Emma Payne speaks to Barry Cawston, the award-winning photographer who documented Banksy’s Dismaland in Are We There Yet? – a major new book exhibiting its images all over the country, including Bristol’s Pithay Studios
Upturned carriages, riot vans, surly staff and a distorted Little Mermaid…who could forget Dismaland? Set in the derelict concrete surroundings of Weston-Super-Mare’s Tropicana Lido, the infamous Banksy’s ‘bemusement park’ didn’t shy away from the big political and social issues of 2015 – many of which have intensified in the year since its unveiling last August.
Open from 21 August – 27 September 2015, Dismaland attracted 150,000 visitors from all over the world, and featured the often controversial work of 58 contemporary artists. During 15 separate visits to the park, world-renowned photographer Barry Cawston chose to document life at the park and across Weston-Super-Mare, and has spent the past 12 months compiling the images into Are We There Yet?, alongside poems and essays about the event. We spoke to him about the motivations behind the book, his perspective on Dismaland and his favourite interactive installation…
EP: Why were you drawn to Banksy’s Dismaland?
BC: I have always loved Banksy’s work since coming across it in East London in 1992. Now I live in Axbridge just down the road from Weston, so it was a very easy ‘Yes!’ when I was offered a ticket to the opening party.
Did you have any preconceived ideas about what to expect at Dismaland? Did the experience leave an impression on you?
Not really. I thought that the Banksy exhibition at Bristol Museum in 2009 was one of the best I have ever been to. To pull off something of that scale with such an attention to detail was outstanding.
But Dismaland blew me away from the moment I walked through the door… I have always been drawn to artistic and science fiction representations of a dystopian future. Banksy’s ‘Bemusement Park’ seemed to take this further in representing a scary vision of a dystopian present.
I have always loved Weston-Super-Mare and I enjoyed seeing this largely forgotten Victorian seaside town become the centre of the international art world. I will also admit that while Dismaland was open, it was like living round the corner from the best pop-up bar in Europe for a while.
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Many of the pieces were overtly political or satirical. What, in your opinion, was Banksy trying to convey by bringing artists together in this way?
This is a big question and one that I think will be discussed and written about for many years. I think Banksy wanted to challenge the traditional notion in people’s heads that art is something that belongs in a white walled gallery. Essentially Dismaland was a shout out for all of us to “WAKE UP”.
“It was a parody of a visitor attraction that had become a bucket-list hit. I think Banksy enjoyed the irony…”
Did any one work resonate more with you than the rest?
Banksy’s boating lake where visitors could steer remote-controlled police boats or boats full of refugees was very dark. There were figures floating in the water and the boats were difficult to control so they often rammed each other. This piece was made all the more prescient at the time with the publication of heart wrenching press images coming from the Mediterranean and, later, BBC1’s incredible ‘Exodus’ series.
After your first visit, you decided to return multiple times to document life at the park. Did your experience and perspective differ each time?
For sure. It was important for my project to photograph both Weston and Dismaland at different times of the day, in different weather, and when the site was both busy and empty. As time went on, I could really sense how Dismaland had caught the public’s attention. The queues lengthened and people were even flying in from overseas. I met a girl from NYC who flew over for 36hrs specifically to visit Dismaland. The whole thing took off. It was a parody of a visitor attraction that had become a bucket-list hit. I think Banksy enjoyed the irony.
The Dismaland security checkpoint by Bill Barminski was made entirely from cardboard, complete with surly security guards
Why did you decide to compile your Dismaland images in to a book? Was this your intention from the beginning?
Not really, I love visiting Weston and I had always wanted to do a project which focused on the place in some way, so when the ‘circus’ came to town, I was hooked. As with most of these things the project developed organically. There were a few images and events that made me realise I had something interesting to play with. The back cover of the book has a photograph of a rainbow which perfectly spanned the Tropicana site one day (see featured image above).
