Looking Glass: The unique billboard project unveiling nature’s hidden beauty through infrared

Words: Ciarán Howley

This coming Saturday, August 20th, marks the launch of Looking Glass by artist Ror Conaty, a photographic project of a tremendous scale. Shot across fifty-three locations in Cork city, Conaty sourced locations with the help of Al Dalton from Notes to Cork and used the medium of billboards to expose the nature that becomes hidden within urban landscapes. 

Crucially, Conaty shot photographs using infrared filters that embolden the concealed pockets of green that tend to get overlooked in urban areas. “We are guests in this environment,” Ror says emphatically. Throughout the long process of documenting Cork’s secret gardens of sorts, Conaty encountered many surprises. Namely, just how enduring nature can be even during the current ecological and environmental crisis. 

Taking its namesake from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the oft-overlooked but just as whimsical sequel Alice in Wonderland, Conaty’s hope is to connect with the spectator through the beauty of what was already in front of them in these locales. An established director of photography and photographer, Conaty boasts an impressive list of clients including Facebook, The Hugh Lane Gallery and even Irish rock band U2.

Today he sits down to chat with us about Looking Glass, the extensive research that went into planning such a colossal project and how nature continues to be inspiring and surprising. 

Tell us about the inspiration behind your upcoming show? 

During lockdown I found out about making an infrared camera yourself. So I bought a fifteen euro camera, hacked it open and turned into a full spectrum camera, as it’s technically called. Initially everyone thought it was cool and got really excited about it. 

But infrared cameras are actually quite expensive. I decided to get a camera modified to be an infrared camera. I noticed that every time I gave it to a friend they’d look through the lens and they’d be totally mind-blown, and compare their reality with what they’d just seen. And they’d keep checking back and forth. 

Like 3-D glasses, kind of? 

Yeah, totally, kind of. 

How were you able to capture infrared light on camera?

Every sensor for a camera should actually be a full spectrum camera. With infrared they place a piece of glass over it that restrains the light coming through down to visible light that we can actually see. 

So what you can do is you can take off that piece of glass, the filter on the sensor, and you’re exposing it to be a full spectrum camera. It’s measured in nanometres so the adjusted ones are coming more into the spectrum of light. It’s just like you’re getting more spectrum of light. 

“As we’re walking around the streets in cityscapes you think they’re devoid of nature, but underneath your feet nature is always thriving – its tendrils stretch out”

You use filters on your camera lens to restrain it to different levels into the deep infrared or ultraviolet and they generally have different colors connected with them. I realized that everyone was comparing their reality and that it really made people. 

And I’m a bit of a nature nut anyway and I do think about it quite a lot. As we’re walking around the streets in cityscapes you think they’re devoid of nature, but underneath your feet nature is always thriving – its tendrils stretch out. You know, we’re guests in this environment. So I was thinking about that. 

How did you find photography / get into visual art ? 

I always had this love in my heart for highfalutin-fine-art. I fancied myself as an artist.

After playing music almost all my life, I went and studied graphic design. That was inspired by album artwork. During studying graphic design there was a module where you were only introduced to the camera very basically. We didn’t go deep at all but more as a graphic tool.

And then I went on a few holidays where I brought the camera and had a little love affair with it. Walking around Barcelona I took photos and just that certain way the light hit a building or captured something special; I fell in love with it. I ended up doing a bit of traveling on my own just to enjoy the camera. 

That said, it wasn’t so much about the camera and the shots. I think it was more about slowing down and having those moments. There isn’t any social awkwardness with a camera. And you know what they say about a peak moment? It’s generally an exhilarating moment with nature where your mind stops. I wasn’t thinking about anything major, I was just very focused on the camera and composing things, and there was a deep sense of relaxation that came with that. 

Why did you choose Cork as a location as opposed to Dublin? 

I got Arts Council funding to do the project, and Cork was meant to be a sample version of this in Dublin, using smaller and more affordable billboards. 

Then that would be a draft of what the bigger thing would be like but didn’t the pandemic come along and it shut that down. They were all based around events but there were none to advertise. Particularly for independent and smaller gigs it’s a shame since everything’s gone to digital boards. But that’s a whole other conversation – (fuck that!).

So I thought the project was dead in the water. Billboards in Dublin vary from maybe 700 euro per week to thousands. So when you’re budgeting for something like that you realize “I’ll have one in Stephen’s Green and one in Tallaght.” and that’s about it.  

That was until a lovely lady Mary Hickson put me through to Al Dalton from Notes to Cork. Al has a history in the theater and he’s deeply ingrained in the arts. He was deeply sympathetic and looked after me, driving me around all these sites he thought would suit. 

What a king. 

Total legend. But yeah, Cork just seemed like the only place that I could do it. Al was just willing to work with me and helped me get to the best it could be. 

Who knows where the future could take it. I’d love to do it in New York or Paris. Take this shit global. 

And why billboards, over the traditional gallery space? 

I like being able to turn commercial spaces into artistic spaces. There’s been a few studies into this but there was one in São Paulo Brazil in particular where they stripped a town of advertising and pretty much all branded typography. And it was studying the effects that advertising had on mental health and there was a really ridiculous reduction in stress levels. 

People’s sense of ease and calm just went up. These are all distractions that are just energy sinks. They’re pulling at us all the time, all our lives. Maybe my father’s generation wouldn’t have had so much of it but we’ve spent our whole lives being inundated by advertising at this point. You tune it out. 

You’ve got this amazing set-up that can capture so much. I probably would have gone to the woods, but you chose urban spaces. 

Well, you’re accenting the nature that’s in a space and the juxtaposition of you know humankind – it accents nature more. And, I think that it amplifies our fragility and you know, once again we’re just guests here.

