Beneath The City: Plymouth, Paused is a zine created in response to daily walks around Plymouth during the spring 2020 lockdown.
This small slice of freedom brought into focus the idea of the aimless walk as a creative act. A completely new experience of our surroundings, brought about by the upheaval of the pandemic, the mixed emotions, and the city’s sudden emptiness, was the catalyst for this piece.
It is a collage, layering photographs, overheard speech, memories, and observations of nature and architecture.”
We chatted to Charlotte McGuinness, the artist behind Beneath The City: Plymouth, Paused, which is part of Plymouth Contemporary 21.
ArtsCulture: Why did you create the Plymouth Paused zine?
Charlotte McGuinness: The zine grew out of my daily walks around Plymouth during lockdown. When the first lockdown was announced back in March 2020 there was such a sudden and sweeping change to the way we lived, and the way the city looked. At that time we could only leave the house once a day for exercise. There were no cars on the roads, everything was closed and we weren’t even allowed to sit on a park bench. It was an unprecedented situation. It’s the first time I’ve felt I was living through a historically significant moment and I wanted to record my experience of Plymouth in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic.
ArtsCulture: There’s a real pride in the city, has that been reflected in the reactions to Plymouth Paused?
Charlotte McGuinness: Yes, I think so; one review said it contained things “that only janners would know about.”
ArtsCulture: What are the similarities and differences between Plymouth Paused and your other creative work? Do you have themes or styles that run through what you do?
Charlotte McGuinness: I produced a similar zine when I went to Leeds Arts University, as I was exploring a city that was new to me. The lockdown really made me see Plymouth anew and so I felt that it was time to revisit that format. It was almost the feeling that you get when you go on holiday to a new place, your senses are heightened and you notice everything around you.
I’ve always been interested in printmaking, and producing multiples. It seems like a democratic way to produce and distribute art. The idea that many people can own an original piece at an affordable price is important to me.
I’ve recently fallen in love with linoprinting. You can design, carve and print from your kitchen table. At the moment I am having some fun producing small illustrations but I would love to start creating larger works and maybe even zines.
ArtsCulture: What did you find out about the city and yourself by putting Plymouth Paused together?
Charlotte McGuinness: I’m really interested in how our environments (whether urban or natural) affect our inner worlds.
I hadn’t made much art for a few years, despite wanting to. I had been starting to produce more work after completing an Illustration Short Course at Plymouth College of Art in the early part of 2020. Along with many people, I had more time to commit to this during the lockdowns. I think that with the threats associated with Covid, and all the horrible things going on, I felt that there was no time to waste and if I was going to make art, I’d better get on and do it!
The city gave me my subject matter. It looked so different from usual when we went on our walks that I started to take pictures to document it. With shops, restaurants and entertainment venues all closed, it wasn’t all about spending money any more. This brought Plymouth’s architecture into much sharper focus, especially the brutalist buildings of the city centre, standing out beautifully against that clear blue sky that we had.
I found out about the people of Plymouth as well. Even though it was important to keep apart, there was the feeling for a while that we were “all in it together”. There were far fewer people out on the streets, but strangers stopped to greet one another and have a chat.
ArtsCulture: Plymouth Paused is part of Plymouth Contemporary 21. Is seeing it as part of an art exhibition different to seeing it as a zine, and what are the benefits of each?
Charlotte McGuinness: I feel very honoured and excited to be part of the exhibition.
The work is displayed at the exhibition as individual prints on the wall, so you have to stand there in the galley and read it, which is very public, and formal, and you experience it in the context of all the other works in the exhibition. Holding it as a booklet in your hand is a much more relaxed and personal experience. I like both in their own ways.
ArtsCulture: There’s the picture of ‘no people on the Hoe and no boats in the sea’. What brought home to you the impact of lockdown on Plymouth?
Charlotte McGuinness: The streets of every city were empty during that time but what felt unique to Plymouth was that the familiar scene of small boats going back and forth across Plymouth Sound, a few military vessels dotted about and the Brittany Ferry either coming or going, was gone as well. It was strange to stare out at the empty sea.
I felt closer to nature in many ways, as well, despite being in the city. Wildflowers seemed to be blooming wherever they could, and the water in the harbour was suddenly crystal clear. It seemed as though the impact of humans was diminished, and the city could just breathe for a while.
ArtsCulture: What’s the role of the artist in society?
Charlotte McGuinness: There are lots of potential answers to this, but I think that artists play a positive and necessary role in society. Artists record and process their experiences, and invite others to see the world from different perspectives.
Artists can make cities better places to live in, by bringing people together and making the place more attractive and vibrant. We’ve seen this in Plymouth with the explosion of culture that has happened over the last decade, from Plymouth Art Weekender to the opening of The Box and the development of Karst to Plymouth Contemporary Open.
ArtsCulture: As pieces of history, how important are zines, in addition to more traditional media, to reflect the whole of the experience of Covid and modern life?
Charlotte McGuinness: Zines are a very accessible art form – anyone can make one and they don’t have to look perfect. This means that they give people the opportunity to use their voice, express their ideas and communicate with others. I think people have had a lot to express in the last couple of years.
In some ways zines are the precursor of social media and blogs, but with a zine you have complete control and ownership of the format. I’m not anti digital media, but in terms of history, I suspect that something real that you can hold in your hands is going to have more longevity than something stored on a hard drive.
Although zines grew out of punk and DIY culture and don’t need mainstream validation, they are generally recognised as an artform now and can speak to the mainstream. There are a surprising number of Covid, lockdown or quarantine related zines out there and they are being collected by the British Library and other institutions so I think that there is a recognition of them as a type of social history.
ArtsCulture: Where can we get our hands on Plymouth Paused, and how can we keep up with the rest of your work?
top image: Charlotte McGuinness with Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport
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