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Behind 108 Steps

Intuition, identity and object memories

Author: Matthew Rosier

In October this year, I completed my first solo art commission, 108 Steps. The name is taken from the site and inspiration for the piece – Macclesfield’s 108 Steps, a historic set of steps in the town, of which there are 108 (supposedly). I captured a ‘week in the life’ of the steps on film, composed this into a one hour loop of activity, and then projected it back onto the steps for the public to experience.

While the artwork is firmly rooted in the stone and people of Macclesfield, it began somewhere else entirely: Venice. A little over a year ago, I visited an exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny called ‘Intuition’. The exhibition explored ‘how intuition has, in some form, shaped art across geographies, cultures and generations’, describing intuition as the ‘ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning: a feeling that guides a person to act in a certain way without fully understanding why.’

What the exhibition’s curators, Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti, had done was assemble a vast collection of work from across an even vaster period of time, from Neolithic sculpture to ephemeral steam installations. What I experienced there was the antithesis to years of architectural education – to the pontifications of ‘form follows function’ and ‘ornament is crime’. The exhibition instead exposed a fundamental need, across time and culture, for us to communicate the qualities of life and the place we inhabit – through whatever means we deem necessary.

108 Steps by Matthew Rosier

In the final room of that exhibition, I lent on a plinth, sketched a scrappy diagram on the back of the exhibition guide, and titled it ‘Object Memories’. The sketch depicted a box (the object), with a person in front of it, being filmed, and then that film being projected back onto the surface of the object.

The idea was no great revelation in itself, it was the same approach that I’d applied in projects such as Shadowing (2014), The Lost Palace (2016) and Slow Glass (2017), and was in the process of applying in The Kitchens (2018). However, it was the first time I had considered this ‘instinct’ to observe and replay as an end in itself; no brief to fulfill, no technical innovation, no clever concept, just something I felt.

A lot has happened between now and then to get to the point of realising 108 Steps. The Kitchens (2018), a visitor experience I designed for Hampton Court Palace, gave me the opportunity to develop the filming and projection mapping technique that Object Memories would use. The mentorship and friendship developed through FAULT LINES, FutureEverything’s Talent Development Programme of which I am a member, instilled in me the confidence to follow my instinct through. It was FutureEverything who then introduced me to SHIFT and Cheshire East Council, who commissioned 108 Steps.

I’d never been to Macclesfield. When I was invited by Cheshire East and SHIFT to create a work there, I felt the pressure of being perceived as an ‘outsider’ acutely, and was determined to diligently and enthusiastically get to know the people, culture and history. For this reason, I wish I could say that I arrived at my proposal through a thorough, winding and utterly compelling process of analysis, observation and consideration, but the truth is, it was within the first hour of a Google binge.

An old postcard with a photo of the 108 Steps

As I earnestly began my research into the town’s history, I came across an old photograph of the 108 Steps – a very long and narrow, beautiful set of steps. While the historical significance of the steps was clear, to me these steps represented a profoundly exciting opportunity – a vertical canvas of human activity, and one that lent itself in physical terms to the Object Memories technique of recording/projecting. With my limited imagination, I had never considered larger objects, such as as a set of steps, as the ideal canvas for this technique – having assumed tables, chairs, ornamental objects would be the likely direction.

As I got to know Macc through a series of research trips, where I met business owners, festival organisers, artists, councillors and others, my understanding of Macc, it’s past, present, and ideas for the future, ballooned. It’s at this point everything becomes possible once again – is it a project about the lost mills? Or the emerging digital industry? Is it about personal stories? Hopes and fears for the future? Joy Division?? (Ian Curtis was born, and is buried in Macc.)

The previous year, I attended MIF’s What is the City? in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester – an idea gifted by Jeremy Deller and produced by Kerenza McClarnan, who was also the producer for 108 Steps. What is the City was a catwalk set up in a large public space where instead of strutting models, it was occupied by members of the public, many of whom were marginalised and all of whom had profound stories. Through this event, What is the City curated and celebrated the identity of Manchester.

What is the City?, MIF, 2017, photo by Jon Super

I was both inspired and distracted by this project. I felt I shared its aim of somehow capturing the identity of a place and composing it into a performance for the public to observe. However, I struggled with how to capture this ‘identity’, and what identity or identities these should be. At the same time, as a newcomer to the idea of public engagement as part of the creation process, I felt I must action what I had learnt, and make this process my art. It wasn’t until later that I’d realise the significance of the friendships and trust I’d built in Macc through this ‘engagement process’, and the role this would have in pulling off a project like 108 Steps.

After this, familiar period of agonising, I returned to my instinct and put my faith in the recording and replaying of the activity of this set of steps. I trusted that through this process, viewing the town through this one shared object, something would emerge.

The final proposal that did emerge was not far from an idea I’d mentioned to FutureEverything in one of my first emails concerning the distant possibility of a project, which read:

‘We could use the Object Memories technique to document a number of inhabitants and users of the town centre – and perhaps use a town landmark, the 108 steps, to capture and then project back these characters. The arrangement of the steps provides an interesting opportunity to have a series of Object Memories style projections mapped onto the steps, perhaps in a few locations on the accent, creating a performance that can be observed from the base of the steps in particular, and again as people ascend.’

The difference between the moment I decided on a final proposal, and when I wrote that email months earlier, was the belief I now held that this was a work people would want to participate in due to a respect for the steps and the heritage of the town, and a general appreciation and promotion of artistic expression.

Filming the 108 Steps

In practice, this meant I’d record the steps for one week in shifts of 2-3 hours, coinciding with patterns of use. I’d talk to every single person who walked/ran up or down to inform them of the project and get their permission. These videos, or ‘memories’, would be composed into a looping video, which would then be projected mapped onto the front faces of the steps as an evening performance.

Over one week I recorded 301 videos, some comprising of a single occupant, some of multiple. After curating this down to a chronological selection to fit a one-hour loop, I’d used 70 of these videos. In the curation I was conscious of avoiding my own bias, to an extent, keeping the selection of characters fairly representational, while ensuring I included the funny, surprising, ugly and beautiful moments, and pretty much every dog.

Curating the 108 Steps video

This one-hour loop of memories was projection mapped onto the steps over a period of three evenings (October 26th-28th, 2018). The public were invited to assemble at the base of the steps to watch the performance and to participate in the work by climbing up and down them, creating playful interplay between projected people and real people, past and present.

The effect of the projection was uncanny – real and unreal. People, myself included, were transfixed; transfixed on a jogger, a dog peeing, a woman with an orange coat, a child chasing his brother, a man on the phone, an unexpected kiss. It somehow heightened our everyday reality and revealed what we could already see.

The presentation of the work confirmed to me that the intuition I had followed in creating this work was shared. That we are, and always have and will be, fascinated by each other and the world we inhabit.

108 Steps by Matthew Rosier