Friday, 23 February 2018

Sofia Stevi - turning forty winks into a decade at BALTIC

"Sofia Stevi (born Athens, 1982) makes paintings, sculpture and works on paper. Drawing inspiration from literature, philosophy and the everyday, her works bring together a wide range of references, from the writings of Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, to found images on Instagram.

Stevi’s sweeping lines and colours describe form with a sense of playfulness and animation. Her paintings capture fleshy fruits and soft body contours with a cartoon-like expressiveness. Made with Japanese ink on untreated cotton fabric, the works evoke the domestic but have a charged eroticism. Torsos and limbs dissolve into psychedelic patterns and washes of colour. Moving between the real and imaginary, Stevi’s works are often deeply personal, exploring the artist’s desires and dreams."

In the smaller room of the gallery Stevi displays some of her offcuts of fabrics that have been made into what resemble sample books that have been placed on a low coffee table. Viewers can sit on one of the bespoke bean bag style cushions made by Stevi. It is these that I am particularly attracted to because of their abstraction and non-figurative nature.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Testing design on gallery walls

Having finished the to-scale design for my wall painting, I sent it to Liam McCabe who, along with Emily Garvey, is curating Bittersweet, the group exhibition that will take place at Assembly House, Leeds in March. Liam had gained access to the gallery and set up a projector in the space to check that my image did indeed fit the wall. 

Liam had imagined situating my wall painting on the wall facing the entrance, but this wall turned out to be brick and this uneven surface may pose problems when using the tape to create the lettering and also to mask out the areas for painting. He has now suggested another wall, of the same dimensions, with flat walls. The projection worked very well, with the design clear, and fitting the wall well. 

I'd be giving too much away to show you the full design, but below is a sneak preview.

Unfortunately it was not possible to get the projected image to fit the wall as it was not possible to get the projector far enough away from the wall. However, it may be possible to split the image in two halves and use a couple of projectors to form the full design. 

Preparing mock ups

For my next exhibition (Bitter-sweet group show at Assembly House, Leeds) I am going to be doing a wall painting. I have completed the design and I will project this onto the wall to use as a guide for masking out the areas to be painted. The text within the design is in a font that I have created, and this will be in fluorescent gaffer tape. I've spent the past few days making a mock up of each of the letters so as to calculate the amount of tape that I need to buy.

Here is a sneak preview 

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Matthew Pickering - Martha [Alzheimer's Machine III] at The NewBridge Project

Over the course of February, Pickering will host 3 exhibitions, each one being a part of Martha [Alzheimer’s Machine III].

The series of short artist films, photographs and installation works explore the effect of Alzheimer’s disease on the way we see, interpret and understand the world around us through the eyes of Martha, a fictional character living with AD.

Centring around Martha's move into a care facility, Martha re-experiences moments of her life unfolding within her family home, from moments of personal significance to seemingly incidental memories that slowly reveal the disconnect between her perception and reality.

The competing and intersecting narratives give conflicting accounts that examine the complex intersections between autobiographical memory, account, fact and fiction that underpin conscious recollection.

Part 1: In Transit

Preview: Thursday 15 February, 6-8pm

Exhibition Open: 16 - 17 February, 11am-5pm

The main part of In Transit was a two-screen video projection in which Pickering has expertly choreographed footage between the two screens. At times the shots continue so as if the two screens are as one, but at other times the footage on both screens is different. The tones, colours and forms within the screens are so well matched that, whatever the type of footage shown on both, it seems to correspond meaningfully. The pace of the camera movement is in keeping with the understated and contemplative tone of the work. The formal qualities of the work are outstanding - Pickering is a pro at creating beautiful and compelling compositions - but when paired with his theoretical understanding of AD, the work is taken to another level

Part 2: Dissolution

Preview: Tuesday 20 February, 6-8pm

Exhibition Open: 21 February, 6-8pm and 22 February, 11am - 5pm

Part 3: Lapse

Closing Event: Tuesday 27 February, 6-8pm

Exhibition Open: 24 - 25 February, 11am-5pm

Friday, 16 February 2018

Creative Scotland's U-Turn

Following the announcement by Creative Scotland, Scotland's public arts funding body, that they were to cut funding to twenty organisations, a number of key figures in the Art world voiced their concerns and launched several petitions urging Creative Scotland to reverse its decision. This coincided with Ruth Wishart and Maggie Kinloch, two members of the Creative Scotland board making the decision to resign.

Thursday night's episode of Front Row on BBC Radio 4 included an interview with Robert Softly Gale and David Leddy, two artistic directors, who discuss how their organisations have been caught up in the funding storm.

Ten days after Creative Scotland announced cuts to the theatre, disabled arts and music groups, an emergency board meeting was held during which they decided to reverse the cuts. Birds of Paradise, Catherine Wheels, the Dunedin Consort, Lung Ha and Visible Fictions will now be given three-year funding deals.

"The £2.6m required for the funding reversal is to be found from ‘targeted funds’, a pot of money which Creative Scotland set aside for specific tasks.

This could mean money taken from the traditional and Gaelic arts, money for its Arts Strategy, cross-border touring or literature translation."

