Marked.Toon, blogger, interviews Stephen Gray (a.k.a. The Electricity Board), 7.33pm GMT, 31st May, 2023 the location is Spatial.io VR environment SKU: 64653a778454785c5526526b
[The room is a cube, barely big enough for the small table and two steel chairs. The walls and ceiling are a discoloured white, stained in places. There are no windows and only one door, painted the same off white as the walls. It would be hard to see it if not for the frame. The handle is of tarnished chrome. The room is carpeted in dirty grey carpet tiles. The overall impression is that of an interrogation room, it was built by Stephen for this interview.
I sit facing Stephen over the scratched grey surface of the table and I begin to record audio by hitting a button on the 3D scanned model of a TASCAM 85 16B tape recorder that sits between us.]
MT What’s the first artwork you remember making?
SG The first thing I remember making was a scary peep show. I was perhaps six or seven years old. I suppose I was thinking of ghost trains or those machines at the seaside, most likely from Cleethorpes. I remember being wonderfully terrified by those glass-fronted machines. You’d put in a 2p and a skeleton would dance or a headless horseman would ride around in a little circle to funerial organ music. Plus, they were old and knackered. As shabby antiques they were far more sinister than the makers could have hoped.
Anyway, my version wasn’t so spectacular, it was a shoebox with ghosts painted on the outside. I made a little hole to look though, and a pocket torch stuck through one wall. Turn on the torch and look through the hole and you’d see cardboard tombstones, arranged very carefully. Big ones at the front, small ones at the back. The backdrop was the night sky with dark blue clouds and a full moon.
MT Tell me about where you grew up.
SG I grew up in the 1970s on a council estate in Grimsby. I was born in the middle of the cod wars, a territorial fishing dispute between the UK and Iceland. a near forgotten series of events which led to the collapse of the entire fishing industry in towns like Grimsby. By the time I was born, unemployment and poverty were everywhere. Poverty was invisible, it was so normal. No one had a dad, no one had a car, no one owned a house. That’s just how it was. When I became aware of post-apocalyptic movies as a teenager, I saw them as absolutely life like. Totally realistic. Even the ever-present threat of nuclear attack didn’t worry us that much. I mean, we already lived among burning cars, and the emergency services refused to come on to the estate because it was too rough.
But it would be a lie to say I was always unhappy or that everyone was out for themselves. I remember those times as deeply flawed but community was still important to most people. People seemed to want better things for each other. People wanted to improve. I remember a well-stocked local library, which has since closed and Open University programmes would explain electromagnetics on the telly to anyone who would listen.
MT Your work often references hauntology, sometimes directly. What’s your interest in hauntology?
SG Hauntology, especially as described by Mark Fisher, has had a huge impact on how I understand my work.
I think many people look back to the ‘before’ times; probably the decades after the Second World War until the mid-80s, and feel uncomfortable. Though they don’t know why. They see a land of lost dreams. They hear ghosts that won’t stay quiet.
I have a theory that the US still morns the loss of a dream of shining silver jetpacks and Streamline Moderne cityscapes. While the UK mourn the loss of something far more prosaic, the socialist democracy that never quite happened.
I draw a parallel between the loss of what Fisher called ‘popular modernism’ in the late 70s, the birth of hauntology, and the faltering of the economy in the early 2000s, which led to the birth of the ‘backrooms’.
Now we’re not only haunted by ghosts of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop but also by grainy SVHS videos of empty McDonald’s birthday parties from 1997. The backrooms marked another loss of faith, this time faith in commerce.
MT You mentioned the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. As is common to lots of work which could be described as hauntology, your work makes use of fragments of film, music, literature and especially television from the 1970s.
SG People confuse hauntology with nostalgia, but that’s not right. Of course, there are lots of people who see a public information film from their childhood and feel a warm glow of nostalgia. But as I said, my own 1970s was often horrendous. My work is not about looking back with to a ‘golden time’, but looking for a future we used to have, a future that was killed off before it could happen.
We sometimes see nostalgic reboots of 70s shows like the Clangers. But the reboots glaze over the political themes of the original series. Children’s TV in the 70s would discuss everything from communism to paganism. It’s like we can no longer to be expected to handle concepts which we children would have taken an interest in, just a few decades ago.
I also work with certain aspects of what’s now called folk horror, a genre which was only named much later but which, in retrospect was very common when I was growing up.
I wouldn’t say much of it was ‘horror’ in any simple way though. As an example, Children of the Stones has to be my favourite TV programme and is often described as folk horror. But it wasn’t intended to be ‘horror’ of any kind. It had disturbing themes, but it was, in the end, a children’s TV show. If it’s ‘horror’ now it’s because we’ve lost the ability to view anything out of the ordinary as anything but horror.
