Chewing the Cud
By Rodrigo Orrantia
This journey starts with a hitcher at the side of the road. A car stops, there is a first encounter and a conversation ensues on the drive along the motorway. “Why did you pick me up?” the hitcher asks the driver. For me, that question is a point of departure for a reading of Chris Coekin’s work, as he continues to seek an answer 15 years after his first hitching experiences in 1999.
Coekin is a very sharp observer, motivated by a desire to understand the world around him, a world beset with social structures, rules, systems and conventions. He questions his place in the world – and that world is Britain. Most of us take for granted the systems that run our society, but Coekin wants to test them first-hand, to prove that reality is far more complex in practice than it is in theory. It’s about ideologies; about domination, subordination and breaking away from the prescriptive routine of the everyday.
He does this through an elaborate set of recordings – visual, auditory and graphic. His work shows an acute understanding of the intersections between sound, text and image, used to create layered and intricate insights into the times and the society we live in. Coekin has the innate curiosity of a child who has to try everything by himself to understand his surroundings by experience rather than instruction. Reading into his work, one can think he is not entirely satisfied with how the world is set before him, always haunted by a desire to ask, to prove, to experience; the quintessential “Why?” that many of us either don’t bother to ask, or address with the peremptory answer '“Just because”.
“Why did you pick me up?” An answer in Coekin’s travel scrapbook reads, “You looked intelligent. I thought the conversation might be enjoyable – I was right!” I read into this answer and add my own view of Coekin: his approach primarily puts people at the centre of his work; however, due to the collaborative nature of The Hitcher, the observer also becomes the observed. Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts mention this project in their book Edgelands: Journey Into England’s True Wilderness, a critique of what we mean by wilderness and how wild spaces are encroached upon by the urbanised landscape and its idiosyncrasies: “The project works as a kind of travelogue, drawing on elements of documentary, portraiture and still lifes, with Coekin at the centre of his own road movie.” This is Coekin’s attempt to understand the world; not only by looking around personally but also by considering alternative points of view.
This interest in people and the communities they belong to has taken Coekin on a journey of discovery. From his initial interest in working men’s clubs in Knock Three Times, one can see his constant interest in his working-class roots, the beating heart of the British nation. In projects such as The Altogether and Manufactory Pt I and Pt II, there is a heartfelt approach to the representation of workers and industry. A text written by David Campany for Knock Three Times further explores the nature of Coekin’s work: “For Coekin, to photograph is to move backwards and forwards in time – to recover and discover why things are the way they are. In attending to things that are under threat, his photography is able to grasp the fragility of the present.”
I think this view is key to understanding Coekin’s world, especially the closeness he feels to his family, growing up in an industrial town and visiting factories and the working men’s clubs from an early age. His work provides an insight into a world that seems to be on the brink of disappearance, but is also a testament to it.
A few decades from now, the social structures and communities that shape England will be radically different; the old and traditional will have to give way to the new and efficient. Coekin’s projects are a stand against a relentless system that replaces and forgets. The Altogether is a call to memory, history and values, brought to the present by a creative collaboration between Coekin and a group of willing factory workers. By recreating the scenes associated with the proud past of British Industry, the workers enable Coekin to trace a connecting line with a past that seems lost. The poses and compositions are taken from Trade Union Banners, true artworks never recognised as such; quietly classed out of official art history. The images of the workers are complemented by the use of audio, to create an elaborate experience of British factories (all but a few have come to a halt) and the resilient struggle of the workers who have managed to keep them alive.
“Why did you pick me up?” Another answer in Coekin’s travel scrapbook reads “for no reason.”
The use of text in Coekin’s work is a continuum and a key to accessing the narrative thread of his projects as independent observations, but also his work as a whole. The use of text is a way of establishing connections between different works, a recurrent presence from his first experiments with makeshift signs to his more elaborate recent projects, which make conscious use of typography to complement and enhance his visual images. It’s not just about what is written, but also how – with what font, point size and layout over the photograph. Early examples are the eye-test signs in Blind Vision and the makeshift hitching signs in The Hitcher. There’s also his interest in notes and leaflets, first evident in Knock Three Times and a constant throughout his career. The font Coekin chose for Chewing The Cud is an example of how certain fonts carry social messages with them, proof that his choice for typography is calculated and full of meaning.
