Archive for the ‘architecture’ Category

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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Now I’m all settled, I need to get back to doing some work.

At the start of every project there’s usually a long period of research and development where I immerse myself in finding out about things and getting really lost in lots of new stuff. At the moment I’m working on a number of future projects at various stages in their development.
It’s quite possible that one or more of these projects never makes it off the page and becomes a final piece. It happens. Quite a lot sometimes. Sometimes the ideas carry on and inspire another piece. Sometimes projects just take a really long time to happen.

This piece for a hi-end luggage brand never paid off:

cases in a circle

Although this piece proposed for Brockholes Nature Reserve near Preston didn’t happen (huge shame), it did lead to a similar piece in nearby Lytham:

bubbles at Brockholes

and this piece for the Forest of Bowland is far more complicated than expected and is still a few years away from happening:

tangled in the trough of bowland

Recently I’ve been doing some research at the Lancashire County Archives for a couple of projects. It’s an amazing place. It’s not a library nor is it a museum, but contains millions of documents relating to just about everything that’s ever been written down in or about Lancashire. From elaborate illuminated manuscripts on vellum to folders of stapled typewritten council memos.

The building itself is a very considered bit of 70’s local authority brutalism.

archives building

There are boxes of files there which chart the history of the designing and building this purpose-built archive building – memos about materials, sketches of the custom furniture, salaries and running costs.

chair sketches

In the centre of the main building is a square courtyard. The architects proposed a sculpture and water feature in the middle, which never came to anything, but there’s a whole presentation document about it.

sculpture proposal

It’s not a great piece of art proposed, and the design of the presentation isn’t ground breaking either, but what struck me was the thought and care that went into proposing the project.

The master of the proposal presentation though was Humphry Repton. A self-taught landscape designer he sought to develop the ideas of Capability Brown and a had a clear vision of how the parks around the great houses could be greater experiences and encapsulate the new ideas of the beautiful view. He also developed a very unique business model. He would visit the great houses and spend a few days sketching the various views, looking to see how changes to the parks and gardens would affect the overall impression and experience of the house. He would then present a bound book of his ideas to the owners as a pitch for work. The books would be around 20 or so pages long with beautifully written descriptions of the house and land. The highlight of the books were the fold-out pen and ink drawings with flaps and pop-ups showing before and after visuals.

before after

The pitches were mostly unsolicited – he relied on some of the ideas to be taken up in order to make a living. For him the presentation of the ideas was key to that. As bound objects, Repton’s ‘Red Books’ have mostly survived – being absorbed into the estate libraries. Surprisingly few of his ideas were actually fully realised. If he was lucky then maybe one or two ideas at each site would take shape – but for Repton that law of averages was all part of the plan.

The Lancashire Archives have an original Red Book for Lathom House. As a public archive anyone can request most items. However, the Repton Red Book as a one-off hand written and illustrated book is a bit fragile for repeated handling, so the conservation department made an amazing facsimile for anyone to explore. It has the same binding, paperweight and everything so you get to experience Repton’s charm-offensive in all its glory.

copy of repton red book

I don’t think any of Repton’s ideas for Lathom House ever came to fruition, but as a work of art – of ideas as well as visuals – it’s just as valid.

This got me thinking of the value of proposals. They are ideas in the raw state. The great vision. At the idea stage they’re often uncompromised by logistics or money or technology. There are far more things that never happened than have. In that light the archives hold a fascinating document of what if..

Some are visually things of beauty –

This is a proposal for decoration of the hallway in Lytham Hall (never happened). I love the way it’s presented as the 3D space folded flat.

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Less visually arresting is this proposed railway through the Forest of Bowland. Built partly for local transport for people and agriculture, the financial sustainability case was built on tourist use – years before the creation of National Parks but they still anticipated summer tourism passengers of over 30,000 every year. Had this been built it is possible the Forest of Bowland would have been as busy as the Peak District and with a developed tourism industry as a result would have strengthened its case for National Park status.

bowland railway

There are thousands of architectural drawings in the archive – from railway cottages and Cooperative Society buildings to canals and service stations. But by far the most impressive is that for the Morcambe Tower.

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In the early 1890’s there was a bit of a tower fever. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower opened in 1888, entrepreneurs around the country saw building iconic landmark towers as the key to building tourism with the new concept of disposable income. In 1890 both Blackpool and Morcambe revealed their plans for seaside towers. Blackpool’s at 158 metres unashamedly ripped off was directly inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Morcambe’s was far more ambitious…

morecambe tower

At the base was an intricately decorated Moorish-designed Bazaar featuring shops, restaurants and grand theatre. Above that sat a second auditorium for a circus. Rising above all this was a tower more inspired by the Tower of Babel than anything else. A spiral roadway wound itself around the spire with an illuminated tramway carrying people to the viewing lantern on the top.

Just stop for a moment. That’s like a railway running around the outside to the top of Blackpool Tower…

These drawings from the architects – by W.H & A Sugden of Keighley, Yorkshire, are incredible in their level of detail. These are not a decorative proposal – they’re working drawings to actually build this thing. There’s even a detailed drawing of one of the hinges on one of the ground floor bars.


The depth of detailing is mind-blowing. Bearing in mind that at the time this would have been the tallest building ever built – that Tower of Babel inspiration is not quite so kitsch.

decor detail

Sadly, like so many great ideas, it didn’t really go to plan. The money didn’t materialise and the buildings were scaled back. The Tower never got beyond its steel work sub-structure.

morecambe bay C1900

Morecambe Bay C. 1900. The tower as built can just be seen in the distance on the left. Image © Lancashire Libraries


The tower was dismantled for the 1st World War effort. No doubt the ironwork melted down and turned into guns and shells. From pleasure to pain in one easy line. The buildings were finally demolished in the early ’60’s.

