At the end of February 2020 we visited Harwes Farm CIC near Pendle in rural Lancashire. This was the first visit in what is hopefully an ongoing working relationship with thisexcellent outdoor education initiative. The farm’s rugged woodlands border the course of the Common Line, and we wanted to work with members of the public to further develop our approach to the project’s digital app on location.
Harwes Farm provides various educational offers to schools and community groups from the region. Project director Gill Taylor provided a superb research and learning environment for the team and all workshop participants. Gill hosted us and the different groups of people we worked with extremely well; key to everyone having a focused, productive and highly enjoyable time.
Previously, we had been in conversation with Paul Hartley from In Situ Arts in Pendle about working with us on the project. I had been liaising with Paul since 2018, and he made various crucial connections for us for this set of workshops, including that with Harwes Farm. The people at In Situ are specialists in embedded Arts practise, and they are really excellent at bridging meaningful grassroots community engagement and cutting edge contemporary arts practice. Consequently, we were rather pleased when In Situ decided to roll with us. Drawing on Paul’s connections, this was our first opportunity to test the project with diverse and non-special interest audiences – on the land, close to the line, and right on it. Paul also introduced us to Mums2mums, a women’s group from the South Asian community in nearby Marsden Heights. Over the course of three days we worked with them and a group of young people who regularly visit the farm.
We also had the pleasure of welcoming a new thinker and practitioner to our team – Pete Jiadong Qiang. Pete is an artist and doctoral researcher from Goldsmith’s, who have also funded their participation in the project. Pete is bringing a whole new imagination and skillset to the project. The evolving digital architecture needs to be straightforward, inclusive and highly functional, and the same time we want it to be discursive, fluid, evolving and transparent. Pete’s approach to user experience design will help us to think and develop a coherent aesthetic for our digital system. Their practice, skills and artistic sensibilities resonate strongly with one of the Common Line’s key ambiguities as I see it.
Whilst representations of the line appear to run as a straight transect across the map, it tends to be a lot less straightforward to find the line on the ground, let alone to follow it. People’s habits of dwelling in landscape or moving through it, boundaries, terrain and weather, as well as the unpredictable nature of digital technology and user behaviours unfold in non-linear fashion. Straight movements across space have a long history of conquest and territorial control behind them. At the same time, they often have a target focus, thereby losing and eliminating in-between space – gain becomes loss. Contrary to its perceived straightness, the Common Line is a malleable space of seeking, dwelling and discourse, resonant with German artist Joseph Beuys’s ‘Soziale Plastik’ or ‘social plastique’: human beings existing and relating through creative acts. In shaping the polis, art becomes a political act and politics becomes art. I have always found the English translation as ‘social sculpture’ quite misleading in that it suggests a rigid opposite, possibly a monumental form beyond transformation. The Common Line is not a monument. Instead it will ever only manifest as process – through human connections, situated action and growth.
I was keen to try out some workshop ideas that relate making a hands-on sensual connection with land, with what can feel like the more ethereal realm of digital possibilities. The idea was to use land-based crafts processes to create unique VR-objects or ‘ trees’ for digital planting. I dug out clay from a nearby seam and the workshop participants picked and clipped a branch each from one of the various native trees that grow around the farm. We discussed the branch patterns as fractals of the trees’ growth shapes. Back in the house, we fixed our miniature trees to stable bases, and with a bit of paint and clay everybody created their own unique tree model.
Sitting, working and chatting around a large table we got to know each other, and there was plenty of opportunity to talk about the project themes at more depth. The hands-on tree making was a very accessible task that could be executed successfully at many skills levels, and everybody walked away with a nice model. Using mobile phones and various commonly available apps, we then captured our models and rendered them as 3D VR-objects, ready to be digitally ‘planted’ on the land. The VR-trees are striking artefacts of the three-stage accumulative process: from natural growth to the intervention of the human hand to digital rendering. Branches (trees) are complex shapes and the 3D renderings are somewhat glitchy. This is not a problem though – the flaws add fantastic textures, whilst making process visible. What’s even better – each VR-object had a real uniqueness about it – a signature of its maker on the land.
After the workshop we visited a potential planting site. At that point everybody was rather excited to see their VR-tree associated with a spot on the line, and for some participants the focus and excitement already began to shift towards physical tree planting. Plans for our return later in the year were forged.
Once more the Common line proved to be a wonderful engine for debate and encounter. At Harwes Farm we have seen that it can also be a productive framework for creative grassroots engagement, extremely well suited to critically engage a whole range of people with pertinent themes and across a real variety of media.
Volkhardt Mueller, 20th May 2020