Untitled (Georgia, USA/Harz Germany), Andrew Cross, 2004.Untitled (Georgia, USA/Harz Germany), Andrew Cross, 2004.

Andrew Cross - Create News Issue 1 (September 2006)

Willie White interviews artist Andrew Cross. Whatever happened to looking out the window?

The thrill has gone from travel. While we may fancy ourselves to be Born to Be Wild, congestion, fuel prices, pollution, and talk radio conspire to degrade our daily journey to an ordeal to be endured rather than an adventure to be embraced. Over the long haul, if the terrorists or the DVT don’t get you the airport departure lounge will numb you into hopelessness. Yet there must have been a time before this when travel promised better things.

The work of English artist Andrew Cross allows for such a possibility. A self-confessed trainspotter, his interest in trains does not tally with the popular image of a nerd with a notebook recording engine numbers. He is more interested in the mechanism for travel and where the tracks might lead to. In his digital film Foreign Power (Parts 1,2,3) 2002-2004, which was short listed for the Becks Futures prize, the central section features a static shot of a railway crossing in the US. The shot is allowed to establish and the viewer becomes aware of an almost meditative atmosphere with a light wind and sounds of insects and birds. Slowly the noise of something approaching grows in intensity until a mile long freight train crashes through the frame from left to right. The horizontal lines of the corrugated steel carriages and the uprights of their frames stream past, creating a stroboscopic effect, amplified by the rhythmic clacking of wheels crossing the junction. After a minute or so the train has passed but we are left with a distillation of the magnitude and purpose of its journey.

Cross acknowledges that it is not as easy to get excited about the trains close to home “The great thing about those American freight trains is that you don’t know where they’re coming from and you don’t know where they’re going, which is very different from watching the train to London Bridge from my local railway station. South London commuter trains don’t do it for me,” he jokes.

Nonetheless his curiosity about travel and transport inform another work with just such an apparently banal setting. 3 hours from here (2004) is a 108 minute film shot mostly from the cab of a Scania truck making the journey from Southampton Container Terminal to an industrial estate outside Manchester. This journey is overlaid on previous historical attempts to frame and document the English landscape and discovers a contemporary terrain that unfolds across an orderly road network punctuated by junctions, long low industrial buildings and intriguing places such as DIRFT (Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal), positioned within four and a half hours of 85% of the UK’s population. These physical artefacts are also part of a cultural landscape of globalisation and suburbanisation, the logistics of how people live, work and consume now.

Photograph of a truck. Andrew Cross
Photograph of a truck. Andrew Cross
Photograph of a truck. Andrew Cross
Photograph of a truck. Andrew Cross
Photograph of a truck. Andrew Cross

Andrew Cross
3 hours from here, 2004, Digital video, 108 mins
Commissioned by Rim and Video, Umbrella and John Hansard Gallery

‘Much of what I do is rooted in something from my childhood. It is very much about being in the back of my Dad’s car going up the new motorway near Birmingham and being fascinated by power stations, factories and coal mines. They’ve all gone and now I have a new curiosity as I’m travelling through the country. I want to see what places are like and why they function that way’. Cross’ work negotiates with and is sympathetic to the world as it actually exists, rather than harking back to an idealised landscape that is beyond reach. His is not so much a defence of suburbs and development as scepticism towards commentary from a haughty metropolitan position which implies that the further away you are from the centre, the unhappier and less relevant you must be. To live in Croydon or Milton Keynes is equated with membership of a lower caste. But does the centre exist any more? Recent development has seen a proliferation of centres, often coalescing around sprawling retail campuses rather than the traditional infrastructure for settlements. The centre circulates and multiplies and old hierarchies are confused. Nonetheless individuals have a need to read their environment and themselves in relation to it. Where are we?

“I am fascinated by an almost blind obsession on the part of some people that they need to know where the centre is and have to be there whatever being there might mean. Traditionally it was far easier to identify a centre. It might be a market town, a junction, an industrial town where there was a factory or a coal mine and it would have a topographical character to it. All that’s gone but you still think of somewhere like the City of London, of course it’s still a centre, for all its major financial institutions, their central administration function and their mainframe computers are in Swindon. You can’t look at an urban landscape and say ‘That’s where it’s happening.’ Those invisible things I find interesting.”

It is that quality of paying attention to what is around us that has been engineered out of our experience of travel. Relying on newspapers, magazines, portable DVD players, iPods and so on we are encouraged not to observe the landscape we are passing through. A journey becomes attenuated into beginning and end with no middle in between. With few exceptions, those roadside interventions in public art intended to prettify or elevate the experience of travel resort to the literal or perplexing. “Sometimes you don’t need art,” Cross provokes “Because its already there in these big sheds. They’re not designed by architects and they don’t qualify as buildings in the eyes of some people but in a way they’re kind of subversive.” He admires their conciseness, a kind of outsider architecture.

What of our own Irish suburbs, which have sprawled so extensively in the past three decades bringing Per Cent for Art schemes in their wake? A place like Blanchardstown, which grew around a village is now large enough to be a town in its own right and does not rely on Dublin city centre to explain its existence. Joyce buffs have attempted to navigate the city using Ulysses his “A chaffering, all including most farraginous chronicle”, but his Dublin and that of Behan, O’Casey, even Roddy Doyle, can largely be contained within a few square miles. Who will make our new maps?

Artist Andrew Cross is a panel member of Suburbs and Cities, Sept 6, 4pm at Draíocht, Blanchardstown.