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

pulping the bridge

last journey

one load of bridge paper about to drop into the pulper

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

pulping the bridge

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

matching colour

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

pulp on the mesh

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

cutting the paper

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

drying process

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

drying roller

one of the final drying rollers

final roll

the final paper on giant rolls ready for finishing

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

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

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

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

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

north news pic

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

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

newcastle journal front cover

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

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

bridge on one show

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

paperbridge on live tv

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

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

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


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

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

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

On that Sunday I passed 200.

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

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

early crowd

an early crowd of walkers from Yorkshire

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

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

sunday crowd

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

queue

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

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

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

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

Sally drinking tea on the bridge

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

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

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

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

red boxes

red paper boxes on Ullswater. 2010.

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

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

shigeru ban paper bridge

Paper Bridge by Shigeru Ban. image © Mikaël Pors

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

packhorse bridge Watendlath Cumbria

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

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

book cover

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

notebook page

basic calculations for the final bridge

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

stack drawing

drawing of stacks making up a single block and wedge

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

first model paperbridge

the first model paperbridge. May 2011

original sketch

the first sketch of a paper bridge

_DSC1846 - Version 2

Second model. 2012

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

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

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

A4 model

first A4 model

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

_DSC2674 - Version 2

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

test model in howgill fells

test model in the Howgill Fells. 2012

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

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

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

mock-up

visual for paperBridge at Greenside, Glenridding. 2012

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

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

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

working drawings

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

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

bridge redesign

redesigning the bridge in the studio

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

grisedale mock-up

early mock-up of the bridge in Grisedale

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

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

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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.

IMG_7128 - Version 2 IMG_7130 - Version 2

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.

IMG_7148 - Version 2

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.

hinge

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…

pumpkins

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I like numbers. Numbers can be cool. On the surface they can be quite straightforward and be about tangible quantities of things – like boxes of eggs or boxes of screws, but it’s when they do strange things, or stop being tangible that they start becoming really interesting.

It hasn’t always been that way for me though. I remember when I was 14 my maths teacher asked the class if anyone hated maths. Well, maths at 14 is pretty dull compared with the other things in life so I presumed everyone would put up their hands. No? But it was just me. OK, it was the top set in the year and all that, but honestly – no one else hated maths? My argument was that maths was ok when you were adding things up or working out practical stuff, but do you really need to understand logarithms and quadratic equations to buy half a dozen eggs? The irony of that was I subsequently worked in photography where logarithms were a daily event for calculating things like reciprocity failure or the change of development time with increased temperature.

My youngest kid is still getting to grips with quantities. At the moment he is obsessed with big numbers like a googol and a googolplex. A googol is 1 followed by a hundred zeros. That’s a really big number. I think a five year old knows it’s big too but I don’t think most people realise how big that physically is. It’s certainly more than the total number of things on this planet to give you an idea. And then a googolplex is a 1 followed by a googol zeros. That’s a number that’s so big that there aren’t enough atoms in the known universe for it to actually exist. I like that we can create numbers so big that they can’t physically exist.

lots of jars

So the 30,000 bottles I’ve got to install this week seems tame in comparison. It’s still bigger than you could possibly count in one go.

I’ve often wondered how scientists count flocks of starlings. They’re far too big to count individually and as flocks are less dense on the outside, counting a section isn’t going to accurate enough.

starlings

a murmer of starlings fly over my house every winter

Counting big numbers is quite difficult. Some birds can recognise quite large numbers of birds in one go, however most people would struggle to count more than nine birds in a field without physically counting them one-by-one. We can easily recognise when there are two objects without counting them. In fact most people can recognise up to nine things just by looking at them. Anymore than that and you have to physically count them one at a time – or in twos, threes or small chunks. So to count all 30,000 jars, given that by the time you get to a hundred you’re down to one a second just to say the number in your head – even saying “twenty-three thousand three hundred and seventy-seven” – takes three seconds, –  it’d take over eight hours – or all day more or less.

One of the best shows I saw last year was Mark Wallinger’s ‘SITE’ at Baltic, Gateshead. His piece – 10000000000000000 – a series of chess boards with a pebble on each square was beautiful on so many levels. Made from a grid of 32 x 32 chess boards, there are 65,536 pebbles in all. This is what’s called a superperfect number – made by squaring numbers up from 2 – 2×2=4, 4×4=16, 16×16=256, 256×256=65,536. The title is that number represented in binary form. That it’s 1 followed by sixteen zeros is kind of perfect too.

view of site show

Beyond the number bit, it’s an awesome sight – the scale of the piece has such presence up close. Lie on the floor and the piece just disappears into the horizon. I’ve written before about the unique emotional response artworks of a certain scale have. There’s something about a work made of quantities you can’t count that’s a little awe-inspiring.