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Select, Copy, Paste - Execution - Sunday Feature - BBC Radio 3

In the second programme in this series exploring the impact of technology on creativity the focus is on the execution of ideas. As technology has improved how has it enabled artists to create new kinds of work?

Musician Holly Herndon reveals how technology is not only central to her creative process but it's also key in terms of subject matter. She responds to the impact of technology on society and is raising an AI baby that she's teaching to sing.

Doug Eck from Google's Magenta is also looking to create new forms. His goal is to create a new form of art, generated by computers. If fifty years of music was driven by the electric guitar, perhaps it's time for a new type of sound generated with the help of machine learning and AI?

Visual artists Trevor Paglan and James Bridle reveal the hidden infrastructures of the internet.

Writer Ed Finn asks what impact these technological advances are having on our cultural output? Instagram's filters may make us feel creative but does increasingly average perfection lie ahead?

Computers can help us paint, write stories, design objects and compose music, but as technology is heralded as an enabler to a better life, do we risk losing sight of that spark of imagination that makes us human? If human beings are no longer needed to make art, then what are we for?

Colour scheme for next exhibition

Over the past few weeks I have been creating the design for a wall drawing that I am going to be exhibiting as part of a group exhibition called Bitter-sweet at Assembly House in Leeds.

Today I finalised the colour scheme and design. Here is a sneak preview

Monday, 12 February 2018

Select, Copy, Paste - Conception - Sunday Feature - BBC Radio 3

"Clemency Burton-Hill presents a series exploring the impact of technology on creativity. Across three episodes she traces how technology has shaped the creative process, from conception and execution, to sharing and experiencing. Technology may help us to be more productive, but does it make our ideas better?
Artists are both preoccupied with technology and empowered by it. Technology underpins the way we live, but how does the technology artists, writers and musicians use change the way they create?

In the first programme she focuses on conception - how technology has shaped the way we have come up with ideas over the last 50 years. We examine the impact of a seminal event in New York that formed a brave new alliance between art and technology. Electronic music composer Suzanne Ciani explains how she trained as a classical composer, but was frustrated by the limitations of the instruments and sought answers in a new instrument built by a former NASA scientist. Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams finds his music in wild exposures; a cabin in Alaska that was his home for close to forty years. For him the tool he keeps returning to is a rare discontinued pencil.
Computers can help us paint, write stories, design objects and compose music, but as technology is heralded as an enabler to a better life do we risk losing sight of that spark of imagination that makes us human? If human beings are no longer needed to make art, then what are we for?"

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Sean Scully: 1970 - Artist Talk at Newcastle University

To mark the opening of the exhibition, Sean Scully: 1970, Newcastle University and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums hosted an artist talk with Sean Scully.

As ever, Professor Chris Jones offered his considered thoughts, on, in this instance, the work of Sean Scully. He spoke about how Scully was able to evidence the humanising potential of painting. He also mentioned a couple of anecdotes that explained Scully's significance to Newcastle, in particular to the fight to keep the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University. It therefore seems fitting that Scully's exhibition is one of the first after the major renovation.

Scully spoke simply, honestly, with humour and in a way that allowed his strong character to shine through. "Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1945, Scully moved to Newcastle in 1968 to study Fine Art at Newcastle University. During this time, he began to develop his iconic style of technically flawless paintings, consisting of a complicated grid system of intersecting bands and lines." He was keen to refer back to times as a child and memories of activities that had an impact on his future artwork. For instance, when he was a youngster, he used to darn socks and engaged in more feminine activities such as sewing and weaving. This influence is evidenced in his weaving sculptures and grid patterns.

Scully spent time in Morocco where he was inspired by the visuals of Islam. "The world of Islam is a world of rhythm as opposed to image". It was after his trip to Morocco that he began painting in lines. He created grid paintings that acted as portraits of bridges in Newcastle showing layers of simultaneous activity, layers of order. He liked to fight between formalism and informalism, and was attempting to break order with order.

Scully believes that there is nothing pure about his art, and embraces impurity. He regards himself as a fusionist; an integrationist.

Later, when he moved to America, his paintings became stripped down to the essentials - lines and stripes. Working on aluminium sheets, he slices paintings, making them seem unstable.

Scully also spoke about his sculptures, but I don't think that these are as powerful as his paintings. Perhaps that is because he does not make them, but has a team of people who make them for him. I was surprised to hear that they even go against his colour choices, and this makes me question is role as an artist.

It was a fascinating insight into the development of a significant body of work over a substantial period of time, and his entertaining delivery of the talk made it all the more enjoyable.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The lack of funding for Glasgow Art Gallery Transmission

As a member of the Glasgow Art Gallery, Transmission, I was disappointed and shocked to hear that the arts funding body Creative Scotland has dropped the gallery from its 2018-21 portfolio of regularly funded organizations (RFOs). The impact that this is likely to have for the artistic community is significant. The following article by CHRIS SHARRATT featured in Frieze magazine, examines the situation.

Why Did Creative Scotland Defund Storied Glasgow Art Gallery Transmission?

