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.