Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘environmental art’

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.

 

Read Full Post »

There’s a TV station dedicated to weather. You can have weather on your TV 24 hours a day. Imagine that! 24 hours of non-stop weather…

Alternatively you can live in the North Pennines – there’s more weather here than you can shake a stick at. Why anyone would want to shake a stick at the weather and what they thought it would achieve is beyond me.

As an artist working predominantly outdoors all year, the weather is a pretty major thing for me. Besides knowing if I’m going to get frozen or soaked all day, there’s the practical challenges of making sure the weather doesn’t prematurely destroy what I create, or make them dangerously unstable for visitors.

There’s been a fair bit of stormy weather here n the UK over the past month. It seems that there’s an unusually large number of these storms heading off the Atlantic for the time of year. Last week, as my house was being battered by winds in excess of 80mph the weather station on Great Dun Fell recorded gusts of over 120mph.

wind speed graph

The weather was calmer yesterday as I set off up to explore Great Dun Fell for myself. Despite living overlooking the Eden Valley I’d never walked up any of the North Pennine Fells on that side so this was a first for me. Great Dun Fell, at 849m (over 2,700 feet) is the second highest peak on the Pennines after Cross Fell and are the largest mountains in England outside the Lake District.

It was a reasonable day in the Eden Valley as I set off from the village of Knock, skirting around the back of Dufton Pike. Walking these fells is much easier than the Breadalbane hills I’d been doing in the Highlands lately. The footpaths are well marked and the main Pennine Way itself is well trodden and maintained. However, by the time I reached Knock Old Man (2,0o0ft) there was a good smattering of snow on the ground and some beautiful rime on the cairn.

rime on old man knock

From there it’s a straight line over the top to Great Dun Fell and with the cloud cover lifted it’s easy to see where you’re heading.

There are dozens of weather stations across the UK and you can track their readings live online at any number of sites. However, Great Dun Fell is a bit special. The readings now come from the radar station – the giant white golfball on the fells that’s a bit f a landmark from both the Eden Valley and Upper Teesdale. Back in 1937 George Manley set up the first mountain meteorological record station in a small wooden hut on Great Dun Fell. That spot of the North Pennines was chosen as this tract of Pennine hills has the most variation of weather in England. When he started his collection of weather data in 1932 he noted:

“I was attracted by the Northern Pennines, in particular around Cross Fell, as the most extensive area of bleak uncompromising upland that England possesses”

Manley's Hut

For ten years Manley’s weather station recorded sun, rain, wind and temperature data every three hours, 24hours a day – at the time the longest continuous weather record ever made. As well as a substantial record of mountain weather data, his station also led to the understanding of the ‘Helm Wind’ – a wind phenomena that only occurs around Cross Fell where violent, roaring winds appear to come from nowhere, even on otherwise fair days. In his research into historical records of the Helm wind there are some great accounts of sheep being tossed around like balls of cotton wool, and brussels sprouts blown off the stalks and ricocheting around the gardens.

The legacy of Manley’s work 849m up Great Dun Fell was the CET (Central England Temperature) – a record of mean temperatures going back to 1649 – the longest weather record in the world. So when the weathermen say it’s the coldest March on record – that’s Manley’s record, started on the North Pennines in the 1930’s.

More importantly the length and depth of the weather record is at the centre of ongoing research into climate change – the Moor House National Nature Reserve, in which Great Dun Fell lies, plays a crucial role in that research today.

gt Dun Fell radar

Nothing remains of Manley’s wooden hut now. It’s all long gone when the radar station was built in the ’80’s. What does remain though is the access road to the radar station. Once a track for the myriad of mineral mines on the high fells, it’s now a tarmac’d road and officially the highest road in the UK. It’s also the only road in the UK that goes up a mountain and stops at the top. Unfortunately it’s a private access road so you can’t really drive it. The height of the snow poles show just how deep the snow gets up here anyway.

highest road

……..

This past year has definitely been a year of walking for me. I’ve always enjoyed walking but never considered myself a serious walker. I still don’t, but this year walking the landscape has been pretty central to my work.

Back in January I started a research residency on the West Pennine Moors. The first day’s walk caught the tail end of the January snowfall up on Darwen Moor with snow up to my knees.

deserted farm

Deserted farm on West Pennine Moors

February was a fantastic lull in the weather with some great long spells of clear, dry and often sunny weather and I got some great walks in over those moors and rediscovered my love of wandering with a camera.