The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of professionalization

For many Transmission gallery is synonymous with contemporary art in Scotland, an artist-run Glasgow institution that epitomizes the DIY attitude that has helped establish the city as an international centre for art. Judged on its recent actions, you could be forgiven for thinking that the arts funding body Creative Scotland favours a different view. It has dropped the gallery from its 2018-21 portfolio of regularly funded organizations (RFOs), a move that, based on its award for 2015-18, will lose Transmission guaranteed support of GBP£210,000 over three years. It is a decision that has left artists, curators and gallerists expressing anger and disbelief.

Transmission was founded in 1983 by graduates of Glasgow School of Art and has had a key role in the city’s visual arts ecology ever since. It has remained a vital, continually evolving force, in large part because of the way it is run. With a membership of more than 300, it is led by a rolling voluntary committee – typically consisting of six people, although at present it is four – with committee members usually staying in the role for no more than two years, occasionally more and often less. It’s a model that ensures a continual process of renewal and, by its nature, dispenses with the usual arts establishment hierarchies of CEOs, deputy directors and chief curators. Past committee members have gone on to become internationally-known artists and gallerists, and include: Claire Barclay, Christine Borland, Douglas Gordon, Jim Lambie, Tanya Leighton, Carol Rhodes, Eva Rothschild, Lucy Skaer, Simon Starling, and Modern Institute founding director Toby Webster.

The Glasgow-based artist Martin Boyce was on the Transmission committee from 1991-93; The Modern Institute, which represents him, is just around the corner from the King Street venue. ‘Transmission was and is an outsider,’ Boyce says. ‘It allows artists to be responsible for cultivating their own ecosystem that then develops outwards into the city and beyond. It becomes part of the DNA of the artists themselves.’ Remembering his involvement as a recent graduate of Glasgow School of Art, he adds: ‘For me, Transmission was a lifeline, a school, a salon, a gathering place, an invitation, typewriter and a photocopier, an excuse to reach out to other artists, self-determining, responsible, tentative, self-perpetuating, open. It was the first port of call when artists and friends arrived off the train.’

Katrina Brown, director of Glasgow’s Common Guild gallery and a former director of Glasgow International, was a Transmission committee member at the same time as Boyce. She echoes his point about Transmission’s importance to the city and its artists. ‘It’s such a fundamental and foundational component of the [Glasgow] ecology that it’s impossible to imagine the landscape without it.’ While accepting that ‘not everything should necessarily exist for ever just because it has existed once,’ she describes what the gallery offers as ‘rare, special and important’, believing it ‘fosters a strong sense of both individual and collective agency which has undoubtedly fuelled the now legendary DIY spirit in Glasgow’.

Brown also points out that the Transmission model has been copied by other artist-run spaces in many countries. This is undoubtedly the case, although aspects of its approach have in recent months been put under close scrutiny by the Transmission committee itself. In June 2017, it took the surprise step of postponing the gallery’s annual members’ show, citing ‘multiple burnouts’ amongst the committee due to the pressures of fulfilling their unpaid roles while also holding down paid work. The committee’s decision was accompanied by a pledge to strive ‘towards an alternative’ model that doesn’t rely on free labour and all the stresses and social barriers this creates. It seems that Creative Scotland concluded that an organization in such a constant state of flux does not belong in its portfolio of RFOs. Amanda Catto, Head of Visual Arts at Creative Scotland, puts it differently, stressing that the decision: ‘was not taken with any intention to damage Transmission. We respect and value their very long and quite exceptional history in terms of being an artist-run space’. Citing Creative Scotland’s Visual Arts Sector Review, which was published in October 2016, she tells me: ‘There are many artist-run spaces across Scotland, it’s a different landscape to 35 years ago. What we wish to do is create a targeted fund that will support many artist-run initiatives across the country, including Transmission, and create a much more considered and strategic response to their needs.’ She adds that the gallery has transitional funding in place up to October, ‘and then we will work with them to see where that leaves us’.

Transmission was aware of the still to be confirmed artist-run fund when it issued its robustly-worded statement in response to the Creative Scotland decision. It expresses the view that Transmission was considered ‘too messy and unpredictable’ and ‘subject to quick change’ for Creative Scotland to continue investing in it: ‘Transmission believes that Creative Scotland has chosen to cut our funding because they are no longer prepared to invest in an institution that refuses professionalization, and yet by virtue of its unique history operates at a scale comparable to more professionalized institutions.’

Paradoxically, this rejection of professionalization makes the certainty of regular funding all the more crucial, offering continuity as the organizing committee keeps changing. And while Catto states that her organization is ‘very aware of the vulnerability and precarity of all these [artist-run] spaces’, to remove Transmission’s existing route to funding before any new strategy has been developed seems – whether by accident or design – to be perversely destructive. As Kirsty Ogg, director of New Contemporaries and another former Transmission committee member, puts it: ‘It’s crazy to think that the voluntary committee structure could sustain the gallery’s activity through project-by-project funding applications – they [Creative Scotland] clearly have no sense of the pressures that younger artists are under as members of the precariat. The incredible, cooperative membership-based structure that has lasted for 35 years needs at least one cornerstone of stability.’

