Marcus Coates interviewed by Ruth Hogan
RH: ‘Vision Quest: A Ritual for Elephant & Castle’ is a feature length film documenting your recent investigation into the ongoing regeneration plan for the Heygate Estate, in Elephant & Castle, South London, which today remains a contentious issue. Can you tell me more about the project’s inception in 2009’
MC: The project came about through my relationship with NOMAD and Michael Smythe. We had wanted to work together and were looking at my process as a problem solver. We mutually came up with the idea of a residency in Elephant & Castle. Firstly, there was a history here of large scale developments that have defined the place, and now a new development is planned to replace the last, just one generation later. My father helped build these estates in the 1960s. He was optimistic about the ideas that happened here. He talked about them as if they were revolutionary, and they were in a way. The whole premise of the redevelopment in the ‘60s was to re-house lower income families and create safe and quiet communities away from cars. All of these intentions were admirable, and now it was up to my generation to replace it all, and with what’
It will be one of the biggest redevelopments in Europe, but, at the time of starting our project the plans for the demolition and building had run into problems. There was a lot of uncertainty and I set out to navigate, understand and absorb as much of the past and present situation as I could.
RH: How did your relationship to the location of Elephant and Castle and the Heygate Estate develop’
MC: Coming here and meeting the residents, the Council, the shopkeepers, spending a lot of time here, the place really opened up to me and people were incredibly generous even though some were facing serious consequences because of the redevelopment. Most of the residents were being ‘decanted,’ being moved away to other parts of South London, so the dissolution of the communities was a big issue and people were very angry about it.
There was the sense that no one really knew what was going to happen, apart from the fact that everything was going to be razed to the ground and there was this new vision being created by the Council and the developers. I was quite intrigued by the idea of this corporate vision and wondered how it was arrived at, how it had been imagined. It felt like a perfect opportunity for me to try to find my own personal vision for the area, as another way of seeing a future for the Elephant and Castle.
RH: How did the collaboration with music group Chrome Hoof come about’
MC: Well then it became about how to channel all of the information I had gathered into some kind of solution or answer. The idea of performance in the centre of Elephant & Castle, at the Coronet Theatre was a way of enacting a ritual that could be witnessed. The main reason for working with Chrome Hoof was because their music is very powerful. I wanted a performance that transformed and took people on the journey that I was going on .They are good at improvising and this was essential. I didn’t want anything to be planned, just the music we would begin with and something to signify the end.
It was an incredible experience for me. I went on an imaginary journey into a series of different, sometimes extraordinary landscapes where I saw all these different animals doing what seemed like very specific things. Chrome Hoof provided this sonic landscape that I could journey through and react to and against. Once I’d felt like I had reached the end of the journey I came back and left the stage. I went up to the dressing room upstairs and talked to one of the residents and told him about the journey. Then I went to the Council and told them about the journey; what I had seen, what the animals were doing and I tried to interpret this information and tell them what I felt that meant in terms of their relationship to the Elephant & Castle. The idea was to reiterate my experience on stage so it could be understood in a pragmatic way as a functional guide in the bureaucratic system of the Council.
RH: You have been previously described as a ‘contemporary shaman.’ Traditionally the shaman was a member of the community appointed to commune with the spirit world to alleviate ailments or social ills afflicting the community. As your artistic position is as a self-appointed shaman, and therefore an independent advisor to the multiple affected groups, do you consider any element of your practice as having any political agency as well as a social agency’
MC: A rogue consultant in a way. What interests me about these contexts is that there is a huge, apparent disconnection between our culture of conscious and rational understanding and our experience of how we imagine, see and make sense of the world. It’s really interesting to think about this divide as political.
Other cultures give equal importance to the world of non-conscious experience as they would their conscious understanding. In our contemporary society there isn’t much scope - for example - for abandoning thought to physical movement in an office meeting or using unconscious reasoning as a way to solve political problems. As an artist I’ve been able to do this and to explore the role of these processes as pragmatic, everyday tools.
In regards to the changing Elephant & Castle, beyond affecting Council policy or influencing the developers’ vision, my role here was to create a very different way to represent different voices and experiences. To have a consultation with an unfamiliar place using an empathetic process, a physical and emotional experience, rather than one that relies solely on an exchange of factual information. And hopefully to open up the idea of the imagination as being something where we understand and know more than we realise, a very real place to find a greater sense of connection. That was the political role I felt I had.
‘Vision Quest - A Ritual for Elephant & Castle’ is at
Unit 237 (upper Floor), Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, SE1 6TE
18:30, 20:00 & 21:30 - Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday
12th - 26th April, 2012