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Yay! it’s raining. At last. With daily reports of flash-flooding and thunderstorms from the rest of the UK and the Glastonbury Festival declared the muddiest for years, the most our Teesdale weather could muster has been the occasional half-hearted drizzly shower. While I’m not complaining about the weeks of sunshine, heat and beautiful walking weather, now the rain has arrived it brings with it that distinct summer aroma of wet grass, and a burst of life from the ground. The air is suddenly alive.

Some things are better in the rain. The River Tees is really low at the moment. The waterfalls of Upper Teesdale are little more than a trickle at the moment. Here’s Summerhill Force dribbling over Gibson’s Cave last week.

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Compare that to the day after Storm Desmond visited on the 5th December last year.

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OK. So this is a bit of an extreme example. But extreme things do happen.

It’s 200 years ago this year that we had a ‘Summer that never was’. A year when the world was 0.7 degrees colder than normal, harvests failed and populations starved.

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Mount Tambora

In April 1815, in Indonesia – 8,000 miles away – the sleeping giant volcano Mt Tambora erupted. The explosion was so large it was heard over 2,000 miles away in Sumatra. The volcanic dust cloud enveloped most of the planet causing severe climatic events throughout 1816 and affecting weather patterns for years after. In North America, hard frosts were recorded right through July and the Eastern seaboard experienced a perpetual fog that lasted through the summer of 2016. In Northern Europe, the long winter extended into a very wet summer causing crops to fail. Throughout Europe food became scarce and there were violent uprisings outside government buildings in several countries. In Ireland, the failure of crops marked the start of the ‘Potato Famine’ and over the next 3 years over 100,000 people died.

Freak events that shaped our world 200 years on.

On the shores of Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley and her friends were on holiday for the summer. So bad was the weather, they were forced to stay indoors for weeks on end. To pass the time they challenged each other to tell stories. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein – or The Modern Prometheus’ and Byron wrote ‘Darkness’ on a day when the birds went to sleep at midday. (If ever there was a historical example of first-world problems, this has to be it. While the rest of the Northern Hemisphere died from starvation, a bunch of privilaged English writers redefined gothic literature because t was a bit damp outside.)

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Ken Russell’s 1986 film based on the events by Lake Geneva in 1816

In July 1816, JW Turner visited Teesdale on a long, extended painting tour of the North of England. He stayed at Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale on a particularly wet week as he ventured right up the dale. By the time he reached Cauldron Snout it was really throwing it down. However, he did manage to see the falls of the River Tees at their best – full and lively.

It was the subdued light from the volcanic ash cloud that summer, along with the incessant rain which gives Turner’s painting from that trip of 1816 the substance and atmosphere that Ruskin claimed was Turner’s most effective work ever.

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I’ve lived in Teesdale now for two years. Two years this very week. I love living here. I love having the river just yards away from from my house – so close on still nights I can hear it falling over Low Force from my bedroom. I’ve spent so many days down there and walking up the river towards High Force and the fields, woods and fells on either side. However, I don’t really know Teesdale, let alone the wider County Durham.

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A couple of weeks ago I made a conscious effort to get to know where I now live. It was another warm and dry afternoon, and a rare weekend off from working so I thought I’d make a start to discover Teesdale properly. Having poured over books and walking guides and maps, and old OS maps and Gogle Earth, I decided to start where Turner started – at Greta Bridge on the Durham / Yorkshire border.

I knew about the temperamental River Greta from a previous project further up its course, but I’d never been down towards where it joins the River Tees. Greta Bridge was a popular spot in Turner’s day. the old road over the Pennines via Stainmore started here at the significant coaching inn of the Morrit Arms. In Turners day there were still remnants of the Roman fort there. Clearly a strategic point where the route from East to West ascends up and over the wilderness. Crossing the Greta is crossing to another world.

