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Just Tees-ing

Yay! it’s raining. At last. With daily reports of flash-flooding and thunderstorms from the rest of the UK and the Glastonbury Festival declared the muddiest for years, the most our Teesdale weather could muster has been the occasional half-hearted drizzly shower. While I’m not complaining about the weeks of sunshine, heat and beautiful walking weather, now the rain has arrived it brings with it that distinct summer aroma of wet grass, and a burst of life from the ground. The air is suddenly alive.

Some things are better in the rain. The River Tees is really low at the moment. The waterfalls of Upper Teesdale are little more than a trickle at the moment. Here’s Summerhill Force dribbling over Gibson’s Cave last week.

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Compare that to the day after Storm Desmond visited on the 5th December last year.

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OK. So this is a bit of an extreme example. But extreme things do happen.

It’s 200 years ago this year that we had a ‘Summer that never was’. A year when the world was 0.7 degrees colder than normal, harvests failed and populations starved.

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Mount Tambora

In April 1815, in Indonesia – 8,000 miles away – the sleeping giant volcano Mt Tambora erupted. The explosion was so large it was heard over 2,000 miles away in Sumatra. The volcanic dust cloud enveloped most of the planet causing severe climatic events throughout 1816 and affecting weather patterns for years after. In North America, hard frosts were recorded right through July and the Eastern seaboard experienced a perpetual fog that lasted through the summer of 2016. In Northern Europe, the long winter extended into a very wet summer causing crops to fail. Throughout Europe food became scarce and there were violent uprisings outside government buildings in several countries. In Ireland, the failure of crops marked the start of the ‘Potato Famine’ and over the next 3 years over 100,000 people died.

Freak events that shaped our world 200 years on.

On the shores of Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley and her friends were on holiday for the summer. So bad was the weather, they were forced to stay indoors for weeks on end. To pass the time they challenged each other to tell stories. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein – or The Modern Prometheus’ and Byron wrote ‘Darkness’ on a day when the birds went to sleep at midday. (If ever there was a historical example of first-world problems, this has to be it. While the rest of the Northern Hemisphere died from starvation, a bunch of privilaged English writers redefined gothic literature because t was a bit damp outside.)

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Ken Russell’s 1986 film based on the events by Lake Geneva in 1816

In July 1816, JW Turner visited Teesdale on a long, extended painting tour of the North of England. He stayed at Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale on a particularly wet week as he ventured right up the dale. By the time he reached Cauldron Snout it was really throwing it down. However, he did manage to see the falls of the River Tees at their best – full and lively.

It was the subdued light from the volcanic ash cloud that summer, along with the incessant rain which gives Turner’s painting from that trip of 1816 the substance and atmosphere that Ruskin claimed was Turner’s most effective work ever.

———–

I’ve lived in Teesdale now for two years. Two years this very week. I love living here. I love having the river just yards away from from my house – so close on still nights I can hear it falling over Low Force from my bedroom. I’ve spent so many days down there and walking up the river towards High Force and the fields, woods and fells on either side. However, I don’t really know Teesdale, let alone the wider County Durham.

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A couple of weeks ago I made a conscious effort to get to know where I now live. It was another warm and dry afternoon, and a rare weekend off from working so I thought I’d make a start to discover Teesdale properly. Having poured over books and walking guides and maps, and old OS maps and Gogle Earth, I decided to start where Turner started – at Greta Bridge on the Durham / Yorkshire border.

I knew about the temperamental River Greta from a previous project further up its course, but I’d never been down towards where it joins the River Tees. Greta Bridge was a popular spot in Turner’s day. the old road over the Pennines via Stainmore started here at the significant coaching inn of the Morrit Arms. In Turners day there were still remnants of the Roman fort there. Clearly a strategic point where the route from East to West ascends up and over the wilderness. Crossing the Greta is crossing to another world.

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Greta Bridge and nearby Rokeby Park became important sources of inspiration for a generation of writers and painters. Besides Walter Scott who immortalised the area in his own seminal work, the place was a key destination for the Wordsworths, Dickens, Coleridge and most of the Bloomsbury set.

The landscape here is wider. It’s greener and rolling and fertile and hospitable. And distinctly arable. A very different kind of greener.

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A short walk up the Greta brings you to the ruin of St Mary’s church in Brignall. Nestling in the bottom of the valley. There’s not much left of it now. The new church was built further up the hill in the second half of the 19th Century and reused much of the stone from from the old church.

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Turner’s view of the church reveals much about attitudes to landscape in the early 19th century. It’s actually a remnant of the trend of 18th century landscape attitudes – where hills were so dramatic as to be scary: “it was almost the whole duty of all hill scenery to inspire alarm, and every painter who wished to give a good impression of any particular place always painted it as if it were twice its real size” to quote one of Turner’s picture editors.

Brignall Church 1822 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Brignall Church 1822 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Purchased 1986 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T04453

It’s also a view point that doesn’t actually exist, again to increase the visual impact. The large tree in the foreground is one sketched in Rokeby Park. Topographic accuracy wasn’t important in the appreciation of landscape in 1816. What mattered most was conveying the essence of place. These were places most people would never see in real life so were designed to excite the imagination of the viewers. Of a place that is of somewhere else. The early tourists came to gawp and the awe and wonder of the place and the people that went before, conjuring up stories to populate somewhere new and unknown.

Things have changed so much in the intervening two centuries that it’s hard for us to begin to understand how people viewed the landscape of Teesdale. So much changed with the invention of photography that we can only know what somewhere really looks like. The visual and emotional impacts are much more subdued and taken for granted.

The woods around the old church at Brignall actually look like this:

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They smelled so good, I went home and had them on my pizza.

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#fail

Success. It’s a great concept, but what do you mean by success? Sure fast cars, big houses and pots of cash can be a fair indicator, but success can exist at all levels – like when your Yorkshire puddings rise evenly or when you put a piece of IKEA furniture together and you don’t have any pieces left over.

But what about art? When would you consider yourself a successful artist, or even how do you measure the success in an artwork? These are the kind of things you have to evaluate for funding reports and consultations. Stuff I don’t like doing and generally try to avoid, mostly because it’s full of questions like this.

