Thorpe Primary School

The Brief
Earlier this year I was commissioned by Thorpe Primary School to create a permanent
art piece that would be inspired by Michael Rosen’s “Reading Revolution” campaign
providing an inspirational experience on reading and stories as part of their
2015 aim to ‘raise the profile of reading’ within their school community.
In short a commission to collaborate with children creating an artwork about
storytelling and books. A fabulous opportunity to do the kind of work I enjoy
the most.
Their original thought was to produce something on wooden boards to hide the
barriers in their playground during a building extension.  Once finished the work could be moved to a
permanent site indoors. It was apparent to me that there would be safety and
practical issues regarding mounting wooden panels to construction fencing, with
the additional problem of finding a site inside school and again fixing them
permanently indoors safely. After exploring PVC banners and similar materials I
suggested we look at producing a piece that could be printed onto some kind of
material, giving length and size without the safety issues, or the storage and
moving issues either.

With this material they have flexibility to move the artwork depending on
changes to the school, decorative or practical, in the years to come. Wooden
panels can deteriorate very easily, especially if left outdoors.
The subject; books, reading, stories and storytelling, and importantly the joy
and adventure of reading, alongside trees and forests, are important themes to
both me personally and my work. Libraries also happened to be the theme for a
series of new work produced at the same time called “Light Prisms &
Rainbows”.

Research
After my proposal being approved I set about further research. I took some children’s
books from the Central Library, read essays on the symbolism of forests in folk
and fairy tales, reviewed Vladimir Propp’s main characters, and at the various
histories of each of the four trees and the role of the library and the forest
in psychological and symbolic terms.

I managed to find these programmes on BBC Radio 3 on their nightly mini-documentary series called “The Essay” , an amazing reservoir of 15 minute audio essays on a huge range of subjects. I seriously recommend exploring the list.
Holly-The Essay BBC Radio3
Birch -The Essay BBC Radio3

I also researched Shrek and Frozen’s use of stock characters, and used these
films as examples of hero, heroine, villains and helpers. The forest setting was inspired by their school ‘house’ names which are named after trees, Holly, Silver Birch, Horse Chestnut and Willow and the school itself is named after a forest, the nearby “Thorpe Wood”, and the fact that the forest is the archetypal setting for folk, fairy and children’s tales.

Method

I delivered 1 hour sessions with each year group of 60
pupils, making this a collaboration piece with 480 pupils. All their pupils,
from Nursery to Year 6, were involved in this process. 
During the assembly introduction to the whole school I asked each pupil from
the 4 houses to stand up and do a quick tree action, e.g. everyone in ‘Willow
house’ stood up and did big swishy gestures and sounds. This got them warmed up
for when they came into the hall later for their session.
I compiled an image heavy PowerPoint to use as my stage prop, with Shrek and
Frozen characters to illustrate Vladimir Propp’s concept of stock characters,
and obviously adapted it depending on the age group. Well, with the exception
of Reception & Nursery, with whom we talked about trees and forests, doing
actions for these and then did some very expressive mark making with them on
the giant rolls of paper.
It was important that they went away with both a learning outcome/s and a sense
of what they were working on. Thinking about stock characters and getting a
visceral sense of the forest as an evocative infinite location allowed them to
generate 100’s of stories, apply the characters to the reading of other
stories, enriching their interpretation of stories generally and to aid them in
writing their own. With a whole year group drawing together on one roll they
get a feel of the collaborative process and it connected with the size and shape
of the final piece.

Production
At the end of the 2 days of fast paced workshops there was well over 160 meters
of drawings and stories created by the 480 pupils. 

