‘Utopian Realism’ is an exploration of rural utopianism, idealism and industrialism in the North East of England and Mid Wales by the artists Mair Hughes and Bridget Kennedy.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Submerged Neuronic Continents

A few weeks ago I visited an exhibition at the British Library entitled 'Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As We Know It'. It was particularly good for literary references to utopian and futurist visions of the past and present. Since then I've been on a mixed literary diet of Ballard and William Morris.
Ballard's 'The Drowned World' is full of references to biological memory in humans, a kind of mammalian genetic hangover which (especially in a future drowned, heated planet) would account for our revulsion of reptiles, left over from the days when the planet was a similar temperature and dinosaurs held sway. He has his character Kerans muse... 'a more important task than mapping the harbours and lagoons of the external landscape was to chart the ghostly deltas and luminous beaches of the submerged neuronic continents.'
I've also just got hold of a copy of 'The Sheep Look Up', a dystopian 1970's fiction set in a heavily polluted America. I like the idea of sheep being the sensors of change, the 'canaries in the mine', particularly in relation to Wales. If something nasty were to happen here then no doubt, as in the case of Chernobyl, the grass-munching species would find out pretty fast. The reference comes from a poem by John Milton titled 'Lycidas'....'The Hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, But swoln with wind and the rank mist they draw, Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread...'. (Hmmm, nice!)

Heritage Open Days exhibition posted

Just to let you know our first public showing of work will be in Allenheads, we are linking a piece of work that we will do as part of the High Forest Show on September 3rd with Heritage Open Days which is 8th / 9th / 10th and 11th September (Thurs - Sun). Our exhibition information is now on the HOD website See the Heritage Open Days link at the side for more information.

mini phalanstery?

This is one of the component parts for the Rep Rap machine it put me in mind of the towers in Robert Owen's vision for his phalanstery or village of co operation (see Utopia? post for an image of this).

Suneil's workspace

We visited Suneil again to see how his Rep Rap project was coming on. He had just put one of the moving parts together so we were witness to the first powering up of the machine. It all went well and Suneil seemed happy. I went back later to photograph his work space as I liked all the diagrams and plans he had up in it. Creating diagrams is one way that Mair and I might bring all the information we have gathered together.

Return from Wales

Just settling back in at home after another research trip to Wales.

This one was a very immersive experience as we spent six days living on site at CAT. There is an on site community of between 12 and 15 people which fluctuates depending on how many long and short term volunteers there are. The core of the community who live on site all the time consists of three families, two of whom we had the pleasure of sharing house space with over our week long stay. The generosity of the people we encountered was very touching and we were able to slip into a comfortable domestic routine with offers of bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, conservatory and garden spaces all gratefully received.

Staying on site gave us a small insight into a more sustainable life style. There are no fridges or freezers in the houses, food can be gathered as and when from the communal food store, which is like a large pantry and cool enough to store butter and cheese in. There are also bulk supplies of cleaning products so you can re fill containers and a whole host of food stuffs from basic dried goods to tofu and fresh fruit and veg. Hot water can be produced either via solar panels in the spring/ summer or via wood burning stove in autumn/ winter. The main cottages have conventional bathrooms but there is also a composting toilet which Mair and I used on occasion. Apart from that the cottages were equipped with all the mod cons to live a pleasant modern lifestyle, wi-fi connection and even a projector for home movie nights were an unexpected bonus.

We started our stay by volunteering on the Wildlife Weekend (23rd and 24th July). CAT works with a great variety and number of volunteers so we were well looked after and able to participate in a number of the activities ourselves , the beautiful sunshine was also a great bonus.