Compromise is the enemy of inspiration and some ideas should never have got beyond the proposal stage – not because they were bad, but precisely because they were perfect as they were. The act of realising them inevitably opens up the risk of things going wrong, or worse – tweaked for budgetary constraints.

Of course I always set out with the ambition to realise every one of my proposals, but realising that the proposal presentation may be as far as any idea gets I’m enjoying working on all the details for these pieces.

The art of ideas.






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One of my favourite blogs at the moment is a podcast from the editor of LensWork – a photography publication from the States. I don’t subscribe to the magazine itself – I rarely keep up with periodicals anyway, but the weekly podcast has become a most eagerly awaited event each week. The editor, Brooks Jensen has a wonderful speaking voice which just exudes considered wisdom. Although each week his thoughts are centered on photography they are as much about approaches to art in general and a great source of contemplation. In the week when Grayson Perry’s much regarded Reith Lectures questioned ‘What is Art?’, Jensen recalls the opening paragraph from an early 20th Century book by Robert Henri – The Art Spirit:

“Art, when really understood, is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things – anything – well. It is not an outside, extra thing”

What is art? It’s doing something really well. I like that.

In another post he talks about the Isaac Newton idea of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – learning from the greats that go before you. But more than that, he talks about finding the artists who are trading the same path as you – your fellow travellers. The idea that as artists we are not alone in our direction and that there are others going the same way – and instead of looking at them as competitors they should be seen as companions.

gasometer oberhausen

THis week I found myself in the presence of my giants. I went to Germany to see a work by Christo and earlier today I played in my all time favourite piece of orchestral music – Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. To most this probably doesn’t seem as much a deal as it was to me. I can’t express how significant both are to where I am now.

First up I travelled to Oberhausen in the Ruhr Valley in Germany (armed with my trusty Leica and virtual rolls of Ilford HP5plus) to see ‘Big Air Package’-. This piece is unusual for a Christo piece as it is inside, and also it’s been up since May. However, despite admiring all his work for years and all the apparent similarities between his and my work, I’d never actually seen any in real life.

big air package by christo

The Gasometer in Oberhausen, at around 100m tall, is now the largest space dedicated to showing art in Europe – bigger than both the Tate’s Turbine Hall, and Paris’ Grande Palais. Within that huge, post industrial space, Christo has created one of the largest single works of art. Standing at over 90m high, ‘Big Air Package’ does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a big parcel of air wrapped up in PU-coated nylon (the same material I used for my Paviljong in Sweden last month) and bound with rope. The entire piece is kept up purely by a volume of air pumped in by constant fans.

It’s not a new idea – he made a number of ‘Air Packages’ back in the 60’s – the largest at Documenta ’68 took two large cranes to install and three abortive attempts to get the engineering right.

air package at documenta4

Christo and Jeanne-Claude 5,600 Cubicmeter Package, documenta IV, Kassel, 1967-68 Photo: Klaus Baum © 1968 Christo

The piece in Oberhausen is over 30 time the volume of that previous package. To me the interesting bit was how the piece filled the entire volume of the space in the Gasometer. I’ve been looking to do a piece that works on a similar level for a few years now, but so far none have managed to happen yet. The first was for a castle in Lancashire, the second for a victorian greenhouse in the southwest. For now they’re both on my ‘to be realised’ list and sure they will happen so long as I keep thinking they’re a good idea.

orangey visual

visual for a large inflatable piece inside a victorian orangery – now resigned to the ‘unrealised’ file

So it was good to see a piece like that realised. Of course, this was much much larger than any I’d planned to do. How many artworks have you been to recently where you can go up the side of it in a lift?

lift beside big air package

The volume inside was just as impressive. A vast white cathedral space. Very Kubrick. Very Turrel. But the whole experience bit was all very Christo.

inside the big air package

inside big air package

Down the road in the Ludwiggalerie at Oberhausen Schloss, there was a small exhibition of the original drawings and models of the ‘Big Air Package’. Uniquely, Christo funds all his large works entirely through the sale of preparatory drawings and models. It’s an elegant business model which I think I’ve written about before. Again, I’d seen pictures of these works on paper in books and on video but I’d never seen the real things. THere’s a real simplicity in his mark-making and incredible vision for how the final piece will look. The way the light works within that vast white space inside the package was so strikingly predicted in his drawings. THey’re both illustrations of engineering and things of great beauty in themselves. And so covetable – I could really see how his business plan works.

big air package drawings by Christo

detail of big air package drawing by christo

It’s the detail you get from a great work of classical music when you get to play in it. Listening to a performance or a recording is one thing. There’s that whole audio experience and where that takes you. But playing in one you get to see how it’s all made – the engineering bits that hold it together.

When I was doing my ‘O’ level music, the only thing I learnt, that I didn’t know before, was that Tchaikovsky was a raving queen who married an nymphomaniac. Emotional torment doesn’t even come close. It’s funny considering the current political stance in Russia that the writer of so much patriotic Russian music was gay. Don’t tell Putin. Shhh!

score cover

For me personally, Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. First performed just nine days before his death, it’s the pinnacle of his musical career. Although still in a traditional four movements, Tchaikovsky starts to twist the order of things. Before then the last movement was the big rousing finale – think Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th, or the big tunes in Dvorak’s 9th. But for Tchaikovsky, the big rousing finale march comes in the third movement. He follows that up with one of the most incredible emotional bits of scoring in the forth. A big epic sweeping strings thing that just tears at the heart. The end, just a rumbling fade that leaves you exhausted.

