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Posts Tagged ‘experiment’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starting to tow out the balls. Photo © Tony West

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

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

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Installing the balls. Photo © Tony West

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

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The ‘final’ installation

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

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Me 12 years younger!

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

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

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

And it was 12 years ago today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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