Hallucinations of the sublime

The Common Line runs across the lower section of Cautley Spout, Britain’s highest waterfall, which cascades off the fells near the M6 south of Carlisle. The very midpoint of the line is only about 20minutes walk from the spout. We go there to  test out the ‘planting’ of a virtual tree, and to stake out the course of the line with a number of white flags – at the midpoint of the line and by the spout. The spout is visible from a distance, towering spectacularly in front of us as we approach. The rather minimalist landscape surrounding it creates additional focus on the feature. There are rocks, gravel, grass and sheep, with bracken growing along the bottom of the valley and the occasional shrub protruding from the crevices along the stream.  Higher up on the slopes, the peat layer has ruptured in places, miniature landslides expose the gravel underneath. ‘Sheep-wrecked’, remarks one of our companions on the day, quoting George Monbiot.

The aesthetics of landscape are a major contributing factor when it comes to policy making, and the politics of conservation are largely aesthetically motivated. Landscape can go out of fashion, which can be as irrational a process as holding on to the status quo. In after-war Germany, countless streams, rivers and landscapes were engineered at scale, a process that went well into the 70s. The vigorous economic ‘pragmatism’ behind this has been interpreted as a reaction to the spiritual destruction and subsequent vacuum that a failed ideology had left behind – leading to a wholesale uprooting of ancestral connections and cultural narratives. From this angle, the radical re-modelling of the ‘Kaiserstuhl’, a landscape of ancient vineyards flanking the mythological Rhine valley, appears almost as an act of desecration. Damage was done from an environmental, cultural heritage and aesthetic perspective, whilst radical economic considerations prevailed.

The relationships between people and land are complex, culture and context specific. Working alongside the NPA on Dartmoor some years ago, I became interested in how regional visitors to the moor value the experience of its wide open spaces in relation to the tightly packed urban environments they come from, but also in relation to a Devon countryside that is interrupted by fencing, hedgerows and traffic. Accessible views are sought-after and often commodified attractions, parking fees and ice cream van included. The uplands by contrast, offer perspectives, freedom of movement, and a sense of space and rugged, awe-inspiring wild-ness that is occasionally referred to as the sublime. Whilst I like a rugged landscape myself, up on Dartmoor I began to suspect that from a phenomenological point of view, the landscape’s perceived vastness is largely down to the absence of visual reference points. A 10foot drop may appear ten times its size at a distance – a welcome hallucination for those escapists who seek the impression of scale. In the context of the above it is easy to see why people treasure the experience.

Up on Cautley Spout, two men in their 60s appear, both think the line is an ‘absolutely brilliant’ idea and something they want to take part in. Soon they are followed by a couple of similar age. The man offers a clear perspective: ‘trees don’t belong up here’ and further to that, ‘a line of trees is not natural’. I avoid a discussion about the nature of nature and suggest that the sheep-farmed hilltops might not be considered natural either, which in his eyes renders me ‘a follower of Mr. Monbiot’. His partner explains that ‘abroad, where they cover the hills with trees, you don’t get any views’, a possible implication being that hills with trees on them are quintessentially un-British, as is the absence of views. There is however a case to be made that a view exists through its framing, which implies an interplay of absence and presence. This is epitomized in the dramaturgy of the English garden which creates rhythms of revelation and disguise, of the near and the distant, all of it through carefully and economically framed vistas.

Finally the man suggests that above all ‘we need to get rid of people’, which does not seem a rational argument in the context of our conversation. It also gives our exchange a rather personal twist, given that I sport a slight German accent, but it illustrates the depth and complexity of sentiments attached to land. Within two successive encounters, we had two passionate responses to our proposition that couldn’t have been any more different.

