Joseph Popper making a model airfield for his installation, The Same Face, at his London studio
Joseph Popper making a model airfield for his installation, The Same Face, at his London studio


08 June 2015


Artist and filmmaker, Joseph Popper
Artist and filmmaker, Joseph Popper

Here, we talk to Joseph Popper about his exploration of space travel and technological endeavour through film, photography and installations; how cinematic special effects have inspired his work; and how his transformation of found locations and everyday objects is used to simulate speculative scenarios and create fictional experiences.

In his current installation, The Same Face, created as part of House 2015 (2-24 May), a combined video and physical set plays upon the similarities between a drone command centre and a flight simulator, within which both pilots are situated in rooms, filled with screens and joy sticks, only one is loaded with the potential for destruction and one isn’t.

Tell us a little about your background?

I grew up in and around London and continue to live and work there. Making art has always been a part of my life from an early age – it was and is something I most enjoy doing. I went to study Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art before completing an MA in Design Interactions (a department dedicated to speculative and critical design) at the Royal College of Art.

Exposure to these two different schools of thought, and ways of working, has certainly informed my approach as an artist: in terms of how I go about developing ideas and the type of themes and projects I am interested in. It was also at the RCA where my interest in the potential of filmmaking took hold. The camera and moving image remain the mediums I keep returning to.

What inspired The Same Face, your project for HOUSE 2015?

My project for HOUSE 2015 is a response to the festival’s themes of Edge & Shift and the work of Nathan Coley. The IRA’s 1986 bombing of a seaside town landmark combined with notions of love versus terror led me to the idea for this handmade drone command centre: where a labour of love meets an act of war.

I am interested by the mutual aesthetics and spaces of home flight simulators and drone control rooms – which has led me towards the complex, disorientating landscape of 21st century warfare. The rapid nature of this project means I am continually looking out for and watching things. Some standout films include: Synecdoche, New York (2008) (see below), War Games (1983), Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake (2015) and also artists’ work including Omer Fast’s 5000 Feet Is The Best, and the work of Olivo Barbieri, James Bridle and Trevor Paglen to name a few.

Are you thinking of The Same Face as a political piece? There are obvious sensitivities around framing The Grand as a terrorist target once again, and with the ongoing controversy over the use of drones.

The Same Face is certainly moving my work into more overtly political and controversial territory. Drones, warfare and terrorism are subjects that are unusual for me to deal with, and a bit unexpected if I am honest! However, I have not consciously set out to make a particular political statement with this project. The work responds to an observation of the uneasy similarities of drone and flight simulator control rooms, which led me to the idea of a handmade command centre, and what complex uncertainties and questions may emerge from such a scene.

The Grand Hotel in Brighton is a point of departure, a locater from which to explore the visual language and environments of warfare and to further add to the site-specific nature of the project. I do not intend to frame The Grand explicitly as a terrorist target, but more to view the hotel from above and give it a sense – along with the other landscapes of the films – that with current technology they could be targets.

“Only recently, drones were sighted over Paris,
where flying a drone is banned.”

It is interesting how drones today continue to hold such malicious associations while they are also becoming increasingly prevalent in the world away from the warfront. They are commercially available and relatively cheap to buy. One farmer in Ireland even uses one to herd his sheep! Only recently, drones were sighted over Paris, where flying a drone is banned. This caused confusion and concern as to who was flying them and for what purpose. It shows how fast drones are becoming regular objects in the world and how we are having to acclimatise to their increasing presence.

How does The Same Face build on (or mark a departure from) your last major project, The One-Way Ticket?

The Same Face builds upon the scale and style of The One-Way Ticket project (last exhibited at the BALTIC): I will be producing another 1:1 scale set, handmade using simple materials. Film again plays an important part in the installation, only here the films are designed to be housed inside the set itself. I am also continuing the sensibility and way of working in this new project. However, the subjects of drones, warfare and control represent a real departure regarding the subjects I am dealing with. The one-way journey into space, and the space capsule set hold an overriding playful sense of wonder, despite the morbid undertone of dying alone far from planet Earth. I anticipate the handmade quality and sense of play will continue here, and the aesthetics and methods I have decided to work with will further enhance the feeling that the control room is a labour of love. What this feeling means, combined with military hardware and drone imagery, remains somewhat uncertain, but I am enjoying seeing and responding to the project taking shape.

