, policies and people’s day-to-day lives so that we can develop newer ways of educating, developing and imagining other ways of being.

You work collaboratively as well - could you tell us briefly about The Ambience Factory and One Five West?

Ambience Factory is a satirical mindfulness organisation from a performative duo with artist Sophie Huckfield, from 2018. We collaborated with academics and lecturers of the ‘Contemporary Philosophy of Technology Research Group’ at University of Birmingham on their research primarily concerning the individualisation of anxiety and the marketisation of the University. Research drew up ideas of the technological and neoliberal ‘fix’ to our problems.

Sophie Bullock, Ambience Factory

The Ambience Factory

We use comedic PowerPoint performances to sell enlightenment to the workforce in order to distract them from analysing the systemic problems of their work environment, therefore creating more productive, profitable and ‘happier’ workers. Importantly, the work emphasises big businesses financial benefit of these ‘McMindfulness’ practices.

‘One Five West’ is a collaboration between me and Anna Horton. We create interactive artworks which use lofi technology to get people collaborating, socialising and learning together. We have a keen interest in how we can make better public spaces which encourage and permit people to play more.

We’ve worked on loads of projects of our years as a duo with some amazing organisations. Some highlights include a semi-permanent installation with ‘Urban Wilderness’ for Chester Zoo, a grant to create new technology and public artwork, ‘Tales of the Town’ from Innovate UK, we were selected for ‘Arts + Tech Accellorator Programme’ at MadLab, we were ‘New Talent Residents’ at Pervasive Media Studio, and we have exhibitions and development opportunities with Fierce Festival Birmingham and Birmingham Open Media.

Sophie Bullock, Feedback

One Five West, Feedback, 2014

Which artists working at the moment do you admire?

The Yes Men have become a big influence on my work at the moment. I admire the way they use corporate culture to magnify how troubling big business is through using humour. I also really like Ralph Pritchard’s work for its immersion of the digital into physical and emotional bodies. His work ‘Shouldr’ has inspired some ideas for work I’ve produced.

A piece that I really enjoyed from the Liverpool Bienniel in 2018 was Ryan Ganders ‘Time Moves Quickly’ work with young school children exploring the Montessori method of education, based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. All things I really value as a model of knowledge sharing. The videos were a pure joy to watch, and then to see the physical benches of his collaboration with the children at the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral was fantastic.

Lastly, I love when Jan Hakon Erichsen’s work comes up in my Instagram feed. It’s so weird satisfying!

What projects have you got coming up?

Ambience Factory will be performing at Virtual Futures: Near Future Fictions at Ace Hotel London on May 14th. We’re also performing at disORDER Festival in Wolverhamption between 4-7 July. We’ve just been offered to show an aspect of our work at Social Works?: Live at Manchester School of Art in partnership with Axisweb – thanks!

Myself and Anna are currently helping to organise a Social Art Network in Manchester, and we’ll be talking about what this looks like at the Social Art Assembly at Tate Exchange April 25th, and again at Social Works?: Live.

One Five West will be a part of ‘Ferguson’s Gang and the Octopus’, a series of satirical street games and interventions about the housing crisis, with Mufti Games. This will be shown at Glastonbury Festival between 26th – 30th June.

More information

Sophie Bullock Axisweb >