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It’s been so long since I last posted to this blog I’ve forgotten how to begin a new post. I know where I want to end up and part of the journey of getting there, but how to start is turning out trickier than it seemed.

Art is a bit like that. For me at least it’s largely instinctive. When students or journalists ask ‘where did the idea come from?’ I usually have some kind of answer to keep them happy. But the real answer is usually a lot more complicated and involved than that.

Ideas – inspiration if you like – is an ongoing process and one that probably started at birth. There are things you remember from various parts of your life that you recall or associate with places, sounds, smells, concepts, emotions. Sometimes they may feel quite random or spurious in their association at the time. But that’s just the way your brain works. To the extent that when someone inevitably asks ‘what’s the piece about?’ the answer is rarely straightforward either. In fact Ive recently decided to put a time scale on answering that. Three years minimum. That’s about as long as it takes to absorb the work and start to understand what it was really about.

Of course, art doesn’t have to be about anything at all. Francis Bacon was famously quoted as saying “The purpose of art is to deepen the mystery”.


Presence‘ – an album by Zed Zeppelin, has cover artwork featuring an obsessive hole. The nostalgic images from the 40s and 50s appear to show everyday people obsessed by an ever present mysterious void.

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Art directed by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgesson – the premise was to put an object from the future into the past. In true Thorgesson style rather than use archive images from the 40s and 50s, the cover images were shot for real on the basis that ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’. There’s something unsettling about a familiar setting disrupted by something that is clearly not meant to be there. Yet in these images the ‘thing‘ appears not only to be accepted, but hold a real presence in all the situations. The irony being the ‘thing‘ is not even a ‘thing’ but a hole. The ‘presence’ is actually an ‘absence’. When the concept was first pitched to the band, Robert Plant’s response was “Who the hell needs to understand everything anyway?”.

The mysterious black object motif is also drawn in part to the monoliths in Kubrick’s film  version of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey‘.

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In the film we see three large, black monoliths  – the first in prehistoric earth that appears to mark a turning point in evolution, the second one on the moon and the third orbiting Jupiter. The monoliths are a key marker in the plot of the movie – in many respects they are what the film is all about, yet they are also a source of endless discussion and conjecture about what they are. In Arthur C Clarke’s original books, the monoliths – and there are more than just those three – have a presence but no substance, only that their shape is in the proportion of 1:4:9 (the first three squared numbers). In the books it is also suggested they have dimensions beyond the physical three with ever increasing proportions (…16:25:36…). Of course their meaning and purpose could be very simple. They just are. What are they? – something else… where did they come from? – somewhere else… when did they appear?… they’ve always been there.

In short, they’re follies. Objects designed to be mostly there to just be there. I’ve written before about the Chinese tradition of placing man made objects in landscapes to make sense of the scale, form and colour of the vastness of their environment. As a kid I was always a little obsessed by the presence of follies. I remember seeing Horton Tower in Dorset and asking my grandparents  what it was for. “It’s just a tower. It’s not for anything” was their reply. Grandparents never lie. So it must have been true. Weird, maybe. But true.

Through my teens I learnt to appreciate the surreal-ness (is that a word?) of follies. The Belvedere Tower at Claremont Gardens was always tantalisingly behind gates, locked out of reach.

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‘Belvedere Tower’, Claremont Gardens, Surrey. A low-resolution scan from an infrared negative, but you get the gist…

There was always something Alice in Wonderland about its inaccessibility. Those clipped hedges framing the view up the lawn. It must have been a great view from the tower across the gardens and lake, only the windows aren’t real. They’re painted on. Part of Capability Brown’s masterpiece in landscape design. The tower was there for its presence. To look over the landscape, and while it obviously couldn’t actually look over the garden, it reinforced the idea that the landscaped garden was designed to be looked over. That looking was fundamental to what the garden was about.

Another favourite was Leith Hill Tower. A wonderful piece of gothic architecture built in 1765 to enhance the countryside. No more, no less. There’s stairs up to the roof which is (at just over 1000ft above sea-level) the highest point in southern England. However, the steps weren’t built until 100 years after the rest of the building. So for a century it was just a tower for tower’s sake.