Sure, last year’s PaperBridge in the Lake District seemed to be a success. It went up and stayed up. It even went down well with visitors attracting nearly 10 times what I’d anticipated. Pictures of it went around the world and it appeared on TV on four continents. That’s pretty successful isn’t it?

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‘PaperBridge’ in BBC Focus magazine

Well, if being popular with the general public is the measure of success then yes. But as a work of art, how do we measure success for that? Did it do all the things art needs to do? I’m not sure how we work that out. I’m quite sure it didn’t fail though. That’s a different thing.

One recent TV interview asked me about risks involved in putting up a bridge made of paper. In particular they wanted to know how sure I was that the one in China would take a car going over it. The honest answer to that was I wasn’t sure. It had never been done before at that scale so how would anyone know? In fact there was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work. It could so easily have failed and collapsed and trashed a £100k car. Sure we  took lots of precautions and did lots of complicated calculations. We even enrolled a world leading structural engineers to check it all over with the latest hi-tech computer modelling. But at the end of the day they had to admit there were too many unknowns involved in building big structures out of sheets of paper – a material not made for building bridges out of – to sign it off as safe. In short – no one knew for sure it was going to work.

On one level the risk-taking was part of the deal. That element of peril was part of the narrative. If it was easy it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. If it was easy someone else would have done it before, I’m sure.  Actually, as I’d built a bridge before I kind of knew how they behaved and was sure it’d be fine, so I probably over did the risk bit for dramatic effect – but I certainly didn’t tell the client.

What was important was that everyone involved was aware of the risk and was happy to take that risk with me.

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RangeRover on ‘PaperBridgeChina’. Suzhou, November 2015

There’s a real element of risk in all my projects. Someone once said to me – if you have a 100% success rate, you’re not taking enough risks. When you’re pushing at the boundaries of things, that’s where the excitement comes in and if you manage to pull it off then that’s where great things can happen.

In that respect, the opposite to risk and success is mediocrity. There’s nothing more dangerous than playing it safe. Taking the easy road. That’s where things get stuck or become so half baked they start to deteriorate into something much much worse.

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Mediocrity in all its splendour. This ad screen in Newcastle is sturdy, health and safety compliant, practical and meets all the planning regulations. What’s not to like? errr…. (image © James Perry via twitter)

Failure on the other hand isn’t so bad. Every now and then I have a project fail in me. More often then not it’s at such an early stage no one ever knows. I’ve lost track of the number of times projects I’ve been asked to get involved with have failed at the proposal stage. Some don’t even get that far. Mostly these are because the client doesn’t want to take a chance. Play it safe maybe. In which case, they’re just not the people I want to work with. Occasionally a project will get all the way to the final piece and then fail in spectacular style. That’s a different issue. I once had a high profile piece that was supposed to be up for 5 months, however it blew away after 5 days. Still, it went in if only for a short while, and even led to a chapter in a large international publication about just why it failed – the reasons were really interesting. I’m not sure the client saw it that way mind.

And then there’s the times that failures aren’t really failures. ‘Metropolis’ – the fritz Lang cinematic masterpiece. The first film with a final budget in the millions. It was only ever shown at one cinema before being deemed a flop by the studio. It was subsequently re-edited to a shorter story in an attempt to reclaim the costs.

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photo: Alex Stocker (1896 – 1962) – Ufa-Pavilion, Berlin. 1927

 

Schubert never heard any of his symphonies performed. Very little of his orchestral music was performed at all during his lifetime, yet his ‘Unfinished’ symphony is now regarded as one of the greats of its time.

More recently, Anish Kapoor’s ‘Orbit’ became the victim of a playing it safe mentality with the producers and suffered from an incursion of mediocrity that has now extended to installing a helterskelter slide down it. I think time is yet to decide on that piece.

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‘Orbit’ by Anish Kapoor at the Olympic Park, London. 2012

If I’m being brutally honest, I think there are problems with most of my pieces. There’s always something that doesn’t go to plan or work out quite how I wanted it. However, in most cases these are things other people generally don’t notice. Or I make a feature of them. That line between success and failure is so fine. So delicate in fact it’s barely there. Or at least not so you’d notice.

 

post script.

Since writing this bog post (sitting outside in the sun with a cup of tea) I’ve just stumbled across this wonderful book on failure by Erik Kessels. He does it so much better than me. Not sure why I bother sometimes…

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I like books. Books are good.

As much as I use a plethora of apps on my iphone in my work – from keeping track of what I’m doing in my calendar, to checking the fall of sunlight in any given place on any given day, to checking the level of the landscape, relative heights and geopositioning. Yet I’d be totally lost without my trusty notebooks.

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Yes, they’re all red. (I like red). They’re all Moleskine plain paper ones. I like the weight and feel of the books. They’re small enough to fit in a pocket so go everywhere with me, but sturdy enough to survive all weather and rough handling. Ive not had one fall apart on me yet. Well, this year they’ve not been in pockets long enough to fall apart as I’ve gotten through them at a fair pace.

As an artist, many presume they’re full of lovely sketches and doodles. That’s what artists do afterall, right?

Sadly, mine tend to be mostly full of equations:

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These are calculations for the balloons in ‘level’ in Peterborough back in February. Given the size of the space and budget I needed to work out the optimum balloon / helium ratio to achieve the overall effect I was after.

And the really boring bit working out how much sand I needed to keep each one in place.

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There’s lots of site plans in there too. This one is of the light fittings in a corridor in the York Nuclear Bunker:

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for this:

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and this is the dimensions of the central path inside the Forbidden Palace:

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(not the real one. Shhh!)

I’m also a big list person. There are lots of lists. When it’s particularly busy there’s daily ‘to do’ lists:

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And, very occasionally there’s entire magazine articles written in pavement cafes:

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But on the whole it’s diagrams..

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and lots and lots of calculations:

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The other nice thing about the moleskine books are the little pockets at the back. These generally fill up with receipts, but every so often  little momentos make their way in, like this from my ‘One Show’ appearance..

