Terry Grimley meets Ben Sadler, half of up-and-coming Birmingham art partnership juneau/projects/...
More than most artists who come to exhibit at Birmingham's Ikon Gallery for the first time, Ben Sadler and Philip Duckworth should feel at home.
The duo, better known as juneau/projects/, met at Ikon when both were employed there as technicians and gallery attendants. They had their first exhibition at The Showroom in London's East End in 2004 and have an installation in the British Art Show which is currently touring the country.
Though Ben has since moved to London (actually he describes himself as living between here and there) they are leading representatives of a Birmingham art scene which is beginning to enjoy a higher national and international profile.
"I've definitely seen a change," says Ben. "It seems like over the last few years there are some really good artists working here. I don't think it's comparable yet with Manchester or Glasgow but it seems like a possibility now, whereas ten years ago it didn't. I feel I've got what I need from London and I could almost move back here now."
Born in Birmingham in 1977, Ben studied at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford and the Royal College of Art. Returning to Birmingham and taking on casual work at Ikon, he met Philip (born Iselohn, Germany, in 1976) and the two became friends.
Their first collaborative project, however, was to do with music rather than art. With two other artist friends they started the rock band Ohne, which Ben describes as initially fairly mainstream apart from the fact that it never had a drummer and percussion was supplied by computer.
"We got fed up with the conventional set-up and started using other instruments, like four-track recorders. We couldn't get ordinary gigs and it turned into two years of experimentation."
The band was never formally disbanded but effectively evolved into juneau/projects/, with music and its related technology forming an ongoing link.
The duo even have their own not-for-profit record label, Juneau Records, which provides a kind of container for all their work.
In New York they commissioned unsigned bands to record cover versions of songs they wrote as teenagers, while other artists recorded on the Juneau label include the American singers Jesse Wray and Lee Fields.
Their first art projects, included in the Ikon show, were developed in Grisedale Forest in the Lake District, and reflected the pair's ambivalent feelings towards nature and technology.
"We're both quite afraid of nature," admits Ben.
"We're pretty sure we would die if we were left in a forest with no tools. There's a play-off between technology and nature in these pieces. A lot of the work is about the ambivalence of people living in the city, their image of the country and the reality of what the countryside is actually like."
At the centre of these early pieces was the destruction of technology. In one piece, a portable cassette player was lowered into Coniston Water as it played Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen. Surprisingly, it struggled on for eight minutes as the sound was relayed to large speakers on the shore.
In another, a marksman usually employed to cull deer in the forest was hired to search out and destroy a video camera which recorded its own death in an explosion of colour.
"They're like little epiphanies for the technology," says Ben.
"It was almost like a kind of catharsis. They were all objects that could transmit their deaths. We could coax something out of this Walkman beyond the tape it was playing - we got the sound of music being drowned by water. That struggle to keep going is somehow admirable."
As well as the retrospective aspect of the exhibition, juneau have been commissioned to produce two new installations. Beneath the floorboards of the forest, empty space, is a text-only "computer game" played on a series of interactive workstations in the gallery.
The other, I'm going to antler you, is a collaboration with five young people from a Birmingham school.
"There are two fictitious bands that have been assembled, and there will be a kind of face-off between them," explains Ben.
"We worked with them over four days, talking to them about what kind of music they liked and if they were forming a band what sort of thing it would be.
"We came out of our band with the realisation that we're too old now to be rock stars but maybe we can work with young people to help them realise their ambitions.
"Rather than destruction, it was a way of doing something more constructive and generous with the children. We were surprised by what they will create when they're given the opportunity.
"Music is quite a driving force behind our ideas and the way we make work, so it seemed to be a good way of linking these works," says Ben.
"This is the first time we've had a gallery to ourselves, and having both worked here, we know the space back to front and we can really go to town on the installation."
* juneau/projects/ The Black Moss is at Ikon Gallery, Brindleyplace, until May 14 (Tue-Sun 11am-6pm; admission free).