To be honest, this was a lot more than I had planned.
Having photographed all 160 metres of the work I then used Photoshop to create
a composition.
The concept was to have it read like a narrative tapestry, which referenced
that worked like a children’s illustrated book but weaving the snippets and
glimpses of their stories to create a stream of stories on the canvas as
various characters made their way through a long tangled forest filled with
unusual heroes, villains and helpers.
This took more time than planned. The issue I ran into was the first company I
spoke to regarding printing asked for a file size of 1200dpi. This was not
possible. I tried then to work at 300dpi, as this the resolution that the photographs
are taken at (on its highest ‘RAW’ setting). This generated huge file sizes
photographing 160 metres’s of drawings. It was very difficult to work with
processing these (at this point the aim was for 12 meter image) My software was
responding very slowly with this load. 
This slowed me down for quite a while whilst I sorted solutions,
workarounds, advice and so on. At one point I even considered switching the
whole concept and collaging the original drawings onto a full sized collage on
boards and then photographing this to produce a final image, rather than
layering 100’s of image onto one digital file. During this research I contacted
some other printers and found one who were very helpful and advised me that a
72dpi would be fine with their process and I even got a much better quality
material to print on as well. I was nervous. I don’t like printing at such a
low resolution. However, I also noticed that due to the effect of felt-tip ink
on paper there was no edge, the ink had a large bleed. The higher resolution
actually did not give a better overall image in this instance, as the source
was not in focus, the ink on the paper was itself soft and ill-defined the
closer you looked. 
Once I had ironed out these I re-started the composition. Re-Photographing at
72dpi and got my workflow going. Then the composition came together and the
elements rapidly made sense.

Results
The final artwork was printed in Manchester by a specialist fabric company. It
was printed onto canvas designed for yacht upholstery, making it weather-proof
and resilient. The artwork now hangs in the schools courtyard for all the staff,
parents and pupils to enjoy.
Like all commissions I have learnt many things during the process. On this
occasion I have gained an insight into the role of the forest in folk-lore and
fairy-tales, had a chance to study children’s books and illustrations, to think
more deeply about forests & libraries, and to study closely the drawings
and mark-makings of children. Which is something worth studying closely, as it
yields great swathes of information about what they are hearing, what they feel
to be important or true. They can capture the essence of the thing with such
sublime clarity and ease that we often dismiss it as uninformed, but look
closer.
I have also found a reliable
digital-fabric printer I can work with.
I also learnt that the Horse Chestnut tree is not native to the UK, it was imported here during Heny the VIII’s reign, and that the Silver Birch is a ‘pioneer’ species, which grows rapidly and decays rapidly creating the conditions for slower growing trees to create forests.
The work was printed and delivered towards the end of the Summer term, but was
presented to the whole school and then mounted in their courtyard during the
Autumn term. Overall it has been a rewarding project to embrace my love of
stories, reading and art to produce a collaborative piece of work that will be
hanging in their school for many years to come.


the flyer for the event

biography of Sun Ra

Chime Recording Studio in Peterborough

setting up earlier in the day

Where Are We Now; A Review of  <Space is the Place> 

CONCEPT
      <Space is the Place> was a ‘scratch show’ broadcast on April 1st 8pm GMT via a livestream Bambuser.com. It was a pilot for a live event concept that could, maybe, forge new ways or possibilities for live events. The idea is ambitious in that it tries to examine and explore several themes at once using technology and social-media in a very live, improvisational and untested way. This particular event also served to act as a launch event for my re-vamped website and my new artist page on Facebook.

      I have been fascinated by the possibility of livestream for a number of years and have tried during the development of a number of previous projects to shoehorn it into them but it never quite fitted. However the idea of utilising a livestream creatively has been percolating in my mind for a while. I am also interested in Facebook as both a medium and a space, and how physical and non-physical communities and spaces are beginning to merge, how could facebook be used as a virtual venue.
    The  premise of the work is as follows:  projector no.1 is hooked up to some visuals, projector no. 2 is hooked up to a Skype feed, projector no.3 is hooked up to Facebook page or desktop. We use a channel mixer, to mix between these.