The backlash over the decision to drop Transmission is just one aspect of a wider crisis that is enveloping Creative Scotland following its recent regular funding announcement, which included the defunding of three performance companies working with people with disabilities. Two board members – the journalist Ruth Wishart and Professor Emerita of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Maggie Kinloch – have resigned over the lack of time and information they had to consider the decisions, with Wishart stating that Creative Scotland ‘finds itself a family at war with many of those it seeks to serve.’ In total, 20 organizations have been dropped. Other visual arts bodies that have lost their RFO status include the Glasgow-based public art producer NVA and Edinburgh’s Dovecot Foundation. (There have also been 19 additions, with Stills Gallery in Edinburgh becoming an RFO for the first time.) As for Transmission, Boyce captures the feeling of so many artists, curators and others in the visual arts who are perplexed by the Creative Scotland decision. ‘Transmission introduced me to the idea of a supportive network that has always stayed with me. It is unfathomable to me to understand why this ethos is no longer considered relevant.’

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

New typeface

Drone Ensemble experiment with vocals

I am working towards my audio visual installation to be held at The Word in May, and will be collaborating with The Drone Ensemble to produce the audio for the installation. 

After an initial introduction to my project and discussion about how the collaboration could work, we had our first rehearsal and experiment on Monday evening. I specifically want to work with voices, and it will be the first time that The Drone Ensemble has used vocals as part of a performance. 

We began with some vocal exercises to warm up, and then gave each other a phrase that we had to say. Joe had been making some instruments that would alter the sound of the voice, or alter how the voice is heard. By speaking into two circular discs, the sound gets amplified for the speaker, but it does not really sound much different to the listener. Is this like the experience of an auditory hallucination? Would attaching contact microphones to the inside of the discs enable the amplified sound to be heard by the listener?

The second time that we did the exercise we also added the friction drum, and this made a real difference. People began to gain confidence in what they were doing and we established some links between what we were each doing. At times there was rhythm and other times none. 

We listened back to what we had recorded, and went through the aspects that worked and those that did not work. I am going to do some further preparation work prior to our next rehearsal and we will continue to develop the performance.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Testing projections at The Word

On Friday I visited The Word to do some technical research in preparation towards my forthcoming exhibition in the Story World area of The Word.

Story World is a white space with four slightly curved walls and four projectors that project onto each of the four walls to create an immersive environment.

I had prepared a number of videos and still images with different aspect ratios and wanted to establish which format would be the best for the room, and whether I would need to create masks in order to avoid any of the projections bleeding onto the wall or floor.

The image above was an animation made on clear 16mm film stock. The colours were not as vibrant as I had expected, possibly because the room is not totally dark. There was some bleed on the floor, and when the projection went to the ceiling, the projector shadow was visible.

I also noticed that the edges of the shapes in the animation did not seem as crisp as they appear on the original film, but this will be because of the amount that the image has been enlarged by.

The image below shows a projection of an animation that I made using the black 16mm film strip.

The image above shows a panoramic view of the 3 walls with the same projection on.

In these images, the projections with the hexagonal patterns have been applied with a template so that the top part of the wall is not projected on. This eliminates the shadow from the projector from being in sight. The other wall with the black film image still has the bleed on the floor, but the image goes all the way to the top of the wall.

These show the projection with the template applied reducing bleed to the ceiling and floor.

My mission now is to decide what I prefer and create an appropriate template for my footage prior to creating the video file to be projected. Wish me luck!

Friday, 2 February 2018

Creating my own typeface

At the moment I am experimenting with creating my own typeface. I am working on a wall drawing, part of which will be text, and I want the font to be something I have designed to be integrated into the image as a whole.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

David McLeavy talk at The NewBridge Project

As part  of the Practice Makes Practice programme, The NewBridge Project invited David McLeavy to give a talk.

David McLeavy is a curator and writer who lives and works in Sheffield, UK. He is currently the Director of Bloc Projects, Sheffield and the founder and editor of YAC | Young Artists in Conversation. Previous positions have included being the Co-Director of the international residency and exhibition programme Picnic Picnic, Sheffield, Co-Founder of art and design focused clothing brand Curbar Cycling Apparel along with working on numerous independent curatorial projects. He was previously the chair of the board of trustees for Turf Projects, Croydon and currently sits on the Steering Group for Making Ways, a development project for artists and makers initiated by Sheffield Culture Consortium.

David began by demonstrating how his practice has shifted from being an artist, to an artist and curator, to what he now identifies as; a curator and writer.

He spoke about some of the works/projects that he has worked on, starting with his older work and moving onto his most recent activity with BLOC Projects.

YAC | Young Artists in Conversation was set up in October 2013 to provide critical conversations and interviews with the most exciting emerging artists currently working in the UK.

YAC now work with a growing team of writers who have the opportunity to interview the artists that they are interested in and to ask the questions that they want answering.

YAC continuously aims to provide critical and compelling interviews along with helping to uncover some of the emerging talent currently working in the UK. 