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or this polaroid by Justin Leighton of the PaperBridge site in Suzhou..

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So, in over 400 pages of scribbles from 2015, there’s just the one sketch…

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but more of that next year..

 

 

 

 

Going Underground

Jean-Michel Jarre has a new album out.

OK. I’ve got to start a blog post somewhere and it’s been a while since the last one so be gentle on me.

But really. Jean-Michel does have a new album out. Predictably it’s all big synthesizers and arpeggios, only this time it’s collaborating with other big synthy people, like Tangerine Dream and Vince Clark and Moby and … er… Lang Lang.. Still, it’s predictably Jarre enough for me today.

Jarre at his best is a serious musician writing big, complex compositions using electronic synthesised instruments. Hugely prolific – having recorded over 20 albums since 1972 and influenced generations of electronic musicians – he’s kind of the Mozart of electronic music. And like Mozart, he’s quite partial to a tune or two.

In the 80’s he famously transformed his concerts into huge outdoor spectacles of light and sound. I’ve written about these in a previous post (a long time ago). For me, the transformation of city skylines as a backdrop for music has always fascinated me.

—   —   —

Last year I embarked on a collaborative project with one of the orchestras I play with to create artworks of music and light in underground spaces. The Cobweb Orchestra is an amateur organisation that allows musician of any instrument and ability the opportunity to come together and play in an orchestra. There’s a number of regular weekly groups across the north of England and the project wanted to do something that united the whole membership and explore the region. And what unites the region is the heritage of going underground. Be that mining or shelter or transportation. So the Underground Orchestra project was born to play the music of the north deep within the land of the north. An orchestra playing underground is interesting and unusual. but an orchestra playing inside a light installation underground would be amazing and unique.

The difficulty comes with doing something that relates to both the location and the music, but doesn’t over power either. I wanted to do something that wasn’t stage lighting or lighting design, but could stand alone as an installation in its own right, yet became something again when combined with an orchestra.

—   —   —

Long before Jean-Michel Jarre there was Thomas Wilfred.

Wilfred was born in Denmark in 1889. As a teenage he moved to New York and began experimenting with light as an artform. In 1919 he created his first ‘Clavilux’. A machine which through the use of mirrors and coloured glass, performed symphonies of light. Each composition was contained on a glass master disk so that in theory a machine could play different pieces. In reality, the machines were very different – each more advanced and complex. Opus 2 had its first public performance in 1922 to huge critical acclaim. In the audience that night was Leopold Stokowski – but more of him later.

As purely analogue machines, the compositions have a quality and presence that I fear is somewhat lost on Youtube. The machines themselves included curved screens behind curved glass creating a unique three-dimensional effect. Wilfred was adamant that his light compositions were not filmed – he saw the quality of light as a distinct artistic medium – so the only compositions that remain are with the 30 surviving Clavilux machines.

The quality of light and colour perception is a main component of James Turrell‘s work too.

‘Breathing Light’ – James Turrell 2013

I think it’s difficult to work with light and colour and not be influenced in some way by Turrell’s mastery of the medium, although recently Drake’s music video for ‘Hotline Bling’ might have come a bit too influenced..

The conductor Leopold Stokowski was particularly interested in the relationship between light and music. One of the more colourful characters of classical music, Stokowski was a bit of a showman. He’d famously throw scores onto the floor if he knew the music well enough. He also dismissed with the baton entirely, instead preferring exaggerated gestures using both hands to conduct the orchestra. In some of his more extravagant experiments he would plunge the orchestra and theatre into total darkness with only a light on his white gloves. On another occasion he spotlighted himself to cast a shadow of his movements above the orchestra. However, Stokowski’s main claim to fame is his legendary appearance in Disney’s ‘Fantasia‘. The opening sequence and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue are pure genius:


 

The great things about underground spaces is they are dark. really dark. The kind of dark where you genuinely can’t see your hand in front of your face. This means that whatever light you use, it’s pretty much going to be the only light. Of course there are issues that with an orchestra, the musicians are likely to want to see their music, which means some white light. But if you make a feature of that light rather than try to hide it, even the reading lights become part of the visual and part of the environment.

 

The first venue in October last year was the ‘Victoria Tunnel’ beneath Newcastle. The Victoria Tunnel was built to transport coal from the mines to boats on the river Tyne and runs right underneath the centre of the city of Newcastle.  I wrote more about it last year. As the first of the events I was keen to find a voice for the future events. Somewhere between Turrell and ‘Fantasia’ is what I had in mind. Using mono-frequency lights to give me a saturated blue light to accentuate the Purkinje effect – the way things tend to look bluer under very low light levels and the way moonlight seems to be devoid of colour. By using LED lights I could strip away the rest of the spectrum as it just wouldn’t exist beyond the 465nm wavelength. It’s technical, and you don’t need to understand how it works, but when you’re in it it’s very different to seeing photos of it.

The Cobweb Orchestra performing Michael Betteridge's 'From Mine to Tyne' in the Victoria Tunnel beneath Newcastle upon Tyne. 22nd October 2014

The Cobweb Orchestra performing Michael Betteridge’s ‘From Mine to Tyne’ in the Victoria Tunnel beneath Newcastle upon Tyne. 22nd October 2014

The main challenge of the tunnel was the listed nature of the structure itself. This meant that I couldn’t physically attach anything to the walls. So instead I had to devise a way of keeping the lights in place purely by springing them against the walls using carbon fibre rods.

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The restrictions were amplified at the next venue – the York Cold War Bunker. Built to monitor fall-out levels in the event of a nuclear attack the site oozes with the cold, steely fear of ‘the bomb’.

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As an English Heritage site, every last detail was listed. The very fabric of the building and every layer of paint on its surface had to be conserved. The solution to this was to filter the existing lights to create bodies of colour to set moods and define space.

With such little time to install and so many rooms to transform, everything had to be as simple as possible. Still continuing the Turrell / Disney inspiration, each room had its own character. The depth of colour and its changes through the building added to the unsettling atmosphere of this Cold war relic.

