Jesse Alexander talks to Peter Coles
Peter Coles is a prolific audio visual worker, who has produced more than two-hundred sequences, achieving over one hundred and fifty awards internationally. His backgrounds in chemistry, theology, education, local government and publishing have informed a diverse portfolio of works. A published author of many volumes, and describing himself as a 'word-monger', poetry is particularly important to Coles' AV works, and he collaborated with Collin Balls on Motorway.
Jesse Alexander: How were you introduced to the slide-tape format?
Peter Coles: In 1969, the audio-visual aid officer where I worked in Buckinghamshire was playing with two slide carousels. He put his hand in front of one carousel and then the other, creating a rudimentary dissolve. I was supposed to be delivering a twenty-minute introduction to somebody talking about the 'environment', so I made a little presentation using two projectors, and I did what my colleague had done, with my two hands in front of the projectors. When I was promoted and became chief education officer for Berkshire, people took over what I had previously been doing. I thought I had better develop these simple dissolves, and so I started experimenting with audiovisual programs.
Jesse Alexander: Which visual artists were you aware of at that time?
Peter Coles: The person who influenced me at the time was David Hockney. I was quite amazed to find that someone was interested in the same thing as me, and was famous for it. Hockney had just started his Joiners work. It wasn't audio visual of course, but it was, in a way, the same thing: he was putting together images to make a whole. It was not just his imagery, but what he was saying about imagery that was influencing me.
Jesse Alexander: Could you describe how you came to make the Kingdom Come sequence?
Peter Coles: I had been invited to go to Northern Ireland and into the Republic to show some of my own work and to lead some AV workshops. The first evening, I had just crossed over the boarder from the North into Dundalk and a lady police officer had just been killed. It was then that the shock of all the 'Troubles' hit me. The following day I went to a Roman Catholic service with the gentleman I was staying with, Sean Casey who took me to a big, modern church. As I walked into the building, the music was playing that I eventually used for the sequence, Jesus Remember me when I come into your Kingdom which was being played on a tape. As I entered there was one woman kneeling amidst all this, praying. I imagined what she might be praying for - peace. So, with permission, I started taking photographs in the church, and immediately felt I had to do something with it all. Ideas were beginning to come into my head about the Irish 'problem' and my view was that it couldn't be solved in this generation, but perhaps the solution lay in the next generation. I suppose in Christian terms, unless you become like a little child, we cannot enter the Kingdom. The people I was staying with would take me to places where I could take the photographs. I was quite shocked to have tanks and soldiers pointing their guns at me as we went around. It was an introduction to a completely different way of life to my little placid place where I lived in Hebden Bridge.
Jesse Alexander: I wondered whether the title alluded to notions of a 'promised land' or ideas about territory?
Peter Coles: Not really, no. Perhaps 'promised' in a Christian rather than a Jewish sense. I did use the phrase in the sequence; 'the kingdom is within you'. I came in ignorance of the 'Troubles' from an England that was unaware of why there was a problem. As I saw it, there was hate that had grown up through elitist differences, and not real religious differences, but secular creations of religious differences.
Jesse Alexander: How was Kingdom Come received when it was first shown?
Peter Coles: It was first seen at an international festival in Bath in 1992. People commented favourably but some thought I was trying to copy a German worker of Romanian origin, Srdjan Plavsa. He was using maybe as many as four projectors to suggest visual movement within his sequences. People thought I was copying him, although I hadn't. It did moderately well, but it did a lot better aboard, winning the European cup in Epinal in 1994.
Jesse Alexander: Why do you think it did better abroad?
Peter Coles: In Bath, two or three people on the jury understood what I was trying to do and appreciated it. But on the whole, I think the English were a bit slow to recognise development. At that stage the English were more interested in pictures and music, rather than the development of ideas. It did well in France, where they thought I had been faithful to a Christian message, and understood and liked that integrity.
Jesse Alexander: Could you give an idea of the atmosphere at some of these festivals? Were they competitive?
Peter Coles: There was a certain friendliness in the AV fraternity; people were competitive, but they didn't seem to mind if they didn't win. The competition was a reason for being there but there was no animosity. People regarded success as a bonus rather than an aim. That was quite important, and this has continued over these several decades: a willingness to share skill rather than being possessive.
Jesse Alexander: How active is the AV scene nowadays?
Peter Coles: Strangely enough, I expected it to grow but it hasn't. About the same number of people are involved as there were two or three decades ago. People imagined it would get easier through digital but it's actually become more difficult - to do it well. My recent experience, through going to competitions, is that quality is gradually increasing. I was at a little competition between Leeds and Essex recently, and as I watched I thought 'There's no rubbish at all, it's all good', and I couldn't have said that a decade ago.
Jesse Alexander: I'm picturing you creating dissolves with your hands and thinking how much more 'hands on' it was when you started and how different it must be working in front of a computer...
Peter Coles: It is less 'hands on' but it is no less 'minds on'. You have got to think a lot and be innovative with the brain more than you once had to.