Work! Work! Work!, Primemover, Sheffield (Part of Art Sheffield 13 Parallel Projects programme)

This was a solo project in which David invented a new sport to be played in front of a live audience by artists from around the UK. He was interested in bringing people together in a kind of alternative networking event.

Funhaus, Toast, Manchester, 2014

This was a solo project by David McLeavy taking the work of an interactive re staging of the CITV children's television show Fun House.

Putt Putt #2, Turf Projects (offsite), Croydon, 2014

David worked with Alice Cretney to curate a group exhibition of new sculpture in which the work took the form of crazy golf holes of varying difficulty. Participating artists were AV CO-OP, Natalie Finnemore, Iain Hales, Holly Hendry, Nicolas Henninger, Mark Scott-Wood, W A V E Y B O Y Z, WELCHWHITAKER and Liz West.

Picnic Picnic, Sheffield, 2015

Along with Pippa Cook, David was the co-founder of Picnic Picnic; a year long, fully funded international artist residency programme and contemporary art exhibition. Artists from around Europe were invited to live and work in a house in Sheffield resulting in public exhibitions of their work.

Along with exhibitions and events by Internationally renowned artists, Picnic Picnic also presented a series of exhibitions of regional artists work based around a number of current themes.

Bloc Projects

Bloc Projects is an artist-led project space in the centre of Sheffield, UK, which presents exhibitions, events, residencies, exchange projects and educational activities. Established in 2002, the organisation provides a platform for early-mid career artists, encouraging experimentation, collaboration across disciplines and critical dialogue among artists, audiences and partners in the city and further afield.

The Bloc Projects Open Residency provides audiences with a unique perspective on how artists work. By turning the gallery space into a working studio and inviting the public to engage in open conversation, the Open Residency programme aims to break down the formal barriers between artist and audience.

Bloc Projects’ Test Bed series is focused on providing artists with a publicly facing gallery space to experiment with new approaches, and techniques and to engage with audiences in new ways.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The history of dazzle

My interest in patterns and colour has lead me to research Dazzle camouflage. The following article details the history of dazzle.

"In late October 1917, King George V spent an afternoon inspecting a new division of Britain’s merchant naval service, the intriguingly named “Dazzle Section”.

The visit came during one of the worst periods in war that had already battered British sea power. German U-boat technology was a devastating success; fully one-fifth of Britain’s merchant ships, ferrying supplies to the British Isles, had been sunk by the end of 1916. The next year brought fresh horror: Desperate to grind down the Allies and bring an end to this costly war, the Kaiser declared unrestricted submarine warfare on January 31, 1917, promising to torpedo any ship that came within the warzone. Imperial U-boats made good on that promise – on April 17, 1917 a U-boat torpedoed a hospital ship, the HMHS Lanfranc, in the English Channel, killing 40 people, including 18 wounded German soldiers. “Hun Savagery” read the headlines. The Lanfranc’s sinking was outrageous, but it was by no means the only one – between March and December 1917, British ships of all kinds were blown out of the water at a rate of 23 a week, 925 ships by the end of that period.

So it was imperative that what George V was about to see worked.

The King was shown a tiny model ship, painted not standard battleship gray, but in an explosion of dissonant stripes and swoops of contrasting colors. The model was mounted on a turntable set against a seascape backdrop. George was then asked to estimate the ship’s course, based on his observations from a periscope fixed about 10 feet away. The King had served in the Royal Navy before the death of his older brother put him first in line for the throne, and he knew what he was doing. “South by west,” was his answer.

“East-southeast” came the answer from Norman Wilkinson, head of the new department. George V was astounded, dazzled even. “I have been a professional sailor for many years,” the confounded King reportedly said, “and I would not have believed I could have been so deceived in my estimate.”

Dazzle, it seems, was a success.

How to camouflage ships at sea was one of the big questions of World War I. From the early stages of the war, artists, naturalists and inventors showered the offices of the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy with largely impractical suggestions on making ships invisible: Cover them in mirrors, disguise them as giant whales, drape them in canvas to make them look like clouds. Eminent inventor Thomas Edison’s scheme of making a ship appear like an island – with trees, even – was actually put into practice. The S.S. Ockenfels, however, only made it as far as New York Harbor before everyone realized what a bad and impractical idea it was when part of the disguise, a canvas covering, blew away. Though protective coloring and covers worked on land, the sea was a vastly different environment. Ships moved through changing light and visibility, they were subject to extreme weather, they belched black smoke and bled rust. Any sort of camouflage would have to work in variable and challenging conditions.

Wilkinson’s innovation, what would be called “dazzle,” was that rather than using camouflage to hide the vessel, he used it to hide the vessel’s intention. Later he’d say that he’d realized that, “Since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.”

In order for a U-boat gunner to fire and hit his target from as far as 1,900 meters away (and not closer than 300 meters, as torpedoes required at least that much running distance to arm), he had to accurately predict where the target would be based on informed guesses. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that he had typically less than 30 seconds to sight the target ship through the periscope, or risk the periscope’s wake being seen and giving away the submarine’s location. Typical U-boats could only carry 12 very expensive and very slow torpedoes at a time, so the gunner had to get it right the first time.

