Radical Freedom: Gareth McConnell, From Belfast to Ibiza

Gareth McConnell
Gareth McConnell
Spotlit Police (Battle of the Beanfield, 1985), 2013.

This is a reworked scan from a book which examines the events of the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield, when Police attacked a convoy of New Age travellers en route to what would have been the 11th Stonehenge Free Festival in Wiltshire, England

Photographer Gareth McConnell speaks to Anne-Celine Jaeger about his recently published book Close Your Eyes. They met in London to discuss civil liberties, mass communion, Ibiza and printing techniques. Here is an edited transcript of their two-hour discussion.

You say your book, Close Your Eyes, is a “frenzied reworking of your accumulated archive.” It contains images from your Ibiza series, from God & Man, from Night Flowers, as well as images culled from the Internet, and yet it goes beyond a straightforward monograph. How did this book come about?

The germination was a meeting with Bruno Ceschel from Self Publish, Be Happy, who was interested in doing a book with me. Looking at much of my work, I realised there was a huge disparity between its aspirations and what it ended up looking like. This was an opportunity to free myself from self-imposed restrictions and just go for it. I then really got stuck in it for five or six weeks just mashing everything up, working together with an amazing bookbinder, and something emerged from it all that expressed what I was trying to get out. The freedom of being able to use other bits of found imagery to shape the narrative and punctuate it with different ideas really helped.

It feels like a hugely personal piece of work. We see ravers in communal rapture, psychedelic skies, but also the fear of potential disappointment . . .

I remember going to a rave, taking ecstasy and dancing all night in Belfast in 1990 and the world completely changing, going home the next morning and putting all my old records under my bed and thinking, “From now on, all I want to do is dance.” I was in Northern Ireland, literally sharing a dance-floor with members of the IRA and UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force]–on acid–at the height of The Troubles. Ibiza was this mythologised place. I thought everything in Northern Ireland was shit, therefore anywhere else must be brilliant. I went to Ibiza filled with expectation. Though I had some incredible experiences there, ultimately it ended up being a series of disappointments. My epiphany came years later when I read Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. It touched on the orgiastic experience and the tools we seek to overcome aloneness as a human entity–including music, drugs and mass communion. So when I first started taking pictures in Ibiza, I was looking for people who were aspiring to a particular idea. I was looking for disciples drawn to this place, like I had been, to try to find some kind of oneness or unity.

The book is also dotted with found imagery of key moments in recent British history, where civil liberties were savagely attacked. You also feature, for example, a bit-mapped image of a purpose-built Barratt home, suggesting conformity and uniformity of thought. Are you making a political statement?

Yes, there is a political aspect to the book. The title of the book, Close Your Eyes, refers both to the aspect of getting completely off your tits, that feeling of ecstasy, of losing yourself, but also to closing your eyes to the horrors of all that’s going on. It’s like we’re encouraged to get off our head but discouraged from participating or understanding the world around us. I think Robert Anton Wilson’s quote from Sex, Drugs & Magick (1987) really sums it up: “The heretic of the 21st Century might be, not a man who takes a drug the government forbids but a man who refuses the drug a government commands.” We all need to wake up a little bit.

When did you start the process of dismembering and re-assembling images (“Ibiza Mistakes”), and using found imagery (God & Man)?

It started in 2008, when I was so dissatisfied with my own work, the failure of it–the fact that I’d developed this particular idea, but was unable to express it. It was the year my daughter Sorcha was born, and the first year I didn’t go to Ibiza. I was totally broke and was printing out images of the Ibiza series at home and the portraits came out all lined and faded and I realized they said more than the original photograph, so I further manipulated them, by running them repeatedly through the photocopier. Off the back of this I decided to make new work using only the really low-fi methods, such as my home printer, the internet, the photocopy shop and the local pharmacy for digital prints. That’s also when I started working on the God & Man series, where I multiple-exposed found images of sunsets, using the last of the Kodachrome film, and made Cibachrome prints out of them.

The printing in Close Your Eyes is exquisite, some of the images are so thick with ink they are almost fluffy, others are super glossy like pools of nail varnish. Why was this attention to color and texture so important to you?

I wanted to make something that not only communicated its ideas successfully but that was also a real experience to hold and look at, and one of the strategies to achieve this was to put real art works and prints in the book as opposed to reproductions of those art works.

Tell me about your publishing company, Sorika.

Sorika has no particular agenda other than the realising of interesting ideas, books, prints, shows, films–for the love of it. It started with Chris Wilson’s book Horse Latittudes, which I published in 2013. I’m currently working on a re-working of Tom Wood’s Looking for Love and will soon be publishing A Concise Reference Dictionary of Art by Neal Brown. I really enjoy the collaborative process. After all those years of working for myself, it’s a real release.

Anne-Celine Jaeger is a writer base in London, and is the author of Image Makers, Image Takers

Gareth McConnell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and graduated from the Royal College of Art. Recent exhibitions include Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography at Belfast Exposed and Observers: Photographers of the British Scene from the 1930s to Now, Galeria de Arte Sao Poalo, Brazil. Donlon Books, London, is hosting a book-launch and signing on April 17th from 19.00-21.30. His book Close Your Eyes is avialable now. For more on Gareth McConnell visit www.sorika.com.


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