This summer I built ‘Keep’ – a 10m high folly for the Lake District. OK, so I didn’t actually build it – Debbie in Manchester did the hard work with the sewing machine. Originally it was going to be a bouncy castle inside, but a number of design issues and some disastrous fabrication decisions put pay to that idea, so it was redesigned as just a folly. It was commissioned by the Lake District National Park as part of their Lakes Alive Festival. The original brief was around the theme of Cultural Landscapes to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for the Lake District. The English Lake District has it’s very own and important history in the world of landscape appreciation. Unlike most of the rest of England, Follies are not part of that tradition. However, I wanted to look at the role the Lakes played in the wider English Landscape Tradition and put a folly in that landscape.

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Original mock-up of ‘Keep’ on Latrigg, above Keswick, Cumbria.

‘Keep’ was designed to be a very light touch in a protected environment. As an inflatable artwork it was easy to get onto site and install. It could be installed and taken down again the same day which meant in theory it could be taken to quite isolated spots and places where a more permanent folly would never be allowed.

However, as mostly made from air, it is very susceptible to weather conditions.  On the location I’d originally intended it to go – being around 2000ft above sea level and very exposed, the weather was prone to sudden changes. On the best day of the pre festival week, the conditions looked like they would be right to get the tower up for a few hours. However, during inflation the wind suddenly picked up to more than twice the safe maximum and the install had to be quickly abandoned.

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

The following weekend was the festival itself. Confined to Kendal, the piece was installed on Castle Howe – the site of the original castle in Kendal, but with a line of sight to the latter and existing castle ruin on the other side of the town. For a day the weather played ball and the piece did its job as being a tower.

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For the Kendal installation, I chose Castle Howe partly so that there would be some kind of dialogue between ‘Keep’ in red and the existing castle in white – rather like rooks on a chessboard – maybe another Alice through the Looking-glass reference. It was also partly about the vibrance of the colour with the ‘Auld Grey Town’, as evidenced in Tony’s drone shots.

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Drone view from above Kendal Castle looking back to ‘Keep’ on Castle Howe. Photo © Tony Watson.

The install on a fell in the Lake District will happen at some point. I’ll keep a look out for the right conditions, both in terms of windspeed and in the colour and light quality of the surrounding landscape. When it’s right it’ll be stunning and ‘enhance the landscape’, whatever that means.

Two months on and I’m starting to understand what the piece is about. Having seen the piece working in Kendal, I’m getting a better idea what the piece is and how it works. It’s also something I’m keen to continue in the future. That may be taking ‘Keep’ out on the road for a series of installs, or it may be more involved than that. Who knows, maybe a whole series of follies in different landscapes.

More importantly, I’m happy not really understanding what the project means yet. All good art has at least ten different meanings. I’m quite sure using temporary follies to interrogate the landscape has at least that, but it may take me a while to discover what they all are.

There’s something about follies that seems to fit with the work I’ve been doing for the past few years.  I still don’t know what that something is, except it’s probably something else. But I do know it’s always been there.

 

 

 

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Twelve years is a long time. Twelve years ago was a very different place for most people. Twelve years ago, on a whim, I did something I’d never done before and it’s shaped my life ever since.

March 5th 2005. I don’t normally remember dates of things, but I seem to remember this one. It was a calm, sunny day and we were rowing giant red balls across Grasmere in the heart of the Lake District.

The year before I’d helped create a new festival of art in the landscapes of Cumbria and the Lake District in the North of England. Off the back of that, the local tourist board wanted to know if I could do something to get a bit of media attention for the Lakes out of season. Maybe something big? I think their original idea was something along the lines of a big red nose for Comic Relief. The normal PR stunt thing. But while they were thinking of something 12ft tall, I was thinking something over a mile long.

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The original idea was a dotted line weaving the length of Grasmere – north to south. Needless to say the budget didn’t run to that, so a much smaller version was devised whereby the balls would rush towards the southern shore beneath Loughrigg with the balls getting progressively larger to accentuate the perspective.

The piece I believe was to be installed for a week or two. The balls were PVC and commissioned from a fabricator based on a farm in Devon and arrived in three large boxes that fitted in the boot of my Renault Clio. Lengths of sinking line were bought from the Ropemakers in Hawes, Yorkshire and concrete breeze blocks were bought from my local builders merchant in Kirkby Stephen for anchorage.

Grasmere was chosen as it was both a relatively small lake (one mile by half a mile, approx.) and conveniently placed at the edge of two local TV regions in the hope that both would show up and double the coverage. However, Grasmere has a little-known by-law prohibiting the use of powered vessels on it. The only way to get the balls in position was towing them in rowing boats.