“If you’re hunting for ducks, right, all you have to do is lead the target and it’s a simple process. But if you’re a submarine aiming at a ship, you have to calculate how fast a ship is going, where is it going, and aim the torpedo so that they both get to the same spot at the same time,” says Roy Behrens, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, author of several books on Dazzle camouflage and the writer behind the camouflage resource blog Camoupedia. Wilkinson’s idea was to “dazzle” the gunner so that he would either be unable to take the shot with any confidence or spoil it if he did. “Wilkinson said you had to only be 8 to 10 degrees off for the torpedo to miss. And even if it were hit, if [the torpedo] didn’t hit the most vital part, that would be better than being hit directly.”

Wilkinson used broad swathes of contrasting colors—black and white, green and mauve, orange and blue—in geometric shapes and curves to make it difficult to determine the ship’s actual shape, size and direction. Curves painted across the side of the ship could create a false bow wave, for example, making the ship seem smaller or imply that it was heading in a different direction: Patterns disrupting the line of the bow or stern made it hard to tell which was the front or back, where the ship actually ended, or even whether it was one vessel or two; and angled stripes on the smokestacks could make the ship seem as if it was facing in the opposite direction. One American dazzle camoufleur (the actual term for a camouflage artist) referred to the optical distortion concept undergirding Dazzle as “reverse perspective”, also known as forced perspective and accelerated perspective, optical illusions that create a disconnect between what the viewer perceives and what is really happening (think of all those photos of tourists holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa). In practice, that meant that the system did have its limitations – it could only be applied to ships that would be targeted by periscopes, because it worked best when seen from the low-down viewpoint of a U-boat gunner.

“It’s counterintuitive. People can’t really believe that you could interfere with the visibility of something by making it more highly visible, but they don’t understand how the human eye works, that something needs to stand out from the background and hold together as an integral figure,” says Behrens.

Wilkinson was, in some ways, an unlikely innovator. At 38, he was known as talented painter of landscapes and maritime scenes – his painting of Portsmouth Harbour went down in the smoking rooms of the Titanic. Nothing in his work augers the kind of modern, avant garde aesthetic that Dazzle possessed. But crucially, Wilkinson had both an understanding of perspective and a relationship with the Admiralty and merchant shipping authorities. An enthusiastic yacht racer, he’d joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves at the outbreak of war. In 1917, he was a lieutenant in command of an 83-foot patrol launch that swept the central English Channel for mines, according to Nicholas Rankin in his book, A Genius For Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars. And where other innovators, including John Graham Kerr, a Scottish naturalist whose similar camouflage ideas were used briefly and discarded by the Royal Navy, failed, Wilkinson’s straightforward charisma helped his rather outré idea be taken seriously by important people, wrote Peter Forbes in Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage.

After earning support for the idea, Wilkinson was given the chance to test his theory in the water. The first ship to be dazzled was a small store ship called the HMS Industry; when it was launched in May 1917, coastguards and other ships sailing the British coast were asked to report their observations of the vessel when they encountered it. Enough observers were sufficiently confused that by the beginning of October 1917, the Admiralty asked Wilkinson to dazzle 50 troopships.

Though the new initiative had backing from both the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy, it was still operating on a wartime budget. The Royal Academy of Arts offered up four unused studios for headquarters and Wilkinson went to work with a team of 19– five artists, three model makers, and 11 female art students who hand-colored the technical plans for the final designs (one later became Wilkinson’s wife). Each design not only had to be unique to prevent U-boat crews from getting used to them, but they also had to be tailored to individual ships. Wilkinson and his artists designed schemes first on paper, and then painted them on tiny, rough-hewn wooden models, which they’d place in the mock seascape George V saw. The models were examined through periscopes in various lighting. Designs were chosen for “maximum distortion”, Wilkinson later wrote, and handed off to the art students to map out on technical drafts, to be then executed by ship painters on ships in dry dock. By June 1918, less than a year after the division was created, some 2,300 British ships were dazzled, a number that would swell to more than 4,000 by the end of the war.

The United States, which joined the war on April 6, 1917, was then grappling with as many as six systems of camouflage, most of which peddled low visibility or invisibility to private ship owners. The Navy, however, had little confidence in the claims of diminished visibility and moreover, was also dealing with the fact that many of its ships had been German ships – meaning that the enemy knew their speed and vulnerabilities. When news of the dazzle system and its ability to mask the speed and kind of ships reached Britain’s new ally, a young Franklin Roosevelt, then assistant to the secretary of the navy, agreed to meet with Wilkinson to discuss it. After another successful demonstration of dazzle, in which a confused U.S. admiral reportedly exploded, “How the hell do you expect me to estimate the course of a God-damn thing all painted up like that?”, Wilkinson was asked to help set up an American dazzle department under the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair. Wilkinson spent five weeks in the U.S., with Everett Warner, an artist and Naval Reserve officer who would head up the Washington, D.C. dazzle subsection, as his host. Chummy as that sounds, it wasn’t.

“There was a lot of fighting or jealousy or whatever between the U.K. and the U.S.,” says Behrens with a chuckle. “If you go to the correspondence, you find that the American artists are making fun of [Wilkinson] and all sort of that thing. Warner arrived at the idea that Wilkinson didn’t know what he was doing and that what he was doing was quite haphazard.”

