Interview with Angela McClanahan

Dr. Angela McClanahan teaches Visual Culture in the School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art. Her primary research interests include examining how people engage with and construct meaning from the material world, and how the things and places we make and use are experienced, interpreted, ordered and displayed to construct narratives of historic and contemporary cultures in museums, galleries, landscape, housing, bodily, contemporary art and cinematic contexts.

This interview text was included in the exhibition information of Undercurrent (2016) at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop.


Angela McClanahan: During the course of your residency, you have produced two very separate bodies of work. Back Store very much engages with the production and experience of objects, where The Waterfront explores crossovers between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ places and landscapes using digital technology. However, both possess elements of spectrality and materiality, and involve a degree of ‘performance’. 

Amy Boulton: Although the subjects of the works are quite distinct, both speak of multi-layered experiences, which is where I think the ‘spectral’ qualities come in. Aesthetically, the white wax objects in Back Store are made very thinly so they appear semi-transparent, while the figures in The Waterfront are translucent silhouettes. So there’s an ‘incomplete’ element embodied in both works; the objects and figures seek to embody their ‘authentic’ selves, but are instead trapped in a liminal state. I suppose it’s the struggle towards the full embodiment of the life being implied- inching toward that which we could call a ‘performance’. Here, the figures in the film attempt to animate the kind of ‘render ghost’ stock-image person seen in property development advertisements, but their image is hollowed out; glitching and digitally degraded, implying the struggle to become ‘real’. With the wax casts in Back Store, I was thinking about the experience of customer-facing workplaces as sites of performance, specifically relating to the concept of ‘emotional labour’ which involves the attempted mass standardisation of service-worker subjectivities. So, the installation becomes like a theatre set; I intend the viewers to feel that on entering the ‘Back Store’ room, they become the ‘performer’, taking on the role of the worker and imagining how they might behave in this space and interact with these objects. I think the exposure of the street level shop-front window in the Tank gallery really adds to the stage dynamic of the work.

AM: Back Store is drawn directly from your own observational experiences of working in a corporate catering environment. Can you discuss this, and how it translates in the way you selected and moulded the material into the objects we encounter?

AB: Like many of my peers, I’ve worked part-time in the hospitality industry for a few years now. Regularly dealing with these kinds of objects- in this case, sets of plain crockery- in mass quantities led me to almost forget about their materiality.  I began to see them abstractly, like numbers on a page. I decided to cast some common ceramic items in white paraffin wax as a way of re-examining things that have the same form, yet possessing different material characteristics and contexts; handmade and irregular as opposed to mass produced and identical.

The green wax crates were cast from the ubiquitous kind of plastic crate used to transport or contain goods in supermarkets and catering businesses; the kind you often see abandoned on street corners. I noticed the most common colour you see these crates in is very similar to the dark green colour of foundry wax, which led me to use this material. This gives them another reading to those familiar with the ‘lost wax’ casting process, in which the wax cast is just an intermediary step in the process of creating a more solid and fixed end product in metal. I think this intermediary state relates to the everyday use of these objects as constantly changing – their location and contents are never fixed for long. What I’ve tried to do by re-creating these very practical objects as wax sculptures is to strip them of their functionality, so that, like the plastic fruit in a show-home fruitbowl, they exist for display purposes only.

 AM: Both bodies of work, in very different ways, examine the ‘facades’ of everyday experience in current socioeconomic conditions. In the case of Back Store, there is an element of exploring and critiquing the ‘cheerful’ side of ‘work’, which can work to obfuscate the individual agency and emotion of employees.  In the case of the stalled developments around Edinburgh’s peripheral developments featured in The Waterfront, there exist, literally, renderings of an imagined, profitable, cheerful, future landscape embodied in architectural plans and promotional materials, which bear little resemblance to the reality of the landscape as it is presently experienced.

AB: The idea of a ‘facade’ is very important to my work; how a surface appearance can be undermined by the reality that lies beneath. It’s the gap between the two in which I try to make work. I’m most interested in the points at which the façade can bleed into reality, and vice versa. Whether that’s a development’s CGI marketing being printed and displayed on-site, or when you’ve become so adept at self-regulating your emotions in your workplace that you become unsure of the authenticity of feelings in your personal life.

 AM: The spectral quality of the stalled development works examines the ideal of ‘seaside’ living. Can you say a little bit about what drew your attention to this, and the qualities you wanted to bring to the films?

 AB: When I started the residency I did a lot of walking around the harbour areas near Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. I began collecting pictures of signs for housing developments with quite strange, utopian names. When I looked them up online, I became quite interested in the way they promote the development’s seafront location, depicting the kind of mainland European ‘waterfront lifestyle’ more commonly associated with temperate cities like Barcelona or Venice, despite the bracing extremities of the North Sea. Waterside regeneration projects have become very common in the UK, usually promoting the ‘relaxing’ qualities of water. I think the association of waterfronts with British urban regeneration projects relates to a deeper spiritual belief in the cleansing and restorative powers of water (such as in baptisms or fountains of youth). But the flip-side of this is the darker connotations bodies of water have as dangerous, dirty, powerful and mysterious, as a metaphor for the subconscious. So I tried to bring these superstitious, spiritual, and sci-fi qualities into the video through the spectral figures and buildings, setting the digital gloss of marketing against the actual backdrop of incompleteness and banality.

AM: You have created an imaginary digital world in The Waterfront which dwells somewhere between the utopian world of affluent, ‘luxury’ living as envisioned by developers of the area, and the current reality of the ‘stalled’ nature of the dwellings there, which themselves recall the haunting uncanniness of science fiction. Can you remark on this, perhaps engaging with the aesthetics and affect of what you observed in that landscape?

 AB: There’s a sense of both urban and digital decay in terms of the development sites state of indefinite incompleteness and the glitching, grainy and faded qualities of the figures in their landscapes. This digital decay reveals other, parallel layers to the landscape, fragmented glimpses into imagined doorways and flickering silhouettes of non-existent buildings. I suppose this layering is a way of envisaging how the past, present and imagined future of a place can exist together as parallel realities. It’s a way of complicating the reading of these kinds of contested landscapes – despite the best efforts of branding teams, these sites can have no unanimous identity, because each person brings their own subjective experience to it, whether that be a former dock worker, current resident, or just a curious passer-by.