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The largest ball at 4m diameter. Photo © Tony West

Luckily, the Faeryland Tearooms at the top of the lake had a small fleet of boats to hire and kindly stepped in to help, along with a bunch of artists volunteering for the cause. The prevailing winds off the Helvellyn range blew north to south in the mornings and with a relatively still day the elements were on our side. That’s not to say there’s anything even vaguely easy about towing big inflatable balls the size of a small house 3/4 mile across a lake. There was a small window in mobile phone coverage so the fine-tuning of the installation was done with me halfway up Loughrigg with binoculars and a cell-phone calling the people in what from there looked like very small boats.

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Starting to tow out the balls. Photo © Tony West

From the clients’ perspective it worked well. We had TV and radio coverage across the whole of the North of England, some cracking photos and a good news story of artists doing things with the iconic landscapes of the Lake District National Park.

For me it was a very steep learning curve and baptism of fire into doing things of that scale. Among the things I learnt were practical things like the importance of calculating wind drag on large objects on water (they drifted lots), and the general volume of logistics to do something that looks quite simple.

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Installing the balls. Photo © Tony West

But I also learnt lots more fundamental things about work of significant scale – the way light and weather affects and adds to the piece; the way colour works in landscapes; the interaction of people in appreciation of scale; what it feels like to experince work of that scale.

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The ‘final’ installation

The public were similarly receptive too. We were a little apprehensive as to how people would react to such a bold statement, but the fact that it was temporary, had a very light touch and used the surrounding landscape to become part of the work rather than challenging it drew visitors in their hundreds. We have no idea just how many people came to see it – we weren’t even thinking about that – but the local National Trust Estates Manager reckoned it was thousands based on the carpark use alone.

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Me 12 years younger!

We had no idea what the longer term effect would be. Nothing like this had ever been attempted in the Lake District. There was a perception of overprotection from major stakeholders like the National Trust and the Lake District National Park Authority. However, that the piece was successful and very positively received made it so much easier to do similar works in the landscape in the future. Certainly from where I stood it was the piece that created a significant mind change in those organisations.

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The following morning the balls had drifted a little. Photo © Tony West

As landscape works go, this was very simple. It was made with very little thought to a wider context or depth of meaning. In the wider scheme of things it’s not a great piece of art. This wasn’t the first piece I’d done outdoors or using the landscape, but in terms of scale it was a new benchmark. I was hooked and almost every piece I’ve created since has a direct link back to that piece.

And it was 12 years ago today.

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Maybe it’s that new year thing when you start out with good intentions – bold ideas, long-term plans, fresh start or whatever, but I guess every new thing has to start somewhere, at sometime. It seems that the winter months are when I look ahead to the coming year and finally get to start working on new projects. There’s still some gaps in the overall view of the year, but from what’s already there I’m getting a feel for the overarching themes. While last year was more about textures and moments, this year looks like being one of spaces and voids. Strange how things find their own threads.

Last year I really got to know some of the river where I live. I spent large chunks of time watching it, filming it, photographing it, editing the results and creating the major piece of the year – ‘Waterfall‘. I’ll probably do a more in-depth post about that at some point, but for those new to the game, ‘Waterfall’ saw three white-washed field barns wrapped in slow-motion film footage of the three main waterfalls of the River Tees. Each barn became a visual cube of slow moving water in the night sky. It was big and awesome and probably the best thing I’d done in a long long time.

Since that piece I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with the river. I used to go down there almost every day, but the daily photographing and research has probably made me over familiar now and some of its magic is somehow lost. I kind of know how it does all its tricks now.

So I needed to find a way to re-engage with the river. There are new things I need to discover. I need to find another story in it.

Then last week I caught up with Andy Carters ‘270’ project on his Calling All Station YouTube channel. Over the next 52 weeks Andy  is aiming to visit all 270 stations on the London Underground. To make it more interesting he has to pass through the ticket barriers at least once at every station – either coming or going through them, not just passing through on a train. It’s this slowing down of the travel that makes you stop, look, think and examine the familiar. About 40 stations in (starting with the boring bits of the  Jubilee Line) and I’m already hooked. Each station is documented on his blog as he goes along too, creating a comprehensive gazetteer of architectural gems and subterranean secrets beneath the capital.