The following week saw us filming and photographing various locations around CAT as well as having many, many conversations with the enormous number of knowledgeable and passionate staff and volunteers. One of the great things about day to day life in CAT is the food. Now Mair and I are very attached to our tea and cake rituals, but CAT goes that bit further by providing a marvellous midday meal for all staff and volunteers. This communal meal takes place in the beloved Tea Chest, one of the older buildings on the site and home to some of the short term volunteers. This lunchtime gathering was a brilliant way for Mair and I to meet and catch up with people. CAT is quite spread out with offices in many nooks and crannies, plus a body of staff who are not always chained to their desks, so tracking people down is not always easy. However chatting to them whilst munching your way through the very generous helpings of tasty vegetarian food, accompanied by fresh salad produce from the on site garden, is possibly the most pleasant networking experience I've had.

Over the period of our stay Mair focused much of her attention on documenting a short course on sustainable building that was taking place, whilst I re visited my favourite spots up at the reservoir and the small turbines. We also spent time together in the WISE lecture theatre, taking a closer look at what might be possible to install there for our show in October.

We seemed to pass our days going out on individual forays punctuated by meetings during which we would share information and ideas. This seemed to be a good way of maximizing our time.

Friday came around all too quickly and we emerged from CAT buzzing with ideas and possibilities both short and long term. These will develop further over the coming weeks, plus Mair and I will blog about specific things that caught our interest during the stay at CAT.

Monday, 25 July 2011

King Coal's Levee (or Geological Etiquette), 1818

Whilst exploring the archives at the Mining Institute in Newcastle we came across a poetic ode which positions coal as a monarch presiding over his geological subjects. It's written in a humorous style but there are some nice attempts at personification of rocks and minerals based on their physical properties. The section above describes what happens when king coal gets angry and chases his subjects out of his caverns, and imagines how each mineral would suffer its own unique form of structural damage on the way. It also serves as a reminder of the reverence coal was held in and the positive, powerful associations connected with it in a time before there was a strong awareness of it's polluting potential.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Are my thoughts crystalizing???

I woke up at about 5:30am last Sunday (10th July) with a head full of ideas. This happens to me quite a lot a the beginning of the making period of a project, I think the daydreaming state the hovering between wakefulness and sleep is a really productive time for me.

I got really excited because I thought "This is it, I feel this is what I want to make for the Blacksmiths Shop exhibition in September." (more info about this nearer the time)

Now I've let that all settle down for a week and it still feels good so I'm going to pursue it further. I recognise that my creative process is like a slow filtration, a mental sifting. Sometimes it needs a bit of stirring up (nothing like a deadline to spur you into action), but at other times things just need to sit for awhile. In fact certain ideas can get deeply embedded, for years sometimes, and then an image or piece of text causes it to rise to the top again.

This seems to be the case with some small sculptures I made in the first year of my MA at Glasgow. They were three dimensional interpretations of text (an extract from the Book of Genesis), and I've been thinking for a long time that I'd like to continue that idea.

I've been latching onto the use of systems by both the historical figures we have been looking at (Thomas Sopwith and Robert Owen). Sopwith with his drawings and models of the landscape, Owen with his Silent Monitor and numerous texts on the improvement of society.

I am going to experiment with some of each of their texts, using them to create a sculptural work. I'm thinking along the lines of "What sort of city / dwelling / society would have arisen if Sopwith and Owen had worked together on a plan. A kind of physical realisation of an amalgamation of their ideas.

I've also been thinking about the structure of the minerals at Killhope and I've found some really great video clips. See Britannica link to right. Check out Crystal Systems and Natural Resources Law videos in particular, they are in a vertical menu on the left of the page once you have opened up the Britannica link. I like the music that is used in the background of natural resources law, I think that I might like to use something like this for an installation or video.

Oh and check this guy out, he is great. I love the way he explains things using the periodic table and the mineral examples in front of him. See minerals guy link to right.

I think making a model based on a hybrid of ideas / systems from both Owen and Sopwith to sit along side the other models in the Blacksmiths Shop is something I'd like to pursue. It might be a straight forward translation of text or blending of texts together to some how form a systematised structure.

