I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.
- Charles Darwin
After his famous journey on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin returned home to Down House in Biggin Hill, Bromley. Over the next 40 years he would conduct field experiments in his extensive gardens. In 1881 he published his findings in The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worm, with Observations of their Habit; despite its somewhat unexciting title it would sell over 6000 copies in its first year, more than his Origin of Species. If one of the greatest biologists who ever lived could devote such a period of his life to an intricate study of the natural world lying just outside his house then surely there is something to be achieved in making an artistic evaluation of the seemingly common natural world that surrounds us.
After childhood many of us abandon our instinctive draw to examination; it would be considered foolish or a waste of time to spend even an afternoon with our heads close to the biological microcosms that surround our dwellings. It is with the freedom afforded by the job title ‘Artist’ that I have been allowed to return to such an endeavour. Whilst resident artist of Down Stairs Gallery and living in the grounds of Great Brampton House, I have made my own ‘fools’ experiment’. During my three weeks I have conducted an in detail investigation of one of the most overlooked, walked over, elements of the English garden. The grass.
The experiment (apologies to the real scientists who might be appalled by my use of this term) consists of creating a 4.752 metre x 3.564 metre photograph of an area of lawn at Great Brampton House. The term photograph may too be contentious as I am not using what would traditionally be referred to as a camera. I have instead used a Canon CanoScan LiDE 600F flatbed scanner and my laptop; here is a brief account:
- An area of lawn 4.787 x 3.609m is selected, four stakes are placed, one in each corner, lengths of wood are placed along the top and down either side.
- Along the top length of wood marks are made measuring out 21.6cm sections; on the left hand side an additional allowance of 3.5cm is made for the body of the scanner.
- Down each side length of wood marks are made measuring 29.7cm sections; at the top endsan additional allowance of 4.5cm is made for the body of the scanner.
- This creates a grid of 264 A4 portions, 22 horizontal, 12 vertical.
- The portions are numbered A1 to V12.
- Each portion is scanned at 800dpi; the top length of wood is moved down the lawn each time a horizontal section is completed.
The product of this is a set of data, 264 images, intricate beyond the grasp of the human eye, portraying a world in almost microscopic detail, the fine ridges lining each blade of grass, their frayed ends, minute hairs and idiosyncratic features are all present. Tilted onto a vertical plain it becomes easier to analyse these aspects, a surface to navigate across becomes an image to look closely into.
However, the work also serves to expose the fallibility of its own production method, and by some extrapolation the fallibility of all methods of representing the world. A scanner can be considered a camera if we accept it as a camera whose focal range is little more than a few millimetres; beyond the elements pressed against its pane, details quickly blur. It differs too in its means of capturing the image; rather than exposing the image onto photographic film in a fraction of a second a scanner moves across a surface piecing the image together over a period of time; time therefore becomes a more present factor in the result.
The image I am creating faces another flaw in its production; in piecing together all 264 fragments it is impossible to align the edges. In fact, because each new scan requires the scanner to be pressed against the grass again, rearranging it slightly, it is likely that no two edges will align. What is created is therefore an entirely false composition, fraught with inaccuracies.
I am however, interested in what these inaccuracies say about the creation of an image. Each medium has its own particular failings; nothing we create can ever truly grasp the conception of the human eye, and we must admit that the eye too is also a flawed mechanism.
“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”
- Charles Darwin
Consider the view of the world we accept when we look at the Earth via one of Google’s navigation tools. Google is constantly updating its vision of the world, adding new layers of information, picturing more streets, adjusting its 3d models; yet it will always be a flawed portrayal. Looking at Great Brampton House on Google Maps the lawn is reduced to a homogenised patch of green, lacking any details. This suits the purpose of the user but it also shifts the way we respond and perceive the world. We are now often reliant on these secondary sources of information to navigate our daily lives, shrugging off the primary information provided by our eyes and intuition.
By making such a detailed analysis of this patch of grass I hope that the absurdity of these digital technologies becomes more exposed. I have created a work that is as intricate an image of the lawn at Great Brampton House that I can make but is also an utterly false representation of it; many of the tools we use to look at the world feature a similar paradox. We are delving into a world where we are increasingly reliant on the created image and as that happens we are likely to erode the relationship we have with our own senses.
