The second Wren Artists installation on the Great Eastern Wall Gallery features site specific works by artist and photographer Felicity McCabe. The exhibition is a selection of images from her ongoing project Archive which takes archive photographs and abstracts them. The new images are freed from their original source but the title remains. Dan Davies did a bit of Google Image search detective work and was able to track down the originals to work out what was lost and gained from the images.
DD: I’ve just spent an enjoyable afternoon tracing the original photos that you base your images on – did you hope that people might do that?
FM: No, I didn’t expect anyone to do that! I had thought that I liked the ambiguity of using the titles of the source material alongside my still life images which don’t automatically match up and had hoped that that ambiguity would make any viewer a little more curious to find out more, but I definitely never expected anyone to actually find the originals. I’m very interested to know what you think now that you’ve seen the beginnings of these stories!
DD: I found it fascinating. Taking your images at face value I hadn’t realised that the images were based around the post Blitz stricken East End. How important was it to have the images on display near the streets that were originally captured?
FM: To make something site specific was very important actually.
When the opportunity came up for me to show some work in this space and we decided that I was going to make a new project rather than show existing images – that’s when I knew that I really wanted to make use of the location as a part of the process. I had already been commissioned earlier in the year to make a similar response to an archive of American photography from the the same era, so it made sense to utilise archive photography from East London specifically to show in this space. I’ve also lived and worked in East London for the past fifteen years too so maybe it’s my love letter to the area?
I’d really love to carry the project on for different areas now, perhaps make another chapter of the project in Leeds, or Glasgow? Or maybe somewhere even further afield?
DD: What is it about this period that interests you?
FM: I think that what’s most interesting about that period is that we’re still all talking about a lot of the same issues. We seemed to be doing well, but the last few years have felt like we’re taking a few steps backwards. Race is still an issue, general inequality is everywhere you look, the threat of war still lingers, and most of all people still get up and go out to work every day, scraping together what they have to make ends meet and then try and have a good time at the weekends to make up for it all.
DD: Is East End the closest image to where the pictures will be exhibited?
FM: I’m not sure, definitely one of the closest but I don’t know the exact locations of all of the source images. There’s one in the series from Brick Lane (not one of the four exhibited but you can see it at archiveproject.co.uk) which is pretty close. And also Morpeth Street just the other side of Bethnal Green features in the wider project.
DD: With Christmas Street you echo the composition of the original Charles Hewitt photograph but most importantly the people are absent – do you think this makes your photograph more optimistic — as in the open door with light spilling is available for us to walk through, rather than people pensively standing outside?
I think the lack of people in my response to the Christmas Street image probably makes my photograph more eery rather than optimistic.
My method was to look for a short time at the original image and then make my response as much from memory as I could hoping that that would help me to distill the information down and also letting my own subjectivity interfere with the memory and allow the obstruction of facts to happen as it does with with real memories. I was looking at some of the work done by Elizabeth Loftus on false memories and the way that our memories are formed and how they exist in a very malleable state, with each act of remembering being in itself just a reinvention of the last time you “remembered” the moment, rather than your memory recalling the original situation in any dependable or “truthful” way.
It was this idea of memories being often about details that might have never existed which allowed me to reconstruct the situations depicted but in often quite abstract ways – removing distinguishing features, or replacing what might be construed as important information with new forms or ideas.
DD: With Leman Street Club you took an abstraction from a Jamaican Snooker Club and you blanch the table – does this hint toward the migration of Jamaicans who fought in the war but were essentially whitewashed out of history and treated like second class citizens despite the rising against the fascists in that street?
FM: I definitely felt that the bleaching of colour in that image added an extra layer of information to this particular recreation. Although I wasn’t particularly responding to the situation of the Jamaican veterans, I was interested in using colour or lack of colour in this instance to nod towards the issues surrounding integration and race that were experienced both then and now in this area.
DD: The Work As Usual image seems to be the most abstract as I can only find a picture of a broken shop window titled “Business as Usual Mr Hitler” – was the title of your image changed to stop loading the image with meaning just from the title?
FM: Work as Usual, September 1940 was taken from an image which is part of the Picture Post archive and originally photographed by Bill Hardy during the Blitz and shows Mrs Marsh working in a tailor’s shop the morning after an air raid. The window of the shop has been smashed into pieces and just a few large shards remain sticking up from the bottom edge of the frame.
I’m not sure if I would have included “Mr Hitler” in the title if I had used that image as my source though, as I was aiming for a slightly more obtuse relationship between the titles and the images to further the idea of how our memories become interrupted, dismantled and rebuilt during the act of remembrance.
More details about the project on Great Eastern Wall Gallery website