Don’t get me wrong, if you watch British TV from the 70s, you’re likely to find much it offensive. Popular culture is far more inclusive today than ever before, but it seems to me this has happened not because of the mass media, but despite of it. People waited a long time and sometimes had to shout very loudly before we saw representations of diversity in the media. And the fight is still far from won.
MT As well as hauntology with its non-times, your work also frequently references the idea of the nonplace.
SG All my work is landscape, in some ways. I’m always trying to paint a picture of a place. Usually a place of escape. I often have an urge to ‘escape’ but growing up in a crowded house in a crowded town, I had no obvious place to escape to. There was no countryside, no wilds I could access.
As a teenager I discovered I did have access to some, half-invisible, liminal spaces. Cracks in the everyday world; a derelict hospital, a decommissioned council tip, and Grimsby’s semi-abandoned industrial docks, still full of the stench of rotting bycatch. These were not beautiful places by any means, but they were mine. Other people seemed blind to these places, or intimidated by them, or just profoundly disinterested in them. I could be dreaming of cinematic mountains as I scaled the council tip. Or I could be exploring a secluded Tibetan village I saw once in a Hammer film.
These sites don’t reinforce the individual’s sense of self. They don’t affirm. They’re ‘outside’. Liminal places are meant to be in the background, to go unnoticed in plain sight. And even as a child, I knew they were out of bounds, and someone didn’t want me to go there. Stay on the path. Danger, risk to life. This was the age of the public information film. But I could see it wasn’t a trip to the old quarry that threatened to shorten my life so much as the everyday realities of industrial poverty.
And in those in between places I’d find fragments of the past; an abandoned house, complete with belongings, or just rubbish from years ago. On the edges of a park in Doncaster I collected the remains of thirty-four foil helium balloons in just one morning. They’d been there for decades, never rotting away, hardly changing. Birthday balloons, valentine’s balloons, new year balloons. Some with personal messages attached. And they’ll be in woods all over the country for centuries more, I suppose.
These places are a glimpse behind a sequined curtain. Something we’re not supposed to see. Society wants to sweep yesterday away into a landfill and dazzle us with the new. But there’s just too much stuff left behind. Material traces of the recent past unsettle us. Even as historical equivalents, Victorian jars for example, are a commodity. In a similar way, we’re blind to contemporary poverty but black and white photos of starving Victorian children decorate the walls of pubs. I’m very interested by things, themes and places which somehow resist commodification and instead generate feelings of unease.
MT There’s another element there too I think, your work isn’t quite a straight depiction of those spaces. You often introduce an invented narrative structure.
SG That’s right. I visit those liminal sites and I wonder, what did this waste ground used to be? Who spent their days here? What happened to them? I make up partial stories to sit on top of these nonplaces; I gather impossible archives,
counterfactual histories. Collections of precious but valueless artefacts to commemorate things that probably never happened. I try to weave the fragments of human existence I find into new, sometimes quite improbable stories.
And I mix in the detritus of pop culture. It’s like I’m the sole survivor of an apocalypse. Trying and failing to make sense of the fragments society has left behind.
Later I’d see the connections between my childhood places of escape and hauntology, archaeology, psychogeography and urban exploration. But growing up as an autistic kid, all I knew was that there were some places that I could go that other people would avoid. Even today, when I visit these places, I still get a sense of what ‘outside’ actually means.
MT Are there other ways in which your autism influences your work?
Autism is central to what I do, I think. The way in which I see the world. I’m seeking a pattern. Trying to make sense of things. I’ve always found it hard to just ‘get on with things’, to leave certain questions unanswered; why can’t we go to certain places? Do certain things? Why do we have to settle for things the way they are? Why can’t things be better for everyone?
Of course, these kinds of questions are asked by many people, but I’ve always found it particularly difficult to just shelve these questions and do a day job. I can’t not see the strange nonsensical, self-destructive, unsustainable whims of the dysfunctional society in which I find myself.
MT You started to exhibit virtual reality in 2014 and since then you seem to have fully embraced the medium.
SG I see VR as potentially a very powerful tool. But in the wrong hands it could be a social disaster. I think it’s important to carry the disruptive influence of hauntology into the new digital realities. We can’t let them be as slick as they might otherwise become. It’s not just an act of defiance on my part, I’m attracted by the way VR can transport a person to a place or more accurately, a place to a person. It’s wonderfully convenient. Images, video, objects and importantly audio. I see the audio possibilities of VR as mostly unrealised. To me the audio is as important as the visuals.
[There is a pause and I become aware, for the first time, of the ambient audio. I hear a clock ticking and low, distant traffic. The traffic sounds are on a short repeating loop. I assume this is a reference to Sapphire and Steel’s final adventure in which the pair experience the same phenomenon.]
SG I see my VR work as an extension of what I’ve been trying to do with video installation since the 90s and even, long before that, with an empty shoebox, a torch, and some cardboard tombstones in 1979.