     Using the Skype feed overlaid on the Visuals I would then take my camera and create portraits from the 2 feeds overlaid, and mix in the Facebook or desktop page if needed.
To use the facebook commentary or any online page into the mix, or to show any images uploaded to say Adobe Bridge or Photoshop if I wanted to show the audience this. With the 2 feeds, Skype and the visuals overlaid, I would then take my camera and create portraits from this mix.
    Once the portraits have been taken they are uploaded to Facebook or my website. The scene of the room, images projected and overlaid onto the screen would be filmed and streamed online, whilst the musicians performed their music. The audience would see the screen, part of the room and the musicians performing at certain intervals.

    The concept of involving people, an audience, in a photographic process like this excites me, and further in potentially their involvement adding to a newer or deeper understanding of the photographic image and it’s potential and variety of readings is a great joy.  The image, the screen, is so ubiquitous now, and the screens we generate as part of our many online profiles can be said to be becoming an aspect of the individual, we see their icon, profile pic, comments and taglines as often as we do their actual physical presence, we identify each other now with a mix of what we have seen of them online and what we know of them from physical ‘real-world’ encounters. If the process and the final pieces create both interesting photographs and contribute to discussion and thoughts on what the photographic images means for us at this point in time then I will be happy.

INSPIRATION
    The inspiration behind the concept comes from a couple of places. I had noticed that after Christmas a set of 3 night clubs had closed in Peterborough, sort of trashy vodka-jelly and bad chart music club, but that made me wonder that if a city with a population of 180,000+, and growing rapidly, especially one with a higher than average proportion of young people, can’t support clubs like these then what exactly  was happening to the live music and night-life scene in the city? where are these young people meeting?

      It brought the total of closed venues to 6 with another about to close (according to rumour) so a total of 7 live music venues closing in as many months. This raised many questions in my mind. It signalled to me a change in the landscape, a question about where are young people coming together? Music venues are spaces for collectivising and coming together to have a shared experience, the process of going to live music can be very ritualistic and ceremonial and they can be a place to facilitate social bonding. If these venues are closing so rapidly in this city what does that say about how people are choosing to spend and share their time? This raises a number of dynamic questions for me. As music venues and pubs close ever more rapidly by a combination of factors, and as the tools of social media proliferate, will ‘live’ events be moving into an online, cyber, space? I think this is certainly a yes, eventually and in some form yet to fully manifest itself, certainly there are lots of equipment and software that is vying for this possibility. Some sort of combination of virtual-reality hybridised with social-media will probably start to reveal itself soon.  Will this, can this, take the place of people meeting offline in a physical space? The idea was to see how an event could take place, that involved participation and collaboration using the simple tools of social media. Can community come together at a online live event. What would it feel like? What modes of behaviour would be adopted? What unknown variables would present themselves?

CONTENT
      The inspiration for the event title and  for approaches to the event was the biography of Sun Ra. “Space is the Place” is the title of his biography by John F Szwed. I was lent this book by the always keen eared Pete Cox, a poet. When I began the book I knew little of this man, it wasn’t long before I was utterly mesmerised by his life story, reading the biography late into the night and  over cornflakes. His approach to creativity and the universe blew me away. His theories which inspired his creative approaches tapped into me. The phrase ‘Space is the Place’ was like a mini-manifesto, a fleeting lullaby that lodged into my inner ear. And it seemed to ring clearly in tune with the thoughts I was having about live music venues in my home-town and the cultural segue into cyberspace.

      I chose the date purposefully to represent both a new year, as it was to be an ending and a beginning for me, and April 1st is a kind of new year,and additionally for it’s fame for being the day of ‘The Fool’, April fools day. This was one of the main themes I wanted to invoke, the fool as the protagonist setting out on his journey through the deck, and in the modern card deck he fits in nowhere but everywhere. I am also interested that in our current miasma of broadcast news we are relying on comediennes to tell truths as the news becomes an unseemly and surreal circus of corruption and absurdity
To represent this aspect I used the day’s instalment of The Trews, the YouTube feed of Russell Brand and and a video of Bill Hicks.  I have it in mind for future sessions to utilise live feeds from broadcast media, such as the news or football matches.