It has been almost 20 years since Coekin started making work, testing various ways of recording experiences and questioning social structures. In Work That Stage, his latest ongoing project, we see how typography has become a main component of his narrative construction. This project brings together his main concerns: the visual representation of the British working class (in this case through pub entertainers); and the use of language, typography and image to build an elaborate set of social and personal observations.
Crampy, The Baron, Sludgie and Little Al, are all characters from real life, posing as working-class entertainers, an echo of the leaflets and photographs he collected in working men’s clubs over the years, some of them published in Knock Three Times. Coekin appropriates the use of text and visual language from the entertainers’ self-publicity material – a world of quirky poses, stage lights and makeshift glamour. Through extensive research, he manages to use these visual codes as a way into the lives and personalities of the characters.
Coekin’s interest in other people’s view of the world is patent in one of his earliest projects, Blind Vision. He set out to understand how visually impaired people perceive the world, through a system of transcription and translation. As with many of his works, the findings in Blind Vision started as conversations which were then transcribed into text. A second step transformed the text into a set of instructions that Coekin then translated into visual images. The different triptychs that make up this project – portraits, texts and images – not only demonstrate relative perceptions of the world, but also prompt us to consider the social and human conditions that define such varying perspectives. The selected triptych is a very good example. The portrait of a visually impaired man with his dog is accompanied by a text (designed like an eye-test sign) that reads: “Cars parked and lorries unloading on pavements are a nuisance and problem to all pedestrians amongst whom of course are guide dog owners.” The difficulty reading the text prompts us to consider this man’s particular situation, further enhanced by Coekin's photograph, taken from what seems the point of view of a guide dog. It is a brief disembodiment that shifts our perspective, a visual image created on behalf of those who cannot see.
Another way to read Coekin's work is by understanding his need to reveal (both in a literal and metaphorical way) the world that is hidden right in front of our eyes. Projects such as De-composition and Domesticus are explorations of the material world of the everyday. The food we eat, the household objects we use and the spaces we inhabit end up becoming invisible during the course of our daily routines. Coekin wants to reveal a second life – patent evidence of the transience of all things – by working directly with the physical materials he encounters. In De-composition he builds elaborate sets that take on a life of their own when organic processes transform the original objects. It is a play on the world of food photography, mocking the coloured backgrounds and stylised illumination of commercial food advertising; investigating the idea of waste, especially from food imported from abroad. In Domesticus, household objects and chemicals become part of the photographic process, producing unexpected results. These layered analogue and digital experiments point to an experience, an empirical understanding of matter, an uncovering rather than a construction.
Be it on the road, in the pub, or at home, Coekin's mind is always searching, reworking – always chewing the cud. His artistic practice is a very particular combination of media, repeatedly coming down to essential conversations about life and what it means to live and work in contemporary Britain. It seems to me that this honest engagement with people – the invisible regular people, as opposed to the seemingly more interesting eccentric types – defines his practice and makes it invaluable, both as a true semblance of modern life and as a much-needed witness to irrevocable social changes happening across the land.
The journey ends with the driver dropping the hitcher off after a pleasant, perhaps meaningful conversation. Yet the hitcher is still searching, still trying to understand. In a sense, his journey continues. Perhaps it's time for him to make another sign and wait for the next car to stop and pick him up. Maybe the next driver will offer some enlightenment.
Chris Coekin's Archaeology of the Present
By David Campany
Contemporary culture can be very quick to announce the end of things it would prefer did not exist. Chris Coekin is interested in two such things. The English working class is one of them and documentary photography is the other. We are all supposed to be consumers now, living in an image world not of careful social description but of fantasy and escape. The received wisdom is that documentary photography and the working classes can be, for different but related reasons, tossed aside - dismissed as naïve and nostalgic hangovers of another era. But Coekin is all too aware that what passes for 'common sense' these days is less a matter of practical knowledge than the projection of wishes and self-interest. He is neither naïve nor nostalgic. His subject matter and his working method may be overshadowed and under threat but his images are acts of will. They are borne of a necessity that is as personal as it is historical and political.
