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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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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.

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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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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.

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

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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

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one of the final drying rollers

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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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It’s that time of year again. The crowded summer is definitely over and the year is slowly winding down. The leaves are just at the turn of colour – give it another fortnight or so and those golds and reds will be in their prime. Already the sun is lower giving longer shadows and bringing shape and texture back to the fells. There’s an overall warmth to the light bathing everything in a cosy glow while the evening air is filled with the first of the log fires.

autumn colours

While there’s still a bit of warmth around and a good full day’s daylight it’s my favourite time of year – the landscape is at its best around now.

Back in 2004 this was also the time a bunch of us like-minded artists decided to shake up art in our rural corner of England.

Art in Cumbria at the time was dominated by the tourist landscape painting market. There were very few opportunities for artists to show their work outside the souvenir gallery scene. A few years previous a series of open studio events had started which began to open up the market a little. However, the open studio model only works for a distinct portion of artists – namely those who made work to sell clearly. Those who only worked to commission or outside of the commercial realm were still invisible to most people. Yet Cumbria – and the Lake District in particular – had a huge potential audience – in tourism terms second only to London in the UK. Clearly we were missing a trick.

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‘Cant’ – John Kelly 2005

The solution as we saw it was FRED – a 10-day ‘Art Invasion’ where artists created work outside the gallery environment and brought it into the path of everyday life.

It was an idea which turned into a vision which gathered pace and became something that just had to happen. So it did.

The first year was done on an absolute shoestring budget. I still wonder how on earth we managed to do anything at all that first year, but we did. With no sensible budget we encouraged artists to realise projects they always wanted to do but for whatever reason had never got round to doing. By getting enough artists to do those little projects at the same time we would generate a critical mass where the sum of all that activity became a much bigger thing. Well, that was the idea. To hold it all together we needed a brand and visual identity. We wanted this to look and feel like an artist uprising. For that it was important that every detail was regarded as a work of art.We managed to persuade David Haldane – a cartoonist for The Times – to come up with a branding which would be an artwork in itself. This idea that FRED was art everywhere – a bit like the ‘Humphrey’ milk marketing campaign in the ’70’s. Davids FRED cartoons became postcards and stickers and spray-painted roadside placards.

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FRED – © David Haldane 2004

We also managed to secure the unused advertising space on the back of car park tickets right across the main tourist spots in the Lake District. Adele Prince was commissioned to create a series of artworks which turned car park stickers into artworks – not advertising. It was all very low-fi and more than a little anarchic. But something happened.

Adele Prince Carpark Tickets

Car park tickets © Adele Prince 2004

On the very first day the BBC news picked up the story of the parking ticket artworks and the ‘outdoor art festival in the Lake District’ and ran it on the half-hourly news slot on the ‘Today’ programme on radio 4. Probably the biggest radio audience in the UK. By the end of the day every BBC radio station in the country had phoned me up, followed by regional TV and a couple of national newspapers. It even made the front page of the local newspaper. This might not seem a big thing, but art NEVER featured on the cover of the Herald, let alone crazy contemporary art.

Coniston UFO

Julian Claxton re-creating the UK’s first ever UFO sighting in Coniston. The artist even secretly stayed at the B&B owned by the first person to report it when he was a school boy in the 50’s. (photo: FRED archive – unattributed)

Around 40 artist – some alone, some as groups – created temporary projects all over the county – from park benches to railway stations, dry stone walls to shops. We even had  piece in the tiger’s enclosure at the zoo.

The media coverage alone far outweighed anything that had ever happened art-wise in Cumbria before. Bigger than most stuff outside London even.

lakelife by gill baron

‘Lakelife’ by Gill Baron. A painting of an underwater dance in the bus stop at Newby Bridge. THe bus stop has since been replaced – however the parish council pressed for a wooden replica in order to preserve the painting. It’s still there after 10 years and well loved locally. (photo: FRED archive – unattributed)

The Arts Council were a bit embarrassed at its success having turned it down for funding and so suggested doing a book on it to get their logo somewhere.

Over the next couple of years the festival grew in size and ambition. In 2005 the marketing work of art was done by Graham Rawle who at the time had a regular slot on the Guardian with his Lost Consonants series

can you find the art graham rawle

FRED 2005 – can you find the ART? Original artwork.  © Graham Rawle 2005

Following on from the success of the car park tickets we wanted someone to do something on the back of till-roll receipts at the service station on the M6. A couple of probably quite cheeky emails enlisted fellow rural-based artist Jenny Holzer to create a coupe of new works. The new versions of Truisms and Survival Series as ‘For Cumbria’ appeared on the back of over half a million receipts over the 16 day festival and helped attract more serious arts coverage in the national press.