However the British and American departments felt about each other, they were still creating visually disruptive designs that on the face of it, were very much alike: Broad stripes and curves of white, black, green, blue, spiky and jagged and very Modern art. This was not lost on contemporary journalists, who branded the dazzled ships a “futurist’s bad dream” and “floating Cubist paintings”, as well as “an intoxicated snake”, “a Russian toyshop gone mad”, and a “cross between a boiler explosion and a railroad accident”. That dazzle bore such a similarity to burgeoning movements in art wasn’t lost on the artists, either – Picasso even claimed that Dazzle was actually his idea.

But Modern art, which had been introduced in America at the 1913 Armory Show, was an object of derision and suspicion for contemporary newspapers. “Very frequently in newspapers and magazines, they were trying to explain it to the public and I think [the public] had great difficulty believing it was legitimate,” says Behrens. “But on the other hand, that’s why it was fascinating.” This amusement and fascination in equal measure reflected how the public saw dazzle. It was lampooned in newspaper cartoons, of course – one image shows painters tarring a road in dazzle patterns – but its distinctive look also popped up on bathing suits and dresses, cars and window displays. “Dazzle balls”, for which attendees dressed in dazzle-inspired costumes, gained popularity as ways to raise money for the war effort.

Still, convincing Naval personnel dazzle was more than just fun was difficult. “I had a large of collection of [correspondence from] experienced Navy officers and ship captains making fun of it. It made them sick that their pristine ship was painted with all these Jezebel patterns,” says Behrens, noting that the idea of these flashy ships seemed to subvert their sense of military order. The ships were so wild that some American observers started calling them “jazz” ships, after the improvisational style of popular contemporary music. But Warner, who applied a scientific rigor to understanding how his designs worked, rejected that comparison. Dazzle was, he said, “firmly grounded in the book of Euclid” on geometric principles of visual disruption and proportion, and was not the work of a “group of crazy Cubists”, Behrens recounted in his book, False Colors.

However founded on science it was, determining whether Dazzle actually worked is difficult. In theory, it should work: Behrens found that in 1919, near the end of the war, an MIT engineering student studied the efficacy of individual designs using one of the original model observation theaters provided by the Navy. Three sets of observers were given the same test that George V and the unnamed American naval commander failed. Designs that yielded a higher degree of course error were considered successful; the most successful were off by as much as 58 degrees, when just 10 degrees would be sufficient for a fired torpedo to miss its target. Similarly, in 2011, researchers from the University of Bristol determined that dazzle patterns could disrupt an observer’s perception of the speed of a moving target, and could even have a place on modern battlefields.

But lab conditions are hardly real life. Forbes, in his book, writes that the Admiralty commissioned a report on dazzled ships that came out in September 1918. The statistics were less than conclusive: In the first quarter of 1918, for example, 72 percent of dazzled ships that were attacked were sunk or damaged versus 62 percent of non-dazzled, implying that dazzle did not minimize torpedo damage.

In the second quarter, the statistics reversed themselves: 60 percent of attacks on dazzled ships ended in sinking or damage, compared to 68 percent of non-dazzled. More dazzled than non-dazzled ships were being attacked in the same period, 1.47 percent versus 1.2 percent, but fewer of the dazzled ships were sunk when hit. The Admiralty concluded that though dazzle probably didn’t hurt, it also probably wasn’t helping. American dazzled ships fared better – of the 1,256 ships dazzled between March 1 and November 11, 1918, both merchant and Naval, only 18 were sunk – perhaps owing to the different seas in which American ships were sailing. Ultimately, Behrens said it’s difficult to retroactively determine whether dazzle was truly a success, noting, “I don’t think it will ever be clear.”

And in truth, it didn’t matter whether dazzle actually worked or not: Insurance companies thought it did and therefore lowered premiums on dazzled ships. At the same time, the Admiralty’s investigation into dazzle noted that even if it didn’t work, morale on dazzled ships was higher than on non-dazzled and that was reason alone to keep it.

By November 1918, however, the war was over, though the battle between Wilkinson and the Scottish naturalist Kerr over who actually invented dazzle was just heating up. Kerr argued that he’d introduced the Admiralty to a similar idea back in 1914 and demanded recognition. The Admiralty eventually sided with Wilkinson and awarded him £2,000 for dazzle; for years after, however, Kerr never gave up the idea that he’d been cheated and the two men would trade snide comments through the next war. But exactly what they were fighting over was soon forgotten. Ships require frequent painting – it’s part of what keeps them preserved – so the Allied vessels lost their dazzled coating under a more sober gray. Though World War II saw a resurgence of dazzle in an effort to hide a ship’s class and make, its use was limited and dazzle’s legacy was again buried under layers of maritime paint.