Jospeph Popper’s The One-Way Ticket, exhibited at V&A, 2013

Film features in much of your work – what is the appeal of taking a cinematic approach?

Film as a medium offers so much potential to convey complex concepts, narratives and atmospheres. I am also very into the technical side of filmmaking, or rather how certain effects or scenes are achieved and the artefacts of the process: what goes on behind and in front of the camera lens. The One-Way Ticket is an example of how this fascination extends into my ideas, where I designed a series of props, rigs and the space capsule film set to create zero gravity on zero budget.

The notion of isolation seems to run through much of your work – the isolation of space travel, of bedroom hobbies, such as model-making; the disengaged drone operator. Is that something you’re conscious of?

There definitely is a common thread of the lone protagonist. Many of my projects play on this gap between getting there and being there; reaching beyond reality by simulating fictional or fantastic experiences and the endeavour of the attempt. This often narrows down to a single character, isolated in their mission or pursuit. This common thread is not at the forefront of my mind as I develop my ideas, but I am happy for it to continue if it makes sense.

What are the challenges of making a work such as The Same Face?

Designing particular props, rigs and sets that enable the camera to achieve a certain shot has become a recurring activity in my work. To simulate the movement of a drone over inaccessible or imaginary landscapes certainly proves a technical challenge. But these types of challenges are one of the joys of the making process for me. For The Same Face films I am making a series of three distinct scale landscapes – employing techniques found in dedicated model railway sets. I am also collaborating with designer Luke Sturgeon, who has designed a 4-axis motorised rig, which enables us to choreograph the camera in automated aerial manoeuvres above the landscapes. Working to this tabletop scale of filmmaking is new to me, but I am enjoying it.

An arial view of Joseph Popper’s model airfield

You create much of your work on low budgets – what effect does this have on the creative process? What would you do differently if you had millions to channel into a project?

Working on low budgets encourages you to embrace your constraints, and moreover to be inventive, resourceful and playful with them. I think these characteristics are very important to defining how I work and what I produce – they give my projects a certain sensibility, which is also often coherent to their different, or similar, themes and ideas.

“Working on low budgets encourages you to
embrace your constraints”

I am interested in how simple materials and found locations can be transformed through the camera lens into something fantastic. There is also the satisfaction of pushing these budgets, timeframes, whatever into ambitious projects. It is difficult to say what effect an enormous budget would have. If I had millions to spend on a project, would I still choose to film astronauts spinning on a park roundabout?

The Same Face will be shown in the basement of a Regency period townhouse. How will this setting enhance the piece?

One of the great things about HOUSE as a festival is the opportunity to create work in and around unusual and particular sites. To be able to set the installation in the townhouse basement will certainly enhance the piece – a dilapidated, domestic space plays into the themes of the work and also creates a richer atmosphere for encountering the installation: walking down into the basement, through the corridors of what almost feels like a forgotten, lost part of Brunswick Square.

You like to invite the visitor to step into a set to experience your work, why?

Much of my work can arguably be defined by a sense of play, wonder and imagination around speculative proposals or fictional experiences. There is an honesty about what I do, in that I do not try to hide or disguise the materials or methods of my work. In the case of The One-Way Ticket space capsule, and also The Same Face, you can recognise what the different found objects and materials are, yet also imagine what they can be representing. I enjoy how raw and cheap materials can be transformed into something other, or exposed for what they are, depending on who is looking at them and how. There is a rigour about how I work, but there is also a commitment in inviting the visitor to step inside the work and to play their own part in the fiction.

Watch Joseph Popper discuss The Same Face here

Exhibition: The Same Face, HOUSE 2015
Date: 2-14 May 2015
Venue: Regency Town House, 13 Brunswick Square, Hove, BN3 1EH
Tickets: Free

Joseph Popper will be talking about The Same Face and his previous works, as well as his inspiration and processes at our May Progress Bar, on May 7th, 2015.
More details and booking here.



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