Alternative Narratives of Place w/ Rebecca Locke

August 28th, 2013

Meanderings on interdisciplinary work, Goldsmiths, Magnum Photography, and creating alternative narratives of place with Artist and curator Rebecca Locke

May 30-Locke ArticleIf the mark of a life well lived is a perpetual sense of adventure, then Rebecca lives well. If the mark of a talented artist is a propelling force towards new projects, and interesting forums in which to present such work, then yet again, she fits the bill.

An enthusiasm towards life and its potential for renewal characterizes and informs both her life and her work.

British-born, having moved to New York in the days when Williamsburg wasn’t so … ”Williamsburg”, Locke played drums in a Puerto Rican country music band, chased taxis on roller skates through Times Square in the night’s middle, sang in Sufjan Steven’s Michigan Militia in its early days, and, of course, took part in the flamboyant New York night scene of the early 2000’s: Electroclash! When I met her at an exhibit she’d curated last year, what appeared to be a zany core of her warm but no-nonsense demeanor struck me as intriguing. She was back from London, she’d said, after several years away pursuing an MFA in Photography at Goldsmiths, was making her own work, and involved with, among other things, a collaborative workshop project with City to Sea (for which she is curator), Goldsmiths, University of London, and Magnum Photo’s Peter Marlow. We have since become friends.

Recently, on one of the first of those days last month in which the whimsy gusts hinted at summer, we sat under an umbrella at Bryant Park to talk life and art, and to consider some of Rebecca’s recent projects. Here are snippets from our conversation.

JD: Between your first time living in New York, playing and making music — the energy and color that seem to characterize that time — your return to the country of your birth to embark on an MFA, then a fellowship at Goldsmiths, and to exhibiting and curating around the globe, you have had a tremendous amount of adventure in your life. Among the variety of your endeavors, what led you to pursue art-making?

RL: I’ve always been creative. As a kid I was always doing something – making art, drawing, making funny audio recordings, that kind of thing. At school, I was the one that the others came to, to do their drawings. I have always found that if you are creative, it comes out in as many ways that there are mediums, from music to writing, art, and so on.

JD: At present, what are your current artistic endeavors?

RL: Earlier this year it was a public arts project in the UK, “The William Blake Imagination Booth,” with Arun Council. in June, a portrait exhibition with work made at the “photo booth.” I have begun working on the City to Sea Workshop City to Sea with Magnum’s Peter Marlow. In July, I had two experimental short films in the Lab Film Festival in East London. And I have just started a new film, working title “Dust of my Father,” and a sound piece based on the melodic songs of the Bingo callers who sing a string of numbers with such surprising beauty.

JD: In some ways your practice deals with the idea of “regeneration” or “a new narrative.” How does this play out in your work?

RL: I agree that the idea of “regeneration” or a “new narrative” threads through my practice, but would say the theme is broader, for often I use material of no value in my work, whether it is a worthless found object, sound, or unremarkable video footage to create something of value and beauty. I think in some respects it about transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

In some respects, the series “Brooklyn // Bognor” set out to define a new narrative of place. Returning from NY, I was living back in my hometown, the British seaside resort of Bognor Regis. In the UK that name is entwined with a diminished perception. Even to people that have never been there, it’s a place of faded glory, once glamorous and the place to be, now a place of urban decay, where one would rather not be. Even the current advertising campaign for the national lottery plays on this: “Bognor today, Bermuda tomorrow.”

It didn’t take me long to realize it would be awkward to wear my Brooklyn clothes in Bognor. “Brooklyn // Bognor,” then, is a self-portrait-based series that included an element of performance, overcoming a reluctance to wear those Brooklyn Electroclash clothes that I wear in the staged scenes. Through techniques using long exposure and bright sunlight I was able almost to paint the heightened colors of these constructed scenes, to augment the beauty of the place.

The response to the work shows that in some way I managed to challenge the “myth of place.” I’ve had the opportunity to show this series in numerous places, such as the Festival de la Imagen in Manizales, Columbia, and people would tell me how very much they’d like to visit the UK to come to Bognor!

William Blake lived in the geographical area for three years and the beaches there are where he had many of his epic visions that inspired his poetry. The “William Blake Imagination Photo Booth” was a public art project held on Bognor beach at night — the same stretch of coast where Blake had his visions — and it encouraged people to use their imagination to draw with light, using the night sky and sea as the backdrop to their images.

JD: So there’s this sense of continuing legacy in both City to Sea and the Imagination Booth, of re-contextualizing a place. You did work in Peru that had a similar quality.