I also like the idea of something that then gets taken over by crystals or some kind of growth. I like the work of Roger Hiorns and Cath Keay because of the way they have worked with architecture and organically formed structures. Roger Hiorns is well known for his work "Siezure" in which he filled a flat with liquid minerals and then allowed the interior of this building to be taken over by crystal formation. I saw it a few years back and it was pretty impressive. Cath Keay has worked with wax models of buildings, allowing them to be taken over by bees and exhibiting the collaborative result.

I found a really nice interview with Roger Hiorns, never realised he was from Birmingham. See Roger Hiorns link to right.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Waste Not

This is an artefact from the Robert Owen Museum that Bridget and I were both very taken with. It is a Spanish coin, which must already have been out of circulation in Robert Owen's time, as it has been requisitioned and used as a form of internally exchangeable currency at the New Lanark woollen mill. This has been done simply by stamping its new name and value on top of the old one. It shows an economy of means, and allows the coin to visually display its double identity. Is it more or less respectful to the original than melting it down and starting again? Hmmm.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Wales, a hospitable planet?

This is a picture from The Centre for Alternative Technology archives, probably from the 70s or early 80s, when caravans for people living on the site were sprayed with a layer of foam, and then paint, to improve insulation. Although the image doesn’t display any particularly ‘green’ technology (in fact the foam has probably since been discovered to be highly toxic to the environment), I like the image because of how it now looks kind of retro-futuristic. It combines this space-warrior-like figure with the homely and familiar caravan. For me it suggests the practical experiments that have gone on bit by bit since the beginning of the CAT project, the fact that this is a site where tests and trials can occur, such as ‘how to make a caravan a viable low-tech living option in the Welsh winters’, Mistakes can be made and learned from, pathways explored and rejected for newer ideas, but things are directed away from the purely theoretical by the hands on nature of the organisation.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The grid is the future!

A while ago one of my colleagues at Killhope Lead Mining Museum gave me a book (thank you so much Alex). To be honest I don't think many people would get very excited by a book entitled "Grid Systems", but if you know me and my work you would understand that I could hardly wait to get it home.

It has taken me longer than I would have liked to have a good look at this book, but as anticipated it is a treasure trove of images and a ideas centering on typography and design.

Mair and I both use text in our art work, it is an area that we are considering in relation to the collaborative element of this project. I'm getting more and more into the idea, I like the fact that lead was used to create typeface and that this printing technology enabled ideas to be circulated over ever increasing distances, contributing to the formation of networks of people who shared those ideas.

I also like the language that has been used in this book. Josef Muller-Brockman (the author) is so passionate about his subject I thought I would share the section called Grid and Design Philosophy with you.

"The use of the grid as an ordering system is the expression of a certain mental attitude in as much as it shows that the designer conceives his work in terms that are constructed and oriented to the future.

This is the expression of a professional ethos: the designer's work should have the clearly intelligible, objective, functional and aesthetic quality of mathematical thinking.

His work should thus be a contribution to general culture and itself form part of it.

Constructive design which is capable of analysis and reproduction can influence and enhance the taste of a society and the way it conceives forms and colours. Design which is objective, committed to the common weal, well composed and refined constitutes the basis of democratic behaviour. constructivist design means the conversion of design laws into practical solutions.

Work done systematically and in accordance with strict formal principals makes those demands for directness, intelligibility and the integration of all factors which are also vital in sociopolitical life.

Working with the grid system means submitting to laws of universal validity.

The use of the grid system implies
the will to systematize, to clarify
the will to penetrate to the essentials, to concentrate
the will to cultivate objectivity instead of subjectivity
the will to rationalize the creative and technical production processes
the will to integrate elements of colour, form and material
The will to achieve architectural dominion over surface and space
the will to adopt a positive, forward-looking attitude

the recognition oft he importance of education and the effect of work devised in a constructive and creative spirit.

Every visual creative work is a manifestation of the character of the designer. It is a reflection of his knowledge, his ability, and his mentality."

So there you go......... Vive La Grid!!!