10000000000000000

Mark Wallinger: 10000000000000000, 2012 (detail). © the artist. Courtesy of the artist, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photograph: Colin Davison

By pure chance, ‘Carpet’ will be about the same size, although only half the number of objects. Whereas in Wallinger’s piece we know exactly how many pebbles there are, it’s unlikely I’ll ever know how many jars will be in ‘Carpet’. That’s kind of nuts. How can I make a piece when I don’t know how many things I’m using? The jars come packed on pallets. Because they are round they kind of fit together to fill the space and then stacked up, but because it isn’t an exact fit the quantities are just an approximation. So I can’t even go by the number I start with. There’s also likely to be failures and disappearances, and given I’m not going to spend 8 1/2 hours counting them, the final number will never be known.

Yet all these numbers are mere fist-fulls compared with Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seed installation at Tate Modern in 2010. ‘Sunflower Seeds’ saw part of the Turbine Hall filled with 8 million hand crafted porcelain sunflower seeds. This took an entire town over a year to manufacture. At that quantity there’s no way of counting them numerically. That can only be estimated by weight, and even then there was bound to be failures and loss during installation, let alone the numbers which ‘disappeared’ during the exhibition.

sunflower seeds

The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds 2010 Photo: Tate Photography © Ai Weiwei

It was a shame that the infamous health and safety rules stopped people from walking on them. When I saw them late one afternoon the view from behind a security tape under the watchful glance of a uniformed invigilator didn’t really give you a feel for the sheer quantity involved. Also, despite the huge volume, it still only occupied less than a quarter of the vast Turbine Hall. That aside, as a volume work, it was pretty incredible.

people walking on the seeds

people walking on the seeds at the start of the exhibition. Image from leiweb blog

I’m now thinking my lowly 30,000 pieces seems very reserved. Still, at a strike rate of one every five seconds, that would still take me over 42 hours on my own. So glad I have a team to count on.

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I’ve finally lost my marbles.

I’ve thought the same thing a number of times in the past. Every time I do something ambitious or occasionally reckless. But since I’ve still managed to get this far in life afterwards, they were probably false alarms. This time it’s for real. I know that because in a week’s time I start installing an artwork so vast in ts constituent parts that I have no idea even of the scale of it. For a couple of weeks I am creating an artwork based on the 7th Century Lindisfarne Gospels, in the very place they were originally written, using 30,000 jars of liquid colour.

carpet at Lindisfarne Priory

mock-up of the ‘Carpet’ installation

30,000.

I have no real idea how many that is – I’ve never counted something that big before. I’m clearly delusional.

Still, commit to doing I have and it all starts next week.

So how to capture the effect of the colours of the original illuminated manuscript and explore the impact they must have had back then. If the sheer volume of pieces wasn’t enough, my original idea was to use the exact colours the 7th century monks used – a little bit of dark ages authenticity in a contemporary artwork. I was really interested in how the colours were made, where they came from and why they were used, but it’s ended up with me looking at my own relationship with the different colours…

There’s something about the colour blue I have a problem with. It’s not that I don’t like it – it’s a useful colour after all, but there’s something awkward about it. I know where I am with red. I feel very comfortable using it, and in a strange sideways movement yellow is manageable too. But Blue I find tricky.

It’s got all these cultural connotations with it – sadness, lightness, distance – although even here the cultural stuff is confused – different cultures see blue in very different ways. In fact in most of the world blue doesn’t exist. Some places have very different words for light blue ad dark blue, but not a generic blue. In many others, blue and green are one and the same. So it seems I’m not the only one who has problems with blue…

————

Sometimes I’m not sure which weather is worse for me – rain, snow or sunshine. I guess in a very English way I’m easily distracted by the weather, whatever the weather. Lately it’s been doing a lot of this: Living on top of a fell in the North Pennines, I don’t get much of that stuff in the best of years, so it seems silly to waste days like that sat at a desk or beavering away in the studio. Instead I’ve been out wandering as much as I can while the weather holds. taking the opportunity to further explore the landscape on my doorstep.

blue sky

It’s usually a colourful time of year out in the North Pennines with the spring flowers coming into bloom and the trees very verdant with their new leaves. A couple of years back I did a piece for a paper making client of mine down in the woods at the bottom of the fields here – near the secret waterfall.

blue boxes

I think I made a couple of hundred of those paper boxes in all. I remember it took me ages to cut them out and fold them up, and there still didn’t seem to be enough, but the effect worked well. Particularly when the sun peeped out from behind the clouds and I got some dappled light on the ground.

