Interview with Artist Alice May Williams, Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016

Celebrating its third edition, the Jerwood/FVU Awards introduces the new exhibition Borrowed Time, which will premiere two moving-image installations by Karen Kramer and Alice May Williams. These significant new works have been developed following the award of £20,000 to each artist in May 2015. Following its debut at Jerwood Space, London from 9 March – 24 April 2016, the show will travel to CCA, Glasgow from 28 May – 10 July 2016.

As the title Borrowed Time suggests, the resulting works reflect on the uncertain nature of our contemporary economic and ecological moment, while also alluding to wider historical patterns and elemental forces. Never has there been a time, perhaps, where we have borrowed so much against the future economically – from the loans and mortgages of domestic realities to the sophisticated economics of financial derivatives. And never has there been a moment, perhaps, where that feeling of living on borrowed time, of a clock ticking louder and louder, has reverberated so ominously ecologically.

Dream City – More, Better, Sooner by Alice May Williams

Dream City – More, Better, Sooner is a meditation on the changing face of London’s landmark Battersea Power Station – smokestack energy colossus of yesteryear now rapidly transforming into a lifestyle playground of tomorrow. Combining archive footage of the building in its industrial heyday with computer-generated projections of what it may soon become, Williams’ film attempts to concentrate our attention just as firmly on the present moment. Reflecting the language of the philosophy of mindfulness, an extended monologue warns of the temptation of succumbing to memories of the past, and of the distractions of speculations about the future, while at the same time undermining its heightened focus on the here-and-now, a key principle of mindfulness. It is unclear from where or whom these words originate. As the images roll by, Williams reminds us that Battersea’s marshy riverside location has frequently been a site of flux and transformation; its recent history of power generation paralleled by the various fairgrounds and expos that have happened (or been proposed) near this spot – places of immersion and convergence, as well as places of escape. We speak with the filmmaker.

A: Your film highlights the ever-changing functions of a familiar London landmark, could Battersea Power Station’s constant state of flux be a relatable theme for many viewers?
AMW: I imagine so, yes. Although I am plotting the flux of different forms of economic power on this one very specific (and currently high profile) site, it raises wider issues which apply to huge areas of London, other UK cities and no doubt beyond, wherever the global elite choose to deposit their property investments next…

A: How do the concepts in Dream City – More, Better, Sooner reflect the title of the exhibition?
AMW: During research for a previous project into my great great grandmother’s Battersea past, I came across a picture of a failed amusement park from 1908, entitled Dream City, which was to be built where the Power Station now stands.   This really struck me as an interesting parallel with the current set of projections for the same site, and about how the nature of any form of development, be it architectural, social, economic or otherwise, is cyclical.  I became fascinated with the idea of plotting the historical (and future) fluctuations of London’s economic power, from common land, to market garden, to waterworks, to Power Station to luxury apartment blocks, all on one piece of land.

The subtitle, More, Better, Sooner was taken from promotional material for the Power Station development. At a public exhibition I saw a poster boasting “Affordable Housing; More, Better, Sooner’ which really tickled me, as I am a fan of phrases which mean absolutely nothing! I was struck by the way it seemed to suggest a grand promise, but actually linguistically promised nothing more than nothing.  I decided to follow the words in my writing and developed a series of phrases which I felt referenced the present moment and the breathless speed and greed of this hyper development.

A: You mix archival footage of the Power Station with computer generated interpretations of its possible future – have you worked in this manner before?
AMW: Not exactly no, but it is the first time I have been able to formally use archive material.  FVU have been instrumental in getting me access to materials such as the Pathe footage and various still images from other sources.  Previously I have worked with archival footage from my own family, and developed gifs (which I guess are a form of computer generated interpretation) from online sourced ‘archival footage’ such as the ubiquitous Rosie The Riveter/ We Can Do It! image.  The way my brain works and develops narratives from loose connections and interrelations between seemingly unrelated ideas leads very naturally to mixing different types of footage from various sources (from a wide historical and geographical/conceptual spread).

A: Did working to a specific theme for this commission alter your creative process?
AMW: I already had the idea in the back of my head that I wanted to make a new work about the site of Battersea Power Station, as I was working on a previous project (also rooted in Battersea).  Luckily this opportunity arose at just the time when I was looking to move forward with it, and Borrowed Time seemed like a perfect fit with my ideas around the impermanence of the nature of value or power, and this seemingly never-ending development.

A: The most recent transformation that the building has undergone is a luxury accommodation development, given its many failed conversions in the past, do you think this one could be here to stay?
AMW: I think it is unlikely, seeing as the whole luxury market relies on extreme amounts of overseas investment, ‘property’ as the so called ‘safety deposit box in the sky’.  Sooner or later, no doubt, London will fall out of favour, for whatever reason, and the investments will be deposited elsewhere in the world, and so what will then become of the uninhabited apartments as their value plummets?

As many of these apartments are sold ‘off-plan’ and flipped many times before completion, we could be in a position where the withdrawal of investment happens before the whole development of Nine Elms is completed, and we may be left with a graveyard of half built blocks.  I feel the developers themselves are very aware of this sense of living on ‘borrowed time’ and are throwing up buildings at a rate of knots, cloaking them in hoardings which speak of a future that is already here.  ‘We Live Here’ they proclaim, in a linguistic act of certainty that barely masks a sense of fear, an awareness that this cannot, and will not, last for ever. Profits must be made now, while they still can, before the inevitable crash, withdrawl, in whatever form.

The possibilities of all this, I find exciting, for future failures point to new opportunities and new power structures.  I understand that some people will think this naive, idealistic and ridiculous, but it is a work of art, and so why should we be ground down by the current reality, when we have the power (in film) to make anything happen?

I hope what the work I have made emphasises is the impermanence of all historical epochs, or forms of power, or value.  Everything, in the scale of things, is fleeting, temporary, history is just a series of present moments, and although the current one seems endless, is not.  The only thing which will survive all this in the long term is the Power Station, in whatever form it survives, whatever function it might have as a ruin, a refuge or a relic to past dreams.

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016: Borrowed Time, Karen Kramer and Alice May Williams, Jerwood Space, London – 9 March to 24 April 2016, CCA, Glasgow – 28 May to 10 July 2016.

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The call for entries for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017 will be open from 12 January – 11 March 2016, with the theme and title Neither One Thing or Another.

The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016 are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and FVU in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

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1. Still from Alice May Williams’ Dream City – More, Better, Sooner, 2015.