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Greta Bridge and nearby Rokeby Park became important sources of inspiration for a generation of writers and painters. Besides Walter Scott who immortalised the area in his own seminal work, the place was a key destination for the Wordsworths, Dickens, Coleridge and most of the Bloomsbury set.

The landscape here is wider. It’s greener and rolling and fertile and hospitable. And distinctly arable. A very different kind of greener.

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A short walk up the Greta brings you to the ruin of St Mary’s church in Brignall. Nestling in the bottom of the valley. There’s not much left of it now. The new church was built further up the hill in the second half of the 19th Century and reused much of the stone from from the old church.

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Turner’s view of the church reveals much about attitudes to landscape in the early 19th century. It’s actually a remnant of the trend of 18th century landscape attitudes – where hills were so dramatic as to be scary: “it was almost the whole duty of all hill scenery to inspire alarm, and every painter who wished to give a good impression of any particular place always painted it as if it were twice its real size” to quote one of Turner’s picture editors.

Brignall Church 1822 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Brignall Church 1822 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Purchased 1986 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T04453

It’s also a view point that doesn’t actually exist, again to increase the visual impact. The large tree in the foreground is one sketched in Rokeby Park. Topographic accuracy wasn’t important in the appreciation of landscape in 1816. What mattered most was conveying the essence of place. These were places most people would never see in real life so were designed to excite the imagination of the viewers. Of a place that is of somewhere else. The early tourists came to gawp and the awe and wonder of the place and the people that went before, conjuring up stories to populate somewhere new and unknown.

Things have changed so much in the intervening two centuries that it’s hard for us to begin to understand how people viewed the landscape of Teesdale. So much changed with the invention of photography that we can only know what somewhere really looks like. The visual and emotional impacts are much more subdued and taken for granted.

The woods around the old church at Brignall actually look like this:

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They smelled so good, I went home and had them on my pizza.

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Jean-Michel Jarre has a new album out.

OK. I’ve got to start a blog post somewhere and it’s been a while since the last one so be gentle on me.

But really. Jean-Michel does have a new album out. Predictably it’s all big synthesizers and arpeggios, only this time it’s collaborating with other big synthy people, like Tangerine Dream and Vince Clark and Moby and … er… Lang Lang.. Still, it’s predictably Jarre enough for me today.

Jarre at his best is a serious musician writing big, complex compositions using electronic synthesised instruments. Hugely prolific – having recorded over 20 albums since 1972 and influenced generations of electronic musicians – he’s kind of the Mozart of electronic music. And like Mozart, he’s quite partial to a tune or two.

In the 80’s he famously transformed his concerts into huge outdoor spectacles of light and sound. I’ve written about these in a previous post (a long time ago). For me, the transformation of city skylines as a backdrop for music has always fascinated me.

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Last year I embarked on a collaborative project with one of the orchestras I play with to create artworks of music and light in underground spaces. The Cobweb Orchestra is an amateur organisation that allows musician of any instrument and ability the opportunity to come together and play in an orchestra. There’s a number of regular weekly groups across the north of England and the project wanted to do something that united the whole membership and explore the region. And what unites the region is the heritage of going underground. Be that mining or shelter or transportation. So the Underground Orchestra project was born to play the music of the north deep within the land of the north. An orchestra playing underground is interesting and unusual. but an orchestra playing inside a light installation underground would be amazing and unique.

The difficulty comes with doing something that relates to both the location and the music, but doesn’t over power either. I wanted to do something that wasn’t stage lighting or lighting design, but could stand alone as an installation in its own right, yet became something again when combined with an orchestra.

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Long before Jean-Michel Jarre there was Thomas Wilfred.

Wilfred was born in Denmark in 1889. As a teenage he moved to New York and began experimenting with light as an artform. In 1919 he created his first ‘Clavilux’. A machine which through the use of mirrors and coloured glass, performed symphonies of light. Each composition was contained on a glass master disk so that in theory a machine could play different pieces. In reality, the machines were very different – each more advanced and complex. Opus 2 had its first public performance in 1922 to huge critical acclaim. In the audience that night was Leopold Stokowski – but more of him later.