To go back to the origins of it, I realised that if I was to show people what’s just outside of their visual spectrum side-by-side, it’s just a fantastical version of a street scene they were currently viewing. That way I could almost be guaranteed that people would compare and contrast.

It was the only time in my artistic career that I would know what people would do when they saw something that I’d made. As opposed to when someone goes to see a Jackson Pollock in the MOMA or whatever. They look at it and someone goes “aw that’s great” and another person goes “what the hell is that.” blah blah blah. 

With this, there’s just this split moment where it’s, like, myself, them (the spectator) and the art that all connect in that time. I don’t actually consider it to be photographic. I don’t even know if I consider myself to be a photographer. 

“Some of that work I think people may have issues with because no one likes to have their dirty hands highlighted. But it’s a part of the urban environment that needs acknowledging – we generate waste.

Is there any significance to the reference to Alice Through the Looking Glass? 

It’s the voyage and return story trope. The looking glass I use as a means of highlighting that story trope where someone goes away, experiences some kind of hardship but gains a new experience on where they reside. 

They gain a new appreciation for home, and I just felt that looking through glass, or the camera, the installations became portals to different worlds. It’s not about Alice really. 

Did you uncover anything really surprising – anything that really grabbed you. 

The whole thing was mad. I’ve never taken on such a big project myself and it’s hazardous to do so to someone’s health. 

Have you done solo shows before or was this a first? 

I would have done solo things in music but visually no. You know, liaising with printers, liaising with advertisers, it was new to me. I was very lucky to find Notes to Cork who curated the show with me, he’s wonderful. So no, I’ve never done such a large undertaking. 

The project is huge – 53 billboards across sixteen locations. Was it an stressful undertaking 0r when it came to it you knew what you wanted..

Ah well, you think you know what you want. Like, the reality of it is totally different. I had a plan, I generally obsess and organize obsessively. I Google Map-ped all of the locations and walked around Cork city to find locations that would be suitable. But then when you go and view those locations, you realise “oh they got rid of all the trees here.” Sometimes they’re totally devoid of life. 

Was that saddening in a way? 

Yeah. The thing about it was that, y’know, I learned that by having a large scale project, you have a moment of inception. By virtue of using advertising spaces you can’t control (it’s not a white box gallery situation) there are all these unknowns and uncertainties and the project itself becomes its own thing. And you have to work around the parameters that are set by those locations so that new work and new viewpoints start emerging. It’s uncontrollable. 

So it was more dynamic than anything? 

Oh, the thing has totally changed. I just thought it would be “on the left is the picture and on the right is your reality.” Some locations are a direct comparison but some were more complicated. I ended up exposing stuff that was like a load of trash in the corner. Like, weeds growing out of it. Some of that work I think people may have issues with because no one likes to have their dirty hands highlighted. But it’s a part of the urban environment that needs acknowledging – we generate waste. 

There’s one location in Cork man where there’s a series of big massive billboards beside this beautiful Georgian wall. It’s beside the train station where the old tracks ran into town. But then when I went up the stairs that were right by the billboard it was a rubbish dump. An organic rubbish dump, not a landfill, where people have been really fly tipping their prams, tyres, and cans. There’s years and years of stuff there. So I made the decision to take that image of the dump because, you know, nature is permeating through it. 

Talk us through the logistics of a project like Looking Glass. 

There was a deep sense of panic. There were moments of peace but I was cramming it between other work and I would usually arrive in Cork at around 12.30 at night and then I’d be up for 5am to take the shots before people were on the streets. I was losing my marbles. And then being awake all day before waiting for the sun to go down. There were so many locations. There’s essentially thirty photos spread across the locations and the rest is graphic design. And I’ve spent plenty of time in Cork but I didn’t know it intimately. You know just generating maps and trying to get roots sorted and figuring out when the light hits best. I have a deep love for Cork but I definitely had a few moments down there where I was so lost. Cork’s great. 

Did you come at it with the social message? 

I wasn’t. My whole ethos was about being planted in a moment. The viewer is triangulated through the ether back to me. Like I’m saying, the project just develops legs on its own. The brief and the locations start pushing it in certain ways. And again, there are those choices. Am I going to put the interesting thing on that wall, and be very rose-tinted, or to go deeper? Which means putting the trash on the wall.

“You know, not everybody likes Beyonce. Not everyone likes black metal. Some people love black metal! I’d probably be disappointed if everyone loved it. That means people aren’t critically engaging with it.”

Have you felt that resistance to showing ugliness?  

No, not for me. That is a thing that’s very present in the art world, in any artistic medium. I’ve experienced people hating my bands. You know, not everybody likes Beyonce. Not everyone likes black metal. Some people love black metal! I’d probably be disappointed if everyone loved it. That means people aren’t critically engaging with it. 

So if someone approached you and said “I don’t like your art but here’s why” would you be receptive? 

Yeah of course! Let’s have a conversation. There’s no point in ego. 

Does that come with experience or is that good practice? 

I think it’s being realistic. People aren’t going to pat your back all the time. And through the voyage of making Looking Glass I realised that completing the project alone is the win. And not berating yourself so much that you don’t enjoy any of the process. That’s the win. Obviously now, if I just get two weeks of hate mail that won’t be the craic. But you know, really that’s the win.

For me being happy with achieving your own goals, for me it’s a really big thing. I’ve been listening to a lot of Jerry Salts. He’s the senior art critic for the New York Times magazine and his podcast is very good listening if you’re trying to push through a big project. He’s someone who didn’t achieve his artistic ambitions and ended up taking a back-route into the art world. His mantra is “Just get on with your work. Don’t pay attention to other peoples’ work, don’t get jealous. And go deeper. Just stay focused.” 

Looking Glass will be unveiled across Cork city from August 20th – September 3rd. To find out more about Ror see his website and Instagram.