Fergus Riley’s series Pocket Dial examines and questions our relationship with communications technology. The body of work is informed by science fiction author Vernor Vinge, whose theories suggest that technological advancements pose a global threat. Luke spoke with Fergus about his photographic practice and education, our relationship and dependance with technology, and Fergus’s approach and methods of conveying this through still life and archival imagery.
Your work and practice uses a mixture of analogue and digital photography across a variety of genres. Which are your preferred mediums?
What I like to do the most are my personal projects and these are mostly shot on analogue. The process slows me down and makes me think about what I want to compose. I find when I make digital work I’m left with thousands of photos and sitting down to edit them can be quite uninspiring. My personal work all stems from my relationship with the world and the complexities within this interaction. Often relatable themes will roll on from there. I enjoy shooting editorial and fashion as well, especially, when it has come through my personal stuff. That is what I’m aiming for.
You speak with confidence about your medium. How did a degree shape your understanding?
I really got into photography at school. I started using analogue processes around fourteen. After A-levels I went onto the University of the Arts London to study Documentary Photography and Photojournalism. I didn’t feel a degree was essential but I did want to access facilities and professional networks and to be inspired to make work. We have to accept that this year is different but overall, the experience has been positive. I have met a lot of people, developed my own voice and gained commissions because of that.
Where did the initial idea for Pocket Dial come from?
It started as a university project and thinking about my relationship with my phone. After a few weeks of research, the coronavirus pandemic happened. That completely changed everything and made it even more relevant. There’s a theorist named Vernor Vinge who wrote a paper on singularity theory, I found a passage that said by 2030 technology will grow beyond our control and it will be irreversibly fused to us. That idea was a revelation. I am also kind of questioning whether we are already at that stage now. Although we are not bound to machinery in a physical sense, we are dependent upon it. We use it to get to places, to keep in contact with people and just to function as humans. Hands feature recurrently because they are the middlemen between our brains and technology. The next logical step is to have technology wired directly into us.
The title Pocket Dial made me think of devices from gamer and pop culture, for example Game Boy, iPod etc. Was that your intention?
Yeah, for sure. The work is certainly about realities and perception. Pocket dialling worries people because they wonder if the receiver heard anything that they were saying or doing. This eerie presence of technology in our lives and the uncontrollable interconnection between us and it, is where the title was devised from.
Some of the still life photographs are hyperreal with objects that appear to be floating. They made me think of Walker Evans’ Beauties of the Common Tool. What led you to present the artefacts in such detail?
I actually came to that work after I had rounded up my project. The biggest influence, which ended up being used in the series, was the British Telecom Heritage archives. Before I started anything, that was the first thing I looked through. They have substantial online resources, which I gained masses of inspiration from. I eventually came across a file that contained high quality photos of technology from the 1920s to 1950s. A cross-section of the transatlantic telegraph cable, parts of old phones and bits like that came from there.
I wanted to make a statement about how people use their phones to achieve a common goal. In Class of 2030, there is a grid of devices that I collated. It is named after Vinge’s Singularity theory. I asked people to scan the front of their smashed phones then send them to me. Originally, I wanted to get my hands on as many as possible and photograph them. However, once I started collecting digitally, it made total sense to take this approach because they were actually using their own communicative technology to send scans to me. It seemed like a group portrait. There are about thirty devices in the composition with some of them repeating. It may not be obvious at first. This was to mimic the variety of their personalities and the repetitive nature of code.
Why is it in black and white?
I usually start a project in colour but often end up returning to black and white. With Pocket Dial it seemed to flow better with the archival material. Also, the black backgrounds made a nice reference to a phone’s dormant screen. Some of the featured technologies were nearly a hundred years old but in black and white they sit seamlessly next to the present-day versions.
Wrapped Up In It has a sitter that looks a lot like you. Is it actually a self-portrait?
No, it’s not me. Everything with a black background was shot on a makeshift studio set up in my garden during lockdown. I used a dodgy frame that was held up by rocks to weigh it down. It kept being blown around by the wind. The model in the photos is actually my brother. We do look quite alike. That worked in my favour because in some ways Pocket Dial is semi-autobiographical, it comes from me considering my relationship with technology. It also plays on representation of truths and alternate realities.
There are ominous connotations in the series. Do you think technology has a positive role in how we work, rest and play?
Definitely. I do feel over this past year none of us would have survived without it. Talking to people with Zoom and FaceTime, exactly like we are now, has kept us connected. No one would have been able to work or socialise. Everything would have shut down. Although that is positive, I also see it as precarious. Our reliance on these channels is more intensified than ever before. Those from this generation have never experienced life offline.
Can you tell me about projects you are working on at the moment?
I have started a new project about planes because they played a large part in my ancestral history. I have been spending time with my family’s archive of photographs and files. This process is much more tactile compared to an online source. There’s a personal association with it too and I find myself more invested in the content because there are limited amounts.
Your other series have are quiet and calm. They remind me of Alec Soth’s work. Which practitioners do you find the most fascinating?
That is a complement to me, I really like his work. It is something that I have been playing around with a lot. Secondary loci of attention – a reflection in glass, a gap in a fence – become central to my frame.
Thanks for the chat and all the best with university!
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores Play through playful processes of photography, play therapy, nightlife, performance and identity, collaboration, virtual realities, and war play.
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