As purely analogue machines, the compositions have a quality and presence that I fear is somewhat lost on Youtube. The machines themselves included curved screens behind curved glass creating a unique three-dimensional effect. Wilfred was adamant that his light compositions were not filmed – he saw the quality of light as a distinct artistic medium – so the only compositions that remain are with the 30 surviving Clavilux machines.

The quality of light and colour perception is a main component of James Turrell‘s work too.

‘Breathing Light’ – James Turrell 2013

I think it’s difficult to work with light and colour and not be influenced in some way by Turrell’s mastery of the medium, although recently Drake’s music video for ‘Hotline Bling’ might have come a bit too influenced..

The conductor Leopold Stokowski was particularly interested in the relationship between light and music. One of the more colourful characters of classical music, Stokowski was a bit of a showman. He’d famously throw scores onto the floor if he knew the music well enough. He also dismissed with the baton entirely, instead preferring exaggerated gestures using both hands to conduct the orchestra. In some of his more extravagant experiments he would plunge the orchestra and theatre into total darkness with only a light on his white gloves. On another occasion he spotlighted himself to cast a shadow of his movements above the orchestra. However, Stokowski’s main claim to fame is his legendary appearance in Disney’s ‘Fantasia‘. The opening sequence and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue are pure genius:


 

The great things about underground spaces is they are dark. really dark. The kind of dark where you genuinely can’t see your hand in front of your face. This means that whatever light you use, it’s pretty much going to be the only light. Of course there are issues that with an orchestra, the musicians are likely to want to see their music, which means some white light. But if you make a feature of that light rather than try to hide it, even the reading lights become part of the visual and part of the environment.

 

The first venue in October last year was the ‘Victoria Tunnel’ beneath Newcastle. The Victoria Tunnel was built to transport coal from the mines to boats on the river Tyne and runs right underneath the centre of the city of Newcastle.  I wrote more about it last year. As the first of the events I was keen to find a voice for the future events. Somewhere between Turrell and ‘Fantasia’ is what I had in mind. Using mono-frequency lights to give me a saturated blue light to accentuate the Purkinje effect – the way things tend to look bluer under very low light levels and the way moonlight seems to be devoid of colour. By using LED lights I could strip away the rest of the spectrum as it just wouldn’t exist beyond the 465nm wavelength. It’s technical, and you don’t need to understand how it works, but when you’re in it it’s very different to seeing photos of it.

The Cobweb Orchestra performing Michael Betteridge's 'From Mine to Tyne' in the Victoria Tunnel beneath Newcastle upon Tyne. 22nd October 2014

The Cobweb Orchestra performing Michael Betteridge’s ‘From Mine to Tyne’ in the Victoria Tunnel beneath Newcastle upon Tyne. 22nd October 2014

The main challenge of the tunnel was the listed nature of the structure itself. This meant that I couldn’t physically attach anything to the walls. So instead I had to devise a way of keeping the lights in place purely by springing them against the walls using carbon fibre rods.

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The restrictions were amplified at the next venue – the York Cold War Bunker. Built to monitor fall-out levels in the event of a nuclear attack the site oozes with the cold, steely fear of ‘the bomb’.

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As an English Heritage site, every last detail was listed. The very fabric of the building and every layer of paint on its surface had to be conserved. The solution to this was to filter the existing lights to create bodies of colour to set moods and define space.

With such little time to install and so many rooms to transform, everything had to be as simple as possible. Still continuing the Turrell / Disney inspiration, each room had its own character. The depth of colour and its changes through the building added to the unsettling atmosphere of this Cold war relic.

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In the women’s dormitory I used the same blue light as the tunnel, but added sound responsive white lights. The normally dormant pillows would progressively wake and glow in response to the volume of the music being played in that room.

