Q&A with writer and photographer Jason Oddy
Jason Oddy will be showing his latest series of work ‘Concrete Spring’ at The Mosaic Rooms on 19 June 2014. Find out about this event here.
Salle Omnisport, Algiers, Algeria, 2013
Q1/ Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us about some of the projects you have worked on?
I am a writer and photographic artist, with a strong interest in
place. Many of the sites I have focused on have politics or history
or ideology at their core. For example I have made work in the
Pentagon, Guantanamo Bay, the United Nations headquarters and
ex-Soviet sanatoria in the Crimea. Equally I have sought out places
with more idiosyncratic or personal resonances. Homes of the
recently deceased and the cryonics industry in America are a couple that
come to mind.
Q2/ Can you tell us a bit about your latest series of work ‘Concrete Spring’ - what does the series depict and why did you choose to focus on this subject?
Concrete Spring is an exploration of celebrated Brazilian architect
Oscar Niemeyer’s legacy in Algeria. Shortly after Algerian
independence Niemeyer was invited by the then president to help the
new nation establish a modern, international outlook, one that would
represent a break with its colonial past. While not all Niemeyer’s
proposed Algerian projects were built, today two extensive university
campuses and an Olympic sports hall stand as testament to this
ambition. I first became aware of Niemeyer’s Algerian work as a
result of an EU artist residency in Algiers I was invited to take part
in by the British Council. That was in November 2010 which, by
chance, was the very month the Arab Spring ignited in neighbouring
Tunisia. I spent over two years trying to return, motivated in a large
part by the decidedly political nature of these buildings. I wanted
to capture and make visible again the post-independence optimism that
is an integral part of these largely forgotten modernist masterpieces. With the Arab Spring unfurling, I felt the project had an extra urgency, the ideas that led to the creation of such places over a generation ago, now as relevant as ever in a region that continues to find itself at a critical crossroads.
Mentouri University, Constantine, Agleria, 2013
Q3/ Can you tell us a bit about your experience of photographing in Algeria – did you face any particular challenges? What were your impressions of the country, people and culture?
A good portion of any project I undertake involves gaining access to what are often hard to reach or off-limits places. Similarly, taking pictures in Algeria was not straightforward. When I first went there in November 2010 I spent nearly the whole week of the residency unsuccessfully trying to get permission to photograph Niemeyer’s Algiers buildings. Eventually I succeeded but only the day before I was leaving. It took me nearly two and half years to return. In part this was a problem of funding, in part it was a problem of obtaining permissions. It seemed I had to reach right to the top of each university to get the green light. Likewise bringing cameras into
Algeria is problematic. In the end I entered overland by taxi in the middle of the night from Tunisia and there was no problem - the customs officers didn’t search the boot. However once in the country things were more relaxed. I was working either on the campuses or in the Olympic Sports Hall - I had the right pieces of paper endorsed by the right, i.e., top, people if anyone challenged me. Overall I had the impression that the country is quite hierarchical - getting things done is largely dependent on whom you know or whom you are able to obtain access to. Luckily I found one or two very helpful and generous contacts who saw the value of the project and assisted me from afar when I was in England.
I spent three weeks in the country and in that time slowly got an idea of its complexity. Aside from Algeria’s not so distant colonial past, there is the Arab - Berber divide, and the whole question of the Islamists who, whilst having been defeated in the recent bloody civil war - known locally as the ‘black decade’ - apparently have a growing influence. Then there is the matter of the ‘deep state’, the military that is said to control the country. A number of people I met were outspoken with strong opinions on the political situation. However, allied to that is what I felt was a certain sense of powerlessness, a lack of individual agency. Algeria is an authoritarian state, the Arab Spring didn’t reach the country - at least the protests there
never really caught fire as they did elsewhere. Now Algerians will tell you that they knew all along that the Arab Spring would come to no good playing into the hands either of Islamists or autocrats. I think that after the civil war in which so many people died so horribly, many Algerians have convinced themselves that perhaps it is better to stick with the devil they know. While the pain of that period is still palpable (I met people who had lost family members to the conflict), it did seem to have produced a certain carefree attitude. The Algerians I met were often funny and warm and, in
Algiers at least, quite hedonistic.
The Houari Boumediene University of Science and Technology, Bab-Ezzouar, Algiers, Algeria 2013
Q4/ What are you working on right now? Are you planning any new projects/ where should we watch-out for your next exhibition?
At present I am finishing writing a book about a town in New
Mexico which the American government bought and then turned into an
anti-terrorist training centre. The book, Notes From The Desert, will
also include a number of my photographs and is being published by
Grasset, France. Currently I am participating in a group show at
Belmacz Gallery in London. In September Concrete Spring will show at
the Amsterdam Unseen photography fair, before it moves on to be a part
of the Milan Triennale in October. In May 2015 Concrete Spring will
be on show at the Royal Academy in London.