Volkhardt Mueller, 18th July 2018



Locating and Visualising The Common Line

  1. If we assume a user has first made their way to within comfortable walking distance (e.g. a few hundred metres at most) of The Common Line, how do we optimise their experience of locating and visualising the Line?
  2. What they will see on their screen when they first turn it on – Open Street Map with the option of either Satellite or Plan map view. Suggest satellite as default?
  3. They also need an instruction about opting in or out of the Trace function. Opt in as default, or is this inappropriate – does it require active consent?
  4. Can we presume a basic level of map literacy, such that we assume people will be able to navigate to within easy sight of the Line on their screen? It feel we have little choice but to do so.
  5. We also assume certain forms of mobility at this point. The vast majority will be pedestrians, it is just about possible that some could be on a bike/mobility scooter. What about someone in a car, bus, train? Do we need to design a fleeting experience of the Line for them? A siren or ambulance-style doppler wail as you pass?
  6. To what extent, if at all, do we need written instructions/guidance/optional clues on the screen? Do we need, for example, instructions such as ‘Where is the Line from you now? North, south, east, west? What local landmarks might help you find your way to the Line?’
  7. For the pedestrian user, how will the Line appear? We are committed to a set of plotted dots in a line. But what colour? Simply a colour corresponding to the status of the point (vacant, digital tree, agreed for planting etc)?
  8. What colour? It needs to be vibrant/primary to be clearly visible against the background, but is green best? Softer yellow? Soft orange? Black crosses?
  9. The user navigates themselves, with written instructions/clues or not, to a point on the Line. What happens then?
  10. Ideally, there would be some kind of fanfare/siren, the screen would become a window on the world, and the user, holding it up before them, would see a line of digital trees marching away from them along the course of the Line, into the distance. But this is not technically achievable.
  11. The difficulty is that the experience of the Line risks being deflating, unimpressive, a bit meh etc. at this stage. The user finds themselves marooned upon a mute point, without guidance as to where the Line is running, without a sense of scale and perspective etc. For those lacking map-based skill/confidence, the experience risks being disorienting and off-putting.
  12. So we need some orientation mechanism, via which alignment occurs, and the Line is revealed in all its scale and splendour.
  13. Our current compass orientation does not work well, and in some ways actually compounds the issue of confusion and loss of motivation.
  14. If there are two or more users working together, the solution is to reveal the trajectory of the Line through their own bodies. In other words, they navigate to adjacent or nearby points, and they can then literally see the direction of the Line when they look at each other.
  15. If they are alone, we require some screen-based instruction or indication. Idea: they rotate their phone and the points *flash* or change colour or the phone vibrates or makes a noise when they are aligned (either northward or southward).
  16. A voice intones (and I jest, but only a little): ‘you are now standing upon The Common Line, and are looking along its course. Imagine this line made tangible in the landscape as a living line – a line of planted trees’
  17. The experience of locating and aligning with the Line has to be in some way revelatory and rewarding. It cannot be humdrum or frustrating.

JWW 17.07.18

On digital growth

The Common Line is an imaginary feature. Even if we were to succeed in planting it all the way to the horizon, we’ll still have to imagine the rest of it. On our first prototyping day in Rickerby Park, Carlisle, we invited people to experience and comment on different virtual trees that we had ‘planted’ in the park. As our test persons looked though the viewfinders of their mobile phones, our virtual trees would appear within the frame – more or less connected to the spot on which we had placed them.

We used two types of images: an ‘off the shelf’ digitally generated 3D tree, sourced from the internet and several 2D black and white scribbles of trees that I’d drawn. Visitors could experience the 3D tree and its pretense of being ‘real’ from all directions, whereas the 2D trees, flat as paper, would disappear when looked upon from the sides. The backs of these drawings would simply appear as black silhouettes.

All of our test audience preferred the hand drawn trees. Some felt that the drawings didn’t try to compete with the natural environment in the same way as the VR tree – ‘I don’t need to look at that when I have the real thing next to it’. Like handwriting, the scribbles were perceived as a someone’s personal trace on the land, making for a sense of dialogue and invitation. One visitor found the overtly hand-drawn trees less prescriptive, opening up an imagination rather than closing it down. These are significant differences, but whatever the process by which digital trees are generated, I agree with John W that in the context of our project, they will always serve as uncanny reminders of the absence of living trees.

A different kind of uncanny can be found in the uncanny valley phenomenon, which was originally defined as an emotional reaction to human-like objects, such as the cuteness response to cuddly toys with a baby schema. As they get more realistic however, humanoid objects begin to evoke sensations of discomfort or even disgust. This causes a statistical dip in the empathy curve, referred to as the uncanny valley. As the object becomes even more life-like, empathy gradually returns. The phenomenon tends to be explained in evolutionary terms, with repulsion or fear being triggered by instincts of self-preservation.