    The <> symbols in the title represent html tags, indicative of it being ‘in cyberspace’, and the ♇ sign in the flyer represents the old sign for Pluto, a reference to one of the albums of Sun Ra.  Language and poetry is a strong element in my practice so playing with syntax within the title was indicative of this.The incredible music was provided by Mono-Region, and  Magiclamp. Please nip over to their pages on Soundcloud and give their music a listen, they are both really rather good. I have worked with both these guys in creative and collaborative ways for well over ten years, so it was

PROCESS & OUTCOMES
     In my mind this was very much a pilot event.  - give it a go and find out what works and what we could do in a future session. Not knowing who will connect and project themselves into the livestream adds an element of chance combined with the controlled unknowing of the visuals, images are pre-selected but  I am allowing them to unravel with input from me that is responsive to the environment means that there is abundance of potential  images to be created.

    I had one laptop less than I planned, and I hadn’t counted on having multiple incoming calls on Skype causing an issue with answering them, so after my first successful call from Charron I could not then answer any subsequent  incoming calls. To get round this I used images from callers Facebook profiles and YouTube channels to create the effect I wanted. Still this was very frustrating, and whilst doing this I could not seen the image that was being broadcast, darn that missing 3rd laptop!

    The broadcast cut out about an hour in and was off for 20mins before we noticed, (due to only 2 laptops) which was very frustrating. Certainly we needed more laptops and someone to field the conversations with people online.

    The other key improvement is in the sound quality, it sounded great in the studio, but we will need to make sure the audio feed goes through a sound-card before it is broadcast as the sound transmitted was distorted. To solve the Skype issue we will give the audience time-slots to call us.

    The images were taken on both a HTC 1 phone or on a Canon EOS 500D, this was a practical approach so that I could upload some images quickly from my phone so that the audience can see results, and a DSLR to make the hi-res images for the final work.

    The event cost no money to put on, (except the £20 on a new webcam) as everyone involved worked, or donated their space or equipment, for free. 59 people were viewing it live with 113 views in total, the first set lasted 56 minutes the second set lasted 38 minutes.

Delaine Le Bas

Hands of Delaine Le Bas

Delaine Le Bas

Delaine Le Bas

Father & Daughter, dear friends of mine, this image of them was taken directly from their facebook page

Charron Pugsley Hill collaborating live by painting to the visuals and music

Korp, a fine artist and friend

Vikki Harold’s contribution…

Bill Hicks

Bill Hicks

Ol’ Russell  Brand trewsing it up…

scene from Trews video

Russell back at it…

The event page for Space is the Place in the mix

a box of friend Icons in the mix

Magiclamp in the groove…

CONCLUSION
     Ultimately It was about creating photographic portraits, using elements of a live event and community participation, which examine the screens we use so ubiquitously and the definitions of event, community and space

   Using the visuals overlaid with a Skype feed to a live audience creates enough potential for improvisational responses, so that I will not truly know what the final photographs will look like, and in this case I did have to improvise using YouTube feeds and Facebook profile pics. The video of Delaine Le Bas was a great moment as the images that were unfolding on the screen were truly fantastic and exactly what I was hoping to achieve.
    I came away with a number of images capturing the elements and concept I was trying to explore, so whilst it was a modest success, it was still successful in that respect.
With some more technology and some space to develop the setup I think we could run a series of very exploratory sessions in a similar vein.
Luke Payn, April 2015


If you were involved in this event, as spectator or collaborator, I would love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on this experiment.

The videos of the event can be viewed here. (Turn the volume down on the video screen to 1 or 2 bars and it should cut much of the distortion out)


Chime Creation Centre is a community recording and rehearsal studio in Peterborough managed and run by Beat This.

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