What happens when an Art Student ‘breaks up’ with technology? ArtAttack Interviews Caley Holmboe.

Chelsea College of Arts student, Caley Holmboe, has a flip phone and no Instagram profile. When I fell in love with a sculpture of hers at last year’s 2nd year show, I had to tweet at the Chelsea student union to get her contact information. When Caley receives an email, it comes to her laptop only. When Caley sends a text, she has to use the numbers as letters just like you did on your old Nokia circa 2004.

Her complete lack of online presence in an increasingly digital world, is something that makes Caley stand out immensely, and I wanted to know how and why she made the practically unheard of choice to be almost totally offline.

It turns out that the lifestyle choice started an experiment and a work of art. I like to call it ‘The Unplug Project,’ but the formal name of the piece is ‘I Want to Break Up.’

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I had the chance to speak with Caley about this fascinating project, which ended up extending into her daily life. You’ll notice this is a much longer interview than those we normally publish, but I encourage you to read every word as it really is a supremely interesting look into a very non-traditional choice.

1) For ‘I want to break up’ you and fellow artist, Joshua Ridley, quite literally ‘broke up’ with the technological world for a week. No Internet, no mobiles, no social media of any kind… Some people would consider this ‘unplugging’ next to impossible! What brought on the idea and how difficult was it to maintain?

Joshua and I had worked together prior to this collaboration on a piece concerning the use of digital technology and the internet in everyday life. The disconcerting conversations that arose from that work, led us to the conclusion that we should lock up our technology and abstain from the Internet for a period of time in order to really understand how these digital presences were affecting our lives.

Aside from the actual unplugging, Josh and I decided we wanted to build a safe in which we would lock our technology for the week. We both envisioned a huge metal safe which was interesting in itself because it later occurred to us that the technology we decided to lock up (our iPhones and laptops) actually takes up a small amount of physical space. But its’ significance to modern day life is huge so the size of the safe we built corresponded to its’ immense, intangible presence in our lives.

The safe we built was more of a gimmick and metaphor as in the end we rented a secure self-storage unit in which we locked up our things for the week. The guy who showed us to our locker was amused at the two young people locking up a couple Macs, three iPhones, and a Playstation remote control. When we explained the experiment he had lots of input. He could relate. I think those spontaneous conversations that we had along the way with strangers and peers were really important to the work. Some people would say they would never do it, or others that they wish they could do it, that they were jealous! The responses were really demonstrative of this modern day phenomenon; we are pretty damn dependent on the internet and these technologies!

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Josh and I were in close contact with each other throughout the project. This kind of mini support system was an essential part of this experience. Us working together, sharing our ups and downs, building the safe with our hands and as a team highlighted the essence of what we were concerned about to begin with.

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In terms of the difficulty of the experience, realistically it is almost impossible to live in a city like London and be completely offline. The title of the work, I want to break up, came about to expose the emotional relationship we can have with our devices. Being on a temporary break from something or someone allows us to recommit whilst being more aware, with a fresh perspective.

As with any addictive process, when we abstained there were elements of withdrawal. Uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, anger and restlessness came up for both of us, as well as elation! I remember sitting in my room and thinking, I have not felt this alone in a very long time, but in a good way. My flatmates were out and I had no device to chat on. It was completely different to sitting on my own with a computer or phone connecting me to millions of other people also on their own devices.

2) During the project, you drew everyday. Many of the drawings are of tech-like gear such as tangled earplugs, computer cords, chargers and monitors. To me, just looking at these drawings gives me a sense of angst! Contrarily, other works in the drawing series seem to highlight the opposite of tech — pen-and-paper diaries and badminton racquets — things you do WITHOUT technology, activities that nurture the soul. Can you discuss this opposition a bit as well as any memories you have of your mindset while making these drawings?

There was something wonderful about the simple task of doing a drawing a day for a week. Josh and I didn’t set any parameters apart from that we would draw from life daily on these little card squares we cut out. We did think of how the square related to Instagram photos.

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I love drawing and I definitely drew less when I was absent-mindedly checking my iPhone. Drawing from my immediate surroundings, I felt more aware of what was actually around me and less distracted.

There was something about setting this kind of intention for a week that felt very healthy and made our simple daily activities that more important. The mindset was that of a more acute sense of awareness. Like a new sense of time and space had opened up where I could try out new things and think without over-saturating my brain by compulsively checking pixels, emails and messages.

I found those charger and headphone drawings Josh and I did interesting. These vein-like cables and wires are mega important to our existence, yet there they were, lying about, suddenly pointless. I also drew my digital watch that I bought because I always used my phone to check the time. I had not worn a watch for years, smart phones do everything and are replacing many objects, rendering them obsolete.

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I journaled on the back of all my drawings, even my hand writing was quite foreign to me! No auto-correction to correct my spelling mistakes either!

3) As time passed, did it become easier to ‘unplug’? 

One thing that was consistent was this feeling that I had lost something. Its like the phone was a kind of prosthetic extension of my body, a security blanket. I kept compulsively checking my pockets for my phone even on the 7th day.

Josh and I had different experiences. I felt like I was on some kind of holiday and I was really dreading reconnecting. It felt so freeing to be out of reach. On the other hand, Josh had had enough by the end of the 7 days and was really looking forward to getting back to his things. He really missed the social aspects of the technologies like being able to organize meeting people and playing Playstation with his brother.

