A text by Julia Barbour and Adam Castle to accompany a screening curated by EAMIF at Hidden Door Festival 2016
Isn't it wonderful there in the brightness...
...says the weather forecaster in Shona Macnaughton’s On the Way, MediaCityUK (2013), before predicting oncoming light spells of ‘class paywalls’ and ‘zero hour conquerers’. Subverting the vocabulary of town planners and government officials, Macnoughton’s film highlights brief moments of civic development that are soon to be stranded on ‘islands of social responsibility’, as luxury developments and unaffordable housing consume the city.
As Edinburgh’s own luxury Quartermile development reaches its final stages of completion in Spring 2016, a dozen schools built under New Labour’s Private Finance Initiative in the city of Edinburgh were closed due to concerns that they had not been built properly. Around 9000 children were left, temporarily, without a school to go back to after the Easter break.
The Private Finance Initiative was launched in 2009 under the slogan ‘The Change We See.’ In this instance, shortcuts in the construction process led to collapsing walls. On the Way, MediaCity UK interrogates this aspirational language often used to obscure the idioms of PFI architecture that sprawls into exurbia.
This screening brings together artists’ films exploring urban development and gentrification, tourism, aspiration, alienation and pop culture. Each film drops us in a new landscape, slipping between digital and physical worlds. As we travel through speculative digital architecture and real developments, we are offered different understandings of how the individual relates to the space around them, and how visions of the city are presented to us.
Originally shown on an outdoor screen in Southend-on-Sea during a period of major urban redevelopment, Richard Whitby’s New Theme Song (2014) features past, present and future visions of a seaside town. A woman sings on the waterfront, reminiscent of the days of seaside vaudeville performed for tourists, whilst digital animations spins and explode around her. As the camera dives beneath the water, we see a digital rendering of the SS Richard Montgomery, a US warship shipwrecked near Southend, holding 1,400 tonnes of explosives.
Digital rendering allows us to understand the past and visualise this ship hidden from view beneath the sea. The same rendering techniques are used to envisage the future. As animations of bombs become animations of champagne glasses, we see the silhouettes of future inhabitants dancing blissfully in their new digital developments. If that’s all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing, sings the woman on the shorefront.
But for some the party didn’t last; it seems as if a number of these silhouetted figures have broken out of their digital world, landing in Amy Boulton’s The Waterfront (2016). We see them walking through Leith, by urban developments that have been left abandoned since the economic crash.
Hollowed out and barely visible, the figures haunt the spaces of forgotten visions for the city, the empty promises of regeneration. Glitching and digitally degrading, they are a far cry from the glossy, smiling people who reside on development hoardings and brochures.
These figures that we often see in advertisements for new developments, looking wistfully off balconies and walking digital streets, have been described by the writer James McBridle as ‘render ghosts’. The render ghost is the drag-and-drop addition to architectural models and plans, pre-edited photographs of unidentified people designed to populate speculative developments.
The render ghost exists everywhere and nowhere at once; rather than the ghosts of people who have existed, these are ghosts of people that never will exist. They will never occupy the spaces they have been digitally inserted into. The Waterfront sees the render ghost leave the architectural plan and travel to the site of development, attempting to become real.
A couple are off sightseeing to see the world’s largest polar bear in Hugo Rocci’s Souvent sur les dents (2015). The couple bicker about the gender of their unborn child on the way there. Fille. Garçon. Fille. Garçon. Their conversation is cyclical, always arriving back at the same place.
Inside the bear/cafĲ, they sip at coffee in near-silence. They are tired from their travels, but the cafĲ’s owner is optimistic. The massive bear, which is also a cafĲ, is getting a lick of paint that will surely ‘make it look younger’, as there seems to be little sign of the ‘millions of visitors’ and tourists buses that the bear supposedly is known to draw in.
Anna Danielewicz’s Not Impressed 1 (2015) opens with a Shania Twain video ripped from YouTube, and ends with the film’s protagonist singing directly to her webcam. Bookended by these contrasting images of aspiration and desire, the film moves between the macro and the micro of the city. A car drives endlessly on an Edinburgh highway, tennis players move back and forth behind fences and fish swim round and round in tanks. In this landscape of seduction and loneliness, we see a tension between the individual and the city, the citizen and the superstar.
We move from the streets and bedrooms of Edinburgh to the digital luxury penthouses of Samuel Fouracre’s D.^^.$.® (2015), that are filled with characters that could be hybrids of render ghosts and Danielewicz’s protagonist. Like an architectural model on overdrive, this is a world of shining skyscrapers, fast cars, e-cigarette advertisements and Hollywood drama.
This seductive dystopia of a city is presented both as the object of and location for sexual fantasy on a spectacular scale. The camera lingers enticingly on gleaming buildings and cars, as screenshots of sexts hang in the air like monumental advertisements.
A woman who appears almost computer-generated talks to the camera about her monied role-play games with her lover. At one point, tears roll down her face, glossy and sparkling like diamonds. Yet soon enough her face distorts and glitches, and she begins to blend into the skyscrapers in the background.
From the glistening world of D.^^.$.® we return to Anna Danielewicz’s Not Impressed 2 (2016), this time filmed in a new housing development in Poland, where new homeowners were asked to pay for and pour asphalt on to the unfinished roads.
The protagonist of Not Impressed 1 has returned, yet things have changed. No longer watching the motorway from afar, she now has her own car, her own newly-built home, and a goldfish that she carries in a glass vase. Where before she was a voice behind the camera, conducting interviews unseen, she now sits in the car with her subject, confronting them directly.
Despite these apparent gains, with Shania Twain’s YouTube sass all but discarded, Danelewicz’s character is preoccupied with dissatisfaction and alienation. There seems to be some hope, however. The film ends with the same break-up song that we heard in Not Impressed 1, yet here the rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U seems filled with resolution, and perhaps is a sign of moving on
In this screening, a response to Hidden Door’s theme of Electric City, we have moved across landscapes filled with render ghosts, glitching skyscrapers and popstars, and have seen visions of the city as a site of aspiration, haunting, speculation, fantasy and alienation. Macnaughton, gesturing to a modern city vista towards the end of On the Way, MediaCityUK, declares it to be ‘accessible in appearance only’. As these artists show, the spaces of the contemporary city can both entice and elude.
Julia Barbour and Adam Castle, 2016
Shona Macnaughton's On the Way, MediaCityUK was produced as part of The Other Forecast, a project by Ellie Harrison and John O'Shea