The project finished at the end of March just as the worst of the winter weather hit and I was cut off for days behind 12ft drifts.

sledging coal

dragging coal to my house over a 12ft drift. Photo by Paul Kingston © North News 2013

However, by April the weather turned again and started a period of dry, hot and sunny days that seemed to last for most of the rest of the year. The end of April was the start of a joint project around ‘God’s Bridge’ on Bowes Moor. Besides being a great project for meeting other artists, it really got me out exploring my home turf – the North Pennines. The result of this project will be an indoor sound installation at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in the spring.

mountain pansy on Bowes Moor

Mountain Pansy on Bowes Moor

By June, summer was in full flow and positively roasting when the sun got going. I’d anticipated a wet week installing the 20,000 jars of ink on Lindisfarne and the workstation was all set up under cover for the purpose. Although it rained only on the day the TV came day the rest of the show was glorious sunshine with sunburn and heat stroke the major hazards when it came to take the piece down.

_DSC9238 - Version 2

I spent the end of September on Öland in the Baltic sea creating a piece for an ancient forest. Once again the weather gods were on my side and gave me a fortnight of glorious late summer sunshine. The weather was turning however and by the second week the temperature had dropped significantly. The Pavilion for Listening to the Forest was the first piece I’ve made specifically to survive significant snowfall. The fabric is waterproof and under enough tension that rain or snow won’t pool on the surface. It should also have enough tensile strength to withstand a large amount of snow if any manages to settle on it. December had a brief snowfall in Southern Sweden so I know it’s still looking good, but can’t wait to see how it looks when the real stuff arrives.

Pavilion in the first snow. Photo ©Helle Kvamme

The last part of the year has been spent in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland where I’ve been artist in residence since October. Once again it’s been great to get to know and understand the landscape on foot – walking along lochs and old railway lines as well as up some of the bigger hills.  In November I had a weather window of bright and clear conditions and managed to get up some of the less visited Corbetts (between 750 and 900m). The frosty air on the tops made for some cracking views of the surrounding mountains with the bigger ones getting their first real coats of snow.

view NW from Meall an t-Seillaidh

In early December the first of the storms to hit the UK came racing across Scotland. Glen Ogle – where I was staying, recorded gusts of 106mph, ripping down power-lines and felling hundreds if not thousands of trees which disrupted the area for days. Yet, less than 12 hours after those huge gusts, there was a gentle covering of snow on Glen Ogle and a clear,starry sky. With no power for miles and a dark cottage for the evening, I ventured out into the forests to play with some lights in the snow for my Christmas card.

red snow

In between all these projects I also created the ultimate version of the ‘Souvenir’ umbrella structures in Oxfordshire, built an installation from 4,000 remembrance poppies for a royal visit and worked on four other pieces that in the end never happened. It’s also been a year of research and development, not only for new work but professionally too.

souvenir in oxfordshire

It’s not been my busiest year and at times things have been very difficult. However, the time I’ve been able to give to each of the projects I’ve worked on I think shows in the final work and has made a year of good solid pieces. A lot of work has already been done for next years projects and hopefully sets a trend towards a more considered approach to my work.

I’ve got a good feeling about next year. It’s already looking busy – possibly the busiest its been for years. It’s going to be full on and really hard work. There’s some great stuff coming up – all will be revealed over the coming few weeks – and it’s all really exciting, but the proof will be if this time next year I can look back and be as proud of what I’ve achieved as have have been of this past year.

Read Full Post »

I count myself lucky. not only do I manage (just about) to make a living being an artist, but I also get to work in some of the most beautiful and amazing places in the world. For the past few weeks I’ve been working in the Scottish highlands as artist in residence with the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The place is more spectacular than its name. Most National Parks are known simply by their first name – the Lakes, The Peaks, Snowdonia, Exmoor, the Cairngorms etc. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs just doesn’t trip off the tongue in the same way. Locally there’s also some irkness in some quarters over the relative size of font on the logo – those in the Trossachs are a little bit miffed by the constant upstaging by Loch Lomond.

