OMD Frontman Takes His Energy Suite To FACT Liverpool

By Ben Miller | 13 January 2009
A picture of a screen showing cooling towers at a power station

The recording sites include Heysham Nuclear Power Site, North Hoyle Bank Wind Turbine Farm and Fiddler's Ferry Coal Fired Power Station. Pic: Brian Slater

Exhibition: Energy Suite, Ding>>Dong, FACT Gallery 2, Liverpool, until February 22 2009

When Andy McCluskey’s synth-pop chart-toppers OMD reformed in 2006, there was one unexpected result aside from a triumphant return for the band who had been so influential before their split ten years previously.

“Peter Saville said to me, ‘do you remember when you did the piece about Stanlow oil refinery way back in 1980?’" recalls McCluskey, a songwriter and composer frequently inspired by the scenery and architecture around him.

He turned down the offer from the Factory designer to resurrect the idea, preferring to create original work. “But since Peter and I have always shared a sort of fascination with the raw and brutal aesthetic of industrial sites and plans, it was quite logical that we would be looking at other industrial sites we were mutually aware of in the north west area.”

A picture of speakers suspended on strings in a dimly-lit gallery

The experiment is part of Ding>>Dong, a season of audio-visual experimentation run by FACT. Pic: Brian Slater

To their surprise, all five sites they targeted allowed them access, including coal and nuclear power stations which McCluskey thought “might be a little bit nervous about what we wanted to say or do.”

“Essentially we filmed whatever looked like art,” he says. “You see power stations from a perimeter fence, so you have an idea of how it fits into the landscape, but then obviously we were allowed access that nobody else normally gets, right up close to and inside the turbines and cooling towers.

"Some of it is quite stunning – when you get up close they are enormous. You have no idea of the scale of these things until you go and stand underneath them. Whether you like them or not, they are the modern cathedrals.”

A picture of a still of people overlooking the inside of a power station

Pic: Brian Slater

(Above) OMD and Peter Saville first combined in 1979, and have always found the images of their youth in the North West emotive.

In the end, it was the site bosses chasing McCluskey for favours. “We were there to document what we saw and what we heard, we weren’t trying to make a documentary or pass any judgement.

"We knew that people were going to bring their own preconceptions, presumably mostly negative. I suppose that’s one of the great delights of putting something in a gallery – people are accustomed to going in there and suspending their normal mental framework and beliefs and disbeliefs and trying to get to grips with ‘how do I perceive this now?’ And so I suppose in that respect you get more of an artistic premise.”

McCluskey edited the sounds he recorded to create background noise before layering them with his own compositions and refining the images with Saville, working with video artist Hambi Haralambous until the last possible moment.

“What we were trying to do was capture images which effectively were like kinetic art. I think had Saville been given another six months he would have refined the images to the most minimal, and he may want to do a re-edit in the future. But at the moment I think it’s striking a balance between kinetic art and bold and beautifully composed imagery.”

A picture of pipes inside a power station

Pic: Hambi Haralambous

(Above) McCluskey wasn't drawn in by site owners who intimated commissioning his work for commercial purposes.

FACT Gallery, who the pair had approached, let them enter the space out of hours to test their work, reshaping their original plan for a 360 degree tumble through towers across four walls to meet the structure of the unusually designed Gallery 2.

The results are triptychs supplementing the main cinemascope screen, soundtracked by music which is “as loud as we’re allowed to have it.” “I think it does ask people to take a little time to reassess just what their actual environment looks like, and pieces of the environment which we all take for granted in the sense that it creates electricity, which we all need,” says McCluskey, who finds the discrepancy between his two artistic worlds eye-opening.

“I’m accustomed to releasing records where you get press and publicity people with a list of people they phone up and bother, and you demand interviews and radio play and stuff like that, but this has been a different kettle of fish altogether.

"I’ve been getting a lot of grief off of OMD fans asking why it isn’t released on a CD or DVD, and we’re like, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s actually a piece of art – you have to go and see it, you can’t buy it.'”

A picture of Andy McCluskey talking to an onlooker inside a gallery. McCluskey is middle-aged and is wearing a black leather jacket

Pic: Brian Slater

(Above) McCluskey (right) is hoping to display the piece as a standalone exhibition elsewhere, encouraged by the positive response it has received.

The creative process has also made a refreshing change. “Normally when I’ve completed a piece of work I can’t stand it. Like most things in life, by the time you’ve finished it all you can see are the mistakes. But we’ve had so long to work on this that we would put it aside for several months and have our objectivity refreshed.”

It represents something of a full artistic circle for McCluskey. “When I first started out I was an art student who ended up doing music accidentally as a hobby. Our early work in particular was very ambient, and so in many ways this is actually a return back to where we started.

"It’s something I would like to pursue a bit. It was wonderful to not have to think musically within parameters that can become a straitjacket with a passage of time.

“With music you ask yourself ‘alright, I’ve done that for two minutes, what do I do now?’” He says, laughing. “And the answer with this is, ‘well any f****** thing I want to’, because there doesn’t have to be a chorus or a middle bridge.”

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