This year, the bluebells have gone crazy. In fact all the spring flowers are far more voluminous than normal. It’s something to do with the colder than average winter and the late spring – a good four weeks later than normal here. I’m not sure the mechanics of increasing the flowers but it’s very noticeable.

bluebells

The other week, I ventured up to Widdy Bank Fell, overlooking Cow Green Reservoir in Teesdale in search of some very old plants. Spring Gentians are Alpine plants normally found on the higher slopes of the Alps and the Atlas mountains. Tiny, tiny delicate blue flowers which ony open up in the sunshine. Very beautiful and extremely blue. But also unique here in the UK.

Spring Gentian

Back at the end of the last ice age (well, still this one technically, but let’s not go there for now) Upper Teesdale, like most of the UK was covered in ice, the big glaciers carving out much of the landscape we see today. The climate of upper Teesdale was very much like the upper reaches of the Alps then and alpine plants thrived here. However, as the glaciers melted and the planet warmed up again, those Alpine plants survived on Widdy Bank Fell and are still there today. These spring gentians have been there for well over 20,000 years. These delicate blue flowers are mind-bogglingly ancient. Older even than the landscape. That’s nuts. But cool too.

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But back to the Lindisfarne Gospels.

It had long been presumed that the blue on the manuscripts was made with lapis pigment. There were certainly well established trade routes to Holy Island in the 7th century. At the time the only source for this precious colour was a single mine in Afghanistan. However, the most recent analysis of the colours suggests the blue isn’t mineral but rather organic.

detail of a carpet page

Detail of a ‘carpet page’ from the Lindisfarne Gospels

There are two primary sources of organic blue pigment. The first was from boiling up the mucus of whelks and steeping them in urine for a number of weeks. The resultant blues eventually gathered tend to be on the purple end of the spectrum although richer dark blue and indigo is possible. It’s certainly possible this was done on Holy Island. There’s no shortage of whelks on the shores.

The other likely source was using woad. It was certainly widely used at the time. There are records of Vikings using it to dye cloth at the time and the Roman records of the Picts painting themselves blue was almost certainly a woad product.

I’ve not been able to find a supplier of whelk-based indigo, but I did manage to get a pure woad watercolour paint to use in my designs on paper.

woad blue

woad blue

The other peculiar property of blue is that so much that we see as blue isn’t actually blue. The sky for instance isn’t really blue – it’s just the way light is refracted through the atmosphere.

The iridescent blue of birds and butterflies isn’t real either – again it’s a trick of refraction through clear cells.

It’s this property of blue which has complicated the blue for the installation. Having got a blue liquid that worked well as a mass, when I started testing it outside in the sunlight, strange things started to happen.

up against the light, the liquid is a good vibrant blue…

bright blue

however, in bright sunlight against the green grass, instead of just looking darker it starts to look distinctly purple and verging on red.

blue jar going purple

aargh!

The current solution (forgive the pun) is to mix a much diluted colour solution. Individually against the light it appears very light and watery. However, when viewed as a mass it becomes a much richer shade.

blue jars

Yes, I know it’s not the same hue as the woad pigment samples. THe idea of replicating the original colours just wasn’t working on a piece of this scale and within the landscape. It was too earthy and natural-looking, whereas for the piece to have the impact of colour – which is the whole point behind the piece – the colours all needed to be much richer.

I guess from this I’ve learnt a little more about how blue works and I’m beginning to see how it’s functioning both within the piece and the broader landscape. I think within the jars it’s taking on a more ecclesiastical quality which fits well with the piece. I’m beginning also to understand its unique properties in the way it interacts with light.

Somehow I don’t think this’ll be the last piece I play with blue.

but I hope it’s the last time I do something with 30,000 pieces. What was I thinking?!

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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.

sightlines

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.

Locations

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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