Tonight it’s a harvest moon. After a much wetter than usual summer up here in the Pennines, September seems to be returning to its normal mix bag of sunny days interspersed with showery bits and the occasional heavy downpour. I know it sounds all mixed up, but I think that’s just the way September is. At least I managed to get some much delayed photography in at long last before the greens turned for autumn and I even got some nice blue sky days too.
Still, there’s a particular cloud that has yet to make an appearence. If it ever appears, Anthony McCall’s ‘Column’ will be an elegant, spiralling cloud rising from the south banks of the Mersey and rising more than 2km into the sky. It’s a nifty bit of a piece made by creating an artificial vortex and sending heated moist air upwards with a giant fan from just below the surface of the Mersey. Commissioned as part of the Artists Taking The Lead programme for the Cultural Olympiad, it was meant to be in place from January for a year. This was later revised to September to November (oh, there’s a Liverpool Biennial then? That’s handy!), but so far it has yet to materialise.
Clouds are tricky things to play with. A few years ago I proposed to create a free-floating cloud on a Cumbrian Lake for the final FRED festival, but funding problems meant that was one of the first things to be scrapped. I’ve played with them in more controlled environments like my ‘Cloud Cube‘ I’ve written about before.
But Anthony McCall isn’t the first artist to come undone with clouds. In a similarly hi-profile occasion, Kapoor’s uncannily similar ‘Ascension’ failed to ascend on its press launch. Although, in a spectacular case of ‘Emporer’s New Clothes’ syndrome which sums up the art establishmnent so well, the rather limp puff of smoke drew large crowds who stood and watched in awe none the less.
At the 2010 Architecture Biennale in Venice, an entire nation was let down by its own national pavilion. Designed and built by a large posse of eminent professors and architects, Croatia’s ambitious ‘Cloud Pavilion’ ended up as a catalogue of disasters. The steel meshed piece was intended to make a grand entrance into the Biennale being towed complete across the lagoon before docking at the Giardini at the heart of the event. However, due to a mixture of impenetrable Italian beaurocracy and Croatian incompetence, it didn’t have the right paperwork to dock in the city. But worse than that, before it even got to the Grand Canal, the whole thing collapsed in a heap of national embarrassment.
Still, when the technology and design works, cloud pieces can be stunning.
Also at Venice in 2010 was an amazing cloudscape by TetsuoKondo
Before that was the incredible Blur Building by Diller and Scofidio for the Swiss National Expo in 2002. For this the designers shrouded a floating building with a very fine mist of charged ionic water droplets. The technology here is really clever and ensured it stayed put by adapting to changing atmospheric conditions.
Although I’m a bit sceptical about the less than transparent process by which an artist based in the US won a commission in the Artists Taking the Lead programme, and less still convinced it’ll be visible for more than a few hours at best, I really want McCall’s ‘Column’ to work. In so many ways I can relate to the piece – the shear scale of it on one hand, the striving to achieve the impossible on the other. The idea that he’s pushing not only his own barriers to make a piece like that, but pushing the technology to its limits against the unpredictability of the great outdoors. The idea of building something based on the science of chaos is pure nuts and I love it!
Someone once said to me there’s stages in design. Anything 1cm to 1m is product design. From 1m – 10m is interior design. 10m – 100m is architecture. Anything over that is landscaping. I’m not sure how that translates to art.
In my latest piece I found myself testing the limits of my own knowledge. Not in the same league as building a 2km vertical cloud, but challenging none the less. As part of a programme of works exploring Northamptonshire’s Boot and Shoe heritage I was commissioned to create a largescale artwork around a number of former shoe factories.
I had been looking at using augmented reality to create impossible artworks for while now, but most of the places I had been looking at didn’t have a mobile phone signal and most AR technlogies require an internet connection. So with a good solid 3G network in Northampton, this seemed a good opportunity to experiment.
The great thing about augmented reality is the ablity to create geo-located artworks. These can be 3-dimensional pieces that only exist in certain places – just like real things – you can place them in specific places, like on a street or on top of a building. You can walk around them, look through them, even take pictures of them, only they aren’t really there and you need to use a smartphoone or tablet device with a camera to see them. Think of your phone camera as a magic spyglass – you have to look through it to see otherwise invisible things.
After some very enjoyable research in the county museum archives, leafing through volumes of hand-drawn shoe designs, I decided on a series of works based on the various decorative patterns punching in the leather of gents brogues. A number of 3D models were made from the original designs – the shapes extruded to create hollow forms similar to the punches which make the holes in the leather. I then used them as repeat patterns to stretch along the length of the roads in the boot and shoe quarter.
As the pieces aren’t really there, they can’t cast shadows so they’d just look really fake if they were on the ground. To get round this I decided to make the pieces hovver at roof height. This way you can walk under an avenue of shapes and still see them from all sides. If you went up inside the taller buidings in the streets – the former shoe factories themselves, you’d get a very different view of them.
The final piece – ‘Brogued’ is available for download for the Layar app on iphone, ipad & android devices.
It’s great being able to make installations on a scale which would be impractical to make physically. It’s also good to be able to do impossible tings with them, like hang unsupported in the air, or floating above a busy road junction without any health and safety issues. However, the technology has its limits. You can’t hide things behind buildings or lamposts as the pieces exist in a different realm to buildings and lamposts. Positioning is still tricky – particularly in relatively confined spaces like urban streets. As the pieces are located by GPS, there’s a 10m tollerance to bear in mind. This seems a little random at times too – sometimes the pieces line up perfectly down the road, other times they are well to one side, or running into buildings. Also, tall buildings on narrow streets can play havoc with getting clear GPS readings. This one flummoxed me all day for a particular location and eventually I had to abandon that one as impossible.
Now that I’ve tried it there’s still something lacking in an Augmented Reality piece. Because it isn’t really there it can’t truely intereact with its environment. It just appears to. And just as the environmental interaction is remote, so too is the human and emotional interraction. Somehow, just because you can see it right there, it’s lacking an emotional reply.
That said, get some moody sky behind it and they are mesmerising. I have one outside my front door, and everytime the weather gets a bit threatening I nip outside and the piece brings the clouds to life. Clouds. Don’t you just love ’em?