This startling image is from the new documentary film Vision Quest: A Ritual for Elephant & Castle. It follows artist and shaman Marcus Coates on a search for animal spirits to help gain insights into a possible future for the area.
It’s a provocative idea. Elephant & Castle – a giant roundabout, shopping centre and clutch of run-down 1960s concrete housing blocks – seems a thoroughly man-made place. Its re-making in glass and steel to form part of ‘neo-London’ is now forcing out the local human community.
Set in this context, Coates’ quest is unsettling, funny and surreal. It’s an urban safari that brings out how animals help us understand and imagine even the most barren environments. That may be through spirits – as are revealed to Coates in his shamanic trance performances – or as the animals we associate with a place.
Some of the most powerful footage shows city and beast in brutal relationship. We see a crazed victim in the bullet scarred Staffordshire Bull Terrier that compulsively licks a shop window. Fabricated monsters wreak violent revenge when demolition machines tear into the community housing like metal-jawed dinosaurs. But Coates’ quest ultimately settles on a more hopeful vision of the locals – as if returning swallows – finding a safe nesting place in the new townscape.
The film is showing until 29 April in Unit 237 of Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre. Details at www.nomad.org.uk.