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The third location – the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum presented its own challenges. Again the prime factors were the number of spaces (three) and the relatively short install time. One of the spaces was a drift mine shaft – a brick-lined tunnel sloping down into the ground about 80 metres long. There was enough space for three musicians to play at the bottom. However, there was a limit to the number of people who could be in the tunnel at any one time. I somehow needed to convey what was being played to an audience who may not even be in the tunnel.

the drift mine entrance

the drift mine entrance

For this I looked to Wilfred and his use of light as music. As it was a trio performing I figured they could be represented by the three primary colours of white light – red, green and blue. With each instrument linked to their own colour, the resulting projection would constantly change colour in direct response to the playing.

 

 

The next location was always going to be the centrepiece of the project. A full-sized symphony orchestra playing inside an iconic Lake District mountain. The space was vast – an old slate mine cavern deep within Fleetwith Pike at Honister. This would be the biggest orchestra of the project and at 80 – 90 people, the largest single underground audience. What was needed here was something on an equally grand scale.

Honister Slate Mine above Honister Pass in the Lake District, UK

Honister Slate Mine above Honister Pass in the Lake District, UK

A few years ago, when my studio was in a drafty barn on Stainmore, I was playing with smoke machines for a piece on the gothic decay of light in the clouds for a conference in Lancaster. This meant filling the studio with smoke to test the piece. At the end of the day as the sun was setting, my eldest came to see what I was up to and ended up playing in the shafts of light as they came through the gaps in the barn doors.

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It’s all so very Anthony McCall, but I liked the way you could see on top and underneath these shards of light. They had a real presence to them.

For the piece in Honister Mine I wanted to recreate those thin slices of light through the air – big flat, sharp slices in the way that slate is sliced cleanly down the grain.

testing the shards of light in a warehouse in Gateshead

testing the shards of light in a warehouse in Gateshead

‘Rive’ took weeks of development and testing to find the right light source for the right quality of light and the right sharpness of its edges. the installation inside the cavern alone took over a week.

Installing 'Rive' in Honister Slate Mine

Installing ‘Rive’ in Honister Slate Mine

The final piece was a series of thin shafts of light from the roof of the cavern to the floor. they had a solid, sculptural quality – you could look all around them and clearly see their edges, yet you could walk straight through them as if they were an apparition. Again this was a real experiential piece. No number of pictures or video really does them justice.

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By contrast, the final venue last week, was by far the smallest and most intimate. A single prison cell beneath the former town hall in Wallsend. THis was a very simple affair with musicians playing short 20 minute sets with room for no more than four players at a time. The cell door was kept closed and the audience could hear the music throughout the basement but could only see the players through the spyhole in the steel reinforced door.

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wallsend prison cell


The Underground Orchestra was no Jean-Michel Jarre experience. But neither did it want to be. These were small-scale performances in mostly very small-scale spaces. But was interesting was looking at the relationship between music, musicians, light, scale and location. The music was a key element – a wonderful programme of music from the Northern counties – historical and contemporary. Beyond being an investigation of the cultural heritage of the north, for me this was as much about exploring the landscapes that I live within.

There are many sides to landscapes. The underneath one was fun.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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‘Cant’ – John Kelly 2005

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

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

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

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FRED – © David Haldane 2004

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

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Car park tickets © Adele Prince 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FRED Everywhere – ©Gordon Brown 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bales in the fields

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

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

close up of waterfall

..but that’s for another story.

 

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t always like this.

Step forward the Lake District.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

thomas west

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

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

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

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

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

viewing tunnel

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

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

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

Eliasson - Your Rainbow Panorama

Your Rainbow Panorama – Olafur Eliasson. 2011

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

the grot

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


 

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

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

lookout

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

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

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

japanese signpost

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

'Top Withins' by Bill Brandt

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

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

top withins 2014

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

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

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

flock of curlews

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

Next was the problem of the trilling notes.

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


Obviously it’s not that.

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

bellows

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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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.

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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.

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