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Artist Marcus Coates talks to Samantha Sweeting about his feature-length art-docu film 'Vision Quest'

Marcus Coates, artist, wildlife enthusiast and self-styled shaman, is about to unveil his latest project Vision Quest: A Ritual For Elephant & Castle. This feature length film documents Coates’ journey as he consults animal spirits and local residents to find an alternative collective vision of regeneration for the area. In advance of a special screening in the upper floor of an Elephant & Castle tower block in April, Coates talks to Run Riot about the importance of humour, finding solutions to sex trafficking in Norway, improvising on stage alongside futuristic music troupe Chrome Hoof, and watching the mating flight display of sparrowhawk from an East End bus stop.

RR: Tell us the story of how you first became interested in wildlife.
When we were young, I copied everything my older brother did. He was interested in British wildlife, particularly the rare animals and birds of the mountains, rivers and forests. Through him I built up a mythology about these animals, always hoping to see them in our suburban neighbourhood. We drew them, our pictures bought us a little closer to meeting these animals. Wildlife had a magic. It was a hidden secret that was only available to few people who had special knowledge.

RR: What are your experiences of Shamanism?
I have had no direct experience of traditional shamanism, apart from research that I do and a brief weekend course I attended.
I have created my own rituals that are loosely based on the traditional processes of shamanic practice.  I wanted to see if this process was available to someone outside of its traditions, if it was something that could be effective coming from and for a Western European culture that has little contemporary connection within these traditions. Can anyone be a shaman?
Also, with the Vision Quest project and my collaboration with Chrome Hoof, I wanted to explore the role of a performer and the traditional basis for performance. It had an explicitly functional role and still does in some cultures, beyond entertainment. What else can it do? Could it be used in a visionary way, for more pragmatic purposes like town planning.

RR: You refer to yourself as a ‘useful social agent’ or problem solver. Who are your clients and how have you served them?
All the performances are on behalf of someone, a group of people or about a collective issue. I want there to be an outcome, a different way of understanding the problem or even an answer to a question. My clients have been the Mayor of Holon in Israel, where he asked a question about solving youth violence in his city and its relationship to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Ikebukuro Council in Tokyo asked me 'How can we stop illegal cycle parking'. In Stavanger, Norway, I addressed the problem that the city had with the trafficking of prostitutes from West Africa.

RR: What role does the animal play for you?
Becoming animal allows me to be immersed and led purely by my imagination. The idea of being another species frees me to abandon conscious thought. It gives me perspective and clarity and therefore a degree of insight beyond what I could normally imagine.

RR: Where in London do you go to be at one with nature?
London is great for wildlife. You can see animals and birds pretty much everywhere. I remember waiting for a bus in Hackney on a clear day in March and watching the mating flight display of a Sparrowhawk high above the streets, something I'd never seen before.

RR: And where do you go to celebrate the good aspects of your human life? Is there a ritual involved?
I think there is always a ritual to anything we do. I really like being in a wild place that I know well and discovering new sights and sounds there.

RR: Could you tell us about the importance of humour and absurdity in your work?
I love absurdity, I think it’s really important and I like living in Britain because we have a great tradition of it. Sometimes it seems to be the only way we can stand outside of ourselves to see things clearly. I try to work in a way that creates unpredictable and unusual moments to deal with the ordinary in an extraordinary way. I think the incongruity of the situations I get myself into creates a humour which I don’t plan or intentionally construct. My intentions are always very serious, but my actions, costumes and methods are very playful. People seem to find this combination humorous, because it does appear absurd, but strangely not to me at the time.

RR: What is your creative relationship with the band Chrome Hoof?
I performed with Chrome Hoof at the Coronet Theatre in London as part of Vision Quest, a Ritual for Elephant and Castle. On stage we improvised and worked off each other, just having a starting and ending point as a rehearsed reference. They created an amazing sonic landscape for me to explore and produced a force of sound that motivated and drove my travels to meet animal spirits as part of that live gig. They were the link between me and the audience, without them I don't know if I could have taken 1200 people on that journey with me. I hope I stretched them and took them to some unexpected places as well, in the performance. They have also created the soundtrack for the film, which is fantastic.

RR: As a result of your film Vision Quest, do you have a vision of regeneration that can replace the errors of those 60's urban structures that came to eclipse inner city decay?
Yes I do have a vision. The film is a documentary of this process in which this vision is made clear.

RR: What is next on your journey?
A month in the north of Norway, looking and listening.

Marcus Coates
Vision Quest: A Ritual For Elephant & Castle
featuring Chrome Hoof
Film screenings: 12th – 26th April 2012 / 18:30, 20:00 & 21:30 - Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday

Unit 237, Upper Floor, Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, London SE1 6TE


Vision Quest: A Ritual for Elephant and Castle is a Marcus Coates film, commissioned & produced by Nomad and co-directed by Marcus Coates and Michael Smythe.  Editor Ariadna Fatjo-Vilas.  Cinematographer Annemarie Lean-Vercoe.

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