Commissioned by Photomonitor, May 2013
High-rise, a five-year project developed by artist Peter Bobby, synthesises ideas around power and architecture, as well as the more ubiquitous questions around the photographic gaze. The series includes three video pieces, interior images from what are generally luxurious spaces, and images looking up at the buildings at night from the streets below. High-rise extends Bobby’s prior bodies of work looking at corporate reception areas, showhomes and high-end commercial galleries.
High-rise debuts at the Tramshed as part of Diffusion, Cardiff International Festival of Photography, followed by installations at the National Theatre in London and the Architecture Centre in Bristol. Jesse Alexander talked to Peter Bobby during preparations for the suite of shows.
Jesse Alexander: High-rises are of course symbolic of power, wealth and knowledge and I can see how these ideas extend from your earlier bodies of work, but is that only a small component to understanding the project?
Peter Bobby: When you are dealing with high-rises you can’t escape a number of subtexts; the banking crash of 2008, well publicised infernos and, of course, 9/11. There is a sense of ominous-ness that contradicts the seductive, celebratory nature of these spaces. The idea of ‘separation’, on a number of levels, is important in the overall project. Two key texts, written from differing perspectives, introduce this idea. In Michel de Certeau’s, ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, he writes:
“To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Centre is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp.”
This clearly highlights a removal of oneself, physically and perhaps psychologically, from the busy, functioning city in order to exist within these spaces. And the architectural critic Kim Dovey wrote in his book ‘Framing Places’:
“The view is advertised as never onto a streetscape with people and city life. It is the city in abstract, from above and at a distance. The surface not the life.”
This suggests something perhaps quite superficial, or at the very least it acknowledges that our familiar engagement with and view of the city is no longer possible, and that a new perspective is open to us to address and question.
Both of these texts speak about a departure. They’re saying that if we exist within these high-rise spaces then we are no longer part of the city; we are voyeurs. Then we start to consider what these spaces are; lifestyle spaces that are within the world of business, e.g. conference centres, bank headquarters, leisure spaces.
JA: As a visitor to these kinds of spaces, and an artist, do you find it difficult to address anything but the view through the interior and the panorama beyond the glass?
PB: Yes… Even though I’ve spent a lot of time in these spaces, I don’t exist in them. I am merely a visitor and so my relationship with them is always going to be just that. Yet, to exist within them one has to return to a structure of living that we know and understand; you can’t just sit and admire the view all of the time, however impressive it may be! Some of the images address that: Take the image of the pool – the loungers are all facing away from the windows. The window becomes (just) a wall. In the shot of the gym, the window is also a barrier – you might as well be watching MTV. The city becomes entertainment rather than anything that’s tangible.
JA: Is the particular location of these spaces important?
PB: It’s always been my intention that there is a blurring of specific location, but there will be textual information about what these places function as, which is important. For instance, I think when you find out that one of the pool images is actually in a hospital, it changes the reading of the image dramatically, and heightens its connection with other images in the project, such as the image of the Deep Water Horizon oil disaster, presented in the image through the inclusion of a TV broadcasting 24hr news, in effect another window. These environments are a million miles away from the messy, devastation of a disaster of this nature.
JA: The project clearly crosses several different institutional territories.
PB: Not only does the work sit between art, photography and architecture, but also between differing approaches to photography; a seemingly celebratory, editorial photography and something more critical. On first inspection there is perhaps a closeness to architectural photography, and certain images could serve very different functions if presented in a differing context. As a result, printing, scale, sequencing and the installation of the works for exhibition is of absolute importance, especially given the differing visual strategies employed between the interior images and the exterior images.
JA: How did you develop into working in moving image?
PB: I’d been using a basic video camera as a research tool for a number of years, and although the sketches I produced with this never became realised as video works, I was beginning to at least think along these lines and discuss with peers. As a result, it didn’t feel like a big leap in terms of my practice.
For me, the process of working is not that dissimilar – it just captures and plays back what it sees in a different way. Of course, in many respects, this changes everything, but in terms of my practice, I’ve tried to bring the video works close to the stills. One way I do this is by using a fixed camera position, a wide-angle lens and minimal editing. The video camera simply observes something taking place, something changing. When using video in this way and looking at ‘the real world’, there is only so much you can plan, there also has to be an element of chance. This was completely new and exciting to me and can best be seen in the balletic swinging of the crane or the flight of the birds in ‘Curtain’.
I certainly wouldn’t call myself a “video artist” but I am increasingly interested in the boundaries between the still and the moving image. It was for this reason that I approached Joanna Lowry, who has written extensively on this subject, to write specifically about the video ‘Curtain’, soon to be published by Ffotogallery.
JA: How did you select the partners for this project?
PB: I made a conscious decision early in the project that if it was going to tour, I needed it to do more than simply move from location to location with little else changing. Obviously, every time a project visits a new venue the work is re-addressed in some way, but with a body of work that so overtly has the potential to talk to multiple audiences, it seemed right that the selected venues should be an integral part of this ambition.
My work has had a dialogue with architecture and interior design for over ten years now, and yet – typically – the resulting projects have nearly always been exhibited in art/photography galleries. Only when I did a short residency at the now sadly closed down Cube Gallery in Manchester did I begin to dip my toe into a space designated for the dissemination of architecture. It certainly sowed a seed that it could be interesting to try to place this work in differing institutional contexts.
Initially discussions were with the Architecture Centre in Bristol and Ffotogallery in Cardiff through arranged studio visits. The Architecture Centre has a very small exhibition space, but what particularly interested me was what they could offer the project in terms of an audience and a discussion around the subject. Both organisations were extremely receptive to the idea and suggestion to work in partnership on a series of outcomes
Then I began to think about a third strand and I approached the National Theatre in London. I thought that the project could be very interesting within this environment, a space that is so intrinsically connected to the building’s primary purpose as a theatre (or number of theatres). The building itself though also has some major architectural credentials – designed by the brutalist architect Sir Denys Lasdun, indeed people visit it just to enjoy the building – so it addresses architecture as well. Aside from there being an existing dialogue between architecture and ideas of theatre and theatricality in the urban built environment, there are also overt formal references in the work to the theatre curtain in ‘Curtain’, and to the proscenium arch, in the repeated use of views through windows and the city as backdrop.
The approach to Ffotogallery has resulted in a fantastic opportunity to show the majority of the project as part of the ambitious Diffusion, 1stCardiff International Festival of Photography, in the beautiful and historic Tramshed.
Discussions with the National Theatre have resulted in a one-month exhibition of the work in the primary exhibition space of the theatre, 3rd– 30th June, 2013. In addition to this, and for five nights, the video ‘Curtain’ will be projected as a 22-meter image onto the Brutalist concrete fly tower of the theatre from 9.30pm-10.30pm (13th – 18thJune, not including 16th). I like the idea that this work might push an organisation into slightly new territory or that I am pushed into new territory by working with differing organisations.