Pete Burke is a London based artist working in photography and print.
‘I started taking photos of building site peepholes as a response to the hundreds of developers’ hoardings that were proliferating all over London at that particular time. They were random ready made framing devices which lured me in to take a peek at what lay beyond’.
Tell us about yourself, what is your background, how did you become an artist.
Like most children I loved drawing, I just never stopped doing it as I got older. I see creativity as an integral part of being human and I think it should be encouraged as we get older and not looked upon as frivolous and unimportant.
I got into art college when I was 17, not necessarily because of my drawings, but because I made a portfolio out of recycled hardboard. I was a bit embarrassed when I turned up for interview with it because everyone else had their work in brand new maroon and black art folders. But that day I learned that using your initiative and not worrying about what others think was a way to go for me.
At art college I ended up doing a fine art degree in painting.
I left art college I go a job as a community artist in Birmingham with an organisation called Jubilee Community Arts.
It was an incredibly active organisation which offered an opportunity to less privileged people in a very poor post industrial area of the city the chance to learn how to use equipment think creatively and to possibly move on through the education system.
We’d run workshops and set up projects to give people of all ages access to art materials, photography equipment, video facilities cameras and editing suites to enable them to express their ideas whilst learning how to use them.
I worked there for seven years, It was hard work but I learned an incredible amount about how boundaries are there to be broken down, and hard work always brings unexpected results.
From there I went on to teach in Further Education and rented a studio space to concentrate on making and exhibiting my own work.
Your work addresses our current relationship with the built environment. New developments are taking over communities. People don’t have any say in changes and the developers are happy to call an area a ‘Creative Quarter’ which they are actively destroying as they re-purpose these whole areas.
I had a studio in Hackney Wick at around the time the Olympics were awarded to London, and I began to notice how the area was beginning to change.
Rents went up, attention began focus on the area which until then had been a forgotten oasis of post industrial neglect. Landlords started to aim their sights at young creatives with what were termed live/work spaces. These were invariably former industrial spaces with poor health and safety regulations, draughty with leaky roofs which they rented out at inflated rents.
What they were actually doing was using the tenants as house sitters until the land banking market was right to make a killing.
So the whole gentrification of that area was part of the knock-on effect of the Olympic development site emerging just a stones throw away over the river Lea. Hackney quickly became a desirable place as a new demographic wave began establishing itself.
People who were less well off in the neighbourhood seemed to be overlooked as change appeared to speed up.
So the work I started making was in response to what I was witnessing in my own backyard and not just exclusive to that part of London, it was happening all over the capital.
The original building site photographs
I started taking photos of building site peepholes with my mobile phone camera in 2009 drawn to them through a sense of inquiry and as a response to the hundreds fo developers’ hoardings that were proliferating all over London at that particular time. They were random ready made framing devices which lured me in to take a peek at what lay beyond.
I chose to use my mobile phone camera to take photographs with because they were quickly democratising the medium and the lo-fi look enhanced the painterly quality of the pictures I was taking.
I realised using the frame as a motif would create endless routes of experimentation and visual investigation. Bringing the frame in to the centre of a picture from the outside suggests a picture within a picture, a continuum and would encourages the viewer to be more aware of how a frame relates to the inner image.
I saw these viewing windows as ready mede framing devices which one could project a lot on to and create a pictorial receding space from the edge of the artwork in towards the central form.
At present I’m working on a set of drawings using graphite and coloured pencils. The repeating motif of these is a central image framed by a variation of a smart phone.
It occurred to me one day during the lockdown that I was constantly looking at images on my device and I wanted to get back to tactile materials and seeing things in a non mediated way, not backlit and swipe-able.
Some of your recent practice has been site specific and locally based. You like to collaborate with other artists, can you say more about this way of working
Recent projects I’ve worked on have been collaborative and site specific. I do like working with other people and throwing myself into new arenas I think its good for keeping one’s work fresh. It opens you up to other artists’ perspectives and the potential of whole new areas of work which you would never have thought of if you were stuck in isolation in your own studio.
In 2017 I was invited to be involved in an exhibition titled ’Stealing Time’ which was loosely based around the idea of how artists manage the balance between the need to earn a living, have a home life and maintain their art practice. It was in a recently disused car spray yard, an outdoor site full of character with lots of varied wall space. I had my peephole photographs blown up in size and printed on blueback (advertisers) paper which I then pasted on various surfaces around the site.
Using the blueback paper was a reference to the fact that construction site hoardings attract fly posting and I see advertising as visual bombardment which we can’t shut off or avoid.
That experience led on to me taking more posters out to random building site hoardings to paste them up and photograph them in situ as temporary street installations. They were the antithesis of the white wall gallery presentation of art and were art of the very landscape they were displayed in.
I then went on to glue photographs to offcuts of board or cardboard because it meant I didn’t have to wait for paste to dry and enabled me to be more mobile. These I refer to as anonymous collaborations.
I wanted to do something which would incorporate the graffiti hoardings invite. Often graffiti artists would be working right next to me and we’d share the tacit acknowledgement of each other, both reacting to these wooden barriers even though we came at them from different angles.
They were there disrupting these imposing barriers with their colourful aerosol art and I was using their groundwork to incorporate into my developing storyline of absence and the fantasy of a new ideal being sold to people.
What are you working on now?
As I’m writing now we are in the second lockdown and I’ve spent a lot of time drawing with graphite and coloured pencils. A lot of my work has been reliant on using a mobile phone in the last few years and I wanted my drawings to reflect that in some way.
So I have used the shape of a hand held device as a framework for experimentation with the basic medium of pencil and paper.
Seeing the world through the mediated perspective of devices and not experiencing the event first hand is becoming more and more accepted and I think we have to be careful not to miss the joy of the physical encounter with people and objects. So my recent drawings try to amplify the fact they are tactile and unique, not backlit and are certainly not swipe-able but require a long slow look and gradually they will reveal themselves bit by bit but always retain an element of mystery.