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In the women’s dormitory I used the same blue light as the tunnel, but added sound responsive white lights. The normally dormant pillows would progressively wake and glow in response to the volume of the music being played in that room.

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The third location – the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum presented its own challenges. Again the prime factors were the number of spaces (three) and the relatively short install time. One of the spaces was a drift mine shaft – a brick-lined tunnel sloping down into the ground about 80 metres long. There was enough space for three musicians to play at the bottom. However, there was a limit to the number of people who could be in the tunnel at any one time. I somehow needed to convey what was being played to an audience who may not even be in the tunnel.

the drift mine entrance

the drift mine entrance

For this I looked to Wilfred and his use of light as music. As it was a trio performing I figured they could be represented by the three primary colours of white light – red, green and blue. With each instrument linked to their own colour, the resulting projection would constantly change colour in direct response to the playing.

 

 

The next location was always going to be the centrepiece of the project. A full-sized symphony orchestra playing inside an iconic Lake District mountain. The space was vast – an old slate mine cavern deep within Fleetwith Pike at Honister. This would be the biggest orchestra of the project and at 80 – 90 people, the largest single underground audience. What was needed here was something on an equally grand scale.

Honister Slate Mine above Honister Pass in the Lake District, UK

Honister Slate Mine above Honister Pass in the Lake District, UK

A few years ago, when my studio was in a drafty barn on Stainmore, I was playing with smoke machines for a piece on the gothic decay of light in the clouds for a conference in Lancaster. This meant filling the studio with smoke to test the piece. At the end of the day as the sun was setting, my eldest came to see what I was up to and ended up playing in the shafts of light as they came through the gaps in the barn doors.

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It’s all so very Anthony McCall, but I liked the way you could see on top and underneath these shards of light. They had a real presence to them.

For the piece in Honister Mine I wanted to recreate those thin slices of light through the air – big flat, sharp slices in the way that slate is sliced cleanly down the grain.

testing the shards of light in a warehouse in Gateshead

testing the shards of light in a warehouse in Gateshead

‘Rive’ took weeks of development and testing to find the right light source for the right quality of light and the right sharpness of its edges. the installation inside the cavern alone took over a week.

Installing 'Rive' in Honister Slate Mine

Installing ‘Rive’ in Honister Slate Mine

The final piece was a series of thin shafts of light from the roof of the cavern to the floor. they had a solid, sculptural quality – you could look all around them and clearly see their edges, yet you could walk straight through them as if they were an apparition. Again this was a real experiential piece. No number of pictures or video really does them justice.

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By contrast, the final venue last week, was by far the smallest and most intimate. A single prison cell beneath the former town hall in Wallsend. THis was a very simple affair with musicians playing short 20 minute sets with room for no more than four players at a time. The cell door was kept closed and the audience could hear the music throughout the basement but could only see the players through the spyhole in the steel reinforced door.

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wallsend prison cell


The Underground Orchestra was no Jean-Michel Jarre experience. But neither did it want to be. These were small-scale performances in mostly very small-scale spaces. But was interesting was looking at the relationship between music, musicians, light, scale and location. The music was a key element – a wonderful programme of music from the Northern counties – historical and contemporary. Beyond being an investigation of the cultural heritage of the north, for me this was as much about exploring the landscapes that I live within.

There are many sides to landscapes. The underneath one was fun.

 

 

 

Layers – part 3

Last week I went to see the paper from the bridge finally get pulped and recycled. Half-tonne bundles of the now sun-bleached red paper were carried into the pulping shed at the paper mill on a fork-lift before being unceremoniously tipped onto the conveyor belt that started their journey of rebirth.

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one load of bridge paper about to drop into the pulper

It wasn’t so much a desire to see the destruction of the last bits of the bridge, but more out of interest to see just how simple the recycling process was. Paper is such a basic material. At its heart it’s just a mass of fibres lying randomly on top of each other. They’re not even woven together. The fibres just lie in a general direction that dictates the way it curls when dry. Recovering the fibres from used paper is just a case of tipping them into a giant blender where the sheets are shredded by rotating blades and mixed with warm water to help soften everything.

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The entire process, from conveyor belt to reel of finish product, probably takes about an hour, plus some pausing time for colour matching and keeping up with the manufacturing process.

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the pulp is topped up with dyes to match the colour of the intended product

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the pulp is sprayed onto the fine wire mesh. It’s still mostly water at this stage

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as the water is removed through drying it slowly becomes paper. The paper is cut to the final width before meeting an identical layer from beneath to make the final thickness

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the water content reduces over the length of the process. It’s down to about 60% water here

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one of the final drying rollers

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the final paper on giant rolls ready for finishing

For me this was very much an end point to the project. Or at least the physical existence part of it.

There’s something about this project in particular that seems to have made a connection with so many people. Two months on from building the stone gabions, I’m still getting daily requests from picture editors and journalists around the world running stories about the bridge.

Back at the launch day six weeks ago there were no journalists. No photographers. Our perfect timing had meant unveiling the bridge the same day as the results of what everyone though would be the closest general election in decades. Beyond politics and the UK, it was also press day for the Venice Biennale – the largest art event in the world. In PR terms we couldn’t have picked a worse date.

To top it all, in the craziness that was the tight schedule, we only put up three A4 posters to tell people it was happening. That anyone turned up at all, on the face of it, was nothing short of a miracle.

Actually, it wasn’t a miracle. It was the result of weeks of determination and hard work by the marketing and press teams at both Cumbria Tourism (one of the main partners in the the funding consortium) and James Cropper – the paper manufacturer. What started off as some solid coverage by local press and TV in the lead-up weeks, grew rapidly after the opening weekend. As the political stories became old news picture desks were desperate for something light and positive. By the Monday the pictures by North News’ Paul Kingston had made the Times and the Daily Mail – including the Mail Onine – despite its questionable ideas about what constitutes news, it’s still the largest online news outlet in the World.

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An image by Paul Kingston for North News. My kids enjoyed their brief modelling career too

By the Tuesday the online design publications had got hold of the story and were running it on their front pages. As did the Newcastle Journal.

