Excerpts from “Pelican Stairs: a Wapping Great Pandemic Memoir”

Excerpts from “Pelican Stairs: a Wapping Great Pandemic Memoir”

Pelican Stairs is a multimedia art project started during the depths of lockdown in 2020. I took photos of my local neighbourhood, Wapping in London, on my daily walks between March and September. I often visited the Thames shore area by climbing a set of steps known as Pelican Stairs. Using those photos as a training set, I generated new fake images with a commercially available Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), which I paired with excerpts from my diary during the same period. The unsettling, almost-real images contrasted with the mundane reality of the diary entries allows the viewer to viscerally (re)experience the inherent tension between an increasingly uncertain external reality and internal attempts at control or sense-making through normal, everyday habits.

2020 was a turning point, and a strange one, for all of us. In a time adrift from my usual life patterns I used my daily walks as a routine to give focus and structure to my day. I had high anxiety about going outside during the early days of the pandemic and I felt especially far from my family overseas, who I knew I might not be able to see for a very long time. Giving myself the assignment of taking interesting photos of my daily walks was a way of keeping track of a bizarre period in my life, a stimulus to get out of the house despite my fears, and a reason for regularly checking in with new content to share with my parents.
The distortions and surreality introduced by feeding the images through a GAN represent the blurred, overlapping, confusing nature of that time. Pairing them with real extracts from my diary entries during that period captures the counterpoint between the attempts at everyday normalcy and an ever more uncertain outside reality. The original photographs of real objects and landscapes remain hidden. Only the manipulated images are available to the public, an exploration of what we share and how we present ourselves online.
The full project is hosted at https://pelicanstairs.art. There is also an interactive Twitter bot which responds to the prompt “@pelicanstairs take me to #pelicanstairs” by sharing a random image from the generated art.

About me:
Artist, strategist, anthropologist, high school dropout, PhD. Find out more at www.caitlinmcdonald.com

Details of work
Title: Excerpts from “Pelican Stairs: a Wapping Great Pandemic Memoir”
Author:  Caitlin McDonald, PhD
Country: United Kingdom
Affiliation: Independent artist and researcher

17 March 2020Yesterday the UK government completely changed its coronavirus strategy on the realization they’d messed up the modeling. They used viral pneumonia rather than the novel coronavirus to model its ‘herd immunity’ strategy and the two diseases are not alike. So they’ve completely changed tactics, perhaps too little too late. And they’ve strongly advised against public gatherings without actually ordering anything to shut. Meaning that restaurants, pubs and theatres won’t have any income but can’t claim any insurance either. I’m furious and sad for my friends in those industries. And selfishly annoyed because where am I going to go when this is over if all those places are closed? People keep saying “this might change everything–it won’t go back to the way it was” and I can believe that for office work but humans are social creatures–perhaps the most social species that ever existed — and we won’t be able to sustain long term quarantine conditions no matter how risky getting together is. We need each other. 

27 March 2020Yesterday at 8 PM there was an organized effort to get everyone outside to applaud for the NHS and care workers. I thought there would be a poor showing and I’d seen some doctors and nurses saying they didn’t want applause, they wanted more PPI so they could do their jobs more safely. But at 8 PM I heard a noise–through my noise-cancelling headphones–and when I went out every single balcony in Newlands Quay, Maynards Quay, and all the other surrounding housing units had someone one it making a joyful noise. It was really stunningly moving. We could hear fireworks and air horns in the distance. Really beautiful. I felt connected to the neighbourhood in ways I hadn’t before. The next few weeks are going to be difficult and grim but now I feel we can do it together. 

2 April 2020. Had a little cry at the 6 o’clock news which had a segment on people not being allowed to see one’s dying relatives, or even attend their funerals. I was overwhelmed with a sense of not wanting to die alone. But when I got on the phone with my parents they said they were talking about what they’d do if I got sick and I really need to make clear to them that they wouldn’t be allowed to see me. Plus they might not be able to fly home.  

1 May 2020. Nice catch up call with Ana & Seb & Adi & Emma. Revealing moment when they were all bragging about their robot vacuums and Adi said “You can’t do without a real vacuum entirely,” and Seb said, “We seem to be doing fine,” and Adi said “What about the stairs?” and Ana said, “I’ve vacuumed the stairs twice in the past three weeks, and Seb said, “You vacuum the stairs?” and Ana said, “Who do you think has been doing it?” Then later as we were ending the call they all asked “But Cait, are you really okay on your own, don’t you wish you had someone for company?” Honestly. Big rainstorm yesterday afternoon: glad I got out for my walk in the morning. Slightly hairy moment on the path when I thought a large German shepherd was going to be aggressive with me on the narrow bit by the old power station but his owner kept him to heel and though he wanted to lunge forward to see what was happening he didn’t bark. I left a drawing (“take care <3”) on the Thames foreshore. I thought of it getting washed away later when the rain started. Sat outside briefly with a cup of tea enjoying the quiet between video calls. 

5 June 2020. Yesterday had a kerfuffle as heard a man in Shadwell basin yelling for help–he was in one of the orange dinghies from the sailing club and I thought I saw a black line dangling over into the water–I thought somebody might be in distress under the water. I called an ambulance and we all rushed towards the scene but by the time I got there nobody was on the water anymore. I found the ambulance and we started to look for the boat but then one of the other ambulance staff flagged us down and said a man had caught a fishhook in his hand and now everything was fine, he’d put the boat away. Meanwhile: two fire trucks had arrived and police were making a running circuit of the basin looking for trouble…I sidled off home. I was embarrassed to have caused such fuss but it was too far away to see and there have been so, so many drownings and injuries in the basin… better safe than sorry. 

27 September 2020Final day. 12 hours from now I should be enjoying dinner with Daphne before heading to the overnight train. My mind is swirling with what-ifs. But I just have to trust all will be well. The house has that empty echoey feeling of not being lived-in–it’s not my place any more! Just a little last-day packing & cleaning and that’s it. What of the wider world? A few days ago the supreme court of Kentucky refused to indict Breonna Taylor’s shooters for her death. I sent £500 to the Louisville community bail fund and the Louisville mutual aid fund. Dad’s Biden lawn sign got knocked over so he put it up again with rebar. Cases continue to rocket up here in the UK, with university dorms particularly hard hit & very little support for these young barely-adults. Awful. Right now everyone in England and Wales is being smug about Scotland’s failings but it’s only a matter of time before a similar situation elsewhere–though an optimist might say they would learn the lessons of the other unis & do better. An optimist. Better get moving.  


September 22, 2021


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