Knock Three Times looks at and looks beyond the surface appearance of working men's clubs. The photographer asks how such places can be thinkable and knowable today. He begins from the premise that photography does at least describe the present and the visible. To this he adds an understanding that what we know of the present is framed by what we know, and don't know, of the past and the future. For Coekin, to photograph is to move backwards and forwards in time - to recover and discover why things are the way they are. In attending to things that are under threat his photography is able to grasp the fragility of the present. The imagery gathered here gives us the working men's club - its look and its culture - poised between a history being erased by a culture happy to forget its past, and a future it is perhaps too frightened to contemplate.
When the philosopher and social historian Michel Foucault characterized the nature of the modern citizen he described a life lived through institutions. You might be born in a hospital, into a family structure. You go to school. You work in a factory, or for the military or in an office. You might be in and out of hospital, or prison and so on. In this way the modern subject is disciplined - shaped in mind and body. We might add to the list those institutions of leisure which so often complete the pattern of modern life - cinema, tourism, television, pubs, sports. The working men's club has had a complex place in all this. It is a space connected yet distanced from working life on one side and family life on the other. Moreover it has had a double role. It has served as a space both of respite and resistance to the conditions of work and family. Coekin draws on his own experience of the working men's club as a pivotal space in his life. He weaves it into a broader historical account the forces that shape such clubs and the lives they have shaped in turn.
Is photography work? Yes, of course it is. Some photographers are among the hardest working people. The field is competitive and unstable. Even so, many photographers feel what they do is somehow not quite work. Perhaps it is because a photographer steps outside of things and outside of peoples' lives even when the aim is to connect with them. Coekin has said "Photography is not work in the sense that the work I used to do on a building site was work. I would stare out the window and think wouldn’t it be great to be a photographer? And even now from a commercial point of view, when I am shooting commissions and working very hard it never quite feels like work as I have known it." Photography is precarious, financially and culturally. Knock Three Times is especially so. Coekin has put it together not because he was commissioned but because felt he had to.
Is looking at photographs work? Yes, but it doesn't often seem that way. Documentary photography evolved as an 'art of authority' as much as an 'art of authenticity': too often it has aimed for a seamless, reductive picture of the world, a world to be understood simply and at a glance. Coekin is suspicious of this. Photography shouldn't be too easily digestible. So he has done his work here - researching and exploring the subject, making the pictures, assembling them as a book but in doing so he has extended an invitation. The viewer is encouraged to work a little too, to piece together a history and a future from the rich puzzle pieces we have before us.
Chris Coekin’s The Hitcher
By Camilla Brown
Chris Coekin set out to make this body of work with a clear plan of action in mind and strict parameters for how he intended to do so. Since 2000 he has, on separate journeys, travelled around and across the United Kingdom from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, Liverpool to Dover, and Northern Ireland to Wales. His mode of transport was simple - hitchhiking, a choice that made him reliant on others and forced him to rescind a certain amount of control, being dependent on strangers to propel him on his way.
One element of the final work is a series of portraits Coekin took of the people who gave him a lift. They effectively selected themselves to become part of the work, through their split-second decision to give him a ride. This is interesting when one compares it to other journeys recorded by photographers who are part of the social documentary tradition, in which it is the photographer who decides whom and what to photograph. The subjects are usually unaware that they have become part of a body of work. Even those that are called ‘concerned photographers’, who live in amongst the people they photograph, remain in a voyeuristic perspective – outside of, and separate to, the subjects of the work. Coekin’s project is by its very nature much more participative, and there is a different level of exchange between the photographer and those who are photographed. They all have the choice to take part, and invariably they are happy to oblige.
