Non Places: Berlin

Despite the fact I’ve been photographing professionally for several years, most of my output has thus far been of a commercial tint - travel, music and portrait work for guidebooks, magazines, websites and so on. Inevitably I’ve amassed a fair amount of quirky experiments, happy mistakes (Eno: honour thy mistake as hidden intention) and semi-‘artful’ images over the years, but have never quite found time to, uh, ‘focus’ on a proper Art project.

Until now.

I was fascinated with Berlin way before I moved here last December (2008). I remember travelling here for the first time a decade or so ago, to write an article on the electronic music scene. I mooched around interviewing the likes of To Rococo Rot, Basic Channel and Rechenzentrum and found myself perpetually agog at the fucked-upness of the city - or certain areas of it. The bullet-battered buildings, the imposing commie architecture, the squat-party scene (which was admittedly already dying)...in particular the spaces where the places had been.

In 2008 I spent a few weeks in Berlin updating a guide book on the city, and though it was by then a different place in many ways, I fell in love with it all over again, and knew I had to move here. As soon as I did, I dutifully read David Clay Large’s “Berlin” and spent some time deepening my experience of Die Stadt, learning more about its histories and mysteries; the external posturing; the internal contradictions.

This was, I decided, the right place to indulge my muse. But though I had a place, I still needed a concept. That came about when I discovered French anthropologist Marc Augé’s “Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity”.

This densely academic book, which blends impenetrable waffle with searing intellectual insights (Augé being a typical French intellectual in that sense), posits and defines the concept of both ‘supermodernity’ (which embraces notions of accelerated history, changes of scale, an overabundance of events, excesses of time, space and ego) and ‘non-places’ (places which 'cannot be defined as relational, historical, or concerned with identity' – i.e. supermarkets, airports, hotels, motorways etc.).

Now the idea of a 'non-place' was far from new to me. Books like Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” J G Ballard's "Kingdom Come," or even Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" have long dealt with the myriad effects of rampant consumerism on both the individual and society, and are all in a way precursors to our era of supermodernity. As far back as four years ago (count 'em) when I set up the collaborative online gallery Photografik with fellow photographer Rob Ditcher, we factored in a Non Places section, which is still there.

But while we really liked this particular section (and still do) the concept was always a bit vague. It was essentially a last minute construction to offset all of the Travel and Landscape imagery we had collected together, photographs that showed 'iconic' or immediately familiar places. Non Places was thus intended to show 'anonymous' landscapes - abandoned houses or telephone boxes with no recognisable or defining geographical context; places, in other words, that could be 'anywhere' (example here)

Nothing wrong with that at all and like I said it's a great section, probably one of the most interesting on the site. But I always felt the concept could be stronger, more focused - that there was something more there to be explored. I also felt - and feel - that a proper Art (yes, with a capital A) project should let the concept guide the art rather than the other way around.

Our collaborative Non Places section was created after we had already produced the images - and in their classic book "On Being A Photographer", David Hurn and Bill Jay argue that the tighter the theme from the beginning, the more effective the results of any documentary/reportage project.

So there we have it: "Non Places: Berlin". It comes with the pretentiously alliterative working subtitle: “nocturnal reflections on neon-lit niches of non-existence”. Ah yes - the shots will all be taken at night, since that's when 'non places' really let their anonymity - their non-ness, if you will - shine through. Time to fix up the bike and buy some lights. Hopefully I'll be back with some test shots sooner rather than later.