Literally as soon as we reunited with our iPhones, we stood heads bowed over our devices for ages checking all those endless messages and emails. At some point we caught each other’s eyes and were like, ‘wow’. Those smart phones are designed to demand maximum attention, which is why in order to be sure we wouldn’t be tempted by them, we went to such drastic measures and locked them up! That’s why the companies who sell smart phones make millions; these devices are highly addictive. I have read that they are asking for these companies to issue health warnings like with other addictive products like alcohol and cigarettes.

Of course, they do have their uses! One of my big reservations was not being able to access Google Maps. I have a seriously bad sense of direction. I was relying heavily on following my screen through this big city. But looking at my pixels was not helping my sense of direction. It was a revelation that I could actually find places. And yes I did have to ask a few humans along the way and give things a bit more time and draw little maps. But I began to trust myself in a way.

I also really, really missed my music, which I listened to from my iPhone. This was the downside. I began to listen to the radio a lot in my kitchen though. And Josh and I found out that we had both begun to sing to ourselves on the way back from university. Josh found it harder to get used to in a way, and it goes to show that everyone’s experiences are different.

Clearly, the internet is an amazing place to share information; this interview will be read online after all! But being online 24 hours a day made me feel saturated with information and images. It felt good to detox knowing I could then make more conscious decisions about how I used the internet. At the moment I don’t have internet in my bedroom, I only use it in my kitchen.

4) Do you feel that being cut off from social media sites etc. added anything concrete to your work and/or state of mind?

Well I can’t speak for Josh, but for me this has been a long-term interest in my personal life. I deactivated my Facebook 5 years ago and I have never used Instagram or Twitter. These choices have absolutely changed my life. I was one of those people who used Facebook in a way that harmed me. I projected this fantasy life that I was living in Barcelona and the truth was my life was far from that ideal. I used to value my online presence much more than my actual reality, and I could not possibly match that super confident, carefree persona that took up an unprecedented proportion of my time to elaborate online. That was time I could have been spending making art and nurturing more meaningful aspects of my life.

Within a month of the weeklong unplugging experiment, I decided to buy one of those old-fashioned phones. The ones with no internet, that you can text and call on and that’s pretty much it, the ones people call ‘Bricks’. I use my iPhone like a camera now and bought an iPod for my music because one thing I cannot live without is my music, especially on London public transport, which can feel like a nightmare.

So yeah this piece of work was a catalyst for me to change my lifestyle. I know that people can use things in moderation. I know that social media has its’ uses. I get it.

When people see the phone I use or find out I don’t have social media they often start justifying themselves. Like this weird guilt that is triggered by me being some sort of mirror, and I am like, listen it’s just a choice after all, I only have this life to live it in a way that works for me.

I feel very lucky that I am in a life that allows my lifestyle. My choice not to have social media does still affect my work and my life. I am often not aware of social events, people may not want to work with me and I may not be offered as many opportunities because I don’t have much online presence. I have lost touch with a lot of people but the ones who I believe are meant to be in my life find me or I find them. I realise that all decisions have consequences, but I own my decision and live with the pros and cons.

5) There was a also a performance piece that went along with the project. Can you tell us a bit about it?

When Josh and I began this project, I took part in a performance workshop. The ending consisted of all those who participated doing an evening of performances. It was then that I came across Carmen Viñuela and Luisa Gonzalez’s performance ‘1KB self-portrait’. I really liked their work, in which they always collaborate as a pair. It consisted of Carmen and Luisa reading out the zeros and ones that a portrait of them together was made up of. All digital imagery can be decoded into zeros and ones. This just felt very linked to what Josh and I were thinking about, so I asked them if they would perform this alongside our safe piece. A couple of pairs collaborating!

We decided to put the safe on wheels and role it in a kind of procession from Chelsea College of Fine Art to Trafalgar Square. In the end we had Carmen and Luisa read out their zeros and ones standing next to the safe in front of the National Gallery amongst the other street performers.

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‘Exhibiting’ in a public space like Trafalgar square is not really legal but we talked to some of the old timers at the square prior to the date we chose to perform, and we were assured it was a good time to do it. They told us the government only kicked them out or arrested them when things like the Olympics came up and they wanted to give the area a ‘facelift’.

It was a laugh rolling the safe through central London with a few peers who wanted to join the procession. People didn’t even really react to us pushing this massive suspicious object on wheels, quite surreal really.

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We gave out postcards of our drawings with some information to passers-by and our audience. Then we rolled the safe back to university and were reunited with our technology the next day.

People who saw me regularly kept asking me, ‘when are you back?’ ‘are you back yet?’ and then; ‘welcome back to the 21st century.’ It really did feel like stepping out of a parallel universe and going somewhere else.

I found those questions fascinating; where exactly had I gone? How has online presence taken so much space in such a small amount of time? And why are these technologies that have been so recently invented, been accepted as absolute givens in modern society?

It is as if people have forgotten that this has all happened within our lifetimes, that in the big picture a few years is like a minute. Someone playfully referred to my new phone as ‘prehistoric’. Have we forgotten in very recent history people actually arranged to meet up on a landline and showed each other photos in a photo albums? The project really demonstrated this incredible acceptance of a very new reality that is highly questionable. With all their obvious uses, our incessant use of these devices has pretty harmful consequences on human relations.

This project showed me that I do have a choice. But it looks like it’s getting more and more compulsory in the kind of society we live in, to be plugged in at all times. And I don’t agree with that.

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– India Irving

If you would be interested in participating in a similar ‘unplug project,’ comment with your email below!

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