The tone of this passage really reminds me of Robert Owen's writings about the formation of a New Society.

Muller-Brockman's book also gives a lovely potted history of some of the early type face or font designs. For example GARAMOND which was designed in 1535 by Claude Garamond in Paris.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Finally up to speed (sort of)


I've posted a whole lot of stuff retrospectively, it is a good way for me to reflect upon the experiences Mair and I have shared.

I hope over the next few weeks to move forwards and share some more developed ideas with you. What I have posted thus far is a tiny slither from the mass of information and images I have collected and I have no doubt there will be much more to come!!

We will probably dip back and forth between us and there are things that we shared right at the beginning that will come to the fore as well as things that will slip back into the shadows of time.

For now I'm going to stop and walk down to the village for some fish and chips......

Turbine output

The reservoir

WISE lecture theatre skylight

Natural resources

Prior to our time in Wales I was reading a book called The Prometheans by Max Adams. I'd heard Max talk about the book at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, the book tells of a group of forward thinking brothers from the early nineteenth century. These brothers are William, Richard, Jonathan and John Martin. The later brother being a well know painter whose works were on exhibition in the gallery. Any how there is a passage in the book that really struck a cord with me and got me thinking about the times we are living through now in relation to the era Adams describes so well in his book. The extract is below:

"In 1779 Abraham Darby built the first iron bridge at Coalbrookdale and a velocipede was seen in the streets of Paris. In 1780 British coal production hit ten million tons for the first time and the County of Yorkshire petitioned the government to reform its finances and put an end to corrupt political patronage. The following year James Watt patented his rotary steam engine paving the way for the next phase of technological revolution. For the first time a new source of power was available: to drive machinery that had previously been propelled by wind and water. Rotary engines could be built where ever coal could be supplied, relieving the dependence of mills like Cromford on water power alone."

I couldn't help thinking when I read this that there may be a point in time when we come to the exact opposite end of this technological achievement; I'm wondering how long it will be before we once again have to rely on wind and water for our major sources of power.

CAT have a great illustration of our use of the earth's resources, it's a timeline that spans the length of a wind turbine blade showing how our use of energy sources has changed over the ages.

Sopwith seemed to sense the significance of this switch to coal power, below is a quote from his "Stranger's Pocket Guide to Newcastle and it's Environs" published in 1838

"The copious amounts of smoke emitted by these, and other manufactories and engines on the banks of the river Tyne and Wear, present also a marked feature of the district, and in some particular lights the appearance is very curious, as regards picturesque effect. these clouds of smoke, stretching mile after mile across the coal fields of the Tyne and Wear, indicate at once the present abundance and rapid consumption of that most important and valuable of our subterranean products, coal, and suggest the propriety of adopting every reasonable economy in its use."

I wouldn't for a moment hold up Sopwith as an early environmentalist, he was as excited as the next man by the rapid pace of technological change and exploited it to his fully advantage, but the quote above does show he had the breadth of vision to reflect upon it.

CAT provides a place where people can reflect upon our current state of affairs in relation to the environment and our use of its resources, it also offers practical solutions and alternatives.



Robert Owen's Head (a life mask)

Taking a stand

In the Robert Owen Museum

We had a great couple of days in the Robert Owen Museum. When we met up with Pat Brandwood the curator she started by taking us outside to show us the building across the road that originally housed the museum, its now a bank. Whilst we were outside she explained how Robert Owen isn't top of the pops with everyone in Newtown. some people feel he never gave anything to his home town, that he was always off making the lives of people elsewhere better. Others object to his anti religious stance. I couldn't help but feel this as we watched a man set up his soap box ready for a day's preaching on the street corner, in full view of the museum. It was too good an opportunity to miss, so I set up camera inside the reading room and took some footage of him. Filming the public is a tricky one so I went for an easy option and just filmed his box and his feet. He delivered his message in bursts of about 5 to 10 minutes, so he wasn't standing on the box all the time. I have a bit of footage I may use which captures the moment he steps up on to it.