Playing in the piece you get to see how he did it all. Tchaikovsky uses a lot of doubling up on tunes – with a number of different instruments playing the same thing, which detracts from the distinctiveness of individual instruments and creates entirely new palettes. Within these he plays around with the mix passing melodies and phrases across the mix, so as a listener you’re not entirely sure what instruments are playing what, it’s just a complete sound.

However, the bit that’s long fascinated me is the very start of that final movement. It starts with a soaring, emotional melody – the kind of thing that inspired a million film soundtracks.

However, no one actually plays the notes you hear. The first and second violins have slow, leaping  parts but your ear picks out a distinct melody from the two.

score of finale theme

How he ever worked out how that happens, I’ll never know. For me it’s just the epitome of his genius.

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony and his last performance.

I’m a big fan of Christo’s work and Tchaikovsky, although in many circles there’s a bit of snobbery that dismisses them both. For Christo he’s often dismissed as just pure spectacle with no substance. To many Tchaikovsky is ‘just ballet music’. Maybe it’s because of their accessibility that gets viewed as populist (as if that’s a bad thing anyway). What they both have in common is a desire for creating things of beauty. The art-world seems to have a problem with aesthetics – that things can be made just to be beautiful. Tchaikovsky was unapologetic in his desire to make music that was elegant, emotional and beautiful. ‘Big Air Package’, like all of Christo’s other work, doesn’t do anything else – it doesn’t move, or change colour or say anything about the place or materials, or the artists even. It’s just a thing of beauty – and that’s it.

But it’s beauty done really well.

And that’s art.

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It’s been a crazy week here. A two week residency is hectic enough. To research and build a whole new piece in two weeks is a little scary. To build a pavilion that people can go in and will last ore than my usual two week limit seems more than a little ambitious. To create a piece that responds to over 2,500 years of narrative. Well, that’s just nuts!

Well, sort of. I have to admit it’s not the first time I’ve created a piece from scratch in a matter of days. THere’s nothing like a tight deadline to raise the challenge and push the limits. The ‘Souvenir’ piece in Shanghai I first made back in 2006 was end to end in 10 days and I’m still really proud of that piece.

Souvenir in Shanghai

That first Shanghai piece also introduced me to the world of Chinese gardens. I’d kind of gotten into them through the Balls to Grasmere piece in the Lake District in 2005 and visiting Charles Jencks’ Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries. There’s a story in that too, but it’ll wait for another day as it’ll take me off this path.

Last year I got to work in Suzhou back in China and took the opportunity to visit some of the most important and oldest surviving Chinese gardens. In a nutshell, Chinese garden design is based on traditional Chinese landscape painting, which in turn is based on poetry and is founded on the human interaction with landscape. It’s both a physical and philosophical relationship and a series of ideas that go back over 2,000 years, yet in a bizarre convergence of thinking almost identical to that of English Romanticism born in the Lake District 200 years ago. In a similar resonance to the picturesque, Chinese gardens are built around a series of constructed views – each view as a framed image of the natural world – or at least conjures that up.

view of pavilions

Chinese gardens typically have a number of structures or pavilions in them. Each with a purpose and often very romantic names. The Master of the Nets Garden (1107 AD) includes a pavilion for looking at the fish, while in the Garden of the Humble Administrator – dating from a mere 1509 – there’s a “Who Shall I Sit With” pavilion and a ‘Pavilion for Listening to the Sound of Rain’. It sounds straight out of Cumbria yet pre-dates Wordsworth by 200 years.

Pavilion for Listening to Rain

There’s something very grounding about standing still and listening to the sound of the landscape. It’s something I’m increasingly drawn to on a few projects at the moment – including the piece I’m making for the God’s Bridge Project exhibition next spring.

A couple of days ago I went for a bike ride around the middle of Öland. Cycling and walking are great for getting to understand landscapes. Despite the apparent flatness of the island, on a bike you certainly feel every slight change in gradient and feel the lie of the land.

Karums Alvar

At Karum – just 6km from where I’m working – there’s a slight ridge in the land. It’s almost imperceptible driving along the road, but over 2,500 years the people who lived here and started farming the island noticed it too and had a reverence for it. The Karum Alvar is a plateau of limestone pavement. It seems strange that a high point of only 35m above sea level can be considered a plateau, but geologically it is very much one. Here the soil is very thin – only a few centimetres at most, and supports a micro ecology separate from most of the island. Like Widdy Bank Fell back in the North Pennines, here the plant life has an alpine feel to it, even though they’re not strictly alpine in nature. The landscape is dotted with yew and juniper trees growing out of what appears to be solid rock.

Noahs Ark

Up along the ridge is an impressive prehistoric graveyard. There are dozens of these stone graves – the bodies having been cremated, were buried under piles of rocks along with their treasured possessions – jewellery, swords, tools and food. Each grave marked with an upright marker stone. A slab of limestone pavement, or occasionally granite which look eerily like modern-day headstones. The most remarkable grave is ‘Noah’s Ark’ – a ship grave dating from around 1100 – 500 BC with stone posts fore and aft and appears to ride along the slight ridge from east to west between the coasts.

This is what Karums Alvar sounded like on Saturday:

It’s subtle (and a bit rough as just recorded on my phone) but none the less, it’s that gentle layer of sound that exists even in the quietest of places. This got me thinking about how I should respond to the forest here. How listening to the ambient sounds of a place can in some way connect you directly into it.