Lomond Trossachs Logo

However, local politics aside, Loch Lomond can keep its massed tourism – it’s the other bits in the park that are much more beautiful and special anyway. Out of the 720 sq miles of both lowland and highland, I’ve settled with the top right hand corner – along Loch Voil, up to Ben More, along Glen Dochart and down Glen Ogle. The park refer to this as Breadalbane, although Breadalbane proper is the other side of Glen Dochart. Whatever you want to call it, it’s very quiet this time of year and full of empty hills for walking.

I’ve started a separate blog for this residency – I started out on Tumblr thinking I’d just put down little notes and thoughts, but as my ramblings became longer – and as I realised Tumblr is mostly p*rn – I’ve now moved it over to WordPress. (you can also find links to all the other Year of Natural Scotland residencies there too).

Loch Voil

For lots of different reasons the residency bit hasn’t happened as I’d hoped, and instead has been more of a solitary exploration of the landscape. It’s not been a bad thing though –  there’s something quite special about walking the hills alone with a camera.

For company I’ve had the writings of John Muir – one of the founders of the Sierra Club which created the first National Park in Yosemite, California. Next year marks the centenary of his death – born near Dunbar in Scotland and emigrated to the states aged 11, there’s plans for big celebrations in Scotland. As the founding father of the concept of national parks he is widely known and revered in America and other places around the world, yet in his country of both less so.

For most of his adult life, John Muir wandered the plains and mountains – particularly the Sierra Nevada region – mostly on his own and frequently for days or weeks at a time – sleeping out under the stars. In his writings Muir describes not just the visual appearance of the landscape, but the smells, sounds and temperature, humidity and altitude as the landscape n his mind was something which needed to be experienced in a total and immersive way, and a way that was best discovered alone.

In his first book – ‘The Silent Traveller – A Chinese Artist in Lakeland’ (my favourite book on the Lake District) Chiang Yee recalls how his first trip up a mountain in the UK (Snowden), was full of people who were more interested in talking to him than experiencing the mountain. His solution was to book a room in the Lake District and walk the fells in solitude every day. His description of solitude, the act of walking and about only possessing one pair of shoes is compelling reading and a fascinating insight on contemplation itself.

silent traveler in lakeland

Artists, unsurprisingly, have a bit of history with the solo hill wandering thing. Alongside Muir, one of the other two founders of the Sierra club was fellow Scots emigre the artist William Keith. In his article ‘An Artist’s Trip to the Sierra’ he describes how it takes time to understand and really see the landscape:

“Time is required to take it in, and digest it, or else the inevitable result will be artistic dyspepsia (in the shape of conventional yellow and red rocks), which, perhaps is the reason for Californian’s disgust for Yosemite pictures.”

A year after Muir’s death, another leading artist joined the ranks of the Sierra club, eventually to be its director for over 30 years – the photographer Ansel Adams. Although the two never met, they share a dedication to wilderness and between them have shaped the global understanding of wild places.

Clearing Winter Storm - Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ Yosemite Valley, California negative c. 1938

I’m no Ansel Adams. He was a master of the art of capturing light and how to exploit the technology to gain some sense of perfection. His combination of shooting on large format sheet film, very small apertures for maximum depth of field, an exposure calculation known as the ‘Zone System’ to maintain highlight and shadow detail along with a printing method ensuring a perception of high contrast, all resulted in unrivalled an instantly recognisable black and white pictures of extreme clarity. Original Ansel Adams prints are currently the most expensive photographs on the market.

Adam’s camera kit was a big, bulky thing and generally needed to be carried by packhorse or mule on his long expeditions to the High Sierra. By contrast, when I’m out walking big hills, I usually leave the big bulky cameras at home, preferring instead my trusty little Leica compact. Leica first started making cameras as the result of finding a way to use 35mm movie film to make a lightweight camera for mountain trips and I quite like that legacy. It seems right to take a Leica up a mountain. OK, so my Leica isn’t a true Leica – it’s mostly a Panasonic Lumix with a very expensive red dot. But the body is all metal which makes it survive all the knocks and drops it gets, and, well it ‘says’ Leica on the front and has a Leica designed lens. So I’m sticking with it!

On the one hand it’s a quick camera to get at – it sits in a leather case on my belt so it’s easy to carry and always there when the light looks good. However, I like to use manual exposure controls to get the image and feel of the light that I want, and coupled with its slow writing time for RAW files, it slows down the process making each shot more considered.

