I have begun work on a new project at the Old Low Light, a new and exciting museum and cultural centre on the historic North Shields Fish Quay at the mouth of the River Tyne. It was started by members of the local community and has been awarded National Lottery funding to renovate the Old Low Light building due to open to the public in March. The Low and High Lights were ancient beacons sited to help shipping navigate the treacherous mouth of the river. The current building dates back to the 18th century and will eventually house a museum and gallery, meeting and performance spaces and a cafe.
I am helping to design a multimedia unit which will be used by artists commissioned to make work in response to the site. It is very much a return to roots project for me as I was brought up in the area and know the Fish Quay well. It was always a place of great interest, with the trawlers and drifters coming in on the tide, selling their catches on the quayside – this still goes on despite the continued decline of the fishing industry and with the recent conversion of warehouses to apartments and restaurants the area is still a hive of activity.
I will be providing the inaugural installation for the museum using a collection of objects I have made over the past 10 years or so. They are called “Instruments of Calculation and Divination” and are made up of pieces of metal and wood picked up when I’m out and about – from beaches, city gutters and supermarket car parks. Its something I’ve always done and the collection has grown over the years. They often lie around for quite some time before I think of a way of combining them. I think of the pieces as the remains of machines designed to measure the immeasurable.
The objects will be shown in a specially designed cabinet of curiosities and will be accompanied by books, drawings and arrangements of stuffed wading birds from the collection of Dan Turner. I visited him the other day to begin to make a selection to work with. Dan is a bird enthusiast and member of the Northeast England Beached Bird Survey who dedicates a great deal of time to studying and counting birds on the Tyne and Northumbrian coastline. His specimens have all been washed up on beaches in the area and are therefore not in perfect condition. The taxidermy has preserved the birds without necessarily resurrecting them.
The designs for the museum are quite well advanced and I have been working with GBDM Design Consultants in developing “The Boat”, a flexible unit consisting of a large cabinet of curiosities, display walls, audio-visual facilities and plinths. The idea is for artists to work alongside scientists and with natural history collections in the production of multi-media installations dealing with maritime issues.
The cabinet and other units and plinths are being constructed by 3DR Designs in Edinburgh who specialise in fitting out museums. I visited last week to see how things were going. Its a very short deadline as the opening is 26th March!
As projects progress I often have a soundtrack in mind, music playing in the background which seems to suit the mood of the pieces I’m making. During the making of Tidelines I have discovered the music of contemporary American composer Caroline Shaw who came to prominence a couple of years ago when she became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for her piece “Partita for 8 Voices”. It was originally suggested by Sol leWitt’s “Wall Drawing 305”, a set of instructions to enable a draughts- person to construct the drawing by connecting one hundred random points. Shaw’s short piece for violin and viola called “Limestone and Felt”, inspired by thoughts of two contrasting materials, feels particularly pertinent.
“Filter Drawings – Sea Coal and River Mud”
I have been thinking about an artefact I came across a few years ago called the Antikythera Mechanism, a lump of corroded metal which had been recovered from a shipwreck off the Greek coast in 1900. When x-rayed the object turned out to be an arrangement of interlocking gears and wheels, a two thousand year old computer which would have been used to calculate the phases of the Moon, the turning of the stars and the timing of eclipses. Very timely in the light of the solar eclipse which took place on the 20th of this month. I have also been finding out about a machine in the Science Museum which was designed in 1872 by Lord Kelvin to predict tides. An ingenious system of dials and cogs linked by chains of varying lengths enabled the user to key in information about time and location and the machine would plot a graph accurately indicating the tidal pattern for the relevant stretch of coastline. A similar mechanism in the Maritime Museum in Liverpool was an early influence on the thinking of Alan Turing, father of the electronic computer.
It struck me that my collection of oddments are shipwreck treasure, fragments of tide predicting machinery washed up in street gutters.
The Old Low Light is Open!
With music, choirs, speeches and a big turnout!
It took three days working with Dan to put the installation together. There are 31 drawers in the cabinet and three standalone plinths to fill with very fragile and delicate material. Dan’s specimens all had to be carefully labelled with the correct data as, although the idea is to create imaginative and thought provoking assemblages, it is important for the science to be accurate too. It has been an interesting exercise playing the bird skulls and wings off against my rust collection, arranging combinations of materials which sing. The piece is called “Instruments of Calculation and Divination”.
The satellite plinths accompanying the cabinet contain assemblages using stuffed wading birds from Dan’s collection and objects and drawings relating to the work I have been making as a part of my residency at Durham University, placing the birds in laboratory environments. In a sense the pieces are 3D versions of the collages I made a couple of years ago for the Patterns of Migration installation at Bede’s World in Jarrow.