In the inter-war years – the 20’s and 30’s – a great deal of research was carried out around the world into the ability to locate advancing armies by listening to distant sounds. By exploiting the stereo field, left and right as well as up and down, you could get a quite accurate calculation of their position. The technology became RADAR, but for that short decade the ingenuity was amazing:

swedish listening device

Sadly I’ve not had the time to play around and experiment with these methods of listening for my pavilion. Instead I’ve been hacking some old telephones bought at the council clearance depot in Kalmar for  20 SEK a piece. The basics of how telephones work hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years so the circuits are really simple. Not got the sound quite right yet but had a good test of all the parts in the forest earlier.

speaker in the trees

Still to decide on a title for the piece, but it’s a pavilion for being at one with the forest. Somewhere quiet to sit and listen to the sounds and feel the movements of the place. I’m sure the title will come to me soon. It needs to. The invites go out in a bit and the farmer next door is already putting his pumpkins out for Skördefest. The pressure’s on…


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We did it!

final piece in the priory

Yep. That really is a monk next to it…

After five full days of long hours and really dedicated graft, the ‘Carpet’ piece is gracing the Priory on Lindisfarne for the next few days.

It took 22,000 bottles and 2,500 litres of water mixed with vegetable dyes to make it. I know it was hoped to be 30,000 bottles, but that proved just too much even for my optimism. Still, over 20,000 is still a shed-load and way more than you can count so I doubt anyone will notice. When the sun comes out the piece really becomes alive. It’s immense.

lots of jars

There was something appropriate about the scale of the task I’d set and the long hours of physical repetitive work. We typically did 11 hour days filling the jars with measured mixes of dye and water to get just the right colours, then taking quantities over to the artwork for laying out. By the end of each day we were utterly exhausted and ached all over. I knew it was going to be hard work but never imagined it being quite so physical. Yet, in a strange way the aches and morning stiffness became part of the process and part of the piece.

carpet detail

I wanted to create a piece which said a whole bunch of things about the Lindisfarne Gospels and linked them to the place. Starting with the idea of pots of ink as a simple connection to the drawing of the original designs, it was also about the use of colour in the manuscripts as a reflection of a multicultural Britain in the 7th century. It was also about how the colours in the inks were the product of the island – why import materials to make ink when you can make them all from local sources? The colours used are not only made from local materials, but the palette is informed by the colours of the island – all the familiar sights and tones. Even the decorations in the originals are inspired by the world around the priory. These bird heads are clearly based on the gannets:

lindisfarne birds


Gannet – image © Tony Heald / naturepl.com

I didn’t want to recreate one of the original carpet pages. Besides not being a particularly original thing to do (where’s the ‘art’ in that?), had I done so there would always be a comparison to make and due to the coarse resolution of the jars, probably quite an impossible thing to do. instead I wanted to create a new pattern for the here and now, but made exactly the same way as the original patterns. It’s a bit like experimental archaeology where you get a real feeling for the historical process by actually doing it. For me that also meant creating a pattern as a direct response to the site and the location through the medium of the original design.

layout design

First off I needed to find how the patterns were made. The original carpet pattens are a mixture of Celtic, Pictish, Viking, Saxon and Egyptian influences. You can still see a direct descendent of that process in Islamic art today. Hardly surprising when you consider that Islam started at the same time the Lindisfarne Gospels were written and both have middle-Eastern origins.


Da Vinci proportions

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90)

I based the basic layout on Saxon pattern-creating methods. In 7th Century Britain there were no rulers marked with inches or centimetres. Instead, the key points on the pattern were determined by ‘sacred geometry’. Taking a vertical centre-line of a known length, the rest of the pattern is derived from arcs and circles. Radii are then taken from those intersections to create further arcs and circles. The whole thing can then be scaled infinitely while preserving the proportions. It’s those proportions that all the carpet pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels are based on. Again, it’s just the beauty of maths and the purity of the geometry of circles that does this. It’s the same geometry that Da Vinci used some 800 years later. (above).

carpet Lindisfarne 008

OK. So, it wasn’t just me. There was a whole team of people doing it. Most notably Bryony Purvis who generally took charge (in a good way), and Andy Raine, who just did everything with a smile and lots of energy. We also had big chunks of help when we needed it most from the time-lapse photographer Cain Scrimgour, fellow artist Helen Tuck, a class full of brilliant kids from Easington, Andy’s wife Anna, and the PR team from English Heritage who mucked in for a few hours. Even Wayne, the overnight security guard got his hands coloured from time to time.

It was a real team effort. Great team. Great effort.

Here’s Cain’s time-lapse video of the epic install:

Carpet – Gospels on the Grass from Cain Scrimgeour on Vimeo.



Yesterday I spent an amazing hour in the presence of the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon books in the UK. Having immersed myself in weeks of research and then a gruelling week installing an artwork inspired by them, it was a particularly moving experience to see so many so ancient manuscripts.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are currently on display in Durham – a bit of a homecoming as that’s where they spent a good 500 years or so. The exhibition on Palace Green has also brought together most of the surviving 7th and 8th Century books including the Durham Gospels – reputed to be the original source of the Lindisfarne Gospels. By comparison, the few early medieval (11th & 12th century) manuscripts seemed positively modern and strangely not half as interesting.

The whole history of these British manuscripts is a fascinating one as is that whole era of early Christianity in the North of England. In the 7th century there were two main sects of Christianity – the roman church and the missionaries from Ireland. One of the main points of contention was the calculation of the date of Easter. THis was resolved at the synod of Whitby in   with the irish church losing. The uncial script used in those early books was a way for the dejected irish monks to assert their allegiances. I love that subversive undercurrent. kind of still two fingers up to the establishment.

script sample

The designs used in the Lindisfarne Gospels reflect the cultural hot-pot of those monastic communities. There are elements of Pictish, celtic, saxon and even Egyptian and middle-eastern design in them. Multiculturalism isn’t just a 21st century thing – it’s been going on here for centuries. It’s the fabric of Britishness. Take that you EDL folk!

more detail

However, the most amazing part of the exhibition was in the room where the original Lindisfarne Gospels were. They themselves are stunning. Pictures in books and online can never do them justice. The level of detail, the fluidity of line, the intensity of colour is just breathtaking. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything else that comes even close to their refinement.