I hasten to say I did not spend the whole day staring out of the window.... We came across lots of fascinating information about Robert Owen, not least his social hymns. Mair and I had a happy moment singing one of them to the tune of Auld lang syne, one of the more surreal moments in the project.

Another strange thing we came across was Owen's Psychograph, published in the Dublin Journal May 9th 1823 (see picture posted later). In the accompanying article Owen describes what this diagram represents:

“The slides are drawn out to the right in order to represent the extent or degree to which the faculties, qualities and propensities are at present cultivated. The dotted lines mark the extent or degree to which they will be extended or repressed under the ‘New System’ Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8 and 9 will be cultivated to a high degree, and Nos. 3, 6, 7, and 10 will be kept within due bounds, as marked by the dotted lines across the slides”.

Owen writes in "The Book of the New Moral World":

"the most intricate and important discoveries have been made in some of the physical sciences, while mental and moral sciences have remained in total darkness."

He was very concerned about the moral well being and general health of society, he made it his life's work to design systems for improving the lot of his fellow human beings. The confidence and conviction he writes with is astonishing.

In 1838 Thomas Sopwith and Robert Owen met (in Newcastle), below is Sopwith's opinion on Owen's radical ideas (from Sopwith's biography) :

" Mr. Owen is very communicative, and is willing to answer any questions, which he always does with a distinct reference to his particular views. His notions of classifications of society, although based in some measure on the results of his own practical experience at New Lanark, and comprising many very enlightened and benevolent arrangements, are yet so very Utopian that it is difficult to attribute his sanguine anticipations to any other cause than monomania or a delusion on that particular subject. Even those parts of his plans which may be considered practicable as improvements in the general habits and constitution of society, will, in my humble opinion, require the lapse of ages to be accomplished, — I would say two thousand years at least ; and this opinion I have always urged on Mr. Owen".

So, according to Sopwith, Owen certainly was ahead of his time!!

The museum has a beautiful print on silk of a plan for a cooperative living space, designed by Owen and called a Phalanstery. These designs never came to fruition, by the time Sopwith met Owen he had lost the fortune he made at New Lanark in America, trying to build a New Society in Indiana. There are a couple of variations on this design and mentions of a model of it in various writings, once again the miniaturisation of an idea or a dream.

Heading South to Wales

The next part of our project took us to Mid Wales where we received very warm and generous hospitality from many people. I arrived in Newtown, Powys, on Sunday 5th June ready for a week of adventure in Mair's neck of the woods.

Mair and I started off at the Robert Owen Memorial Museum in the centre of Newtown. Robert Owen was born in 1771 in Newtown and returned there to die in 1858. Although he travelled the world and his largest achievements happened miles away from this small town he was born and died on the same street with two or three buildings bridging the gap between birth and death. Mair and I met with Pat Brandwood (the museum curator) and her husband John. They are absolutely dedicated to running and promoting the museum, which houses the largest collection of artifacts relating to Robert Owen, many more than the bigger and better funded New Lanark visitor Centre. Pat is extremely generous with her time and let us roam the museum at will. She also gave the resource room up for us as a kind of base camp. The museum has a whole host of publications by Robert Owen, which I will mention in more detail in later posts. We had two days in the museum, taking a break on Tuesday to pop across to the Oriel Davies Gallery to talk about potential exhibition space.

On Wednesday we went over to Machynlleth to visit MOMA Wales and the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). We met with the curator of MOMA, Ruth Lambert, who has very generously offered us some space in the gallery in October. Next we headed up to CAT. We were to give a talk to the staff in the early evening so we were a little preoccupied (and nervous) as Sylvie Fabre (our main contact at CAT) showed us round various possible sites for us to exhibit work in October. We needn't have worried as Sylvie had managed to drum up plenty of interest for us and we left that evening feeling very energised by the response to our talk.