- Elliott Burns, www.elliottburns.com
As part of my residency at Great Brampton House I have been aiming to make a response to Kieren Reed’s ‘Social Sculpture’, the cabin which I have been staying in. Currently the cabin is fairly sparse, populated with a bed, sink, toilet, boxes for storage and some small wooden objects crafted by Kieren.
Taking inspiration from a work by Kieren Reed and Abigail Hunt, ‘Liminal’, I began recycling off cuts of production found around Great Brampton House. The work consists of a set of 52 wooden fragments and a large reclaimed tile. Artists invited to stay at Great Brampton House in the cabin are encouraged to play with these elements, using them as an informal board game without any particular rules. The work is portable, may be expanded by new participants and may be played by any number of people over an undefined period of time.
- Elliott Burns, www.elliottburns.com
Coinciding with my residency at Great Brampton House, Jasmine Riordan has been running a project to install a treehouse at the furthest end of the house’s grounds. The term treehouse may not suffice to capture the scale of this undertaking, when complete the structure is intended to be used as a fully furnished accommodation for guests.
Yesterday the first of two platforms were raised into the tree. Secured by bolts at the top and support beams running towards the tree’s base the two floor sections will then be connected via a third section created in situ. Eventually a building will be erected upon this with a balcony offering views across adjacent fields and Brampton Hill Wood.
The modern digital world has caused a shift in our perception of our environments; tools such as Google Earth provide a simplified and manageable reading of the world, though they iron over its intricacies. During my stay at Great Brampton House I will be using a flatbed scanner to capture a 4.75×3.56 metre image of the lawn in extremely fine detail. Through a comparison of the two mediums I hope to expose the fallibility of each ones rendering of the world.
- Elliott Burns, www.elliottburns.com
From the 10th August to the 1st September I will be resident in Kieren Reed’s ‘Social Sculpture’, working on a new project at Great Brampton House, whilst also exploring the functionality of the cabin as a living space and an aid to artistic creativity.
Alongside my work/living space in Kieren’s sculpture I have also set up a studio in the stables.
Over the next few weeks I will be periodically updating the Down Stairs Gallery blog with updates on my progress before handing over to the next artist, Jonny Briggs, in September.
- Elliott Burns, www.elliottburns.com
KIEREN REED Social Sculpture
SPARROW + CASTICE Billboard Structure 2 with A Symbol and an Object
Opening event Saturday 10th August 2013 12 – 6pm. All welcome.
Down Stairs at Great Brampton House, Madley, Herefordshire, HR2 9NA
Down Stairs is proud to present new semi-permanent works located in the grounds of Great Brampton House. These pieces mark a turning point for Down Stairs and a new direction for the artist-run project and its associated residency programme.
Social Sculpture by Kieren Reed explores the very nature of functionality, use value and social architecture, addressing notions of collaboration and relational art practice. Social Sculpture visually embodies the vernacular architecture of Whitstable Harbour, the Grade II listed site where the work was first exhibited for the 2012 Biennale. In this incarnation it will be adapted to serve as residential accommodation for visiting artists on part of Down Stairs’ residency programme.
Reed’s practice is concerned with the placement of sculpture in the landscape and how this can inform and question functionality and audience participation. Social Sculpture is about the conceptual space between form and functionality. As Wittgenstein wrote, ‘The meaning is the use’. The work needs both to act in real terms as usable architecture and simultaneously function aesthetically as sculpture. It only really becomes an artwork when its use value – that of a space/location – is activated.
Sparrow + Castice have created two new works for Down Stairs. The first of these, Billboard Structure 2, is simply that: the second collapsible, interchangeable billboard structure they have created, this one specifically for exhibition outdoors. A Symbol and an Object, is the first message to be shown on the structure. While the billboard will remain in situ for an indefinite period of time, the message which it supports will be changed at irregular intervals by Sparrow + Castice, whom also invite Down Stairs to create their own messages to display during its stay at Great Brampton House. The intent of the messages will oscillate between being irreverent, informative and instructional.