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‘For Cumbria’ – Jenny Holzer 2005. image ©stevemessam 2005

Whilst the ambition and profile of the festival grew year on year, the budgets didn’t really. The marketing commissions remained the only paid commissions. All the other projects were only paid travel, accommodation and materials expenses. As such they weren’t commissions and the artists consequently had complete artistic control. Despite that each year we waded through up to 500 proposals from all around the world and whittled it down to just 30 or so projects.

FRED by Gordon Brown

FRED Everywhere – ©Gordon Brown 2007

On top of expenses covered we also provided the artists with project management, marketing skills training and got them the audience and exposure many public funded galleries only dream about.

statueofliberty

visitors sally barker

‘Visitor’ – Sally Barker. Iconic landmarks in miniature – included a grass Statue of Liberty and Easter Island heads made from sheep poo. photos © Tony West 2007

The whole event was one big learning experience for everyone involved. An annual contemporary art event like this had not been done before so we had no one to learn from except ourselves. Over the years we developed and refined the programme always looking to see what worked best and what failed completely. What worked best year on year was being able to take risks and exploiting the untapped potential of the rural environment.

weathercube gareth kennedy

‘Weathercube’ – Gareth Kennedy. 2007. photo: ©Tony West

Scale was one of the biggest assets. We could do things that even the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern would struggle to cope with. Engaging with the landscape was more than just about the visual presence. The experience of landscape was just as powerful. For some of the really remote pieces that journey to get to them was all part of it.

wildboar jan hicks

Installing the wild boar by Jan Hicks- a hill drawing on the fell where the last wild boar in England was shot, made from the fleeces of the sheep that graze there. photo: ©stevemessam 2006

The complete lack of light pollution preempted the ‘Dark Skies’ projects and illuminated artworks took on a whole new level of engagement with their surroundings.

shake pole richard box

‘Shake Pole’ by Richard Box. 2006. 300 fluorescent tubes planted beneath the national grid power lines which glowed through induction. photo courtesy of the artist

resonet 2007

‘ResoNet’ – Mark Tynan and William Chen. 2007. The tensile structure in a woodland responded to movement – the lights tracing the wave of motion across the surface in the wind. photo courtesy of the artists

'ThickSpace' by Aaron J. Robin, Laura Belevica & Feng Guochuan. 2008

‘ThickSpace’ by Aaron J. Robin, Laura Belevica & Feng Guochuan. 2008

enclosure by robbie colman and jo hodges

‘Enclosure’ by Robbie Coleman & Jo Hodges. photo © Tony West 2006

However, we never tired of the opportunity to take risks. The very human connection you get working in small, often isolated communities, meant it was easy to find like-minded souls who welcomed and even encouraged real subversiveness and damn right cheek most art institutions would never get away with.

tits by Jane Anderson

‘Tits’ – Jane Anderson 2006. This ornithology book was censored with every word except ‘tits’ tippexed out. Correctly catalogued and shelved in the library at Sedbergh. photo © Tony West 2006

FRED was more than just about spectacle or art in beautiful landscapes. It was also about local issues and connecting with the people who live there. The real rural issues overlooked by the urban media and politics – public transport (or lack of), disappearing petrol stations and libraries, Eastern European wagon drivers, the decline of upland farming. FRED wasn’t just about tourism, at its heart was engaging and speaking alongside rural communities. This wasn’t about trying to replicate an urban notion of contemporary art. It was about finding a rural voice – doing something that simply cannot be done in any city anywhere. It was about being rural and proud of it.

refuel noel connor

‘Refuel’ – Noel Connor 2008. Poetry on the pumps at a community-run petrol station in Brougton-in-Furness. Photo ©Tony West 2008

FRED’s strength came from looking outward rather than within. Projects weren’t restricted to the geographical boundaries of Cumbria. There were plenty in all the neighbouring counties and even one running in Bavaria one year. So many rural initiatives suffer from being too parochial. Less than a quarter of the artists came from the county. By the final year there were more proposals from overseas than from NW England. I guess to an overseas artist the draw of travelling abroad and creating a piece in stunning landscapes and having all your expenses covered is quite strong. Rural issues are similar around the world also, and the ability to voice them anywhere is rare. But that mix of the local and international often ended up strengthening everyone’s work.

all wrapped up ettie spencer

‘All Wrapped Up’ – Ettie Spencer 2008. The family hill farm was no longer viable and so was literally wrapped up (in bale wrap). photo ©stevemessam 2008

Doing an event working with up to 80 artists in maybe 60 locations over 2,600 sq. miles, every year is a huge undertaking. I certainly didn’t do it single-handed. There was a team of 5 or 6 dedicated artists every year working ceaselessly for what little crumbs we had to spare. All doing their bit and without who it would never have happened. But the funding was never right. In five years of bringing in thousands of people contributing hundreds of thousands to the local economy each year on top of developing the contemporary art environment in Cumbria, we never received a single penny from the County Council. Only in the final year did any of the local councils contribute more than £100. Raising the money was a year round job – each festival took 18 months to fund, plan and organise. The lack of enough money meant I was also creating all the print design, building websites documenting half the works and reinvesting my own money just keeping the thing afloat.

orange slice bridget kennedy

‘Orange Slice’ – Bridget Kennedy. photo ©Irene Sanderson 2007

After five non-stop years it was decided to call it a day and quit while we were still on top. Initially the excitement and momentum kept me going, but after all those years it left me physically, mentally and financially broken. FRED finally finished in October 2008.

uncommon ground ben teasdlae

‘Uncommon Ground’ – Benjamin Teasdale. Photo © Tony West 2008

FRED was a product of its time – the right people in the right place with the same idea. It happened but there’s no going back. I doubt anything like it will happen again in the same place. Behind the scenes it ended up in such a messy way I’ve deliberately avoided looking back at it for years. However, wherever I go people still speak highly of it – both local people who remember the mad things that happened in their village and rural communities around the world in awe of its energy and ambition.

Evening Glory Charles Monkhouse

‘Evening Glory’ – Charles Monkhouse. A necklace of light around Old Man Coniston. Photo ©stevemessam 2005

Over the past few months I’ve finally come round to being able to look back on it and see all the things it done. It may not have generated any Turner Prize winning art – it was far too anti-establishment for that – and it was always a bit ragged around the edges. But it was raw and real.

head mills and walton

‘Head’ – Russell Mills & Ian Walton. A gold-leafed shed on the site of Kurt Schwitter’s allotment

And that glorious early autumnal light made it just look amazing.

P.S. There’s a rough archive of all five years of FRED online here: www.fredsblog.co.uk

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It feels like ages since I last posted something here. Actually it was ages. It’s been an eventful summer – lots of new work getting made and going up all over the place, amazing weather to distract me, and … oh, I moved house.

Moving house is a stressful thing at best of times – when you’re self-employed and you have to move house in the middle of lots of work it seems doubly so.

empty house

My six years on a mountain was an amazing adventure. Stainmore is not exactly known for its sunshine and warm weather. In fact quite the opposite.

Four out of the last five winters have been especially hard up there. At around 1,500ft above sea level snow was pretty much a given. Most years I’d find myself snowed-in for a total of five weeks – that’s 10% of the year when you couldn’t get within a mile of the house by car. Yet, somehow I felt endeared to that bleakness and solitude. No double-glazing, no central heating and a coal-fired cooker. It was never going to be easy. But the clouds and the wind and the curlews and seeing hares on the track most days and listening to the owls at night… it was a truly special place.

view from window on stainmore

I haven’t moved far. Just over the hill. And a little lower down. I now have double glazing, central heating, hot water on demand. All the little things I didn’t know I was missing. And I still have a view to look out over while I drink my tea. (new house, new view, new header images at the top of this blog)

view with tea

But it’s a very different view. Obviously it’s not as high up as the one on Stainmore. It’s still got those wild North Pennine fells though at the moment – probably because it’s still summer, they don’t do very much yet. The biggest difference is trees.

I had trees on Stainmore. The owls used to sit in them at night and call to each other. They also protected the house from the worst of the northerly winds. But there weren’t very many of them, and there weren’t many to be seen in the view either.

Here in Teesdale, there’s a lot more of them – little copses and big woodlands. Mostly deciduous too – I’m hoping for an autumn like last year. That would be amazing. And they don’t just make the landscape look different – it sounds different too.

Stainmore was all curlew and lapwing – alien sounds in the bird world. Here, there’s still the odd curlew cry, but there’s much much more variety of birdsong. Yes, birdsong. That’s what was missing before. Tweets and trills and swoops and chirps. So many different sounds and it’s always there. The trees seem to act as some kind of filter removing much of the background noise, but somehow the birdsong still cuts through.

The other week was haymaking in the dale. The current rules on farming in this Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) mean that many farmers have very short windows to harvest hay and silage and it seemed like the entire valley got harvested in a matter of days. One of the local contractors was using some beautiful old machinery to make square hay bales. There was a wonderful rhythmic pattern circulating around the fields as the machine scooped up the hay, compacted it, tied it into bales then stored then gathered them up to be deposited in convenient piles to dry in the sun.

bales in the fields

Of course I never went out with any sound recording stuff to capture all this while it’s still new and exciting to me, so for now they’ll just have to be memories.

The other sound that somehow manages to carry on still evenings is from the water cascading down the falls a couple of fields away.

close up of waterfall

..but that’s for another story.

 

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It’s been another sitting-outside-with-a-cup-of-tea kind of day today. Even up here on the side of my mountain it’s pleasantly mild. There’s a quite a stiff breeze, but not a chilling one, and the air is spectacularly clear all day.

One of the most special things about my time living up here has been the view. It’s always there in one form or another and has provided all the header pictures for this blog. All lazy views – just taken from the doorstep. No effort required.

There’s something quite captivating about extensive views. There’s so much information in them – so much detail – and as a living landscape you can invariably see little vignettes of other peoples’ lives. The cyclists punishing themselves up the hill, the game keepers whizzing around on their quad bikes, the distant sound of a siren. Sometimes even the sound of a train (10 mies away – that’s impressive). Closer up there’s sheep and cows in the fields. Always pheasants. This time of year there’s dozens of swallows darting around and tweeting in the barn, curlews, buzzards and crows on the wing and tiny, scruffy lapwing chicks wandering around aimlessly.

This sense of pleasure and serenity from just sitting in the garden seems such a natural reaction to what’s around. Like something pre-programmed into our genes. But that’s not the case.

It wasn’t always like this.

Step forward the Lake District.

This is how many people – millions annually – see the beauty of the lake district every year.

Buttermere & Crummock Water ©Paul Kingston / North News & Pictures

 

Lakes and mountains (and sunshine – somehow). Millions venture up the fells each year to get these kinds of views over the lakes and mountains beyond. There’s a whole tourism industry built around this employing thousands and propping up the rural economy in otherwise isolated communities.

Three hundred years ago, no-one came. There were no tourists. Cumbria was a wild and forgotten corner of the country. Had been for centuries. Famously the doomsday book never got this far. It was considered inconsequential and untamed. Not worth going to even to find out what was there.

Landscapes too were just what was there. An obstacle to negotiate between places mostly. In art the idea of painting little watercolours of the view was years aways. Landscape painting was either a backdrop for dramatic stories or a document of a patrons’ wealth. Land ownership was power and importance.

 

Children of Frederick V Prince Elector of Pfalz and King of Bohemia by Cornelis van POELENBURGH. 17thC

So, when an unknown clergyman from Glasgow visited the Lake District and was blown away by its natural beauty, this was a truly radical moment.

thomas west

Thomas West’s 1779 ‘Guide to the Lakes of  Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire’ was more than just a guide book around sites of roman antiquity, it kickstarted ‘tourism’ in the UK and brought thousands of people out of cities to experience this radical new way of looking at the world around them.

In Thomas West’s day the mountains were still out of bounds for sane and ordinary people. They were just ‘scenery’ – a backdrop to offset the beauty of the lakes themselves. However, the burgeoning picturesque movement rapidly embraced the aesthetic qualities of the distant fells as part of the overall aesthetic. The wild and untamed mountains were frequently described as ‘terrifying’ and ‘awful’ in a way that added tension to the landscape view.

It was the romantic movement that brought us the human connection with landscape that we take for granted today. Born from the seeds of the French Revolution, it was a reaction to the pace of change that was sweeping Europe which brought artists and thinkers to seek solace in the basics of human existence. Forging an emotional link between us and the natural world around us.

Although it was primarily a German and French ideology, it was writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge who created a centre for romantic thinking based on the landscape of the Lake District who really cemented this idea that some landscape views were more beautiful than others. That views could in some way be special things in their own right.

While at the new house at Allan Bank in Grasmere, Wordsworth was instrumental in shaping the grounds to work in harmony with the natural landscape. One of the most ambitious features was a dramatic viewing tunnel through a hill. The short stone lined tunnel had a slight bend in it, so that on entering from one side you were venturing into the unknown, only by half way through to be presented with a composed view over the lake below.

viewing tunnel

In the 19th century, viewing the landscape became big business. Turner and Constable battled it out at the Royal Academy summer shows with bigger and more impressive landscapes.  Viewing points became tourist attractions in their own right – many having pavilions built to frame the view. The ruin at Claife, on the western side of Windermere is a particularly impressive example of the fad for viewing. A three story building with rooms for entertainment overlooking the lake. The drawing room was famed for its very contemporary take on viewing – each of the windows was tinted with a different colour to simulate the seasons – yellow for summer, orange for autumn, green for spring and a pale blue for winter. A deep blue simulated moonlight and a lilac window represented the light in a thunderstorm.

_DSC2533 - Version 2

There’s little remaining of the building today, and all those viewing windows are long gone. It must have been quite an amazing experience.

In 2011 Olafur Eliasson created  ‘Your Rainbow Panorama’ in Århus, Denmark. A 360 degree panorama over the city where you view through a complete spectrum of colours. A thing of beauty, but one which existed in Cumbria over 200 years earlier. 

Eliasson - Your Rainbow Panorama

Your Rainbow Panorama – Olafur Eliasson. 2011

Claife isn’t the only example of real cutting edge art-architecture. A full one hundred years before the picturesque took off, the owner of Rydal Hall, between Ambleside and Grasmere, took a radical view to landscaping the gardens. One of the most important features i this was the ‘Grot’ – a little summerhouse built at the foot of a waterfall on the beck running through the grounds. A path leading to the Grot, twisted and turned creating a series of hidden ‘reveals’ – composed little set pieces. The end of which was this little hut by the water. As soon as you opened the door, the waterfall was revealed through the window on the other side – framing it as a living picture.

the grot

Like all great cutting edge design, this little hut drew thousands of people from all over the country including Gilpin (credited with formalising the concept of the picturesque), Constable, Turner, Joseph Wright, Ruskin and all the romantic poets. It also featured in West’s guide.


 

This week I’m installing some new pieces in the Lake District. It’s been a while since I last did anything large-scale there. While I personally prefer the bleak and wilder landscapes of the North Pennines, there’s something about those lakes and mountains that I enjoy exploring and working with.

To be part of that ongoing narrative about looking at and experiencing the world around you – maybe its because its at the core of my own work that it feels so resonant. But maybe it’s because if it hadn’t been so inspiring to Thomas West all those years ago, none of us would be sitting outside simply admiring the view.

lookout

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Despite the unusually mild winter I don’t seem to have done as much walking recently as I had hoped. So it was great to get out at the weekend and go tramping up some Pennine Hills.

This week’s walk was down in the South Pennines (West Yorkshire) from Haworth. I’m doing a piece near there later in the year and wanted to get a feel for the landscape. I also wanted to get the whole Brontë thing out of my system so I could look beyond that literary baggage the area wears. So my destination was ‘Top Withins’ – a ruined farmhouse on Haworth Moor.

‘Top Withins’ must be the most visited non-place on the Pennines. A former hill farm, it was reputed to be the inspiration behind ‘Wuthering Heights’ – a lonely, remote farmhouse high on the hills although there’s no evidence to suggest Emily Brontë ever went there or even knew of it. I’ve never read the book – I’ve tried a couple of times and not got very far. I’ve even resorted to an audiobook version too, but I just end up falling asleep with no idea how far I got each time. Still, it’s big in Japan – the Pennine Way even has footpath signs in Japanese:

japanese signpost

I first encountered Top Withins on the cover of ‘Literary Britain’ by Bill Brandt. I got ‘Literary Britain’ when I was about 15 and was the first photographic book I ever had. My early years of photography were heavily influenced by his dark, high contrast, grainy pictures of desolate landscapes and hauntingly empty buildings.

'Top Withins' by Bill Brandt

‘Top Withins’ by Bill Brandt. From ‘Literary Britain’ 1951.