Coekin also chooses to place himself in the work, since another element is a series of self-portraits taken on self-timer with a small snapshot camera and processed by his local lab. In these, the artist becomes the actor in a self-constructed drama, playing The Hitcher. Interested in cinematic references, and numerous films that explore the latent macabre potential of a hiking scenario, Coekin wanted part of the work to be about the underlying tension that surrounds the process of picking up an unknown man at the side of the road. In that sense, he is playing a part and we see his appearance change throughout the project. We see him frustrated, wet and cold, waiting in a lay-by, or carefree and relaxed in his summer shorts. We see his painful blistered and sunburnt feet – evidence of hardship and suffering for his art. This is what makes his work stand apart from so many others. We may get glimpses of Winogrand in shop window fronts or his shadow cast on the ground; more often, Friedlander will appear in his own images – but rarely is such a central core of a body of work the artist himself. This relates Coekin’s practice more to performance art than to photography, with the artist as protagonist.
Another section of the work includes Coekin’s photographs of the roadside detritus he comes across on his journeys. We see brightly coloured crisp packets and McDonald’s cartons slung out of car windows and blown across intersections, landing in grass verges. We see discarded DVD players rendered obsolete and worthless so quickly by the pace of technological advancement. Coekin sees these objects as metaphors reflecting some of the negative aspects of contemporary British life. In some cases, though, these discarded objects take on a life and beauty of their own. We wonder why and how they got to where they are and what story lies behind them. In this respect, the work bears strong comparison to Keith Arnatt’s witty and poetic observations of rubbish. Arnatt transforms the mundane into something more interesting and surreal through the process of photographing them.
Ultimately, this work is about a personal journey. As Mark Haworth-Booth was to comment on The English at Home, Bill Brandt’s seminal body of photographs taken in 1930s Britain, “Brandt was one of a generation of young photographic explorers whose visas, it could be said, had already been issued by literature.” Certainly, as mentioned in Coekin’s text, he was influenced by both Jack Kerouac and Laurie Lee. As homage, Coekin visits Stroud on his journey, the place that Lee was so keen to escape in his book As I Walked Out One Midummer Morning. It is interesting to think that he was fleeing the very same 1930s England that Brandt had caught on film. Lee’s travels to Spain, just at the outbreak of the Civil War, serve as a great example of a personal quest that gets bizarrely caught up in a significant moment of history. In retrospect, his insights into Spanish life and its people offer a fascinating record of a particular moment in time that quickly becomes a thing of the past.
It will be interesting to see how Coekin’s work is read in the future. The fact that it exists at all stands as testimony to, and as a potential epitaph for, a way of travelling that seems set to disappear from our landscape in years to come. Certainly, over the time that Coekin was making this work, the number of hikers on our motorways diminished and more people seemed reluctant to pick him up. However, with ecological issues coming to the fore, car pooling and perhaps new versions of ‘cyber’-hitchhikers might appear. It is hard to know what commentary this work might offer on the present, but there is no doubt that it is an important chapter in Coekin’s practice.
The First Time
By Chris Coekin
I suppose it all started with Jack Kerouac’s iconic Beat novel On The Road. I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon it, but I think it was courtesy of an ex-girlfriend. Anyway, it left a pretty big impression on me and turned out to have a major impact on my life at a time when I had reached that place aptly referred to as ‘the crossroads’. The job was dull, the beer was flat and the entertainment lousy. I couldn’t see where my future lay. All I knew was that there had to be more to life than this job and its shackles. Jack and his boys were calling, the road trip appealed and I wanted to tread that sticky black Tarmacadam; I wanted to head into and off the horizon, recite poetry and strum Woody Guthrie; I wanted to jump a boxcar, ride in a Chevy and drop mescaline down in Mexico; I wanted to curl up under the stars and wake with a dark-skinned jasmine-fragranced beauty. In retrospect, of course, my dream of ‘lighting out’ like Kerouac was a self-conscious cliché, a romantic fantasy that was pretty much de rigueur for every serious-minded student and disaffected young man of my generation – but I felt I had been awakened.
That midsummer morning towards the back end of the 80s, I was awoken, awoken out of my dreams, by the sound of the ‘dustbin men’ dragging our rusty old bin down the alleyway. It was loud, one of those noises that gets under your skin, eventually, as the week’s waste – baked-bean tins, snap, -crackle-and-pop packets, potato peelings, beer cans and
more – is spilled into the monster wagons. That was the day, the glorious day, when I was to set off on my travels. I’d been working, cash-in-hand, cleaning windows to earn a few bob for my journey. I recall that I had saved £230 – although, judging by my hangover, I’d probably spent a significant amount of it down the pub already.
