Following in the footsteps of Gwen RaveratMarch 1, 2020
A few months ago, six students from Anglia Ruskin University took on the challenge of visually responding to the viewpoints selected by Gwen Raverat when she created works depicting the river Cam in the early 1900’s. Their responses are nearing completion prior to being publicly displayed. The students combined different print processes with drawing and painting.
Here is a sneak preview courtesy of Katy Drake.
Knit for the River installationDecember 17, 2019
After months of knitting endeavour by the people of Cambridge to create hundreds of knitted squares, a dry day in November heralded their installation into the river water, affixed onto coir rolls that support the regeneration of the river bank. A small group of knitters worked to prepare the knitting, ensuring it was firmly fixed onto the coir, which was then installed by a team of people from the Cambridge City Council biodiversity team. The incredible efforts of the knitters, who came from ten of the city wards meant that there were more knitted squares than was needed and those left behind will be fashioned into a blanket to be given to charity.
You can watch the documentary video here
Flow and FluxOctober 17, 2019
In a recent philosophy group discussion around the notion of the fold and the flow, the presence of surface and dimension was presented as paradigm, not as solid. Flow (or flux) is both happening and not happening at the same time. Where one thing starts and stops, another is starting and stopping, towards or as the infinite, a state of constant change and motion. It is a particularly human need to be able to define and boundary things, to know where things start middle and end and those things that fascinate, such as rivers, open fires, clouds moving across the sky, are often indiscrete things in motion.
We speak often of rivers as a contained entity, a thing. Our language implies something fixed – we talk of the river, the river water, using language to contain it within a boundaried position. This can offer a security, it places us as the controller of the river, the one who can somehow fix and hold it. Take this a step further, and does space and time even form a relevant part of how we think about features such as rivers? If one were to create a chronology of the river, perhaps using elaborate codes or systems, how do we truly understand what we are looking at when presented with a set of symbols?
The Mobius Strip offers a visualisation of flow, the ongoing curving form of the strip reflecting a constancy that is situated beyond space/time and surface/dimension. It was co-discovered independently by the German mathematicians August Ferdinand Möbius and Johann Benedict Listing in 1858
LookingAugust 30, 2019
How many times do you stop and really look at something?
In our fast paced world, taking time to really look, to study a subject intently, can be a rare pleasure. Moving from a brief glimpse to a thorough, deep look at something can be revelatory. It is always surprising what can be seen when you hold your gaze, nuances of colour, textures and the effects of light and shade, the relationship of things to their surroundings, all these (and more) become visible. We see only from our own perspective, directing our view to what interests us, to what captures or catches our attention and to what is required for us to function in the world, but what of the hidden world that is excluded from our everyday visual range?
The river Cam encompasses a shifting, moving colour palette, constantly affected by light and weather conditions. A shimmering, fluid, rippled surface of moving water punctured by various forms of river craft, wildlife or the occasional swimmer, breaking the reflective surface. What Colour is the River? explores the colour of the water’s surface through a series of photographs shared on social media. The images demonstrate the incredible qualities of water as a reflective material as it absorbs and plays back the surrounding conditions and physical features of the landscape. What these images do not communicate is the colour and imagery held within the river water. I have been exploring this in a series of surface and underwater images taken whilst swimming in the Cam. The photographs suggest other worldly landscapes, colours that are vibrant and luminous, light and water intermingling reality and reflection, the unseen river Cam captured in painterly underwater landscapes.
Raverat’s RiverAugust 6, 2019
Over the past months the artist Gwen Raverat has been a regular point of reference, not least when visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum and the New Hall Art Collection to see her paintings and prints in the flesh. My exploration into her practice has recently extended out to an investigation of the viewpoints from which she created her works depicting the river Cam, plotting these onto a map of Cambridge to reveal her frame of reference and the extent of geographical range from which she worked across the city of Cambridge. The resulting information has been designed into a physical publication and digital interactive resource which investigates twelve works, and pinpoints as far as possible, the viewpoint from which Raverat would have worked.
