British artist Nick relph enjoys wandering New York City under the cover of night, wandering near the city’s ubiquitous construction fences, doing something that seems at first glance – especially if you’re a police offering – immediately identifiable.
He is holding a dark object in his hand. He slides it rhythmically up and down on the wooden fence and its construction poster, a movement common to generations of graffiti artists and guerrilla-glue-wheat poster artists. Except instead of a spray can or glue roller, his instrument is a VuPoint Magic Wand lightweight digital scanner, an inexpensive device the size of an electric toothbrush, often used to scan objects. pages of books and legal documents. And so instead of leaving the art in the streets, Relph slowly extracts it. Acting as a sort of human image scraper, it has spent the past seven years amassing a vast archive of renderings of the buildings that form or will form the city’s skyline, a past and future New York that feels mythical. mind-boggling, and often, frankly, terrifying.
More than 100 of his digitally stitched streetscapes – some of them graffiti scarred and wavy, the result of urban chance and lo-fi methods – have been brought together in a new book titled “Syntax of Eclipse Body and Soul”.
Taking an unlikely place in New York’s rich street photography history stretching from Berenice Abbott and Ezra Stoller to Roy DeCarava and Camilo José Vergara, Relph’s collection, published by Pre-echo press, could be described as the first post-Internet expression of its kind. The images mainly show buildings that are, in a sense, real or in the process of becoming so. But the render posters, created by design firms and developers, are also highly fictional cinematic trademark documents created to comply with a city law requiring public images of buildings under construction.
Together, they portray a wildly ambitious luxury metropolis that seems to have slipped without warning into the ‘Blade Runner’ dystopia, a city that agglomerates by algorithm, reminiscent of a phrase from JG Ballard’s novel ‘High-Rise’ in 1975: ” This was an environment built not for man, but for man’s absence.
Relph, 42, rose to prominence 20 years ago thanks to videos and films with Oliver Payne, a former classmate at a London art school, he wove urban and suburban landscapes, experimental music and anomie into unclassifiable meditations on place and place. In a recent interview near his Brooklyn apartment, he said it never occurred to him to take pictures of New York City, where he has lived for 18 years and now teaches at the Pratt Institute. But then, on a birthday, he received the magic wand as a gift.
“It was really about having the scanner with me in my bag when I walked around,” said Relph, who is thin and nervous, with a tuft of unruly brown hair falling towards his eyes. “I am a walker. This is how I do the job, in general. I just couldn’t ignore these posters, these very harsh images. I pay attention to the pictures. And the purpose of these is in one sense clearly defined and in another not at all. “
He added: “When I scanned the first buildings, I thought to myself: I have these images but I haven’t technically taken a photo. And there was something really appealing about not having to point a camera. “
As a teenager, Relph was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which he continues to manage and which has shaped part of his job. At times over the past few years, he said, construction posters consumed his thinking, with the city’s overdrive providing him with more material than he could hold.
The project was first included in MoMA PS 1’s “Greater New York” exhibit in 2015, but at this point, Relph said, it was really just getting started. Eventually, the work ended up giving the impression that it was erecting a parallel-dimensional New York in its entirety on its hard drives. Meanwhile, in Analog City, starting in 2011, construction spending has increased for eight consecutive years, reaching an all-time high of $ 60.6 billion in 2019 before the pandemic crisis, more than any other American city, completely transforming parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
“There is a slight rush to put together more and know that there is more to be obtained,” Relph wrote in an email after our interview. “And there is exhaustion in wanting / having to do it.”
Painter Matt Connors, who founded Pre-Echo Press in 2016 to publish books by artists he admires, said that after learning of Relph’s project, he sometimes sent him photos of construction renderings from extraterrestrial aspect. “And invariably he would say, ‘Oh yeah, I already have that one,'” said Connors.
“Nick’s work kind of dances around finding ways to materialize, and he even dances around its subject,” he added. “He didn’t know how this body of work would come to live in the world, and when I’m excited about the work, one of my first impulses is to say to someone, ‘This should be a book.’ In this case, the original material, the posters, are printed objects, so it made sense to put it back on paper. “
The book – whose surreal title is a mishmash of imaginary showcase names taken from the renderings – is almost entirely without text, with the exception of a short poetic introduction in which Relph says, of the project: “Reader, he had the taste theft / A theft so minimal it is absurd. Leafing through its pages, one has the impression of reading Rem Koolhaas’ 1978 classic “Delirious New York” on psilocybin. parts of the actual city in perpetual twilight, seen through dirty sunglasses, wondering – especially in the context of a global pandemic and a growing climate crisis – what possible reason could explain so many extraordinary structures ?
Sometimes the streets seem to be swept away by humanity. At other times, people appear, tiny and attractive pedestrians and office workers, sometimes recurring as clones, concocted by graphic designers; improbable vegetation and overly attractive trees grow; a render of the hangar makes it look like a mechanized version of the “Dune” worm, rising up to devour pedestrians on the High Line. Every now and then a wavy pip that looks like human fingers creeps in. These are actually Relph’s fingers, which appear when he tries to operate the 8.5-inch scanner by rubbing its rollers against his hand.
“Everything is very low-tech,” he said. “I was trying to get the best scan possible, but sometimes the poster was faded or wrinkled or I was scanning too fast. Often times I was on my bike and would get up and balance on it to come up with a large poster, but I never carried a ladder or any other gear. “
There is something loitering about Relph’s methods, or what he and Payne have called “power-backing,” an adjustment to British slang to avoid work while wandering. When asked if the project started from a philosophical position on the future of cities under late capitalism – Baudelaire’s “passionate spectator” or that of Walter Benjamin more politically sharp itinerant saboteur – Relph opposes it.
“Some of these images have a really deadly feel,” he said. “One of the reasons it took me so long to finish this job is that I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to put these pictures back into the world? On the other hand, I certainly don’t think everything about this book is inherently bad. It’s never that easy.
Michelle Cotton, responsible for artistic programs and content at Mudam, the Musée d’art contemporain de Luxembourg, where five enlarged versions of Relph’s scans are now presented in an exhibition entitled “Post-Capital: art and the economy in the digital age”, writes in a catalog essay that the images seem, at the very least, “to describe a certain excess poverty, perhaps indicative of a culture in which even bricks and mortar find their value in the fulfillment of numerical prophecies. “.
In an interview, Cotton added: “I think Nick has been able to do something that will be read as an extremely important document in terms of what he has to say politically, socially, economically about the way we live in. this moment. Part of the irony is that we all know artists settle in inner city areas of a city because that’s what they can afford, and then their presence makes it a desirable neighborhood where sleek buildings. like this are built and artists are charged a high price.
In fact, just steps away from the apartment where Relph now lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, a new 17-story apartment complex rises above the mostly low-rise neighborhood. During our interview in the courtyard of his building, the metallic clatter of construction sites and the bleating of trucks often covered the floor. Before I left, Relph took the scanner out of his bag and dutifully walked over to the green plywood town fence to register one more edifice of an uncertain future.
“Another couldn’t hurt, could he?” ” He asked.