There, on the Formica table in front of me, was the book that was to be my real inspiration: Laurie Lee’s autobiographic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. It was cover side up, and it was this cover – of the 1988 Penguin edition – that provided the blueprint for my travel luggage. It consisted of a small green canvas bag and a tightly wrapped sleeping bag which I’d had since joining the Cub Scouts back in 1977. The sleeping bag had a musty stench to it – but hey, I was heading for the dust-drenched open road…
I sat at the front, on the top deck of the number 88 bus that was biding its time at the Monmouth Drive terminus on the Eyres Monsell Estate in Leicester. I was waiting for my travelling companion, another thrill-seeker who was disillusioned, a spiritual compatriot who longed to break free and chase down the sunset. Ian, aka the Big Fella, was going to join me. He bounded on to the bus and I could hear his panting and wheezing as he struggled up the stairs, dragging his luggage in his wake. He certainly hadn’t gone for the minimalist option, and clearly didn’t believe in travelling light like Laurie and myself. No, he had decided on the family-luggage-on-wheels option. ‘Big Fella,’ I exclaimed, ‘we are about to set off for the open roads of Europe, and you have packed like we’re going on a package holiday to Benidorm.’
I have to admit that, up to that point, the planning of our journey had mostly taken place after several Billy Ales. Although I was deadly serious about change, it dawned on me that the Big Fella probably wasn’t as enthusiastic about shaking off the shackles as I was. Until our rendezvous on that 88 bus, I’d been led to believe he was quitting his ‘boring’ job in the tax office and heading off with me on a one-way ticket. It turned out that, just as I’d suspected, this was his two-week annual holiday, not his road to salvation.
After several memorable nights in Amsterdam (another story), we found ourselves at a service station next to an autobahn somewhere in southern Germany. Our intention – or at least mine – was to hitchhike our way through Europe. We were officially ‘hitching virgins’ and knew nothing about its etiquette or customs. On this particular day, on this particular spot, there seemed to be an unusually large number of hitchhikers, ‘free spirits’ who came in all shapes and sizes, both female and male. There were long-haired, shaven-headed, goatee-bearded, dreadlocked, pierced, tattooed and greater bearded types. Their clothing and decoration consisted of beads, bangles, big baggy trousers, Tibetan skull caps, reversed baseball caps, seashell necklaces, plenty of distressed denim and a faint whiff of petunia oil. Then there was the Big Fella: grey slacks, grey socks, sensible shoes, pin-striped shirt, pullover and grey suitcase on wheels. I, at least, had made an
effort – or thought I had – with my Kerouac-inspired desert boots, Levis and T-shirt. And definitely, under no circumstances, had I considered wearing petunia oil!
The time had come for us to put ourselves at the mercy of ‘The Road’, to be guided by the compassion and benevolence of those good, good, drivers. ‘OK then, start hitching,’ said the Big Fella. ‘You do it,’ I said. ‘No, it was your idea,’ he yelled. ‘No, go on, you start,’ I replied. ‘It’s your fucking big idea, now stick out your thumb or I’m off,’ barked the Big Fella. It can’t have been a pretty sight – two grown men, one 6ft tall, the other 6ft 5in and weighing 16 stone, squabbling at the roadside somewhere in Bavaria. The seasoned hitchhikers looked on with some amusement at our shenanigans, observing our heated debate as we waved our fists at each other and threw around verbal insults.
