“For the moment let’s venture simply this: the shadow, this elegant enigma, is always with us… [it] is an inescapable consequence of our physicality. …Our clearest thoughts are those that know this – those that remember their real parentage in both light and shadow, fire and sleep.” From Becoming Animal by David Abram. I am thinking about shadows a lot at the moment, not as the flat outlines of cartoons, but as a physical presence in the world that we inhabit. I am thinking about whether Data World (the virtual landscape of environmental data that I am investigating for the biosphere project) has shadows in it. What is the meaning of a shadow in this context? Perhaps shadows are the link I am looking for between this, the sensual world that we can perceive with our own senses, and that, the mass of data that is being promoted as some sort of future panacea. I am getting more and more intrigued by shadows. Might it be possible, like Lucky Luke, to move faster than your shadow?
There are a number of images that simply transfix me, I have no defence against them. This one by Juan Sánchez Cotán is one of them. I have never been able to work out what it is about the picture that so resonates within me, but one aspect in particular stands out at the moment which is the juxtaposition between the everyday, slightly worn nature of the fruit and vegetables and the mathematical geometry of the composition, a parabola within a rectangle. There is something quite startling and contemporary about this. Cotán is in my mind at the moment as I am searching for a way of working with the abstract mathematical data that is part of the Confluence project. [The project will be launched in the autumn with its own website, but until then there isn’t much to see.]
This must have been one of the most bipolar introductions to a project I think I have encountered yet: the first day steeped in the lush ecology and the steep lanes of north Devon as we were shown around the UNESCO North Devon Biosphere Reserve, and in particular the catchment area of the Torridge River flowing down towards Bideford. A sensual delight. The next day spent in Plymouth University’s i-DAT department learning about intelligent interactive computer-web-based systems designed to visualise our impact upon the environment and to adapt our behaviour accordingly. Our (that is myself and the three other artists on the project) job is to bring these two worlds together in a meaningful way. i-DAT on their website identify a public fear of this data world – a sort of Dorian Gray data store in the attic. Intriguing. My initial reaction is to start with our senses and old ways of gleaning information about the world around us, such as through shamanistic practices which looked to animals to accompany us into aspects of the world that we could not experience directly ourselvses. i-Dat is working on small environmental sensors which can collect environmental data (light, wind, temperature etc.). My first thought is to link these to animals, to other forms of intelligence in the Biosphere. We will see…
With the North Devon Biosphere project much in mind, I have just been up to London for the Data Landscapes symposium at Arts Catalyst. The most intriguing work on show was Most Blue Skies by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, a sisyphean project to try and capture the most blue sky in the world from satellite data and then to bring that into the gallery. Joshua, the programmer in the duo, talked about how when working this closely with such large amounts of data the data itself takes on its own character and quality, quite separate from what it is meant to be depicting. It seems to me that the hardest thing to do in this technological world it to walk the line between abstraction/data and reality/senses. Most Blue Skies does this brilliantly for me; but I am still not sure exactly what the blue actually depicts, perhaps the colour of the data itself?
It was William Herschel who first discovered infrared radiation, by splitting light using a prism and then measuring the temperature of the area just beyond the visible red light. Here is the man himself, in his house at Kew, with his massive 40ft telescope visible through the window filling most of his garden. I guess he wasn’t such a keen gardener. I am about to start working with infrared photography, as a way of making visible an invisible aspect of the environment. I want to use this process as part of the Biosphere project that I am about to start on in Devon: infrared images acting as an visual analogy to the mass of invisible environmental data that is the focus of that project. All clear? Well, hopefully it will become so over the next months as the project progresses. I will keep you posted. (A fantastic book on Herschel and his contemporaries is The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. The book leaves you breathless with what Herschel and his sister Caroline discovered from their back garden.)
Today I have just been re-reading the essay by John Berger called ‘Field’. It is something I have never forgotten from the time I first read it. What really impressed me then, and still does now, is the way in which he pins down a fleeting experience with such patience and exactitude: analytical, but also really moving. It ends with the sentence: “The field that you are standing before appears to have the same proportions as your own life.” I know that feeling. Also in this new Penguin collection is ‘The White Bird’, another memorable essay that seemed to capture something of the primal power of art. I wonder what he is up to now?
Another post from the Lake District, this time from Langdale. I visited the site of Kurt Schwitters’ last Merzbau which is going to be restored through the Merzbarn project. Thinking about Grizedale (see previous post) and how they are working to integrate into the local landscape, I am struggling to understand the relevance of Schwitters to the Lakes. Fleeing Nazi persecution he ended up in Ambleside for a couple of years after the war, dying there in 1948. His Merzbarn work is as if parachuted in from another time and place. But the portraits and landscapes that he painted locally in order to make a meagre living, they are something else, a place where Schwitters and the Lakes have something in common.