'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree...'
S.T Coleridge 1797
Samuel Taylor Coleridge had composed over 200 lines of verse in his mind during an opium-induced dream. He had risen from bed and was fast-scribbling the lines down when, famously, he was interrupted by ‘a man from Porlock’ who wished to talk business. Upon returning to his desk, to complete the poem (he’d only got 40 lines down when the debt collector arrived - I’m assuming the man from Porlock’s business was debt-collection, Coleridge being a poet), he discovered that his climactic verses had evaporated into the ether along with the opium fumes.
I’d speculate that the ‘lost lines’ of Xanadu (a cautionary tale against the vanity of constructing an artificial Eden bounded by walls and domes), might have served as an early blueprint for Westfield Stratford. A crazed, hyper-intense environment, Westfield is constantly abuzz with strange ‘happenings’ and hive activity. A guy sells coffee out of a sawn-in-half Cadillac, people are enticed with a free ice-cream to watch an advert in a fake cinema, deck chairs are available from which to view rolling news; nothing seems too bizarre (or hellish) to contemplate.
I have a theory as to the pitch of public-mania whipped up at Westfield. Apparently the pavement tiles all around are fabricated from something called PaveGen; these absorb the ‘kinetic energy’ from the shoppers’ footsteps, converting it into electricity to power the vast, flashing advert screens all about. My (conspiracy) theory is that PaveGen also scrambles the brain so that shoppers more eagerly grab at anything and everything they come into contact with, melting credit cards a-flourished.
And yes, excitingly for my research purposes there are regular public demonstrations of ‘how to’: cook noodles, make bead jewellery, bake bread, massage shoulders, and much else.
In the midst of this contemporary Xanadu, (Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ also suggests a prophetic image), is Shape Gallery where I am currently working with the production team to build the furniture and designs for the eventual staging of my Unlimited commission Demonstrating the World. There’s something nicely circuitous about this since the initial idea for this project was particularly aimed for realisation against such densely-populated public settings as Westfield Stratford.
Public performance has been the main trope of my work over the years, the thing I like doing best. It’s an unpredictable, feral scenario and I have placed myself at the centre of all sorts of hysteria down the years, from closing down Tate Liverpool with barrier tape (sans permission), to being booted and prodded by a group of learning disabled children whilst lying flat in the centre of a medieval market place in Den Bosch, Netherlands, (home fittingly enough, to the aforementioned Heironymous Bosch himself).
Our ‘exhibition’ - ‘Making Demonstrating the World’ - in Shape Gallery is what artists call ‘process-based’ since we are using the space, basically, as a workshop to manufacture the intricately designed and wonderfully absurd furniture that has arisen out of the collaboration between myself and the architect Ida Martin. (Hopefully, I will one day be ‘demonstrating’ these pieces of furniture/sculpture from the back of a roadshow trailer at a shopping-Eden near you).
So the Gallery is constantly in a state of transformation as we add design images to the walls, along with explanatory texts and descriptions of the project; there’s a video of me performing a demonstration piece at Live Art Denmark festival last year, and a large blown-up photograph of the image made with Manuel Vason at Westfield’s hag-horror sister, Lakeside in Essex (see blog 3 in this series).
The passing public appear somewhat bemused as they peer through the glass frontage of the Gallery at the tools and wood pieces scattered about, unsure as to whether or not they are allowed to enter. Those who do are offered goggles and ear mufflers (a health and safety requirement apparently), and mosey about sporting increasingly puzzled expressions. A fairly regular expression of interest goes: ‘and so when will the exhibition be ready?’ to which our intrepid invigilation team, Andrew Cochrane and Kate Mahony, reply politely: ‘this IS the exhibition’.
The furniture is starting to look great though, and one unexpected development is that we have already received two expressions of interest in purchasing pieces, the ‘Selfie Chair’ being a particular item of desire. Unexpected, because Edd Hobbs the producer of the project and myself have never considered any of the stuff we are throwing together, as yet, to be ‘for sale’. It would be a matter of dark irony if, by the alimentary logic of Coleridge’s opium-dream poem I was to arrive at a second career as a furniture salesman.