Eventually, I stepped up to the breach. Hesitantly, and with caution, I stuck out my thumb. Christ, it felt weird, like nothing I’d ever done before. My thumb felt like it was on fire and was glowing like a Belisha beacon. Who would have thought that such a simple act as holding out a thumb would stir such emotions? I felt nervous as the adrenalin started to flow through my awkward body. I felt uncomfortable, exposed and vulnerable. I felt that, somehow, I was offering myself up for some pagan ritual. I felt soulless, like a mannequin – and indeed, I was now in the shop window and on offer. It occurred to me that any potential lift-giver would have very little time, probably only a matter of seconds, to make a decision about my character. Such a judgment could only be based on my external appearance and the driver’s preconceptions about it. This disturbed me, adding to my woes. I began to consider my stance and my facial expression. Maybe I should smile more, maybe I shouldn’t slouch, maybe I should play hard to get… fuck, this was getting complicated. Perhaps I should simply strap a big sign around my neck – ‘Please give me a lift. I am a good person of good character (can provide references), with excellent manners and a strong bladder.’ Good God, what had I let myself in for? What sort of maniac would stop? It was bound to be some nutter who would rob me at knife point. It occurred to me that my next journey could be my last – bound, gagged, locked in a car boot and never heard of again. I began to think I had made a big mistake, that maybe this hitchhiking malarkey wasn’t such a good idea. Perhaps the Big Fella had the right idea, that a two-week holiday and a pragmatic return to the day job was the only way forward.
I glanced over at him, perched on his ludicrous big grey suitcase, legs crossed, giggling like a naughty schoolboy at my feeble attempts to attract a lift. ‘Fuck you and your case,’ I yelled, sticking out my thumb with renewed vigour and real conviction. Several cars slowed down and their drivers appeared to take an interest. On one occasion, I ran after a decelerating vehicle but, as I approached, received a volley of insults and ‘the finger’ from its young occupants. I figured that hitchhiking was a bit like fishing: you optimistically cast your hook and then bide your time, occasionally getting a nibble, panicking a bit and striking too soon, only for the fish to swim off.
Then it happened. A car – I can’t recall the make or model, but it was big, black and German – took the bait. It came to a halt further up the road, with the rays of the midday sun bouncing off its frosted black windows. The Big Fella stopped giggling, his amused expression was replaced by one of nervous anticipation. He looked over at me and I froze, suspended in time, still holding out my thumb, unsure what to do next. I’d really gone and done it now. The driver blasted his horn and the car waited motionless, 20 yards ahead, its engine ticking over. I looked over my shoulder and saw that some of our fellow hitchhikers had started making their way over to the shiny black chariot. That was our lift, it was my catch, and nobody was going to steal it. It was my destiny, I believed. I motioned over to the Big Fella to get a move on and he caught up with me, dragging his case like a bag of swag in the dirty grey rubble. We soon reached the strange vehicle with its anonymous driver, well ahead of our rivals. We stood on opposite sides of the car, the Big Fella beside the front passenger window, I beside the driver’s. The misty black windows slowly opened to the accompaniment of a faint electrical buzzing. We could now eyeball our mystery Good Samaritan and potential travelling companion. Simultaneously, with mouths agape, like something out of a Laurel and Hardy film, we peered at each other in disbelief over the car roof. Again we stooped down and looked inside, again our eyes met in horror. Then, in almost perfect unison, we spluttered, ’Fuck, he’s got no arms!’
The driver, a middle-aged man, addressed us in German – a slight problem, since neither I nor the Big Fella spoke a word of the language. ‘Do you speak English?’ I asked. ‘Of course I do, where are you going?’ the driver replied. It occurred to us that we hadn’t thought about such inconsequential details as our destination. ’North?’ the Big Fella suggested. ‘OK, get in,’ said the driver, with noted enthusiasm. Nervously we clambered into the car, clunked and clicked our seatbelts and contemplated our immediate future. The armless driver was controlling the car entirely with his feet, using some contraption adapted from the steering column and pedals. He was in the mood for conversation and often looked me straight in the eye – a little disconcerting, since I was sitting in the rear passenger seat. Our new friend was a good conversationalist, intelligent and witty, and the Big Fella and I began to relax and enjoy the journey in the company of this genuine and honest person. We watched in amazement at his driving agility, made more remarkable by the fact that we were going very, very fast along the autobahn. Before we knew it, we had reached the end of the road – yet the journey was only just beginning.
Days at the Factories
By Chris Coekin
Days, days at the factories
They come and they go
As sure as the sun sets
On a working day
Cogs and flywheels
And pistons a pumping
Days, days at the factories
And flasks of tea
And red top news
Sweat a beading
And hearts a thumping
And ears a ringing
Days, days at the factories
Master and servant
They stand and fall
All things are common
Days, days at the factories
And clock off
And clock on
And clock off
And clock on
And clock off