Last week I managed to do a walk I’d been looking to do for a few weeks – up Kirkton Glen and over on to Glen Dochart the other end. The days are really short now, so I had to wait until I’d arranged someone to drop me off at the start point after parking my car at the end as there wasn’t enough daylight hours to walk there and back. The walk up Kirkton Glen is mostly through conifer plantation. I’d walked up the glen the other week in sunshine but didn’t have any food or drink with me for a longer walk. Still, conifer plantations are of limited experience – on most levels they are pretty much the same. Once out of the forest the terrain instantly became more interesting and varied – streams to ford, styles to climb, rocks to scramble, bogs to be traversed. All the time climbing higher and higher towards the drifting hill cloud.

kirkton glen

It’s a misconception that cloud ruins a good mountain walk. True, when it’s clear you can see for miles, or at least see where you’ve come from and where you are going. My walk up a Corbett the other week was definitely the better for clear blue skies. However, cloud can be a thing of beauty in its own right, particularly on a mountain. On this day the cloud was amazing. At the top of the pass the path goes around a magnificent boulder field. In the middle of the pass is a giant boulder – known as Rob Roy’s Putting Stone. As I reached the pass, the mist swirling around, the giant boulder would reveal itself briefly before being swallowed back by the cloud. After a while, the wind eased and the mist lifted, revealing the crag from where the boulders fell. The Putting Stone itself, looming large and alien – like a set from some fantasy film – a miniature landscape growing on the top. The spruces finding their way into the all the crevasses in search of nutrients and water in the way the trees appear to live off rock alone. Above me came the haunting caw of a lonely raven. Flying back and forth over the pass as if to claim its territory and mark me as a trespasser. Then the wind would pick back up in a flash and the whole scene would be swallowed again by a new cloud from the south. It was a perpetual scene of gothic beauty – one of constant decay.

———-

On one of the podcasts I watch recently was a studio visit with Mark Ruwedel. I’d not been aware of his work before so it was coincidental to see him discussing his series of images of abandoned railways – (Westward the Course of Empire) -something I’ve been looking at here too. In the interview he talks about how “ photographing the landscape ..is photographing history.”

Regardless of how the image is taken, or what its purpose, because of the technology bit  –  photography is physically capturing light over a fixed moment in time, he goes on – “photographs document regardless. Photographs over time accrue documentary value.”

In some respects a photo may have much more significance as a document of time 50 years down the line.

columbia and western by mark ruwedel

‘Columbia and Western #20’ – Mark Ruwedel (2000). From ‘Westward the Course of Empire’

———-

Photography captures a moment. I tried to capture that moment when the Stone revealed its presence in my path. It’s a constantly changing environment and there’s a decision to make when you think you’ve picked the right moment to press the shutter, only to realise when you review the shot that it could have been a bit sooner, or a bit later. So you wait for the next cloud, or see if you can get the raven just in the frame. Just how do you capture all that mystery and magic in a single frame? After all it’s not just a note, it’s a statement for posterity.

rob roy's putting stone

It’s a total experience  – of sight and light and sound and atmosphere and wind and cloud, and the solitude is very much part of that.

Read Full Post »

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

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

Souvenir in Shanghai

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

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

view of pavilions

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

Pavilion for Listening to Rain

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

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

Karums Alvar

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

Noahs Ark

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

This is what Karums Alvar sounded like on Saturday:

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

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

swedish listening device

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

speaker in the trees

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

pumpkins

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

It’s been a while since I last revisited the ‘God’s Bridge‘ project. That’s part of the problem with long-term projects – other things come along and take over your brain space. With a shed-load more in-depth projects lurking on the horizon, I thought I’d get in quick and do a bit more before my brain gets swamped with engineering calculations and complicated maths again.

I last left the ideas looking at the underground nature of this geological anomaly in the North Pennines. It’s been an unusually dry summer here and tracing the route of the water isn’t going to happen if there’s just no water around. However, what it did do was allow me to get to bits that are normally inaccessible and have a poke around.

Gods Bridge over dry river

Last month I visited again with some proper kit to experiment with photos of those underground passages. This is what one of the tunnels looks like lit just with what little daylight gets down there. That’s one of the joys of digital photography. The Nikon sensors in particular are quite incredible in low light. In fact the light levels here were so low I couldn’t really see very far, yet with a few seconds exposure it has a whole new life.

