At some point during Tenaya Steed’s sad second year at the Royal College of Art, a bout of faith carried the designer back home to Gloucester leaving Payday loans and a pub job in the city behind. Preferring to live back at home rather than continue with her studies, on a Megabus journey back to her native Gloucester, Tenaya contemplated her next steps in life.
Around the same time, Tenaya read that The Arts Council deemed her native city as a “culture cold spot” – it was the only English city on a list of towns. The same day, she learnt that The National UFO Reporting Centre recently documented an all-time low record of sightings. She thought to herself, but what if UFO’s did visit a “culture cold spot” like Gloucester, or Wigan, or Blackpool, or any other of these places deemed cold.
Back in Gloucester, Tenaya hit some low points. The lowest point came in the form of a job at Cineworld Glos dressed as a human hot dog, contemplating how the “dying town centre and faded shopping halls” would ever inspire her to make art again. But, she decided to do something about it in an attempt to raise some awareness to the fact that a third of the kids in Gloucester are living in poverty; a statistic that’s only rising with the Universal Credit two-child benefit cap.
As a consequence, Tenaya has made a book titled UFOs over Desert Towns. “I reached out to local young people living in so-called cultural deserts to fake UFO sightings across these places, reviving the dying and overlooked art of 1980s UFO hoaxes," explains the designer. By using the simple materials of tinfoil, empty film reels and disposable cameras, Tenaya and several groups of young people created signals in the sky “proving that if there isn’t life out there, there is still life right here on Earth – here in the desert towns.”
Tenaya’s book of imagined encounters reveals a “true and connected story of undervalued human culture in locations that have already been written-off.” Blackpool’s director of Public Health even said: “People settle [in Blackpool] from all over when they’re down on their luck and running away.” The book documents goths dyeing their hair in the Gloucester Kings Square toilets to gals dreaming over scratch cards at the football stadium in Doncaster while hand thrown and hand made UFOs fly over their heads above them.
“Young people from all sorts of different background took part in the project,” explains Tenaya. “Kids who had grown up in care, teenagers still in school, kids involved with Action For Refugees in Lewisham and unsuspecting sisters hanging out at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.” Together, Tenaya captured the community and immediacy of these moments. “The amateur look of the photos isn’t forced,” she says on the disposable camera shots. The project is based on accessible and lo-fi materials that are available to everyone, and scrap store piles and disposable cameras are part of that category.
“I want people to look at these photos and see something human, which is why I kept the photos this way instead of using digital methods to create over baked and otherworldly images,” Tenaya adds. “I wanted it to look like: ‘Hey, I was just walking to the shops on an overcast day in Doncaster when I saw this mad thing in the sky so I took a photo just like that!’” And fundamentally, the whole point is that the voices behind the fantastical stories and images are just everyday people trying to live their lives.
She attempted to capture a variety of scenes, from scace ships abducting pets to a UFO compared to a “40-foot-long giant glowing tic tac,” Tenaya tells It’s Nice That, “I was blown away by the imagination that came from messing around with a bunch of empty film reels and sheets of foil from the Gloucester Scrapstore.” Alongside the staged shoots of the UFO sightings, the book additionally features written and spoken accounts of the UFO discoveries, which are also from some very unlikely places.
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