When Tintype moved to its current home a little over a year ago, gallery director Teresa Grimes realised its three-metre wide shop front window space had more to offer than just a way for the public to see into the gallery. Situated on a busy junction along the mile-long extent of the north London artery Essex Road, it was only a matter of time before what was going on outside the door would seep inside.
“When you are sitting in the gallery you glance out of the window, you hear snatches of conversations and see little street scenarios,” explains Grimes. “It’s great for me and the other people who work here because there’s always something going on.”
The gallery occupies a somewhat unique location. Housed between a taxidermist shop and a nail bar, other nearby cultural highlights include the Egyptian-inspired art deco Carlton Cinema and the South Islington Library where Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell famously borrowed and defaced books. All this acts as the inspiration and subject for ‘Essex Road’, eight newly commissioned artist’s films to be projected in the window space over the Christmas and new year holiday period.
“It’s a reversal of what normally happens in an art gallery where people come in to look at the work,” says Grimes, whose background in film and TV production was also a factor in her initiating the project. “We get a huge number of people going past the gallery every day, on foot, bicycle, motorbike, in cars, taxis and on buses, so that got me thinking… the window is such an amazing asset that could easily be turned into a screen onto which we could back-project a series of films.”
Funded by a mix of Grants for the Arts and an award from the Islington Local Initiatives fund, ‘Essex Road’ includes works by a number of artists using moving image in their practice. These include George Eksts, whose animation is described by Grimes as a “sci-fi road movie”, and Suki Chan who turned the window space and gallery into a giant camera obscura for her contribution to the project. There are other pieces by those who work in TV and film such as screenwriter Tony Grisoni and documentary makers Andrew Kötting and Penny Woolcock.
While Grimes kept the brief intentionally open – the artists just had to base their films on, in, or about Essex Road – there were two constraints. The works should be five minutes long and, because it would be difficult to project sound on to the street, they had to be silent. “Making the works silent is another challenge and discipline,” says Grimes.
An idealised fantasy
George Eksts describes his work, Essex Boulevard, as “an idealised fantasy [of Essex Road] rather than a representation.” The work – his first fully CGI-generated animation – sets off on a futuristic, night-time journey down a street that both is and isn’t Essex Road, where the shops all look familiar, with the same names as the actual shops, but where the shop signs have been redesigned and reimagined by the artist.
“I like the variety and sense of joyful freedom in the design of the shop signage along the road,” says Eksts. “And I love the sheer range of shops and businesses there. From the most essential and practical, like the hardware shops, and the most frivolous, like the Sea Dragon Aquarium, and everything else in between. It seems to be constantly changing.”
But, he says, the work probably says as much about his own personality as it does about Essex Road itself. “I’d like to see more space for nature, people and play in our cities, and less motor traffic,” he says when asked if the work could also be seen as a reflection on the places we all live, work and socialise in. “But at the same time, there’s a sense of menace if it’s too quiet.”
Getting closer to reality
Suki Chan was also inspired by the changing nature of the shops along Essex Road. By blacking out the windows and positioning a lens over a hole in the black out, she turned the gallery into a camera obscura, allowing “the inverted image of the outside environment to flood into the gallery”. She captured these inverted images on film, through a cycle from sunrise to sunset.
Chan, who lives very close to Essex Road, says she is particularly interested in how changes along the road – such as a new shop or restaurant replacing an existing one – can create a strange feeling for someone who knows the road well: “Like re-locating the memory of a place into a new one,” she says.
“The work is about place, space and time, but also about places that are transient. In the film, at times we become more aware of the physical architecture of the gallery, whilst the inverted image of the street is faint. But at other times, the boundaries of the space are obscured in shadows and the inverted image is at its strongest. The inversion of the image is for me about getting closer to an aspect of reality – how our eyes perceive light in each instant before it is interpreted by our brains.”
For Grimes, witnessing the varied ways that the artists have interpreted the brief has been especially satisfying. “That’s been the most exciting thing about the whole project,” she says. “Seeing how people have responded, what inventive and creative ideas they have come up with.”
Essex Road continues at Tintype, London, until 17 January 2015. The films will be projected daily from dusk – 11pm. www.tintypegallery.com