A Study Into Suburbia

This study was born out of a provocation. A claim of un-individuality on my generation – a generation that appropriates, steals and borrows from the past, then has the audacity to claim it as our own. In the words of John Doe, “Your generation possess nothing that previous generations didn’t give you…you owe it all to them. Where are you from?”

So rather than dispute this statement (which, still makes me consider what we actually ‘possess’ anyway) – I decided to embrace it. What do I do with all I have? And where am I really from? Well, I’m a product of a post-industrial Northern town, but more precisely, a suburban development perched on the side of this place. Every house I’ve lived in hadn’t existed one or two years before I lived there, and each one was lumped together in greenbelt building sites; a far cry from the generations before me – who truly lived in a working, industrial landscape. So when asked where I’m from – my answer is simple, I’m from the suburbs. And because I do call this place home, I have the ability to say exactly what they are. Like John Doe’s words – these places are the physical manifestation of the “homogenous drone of un-individuality competing within a pathetic and uncommitted zone”; and I couldn’t agree more.

But I want to make something very clear – this study is not tinged with negativity, or anger (unlike the provocation). Whilst it is true that these suburban places can be boring and bland– that does not mean they lack anything special. You just have to look under the surface sometimes. I also want to point out that my study is not unique in itself. Many contemporary artists and writers have used the suburban street as inspiration for work, usually because it represents home to them. I’m just following their examples, much to John Doe’s annoyance, I’m sure.

Probably the most recognised of these artists is the photographer Martin Parr. His work documents the intricacies of British life; particularly those of the middle classes – the residents of suburbia. By cropping into scenes of everyday life, the rituals and props start to look absurd. In bright technicolour and placed under the microscope, our lives start to take on the comedy of a 1970’s sitcom. And this is where I have issues with Parr’s work. His work feels, to me, as a way to sneer at these people. To highlight what is ‘wrong’ with a picture, without actually saying it – Parr seems to be laughing at his subjects, rather than laughing along. Of course – my background as a suburbanite might be clouding my judgement on this matter. I could be too close to the joke to really get it. But another photographer has a very similar approach and his work instantly rings true to me. Paul Reas’ series ‘At Your Service’ documents the new-build housing boom of the early 1990’s and the consumers who live there. “The major object we will consume is a house, and it is through a process aided by Dulux paint and double glazing that the house is turned into a home” (Stuart Cosgrove). Reas’ work has a message about movements towards the service professions (rather than traditional industrial skills) of suburban residents – but no judgement is passed. I find the work to be similar in approach to Robert Franks’ pivotal series ‘The Americans’. Here, Frank simply documents what America is at a moment in time. “The faces don’t editorialize or criticise or say anything but ‘this is the way we are in real life”. And this is what real life is to me, I suppose – real life is the suburban tract.

“Great realists of European painting have never been too fastidious to depict the architecture of their native lands in their picture” (Edward Hopper).

I do not want to shy away from the suburban paradox; that of individuality and privacy in a street of cookie-cutter houses. Like Hopper says – painters (and by extension artists, designers) have never been too critical of their environments, of their antecedent. I shouldn’t be either.

Sophie Calle is an artist that embraces personal life in her work – creating a dialogue between reality and ‘art’ that creates unique responses. Bordering on detective work, documentation of the everyday becomes something special in her hands. By combining strict regulations (The Chromatic Diet) with a devil-may-care attitude, where anything can happen (Room With a View), Calle’s work has the ‘reality’ of Frank’s photography – but also the personal input that I want to engage with. And looking at the work from my angle – isn’t the combination of ‘regulation’ and ‘personality’ a good way to describe suburbia?

Dedicating my first approach to my study to Calle, I decided to use one of her tools; by engaging with other people on a near-anonymous level. I posted 35 letters to houses across the country. These houses were chosen because they share the same name as my suburban street. The letter spoke about the interest I had in the paradox of suburban life – where individuality meets derivatives. After all, they shared the same street name as my own. All I asked from these ‘alternate suburbanites’ was a conversation or two, to tell me about their street. But, after nearly 6 months – I’ve yet to receive a single response from the letters. It seems as though people don’t want to get involved in my study.

