Friday, 4 September 2015

Weston-Super-Mare: The Pleasures of English Seaside Towns Part 3 of 3

So we come to the last English seaside town; Weston-Super-Mare. This is a town just outside the mouth of the Severn Estuary, an estuary with one of the highest tides in the world. So when the sea goes out, you are faced with a sea of mud (Weston-Super-Mud); it's not the mouth of the Severn so much as the spot just below the Severn where the drool of the river dribbles out into the sea.

But it's kind of beautiful in a run-down sort of way, and that is what attracted Banksy to build his Dismaland there. That and the fact that he used to go there as a kid to face the kinds of disappointments you experience in every English seaside town. But even more so at Weston. It's seaside with extra disappointment, where you take pleasure in the lack of consolations available to alleviate the pain of the rain, the wind and the mud.

For our final English seaside adventure (see Number 1: West Kirby and Number 2: Blackpool here) we bought our tickets for Dismaland. At £5 they were £3.50 cheaper than it cost us to see 12 Canalettos at the Holbourne Museum and almost a full £10 cheaper than seeing a major  show at Tate Modern or the like. So bargain there.

And we started queuing. The queues were massive but once you got in the fun started with the security installation/performance piece. My daughter was cordoned off from the rest of the queue and had to wait 5 minutes till she had 'calmed down' before she was let in.

Once through the door, we saw the ramshackle castle, a shabby range of stalls and a bunch of morose looking helpers. These are performers too and they're great, all dead-eyed and grim, slotting you right into that off-key theme park mode. If you've never been to a theme park before, never taken some kind of pleasure in either their thrills or absurdity, then I guess it's all a bit puzzling. But I loved them.

The best attendants for us were the ones on the fishing stall. Here the idea is you catch a duck from the oily-looking water (complete with oil-slicked pelican) and you win a prize that is beyond crap. Except the sarcastic attendants would move your rod, throw things at the duck, tell you what you're doing wrong and generally look miserable and pissed off. It was great, and recognisably connects to that role playing element of pretending to have fun and then actually having fun that you get in a regular theme park. And the hooks were bigger than the eyes they were supposed to hook into.

There were little installations and deck chairs from which you could watch short films which were sharp and funny (watch Santiago Grasso/Patricia Plaza's El Empleo here and Teddy has an Operation here). Before going, I found that one of the irritating things about Dismaland was the idea that he was making it deliberately bad so that he was covered whichever way it turned out. Good he wins, bad he wins. But it wasn't bad at all and in places it was quite brilliant.

So we watched and as we watched the sun went down, the blue sky darkened and the lights came on and Dismaland became beautiful.

So the park came beautiful, and it became alive, it clicked into that night time funfair vibe. Banksy might pretend that this is all dismal (and the dismal is referring more to how dismal England is as to the dismalness of theme parks), but it looked great lit up and it was meant to

And because it was evening and there was no rain, most everyone was cheerful. The everyone was pretty mixed; this wasn't your usual art crowd, there was little silent chin-stroking going on and there wasn't too much self-consciousness . Dismaland felt like fun and it was fun, especially if you understand what the point of it is. It was enjoyable just to be there, even if it meant standing in a queue  (not in the rain).

So we queued for the castle to see the dead princess and have our picture taken. This is the main event (if you want one) of Dismaland and it's all to do with photography and how we live it. We looked at the crashed carriage, we took pictures of it (the whole site is a massive photo opportunity) and then we had our own picture taken and queued up to buy a copy of us in front of the carriage.

The placing selling the prints was staffed by sarcasm who wouldn't necessarily sell you a print even if you could find it; the computers they had weren't really designed to make it easy to spot your tiny figures in a mass of other tiny-figure peopled pictures. "Don't bother. You want a picture, go outside and come in again," the elbowing crowds were told.

But we got our picture; of us standing in front of a crashed carriage with a dead princess hanging out who was Diana, no matter what they say. Except of course it wasn't Diana, in the same way a camel is not a horse. Very different. We are all rubber-necking voyeurs at the end of the day.

Yes, it's predictable, but the thing is Dismaland has somehow got an audience (and a diverse audience as far as art goes) for his predictability. He's successful! He's accessible! He gets a big audience! He's easy to understand! People like him! How dare he!

In that respect, Banksy is a bit like the Jamie Oliver of the street art world. He's massively influential, people understand him, he's effective, and he's direct and simple, True, Jamie Oliver is a bit annoying at times, he's everywhere, he's far too rich, and he likes having it both ways. Just like Banksy.

