Sunday, 28 May 2017

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: DEAD MALL SERIES


33. “Was that the greatest food court you’ve ever seen?”



28/05/2017

 
[All photos are of the Bargate Shopping Centre, Southampton, UK]

Once upon a time, the city of Southampton had four shopping malls – East Street, opened in the late 1970s, Bargate (1989), Marlands (1991) and West Quay (2000) – all located within ten minutes’ walk of each other. Each new mall was located closer to the main traditional shopping centre, taking shoppers away from the main high street, and from the mall opened before it. East Street closed in 2012, having lost all its stores, but keeping its car park open; Bargate closed in 2013, with some of its tenants not having been charged rent for some time. The lesson is there is no time to be nostalgic about shopping malls, because the retail business cannot afford to stand still.

This is what has made Dan Bell’s “Dead Mall Series,” available on the “This is Dan Bell” YouTube channel, so interesting: once the shopping mall is stripped of its purpose, only supporting a few remaining stores or abandoned altogether, you are left with the architecture, often a very idealised view of what a social space would be, as seen from the 1970s, 80s or early 90s, depending on the age of the mall, or whether it was ever given a refit. You are left with the aesthetics, a word often heard in the series, because that is all the mall has left to get you through the door.


The malls featured in the series are often hyper-real, postmodern simulations of outdoor high streets, painted and lit in pastel shades, complete with benches, fountains and plants, the last of which are often artificial. In answer to this, Dan Bell’s camerawork is hypnotic, using first-person travelling shots through the make-believe streets, peering through security screens into empty stores, and either pans or static shots out across wide spaces. While this may be conventional film technique when described, the nature of film editing is predicated on things actually happening – only now, after watching all thirty-eight of the videos in the series thus far, can I stop feeling tense about things not coming into shots, or leaving them, or anything happening during shots.


What I have realised is the masterstroke of “Dead Mall Series” is the hardest to control – the sound. The diegetic sound of a large, empty building is heard, but the soundtrack is mainly comprised of a voiceover recorded later, and a constant Muzak-like stream of music. This music is expertly merged into the ambient background noise, processed to sound like it is echoing from a distant speaker, trying desperately to fill the space – it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise it was placed in later. Originally using Muzak, Bell has moved to using “vaporwave” tracks, promoting the artists in the video. With vaporwave being a recently-created genre that comments, mostly with love, on consumerist culture, it acts as a comfort to be brought back to its inspiration, often acting as the only sign of life.

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