Currently CGI aims to provide ever better likenesses. In terms of the above argument this is gradually unhinging our proven instincts of self-preservation. This raises interesting ethical questions which also affect the digital aesthetics we want to adopt in The Common Line . The uncanny valley experience doesn’t just apply to human like shapes. Immaculate CGI animations advertising urban infrastructure projects quite commonly receive an unpleasantly sterile, uncanny touch in the depiction of plant life in particular. Going by various online specimens, trees still appear to be a veritable challenge to VR designers, and often they are a long shot from even dipping into the uncanny valley in the first place.

Drawing is imagining, and two-dimensional representations of the world are always major acts of translation. The artist has to find the shorthands that simulate an entire dimension, and they have to interpret and transcribe its orders. In doing so they create perspectives of meaning that are always a reflection of their very being in the world. How does this relate to our virtual trees and the form they will take in our next prototypes?

Volkhardt Mueller, 24th May 2018

Softening the land

As we drive back down the M6 from Carlisle we cross The Common Line again around Tebay. We are on our way to meet the tree planters. They are waiting for us next to their van, on the side of the road in the village – in the rain. We walk behind the houses and pick our way up the hillside, through the gates, around the sheep. There is a cold wind and still some snow on a far peak. The grass is brown and tough. It’s not as muddy as I expect it to be. After around 15 minutes we reach the planting site.

The tree planters have had to negotiate hard to establish a large area of Hawthorn – a small hedging tree that’s hardy enough to withstand the winters here on the fell.  There is also some Blackthorn and small patches of Willow planted in the wetter gullies of the hill. It is the beginning of a process of afforestation on the hillside facing the motorway valley. They had to be persuasive about the benefits of enclosing what is privately owned land accorded common grazing rights. They are planting for the purposes of nurturing more ecologically diverse life in the area. The planting will change the aesthetic of the panorama experienced by drivers as they travel into and out of this iconic, Lake District landscape. Something which also had to be negotiated with various others holding differing opinions on what might constitute the ‘right’ kind of view from the motorway. There were also fears that the trees would block afternoon light from the houses lower down the valley.

The area has been so long without trees that it is like starting again. Perhaps, through particular terms of reference, this fell and others around it could be described as an area of ecological devastation[1]. The tree planters enclosed 100 hectares with fencing to keep out larger animals. 65,000 thousand trees were put in, and protected by plastic tree covers to stop smaller animals like rabbits and voles eating the young saplings. As we talk, the planters busy themselves straightening the tree covers, hammering stakes back in, gently lifting leaves and branches, tending to the small trees.

‘See here are owl droppings’. The short-eared owl perches on the growing trees, there is food for them here. Voles and other small mammals are burrowing into the heathland, breaking up the compacted grass and soil. The rate of loss of such a planting site is 40%.  The deer jump the fences to nibble on the soft shoots. Rodents burrow underneath the tree guards and strip the lower parts of the plant of bark and leaves. Some of the loss is just down to planting the wrong type of tree, or the right tree in the wrong kind of place. It’s all a big experiment, one which requires commitment, passion and hard labour.

It takes 20 years for a Hawthorn to reach full height, but once established it opens the way for other species. The thorny plants form natural barriers inside which an Oak might seed itself more easily. The removal of grazing sheep allows the growth of long dormant seeds of grasses and flowers, bringing more butterflies, moths and bird life. We stand for a moment and listen to the rain on the grass. I imagine the voices of owls and the scraping of tiny paws through earth. The softening and re-opening of the land to more diverse bodies is beginning.

Paula Crutchlow, 10th May 2018

[1] We know through Sarah Whatmore’s work with residents in Pickering for instance, that flooding is not just a matter of the amount of rain that falls out of the sky, but are complex events mediated in part by how we have shaped our landscapes into monocultures. Afforestation of upland sites along with other landscape management strategies that increase bio-diversity, are ways of mitigating against such events.