Ground Contact: the line in Pendle, February 2020

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.

New plantings at Harwes Farm

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.

Towards the line from Harwes Farm

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.

Using local clay to make VR objects.

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.

Tree modelling at Harwes Farm

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

Naming our trees: a call for voices from sound artist John Levack Drever

I am currently developing the soundscape approach to the Common Line digital experience, and in that endeavour, I request your participation.

Below is a list of the names of shrubs and trees in English and in Linnaean plant taxonomy that we may consider planting on the line, or perhaps are already there. You may know names for these species in other languages, Scots, Welsh, Gaelic, or other languages and dialects that you speak, or maybe you have unique names that only your family use.

Without compromising social distancing rules, please make recordings of you and/or your family and friends announcing the names of the shrubs and trees. You may want to work through the list below (it doesn’t matter if you can’t pronounce the Latin, have a go!). You are more than welcome to include names in other languages and dialects that you know.

Please upload your recordings and send a link to j.drever@gold.ac.uk. Please include the names of the announcers so we can credit them. The deadline to submit recordings is the 30th June 2020. I look forward to hearing your voices.

Best wishes,

John

  • Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
  • Alder Buckthorn (Frangula Alnus)
  • Aspen (Populus tremula)
  • Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)
  • Common Beech (Fagus Sylvatica)
  • Downy Birch (Betula Pubescens)
  • Silver Birch (Betula Pendula)
  • Blackthorn (Prunus Spinosa)
  • Sweet Chestnut (Castanea Sativa)
  • Horse Chestnut  (Aesculus Hippocastanum)
  • Bird Cherry (Prunus Padus)
  • Wild Cherry (Prunus Avium)
  • Crab Apple (Malus Slvestris)
  • Dog Rose (Rosa Canina)
  • Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)
  • Elder (Sambucus nigra)
  • English Elm (Ulmus Procera)
  • Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
  • Common hazel (Corylus avellane)
  • Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
  • Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)
  • Small-Leaved Lime (Tilia cordata)
  • Large-Leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos)
  • Field Maple (Acer Campestre)
  • Common Oak (Quercus robur)
  • Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea)
  • Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
  • London Plane (Platanus x hispanica)
  • Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
  • Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
  • Sycamore – Acer pseudoplatanus
  • Common Walnut (Juglans regia)
  • Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)
  • Eared Willow (Salix aurita)
  • Goat Willow (Salix caprea)
  • Crack willow (Salix fragilis)
  • Yew (Taxus baccata)

Bio-Infused

I have just returned from a packed 3-day schedule in Milton Keynes where we were kindly invited to present at the ‘Situating the Groundwork’ symposium. Smoothly organized and well curated by the formidable Tracing The Pathway crew, it brought a complementary wealth of ideas and approaches to a shared framework of themes. All three contributors on our panel presented works in progress, striving to embody the unruly and potentially absurd character of digital systems in relation to an evolving field practice. Jo Scott’s relationships between digital processes and the material features and processes of the ‘wildscape’, resonate with The Common Line’s ‘commoning’ of digital space in relation to physical space. Artist Haley Newman aptly described all three projects as ‘bio-infused’, and I am now thinking about getting myself a T-shirt printed (Dear Haley, all credit to you!)

For the first-time visitor Milton Keynes really is quite something to process; the sheer amount of ’empty’ space is baffling, and its repetitive patterns shadow the newcomer in the form of uncanny déja-vus. Navigating on foot, my first impression was that of an ill-fitted suit of absurd dimensions, out of scale with the human body it is meant to accommodate and sustain. Large, crumbling infrastructures void of people evoke post-human imaginations and lost futures come to mind. In a trench adjacent to one of the redways (cycle network) in a council estate in Milton Keynes I found this harrow. I am guessing it is hand forged and horse drawn, probably 100 to 150 years old. A shrub enveloped its corner and gradually lifted it of the ground, still rising…

Speaking for myself though, eventually, a sad indulgence gave way to a sense of elation. Here in Britain we have gotten ourselves used to rather bad value for money where personal and public space is concerned. In some respects, Milton Keynes clearly does not fit that bracket. For all its obvious flaws, there is something rather liberating about the experience of Milton Keynes, and I could not help getting a strong sense of a positive (albeit nebulous) vision shaping the original designs.

The post cold war neoliberal mantra of ‘no alternatives’ feels increasingly worn and dangerous, yet its proponents keep bashing away the tune like we are all expected to love it. In Milton Keynes we get a glimpse of an era when alternative visions were granted both resources and space, and whilst it is easy to dismiss the original designs as modernist hubris, we might as well choose to sense a live spirit blowing through the place, at times rather strong, as it gathers momentum on the long, straight boulevards of Milton Keynes.

Serendipitously, The Common Line runs through Milton Keynes. It is a straight line of trees and Milton Keynes has no lack of those in principle. The Common Line however, transects the grid at an angle; creating a formal contrast with meanings unique to Milton Keynes. I have no doubt that if, and wherever MK chooses to accommodate the Common Line, unique resonances will follow.

Volkhardt Mueller, 25.9.18