Both these pieces mark an important turning point for Down Stairs. Established early in 2011 by artists Craig Barnes and Dmitri Galitzine, it, and they, took residency at Great Brampton House in Herefordshire at the behest of entrepreneur Martin Miller.
Down Stairs offers a hugely diverse visual arts experience to the local community and visitors from further afield, supporting contemporary artists from a variety of backgrounds, across all media. Supporting artists at the early stages of their career, it is committed to showing emerging artists shoulder to shoulder with established names.
Recently listed in the Hot 100 artist led initiatives published in A-N that aims to draw attention to some of the most superb activity being facilitated by emerging independent artists and curators right now in the UK. The full list can be found here:
Over two years Barnes and Galitzine have mounted an ambitious programme of exhibitions and events in the ten rooms of gallery space at Great Brampton House, as well as developing a studio and workshop complex in an old stable block for their own use and that of visiting resident or exhibiting artists.
Exhibitions to date include Change The World Or Go Home, which questioned the role of the artist within contemporary culture; Heartlands, which united artists interested in the countryside and its relationship with British national identity; and The Stone of Folly, which used local Neolithic burial site Arthur’s Stone as the basis for exploring ideas around local folklore and forgotten histories.
Artists exhibited to date include Alice Anderson, William Cobbing, Katie Cuddon, Jeremy Deller, Sean Dower, Benedict Drew, Cathy Lomax, Heather Phillipson, Nicholas Pope, Jimmy Merris, Mark McGowan, Simon Roberts, Mark Titchner, Susan Stockwell Gavin Turk, Sarah Woodfine and Hennessy Youngman amoungst many others.
At the beginning of 2013, finding themselves at both a personal and funding crossroads, Barnes and Galizine decided not to continue to run Down Stairs in the manner they had to date, nor pursue funding from the Arts Council as many had advised, instead opting to remodel Down Stairs as a more reflexive organisation not aligned to any funding model, be it private or public.
With the blessing of Martin Miller to remain on site at Great Brampton House, Down Stairs is interested in focusing it’s work around its residency programme and broader ways to engage with an audience.
Using Kieren Reed’s work Social Sculpture as its new hub for it’s residency, it aims to provide a platform for both the creation and experience of ambitious contemporary critical practice on a much needed regional level, whilst seeking to align its aims and dialogues with similar peers on a national and international level. Forthcoming residents include Elliott Burns and Jonny Briggs.
Down Stairs is also interested in pursuing alternative ways to engage with the audience within the physical region of Herefordshire and surrounding areas which it has established since its inception. Sparrow + Castice’s works, to be located on the lawn of Great Brampton House in view of the adjacent road, illustrate this intent. It aims to capture not only an existent audience, but also those whom would not have visited work on view in one of the gallery spaces. The road is travelled hourly by the bus route 449 Monday – Saturday, and the 39A on Sundays.
Image, left: Kieren Reed, Social Sculpture proposal. Right: Sparrow + Castice: Billboard Structure 1 with A Symbol and an Object.
Kieren Reed www.kierenreed.co.uk
Sparrow + Castice www.sparrowandcastice.co.uk
Down Stairs www.downstairsgallery.co.uk/wp
Craig Barnes www.craigbarnes.co.uk
Dmitri Galitzine www.dmitrigalitzine.com
Martin Miller www.martinmiller.co.uk
Great Brampton House www.greatbramptonhouse.co.uk
Elliott Burns www.elliottburns.com
Jonny Briggs www.jonnybriggs.com
The works of Kieren Reed and Sparrow + Castice featured at Down Stairs have been generously supported through the Arts Council’s Grants For The Arts funding programme.
We know we’ve been quiet of late but we’re still here. Just plotting and scheming making new plans. Plans that don’t involve turning over eight week exhibitions in an eleven room gallery space month in month out. You could say we’ve been breathing.
We have an event taking place on 10th August which we’d love you to stick in your diary. Details to follow soon.
In the meantime feast in this wonderful work, a list of Hot 100 artist led spaces compiled by a chap called Kevin Hunt. Yes, we be on it.
Full viewable list here on A-N website.