Mair's Godmother (Hillary) lives near(ish) to CAT so we stayed with her for the next couple of nights. She lives in beautiful place and runs an exquisite B + B, so we were well looked after. Next day at CAT we walked up to the reservoir that provides some of the power for CAT as well as running the cliff railway: a most enjoyable ride up from the car park to the visitor centre all powered by water. We got some stunning views of the old slate quarrying works on our way up and I enjoyed filming the reservoir before we went all the way up to the small wind turbines to get an overview of the CAT site.

We scuttled down the hill to join the CAT staff and volunteers for lunch in Tea Chest (the staff dining area and accommodation block for short term volunteers). It was really great to be able to meet and chat with all sorts of people in a relaxed and informal way and it felt like connections were beginning to form. People seemed to really relate to the ideas we are juggling in terms of sustainable and cooperative living and a connection with and respect for the place that you live in. Ideas and thoughts of and for the future are very much on the agenda for CAT, they have recently published a document called Zero Carbon Britain, which puts forward a strategy for energy consumption and production, looking towards a more sustainable future for Britain in 2030.

On Friday (10th June) we went back up the hill to help take down a small wind turbine that had ceased working, the engineers suspected it had been struck by lightening. The lowering of the turbine was a very well organised affair, Arthur (an engineer), made it an educational experience too. He laid out some facts about wind power and turbine size and I started to understand how these spinning things actually make electricity. This was beautifully illustrated when we opened up the turbine and found some very melted magnets. Diagnosis (90% certain): lightening strike.

We only had a few days at CAT but it felt like a very privileged insight into the workings of an extraordinary group of people. Our last day coincided with the 1st Birthday of the WISE building (a wonderful educational facility on site at CAT) so we joined in the celebrations partaking of a giant cake and playing a monster game of table tennis!!

Mair and I have already made plans to return to CAT at the end of July when we hope to deepen our understanding of the issues we have touched upon and discuss them further with the people we have met.

In the meantime its back to a relative degree of normality and lots of mulling over of ideas. And blogging.......

more water


The roof garden at New Lanark

Spinning threads at New Lanark

Carding Machine at New Lanark

Over the border to New Lanark

We decided as we were together in the North East it would make sense for us to visit New Lanark (Robert Owen's cotton mill + model village). It was a surprisingly quick and pleasant journey north from Allenheads and it was good to go on a little adventure. Having said that this was Mair's third visit to New Lanark as I mentioned before she has made work about Robert Owen's ideas in the past, exhibiting them as part of the Glasgow International Arts Festival in 2010. No doubt she will post about this herself.

We checked into the youth hostel on site at New Lanark and started our exploration of the many buildings on this World Heritage site. The place itself is tucked away in the valley of the river Clyde, this makes the first glimpse of it all the more impressive after driving through what appears to be a small housing estate to get to the visitor car park.

There is a lot going on at New Lanark, I was keen to concentrate on water as I see it as a linking factor between the places we are looking at during this project. However I did find some other interesting things too.

I kind of fell in love with the mill production area which was a very noisy place but I really liked that there was still some work going on in the two hundred year old factory (see photos of thread spinning machine and carding machine). I spent a while in there taking video clips and being mesmerised by the tiny actions of the threads.

On top of this massive mill building is a lovely roof garden which gives a great over view of the site. I found a monitor which was displaying footage from what I can only assume was a surveillance camera. The cover of the dome around the camera was wet, this gave the footage a strange dream like quality. The act of surveying and monitoring seems to tie in with both Robert Owen and Thomas Sopwith's ideas. I recorded some of the camera's circular sweep around the site, some how the roof garden looks quite futuristic sat up amongst the roof tops. I'm not sure what I will do with this footage yet but it is useful to mull over it.

There is a beautiful woodland walk up to the Falls of Clyde which I did, stopping along the way to take footage of water and hydro electric installations. I think water and water power are going to feature quite heavily in this project, but who knows, at this point it is all information and ideas swimming around in my head....