And as if that wasn’t enough, also in that room were artefacts from the coffin of St. Cuthbert – the guy who commissioned the Lindisfarne Gospels in the first place. I’m not really big on religion – it’s just not my thing – but seeing the possessions of a saint an incredible thing. His cross, and ring in particular, look as if they had just been made. The craftsmanship was staggering. And then the thing that finally blew me away was his own copy of the gospel of St. John, buried with him in the 7th Century. A little leather-bound volume – like a  paperback novel. This is the oldest surviving book still in its original binding. In the world. We’re talking a book that’s nigh-on 1,400 years old. Still in one piece. Still looking as though you could just pick it up and read it.

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel. image © British Library

st cuthberts gospel

St Cuthbert’s Gospel. image © British Museum

Sometimes words fail me.

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So, the snow’s back. Seems it barely went away this year. This latest lot has been a little extreme. I’ve got quite used to being snowed-in. I quite like the forced isolation really. But this little lot has had a good go at burying me. This morning I needed to get more logs for the cooker and had to climb out of a window to get outside!

Last week I had to cancel a presentation I was due to do in Lancashire because I was snowed in. It was a shame I couldn’t get there as I’d been building up to it as a big reveal for a new piece I’d been working on. It was big, bold  and flying. The brief I’d been given just eight weeks before was to come up with something unexpected, ambitious and with a wow factor. I was aching to see if I’d actually got something to provoke a real reaction with the audience.

The project had started at the beginning of February. The start date had been postponed a number of times due to snow and bad weather. I should have taken this as an omen on hindsight. The folks at Mid Pennine Arts had asked me to look at the West Pennine Moors and create an idea for a future piece as a response. So on the very first day we trudged through the snow up to Jubilee Tower above Darwen to see what I was dealing with.

first view of West Pennine Moors

Prior to this I had never heard of the West Pennine Moors, let alone visited them. I was starting from a point of zero information. My landscape works are about uncovering what makes up the landscape and looking at it beyond just  surface. These things are easier in places like the Lake District which has a rich cultural history and people have documented the changes there through art and poetry for 200 years. But every landscape has its stories and narrative,  just need unlocking.

The West Pennine Moors are a collection of moderate sized upland areas in the South Pennines, surrounded by the Lancashire Mill towns of Blackburn, Accrington, Bury, Bolton and Chorley. In a way they are a clearly defined area within Victorian industrial sprawl. However, this part of the south Pennines has several moorland expanses on the outer edges of Manchester, and one of the challenges was to see what made these relatively minor moorlands unique and distinct from its neighbours.

The starting point for the brief was the three towers which mark the corners of the area – Jubilee Tower at Darwen, Peel Tower near Holcombe and Rivington Pike tower above Horwich.

Peel Tower

Peel Tower is a tall, angular structure on the edge of Holcombe Moor. Built by public subscription (today we’d call it crowd-funding I guess), it commemorates Sir Robert Peel – a former prime minister and founder of the police force.

Rivington Pike

The tower on Rivington Pike is a little more modest. Sitting on top of a natural peak beside Winter Hill. Built as a hunting lodge in the 18th Century, it’s the oldest of the towers on the moors. Although only 6 metres high it still has a commanding presence on the hill and is a prominent landmark from the train between Chorley and Bolton and from the M61.

Darwen Tower

Darwen Tower is the most visible of the towers and can be seen from almost all the moors in the area. It’s also the only one still open daily to go up. Like Peel Tower, it was paid for by locals to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (hence the official name), but also, more importantly to mark the opening up of the moors for everyone to access. This was one of the first moors with a public right to roam following protests and mass trespasses which predate those at Kinder Scout by over 30 years.

Opening Darwen Tower

opening of Darwen Tower (from http://www.cottontown.org)

Of course these towers are all essentially follies. There are plenty more elsewhere in the area, particularly at Rivington:

Moor tower at Rivington

Moor towers are not unique to the West Pennine Moors. In England there’s a bit of a tradition for building towers on hills for the fun of it. Some were built as lookout posts for hunting (as at Rivington Pike), others as ornaments in the landscape (my favourite type) and even some, bizarrely, built as job creation schemes – something for the locals to do. A kind of 18th century YTS. The tower on Leith Hill in Surrey was built to bring the total height up to 1,000 ft above sea level (small hills down south – bless).

Leith Hill Tower

Leith Hill Tower, Surrey – its gothic architecture makes it a lure for dodgy goth bands

Previous to this spate of random tower-building, the tops of hills have been used for centuries as natural vantage points. The tower on Rivington Pike was built using the stone from a previous signalling beacon, which in turn was built on the site of a standing stone. Walking across the moors there are man-made structures on almost every high point

.shelter on Great Hill

Great Hill has a wind shelter. Much needed on the day I first went up.

Standing stone on Cheetham Close

There’s a stone circle on Cheetham Close

round loaf cairn

While Round Loaf on Anglezarke Moor is a man-made hill of unknown origin, topped by a cairn. Sitting in a bog, the difference in vegetation on the better drained hill is very obvious from satellite pics.

Round loaf from the air

On top of that are the half-dozen triangulation markers (trig points). Built between 1935 and 1960, these were used to map the whole of the UK with an accuracy down to 10 metres. By measuring the angles between one trig point and two others, you got very accurate measurements of the landscape. The same technique is deployed by GPS, only using three satellites rather than lumps of concrete. Trig points have to be on places where they have good all round visibility, so are generally on the highest points around.