But Oliver's heart's in the right place (Oliver has just started a new anti-sugar campaign) , his recipes work and if you try them you're not going to spend three hours wandering round town looking for the right ingredients (sorry Yottam - I never did find those pomegranate molasses and nigella seeds. And I live in Bath!).

And that was that, except for the galleries and the political corner, both of which I enjoyed up to a point, but believe me the gallery is not the best part of Dismaland.

So that is Dismaland; a performance, a participation, a screening, an installation, a photo-opportunity, an art gallery all wrapped up in the conventions of the funfair and the English seaside holiday, Dismaland takes on the disappointments of the English seaside holiday, and makes them entertaining and fun. 

And quite brilliant. 

I wonder if it would be quite the same in the driving rain though.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Blackpool: The Pleasures of English Seaside Towns Part 2 of 3

The day after Hilbre Island we went to Blackpool Pleasure Beach. As you can see from the pictures above, the weather was great, people were on the beach, and everything was good.

And then we went into the Pleasure Beach (which is a bunch of rides and stalls). There were big queues, a massively diverse crowd in terms of ethnicity, and it was fun, if rather expensive - £23 for a wristband. Land of Hope and Glory played on the carousel organ and the questionable strangeness of the attractions was something to behold.

 And then a cold front came in, the temperature dropped ten degrees in seconds, the rain came in off the lake district and things became distinctly crap, especially when all the best rides (which we hadn't gone on yet) were closed because of wind, weather and technical problems.

So we did what all right-minded people do and we went on the pier. On the pier they have slot machines where you can spend your money. My daughter still remembers when she bet 4p on a 20/1 shot in the horse racing game and won 80p. But they didn't have that game on Blackpool's South Pier so we put our 2p pieces into the penny falls. You put your money in and hope that it pushes money over the fall for you to win. Basically it's a slow way to lose money. You think you're winning but all the time you're losing as slowly your money drips away. It's a bit like photography. It's a bit like most of the jobs I have.

But it's a fun way to lose money, almost as much fun as the horse-racing derby rollerball game. This is a game where you roll balls into holes and (depending on what score the hole is) the horse moves on a certain distance. First to the finishing line is the winner. We played on the pleasure beach and my wife won it twice. The joy of the game comes from the commentary and the sheer fun of the performance of the guy commentating. On the pier they didn't have horse racing. They had camel racing and it was getting a lot of attention from visitors of Asian background. On the day we were there no visitors of Asian background went on the horses. But they did go on the camels which was interesting. 

And why not. Going to a theme park is a performance - it's live action role play where you play the part of being a theme park visitor. In fact everything is live action role play, including the writing and reading of this blog, and absolutely everything to do with photography.

So that was that and off we went into the driving rain, slightly disappointed because of the weather but resigned to that fate because when have we ever been to Blackpool and it hasn't been tipping it down with rain.

And that was Blackpool, a place where playing the part is everything, where losing can be winning, where a camel is not a horse and where disappointment is part of the game.

West Kirby: The Pleasures of English Seaside Towns Part 1 of 3

This summer I found myself in West Kirby visiting my Aunt Jennifer, and my cousin Kevin, his wife Hojung and daughter Hanna, all down from Jeju Island in South Korea for the holidays.

Above is the view from my aunt's front room. It's the Dee Estuary you see - if you imagine a map of the UK, this is that little finger of land (aka the Wirral) that sticks out just below Liverpool. At the northern end you find New Brighton where Martin Parr photographed the Last Resort. At the southern end, you get West Kirby, the classy end where nature is the draw rather than seaside delights. You can see Wales in the background and at low tide you can walk to Hilbre Island (visible on the right) and see seals.

That's what we decided to do, at 7 in the evening. The sky was clear, the weather warm and the tide was out.

So we walked and as we walked and we got to Hilbre Island. Once we'd got there, the sky got darker, clouds rolled in and lightning started flashing in the sky and the tide started coming in.

So we started walking back. And then it started raining. Really raining. It was miserable and there was lightning flashing overhead. The rain came down, and we got soaked. And more soaked. Soaked until we couldn't get more soaked.

And then things changed. They couldn't get any worse because we couldn't get any wetter or more miserable.

And it became funny. A truly terrible day at the seaside became absurd. We relished that absurdity, it became almost a performance of absurdity. And we sang and danced and headbanged our way back to Aunt Jennifer's house where we dried ourselves off and drank tea and hot chocolate and ate biscuits like the Famous Five at the end of another day of mad adventures.

And that is a typical day at the English seaside where the awful can be good, and the absurd becomes enjoyable because if it didn't, you would simply die of misery.