Your Wilderness Revisited

An ongoing project with William Doyle and Matt Colquhoun

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Below is the speech I wrote for the debut at East End Film Festival.

Hello and welcome to Your Wilderness Revisited. This is the launch of an ongoing project that we hope will have many incarnations – this is the first.

This project is a fragmented representation of an imagined suburban space. As we continue to face challenges with the housing crisis, Your Wilderness considers how we construct and interact with our built environment. We are going to talk about these for want of a better word, suburban spaces. They are not easily defined.

These places, they are everywhere and could be anywhere.

Key to it is the fact we don’t think about these spaces. They are assimilated – not the controversial carbuncles of modernism. Architecturally these places are of interest because of the lack of care and planning put into their construction.

 

We went to an exhibition at RIBA that informed that architects designed less than 6% of British houses—the rest being contracted to design consultancies, for private developers. Even a cursory glance reveals design failures throughout these estates. Dead spaces abound, at the expense of decent-sized rooms within the houses themselves. It seems to speak to a lack of care, in contrast to the utopian visions of post-war architecture, which although flawed - at least attempted to intervene in the built environment to create a better world, to create public and civic space. To create things that go beyond profit. These ideals appear to have been neglected in favour of a corporate, ‘Barratt Homes’ aesthetic.

 

Suburbia exists as a cliché in cultural consciousness, a symbol of stultified, repressed lives and backwards attitudes, of safety and banality and a populist lack of imagination. The suburbs are often derided when represented in art across the world, but they are the setting for lives, memories and dreams.

I grew up in Milton Keynes but Milton Keynes is not one of these places. Its is designed by architects, planned right down to the desire paths that were apparently mapped out by following sheep. For all their faults MK and other New Towns were designed after a vision – open spaces, parks, recreation. These places are not designed by architects but by design consultants, and are planned for profit. It’s sinister, profit valued so much higher than the wellbeing of these inhabitants, of the convenience of the inhabitants. Of the safety of the inhabitants. Not to draw too much on the recent tragedy of Grenfell tower but I was thinking of it as I had unwittingly filmed the building and included it in a film on white city finished a couple of weeks ago. Last week I was told that the newest estate in Milton Keynes the Red House Estate which features in these films – that it was so badly designed and planned out that the roads are too narrow for buses. For ambulances and fire engines.

There exist outside Milton Keynes  - as anywhere – ‘these places’.  Olney and Newport Pagnell, where I went to school. Growing up, these commonplace and conventional estates were spaces of self-discovery and new experiences, yet simultaneously represented states and attitudes from which I longed to break free: a manifestation of opposing impulses; of vivid and formative moments in opposition to my commonplace rebellion at ‘ordinary’ ideals, conventions and aspirations.

To me these estates embodied a conformity that I was always outside. That makes it sound like a romantic thing, but as a teenager I was desperate to belong to what was ‘normal’. It felt particularly restrictive in the late 90s – girls dressed like like someone twice their age, settling in already to a future of domesticity. A set of rules that I was baffled by – and like many teenagers ended up rebelling against. The cliché felt enhanced because I was never going to fit in – wrong name, wrong clothes, wrong car, wrong house.

These places became sites of that clichéd rebellion – skiving off school to smoke in patches of grass or car parks, hanging around shops, getting served alcohol underage, eating endless toast and watching the boys play computer games round friends houses. We bleached our hair and wore fluorescent and black clothes and graffitti’d manics lyrics. These places were threatening. Adding to a sense of an outsider was the threat of violence that I experienced at school. Conformity was threatening. It wasn’t exactly inner city levels but it was enough when you are young.

It’s tempting to see the people within as identikit as the houses, and this project has for me brought to light my own snobbery about – for want of a better word – ordinary people. A shifting anonymous mass which I had felt excluded from while relishing that separation – as if I was somehow more special.

The anonymity of these spaces, it is like the 'non-places' of airports and shopping centres but as peoples homes and lives, banal and alien concurrently. We are concerned with a wider shared experience of these places: the frustrations, dissonances and existential questions they inspire; from a perspective on their planning and design, to the psychological effects they have on their inhabitants, and many ideas in between.

The work collates scenes from many different locations presented as a single homogenous place that exists as a symbol of the suburban; an imaginative representation of what is commonly considered to be a banal location. Shot in various locations, the imagery is merged together rendering the places indistinguishable from each other: many places that look like the same place.  This nonplace and everyplace acts as a backdrop for our stories and memories, threaded together with dreamlike sequences that use detail, alternate viewpoints and a rhythmic pattern of stillness and movement to make the ordinary uncanny, creating a multifaceted lived environment.