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By Wednesday my email inbox was constantly full with requests for info, interviews and images coming in faster than I could reply to them. My twitter feed was constant with reports from people visiting the bridge and posting pictures all over social media.

On the Thursday I was in London for the day (no mean feat from where I live) and building a 1/4 size bridge out of A4 paper in front of broadcasting house and appearing live on prime time BBC TV.

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explaining the paperbridge to the presenters of BBC’s One Show outside broadcasting house, central London

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presenter Alex Jones tries out the model bridge on live TV!

By Friday the bridge had been on TV in the US and Canada and I was doing telephone interviews throughout the day across various timezones. Social media mentions were by now in multiple languages – from German and Italian to Korean and Arabic

On the Saturday I had the day off to do another little installation in Yorkshire.


I’d seen some pictures on twitter of crowds at the bridge on Saturday, so on Sunday – the penultimate day of the bridge, I thought I’d go down and see for myself.

It’s a tidy walk up to the top of Grisedale from Patterdale. It’s not a difficult walk. The first part just follows the lane up from the village. The steepest section is on tarmac so it’s not that steep really. By the time the road runs out you’re about halfway there. Once past the last farmyard with the newborn cattle the track becomes a rocky path and the landscape is noticeable wilder. Where it opens out again at the head of the valley the bridge suddenly became very clear. Sitting in the first bit of green beneath the craggy backdrop with Nethermostcove Beck tumbling over falls on its way down. A feint boggy path diverges from the main valley path at this point towards the wooden bridge over Grisedale Beck. This is the wettest and muddiest part of the journey. One wrong footstep and the black peat is halfway up your shins. I dread to think how many trainers were waterlogged on that last bit.

The main path is a popular path in the Lake District. It’s part of the Wainwright Coast to Coast path, and a starting point for those heading up Fairfield, St Sunday Crag or tackling the mighty Helvellyn. The Lake District is a busy place for walkers and you’re rarely alone on any of its miles of well maintained paths. On a typical sunny weekend you’ll probably pass twenty or so other walkers on your way up from Patterdale. 

On that Sunday I passed 200.

That was my first clue as to how busy the bridge was. It wasn’t even a great day for a walk. It was windy and the wind was bitingly cold – particularly up at the bridge where the prevailing winds come off the mountains behind – still with their crests of snow on the top.

My works are all about the audience experience and I like going to see how people are experiencing them. There’s something nice about going back on my own and mingling with other people to try and see it how others do. It’s also nice that I can usually go without anyone knowing I’m the artist so I get to find out what people really think rather than the polite responses you get on surveys or on guided tours and artist talks.

early crowd

an early crowd of walkers from Yorkshire

From the day it was finished, the bridge was never all that quiet. I’d visited a number of times over the week for various reasons and at different times of the day, and I was rarely on my own there for long at best. One morning I set off at first light to get the early morning sun picking out the bridge against the crags. When I arrived there was already a few others doing the same, including one keen photographer who’d set off from Ashington at 4am with the same idea. Earlier in the week we’d been up doing some TV interviews until gone 7pm and still people were wandering up the valley to visit.

Yet, on that final Sunday morning the crowds were still an unexpected surprise to me. There was a constant stream through the field gate, people in the beck getting photos, families on the outcrops having picnics. At one point there was even an orderly queue of people from the gate up to the bridge with people wanting to walk across it and have their selfie moment.

sunday crowd

It was all very civilised and good natured. Everyone was clearly enjoying the experience. The demographics were across the spectrum – families with small children, seasoned walkers, older people out with the dog, fell runners, mountain bikers. But lots of people just out in their (very muddy) trainers. And every one of them had made the two-mile walk out on foot.

queue

you don’t get more British than that – queueing in the middle of nowhere. in the rain.

More than that. Every one of them had travelled to Patterdale and then made the five mile round trip from the car park. Even for people in ‘nearby’ Kendal or Penrith, that constitutes a four or five hour commitment to visit the bridge. To engage with art. Many travelled much further. There are very few galleries in the world who can claim to match that from their visitors.

A few figures for you. Patterdale is home to around 400 people – including the surrounding hamlets. Over just 11 days, around 8,000 people visited the PaperBridge. Most of them crossing it and taking pictures. Pictures and stories about the bridge appear in magazines, newpapers and online publishing in every continent. To date over 44 million people have read an article online, seen a picture in a newspaper or watched a feature on TV about the bridge around the world.

Twitter and Facebook were full of photos of people standing on the wobbly top of the bridge in all weathers. In ones, twos or more. I saw one with seven people crowded on. A local holiday let company even posted a picture of their MD drinking a cup of tea on the top. That’s a fair way to drag a dining room chair – total commitment!

Sally drinking tea on the bridge

As well as spreading the word and engaging people with the project, social media played a major part throughout the project. Every morning when I woke I checked my social media streams for pictures to see how the bridge was holding out. Particularly comforting in bad weather. Almost everyone involved got there via connections on Facebook and twitter. When my email inbox got unbearable communication was done via direct messaging on Twitter. Tracking the #PaperBridge tag alerted us to media stories around the world we otherwise would have missed. In turn, those social media connections have opened up whole new avenues for me to explore.

It’s been one heck of a journey these past few months. That bright red arch over a remote mountain beck is no more. While it was there something magical happened and it reached so many people. That it was only there for a short while keeps that memory special. It’s now just a story. And stories are the longest lasting of anything.

The idea of building a bridge out of paper goes back a little while for me. It’s been one of those projects that’s been sat on the back burner so long it was in danger of completely drying out. And if it wasn’t for a random DM on twitter one Sunday evening, it might still be there.

It was some years earlier that a discussion with some of the lovely folk over at James Cropper – a paper manufacturer based in the Lake District – turned to thinking “what could be made out of paper?” At the time they were interested in pushing their brand values of bespoke production, colour and environmental credentials. We’d done some pieces for trade fairs and I’d started doing some small-scale temporary pieces in the landscape for photographs. The thing about brainstorming is that you can come up with ideas and not worry about how practical or realistic they are. I think I said it would be great to do something structural – like a wall, or a building, or a bridge.. or something along those lines, and that’s often how so many of my pieces start life. I open my mouth without thinking, and as soon as I’ve uttered the words they somehow echo and linger. And I start to dwell on them. Yes, a bridge. That would be amazing if we could do that. Obviously I had no idea how to do it, but the idea seemed to stick.

red boxes

red paper boxes on Ullswater. 2010.