Inspired by his journey, I’ve decided on mine – to visit and cross* every crossing of the River Tees from source to sea.

Bridges are fascinating things. I’ve had my own experiences in constructing them. Essentially they are practical engineering – a way of traversing in this case water. Yet as purely man made structures in what is on this route, mostly open countryside, they have a very distinctive presence within the landscape to manage.

Today I made a start. The purist in me wanted to start at the source and work progressively downstream. However, it’s still very much winter and as the Tees starts just below the summit of Cross Fell – the highest peak on the Pennines – and very much buried under snow for the next few weeks I’ve decided to scrap that and not be precious about the order in which I visit the bridges.

My first crossing then wasn’t even a bridge. It was also one of the biggest structures on the river – the dam wall at Cow Green Reservoir.

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Between 1969 and 1971, a section of the Upper Tees was flooded to create the 2-mile long Cow Green Reservoir as a part of of a series of interventions to regulate the flow of water down the river for abstraction purposes. The 1/4 mile long concrete reinforced embankment holds back 40,000,000,000 litres of water (count those zeros!) while the entire river flow is regulated by sluices on the southern bank. So technically the River Tees flows beneath it, so the dam wall is a crossing.

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The reservoir sits in a natural basin of pasture land high in the North Pennines. The landscape here is a unique blend of very specific geology and rare botanical habitat. Widdybank Fell which sits along the Durham side of the water is home to the rare Blue Gentian  and the only place in the UK where alpine plants have survived since the last great ice age. The land here is fertile and remains of bronze age summer farms lie beneath the reservoir – themselves an indicator of how climate changes over time. Back then temperatures in these upper fells were around three degrees warmer. It might not sound much but the weather here is now too cold for most wading birds to breed on the reservoir. On a fairly bright day like today it felt relatively mild a few miles downstream, yet up here the shaded bays on the water are still iced over and pockets of snow lie in the heather.

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Today the reservoir sits in the Moorhouse National Nature Reserve – the largest nature reserve in the UK taking in the highest fells in the Pennine chain and the upper catchments of the River Tees.

The wall is an immense brutal slab of industrial infrastructure. Its scale and construction means it’s never going to blend in (whatever that means) and makes a bold statement within the landscape. Yet, the sparsity and relative bleakness of this part of the dale tolerates its monolithic brutality. The scale of the landscape seems to just swallow it up. As the river rushes quickly away from the wall thinly over bedrock, there is a greyness and roughness, that is almost alien in spirit and the concrete meets the bedrock as an ancient ancestor and the family resemblance is still there.

Within yards of the wall, the river passes beneath Birkdale Footbridge. This is the first of the bridges in County Durham and is still a border crossing between Durham and Cumbria. Built in 1966 – and just predating the dam wall – it’s made from a concrete span sitting on two reinforced stone pillars in the river. Like the dam, it’s a very utilitarian structure and supports a private access road and the Pennine way.

Downstream of the bridge the river disappears down a series of dramatic cataracts between basaltic columns of winsill. At a total of over 200ft, Cauldron Snout is one of the main waterfalls of the River Tees and shows how fast the water develops its wild character from the man-made sluices of the reservoir.

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So this is where my journey this year begins. I’ll back track when it’s warmer to find the source of the river and the only bridge beyond the reservoir, but I’m looking forward to discovering the journey of the water from the sluices as it cuts its way through the landscape towards the sea, and how people have built ways of traversing it.

It’s a long a winding story and I’m looking forward to discovering the stories and narratives of those crossing places. it’s a rich history and along the way I’m going to find Romans and Saxons, and JMW Turner and Lewis Carroll and railways and steel and plutonium. Lots of landscape and lots of engineering. And lots of walking.

 

*ok. so I won’t walk over the railway bridges,or motorway one and will probably give the pipe bridges a miss too

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The middle of winter is certainly feeling like it this year. It’s not particularly wintery in the weather, but it certainly feels darker and more gloomy. Anyway, we’ve past the shortest, darkest day, technically. Now the days are getting longer again we can look to the future and think about the year ahead. But it’s also that time of year where we look back at the past year and take stock.

For me 2016 has felt like a particularly busy year. The tail end in particular was a bit hectic at times. But it’s been a productive one. Lots of new things – new people, new works and new places to work with.

