This review was commissioned by Photomonitor and can be viewed here. High-rise chronicles Peter Bobby’s long-term photographic examination of corporate spaces and the suite of installations of his work that have framed the project over the last eighteenth months or so. (Bobby was interviewed by Photomonitor during the project’s development, which can be read here.) Unpacking the politics and ideology of interior spaces has preoccupied Bobby’s practice, such as his Showhome project (2001-2002) which documented interior displays of new build luxury developments, fabricated to entice buyers to purchase property off-plan. His exploration of exclusive high-rise architecture began in 2007, on the eve of the global financial crisis. Since then, his body of research has acquired a greater socio-political resonance, as the economic gulf between the world’s ‘top 1%’ and the rest of us has increased dramatically. In almost the same period that Bobby has completed this project, the combined wealth of the richest one thousand people in Britain has risen from two hundred billion to five hundred billion pounds .
High-rise architecture conjures up contrasting images – one of extravagance and one of necessity: firstly, the slick skyscrapers that Bobby surveys, designed exclusively for the economic and social elite and secondly; (within a British context at least) post war modernist tower blocks built to house as many people as efficiently as possible. The latter are of course considered socially problematic by today’s planners and many have been systematically demolished, although some (the Trellick Tower in Kensington and The Lawn in Harlow for example) have acquired listed building status. Although Bobby’s work does not address the social issues that relate to this second category of high-rise, it illustrates their highly divisive and controversial nature, and more subtly alludes to ideas around division and inequality – not just in an economic sense, but in the relationship between vision and power. Critics of the corporate high-rise structure identify an inherent dislocation from the reality of life at ‘pedestrian level’, and the symbolic power that the gaze of their users exert over the city and its inhabitants below. Consistent throughout Bobby’s interiors are the giant ‘panoramic’ windows that dominate the architecture and interior design of the spaces. While Bobby’s work is not overtly political from a social perspective, it deals with the politics of these kinds of spaces. In particular, suggesting how the omnipresent view from the high-rise is indistinguishable from the egotistical ideology of this type of structure, and how views might be used strategically to impress or intimidate those who temporarily visit them.
The connection between the performances of power that take place within these spaces and theatre is referenced across Bobby’s project; notably the recurring curtain motif, and his decision to install the work at the National Theatre in London in 2013. The vulnerable corporate façade of the high-rise is further explored in Bobby’s contrasting exterior images of the buildings. As per their layout in the installations, in the book they are dispersed throughout the sequence of images, punctuating the series and disarming the prowess of the interiors. These graphically economic images resemble etchings onto a black plate and reduce their subject’s form to a concise expression. The pictures are dramatic, and the upward looking point-of-view and expanse of black night sky allude to the sublime. However, resigned to the bottom edge of the frame the subjects themselves are denied their usual resplendence.
The competitive nature of the high-rise is elaborated upon in the book’s first essay by Kim Dovey, concluding with a discussion of their fundamentally phallic nature. (Serendipitously, whilst the Tramshed in Cardiff – one of the venues for Bobby’s installation – was in the process of being decommissioned for its use as a temporary exhibition space for the Diffusion festival, a worker spray painted a yellow penis on one of the walls. This can be seen in one of the installation views in the final section of the book.) Much like the views that these spaces and their windows frame, this ostensibly patriarchal architectural underpinning is aligned with the all-encompassing, commanding force of the traditional landscape picture – which, historically, tended to be commissioned by those with a limited personal connection to the views they consume.
The notion that the high-rise user is immune from the eyes of others through vertical distance is illustrated in 85th, Ladies Toilets. What could be more luxurious than going to the lavatory surrounded by clear views and secure in the knowledge that no one can see you? The one-way glass that such buildings are often cladded with facilitates the high-rise’s voyeuristic, objectifying ‘gaze’. However, this material actually has more complex implications: notably, a self-affirming quality for its users. Perhaps ironically, high-rises tend to be erected in geographical clusters, offering their occupiers views onto similar constructions and microcosms, or even constant, narcissistic mirror images of themselves in their neighboring buildings. The photograph 17th, Residential Pool invites us to consider implications of reflection, and 27th, Property Sales Office, a peculiar mise-en-abyme self-portrait – where an architect’s model of a high-rise is echoed by a similar construction visible through the room’s window – provides a more vivid illustration of this.
Bobby subverts the privileged views offered by the high-rise through his resistance to conform to norms of architectural photography, such as carefully balancing the exposure of the view outside the window with that of the space within. This is just one of several methods that Bobby employs to critique photography’s traditional role as servant to the ideology of architectural concepts and strategies, a problem outlined by David Drake in the book’s introduction. To the casual glance, Bobby’s photographs – as with his earlier works – might easily be mistaken for commercial- rather than art photography. One obvious distinction however is that Bobby’s High-risepictures are ‘un-dressed’ from a stylistic perspective, and are free of figures to animate the space or offer scale. Instead, however, Bobby allows certain objects to gain slightly more prominence within the frame than a more conventional picture of the space would allow, often with surreal consequences: for instance, the olive tree sprouting up from the horizon in 18th, Health Club. Absence is most acutely felt in the one image from the project which is anchored to a specific moment in history, 23rd, Executive Lounge, where a news story about the Gulf of Mexico oilrig disaster unfolds on a television. The juxtaposition of the screen and the neat, empty bar stools and tables has a distinctly abandoned atmosphere, as though – like the workers on the rig – the high-rise occupiers have responded to a similarly urgent mayday alarm. Rather than lending the spaces and their images a sense of clean minimalism in keeping with their design, Bobby literally strips them bare, leaving them a little naked and vulnerable to our scrutiny.
As their titles suggest, Bobby’s three video pieces, Curtain, Divide and Blind, explore the idea of a physical barrier or shield between these exclusive spaces, and those on the ‘other’ side. In these works, the artist makes further references to the medium of photography, notably; the camera shutter, exposure reciprocity, and the photographic surface. In his essay, Liam Devlin notes Bobby’s deliberate use of the video camera on auto-exposure mode, whereby the camera constantly compensates for exposure as the screens in Curtain and Blind are slowly drawn across their respective windows. In Curtain this results in the steady emergence of a blood red curtain, much like at a theatre or cinema, that emerges from its dark shadow like a latent image materializing in the developer tray. In Blind, we see the electronic aluminium venetian blinds steadily descending across a window, to be suddenly flipped 180 degrees, momentarily overpowering the camera sensor and overexposing the sequence. Both of these videos offer the whole project two pseudo decisive moments that are the product of camera algorithms rather than an organic author. Devlin likens this auto exposure mode to the complex maintenance mechanisms that allow these highly artificial spaces to operate, constantly regulating temperature, humidity and air circulation.
The High-rise publication effectively documents and handsomely presents a substantial project, which acquired a slightly new narrative of its own in each of the four venues in which it was installed. The scope – in terms of related subjects and disciplines – and critical depth of the publication’s essays do justice to the complexities of Bobby’s work and the issues that he addresses. While the work is not directly concerned with the socio-economic implications of the high-rise – and Bobby delves much further than this conceptually – it would have been interesting to explore the architectural polarity (and similarities) of the high-rise and the divergent images that they arouse. This view is obviously coloured by the economic climate in which we presently find ourselves looking at Bobby’s project, and is a reminder of how the specific moment of experiencing a work influences our reading of it as significantly as all of the other contextual dimensions.  According to Jacques Peretti’s documentary The Super-Rich and Us(BBC2: 08.01.15 & 15.01.15)