But rather than feel defeated about the experiment, I decided to look closer into what this told me about suburban life. Nobody wants to get involved – or open his or her door to me (so to speak). It really is just like the suburbia that I know. Everything goes on behind closed doors, privacy is paramount and this is the breeding ground for neighbourhood gossip. So, why can’t I produce an overarching piece of gossip, a narrative that covers each of these streets? If the house designs, the street names can be derived from one another, until their original states are copies of one another – can’t the stories inside the house be the same?

If fake can fool you into thinking that it is real, then what difference does it make that it is fake?

This was to become the core question of my study, allowing suburbia to become the limbo space between real/fake, true/false. Even the word suburbia has no ‘true’ form, that is, an essential structure– it simply describes something that exists as an idea, rather than an physical location (in a similar fashion to the word ‘community’) – suburbia itself is a non-place. It neither exists, nor does it not-exist.

This whole concept is a key plot point of JG Ballard’s novel – the ‘Unlimited Dream Company’. The story takes place in Shepperton, a sleepy suburban locale, but in the shadow of the eponymous movie studios. A mentally unstable man crashes into the town – and the novel documents his descent into fantasy. However, the defining line between reality/fantasy is never stated – so either could be considered the ‘real thing’. Ballard draws comparison here to the mixture of the suburbs (real) and the movie set (fake), but in the mind of this man, neither is really ‘there’. By telling the story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, we lose all recollection of what is real and what is not. We are simply wandering through his mindscape.

And it is this middle ground between literal and lateral thinking that psychogeography takes place. When physical landscapes are imprinted with mental impressions – memories, associations, desires can all be forged in the physical space of the city (primarily, it is always the city for the pyschogeographer). And in this field of study, there is one word that relates well to the character of Ballard’s novel. The verb ‘robinsonner’ means ‘to travel mentally’. Its use comes from the difficulty in separating the physical from non-physical – when it is difficult to distinguish between the classic flaneur as an in-motion being to that of the stationary traveller (the armchair pyschogeographer). So, rather than traversing the streets of London or Paris, you can instead, construct a movement in your own mind – creating a narrative and map across these places that has no relation to physicality.

“No nation now but the imagination” (Derek Walcott)

But ‘nation’ and ‘imagination’ do not have to be so fundamentally opposed. Having one does not make the other obsolete. In the work of Henri Lefebvre, he outlines the ‘non-entity’ that is the middle class and their relationship to structure. He says that as a result of having ‘no substance’ – the middle classes are faced with dislocation. With no finite location – it exists on an abstract level, much like the concept of suburbia. But this does not mean it doesn’t physically exist in our world. “Abstract is not a duplicate of something concrete, but the abstract and the concrete are inseparable, and their unity makes up the everyday.” (Henri Lefebvre) These ‘non-ideas’ such as middle-class and suburbia can, and must, exist alongside the understanding of the physical location; the product being what we consider to be our everyday.

So, my ‘everyday’ that I mentioned earlier – that of suburban houses; is really a construct of both ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’. The concrete is the physical bricks and mortar; the abstract is my emotional attachment to the concept of suburbia. When the two are mixed, it produces my everyday.

So, to truly document the suburbia that I know – I will do exactly this. I will combine concrete and abstract – literal and lateral – physicality and thought. When the two meet, it will produce a true representation of suburban life.

As you can see, bound together with this study is the result of my work. It is a ‘suburban script’ – designed and written with my disinterested letter-recipients in mind. Without their input, I have constructed my own narratives for them; where real stories meet fake stories. These scripts are posted out to the suburbanites, so their ‘non-stories’ can start to take shape. By contrasting these ‘unreal’ narratives against real images of suburban households, the physical script becomes an interpretation of the everyday. The street has been a long-time focus of narratives. It is where our most personal stories happen. There is no better example of this than the classic soap opera. And by comparing my script to the soap opera, I think we begin to draw conclusions. This script is the beginning of an experimental soap opera, focusing on the lives of the suburbanites and their quest to find their place within the ‘non-place’. After all, the set for Eastenders was based on a real square in Hackney, London; and the exterior sets for Brookside were actual suburban houses, in the middle of a real development. They are the most obvious example of concrete and abstract synthesising to produce a narrative that is neither true nor false, it is unreal; a non-narrative. And that is what I have done here.

The non-place of suburbia becomes my own mental landscape to explore, to ‘robinsonner’.