River Greta underground

The colours are fairly natural, although I did process them through DxO to look like I shot them on Fuji Velvia – which I would have done back in the day. It has a lovely punch to the colours without being over saturated and is particularly flattering for UK landscapes – makes the blue sky a bit bluer and the green fields a little more lush.

Anyway, much as I love exploring the North Pennines through photography – I’ve got a whole chunk here on Flickr – I was looking for something else from this.

While following the riverbed back upstream to see if I could actually find some water, the air was suddenly full of birds. Not the sparrows and starlings of towns and villages, but Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Lapwings and Curlews:

The North Pennines are a lonely landscape – big swathes of nothing. A great place for solitude. Only remote places are rarely empty and certainly never silent. Birdsong has a strange way of summoning up landscapes. Take the distant call of peacocks:

Peacock

To me that’s all lawn and topiary.

In mid-spring a deciduous forest in Sweden sounded like this:

An nightingales are an incredible sound. They only sing for two weeks every year:

Birdsong is a fascinating thing. To start with, birds don’t whistle – they sing. The shape of their beak doesn’t come into it. It comes from the throat like us. Humans have a larynx – a bit of flappy tissue and muscle which vibrates in airflow and creates all the basic sounds we make. We further adapt them with our lips to form words for instance, but the singy bit is all voice-box. Birds on the other-hand have a syrinx. It’s a bit like a larynx, only it can make sound with air flowing in both directions – so birds don’t need to stop to take a breath. Many birds have a syrinx with two bits so they can effectively sing two different sounds at the same time. In a way they are the ultimate singing machine.

zebra finch syrinx

syrinx of a Zebra Finch

Recent research in the States have created an artificial syrinx and can emulate complex songs. There’s a bit on the BBC site here

Birdsong has been a primary source of influence to artists and composers for centuries with countless compositions based on familiar bird calls. From the 17th Century Athanasius Kircher who first transcribed the song of a nightingale into musical notation to the 20th Century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’.

By far my favourite artworks on birdsong are ‘Dawn Chorus’ by Marcus Coates – where birdsongs were slowed down and mimed to by people in ordinary morning locations with the video finally sped back up to pitch:

and ‘Syrinx’ by Pamela Z – again the bird songs were slowed right down to a lower pitch and replicated by her voice, and then raised back up to the original pitch and speed.

However, that’s great for traditional song birds, but the sounds that fill my landscape are very different and more complex in different ways.

Oystercatchers and Redshanks are fairly straight forward. Lapwings are ubiquitous – also known as Peewits due to their mating call. However, their vocabulary is extremely varied and almost alien at times:

(the beating sound in that clip is a Snipe – it makes that sound with its tail)

By far the sound that best sums up the vast open landscapes of the North Pennines for me is the whirl of the Curlew. The sound comes from way up above and bubbles across vast distances. It trails off in a descending tone, a built in dopplar effect which seems to accentuate the vastness of the landscape.

This clip has been filtered to remove lots of the background noise and other birds. It’s really difficult to just get the pure sound of a Curlew.

Messiaen captured the call of the Curlew and its sorrowful loneliness over the fells like this:

messiaen-curlew

It’s still got that trill element and the rising tone – represented as glissandos over a decaying drone chord. It’s got a melancholy about it that feels right and is a beautiful invocation, but it’s not the sound of a Curlew.

To figure out how the real sound is made I slowed the filtered recording right down to a manageable pitch and speed:

You get an idea of its construction from this sonogram of one of the repeated call sections:

curlew call spectrogram

From that I transcribed a basic score. I’ve done it in 3/4, but on reflection it’s probably 6/8. and an alto flute I figure is fairly close.

curlew-song2-1

so, I got the software to play it, sped it back up and it sounds like this:

Terrible.

So unbelievably bad. Though not really surprising – art is never simple. Making good art is hard work. OK, so it wasn’t a real flute playing in the first place – just a sequenced sample so lacks that natural element. Even so, this emulation of upland birdsong is far more complicated than I thought. Yet fascinating all the same. It’s going to take quite some time to get this right. I’m still not fixed on the idea of a perfect replication. I quite like Messiaen’s feeling for the bird and may yet go down that route, but there’s still something about challenging yourself and pursuing it until you get it just right and until I really have to dedicate my brain space to engineering calculations, I think that’s what I’ll do for now.