Sort of. Because though dazzle’s influence on naval warfare may have been short-lived, its impact on art and culture remains significant even now. Dazzle, though functional in its intent, was also part of a wave of Futurism, cubism, expressionism, and abstract art that eroded the centuries of representational art’s dominance. The look of dazzle later re-emerged in 1960s Op-art, which employed similar techniques of perspective and optical illusion, and in the mass market fashion that followed. Even today, dazzle remains fashionable, recalled in the aggressive patterns of designers like Jonathan Saunders, or more directly referenced in the “Urban Dazzle” collection of French sportswear designer Lacoste, the Dazzle rainboots from Hunter, and upscale British handbag label Mulberry’s Dazzle collection.

“Dazzle is just everywhere, it’s such a successful visual design system. It’s hugely attractive… I think it’s been used – plundered as it were – but used as a kind of inspiration certainly in fashion,” notes Jenny Waldman, director of 14-18 Now, an ambitious arts program working in partnership with the Imperial War Museum, the British government, and U.K. arts organizations to commemorate the centenary of the World War I. Dazzle was everywhere but on ships – even if the designs themselves weren’t forgotten, the link between them and the war was. “There are a lot of great untold stories, and the dazzle ship is a kind of whopping great untold story,” says Waldman.

That changed, however, when in 2014, 14-18 Now called on contemporary artists to dazzle real-life vessels. Explains Waldman, “The brief was very much to be inspired by the dazzle ships rather then try to recreate the Dazzle designs or functionality in any way.”

Finding artists, Waldman says, was easier than finding ships, but they eventually managed to locate three. The Snowdrop, designed by Sir Peter Blake, the artist who created the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, is actually a working ferry on the River Mersey in Liverpool and will be operational through December 2016. The other two ships recently finished their deployment: The Edmund Gardner, an historic pilot ship in drydock outside the Mersey Maritime Museum in Liverpool, was painted in green, orange, and black stripes by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez and the HMS President, which is permanently docked on the River Thames, was dazzled in grey, black, white and orange by artist Tobias Rehberger. The President is one of only three surviving Royal Navy ships that served in the First World War; called the HMS Saxifrage when it was built in 1918, it was actually dazzled by Wilkinson and his team during its tour of duty.

So far, more than 13.5 million people have seen, visited, or sailed on the dazzled ships and 14-18 Now recently announced that a fourth ship, the MV Fingal, a former lighthouse tender docked at the Port of Leith in Edinburgh, will be dazzled by Scottish artist Ciara Phillips. The ship will be unveiled in late May, in time for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“The wonderful thing about our ships is that they are very big and they’re very public, and the Mersey ferry you can go on, it makes them hugely accessible,” says Waldman. The fact that they show very well on social media has helped to spread the story of the dazzle ships. The ships also speak, as Waldman says, to “the power of contemporary art to reveal and explore the unknown stories of the First World War.” Waldman continued, “People see the dazzle ferry and they think, ‘I want to go on that, that looks phenomenal’ and when they’re on it, they find out more. And then they tell their friends and 13-and-a-half million people now know about the dazzle ships.”

So perhaps this time, the story of the dazzle ships and their place in the science and art of making war won’t be forgotten."

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Women Artists of the North East Library invites…The Walking Library for Women Walking

The Walking Library is an ongoing art project created by Misha Myers and Dee Heddon, that seeks to bring together walking and books – walking, reading, reflecting, writing… Each Walking Library they create responds to – is specific to – the context of its walking. Each walk changes the shape – the content and the actions – of the library.

Using The Walking Library as a catalyst for The Women Artists of the North East Library, we took a selection of books on a walk around Newcastle.

We each had to choose a book from either the Walking Library or The Women Artists of the North East Library, and carry this with us as we walked round Newcastle. The books on offer in the libraries were varied, ranging from art books, fiction, poetry, books on walking, books about weather to feminist texts.

The book I chose was A field Guide to getting lost by Rebecca Solnit. I had not read it before.

We set off from The Northern Charter and were told that we would go on a stroll during which we would be looking out for women and stopping at places that people felt were appropriate to share a reading from their chosen text. As many of us had never read our chosen books, we were encouraged to flick through the books as we walked (at the same time as remaining alert to passing traffic and avoiding injury!).

Holly Argent lead the walk, having prepared a route with various points of interest in relation to women in the city. For example, we stopped at Ellison Place where Ethal Bentham once lived. Ethal was the first woman doctor and the first woman to drive a car.

I was amazed by how easy it was to find a relevant passage of text from the unfamiliar books as we walked through the city.

Our route included

- The Golden woman on the jewellers at the top of Pilgrim Street

- A stop outside Fenwick's where the upstairs cafe was said to be a personal favourite of Ethal Bentham's and the first place where women could meet together to chat and enjoy tea. We also found out that the powder rooms in the toilets are a sight to admire!

- Some benches on Northumberland Street that had seahorse decorations (one of the group was carrying a book with a seahorse on the front cover)

- A plaque commemorating the release of Kathleen Brown, one of the sufragettes

- St John's Church where Christina Umfred (Anchoress) lived

- The Beehive pub, where we were watched by a crowd of men inside

- Bigg Market

and finally The Lit and Phil Library

Over the duration of the walk we shared extracts from nearly all of the books, and it was a good way to discover things to read that you may not otherwise have discovered.