Of course, when I started to look at it and do the research I discovered it wasn’t as left field as I thought. Building a bridge out of paper was a standard year one exercise in architecture courses all over the world. An exercise in creating strength from lightweight materials. These however were just models even though some could take the weight of people.

Then there’s the work of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. In 2007 Ban built a full-sized paper bridge over the River Gard at Remoulin in France. Ban had gotten over the structural and scale issues by using paper tubes. Paper tubes are an inherently strong but lightweight form and work well in both compression and tension along their length. Fabricated steel joints hold everything in place.

shigeru ban paper bridge

Paper Bridge by Shigeru Ban. image © Mikaël Pors

However, I wanted to do something in just paper. I wanted the purity of a single material. This idea that something as seemingly fragile as a single sheet of paper could be the building blocks of something substantial.Something of real structural integrity. Capable of withstanding the Cumbrian weather and strong enough to function as a footbridge. The solution lay in some of the earliest bridges in the Lake District – packhorse bridges.

packhorse bridge Watendlath Cumbria

In the days before roads trading goods were moved across the country by packhorse – loading up horses and trekking them in convoy across the land. With no wheels to get stuck in mud it was a very versatile way to move things across difficult terrain – as in the case of the Lake District. Where rivers ran too fast to safely ford, simple stone arch bridges were built. Originally these were very basic, using local found stone and built over a wooden formwork, using lime mortar to cement the stone together. Once constructed the formwork was knocked down or burnt leaving a simple arch. There was no wall on either side of the pathway as this would restrict the size of the packs on the horses. The bridges were also used by drovers moving sheep to and from markets. Only when the tracks were upgraded and carts and waggons started to use them were sides added to the bridges to stop them from falling off. Carts also meant bridges had to be wider and more substantial with easy gradients up to the top, whereas the original packhorse bridges were frequently steep arches and only three-foot wide.

I found a great book – ‘An Illustrated Guide to The Packhorse Bridges of the Lake District‘ by Michael Hartwell, and set off to familiarise with bridges in the Lake District landscape.

book cover

The construction of a stone arch is very simple and dates back thousands of years.  Wedge-shaped stones – or voussoirs – are laid over a former. The final, topmost stone – the keystone – effectively holds it all together. In a paper bridge, all the stones are just pieces of paper. Structurally, the internal angles of the wedge shapes result in the vertical force (the load on the arch) being transferred to lateral tension (sideways force where it meets the ground).

notebook page

basic calculations for the final bridge

I could calculate how to build it on paper by simple geometry. If I knew the size of the blocks of paper and the radius of the arc I could determine how many ‘sides’ a polygon of those blocks it would take to go across the arc. Knowing the number of sides I could also work out the angle between them that I needed to fill with wedges. As I knew the dimensions of those wedges from the paper size I could work out the size of stacks of different sized pieces it would take to bridge that angle. I needed sufficient different sizes to brace across the gap evenly and also get small enough pieces to get as close to the upper edge as possible. The strength in the arc comes from ensuring the blocks are tight on the bottom edge and are wedged tight across the top edge. It’s also important not to make the mid-sized blocks in the wedge too big as, under load, the bridge would have a tendency to pivot on those points and make it rock. When it came to the bigger models and the final piece, those small packs of 10 or 11 sheets were critical. One too many small pieces of paper in one of the wedge sections might not seem much in the 20,000 pieces of paper scheme of things, but an extra sheet in one block equates to 150 sheets over the whole arch – approximately 40mm – and the whole bridge becomes very unstable.

stack drawing

drawing of stacks making up a single block and wedge

I think I built the first paper model bridge in 2011. It was very haphazard but it worked and held a fair weight. It was quite a shallow arc made by stacking small pieces of paper over a former and then wedging other sheets in a various intervals until it stayed up. The next model was more refined. I knew then how it worked. Using small pieces of paper left over from a project years before it easily held more than its own weight.

first model paperbridge

the first model paperbridge. May 2011

original sketch

the first sketch of a paper bridge

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Second model. 2012

By this time it was looking like this just might be possible. I’d even found a location where I thought it would look right – with big Lakeland fells around it, a fast flowing beck underneath and footpaths on either side. There was no point building a bridge that didn’t go anywhere.

But, could I build one that would take the weight of a person? And how would it work outside? What would happen when it rains? Only one way to find out. Build a bigger one.

Croppers kindly supplied me with a quantity of paper cut to approximately A4 size. From these I trimmed smaller sizes to make wedge-shaped stacks. I built this first decent-sized bridge one evening in my front garden. I left markers at intervals so I could take it apart again and keep the paper in blocks. It was March when I built that, so it was getting dark early. I got it all assembled to a certain point and left it until the morning to fine tune it.

A4 model

first A4 model

Overnight the cloud came down and it was a bit misty in the morning. I just needed to move some of the blocks and add a few more wedges I thought to make a better arc. It was then I discovered what happens when the paper gets wet. The bridge was rock-solid. There was no way I could easily take sections out. When the paper got wet, the fibres swelled. As all the paper was in compression all the swelling pressure went against the abutments as it had nowhere else to go. I left that test bridge up outside the house for nearly three months in rain, snow and occasional sunshine. It didn’t go anywhere.

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The next test build was in the Howgill Fells overlooking the M6 Tebay Gorge. This was the first one over running water. It was a blistering hot day and there wasn’t much water coming down the beck, but I wanted to see how it worked in a more real landscape environment.

test model in howgill fells

test model in the Howgill Fells. 2012

The colour was a bit cold against the foliage and the bridge seemed to flatten out at the top, but this is what test are for – to find all the problems so they can be solved before you go for the big piece.

