︎︎︎ Homepage        2020_11_03        Conversation 

Beneath the City Doves

Alessia Arcuri and Sonam Tobygal speak about his latest project focused on the development of social housing in London, while discussing the challenges faced delivering his final project as a third-year student at LCC during the lockdown.

In Beneath the City Doves, Sonam utilises the new mediums of 360º and drone photography as a means to document various social housing estates which will eventually cease to exist. This project has been captured between the sky and the ground, providing an evocative allegory for the current condition of estates, plots of land suspended between their existence and eradication.

Each image acts as a microcosm, resembling their isolated scenario but as a sequence reiterate the extent of development across the Capital. Therefore, a level of familiarity grows between the work and its audience.

AA        What inspired Beneath the City Doves?

ST        Beneath the City Doves, really started off the back of a short term brief at university to make some work in and around Elephant and Castle for a collaborative book called Elephant Exodus.

At that time, I had just finished a more conventional project exploring the redevelopment of social housing in London and felt that this subject was very relevant to the area we were investigating, and so I set out to learn more about Aylesbury estate and the neighbouring estates which were fighting developers from dispersing the communities that exist there. At the time the project was only meant to last a few months, so it seemed like a good opportunity to make a landscape project, exploring these spaces where their permanency was in dispute.

Simultaneously, I had been learning about alternative processes whilst considering the line between conventional documentary and conceptual photography. I was really attracted to the cyanotype process. In discovering that its origins stemmed from construction blueprints, it seemed to be the perfect process to use for this work [that focuses on a consequential process influenced by gentrification].

The project initially was just 360º photography converted into cyanotypes but over time developed into being both Drone and 360º photography. I felt this allowed me to explore the spaces in a bit more depth, offering alternative perspectives and more palatable images which could contextualise the spaces against their surroundings.

AA        Talk us through your way of thinking: what led you to combine 360º degrees and Drone photography with the cyanotype printing technique?

ST        This project was slowly built over a few years, allowing me time to explore certain techniques and approaches, piecing the work together like a puzzle and making sure that there was a degree of relevance to everything I was using. Naturally, with a subject matter like social housing, I knew how important it was to make sure that I was not just fetishising a very serious issue, in turn, making an empty project. Each element of the work was considered.

I don’t feel like there is any more of a connection between each medium or method I have used other than the subject itself. Each aspect lending itself differently towards supporting the ideas I attempted to convey. Through combining several alternative image-making techniques I was trying to create a multifaceted project which has multiple layers.

These images are then converted through the cyanotype printing process. The archaic practise of cyanotype printing dismantles the convention of modernisation, taking shiny aestheticism and transforming this into rugged beauty. The imitations of happiness found in the new builds are enveloped by the construction sites surrounding them, overshadowing the displacement of prior residents. This blend of contemporary and traditional methods offers an alternative visual perspective when framing a commonly explored subject. The deep blue tone produced by the cyanotypes create a mood of melancholy, the landscape both natural and fabricated are flattened, their purpose feels ambiguous as new and old overlap in a state of imbalance.

“I was really attracted to the cyanotype process. In discovering that its origins stemmed from construction blueprints, it seemed to be the perfect process to use for this work.”

AA         What were the wider and contextual influences on the project?

ST         Primarily, social housing and gentrification have been subjects I have been exploring for as long as I can remember. I remember when I was younger being told about Thatcher’s Right to Buy Scheme and how as a result, the estate I grew up on was now split between social and privately-owned housing. As a starting point for this work, I immediately looked towards the charities and organisations fighting for social housing. Southwark Notes and the 35% campaign, were amazing contextual influences and provided me with a bunch of important research about the impact of redevelopment. In particular, they referenced Heygate estate which, after seeing what happened there, became a major influence as to why I felt this work was important:

“After many years of protest and appeals. The new housing blocks built in replacement saw the demolition of 1,200 primarily social-rented homes and the construction of 2,300 new flats. Only 25% of these fit under the governments ‘affordable housing’ tag with just 79 flats available for social rent. Only 45 of the Heygate estate’s prior tenants were able to move into the new homes promised for them by Lendlease and the council. Many tenants were subject to compulsory purchase orders and over 3,000 residents were evicted. These tenants were offered so little for their homes, they had no choice but to move as far as Kent. Offering as little as £150,000 for homes that some of which are being replaced with homes sold for upwards of £1,000,000.”

I was also heavily influenced by Mishka Henner’s project Feedlots, I came across this body of work about a year into developing Beneath the City Doves. I thought it was amazing how he was able to use that idea of the sublime, creating stunning decontextualised images which do not immediately scream out to you what they’re about but instead can entice you and then inform you once already visually invested.

