Tuesday 26 July 2016

Alan Warburton: the centre of the screen

White Noise is a project featuring eight artists taking up residencies in the East Tower of Television Centre, in west London. Television Centre is, of course, famous as being the hub of the BBC's televisual output for over 50 years, and will be demolished later in the year to make way for a mixed-use development.

One of White Noise's residents is Alan Warburton, a well-known CGI and 3D animation artist. Alan will render the East Tower as a 3D CGI mapping, laying the groundwork for a digital archive of the building. We caught up with Alan to find out more about the project, and how the personal and mass-media memories of Television Centre have influenced it.

White Noise is, quote, a “live research project about urban change”. Is that how you saw the project when you were approached to be part of it?

AW: Not really. I think that the brief was very open, and that was the attraction for the artists involved. Some of the selected artists have picked up on the urban change theme directly; others, myself included, are using the building as a cypher for a really diverse collection of ideas. But, whatever we produce, it'll come back to the same context – there's a huge BBC building in West London that soon won't be there. In a concrete sense, that's a very clear case study for urban change, but from my perspective the East Tower could be a mountain - or a city in itself – it's more about how something monolithic and iconic can transition from presence to absence.


Given how the building is so embedded into popular culture as Television Centre, what do you think that the unique challenges of this project are?

AW: That cultural weight is one of the things that most attracted me to this project. The challenge is really where to start with a site that has such a rich media history and such strong associations in popular memory. Like a lot of Brits, I feel like I had a personal relationship with the site, even though I lived far from London. I grew up watching programmes made at Television Centre, writing in to shows at that famous Wood Lane address, watching outside broadcasts set against the iconic curving facade of the doughnut. Part of my identity is wrapped up in Television Centre, in a cocktail of other 20th century signs - architectural, technological, political. In short, it's iconic, but now that it is disappearing into history, that icon is becoming mythological, sinking like Atlantis. I like the idea that something like broadcasting is now becoming mythological in the age of the Internet. It's like it's now possible to have an archeology of telecommunications.


How will you approach your residency?

AW: My proposal comes in two stages. First I'll be documenting the building photographically and using the architectural plans of the site to create a virtual 3D model of the building. That model will be available for other people – artists, filmmakers, 3D fabricators – to download and use for their own projects. I like the idea that I can preserve the building digitally and give it a second life. But, the digital file will have no weight and no material presence, so it's almost like a ghost building. Once I have that 3D model, I'll be making my own CGI film within the virtual space. I think I'll use that film to tell a story about creativity itself. I want to reflect on the sort of work that went on in the building: programming, development, research, commissioning, imagination!



What facets about the building's architecture are the most challenging for your forthcoming installation?

AW: Unlike the doughnut, the East Tower is architecturally unremarkable in many ways, but infinitely complex because it's been in constant use for so long. Each floor has been altered and customised with a slightly different layout, so reproducing those spaces digitally needs a lot of attention to detail. Unfortunately, there are no CAD files for the building, so I'm having to work from drawings. I won't be able to reproduce the current state of the building exactly – that's an impossible task – but I will be able to return it to a kind of platonic state. I'm sure the former inhabitants of the building will recognise their offices.


Television Centre architect Graham Dawbarn modelled the shape of the building on a question mark. What, physically or emotionally, gives you a question mark when you consider the project? What is unspoken, unwritten, unfelt about a building which is so (supposedly) well-known?

AW: All of the White Noise projects will engage with the uncertainty of change and development to some degree, and this might well involve reflecting on the changes in local communities, in architecture or in the wider world. Many of my questions revolve around how to assess change in a contemporary media landscape. My project specifically engages with changes in media: I'll be working with the iconic site of 20th century broadcasting, but I'll be documenting it's death using 21st century media technology – computer-generated images and 3D models.

My project represents - in a condensed form - the handover of communications technology from analogue to digital, from the few to the many. It documents the biggest upheaval of the 21st century: the information revolution: now you don't need an institution like the BBC behind you to broadcast to the world, anyone can do it. This democratisation of technology should feel like a totally positive development, yet I'm plagued by an uncomfortable yearning for an bygone relationship with media, one that had a certain responsibility attached to it.

The relationship I had with my television set growing up in the 80s and 90s felt more enriching than the relationship I have with the coercive media of today – a media that reaches into my pocket 24/7, downloading automatically and tailoring itself to my tastes. I wonder whether this is a simple nostalgia or something to be taken more seriously.


Alan's website gives further details on his work, and he is @cgwtf on Twitter.

For further information on the White Noise project and its artists, visit the project website. The project runs until 31/07/16.

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