This process has revealed some fascinating discoveries – for example, the wood engraving entitled Winter/Back of the Mill that is in fact in reverse – was this due to a glitch in the process, a conscious compositional decision, or the use of photographic negatives? In some instances building work has obscured past vistas, requiring some careful deduction to settle on the correct map coordinates.
This resource document will be used as a starting point for six students from Anglia Ruskin University to make a collection of contemporary responses to Raverat’s viewpoints. You can download an interactive PDF of the document from the link below and use it to discover Raverat’s viewpoints as you walk with your smart phone or tablet near to the river Cam. Raverat’s River_Interactive PDF
What colour is the river?July 10, 2019
In an age when snapping photos is an everyday, commonplace action, how much time do we give to stop, look and think about the things that surround by using all our senses. In walking the length of the river Cam, I have observed the public (and I include myself in this) capturing the river on their smartphones. The mobility of the smartphone as a device for recording affords users a performative approach to the consumption of surroundings where the taking of the image is as much, or more, the moment of looking mediated by the screen, as re-visiting images after the event. Matthews and Pierce research how the portable smartphone has added to the way we consume place and situation, noting that capturing images maintains awareness of certain dynamic qualities albeit on an often arbitrary schedule. The photograph taken on a smartphone creates an alternative spectacle that competes with the subject, but under different conditions. The multi sensory experience of the changing image in reality complicates notions of understanding.
Capturing the water in the river Cam fixes it at a moment in time, arresting fluctuating conditions. Asking what colour the river is, is a seemingly impossible task. Taking photographs of the river water using a smartphone, and sharing on social media platforms attempts to determine enough information from which to consider the question; an arrested moment offering a frozen palette.
Matthews T and Pierce J 2009, No Smart Phone Is an Island: The Impact of Places, Situations, and Other Devices on Smart Phone Use, IBM Research Report
Trees and riversMay 4, 2019
I was recently able to join Cambridge City Council’s arboriculturalist on a walk along part of the river Cam, to learn about the willows that grow alongside and nearby the river bank. One purpose of the walk was very specific – to identify and view a fallen tree from which a section might be suitable to form into printing plates through planking. Viewing the work of Gwen Raverat (see earlier journal post), and the connection many of her prints have to the river Cam in terms of subject matter, prompted an idea to visually examine the river through the influence, lens and positioning of Raverat, by creating a portfolio of work as a contemporary response. I am approaching this with an open mind as to media and approach, however, one starting point is to test out the wood from the fallen willow for its suitability as printmaking plates. Willow is a hardwood, though on the softer side of hard, and the tree in question fell some two years ago so there will be some seasoning that has taken place. An upper limb may have less sap, and as Raverat’s prints were modest in size, planked sections formed into plates can be kept small, thereby reducing some risk of warping. If the wood is very warped, then application and printing from the inked surface will prove challenging.
The tree itself has a beautiful curved form, lying as a body on the ground. Introducing this particular wood into the process of printmaking brings circularity to the production of work, bringing added resonance between site and artwork.
River SamplingApril 17, 2019
The Rush is a fast flowing river offshoot that runs in parallel to the River Cam, winding across Sheep’s Green and joining downstream of Bishop Mill Sluice, in Silver Street Basin. Every month two volunteers, Mike and May, meet and undertake monthly river sampling to determine the numbers of invertebrates in The Rush as a way of showing long term trends in water quality. This is a national initiative involving angling organisations, the Wild Life Trust and the Environmental Agency. The river sampling involves capturing a measured sample of river water and painstakingly sifting through the weed, gravel, mud and other river material to find, identify and count all invertebrates. A list of eight species are nominated identifiers – Cased Caddis, Caseless Caddis, Mayfly Ephemeridae, Gammarus, Stoneflies, Olives Baetidae, Blue Winged Olive Ephemerellidae, Flat bodied Heptageniidae— and these are carefully counted from the sample, with other species noted.