Hog Lowe Pike trig point

Using triangulation calculations between the points you could not only determine distances, but also elevation. It’s a classic example of using elevated points for getting a good idea of where you are.

using a trig point

An Ordnance Survey team working on the retriangulation (from Ordnance Survey blog)

But to use triangulation points, you need the right equipment and lots of know-how and charts and stuff to get your bearings. Without that it’s still very difficult to know where you are without visual reference points. Back up in Cumbria the fells often have very distinct profiles, so when I look out of my window at the fells on the horizon, I can identify a number of places. On a clear day I can see lined up beyond Wild Boar fell, the distant peaks of the Yorkshire Dales – Wernside and Ingleborough. Further west are the Howgill fells, then swinging round to the Lakeland fells and the identifiable twin peaks of Blencathra to the far right.

On the West Pennine Moors, the landscape is less distinct. From a distance one hill looks mostly like any other. The towers then come into their own as giant triangulation points. Rivington Tower is tucked behind Winter Hill for most of the area. However, Winter Hill with its vast communication masts, is arguably the fourth tower of the moors. So  from the top of Darwen Tower, the landscape of the moors begins to have some shape.


Lines of sight between trig points on the West Pennine Moors

Getting out on the top of the moors has always clearly been part of the culture of the surrounding communities. The protests and opening up of Darwen Moor was followed by mass trespasses at Smithills near Bolton. On that occasion the moor road was finally opened to the public in 1996. Getting up the moors part and parcel of our relationship with the land. It gives us a sense of place in the wider world, and a humbling of scale.

In my response to wandering the moors, I wanted to do something which helped people connect with the whole of the moors. Find a way to get a sense of place and overall geography. In other places I could have designed a viewing pavilion with things to see. Only, in the West Pennine Moors, there aren’t things to see. Beyond any of the towers there aren’t any visual reference points. My solution – to create those visual reference points. A more comprehensible system of triangulation points marking every point above 1,o00 ft. So that standing by any one marker you can see and identify every other marker. Even from the bottom of the valleys you would be able to map the peaks of the uplands.


All peaks above 1,000ft (330m). White markers are trig points

The problem was how to make them visible enough to be useable. Towers are big, solid constructions. It’s really, really windy up the top. This in itself is part of the character of the moors. To the west are the plains out to the Lancashire Coast where the prevailing weather rolls in relentlessly without obstruction. Permanent structures big enough to be seen from any other point would be very costly and not appropriate on a rare wilderness landscape. Temporary structures would again be susceptible to weather conditions too much.

The solution? Why battle the elements, when you can use them.

The Flying Towers are a series of flying markers, each equivalent in size to Rivington Pike tower – the first of the moor towers – which fly around 100ft above the ground at each peak across the entire West Pennine Moors for a few days.

mock up of flying towers

It’s only an idea at the moment. An embryonic one. I’m currently wondering if there should be more of them – should they also fly from sites in-between the moors? At present the idea is for 25 of these kites. A hundred would be even more impressive visually.

It would have been good last week to see what the reaction was when I first unveiled it. I guess that moment is gone – the big reveal more an oozing out now. Still, it’s an idea. It’s a response. Whether it’s the response people were expecting, whether it’ll ever happen, well that’s for another day. A less snowy one hopefully.

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Oooh. Look at the colours! It’s Autumn again. My favourite.

These past coupleof weeks I’ve had some stunning drives through the Welsh Borders, The Derbyshire Peaks, the Lakes and glorious Teesdale. Each resplendent in its golden attire. There’s a nip in the air too, and with the nights drawing in again it’s good to light a fire in the evening and catch up with some reading. Last week I read a quite brief article in the Guardian on the potential fate of the Merz Barn in the Lake District. You can read the article here. A little historic background first though:

the Merz Barn at Elterwater today

Kurt Schwitters was a German artist of the first half of the 20th century. Although not as well known as many of his contemporaries, he was a key player in the Dada movement and is often regarded as the father of collage – creating abstract works from found objects. A process he called ‘Merz‘ after a fragment of newspaper in an early work mentioning Commerz und Privitbank. In the 1930’s the Nazi’s had a problem with abstract art and Schwitters fled to Norway. When the Germans arrived there he fled again to Scotland and ended up in London. In 1944 he moved to Ambleside in the Lake District – ostensibly to ‘get away from it all’ as is the case for many. He was an odd fit in 40’s Cumbria. He was a tall man – over 6ft – and spoke with a very heavy German accent. He would have stood out like a sore thumb in the village. Still, he did his best to fit in. He took on an allotment next to what is now the Armitt Museum, and made ends meet by paintng reasonably accomplished portraits for local people. He enetered the art competitions in the local agricultural shows and even became a member of the local artists society. Yet no-one knew his past or the imporatance his abstract work had on an international level.

‘A Shed for a Head’ – an instalation by Russell Mills and Ian Walton on the site of Schwitter’s allotment as part of FRED 2006

In 1947 the Museum of Modern Art in New York sent him a grant to recreate one of his merzbau destroyed by the Nazis in Norway. Unbeknownst to them at the time, he spent the money on a derelict barn at Elterwater and immersed himself in turning it into his largest and most ambitious projects. He called it his ‘Merzbarn‘. He died a year later having only completed one wall and bits of another.

The surviving piece of the Merz Barn before it was taken to the Hatton Gallery

The completed wall was removed in the 60’s and is now at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. What remains is the derelict barn Schwitters first bought. The farmer, when he discovered Schwitters was famous after his death, built a tearoom on the end in the hope of selling tea and cakes to visitors he hoped would flock to see the work. Only they didn’t.