RL: Last year I finished a short film and sound piece “Lugares que fui,” which consists of lo-fi footage made around Lima, Peru, from which I have created a tapestry of movement and a journey made. It is paired with a separate piece, called “Wilder’s Car,” an oral history of a man who grew up on the streets of Lima. In this separate audio piece he talks about the reality of life on the street for a child. The life expectancy of a child in this situation is very low, there is not much hope, but now, against the odds he is a man who is striving to live a good life. It really is a story of redemption.

Whilst filming, he took me around in his taxi, a taxi that stands out – it is the most cared-for taxi I saw in Lima – and as we drove, he shared his stories. I realized the film was about him, about the places he has been; it’s a quilt work of images that reference his journey.

The piece, Lugares Que Fui, was premiered in April 2012 at the 1st Biennale at Lima, Peru, right in the city’s center. There were temporary structures built in exclusive areas of the city, so the story of his life was right out there, and it has been shown in London. I made the music for the film, and quite often, to make the music I record sounds from the environment, and incorporated them into the melody. With the Gold Junk project, for example, I sampled sounds of the amusement arcade, the beach, and the stones crunching under feet for the rhythm of the piece.

JD: What is this thing about the interdisciplinary and merging your visual art with your musical background? It is fascinating how you intermingle the various disciplines.

RL: It goes back to the idea of using whatever medium is available to make something new. I used to always have a lot of ideas. “Now wouldn’t it be good if someone did this…” but often the idea just remained an idea and then would be forgotten, but now I just do them. I gained confidence to execute ideas at Goldsmiths. Getting an MFA gave me a chance to pursue a wide array of disciplines – film, music, photography – and combine them.

The film I am currently working on, “Dust of My Father,” again has a theme of bringing beauty out of rubbish, of using discarded things to create something beautiful. In this work the dust almost dances in light, and its movement, to my surprise, looks like a stunning meteorite shower. It dances to the music I made.

JD: Why did you return to London after having been in NY for so long, and what was it like to pursue an MFA there after so many years?

RL: I very much loved being in New York, and told myself I wouldn’t leave the city unless I got a chance to study at Goldsmiths, and that’s exactly what happened.

Going to Goldsmiths was really important in my creative development, giving me permission to develop my practice and thought processes. It really was a great environment to develop ideas and I was encouraged to make work informed by theory, or an idea. It gave me confidence to fully develop an idea and be committed to it. I started pushing beyond that initial feeling of being embarrassed to carry out ideas. I had excellent tutors including Paul Halliday, Ben Gidley, Alison Rooke, Caroline Knowles — highly respected in their fields —who encouraged me in these processes. It’s a place where you are encouraged to try things, where it is ok if your idea fails, as that’s part of the process in developing your practice.

JD: So returning to your home country really allowed you to develop and contrast your ideas within a familiar geography, to initiate what seems to be an ongoing dialogue with the place. (Your photographic series “Brooklyn // Bognor” pictorially indexes this perspective too.)

RL: After graduating I was invited to become a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths to develop the City to Sea Project (that grew out of my practice) in Goldsmiths’ Centre for Urban and Community Research, CUCR. It proved a great environment to develop thinking and draw from a wide range of perspectives — the department includes urban researchers, academics, sociologists, photographers, filmmakers, artists, architects, and all sorts of people from all sorts of fields. In 2011, Goldsmiths hosted the City to Sea Symposium on urban renewal, research and art. (Caroline Knowles summed up the conference in an excellent final talk, which can be heard listen to) here. The focus on the seaside led to the current collaboration, the City to Sea Workshop with Magnum’s Peter Marlow.

JD: Can you say a bit about the current collaborative project to create an extension of City to Sea? I am fascinated by your taking a conference topic and making it a curatorial-group project.

RL: It’s happening in September and it’s open to all. [Link]

Renowned Magnum photographer Peter Marlow was a keynote speaker at the City to Sea Symposium, and showed “Looking Out to Sea,” which documented the city of Liverpool in the 1980’s. Since then there has been interest in working together to create a workshop in Bognor Regis with Peter as the lead photographer. We’re expecting it to be a lot of fun. There will be speakers from Goldsmiths, portfolio reviews with Peter Marlow, a glimpse into the historic Butlins’ archive (quintessential British holiday camp) and their endearing and quirky photos and films, plus a chance to show work made at the workshop at Urban Encounters to be held at Tate Britain later this year.


JD: So this idea of a new narrative in regard to place continues.

RL: Yes, that project began with something quite personal (Brooklyn // Bognor), but with the City to Sea work has developed into an ongoing dialogue with place and of a piece with my work and artistic concerns. I think there is real interest in these urban coastal areas. They may not have the glamour of the past — of the 1920’s and 1930’s — but they have something to offer.

JD: Yes, that’s exciting that something very personal became an idea with which others could engage.

It seems we’re getting to the end of this conversation. Do you have anything else that you’d like to share for sftpwr?

RL: If you have an idea for a work, pursue it the best way you can.