Megan Preston Elliott, January 2019
I first encountered Tamsin Snow’s work at her solo exhibition, Spare Face, at Block 336 Gallery in October 2018. In the gallery’s first room were four high-shine, cold, grey plastic seats embedded in a white box and a TV screen on the adjacent wall. The familiarity of the design positioned this as a ‘waiting room’, designed to accommodate the body as it prepares to move elsewhere. The TV screen played a film of what appeared to be CGI water droplets on a constant loop, with no clear beginning or end. I was reminded of the sensation of being in a doctor’s surgery, sat on a similar chair, watching a screen playing the same clips over and over. Walking into the next space, I was confronted with a strip of white, plush carpet leading up to a film projected onto a large screen. I had moved from one waiting room into another. It’s this sense of waiting, the in-between space, its form and function, that Snow often examines in her work.

Tamsin Snow, Untitled, 2018, CGI animation, video still, continuous loop

© Tamsin Snow

Megan ElliottThe space in which your work is exhibited often echoes the shapes of the structures and architecture in your films. Is this an important factor you consider when exhibiting your work? Could you talk a bit more about your architectural influences?

Tamsin SnowArchitecture is my starting point whenever I’m making any kind of work. The films aren’t site specific, but they are about architecture and space, and about modes of representing those things, and so it makes sense to install them in a way that draws attention to the spaces they’re shown in. The Spare Face film was exhibited at Block 336, which is essentially a big, concrete, subterranean room. The room was kept empty, except for the screen and a carpet laid out in front of it. This carpet in itself was an unusual thing, made of a brilliant white wool that was very noticeably plush, so thick you could lie down and make drawings in it. Certainly not a carpet meant for a public space. The gallery had to keep raking it every morning to keep it pristine, but apart from the aesthetic there were practical reasons for it being there. The carpet damped the sound in the room, which allowed the video sound to be turned up very high, and it also indicated the viewpoint from which the film would be best heard. People took this in different ways. Some just stood at the back of the room to watch the film, and then others ran and immediately jumped down on the thing, spreading themselves out. People love to lounge, I suppose. 


Tamsin Snow, Spare Face, 2018, CGI animation, video still, 06.20 mins 

© Tamsin Snow

ME: Who have you collaborated with as part of your practice – could you tell me more about this process?


TS: Every project I do involves collaboration in some form. At Block 336 it was with a CGI design company, and in the past I’ve worked with architects, structural engineers and so on. I’ve collaborated with artist Sarah Tynan on several large-scale projects over the last four years. When I’m working on my own, it’s usually in the preliminary stage of a project, when I’m thinking a work through as an idea. But even in my studio, my practice often involves a lot of planning with other people. The space itself is basically empty, less like an art studio than an office. Or possibly a panic room. Right now, all I have in there are bottles of Evian, a computer and a printer.


ME: The text in your films isn’t written, it’s a montage of found text. Where do you take this from and do you think it’s important?


TS: I wouldn’t say it’s particularly important. It’s just the kind of work I relate to. In the Spare Face video, the text is taken from online forums like Reddit, so the source material is all very accessible and recent. This was firstly because that film is about cryonics, and for obvious reasons that isn’t an area where I can have direct access to either the institutions or the technologies involved. Second, it mirrors the fact that most of the CGI models used in the video are also publicly accessible, so everything in the work is a kind of montage. The source materials are all out there in the public domain already, and my work just appropriates and juxtaposes them in a certain way. Also, in the installations and sculptures, everything I make works more or less on the basis of montage.


Tamsin Snow, Untitled, 2018, CGI animation, video still

© Tamsin Snow


Tamsin Snow, Spare Face, 2018, CGI animation, video still, 06.20 mins 

© Tamsin Snow

ME: Your works often seem to explore ‘in-between’ spaces, only meant to be passed through, or for temporary occupation; could you talk about what you have noticed about the architecture of these types of spaces, such as an autopsy room, and how this informs your imagined CGI spaces?


TS: Aspects of modern practices such as autopsy parallel the spaces that are designed for them. Le Corbusier wanted to make radically functional buildings and technologies, what he called machines for living, where every aspect of a design served a practical purpose, which in the end was always to serve the inhabitant. The autopsy room is as bluntly functional as a space can be, which is something I’m drawn to. The reason I like working with CGI is that it allows you to design new spaces and conflate them with these existing architectures, so for example to design a new kind of autopsy room, or a cryonics laboratory. In the Spare Face video, I made a recreation of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, using CGI models with sequences of new interiors where I designed a cryonics facility. A cryonics lab is also an explicitly functional space which deals with the body after death. The difference from an autopsy room is that in the context of cryonics, people aren’t really talking about death at all. They see cryopreservation as a suspension of consciousness, which only lasts a certain time before the body is resuscitated. So, death is actually defined as an extension of life.


ME: Could you talk about the virtual autopsy process and how this feeds into your work?


TS: A totally virtual autopsy would be one that involves scanning and analysing the body remotely, without having to touch it, and the technologies you would need are being developed. It’s definitely not an option yet as a replacement for regular, physical autopsies, but there is a growing trend towards making the autopsy process a service performed by machines. What interests me are the motivations behind this and what the possible consequences might be. Unlike in the past, public autopsies and dissections almost never happen now, and medical students are attending autopsies less than they used to. I’m not sure what that means. It seems possible, likely perhaps, that if we do away with any physical contact with corpses certain kinds of knowledge could be lost.