AA         Which practical challenges did you face in the process?

ST          There were a couple of problems I faced making the project. My first issue was the 360º camera. 360º cameras (on a budget) are quite gimmicky, mostly used for holiday pics and sports. As a consequence, the only one I could afford was pretty low-tech. I had to download verging on incompatible software and from that screenshot my edits that were tenuously stitched together. This was a lot of stress and led to many frustrating hours watching my computer crash again and again only to then have to find a way to turn low-res images into something which I would be able to produce cyanotypes from.

When I started using drones, I also found out that all across London there are a bunch of restrictions on where you can fly them. I had some issues on Aylesbury estate when I tried to fly the drone over the construction sites. It seems that someone had made a very specific no-fly zone over the site. Whenever the drone got too close, it would automatically turn around and land itself back where I was standing. I had to get as close as possible and try to find alternative angles to document the spaces.

I also had to learn how to successfully coat the cyanotype chemicals onto the paper is the cleanest most consistent way possible which, after a load of experiments (and a lot of help from the Uni technicians) I finally managed to create a degree of consistency.

“I thought it was amazing how he was able to use that idea of the sublime, creating stunning decontextualised images which do not immediately scream out to you what they’re about but instead can entice you and then inform you once already visually invested.”

AA        Did the restricted access to university facilities limit the outcomes of Beneath the City Doves in terms of its realisation?

ST          When University closed it was both a blessing and a curse. I had originally intended on producing a book as the final piece for the project. Naturally, the shutdown meant I had no reasonable means to create a physical copy. While it was frustrating, it also gave me more time to dedicate towards the design and text for the book; as I would be submitting a digital version. In my personal opinion, it gave me more time to actualise my project and to explore the history of social housing.

I was fortunate enough to have made the large bulk of cyanotypes before the lockdown meaning I was able to complete the rest of this project all from the comfort of home.

“The deep blue tone produced by the cyanotypes create a mood of melancholy, the landscape both natural and fabricated are flattened, their purpose feels ambiguous as new and old overlap in a state of imbalance.”

AA        While Beneath the City Doves was work in progress, we were discussing the body of work, you mentioned including interviews with residents, poems and other artistic contributions. When did you change your mind, and why?

ST          It was always on my mind to add in that extra layer to the project. If I remember right we spoke about incorporating interviews and other artistic contributions when the project was only 360º photographs.

I was looking for ways to make it more multidimensional. I finally settled on doing a few things which made more sense visually and also as a consequence of lockdown. To make the work more varied, I added drone photography which I felt was in keeping with the conceptual side of the work. Mixing up the perspectives of how we see these spaces.

Over lockdown, I also made the choice to do extensive writing surrounding the project and subject. Writing three essays that shed light on the history of social housing and aspects of the project as well as organisations who are trying to support these communities.

AA        Do you consider Beneath the City Doves finished?

ST          Definitely not. I think it's a project I will frequently be returning to as London and the rest of the world develops and while there is still not enough of an emphasis on the importance of social housing.

There's a few extra aspects of the project which I didn’t get a chance to undertake and I am still working on the final book which hopefully I’ll be able to print when it's ready.

AA        How are you managing post-graduate photography life? What are you working on at the moment?

ST          Post-graduation life has been pretty strange so far, through lockdown and Summer I worked with the Whitechapel Gallery to digitally co-curate an exhibition. A small group of us worked together with both the Whitechapel Gallery and the Hixcox Collection to build an exhibition surrounding the theme of Home. The project is now exhibiting in the gallery and will be there for a few months (until the 3rd of January) - so go check it out!

As far as making new work, I’m currently starting research and experimenting for my new alternative process project. It’s different now as I no longer have access to the uni darkrooms or processing facilities, so It’s been exciting learning how to navigate the real world.

I’ve been spending a lot of time going through my archives and looking at everything I have created these past years, having a social media restructure and building my website and have been making prints that I’ll be selling soon. Lots of life admin.

Naturally, the current climate with Covid-19 has made day to day life quite unpredictable. So, for the most part, I’m staying busy trying to continue promoting my work and self, redesigning the book for Beneath the City Doves, with the hopes that I can produce some copies and pushing content that I haven’t properly put out yet. There are plenty of more exciting opportunities coming soon. So watch this space!

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Alessia Arcuri (Italy, 1991) is a curator and bookseller specialised in Arts and Photography. In her practice, Alessia explores her passion for visual communication and literature.
Sonam Tobgyal is an English-Bhutanese photographer based in London. In his practice, Sonam examines themes affecting modern life through both innovative and traditional photographic approaches. (www.sonamtobgyal.com)