From this point on the project hung around for a few years. Both the paper manufacturer and the Lake District National Park were keen to help realise the bridge, for one reason or another things never quite came together at the same time to make it happen.

I’d been showing mock-ups of the PaperBridge in presentations and lectures around the world for a few years. It was always something I used to show my working methods and the potential for public / private enterprise. It aways went down well too – there was something about it that caught people’s imagination. Whether that was the bold use of colour in the landscape, or the ambition, or the engineering.

mock-up

visual for paperBridge at Greenside, Glenridding. 2012

Earlier this year I was surveying my growing list of unrealised projects and looking to see which ones I could look to finally get done this year. Looking at how progressed the idea was and what was needed to actually bring it to fruition. The PaperBridge seemed to be pretty much there. It was all designed, engineered, tested, materials sourced, legal and health & safety implications sorted. It even had a location and permissions. I’d even gone through the PaperBridge as an example project when I met with Wolfgang Volz over the winter. All it needed was some money for materials and build costs. Although that doesn’t sound like much, finding funding is always more work than you think, so I pencilled it into my diary as something to start working on in the summer. A standard delay tactic.

So when that random twitter message came through asking if I was interested in doing something in the Lakes, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Here was a client looking for something high-profile and ambitious in the Lake District landscape, and I just happened to have something all ready to go. Just as well as the proposal would need costing up and presenting in 10 days, and if successful, delivered in just 10 weeks. Under any normal circumstances that would be just impossible for a project of this scale. I don’t normally put proposals forward to open calls – coming up with project concepts, working out all the logistics and drafting up a budget alone can be a huge amount of work with no guarantee of anything coming off it. In fact I’ve never had any commission come off this way, so I stopped doing it. However, I had everything just sitting there, ready to go – although I had no idea how much it would cost, but sure I could do it within their budget. If only just. it was worth a shot.

On the 22nd February I got an email inviting me to realise PaperBridge as part of a new cultural event in Cumbria and the Lake District – Lakes Ignite. The lead-in time for the paper production and my other work commitments meant there was just a 10 day window it could be done in during May. So that was it. Ten weeks to deliver a full-sized bridge out of paper.

working drawings

working drawings for a bridge – not the final one though..

Of course things never go smoothly. The tight timetable meant the National Park people couldn’t re-jig their busy rotas to provide the build help I was hoping for. Due to a locally controversial planning application near the original Greenside location, it was thought best not to do anything on that site this year. That meant looking for an alternative location, obtaining permissions, surveying, re-designing the bridge and re-calculating the engineering.

bridge redesign

redesigning the bridge in the studio

Lots of long days in the studio and late nights with my note-book, bits of paper, cosine calculators, building and rebuilding scale models, revisiting the site as it slowly greened up through the early spring, taking photos, generating visuals and eventually it started to come back together again.

grisedale mock-up

early mock-up of the bridge in Grisedale

A couple of years or so ago, when we were looking at a 16 – 21 day installation period at the original location a short walk from a car park, we were looking at visitor figures in the region of 10 – 16,000. The Lake District is a great place to do this kind of work – there’s so much quality landscape environment to bounce off. It’s a well-known area and comes with its own unique sense of international branding. THere’s also plenty of other things to offer visitors so an artwork can make part of a great day out or weekend away.One of the challenges however can be the number of visitors to the area – much more than you would expect in most rural locations. While I knew the paper would easily support the weight of people on it – we even looked at the idea of taking a horse over it for a photo opportunity – I had no way of knowing what the effect of 16,000 pairs of muddy boots would do to the surface of the bridge. With that kind of visitor figure we’d need to put invigillators there to avoid bottlenecks of visitors and make sure everyone was safe on it. However, at this new, much more remote location – remember it’s a good 5 mile round walk from a car park – crowds were not going to be a problem. It was going to be something that passing walkers would just happen across. Maybe up to 100 people a day on busy sunny weekends.

I quite liked that aspect of it – a piece so remote and temporary that it became something special for the few who saw it….

Good things come to those who wait. Patience is a virtue. Cliché cliché maybe.

I’ve had my fair share of mad, short timescale projects. Some so short they almost felt like instant pop-ups. ‘Level’ in Peterborough earlier this year was devised and realised in 30 days.

Level in Peterborough

The ‘Paviljong’ in Sweden was a 14 day project, while ‘Souvenir’ in Shanghai in 2006 was less than 10 days from concept to finished pieces. Pieces like this are born and raised on adrenalin. It’s the only way.

My latest project, on the other hand comes from the opposite end of the timescale spectrum. ‘PaperBridge’ has been hanging around my life on and off for nearly five years, but a couple of weeks ago it finally became a reality.

PaperBridge

Around 22,000 pieces of paper arch over a beck at the foot of the Helvellyn range in the English Lake District. The bridge weighed over 4 tonnes and could support the weight of 60 sheep (if you could fit that many on it), yet it didn’t use any glue, nuts, bolt, screws or any other fixings. It was just pure paper wedged between two cages of stone.

Despite the long gestation period, it’s still felt a bit of a whirlwind project and the last two weeks of my life have been some of the craziest in a long while.

The bridge is in a fairly remote valley in the Lake District. The nearest village is Patterdale at the south end of Ullswater. Getting to the village from anywhere else requires either a long winding journey down the length of the second longest lake in England, or up and over the Kirkstone Pass – one of the steepest mountain passes in the country. From Patterdale (population 400) the bridge is a good two mile walk up the Grisedale Valley. A mass-tourist destination it isn’t. Because it’s a bridge made only of paper I wasn’t sure how well it would take to thousands of people crossing it, so I put it in a place where I thought not so many people would venture. It’s on the main Coast to Coast long distance path and there’s a nice 5 mile circular from the Ullswater villages, so it would get passing visitors OK and maybe the odd person venturing out just to see it.

location-big maps

I’d allowed four days for the install incase of bad weather and to have some breathing space. I’d got a good team to hep build – Phil had helped build an earlier test piece, Ewan and Michael built drystone walls in Teesdale together (Ewan was also part of the God’s Bridge project a couple of years back), and there was Li – a second year architecture student from Newcastle. It was a pretty simple build once we got started so it should all be straight forward.