"there are plenty of conscious humans who would be dead if it weren't for computer software, or some implant under their skin"

Tamsin Snow, Spare Face, 2018, CGI animation, video clip [18 secs]. 06.20 mins

© Tamsin Snow

ME: There’s a notable absence of the human body within your work; is this to allow the viewers body to occupy this space? Does the viewer become a participant?


TS: I wouldn’t say so, at least no more than anywhere else. The focus is on the architectural space. If there were a CGI human body in the Spare Face film it would turn the work into something completely different. The facility is speaking to the viewer through a narrative voice, but always in the collective “we”, always vague and distant. It has absolutely nothing to do with encouraging any participation, except possibly that it mimics a corporate promotional video.


ME: What do you see for the future of the human body as it ages? What is the direction that you think technology is going in and what do you think is simply myth?


TS: People who have their bodies cryogenically frozen do it purely on the basis of faith in progress. The technology isn’t even close to being capable of bringing them back. One thing I find curious is that, in fact, scientists are far closer to being able to clone a human. It could probably be done now, if it hasn’t been already. So why are people choosing cryonics rather than having their genes preserved for cloning, which – apart from being more scientifically plausible – would mean that instead of being resuscitated in their old, diseased body they would be brought back as a newborn baby? I wouldn’t say cryonics is a myth though. There are parallel fields of science, space travel for instance, where experiments with putting the body into a kind of stasis for long periods of time are getting closer to reality. It’s possible that something similar might be done in the case of cryonics patients. But a more fundamental question, I think, is why we’re not addressing the things that kill us, rather than death itself. One example would be that when a body produces cells, the cells have a natural production limit, which causes ageing. Now it’s been found that an enzyme called telomerase can potentially stop this process, meaning people might live for much longer. It’s already been done to some extent with animals. Stem cell therapy is another area where the ageing process is being challenged. This is something that goes to the root causes of mortality, as opposed to focusing on the side-effects.


ME: In the scenario that, after death, humans could occupy cyber bodies and remain conscious, can we still be considered human? What is it that makes us human?


TS: That scenario is now. Cyber bodies exist everywhere, of course to varying degrees. The William Gibson quote is that the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. But there are plenty of conscious humans who would be dead if it weren’t for computer software, or some implant under their skin. What makes us human, or rather what makes us biological, is staying alive by any means. The aim of this game is survival.


Tamsin Snow, Showroom, 2017, CGI animation, video still, 03.50 mins

© Tamsin Snow

ME: Humans have long been obsessed with, and afraid of, death and what happens afterwards; is technology the answer for those looking to guarantee a ‘life’ after the death of the human body? What impact do you think this could have on religion?


TS: The Alcor Life Extension Foundation was the first cryonics facility, and a former president of the company said he considered becoming a minister when he was younger. That doesn’t surprise me at all. In a sense cryonics is a religion. A priest and a cryonicist are both selling immortality. You might say that fifty thousand dollars is cheap compared to a lifetime of moral enslavement. Of course, some Christians are disturbed by cryonics because if a corpse is brought back to life after five-hundred years, that’s no good for their idea of the soul. As things stand, their position is that the body has been pronounced dead and so therefore it is dead, so it’s not a problem. They see cryonics as deluded because there’s no scientific evidence, which is quite funny. I did read in the Catholic Herald that if cryonics makes some unanticipated advances and actually starts to work, then they’ll have to “revisit the issue”. The argument that death is unnatural, and so should be off-limits, is also ridiculous. Unless you’re going to say that nobody should have a pacemaker, or that pharmaceuticals or surgeries are unnatural as well.


ME: Could you talk a bit about the bias of technology towards the rich?


TS: It’s the same as anything. There is the argument that these things start off exclusively for the wealthy and over time they become more and more accessible, as with any technology, but I don’t think they’ll be freezing people on the NHS anytime soon. What would be the incentive? The real question is, who would even want to bring these people back in five-hundred years? They’ll be like useless, elderly children. The cryonics process really isn’t in anyone’s interest except the person being frozen, and therefore they should take care of the bill themselves. If you decide to build a mausoleum it’s up to your family to take care of the maintenance. Why should anyone else pay for it?


ME: You also make and exhibit sculptures as part of your practice, such as the seats in the Spare Face installation at Block 336; these seats were instantly recognisable as ‘waiting room’ seats, from the materials used to their positioning within the space. How do these physical sculptures operate in conjunction with your digital work?


TS: For whatever reason, I like the aesthetics of institutional spaces, or liminal spaces where some kind of transport takes place, which are often so generic and so reduced they reach the point of being void. But it’s hard to speak in general about this because each work follows a certain logic within the space it’s exhibited in. The space dictates the aesthetic to a certain extent. In Block 336, there were two galleries. Those seats were installed in the first one, meaning that before you could watch the film, the first thing you saw were these extremely functional seats, made of a leatherette that’s designed to be easy to clean, painted in a grey that looks like un-rendered CGI. So, the installation was put there to disinfect the space.

Tamsin Snow

The exhibition Spare Face took place at Block 336, Brixton, London from 12/10 – 10/11/18 and was supported by Block 336, Arts Council of England and Culture Ireland.