‘Lotus Souvenir’ – large origami lotus flower installation at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. UK. in February.

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Lumb Mill Viaduct

‘The Scenic Route’ was a short research residency walking two former railway lines in Lancashire.

‘PaperBridge’ had a variety of outings over the year – includig being featured on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, being in a book on micro architecture and being presented to the King and Queen of Lesotho. A smaller working model was shown in an exhibition of paper design in Chicago, while drawings and a short documentary was shown in Nova Scotia and Montreal.

September saw the start of a series of back-to-back installations right across the North of England, starting with ‘Tower’ – an architectural intervention at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham.

From September to November I did a series of installations across Lancashire for a commission. ‘When the Red Rose…’ saw temporary interventions in Preston, Blackpool and Lancaster. A fourth on the canal at Blackburn sadly didn’t happen, but I’ll keep that one back for another day.

The major piece of the year however, was just three fields away from where I live.

Three barns were wrapped in slow-motion projections of waterfalls from the nearby River Tees. Over six short nights over 2,000 people ventured to see the work, in the dark in a quiet, remote corner of County Durham. Blessed by a harvest moon the first weekend and by clear skies with resident milky way the second, no number of photos or videos can ever capture the experience those lucky 2000 had.

While it was a good year for interesting and ambitious new works, for me ‘Waterfall’ stood out as probably the best piece I’ve done so far. And to do it on my own doorstep, in front of my own local community was a particularly special thing to do.

Just as good as being able to do all those installations, exhibitions and workshops was all the wonderful people I got to work with. None of these can happen without teams of people dedicated to making them happen – from those commissioning the work and those fabricating some of the pieces to those who work tirelessly to promote the work or organise the epic tasks they can sometime become. So hopefully I haven’t missed anyone off but here goes:

Nancy Kryzanowski, Gemma Jackman, Sally-Anne Blaise, Caroline Ruddick, Paul Gray, Phil Carr and Alan Carr Print & Design, Premier Papers in Gateshead, Nick Hunt, Melanie Diggle, Diana Hamilton, Roy Halliday, Nick Lund, Julie Tomlinson and James Cropper plc, Lexi Gerry, Jon Stynes, David Metcalf and October Films, Aleta Florentin, Vianna Newman, Harvey Lev, Judith Bauer, Diane Spark and all at UTASS, Ian Hunter, Paul Chaney, Alex Murdin, Henk Keiser, Brenda Vrieling, Jan Hartold, Vicky Holbrough, Nicola Golightly, Stella Hall, Trevor at Kirkleatham Old Hall, Christina Hesford, Janet Rogers, Paul Murray, Becky Nicholson, Kirsty Childs, Jill Bennison, Karen Marshall, Kate Percival, Lowri Bond, Sara Cooper,  Jane Shaw, Fiona Goh and Holmfirth Arts Festival, Sarah Branson, Jamie Frost, Thomas Charveriat, Sarah Gent, Sarah Mayhew-Craddock, Lucy Jenkins, Rebecca Turner, Harry and Kate Vane, Ewan Alinson, Jill Cole, Malcolm Walton, William Burton, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Nicki Cullens, Shane Harris, Mark Tyler, Ryan May and Hightlights, DCC events team,  Lyndsey Waters, Tim Joel, Richard Baxter, Rita Whitlock, Ella Byford, Justina Ma, Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, Anna Izza, Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Keri Sparkes, Jen Morgan, Catherine Shaw, Philippe Handford, Jamima Latimer, Louise Miller, Mike Neale, Stacey Walker, Julie Brown, Sandra Blue, Brent Lees, Friends of the Storey Garden, Rebecca Johnson, Laurie Peake, Sarah Steele and Preston Methodist Chapel, Alex Rinsler, Mykey Young, Richard and the Lightpool team, Zoe Dawes, Jenny Needham, Flossie Mainwaring-Taylor, Trevor Brookes, Martin Paul, John Gillmore, Heather Fox, Jennie Collingwood, David Turner, Andrew Barton, Paul Kingston…

I hope I haven’t missed too many off. That’s quite a team and a huge thanks to everyone on the list – I seriously could not have done all I have this year without each and everyone of you.

So, that’s it for this year now. Next year is another year. It’s going to be an interesting one for so many reasons, but I hope it’s more in a positive way.

Onwards and upwards…

 

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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..

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

wallsend prison cell

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.

 

 

 

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