The farmhouse doesn’t look like that anymore. Brandt visited sometime in the 30’s or 40’s. By the 60’s the windows had been blocked in and the roof started to collapse. I expected to find a beautiful ruin of crumbling walls and maybe a standing fireplace – they’re always built stronger. Instead, the powers that be have decided to restore the walls with fresh pointing and remove the unstable gables. The result is a stone box with all the romance of a nuclear power station. Did Ruskin mean nothing to these heritage folk? Ah well…

top withins 2014

I’ve become very familiar with my own existence on a windswept hill farmhouse over the past six years. As my adventure in this wilderness is drawing to an end I’ve been more conscious to witness and record the essence of life up here on my hill.

This spring the lapwings and curlews are back in much greater numbers than last year. Their eerie calls echo around the hills and bring a very distinctive upland dawn chorus.

Last year, as part of the ‘Gods Bridge’ project, I proposed a machine to make the sound of a curlew. The idea was to fill the painting galleries in the Bowes Museum with the sound of curlews. I had already looked at dissecting its distinctive ‘bubbling’ call earlier so while on paper I knew what was needed, making that a reality was a whole different thing.

flock of curlews

First up was just getting the right notes and tone. I scoured the internet looking for the lazy way of doing things in the hope I’d find just the right bird call. I bought the only one which claimed to do a curlew sound – and it was rubbish! So back to the drawing board and after numerous attempts with varying sized brass tube I built a slide whistle which came close. The hundreds of curlews gathering on the field outside my window gave me plenty of reference material to check it by.

Next was the problem of the trilling notes.

The spectral analysis pointed to a two-note rapid trill. I tried a sine wave swoop at the same speed as the curlew to see if it was an even up and down slide:


Obviously it’s not that.

Another whistle build revealed a closer possibility. Whistles are on the surface simple things – a narrow flow of air is passed over a hole where it is split and the reverberated air makes the note. By increasing the length of the whistle tube the note is lowered, shortening it raises he pitch. The diameter of the whistle determines tone and the size of the air hole controls the volume. Only it’s not quite that simple. Subtle changes to the shape of the hole can make huge differences to both the tone and the note. Then there’s the scale. Blowing more air can increase the pitch, considerably more air can change the scale completely raising the pitch to the next step of harmonics. By chance rather than design I ended up with a whistle which when tuned to the lower note of the call would switch to the upper note by changing the air pressure blowing through it. Could this be how the curlew is making its two note trill? A bit like yodelling. The difficulty was that I just couldn’t change the air pressure I was blowing at fast enough to even get close the speed (about 9Hz). Birds don’t have a diaphragm to control their breathing and air flow when singing. Instead their entire ribcage squeezes their lungs and is far more efficient at controlling fast speed changes than we are.

bellows

This led to the realisation of significant design flaws in my simple birdsong machine. I had anticipated that a slide whistle would control the pitch (notes) of the call, while bellows would provide the air with the whole thing powered by two simple cams – one for pitch and one for phrase. However, while the bellows method works well for cuckoo clocks and chirping mechanical birds, the longer notes of the curlew trills are just too much for moderately sized bellows. Even by rebuilding several paper bellows to increase the volume of air they move, and switching to airtight plastic-coated nylon bellows skins, getting a long enough note to do all the trills was going to take bellows much larger than the scale I wanted to use.

The whole trilling thing was looking to be far far trickier to achieve using pure mechanics alone. However, curlews have a wide range of calls. The bubbling sounds are so complicated for the bird that they can only do them while gliding and not flapping their wings. While in flight they have another distinctive two-note call.

Besides, I was getting far too hung up on the ‘Machine’ bit of the piece and losing track of the original audio experience.

So, here’s the final piece as installed in the opulent painting galleries in the Bowes Museum:

 

The sound is that of the flying call of the curlew made by the brass whistle and powered by bellows. It’s a recorded sound played through an induction speaker on the machine itself. The overall effect is what I wanted even if the method of making it isn’t as hoped.

Still, it was always going to be an attempt to recreate the sound. As it stands it’s not an entirely successful one, but as a first step it’s a good one. The bug has finally bitten though – the Curlew Machine #2 is a real possibility in the future. The next version will use fans to power the ‘breaths’, a butterfly valve will oscillate between high and low pressure notes, a step motor would change the lead pitch and the whole thing controlled by a micro processor. But that’s for another day.

For now the painting galleries echo to the sound of a mechanical curlew overhead and a small essence of the big wide North Pennines is brought inside for a bit.

 

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