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PROTOTYPES / 2009

A performance text intercut by interviews with railway modelling enthusiasts conducted at a variety of modelling exhibitions.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void…and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. Now it’s said that sleeping by a large expanse of water can make your dreams more intense and vivid, and can serve to fuel the imagination in the same way. Now, perhaps in contrast, sleeping by a railway line would make your dreams more linear and regimented, filled with lines, points, schedules and timetabled movements. But no matter what you dream about…a place or a person…the dream is always an approximation… It’s definitely a reference to something or someone you know or recognise, and yet in your dream, it’s not exactly that person, or its not quite that place. Not as you remember it anyway. Perhaps you really have to be there:

INTERVIEW 1: "It’s based on the Isle of Man railway, between 1960 and 1970, which is the period that was of greatest concern with the company itself…with losing money…loss of business because of holiday makers going abroad…and it’s the period that I first knew with the Isle of Man Railway, when there were 46 route miles of it instead of 15 as there are now. Because of a lack of space…I haven’t been able to build a prototype layout…so we’ve built…a picture postcard…a small view of what I remember of the Isle of Man when I was 8…which was 40 years ago. So we’ve picked out bits…from all around the island, so the lighthouse is from one end of the island, the station buildings are from another part of the island. And the silliest bit of prototypical work on it is the sand and the seabed…because it really is sand and gravel from Douglas Beach…so there’s true prototype stuff in it as well…so they’re all things from the Isle of Man, but we’ve put them in a small area."

So this is the idea of compressing a location into a picture postcard of its essence…based on personalised autobiographical details and specific childhood memories pertaining to this location. This appears to be a recurring theme…

INTERVIEW 2: "People relive life as they saw it…I mean, I had a model railway at home, and it’s based on where I grew up in Yorkshire, and people like to just go back to their childhoods basically."

Here, we could suggest a rather infantile form of regression on the part of the railway modeller. The idea that with the inevitable drift towards the sort of conservatism, and desire for safety that the process of aging brings, there is admittedly, a certain loss of youthful vitality. The sublimation of youthful urges into other channels. Perhaps there is also the possibility of megalomania bought about by this seeming desire for small-scale dominion over the earth. It is said that we spend our lives vainly attempting to control that which escapes our sphere of influence. If its people we want to control, then most of those attempts end in dismal failure, but perhaps the railway modeller can find other ways to settle scores in the face of encroaching impotence…in the face of a world increasingly beyond his control.

INTERVIEW 3: So what is it about scale?

"Its one of those things that’s kind of intrigued from an early age. The scientist in me is interested in precision, and there’s an element that the smaller you go, the more precise you have to be, and the artist likes the practical side of the creativity. And I see it as a sort of marriage…the fact that you have to be so precise with miniature work, but its still an artistic challenge. If you’re doing it for your own enjoyment, then I get a lot of enjoyment out of the masochistic challenge of doing things that other people say are impossible. So I actually made a set of Venetian blinds no bigger than a postage stamp on one occasion to go in a model building window. So, I’ve scratch built furniture in 1/44th scale, so again, the size of a pinhead, I’ve made a spindleback chair with arms and all the rungs and spells and things."

Do you think there’s a point where you can’t get any more detailed?

Before this question can be answered, we must consider what is meant by the word ‘detail’. When talking about the issue of scale, there perhaps a certain tendency to overemphasise the diminutive. If we believe that the desire of these men is to get closer to the prototype in terms of proximity…a real physical, like for like experience...then let us consider the possibility that this isn’t necessarily just about ‘getting small’. Maybe the evocation the railway modeller seeks doesn’t come only through scaling down…but scaling between.

The standard widths in railway modelling are 4mm to the foot (OO Gauge) and 2mm to the foot (N Gauge). But further investigation reveals there are small groups of men who specialise in what could be described as more…ambivalent scales. Could it be suggested that the addition of 0.5 of a millimetre in one direction or the other could radically alter our perception of things? There is clearly a potential cult value here…a subtle shift in notions of precision…but there does appear to be something amiss. Whatever the scale, whatever the pleasure of the making, the railway modeller remains externalised from the world he has created. Like the railway enthusiast, the railway modeller…but this can only be done from the outside…looking in. So if we are to reach the point where the picture postcard is to be inhabited… considered from every conceivable and moving angle, then it would seem a more holistic approach is required.

INTERVIEW 4: "I go to a lot of exhibitions and I see a lot of exhibition layouts, and there are a lot of them that look very nice and sometimes they don’t seem to have quite as much happening on them…they have lots of tracks, lots of sidings, lots of locomotives, lots of carriages, and a fair number of them seem to stand around and not do very much…and the scenic side of modelling has come on leaps and bounds in the last fifteen, twenty years. Some models now are incredibly realistic, but, the operational side of it doesn’t seem to have kept up with the pace of change…and there are some people who are trying to do that…trying to up the ante on the operational side of things, and that’s the main driving force of building the layout, was something that we could actually get a number of trains moving about, everything was there for a purpose…it looked and worked like a real railway. We try to run to a real timetable…its designed to take an hour…"

And is that real time?

"It’s a real time timetable…there are approximately fifty odd trains in and out of the station in that hour, plus all the shunting moves and things like that. We’ve never actually done it in an hour…the record’s an hour and four minutes…we were hoping to break the hour this weekend. We’ve been very close…but not yet…"

But often as the mind searches for some kind of equivalence in terms of these miniature re-enactments…accidents can happen. Now in all cases, a re-enactment…by definition…always comes after the event depicted. But could the re-enactment be made to precede the event? Could the re-enactment pre-empt the event? And what if the re-enactment isn’t a re-enactment at all, but rather an enactment of an imaginary event …which in some way causes the imagined event to actually happen?