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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.