Michael and Phil had built the gabion abutments the week before to give them time to settle. There was a fresh fall of snow on the fell tops that day. Walking up the track towards the valley head those rocky peaks looked the daunting mountains they really are. This was the wild Lakeland landscape I was after. Not the bit most of the 16-million tourists who visit the Lakes each year see. The shocking statistic is that around 95% of visitors to the Lakes don’t travel further than 80m from their cars. I’ve seen them down at Bowness on Windermere cooing over the water and boats, eating ice cream and happy to be in ‘The Lakes’. Chiang Yee had seen the same thing back in the 1930’s. It hasn’t changed. But for me, those mountains. Those scary crags are what have really shaped the western idea of landscape. Writers, thinkers, poets and artists have been inspired by these distant, towering rocks over the past 200 years. Their names as old and layered with hinted stories as the art they inspire – Dollywagon Pike, St. Sunday Crag, Pinnacle, Striding Edge. The stream the bridge crosses – Nethermost Cove Beck – its name littered with the remnants of a Viking past.

installing the gabions

It had been a glorious April on the whole and every site visit I’d made this year had been still and sunny. It lulled me into a false sense of security. The Cumbrian weather had other ideas come May.

The first day was due to be just getting materials onto site. I’d arranged for all the paper and the wooden formers to be delivered on the same wagon so that everything could be carted up the track by tractor in one go. By the time the delivery wagon arrived it had been raining for over 12 hours non-stop. We knew this was no longer going to be as simple as we wanted. I followed the wagon up the narrow and steep track to the farm in the pouring rain, grateful that finally things were arriving. Only to discover that instead of 7 pallets with 4 tonnes of paper, there was only two pallets to unload. With no mobile phone signal in the valley I left the the farmer to cart what was there up as near to the bridge site as he could get and the team to move it the last bit by hand while I went off to sort the case of the missing consignments.

delivery wagon

By the time the rest of the materials were delivered the next day so much rain had fallen in the valley that the farmer couldn’t get a tractor anywhere near the bridge site. A frustrating 24 hours where we could do no more than check into the cottage I’d rented for the team and twiddle our thumbs.

By 7am on day three the sun was out and the wind had dropped. After fuelling on breakfast butties and tea we got an early start on things.

First task was putting together the flat-packed plywood former that the bridge was to be built over. The form was designed with Peter Foskett who’d previously worked on the ‘Seven Spires’ piece back in 2011. The former was designed in two halves and precision cut by CNC machine in Carlisle. The form was held together by pegs cut from the same sheets so the whole thing could be assembled without tools. The form was then supported on screw jacks and acrow-props between the abutments. One of the key secrets in the formwork design was the way the two halves could be jacked-up in the middle to help get the final pieces of paper in and keep the compression high across the arch.

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Once the former was in, it should then be a simple process of stacking the paper over the top. Two packs of paper followed by a wedge made of smaller sheets – the size and quantity having been predetermined in the design process. Nice and simple.

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Only the paper was in packs of 100 sheets – each sheet measuring 900mm x 700mm. Each pack weighing 17kg. And ALL the packs were on pallets over 500m the other side of a bog. The only way to get the paper onto the site was to carry them by hand. All 168 of them.

This wasn’t going to be a quick process.

pallet of paper n landscape

possibly the most remote pallet of paper ever

Paper that size and in those quantities isn’t an easy thing to handle. Once out of their protective wrapping the packs quickly lose their shape and rigidity. What started out as a one person job to stack the paper became a five person task by the end of the day.

As the day progressed we got slicker at building and got into a rhythm. The weather continued to improve so we kept going while things were in our favour. But by 8pm we were exhausted. Twelve solid hours hefting large packs of paper around was enough.

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Elm How was a great base for the install team. A huge traditional farmhouse with amazing original flagstone spiral staircase, it was large and comfortable and quiet. And only 15 minute walk up to the bridge site. Surrounded by fields of pedigree swaledale yows with their newborn lambs and shorthorn cattle calving in the barn next door, by night it was all stars, hooting owls and wandering badgers. Its isolation came with disconnection from the rest of the world – no mobile signal, no internet. On a morning when the rest of the country was waking to the aftermath of the general election, we were blisfully unaware of any of it. And it was lovely.

My original plans had been to build the bridge mid-week and if we got ahead of ourselves we’d just wrap it up in tarpaulins until the Friday morning. There had been a fair bit of media interest in the bridge over the previous week or so and I’d booked a minibus to bring people halfway up the track for the press launch. The 16-seater bus had already been over booked with photographers and at least two different TV crews. However, on the Thursday night I’d driven down into the village to pick up some leaky wifi to send some emails and discovered that every single press photographer and TV crew had cancelled at the last minute to do vote counts.

So press launch was to be a no press launch.

At least the pressure was off. We just had to get the bridge built by late morning in time for whoever decided to still come on the bus.

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As the final pieces were being hammered into place as small crowd was gathering on a rocky outcrop on the other side of the bog. The couple staying in the cottage behind Elm How had also come down to lend a hand. The plan to raise the centre sections up to get the last pieces of paper in didn’t quite work to plan as the acrow-props were being jacked further into the river bed rather than lifting, so the final pieces were done more with brute force and heavy whacking.

By the time the wooden formers were lowered and slid out there was a fair crowd gathered along both sides of the beck. a loud cheer as the final piece was removed and the pure red arch remained leaping over the water. I had expected the arch to sink a little at the top as the formers were lowered, but all that hammering and wedging the final pieces paid off and it didn’t move a jot as one side then the other was gradually lowered and I could see daylight between the paper and the plywood.

Despite the nearly five years of development, the many scale models, the months of testing in all weathers, and the long hours designing every last millimetre – that sense of relief when finally those thousands of sheets of bright red paper finally stood there on their own was immense.

While I tried to comprehend the wave of emotions sweeping through me as I stood next to that newly-born artwork, I had no idea this pile of paper was going to run my life for the next two weeks…

‘PaperBridge’ was commissioned by Lakes Culture with support from Arts Council England

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