It looks like a magical force field and turns the whole vista into a snow globe image, or as I call it, a Pleasure Dome. Images I took both inside and outside Dismaland started to work as pairings because the themes and ‘conversations’ that the artists were having inside the park were replicated in images I saw in the high street outside. It began to make sense to lay them next to each other across the pages of a book to create new visual dialogues.
“Are We There Yet? blurs the line between Banksy’s theme park and Weston, and therefore between art and reality…”
What is the meaning behind the book’s title Are We There Yet?
As Weston is a seaside town, the title is a nod to the classic phrase from family holidays but it’s also about when and if, as a society, we finally get time to catch our breath and have a much-needed break after the crazy journey that the UK, and indeed our whole planet, has been on for the last few years.
‘Perseverance in the Face of Absurdity’ by James Joyce featured a rotating smiley face screen
Why did you include the landscapes and people of Weston-Super-Mare in your images alongside the art in your book?
It must be obvious how much I got out of Dismaland itself, but I did not want to just document the event. I was born in Bournemouth and have always loved seaside towns. I felt that there was a myriad of visual metaphors to be found on Weston’s back streets which I could juxtapose with the ones made by artists inside Dismaland. Are We There Yet? blurs the line between Banksy’s theme park and Weston, and therefore between art and reality.
“Dismaland posited the idea of a horror show, a parallel universe if you like, that one could see out of the corner of your eye if you looked carefully enough…”
Were you trying to capture the artwork itself, or the reactions of those visiting?
I really enjoy photographing people and the theatre that was Dismaland provided me with a great stage on which to people-watch. But I think that it could be argued that the whole of Dismaland was one single art piece, and that all the visitors (goaded by the fantastic Dismal stewards) were, in fact, all part of one artwork.
Farhath Siddiqui, one of the fun-loving park stewards, is interviewed in Are We There Yet?
What was the most challenging aspect of photographing such a popular attraction? Were there any pieces you would’ve liked to include but weren’t able to?
I’m not sure that it was particularly difficult technically speaking, but I wanted each picture to be ‘relevant’ and in the back of my mind I always had Banksy, as the devil on my shoulder, asking if I was really doing anything of significance with his Zeitgeist project. But then as I say, some of the pictures I took began to talk to each other, and some of the resulting image sequences have a narrative which is more like a comic book than a photo book.
How do you think looking at a photograph of a work differs to experiencing the art in person?
I took a couple of pictures of Dismaland that I think really work, and I’ve seen some others on the Internet which go some way to summing up aspects of it really well, but it was so interactive that a single image can only ever be a pale imitation of the real thing. My book Are We There Yet? is intended as an art project which is inspired by Dismaland, rather than actually being ‘about it’. The book also features two poems, a short story and an interview with Farhath Siddiqui, one of the Dismal stewards. As well as essays by Dismaland contributor and author Tristan Manco and visual arts producer Kath Cockshaw, which have brought other dynamic elements to the book and made it a joint venture.
In light of recent events this year, do you think those who see the Are We There Yet? images in 2016 will have a different response to those who saw the art at Dismaland in 2015? Will any of the images have acquired a new meaning?
I am not sure. Dismaland posited the idea of a horror show, a parallel universe if you like, that one could see out of the corner of your eye if you looked carefully enough, but now in 2016 it is all too real. I thought I had finished the project in February but events kept drawing me back to Weston, seeking to capture some of the real craziness of 2016. However dark Dismaland was, the people who visited still had some sense of community and social cohesion intact, but on many levels there are now real cracks in the ether and all meaning is now ‘in flux’. It’s difficult to over-estimate how amazingly on the money Banksy was.
What does photography mean to you?
Barry Cawston’s book, Are We There Yet?, is available to purchase at hopperprojects.com
Images from the book will be exhibited at the Programme Gallery from 18 November – 10 December – located at Pithay Studios, All Saints Street, Bristol BS1 2LZ
All featured images © Barry Cawston