In a pre-meeting with the artist-photographer Manuel Vason, we drew up a plan to grab a single dramatic image, guerilla style, by which to communicate the spirit and style of Demonstrating the World during the period prior to the production work itself being realised. We would shoot spontaneously around the vast Lakeside Retail Park in Essex to create a contrast between the retro-futuristic ‘alien’ surroundings of Lakeside, and an arrangement of everyday ‘familiar’ props that I would pose with.
What we were looking for was a dynamic composition formed from: 1) a discordant, jarring setting, 2) an unusual, odd pose of some kind, and 3) a collection of familiar household objects. Firstly, as the model in the photograph, I devised a pose that required me to stand square-on to camera, feet splayed as though prepared for a body search. Then, grasping the hem of my T-shirt to pull it overhead as though removing it, I would hold the pose there with my head inside the shirt. Thus, my identity would (as so often in my work) be crudely masked or effaced.
Having established this aspect of the eventual image, my producer Edd and I went on a location- scouting mission the night before around Lakeside (a 200 acre Ballardian prophecy-realisation built in the late 1980s), and identified several ‘alien-looking’ landscape backgrounds. These ranged from: the top of a disused carpark roof, a traffic island that housed an inexplicable menhir standing stone, and a corner of a vast furniture retail shop that appeared to be modeled on fantasy rocket-shaped contours.
We all met – Edd, Manuel and our assistant Kate Mahony - early the next morning at my flat near to Lakeside to discuss and plan the shoot. We had been looking at iconic album covers by Dtorm Thorgerson for Hipgnosis in the 1970s, for the likes of 10CC, Pink Floyd Hawkwind, Genesis et al (think of a photographic sci-fi flavoured classic album cover and its probably by Hipgnosis). The LA band Sparks also produced vivid covers for their albums that drew heavily on strangely synthetic Los Angeles settings depicting the images’ models caught in curiously other-wordly dilemmas
Over a quick coffee, Manuel wanted to us to define the concept of the shoot/image in one word and that word immediately came up: ‘displacement’. Having nailed the one-word concept we set off to race around Lakeside in our cars, with Manuel appearing none-too-impressed with mine and Edds’ suggested locations. However, we were fortunate on that day for the pseudo-LA sunlight effect we sought, it being the hottest day in ten years in the UK.
Eventually we pulled up at a vast abandoned retail warehouse that was bright blue with nothing but weeds cluttering its abandoned forecourt. The sun was almost straight overhead and the shadows still short and very dark. Kate raced off in her car to find more all-important domestic props (an ironing board, a potted plant), whilst Manuel swiftly set up his camera and began arranging the angle and positions of myself as the figure/model standing confrontationally in front of the imposing, brutalist building.
Once we had all the objects together, Manuel began making a series of compositional arrangements around me. The design of my appearance required a black undershirt to contrast with the white t-shirt I was yanking (frozenly) overhead and the only suitable garment I could find for this was a long-sleeved thermal vest. And so for the next two hours or so (with short merciful breaks for water to be poured over my head), I held the pose to camera in the ferocious heat.
This was a new experience for me as an image-maker. Generally, I rely upon snapshot moments from documentation to convey the ‘informational’ content of a performance; to convey setting, arrangement to audience/public and the central activity of the work and hopefully to capture some sort of response to it – all in one snapshot or video frame, sometimes file-shared from random attendants or passerby. My approach to generating imagery is pretty much DIY or ‘anti-aesthetic’, which of course as any experienced photographer would tell you is a whole aesthetic in itself.
In any case, I was extremely excited by the results we were achieving as Manuel occasionally brought the camera over to me (I was stuck in the pose throughout the shoot just with shirt lowered between shots), to show me images on his camera monitor.
So here is what we arrived at: see the image attached to this blog. For me it perfectly encapsulates the ‘displaced alien’, sci-fi ambience we were hoping to achieve. Indeed, if ‘Demonstrating the World’ was printed atop it in a sort-of-coy futuristic logo-title, then it might well pass as a 1970’s mind-melding prog/metal album cover.
If any readers have feedback as to its effects – good or bad – please leave comments below! So what does everyone think?
As described in the first blog in this series, the discovery of a ‘contemporary folk archive’ of ‘How To’ videos on YouTube, set me on course to devise the central component in Demonstrating the World for Unlimited 2. The sheer volume of this unofficial, seemingly endless archive meant that ‘the world’ was practically my oyster (Yes, there are a few ‘How To Shuck/Open Oysters’ videos, such as this one seemingly presented by Star Trek’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard).
So what in the world would I be ‘Demonstrating’? The physical context for the performance was established early on with my producer Edd Hobbs. Since the final work would primarily focus on being a public-intervention performance, we decided that some sort of attention-grabbing ‘roadshow’ vehicle or float would suit us. As in some of my past works, Demonstrating the World would have a high public-camouflage aspect. We wanted shoppers and passers-by to both identify the mode of performance (i.e. a public demonstration of some kind of commercial product), but with it also being absurd enough to make audiences take a closer look. A key theme established from the outset was the figure of the ‘alien’ or ‘other’, someone who appeared to have fell to earth and landed in the market places and shopping centres of our towns and cities to demonstrate worldly functions back to the earthlings.
We had then, to decide upon what my goods atop the demonstrating platform would be. Potato peelers, remote-control toy helicopters, new flavours of ice cream: all were familiar tropes of public pitches and indeed find their counterparts as ‘folk performances’ on YouTube. To take us out of that box, Edd proposed a collaboration with Ida Martin, a Copenhagen-based architect. Ida came to London and an instant rapport was established with decisions being made quite quickly in the way that good collaborative work falls together. We wanted the platform to be both domestically identifiable whilst being slightly ‘off’, not quite right. We talked about the ‘strangely familiar’, the ‘unheimlich’, and started thinking about the work taking place within a room arrangement housed inside a trailer, its fourth wall exposed to the public.
We started to design the ersatz contents of this the trailer to imitate the manner of an IKEA-style display room. However, the room’s furniture would be elaborately detailed with innovative and absurd features. These would be designed to operate as collapsible or concertinaed fold-out designs with components that are capable of being transformed from one domestic function into an entirely unrelated other. A side table can be opened to form an ironing board. A cabinet would incorporate pull-out steps to reach a small cupboard in which an old-fashioned radio can be tuned and its aerial adjusted. A picture on the wall converts into a table for two, and a clock transforms into a vacuum cleaner.
For inspiration we watched Buster Keaton’s ‘The Scarecrow’ (1920) and ‘The Electric House’ (1922); and Snub Pollard’s ‘It’s a Gift’ (1923). Each of these silent comedies depict a young inventor demonstrating ingenious labour-saving gadgets and fittings by which to transform a house into an alien dream-logic capsule.
We also talked about the mode of the performance behind the demonstration. I’d already developed a ‘running commentary’ style for a work-in-progress presentation of Demonstrating the World for the Association of Medical Humanities at Dartington Hall in June, and this version included detailed descriptions of handshapes and postural movement required to perform the simple domestic activities I was enacting (tying shoelaces and so on). Now though Ida and I decided to formalize this conceit by devising a ‘vocabulary’ of hand-shapes. You can perhaps picture these hand-shapes by the names we assigned them: the cliffhanger, the crab, the gun, the hook, the pecker. . .
Since then we have established a further collaboration with furniture makers Emma Leslie and Wilkey (Studio LW), who, together with myself Edd and Ida will be occupying the Shape Gallery at Westfield, Stratford between 19th August - 4th September to build, as a public exposition, the furniture for our eventual Demonstrating the World vehicle. Do feel free to call by and check how we are proceeding and learn more about the scope and aims of the project.