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Posts Tagged ‘design’

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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So, the weather has finally turned. The wind is much colder, central heating boilers all over the country are firing up from their summer hibernation and there’s a real autumnal feeling in the air. Jumpers on. Except I’m in Sweden and sitting out on the veranda under a clear blue sky and it’s just lovely.

I’ over here on a very quick, subordinately hectic ten day residency which will end up with me building a pavilion in the woods. From scratch. I’m not panicking. Honest.

The pavilion is part of a project on the Baltic island of Öland called ‘Mittlandsskogen i min Bakgård’ – or ‘The Forest in my Back Yard’ that is investigating the effect the Mittlandsskogen – the large forest in the middle of the island – has on the communities that exist in and around its edges.

There’s something about forests. On a simple level they are a large swathe of trees. The reality is they are far more complex – an area so rich in its biodiversity that they constitute a biological entity of their own. Like huge living creatures which move and breathe as one. So interdependent are the myriad of vegetation, creatures, mosses, bacteria and internal climate even that it’s hard to distinguish the point at which they start and end. Their borders become fuzzy and bleed into the surrounding land in search of room to grow and assimilate into more forest. For communities around the Mittlandsskogen, they become part of the forest. Living independent of it in that they can physically escape, but bound up as part of its entity. A symbiotic existence. The line between what is their back garden and what is forest is forever blurred.

wild apples

The pavilion will be a structure which encompasses that idea of symbiosis – an interconnectedness between the forest and the pavilion and ultimately the people inside. It’s a tall order, particularly given the timescale and budget restrictions, but that’s all part of the dynamics of the project.

This is my third visit to Öland I even made a small piece in the forest last time so it’s not an entirely new terrain for me. That it’s a limestone landscape has a particular resonance for me. There’s something familiar about the colours and texture of the landscape even though it’s relatively flat and I’m working at a grand altitude of around 8m above sea level. It’s also the geology of this rocky outcrop makes it one of the most bio-diverse ecologies in Sweden.

Back in the bronze age, early settlers realised the potential of the extremely fertile environment and found that instead of hunting for food, they could actually cultivate it. While the rest of mainland Sweden was out hunting boar and deer for their dinner the population of Öland grew as the idea of agriculture took on. Over time more and more of the indigenous forest was cleared to make way for more farming and Öland became know as the bread basket of Sweden.

utmarks on Oland

the division of the land on Öland. Each plot varies in size and shape. The red line is the edge of the forest

In the late 18th century, the royal hunting grounds were dismantled and the land was returned to the people in exchange for land taxes – ‘utmarksdelningen’. Each parish was divided into lots (Utmark) in an effort to make communities self-sufficient. If there was a shortage of land in one parish then a neighbouring parish would offer a parcel of their own land. The division was a little uneven and although everyone had access to land of their own, in practice the wealthy had the biggest and best land, the poorer had small or the not so good stuff. Deforestation of the island had resulted in a shortage of firewood and building materials so a new law was brought in demanding that a portion of each Utmark would be given over to growing trees. As cereal crops couldn’t be grown on most of mainland Sweden, the market value of these grew and consequently the idealised sustainable communities either became wealthy crop farmers or, where the plots were too small and the land no good for growing – destitute and hungry. However, a succession of bad harvests resulted in years of famine by the mid 19th century which in turn led to mass emigration to America. The abandoned Utmarks quickly reverted to natural vegetation and soon the Mittlandsskogen took over.

wild forest

Most of the Utmark parcels of land exist today. Some have been planted with rapid growing conifer plantations for commercial logging. Some have been cleared for cattle and some are manicured lawns around tidy summer houses. In others the native woodland has been allowed to grow in an unmanaged state.

summer house in the forest

The Utmark I’m working in is a classic semi-wet woodland – there are two main wetland areas – still dry at the moment but populated by reeds and irises. The rest of the area is split into three layers – a top canopy layer of birch, elm, ash, lime and oak; a middle canopy of mostly hazel stands and a ground cover. The hazel is so dense in places that the ground cover is hardly there at all and only really exists in the occasional clearings. The whole Utmark is delineated by a low level drystone wall. It’s not high enough to keep anything in or out and the roundness of the field boulders in this part of the island makes them not so good for building with, but it’s a very clear boundary yet so different from the drystone walls back home.

stone wall on Oland

The density of the shrub layer makes getting around the Utmark difficult and even impossible in places – no mater how hard I tried I still haven’t managed to find the back corner of the wall. But where paths have been trodden there’s a real tunnel-like appearance through the woods. It’s even more obvious on the tracks and disused railway line that goes through the forest.

tunnel of trees

I’m still not sure where all this is taking me and how the pavilion will respond to it. There’s so many layers of narrative I’m not sure how many I’ll get to cover, but at least for now there’s plenty to be getting on with.

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We did it!

final piece in the priory

Yep. That really is a monk next to it…

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

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

lots of jars

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

carpet detail

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

lindisfarne birds

gannet

Gannet – image © Tony Heald / naturepl.com

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

layout design

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

 

Da Vinci proportions

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

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

carpet Lindisfarne 008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

script sample

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

more detail

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

detail

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

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel. image © British Library

st cuthberts gospel

St Cuthbert’s Gospel. image © British Museum

Sometimes words fail me.

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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…

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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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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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