May and Mike undertook training to equip them with the knowledge to carry out the task, and have been working on The Rush and a second stretch of water in Barrington for over a year. To capture the sample they perform a well-established kick test, which requires 15 seconds disturbing the river bed through energetic walking on the spot in the river whilst directing water (with its contents) through a very fine meshed net. This is undertaken 12 times in different positions along the river.
Both Mike and May have a strong relationship to water and to the river – for May, the river holds memories of river swimming with her school. The diving boards at the City’s Men’s Bathing Sheds on Sheep’s Green were still in use in the early 1970 over the Cam. For Mike, a water engineer and canoeist who crossed the Atlantic in a two person rowing boat in 2006 (for which he held the record for the oldest pair to cross any ocean until recently), water is “part of my life”.
River sampling is an ongoing initiative conducted by volunteers across the country.
View short video clips of the kick test and a cased caddis found by May and Mike by clicking here.
Inside the archiveApril 12, 2019
I recently spoke at the University of Greenwich as part of a symposium around the subject of famine and lost or silenced communities. One of the speakers mentioned a book entitled The Allure of the Archives by Arlene Farge that explores the intense exhilaration of delving into historical records and artefacts. Farge argues that uncovering the past involves an emotional, tactile journey that is not necessarily about always looking for the moment of revelation. She suggests this can undermine the richness of systematic analysis of information, when looking is ordered and structured, and implies only this way does the extraordinary discovery shine out.
The image above, dated 1895 and reproduced by kind permission of The Museum of Cambridge, was filed away in the Museum’s archive. It depicts the Lion Hotel Staff on a boat trip on the River Cam. Initially known as the Red Lion Hotel, and established in the 16th Century in a building of three and two storeys with attics, The Lion Hotel was situated on Petty Cury in Cambridge. Demolished in 19689, the name lives on in the present Lion Yard shopping area. Later staff outings may have had a specific destination in mind as noted in Mike Petty’s Cambridgeshire Memories and Reflections, but on this occasion it appears that a trip along the Cam was the main focus. Looking at the photograph from a 21st Century perspective, seeing the wholly male workforce in their formal dress serves to illustrate the greater equality today, which whilst there is some way to go, is a very different picture.
The Print WorkshopMarch 24, 2019
One of the wonderful things about being an artist in residence is the research into a wide variety of things connected to the subject of the residency. In a previous post I mentioned the artist Gwen Raverat, granddaughter of Charles Darwin and resident of Cambridge. She worked predominantly in print, usually making exquisitely fine small woodcuts often showing the river Cam.
Following the exploration of Raverat’s work, I was recently able to visit Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), specifically to see their print workshops. This was a wonderful opportunity to re-connect with the process of relief printing (printing from a block or plate, usually of linoleum or wood, that has been cut to create different heights and marks in the surface that hold the ink and transfer it to the paper). During a short demonstration of the technique, the students and I were treated to a demonstration of a three colour print. In this case, the print was formed from three different patterns cut into three identically sized plates. Relief printing is a process that requires thinking in reverse – cuts in the surface are in fact negative shapes and will leave the white of the paper showing though, raised, uncut areas hold the ink. Any text in a print would need to be cut into the plate back to front. Not only does the print require a methodical and process led approach, it also requires patience, an understanding and . knowledge of materials and an openness to experimentation. There is no doubt that experience born out of time spent in the print workshop leading to a tacit knowledge of the papers, inks, plates and printing pressures all need to align to create a good quality print.
The visit was a reminder of the challenges of working in this medium, and I experienced a greater sense of appreciation for Raverat’s delicate, controlled marks. Witnessing the easy operation of the equipment, and the sensitive handling of ink with care over colour, evenness and amount by John, the ARU workshop technician, demonstrated just how many factors are at play when working in this medium.