We spoke to Jan McCullough, recent winner of the Fotobookfestival Kassel Dummy Award 2015, about her series ‘Home Instruction Manual’.

PW: Firstly, congratulations on winning the Fotobook Festival Kassel Dummy Award 2015, we love the book. What does it mean to you to have won?

JM: It was a real surprise. The process of making Home Instruction Manual was a very private one, given the nature of working within the four walls of a house in conjunction with the Internet, so now to be given a public platform for it and hear reactions – it brings a whole different element to the work.

PW: Where did the idea for Home Instruction Manual come from? 

JM: I love the concept of instruction manuals: books that contain information on how to carry out tasks from scratch. While browsing a second hand bookshop in North St, Belfast, I bought a 1950’s manual named ‘How To Make The Home You Want.’ Before I had even opened it I thought that the title alone was brilliant- a perfect mix of practical and personal. For a while, I played around following various chapters from the book and photographed the results in my own space. (eg. Chapter 7 “Does Your Living Room Look Dingy?”). Having been published in the 1950’s, the book was produced cheaply, had no photographs, only drawings, was predictably outdated and of its time – interesting in itself. But what I really wanted was to make my one of own.

Of course now with Google, you can find instructions for anything within seconds. I began typing ‘how to make a home’ into Google, and came across an online forum in which people were discussing in detail their idea of a perfect home. I copied and pasted all the chat room text, and rented a blank house. I then carried out all the instructions from scratch, photographing the results of this act at the end.

PW: Can you tell us a little bit about the process you went through to get the house to implement the instructions?

JM:I wanted the most ‘normal’ looking house possible in which to photograph the series. According to Google in the UK, this equates to a 3-bed semi. I went on a search to find a standard looking 3-bed semi to rent and after pestering a lot of landlords I managed to find someone who would rent the house to me for the short time of 2 months.

The chat room influenced how I wanted the images to look. There was a lot of chatter on the forum about what a ‘normal’ family photo looked like – the general consensus being that anything that looked too staged or beautifully lit was obviously faked and therefore less ‘homely.’ This led me to take the photographs in a very ordinary way – straight flash, on a digital SLR. I took most of the photographs in the last few weeks as the constructed rooms came together.

PW: Where did you source the furniture and props that feature in the photos? 

JM: I did everything on a very tight budget (hence the 2 month rental time) so nearly everything was borrowed and returned, or sold at the end of my time in the house; through friends, Gumtree, and a local house clearance warehouse. As the instructions were incredibly specific, I had to source a whole house-worth of particular furniture and accessories. This included every single book that was to appear in the bookcase, as well as all the photographs for the walls (I used both found photographs and constructed images for this). At one stage I borrowed a cat, too!

PW: The work explores notions of constructed identities. What is it about that theme that interests you?

JM: I find it interesting to observe how we may construct identities according to different situations/environments. Of course, this is particularly pertinent in the Internet age – where we have a choice of which words we publish / photograph we upload; effectively editing our own online identity. Also, Google is the ultimate tool for sourcing instructions for anything you can imagine.

For Home Instruction Manual, I wanted to hand complete control of my identity to the Internet in the intimate setting of the house; a private space in which one may ordinarily have a ready-formed history, identity, or taste.

PW: Could you tell us briefly what your future plans are? What do you hope to work on next? 

JM: Home Instruction Manual will be published as a book within the next year and I’m working on the design at the moment. It may turn out to be very close or quite different from the original dummy. The book dummy I submitted to the Kassel Fotobook Award was made at home in a quick and basic way; on a cheap printer and put together with double sided tape. Its function: to provide the closest possible idea for how I would want the book to feel (size, image sequencing, experience of reading it). There are a lot of things to think about during the design process for making it into a ‘real’ book. For example, if someone was to make a real DIY manual now they would probably go about choosing the cheapest paper and binding it in a way that would make it robust for its use, so maybe we’ll choose to do it like that. Or there are many people making their own amateur ‘manuals’ in their sheds and garages, which feel more like scrapbooks. There are many choices to make and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to bring the dummy to the point of being published.

Currently, the book dummy is travelling round with the other 49 shortlisted books at festivals and events all over the place – Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Rome, Dublin, Istanbul etc.

I’m excited to install the work in different ways beyond the book too. I just set up a one-room installation of the work in Belfast Exposed Photography Gallery. With this, we had a domestic scale gallery space, so chose to recreate one room from the house – on this occasion, the living room. The chat room text that the photographs are based on is printed on a big rug in the middle of the floor, with motifs of furniture made out of computer symbols pasted to the walls. Peppered between these are the photographs I took during my time in the house. Since the work derives from an Internet chat room, it makes sense for me to reflect the feeling of a playfulness and temporality in the way it is installed.

Jan McCullough / Belfast Exposed; 'Living Room from Home Instruction Manual'.
Jan McCullough / Belfast Exposed; ‘Living Room from Home Instruction Manual’.

I’ve also just started on a new body of work, leading on from this concept of ‘living by instruction.’ It’ll be interesting to see what form it takes.

Jan recently featured on our Showcase page, click here to read more.

For more information about Jan’s work, visit her website here.

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