Last year, local builders constructed a very convincing replica of the empty barn outside the Royal Academy in London for the Britsh Sculpture show. I was a little disappointed they weren’t selling cakes out of the little bay window, but oh well.

Also last week, as part of a programme of artists talks in Presteigne, I got the chance to see Sophie Fiennes’ ‘Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow‘ – a documentary about Anselm Keifer’s time at Barjac in France. In 1992 the painter moved bought a disused silk factory on the outskirts of Barjac and over the following decade or so transformed the 35 acre site into a complex of installations, landscaped sculptures, studio spaces and underground passageways.

Anselm Keifer at Barjac

In 2008 he just upped and left for an industrial unit outside Paris (although local farmers complaining about the speed he drove his sports cars may have something to do with it). The immense work at Barjac has just been left, abandonned. It was gifted to the people of France, but as yet there is no plan to open it to the public. A non resident caretaker looks after the perimeter fence while the work is left to nature. Sophie Fiennes’ mesmerising film is probably the only chance most will ever get to experice what he created there. Although, coincidently, two of the giant concrete towers he populated the site with, were also recreated outside the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2007.

view of Kiefer’s site at Barjac on Panoramio

There are lots of similarities in these projects. There’s even a bit of the ‘outsider art‘ about them, though not strictly Art Brut, as they were made by artists as art. But as an artist I’m really drawn to the idea of just being able to shut yourself away for years and just create. In many ways it’s the ultimate artistic act. It’s not working for a commission, or even creating something to sell to collectors. It can’t even be snapped up by enthusiastic curators. There’s no health and safety. No planning restrictions. It’s art at its purest. It’s not just Schwitters and Keifer who have sought the freedom of isolation in the coutryside to make personal works. There’s dozens of others. Just over the border from here is Charles Jencks’ ‘Garden of Cosmic Speculation‘ – a sculpted landscape exploring the ideas of quantum physics.

Up the road from there is Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Little Sparta‘.

Little Sparta on Visit Scotland

Italy has Niki de Saint Phalle’s final masterpiece ‘Giardino dei Tarocchi

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden

while France has a chunk of them, including Jean Tinguely’s ‘Le Cyclop

Le Cyclop by Jean Tinguely (image from Bertrand’s blog)

and the grand-daddy of them all, the incredible ‘Palais Ideal‘ by Ferdinand Cheval.

early photo of the Palais Ideal

and while Keifer has bought another disused industrial site – a former nuclear power station no less – James Turrell continues to turn an entire mountain into a work of art:

Part of James Turrell’s Roden Crater project

Despite the obvious location aspect, there’s something very rural about all these. At their heart is the need to free the mind from outside influences. A need for non-conformism. While ‘Outsider artists’ may find this easy, it’s no so for established artists whose every work is scrutinised and critiqued by a very fixed set of artworld values. I can only speculate how liberating Schwitters found Ambleside in the ’40’s, when he was no longer a revolutionary artist, but just a tall German. Whether it’s a career-defining masterpiece, or just a diversionary side project, to have that space and freedom to just create at will is a fascinating space in itself.

So, all I need now is an empty barn or some-such and a bit of time to create my own little world….

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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.

‘Column’ by Anthony McCall – image from Liverpool Biennial 2012

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.

‘Ascension’ by Anish Kapoor

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.

Blur Building by risknfun on Flickr

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.

render of brogue pattern

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.

Brogued screen grabs

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.

Brogue test at Stainmore

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?

test of brogued on stainmore

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Gosh. It’s been ages since I last sat in the Howgills to write a blog post.

It’s a beautiful day and it looks like we’ve got a little spell of days like this ahead this week. Time to get out and get some images done that I’ve been waiting to do for a while now.

The other week someone asked me what I thought was ugly. That’s an interesting one I thought. I know what I consider to be beautiful and by definition the opposite of beautiful must be ugly. The dictionary defines beauty as “A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic, intellect or moral senses”. Ugly is similarly defined, but is unpleasant to the senses.

Most of my work on one level is about beauty. I know it’s not fashionable to make art just because it looks nice, but I make no excuses. I’m happy doing that. I’m a bit of a beauty addict. It’s the force which moves me the most emotionally. I’m always looking for it. Hunting it out in all it’s forms. If I’m having a bad day nothing lifts the spirit than finding something beautiful.

It’s not just a visual thing either. It can be a sound, music, a smell, a taste, a touch. It’s there to be found in all the senses.

But what is beauty?

It’s in the eye of the beholder as they say. It’s true that every one of us has our own individual tastes and these too are shaped by our cultural norms. The idea of beauty has changed throughout civilisation too. There’s a wonderful book on the History of Beauty by Umberto Eco (whose writing is a thing of beauty in itself).

It’s all subjective. Aesthetics are subjective and relative too.

Even colour is subjective. There are many cultures in which the concept of green as a colour doesn’t exist. In some cases it’s seen as a shade of blue. In other cultures blue is just a shade of red. Even in Welsh there is no word for brown. In fact, the only universally accepted colours across all cultures and languages are black, white and red.

But back to beauty. What do I love?

Here’s a tiny selection:

starlings over Stainmore. 2012

Hylas and the Nymphs by JWWaterhouse at Manchester Art Gallery

‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ (detail) – J W Waterhouse – Manchester Art Gallery


shanghai view

Lost by Klas Eriksson

‘Lost’ – Klas Eriksson 2012

But what about ugly? I’m not entirely sure it exists. If there’s a common ideal of what is pleasant to look at, then there’s a consensus of what is not so pleasant, or unpleasant. But even that’s not so straightforward.