Read Full Post »

It’s been so nice to have a real summer this year. Big chunks of blue sky, sunshine and even some heat to some of the days – a rare thing on Stainmore. Summers like this don’t happen too often, so I’ve made a point of getting out and taking advantage of it when I can.

Slate Quarry moss

A couple of weeks ago my Sunday afternoon walk took me up to Slate Quarry Moss. Anywhere with the word ‘Moss’ or ‘Bog’ is usually out of bounds on Stainmore and a real cert to getting wet feet. Knees and waist too most of the time. However, with this dry spell I thought it worth a punt. At least it would be quiet – no one goes walking on Stainmore! The Slate Quarry on Slate Quarry Moss isn’t really a slate quarry. There’s no slate up here. It’s a little sandstone seam that yielded nice clean flat flags that were used on all the buildings on this bleak moor – ordinary slates just blow away. How they ever managed to cart them away across the bog by horse and cart I have no idea! Still, it was good to see where bits of my house came from. The walk back took me further across the bog towards Iron Bland – a hill so entrenched in bog that few have ever managed, or bothered to get to it. It’s pretty bleak and featureless up there.

Boundary Stone, Cumbria

Yet, running across this vast nothingness was the Cumbria / County Durham border. Miles upon miles of unbroken post and wire fence in a dead straight line. There’s no mucking about. This is a real border. Like your back garden fence. You’re in no doubt that it’s the marking of a territory. As if that wasn’t enough, set every furlong (about 200 metres) there was a numbered stone marker. This is a very old border. Back in 1972 it was the Westmorland / Yorkshire border, but over the centuries, the names may have changed, but the border hasn’t.

Just down the road in the wonderful Bowes Museum, there’s currently an exhibition about the local astronomer and cartographer – Jeremiah Dixon. Just a bloke from the village up the road, but he became the Dixon in the Mason-Dixon line. A border between Pensylvania and Maryland in the US, his task was to plot a perfect line along the 39°43′ N lattitude for 5° longitude – or 244 miles, west from the Delaware River.

Mason Dixon Line

“A Plan of the West Line or Parallel of Latitude” by Charles Mason, 1768 via wikipedia

Like the Durham / Cumbria border, the line was marked with border stones known as ‘Crown Stones’ – each one shipped from England. Most of those stones survive today. Dixon and his team plotted 233 miles of the dead straight line before they hit land owned by the Lenape tribes and refused to cross. The line was completed by another team some years later.

Crown Stone

‘Crown Stone’ – Thompson, Morris M. Maps for America. Third edition. United States Geological Survey, Page 77. via wikipedia

The Mason-Dixon line wasn’t determined by natural boundaries, geology or even culture, but was just a nominal line on a map decided by two ‘landowners’. That the line is purely artificial adds a certain poignancy to its historical significance in later years – a defining point in the abolishment of slavery. It also gives us the term ‘Dixieland’, which is great for a bloke from the small village of Cockfield.

Borders are funny things. They’re really little more than lines on a map yet they’re a reminder of how rigourously people define and protect their property. The implications can be far wider reaching. Cultures, laws, communications, finance and transport are all bound by these simple lines on a map.

Here’s a part of a piece I did back in 2006 all along the eastern Cumbria borders.

here be dragons dragons5

It was a piece I did for the annual FRED festival (I’ll do a blog about that someday – promise!).  In 2008 an artists collective in Carlisle wondered if the city would be culturally better off if it were the other side of the Scottish border (a mere 7 miles away) and placed a (rather provocative) border sign some seven miles south of the city on the M6.

Unfortunately on that occasion the debate rarely elevated above tabloid racism in the local media and the sign was eventually destroyed – the supportive farmer whose land it was on was appalled that it had been cut down, exclaiming she was a “victim of knife crime!”

In a few weeks time I’m doing a project in Sweden that looks at the way forests are defined. On a map they have a definite line, but in reality the edge is often so blurred it’s hard to see how that line could have been drawn in the first place. Forests are unruly creatures – they are constantly trying to assimilate everything they come across and refuse to be tamed for any period of time. The project will in particular look at how communities which appear to be delineated from the forest actually exist as part of it. How forests create symbiotic relationships with anything they encounter.

Borders may be lines on maps, but imagination and innovation start when you colour over the lines.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »