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?