Joseph Merrick

Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’) photographed in 1889

Beauty can be unconventional. Take the work of Diane Arbus.

Twins by Diane Arbus

‘Twins’ – Diane Arbus

Or medical specimens


pickled six-finger infant’s hand – 1999

Or wind turbines

So maybe ugly is just a form of beauty? It’s still about triggering an emotional response.

What then is the opposite of beauty? Maybe it’s mediocrity. Something devoid of emotional stimulation.


Which is why I’m on a grass bank beside a babbling stream in the Howgills in the sunshne and not sat at a desk somewhere.

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Last week saw the completion of a new artwork. It’s big. And red. And twisty. And in an internationally significant venue.

No, not Kapoor & Balmond’s Olympic titan. In that odd kind of serendipity I did my own twisty red thing last week. Made from around 50 miles of bright red polyester cotton in a former mill building in Derbyshire, ‘Twisted’ was finally completed.

Cromford first mill

Cromford Mill, located about five miles south of Matlock on the A6 is no ordinary mill. It’s the first one. The very first textile mill. In the world. Back in 1771 Richard Arkwright built the first water-powered cotton mill in the tiny village of Cromford. Drawing power from water out of the nearby lead-mines, he pioneered the powered means of production and mass production. In fact what Arkwright did back then was invent the factory.

It’s mind-blowing to think that places like China, whose colossal and rapidly expanding economy based on mass manufacturing, owes it all to a simple brick and stone building on the edge of the Peak District National Park.

In the 19th Century Shanghai was just a little port town, in the shadow of Suzhou – the region’s much older and more significant city 90km further north. But as a sea port, and effectively gateway to the rest of the world, it soon began to expand and consume ideas and technology from the west. The first cotton mill arrived in the 1880s powered by machinery imported from Lancashire, and by the end of the century the little Suzhou creek was lined with dozens of cotton mills. By 1900 it was thought that the Suzhou Creek mills alone produced enough cotton to cloth the entire Chinese population.

suzhou creek mills

One of the largest cotton mills in town was the Tang Yin mill. It continued to spin cotton until the late 1980s. Around 10 years ago the site was developed into a cultural hub for Shanghai’s booming contemporary art scene – M50.

When I came to revisit the idea of creating a piece at Cromford Mill, I thought it would be a great idea to create a sister piece at M50. I knew loads of people there and had some great friends who could help me out. What’s more, I was heading back to China on another commission.

What I hadn’t anticipated however, was the fickleness of the Chinese Government. At some point earlier this year, the authorities decided that culture was a delicate thing and that all non-Chinese art had to be approved by the Central Cultural Bureau. What’s more, in Shanghai at least, this became rigourously enforced. By February my contacts in Shanghai told me that a number of high profile galleries had been raided and fined heavily for showing non-certified foreign art. The possibility of creating even a very temporary piece at M50 without a permit – which itself could take months – was just not going to happen.

Undeterred I concocted a plan to create a piece at night using red lasers. I found a little store selling lasers of all shapes and sizes. The owner tried to sell me one the size of a torch which he demonstrated would easily light a match! Wow- the fun you could have with that, starting fires with stealth…. Anyway, it was green and I needed red. Unfortunately red lasers aren’t as powerful, so I got the strongest small ones he had to test them out. That night I did a test – the beam was faint, but photographed really well. This was promising! It then started to drizzle a bit so I called it a day. I had one more night before I had to return to the UK. No problem, I’d start as soon as it got dark.

test of twist shanghai

That night there was one of those incredible electrical storms you only get in subtropical climates. The sky sizzled with lightning and the rain came down in sheets.

The next night I went back to create the stealth masterpiece – the security guards wouldn’t even know what I was up to. I got everything set up. Camera on tripod, stick to keep the laser lines parallel. However, the previous night’s storm had cleared the humid air that had been building for days and the laser beam was barely there.

failed twist test

Such is the nature of installations outdoors anywhere. There’s no point battling nature – it’s always best to work with it where possible, and on that night nature just didn’t want to play.

So back to Cromford.

The first mill at Cromford is just a shell at the moment. After years as a colour and dye factory, the whole site is slowly being rescued by the Arkwright Society. Years of toxic pollution followed by neglect has taken its toll on the site. But slowly the buildings are being restored and the story of what went on in that historic site is being uncovered. Cromford Mill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – as are the other Arkwright mills along the Derwent Valley. For me the opportunity to create a large and ambitious piece in such an important building was too good to pass up. Fortunately the Arts Council thought so too and have supported the piece in Derbyshire.

installing twisted

The piece was installed with my crack team of technicians in just four days. The thread wound between the two frames in a continuous line clockwise around the piece. Hi-tech big red elastic bands helped keep the tension even across the piece.


For visitors to Cromford Mill, the piece has temporarily given life and purpose to the otherwise empty building. While the piece is in place visitors on the regular guided tours will be given the rare chance to see inside this, the most important building on the site. There’s also plans to have open days over the summer months for anyone to see the piece. If you’re not already on my mailing list, just sign up here to find out open dates.


Standing over 6m high at one end and stretched over 35m along the length of the original building, it’s on a scale that explores the vast space of this first factory. The twisting motion recalls the heritage of the place whilst creating an architectural form which reveals itself only when you step inside the giant 4m frame. Like all my pieces, I think it has a presence which you can only experience by being there. while the shapes and the colour throw up some great images photographically, the scale of the piece – the way the lines zoom away from you up into the ceiling, the constant optical movement of the red lines, the way the piece from the side is barely there, and yet as you move around it seems to materialise and disappear in phases.


I guess you’ve just got to be there.


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